Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review of Jonathan Strahan (ed.), Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy

This review first appeared in Interzone #248 in September 2013.

There’s something faintly paradoxical about the whole premise. Epic fantasy, but short epic fantasy? A further aura of oxymoron ― albeit a bit less pronounced ― attaches to the word new in the subtitle. That word is there because all twelve tales are unpublished elsewhere, but it also brings with it a suggestion of freshness. And who really wants to be an early adopter of epic fantasy ― isn’t it a bit like keying in a Google Alert for all the latest on cutting-edge single malt whiskies? And isn’t Fearsome Journeys in jeopardy of falling apart under the stress of its contradictions?

Yet somehow it all hangs together beautifully. A few stories, such as Saladin Ahmed’s ‘Amethyst, Shadow and Light’ and Daniel Abraham’s ‘The High King Dreaming,’ achieve a kind of ultra-compressed vastitude: epic.zip. Many stories position themselves as episodes, fragments, or specimens of palimpsestual sprawl. Characters prima donna up and down the pages as though this is not their first story and certainly won’t be their last. This is often literally true; for instance, Scott Lynch’s ‘Effigy Engine’ ― setting off Fearsome Journeys with innumerable bangs ― is slated as the first in a series of Red Hats stories; Jeffrey Ford’s ‘Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart’ relates to something he wrote for an earlier Strahan collection; Glen Cook’s ‘Shaggy Dog Bridge’ is a scrap of his much longer Black Company cycle.

Plenty of readers will happily follow these universes sideways into the various other books they exist across. Others of course may feel frustrated by all this unruly deferral and scatter. They may find the characters underdeveloped, the settings sketchy, the back-stories oblique.

Still other readers (this reviewer included!) will actually prefer not to have everything spelled out, and particularly not time-honoured fantasy tropes that are accessible via inference and a smidge of genre-savvy mental exertion ― The Dominator is bad, isn’t he?

As for the “new” bit, well, it doesn’t cancel out the priority which heroic fantasy gives to the archaic, so much as make that priority intelligible in the first place. Old and new, convention and subversion, high and low, heroic and mock heroic ― these things have always been difficult to disentangle. (The courtly love tradition, for instance, mingles private, unspoken and unrequited love of a theological fieriness with prankish subterfuge and slapsticky cuckoldry. Martial chivalry is similarly entwined with pragmatism, cynicism and brutality at its very roots). So what’s interesting in Fearsome Journeys is not the fact that conventions are subverted, nor the fact that subversion is inevitably conducted under the banners of innovation and realism . . . what’s interesting is the specific form and intensity of the subversion.

Generally speaking, that form is grit and its level is medium to low. There’s no out-and-out grimdark à la Abercrombie here; this grit typically involves a bit of undaunted erotic and/or scatalogical glee, plus some preoccupied, vague recognition of military and sexual domination as unshakeable dimensions of existence. Occasionally that vagueness seems deliberate or even pointed. In Lynch’s opener, the spirit of Fritz Leiber mingles with that of Square Enix: it’s obvious that these sorcerers’ agenda has something to do with strategy, but it also has everything to do with which spells have the coolest animations. Or take Ahmed’s ‘Amethyst, Shadow and Light,’ which is redolent of Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic or The National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings in its sharp rebuff of cod Tolkienesque world-saving. Cook’s ‘Shaggy Dog Bridge’ attains a strange stylistic success as its hardboiled squaddie-speak harmonises with high fantasy loftiness: clipped expression and dropped words evoke the lacunae of skaldic epics, while the bleak roundabout linguistic doodles of military men (these guys have plenty of time to kill, when not they’re killing people) recalls archaistic periphrasis. On various levels, I make out the point that people busy with serious things (like massacres) don’t always take those things very seriously. In a sense, maybe they don’t even always pay that much attention.

That’s a fine message, but one which merges easily into something more awkward: the depersonalisation of suffering. For instance, we can all appreciate Ahmed’s Hai Hai ― a diabolic and foul-mouthed sabre-wielding (doe) rabbit-of-fortune, and the kind of entity one imagines soon will be despatched to gather Hugh Hefner to the hereafter ― as one of the anthology’s several Strong Female Characters. But what about the gender relations that make such a representation possible in the first place? (Whores as spoils, Hai Hai? ― care to say more?)

Well-intentioned fiction can get stuck in the same old images of progress: sometimes it’s necessary to backtrack a little to find the onward path. Perhaps that’s why I took such a shine to the cronecore offerings, Kate Elliott’s ‘Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine’ and Robert V S Redick’s ‘Forever People.’ Elliot’s tale focuses on a sweet little Save the King messenger mission. Anna must cross hostile territory undetected, mainly by walking sort of near people (like getting into a club). Redick’s is a gnarled, queasy-making tale, simultaneously claustrophobic and on a grand scale. It very adroitly ends in the midst of wretched uncertainty. Even though both tales arguably draw on some of epic fantasy’s more problematic tropes and stock figures (cunning old woman has deceitful tongue; gender transitioning is emblematic of the Ineffible Eldritch; hick jezebel stashes machete, hikes skirts, etc.) they never come across as exploitative. The gender relations they invoke feel insistent and concrete, but also contingent.

The collection’s quality seemed pretty even to me, but I might lurchingly pin my rosette on K J Parker’s ‘The Dragonslayer of Merebarton.’ There is a sizeable “Yeah, and?”-type risk with adventure yarns; yep, this may all be unabashed escapism, but if you don’t escape very far, or for very long, and can’t bring anything back with you . . . well, why did you bother? Parker’s romance is something of a @Seinfeld1200, insofar as (by heroic fantasy standards) nothing really happens ― a knight goes to slay a dragon and that’s literally it ― yet it is so breezily, so mesmerically voiced, I couldn’t dream of demanding “So what?”

If I have one niggle, it’s that I’d have liked some subtle reminder that Parker’s charismatic aristo narrator ― so crinkly, so put upon, so lacking in disposable income (estate dastardly dear to maintain, dotchaknow), so ever-so-slightly shellshocked and traumatised, bearing his griefs old and new with winces and wolfish grins, and occasional paroxysms of droll chippiness ― that this chap is a classic strut of a monstrously illiberal and unequal social system. It would be difficult to supply such a hint, of course, without disrupting that voice. Nice poshos are the worst. I almost forgot to root for the dragon.

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