Through a bit of careful politiking* I finally managed to get a hold of a copy of Twenty Epics, which turns out to be just as fucking awesome a collection and everybody says it is (oh boy is this is rare in a field where a lot of stuff gets overhyped).
I had considered writing something for this anthology when it was first announced, being a lover/hater of the fantasy epic – I’m in love with the *feeling* of the epic, but disillusioned by the 11-books-and-counting nature of the Robert Jordan epic.
So this antho had the potential to be pretty much just perfect for a reader like me.
It could have also sucked some serious goats.
I loved the way this anthology was put together – there was a careful mix of different lengths and styles and even a couple of SF-y bits in there. I’ll just say a few things about the stories that I really enjoyed, and maybe a note or two about why I liked them.
DeNiro’s “Have You Any Wool” is a cat-and-mouse Cordwainer Smith-ish epic that does with the far future just what I like done with the far future – it’s so alien, so Other, that it reverts back to fantasy, to myth. It’s the tale of a young boy aboard a ship that’s been sent out to fight wolves that prowl about the stars devouring worlds. The wolves fight each culture by turning its own myths and folktales against it, so:
“Slowly, folklorists and anthropologists took to the front lines. They analyzed what the wolves had transformed. They developed applications of technology that would counter the warping of space-time according to the morphologies of folktales. They would be sheep in wovles’ clothing, becoming participants in whatever fantasies the wolves would devise, and then stealthily alter them for tactical advantages. If the wolves mutated a pod settlement into a pastoral scene replete with carillion castles and fair damsels, Parameter shocktroops might become knights, or even trolls.”
I mean, really, how fucking cool is that?
Another story that lodged itself in my brain through the sheer power of its imagery was K.D. Wentworth’s “The Rose War,” an… epic family saga about a family that slowly trains up and eventually interbreeds with an army of roses that they use to devour whole armies (you’ll note a common theme running through the stories I enjoyed: blood, war, devouring armies… mmmm).
Christopher Barzak’s “The Creation of Birds” had a slow start, but the emotional core of the story steadily took hold of me as I read about a woman who creates birds from paper, ink and starlight and her fucked up relationship with a man who believes he is hording all the stars in the world for her… but will not release them when she asks. This was one of those stories, as I’ve talked about before, that hit some core emotional truth for me and left me a little sad and breathless in the end.
“The Muse of Empires Lost” by Paul Berger was another far-future fantasy about a young girl living in the belly of a living ship that has long been cut off from its makers. The living ships have created their own ecologies; the ships love and mate and die with no regard for those living on the planets that spawned them, and Jemmi, our heroine, finds herself with a deep attachment to the world that is her ship. When a strange man arrives, sharing Jemmi’s ability to alter the will of others to his own, Jemmi finds that she must choose between her attachment to the living ship and a possible godhood on another world.
It took me a long time to figure out whether or not I enjoyed Sandra McDonald’s “Life Sentence,” because the theme was old and tired: a Korean war veteran finds that he’s able to re-live his life again and again from different starting points. In his first few tries, he ends up repeating the same old failures, and I was worried that this was going to be another one of those “sorry, the future is already set and everybody gets fucked no matter what you do!” stories, but that’s not ultimately where she went with it, and I was glad I stuck it out.
I found a sort of female-Elric-bound-to-a-sword story in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Bound Man,” which was an interesting take on the warrior-bound-to-sword trope. Li Reiko is ripped away from play with her children to fight trolls in another time thousands of years after the death of her children, among a people utterly foreign to her. As with Elric, the two peoples can somehow miraculously understand one another, and Li Reiko resents her summoners. I enjoyed this one because I’m always looking for what the female version of a Conan/Elric would look like, but I had some quibbles with the end, mainly because this one goes with the “the future is already set!” mode of time travel, and that always bugs me. It also screws with the agency of Li Reiko’s daughter, which bugged me.
As someone with some training as a historian, I couldn’t help but like Ian McHugh’s “The Last Day of Rea” as well. We get a sort of fantasy-SFish story about an inbred dynasty that decides to go up against a small city-state with ties to the stars, and our protagonist is a clever historian who tries to avert the worst of the disaster. I enjoyed the witty protagonist and tongue-in-cheek humor.
One of the cool things about the anthology was the stylistically diverse stories that snuck in here, the infamous “Choose Your Own Epic Adventure,” and the chaptered and numbered biblical epic, “The Book of Ant” and Ya Hoon Lee’s cleverly laid out “Hopscotch” all played with narrative set-up that added a lot of variety to the anthology. And yeah, “Epic, The” is a bit cutesy, but not in a sugary way.
I’m not a huge fan of anthologies or story collections, cause you know, there’s usually only one or two stories you actually like, a bunch that are mediocre and several that you just never even finished.
I finished all of these, didn’t actively hate any of them, and I can only think of one or two that I found actively mediocre.
That’s pretty fucking impressive.
Pick up a copy.
This ride is totally worth it.
*Which consisted of me saying, “Hey Moles, give me a fucking copy!” when two promotional extras were handed to him at the con in my presence. I am nothing if not subtle….