(Shadowpaw Press, October 2021, pb., 544 pp.)
“Shadow Sight” by Kelley Armstrong
“Ghost and Fox” by Marie Brennan
“Letters from an Imprisoned Wizard to a Young Queen, and Associated Explicatory Correspondence” by Garth Nix
“Going to Ground” by Candas Jane Dorsey
“Beneath a Bicameral Moon” by Jeremy Szal
“Shapeshifter Finals” by Jeffrey A. Carver (reprint, not reviewed)
“Thibauld’s Tale” by Edward Willett
“The Cancellation” by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
“River of Ice” by David D. Levine (reprint, not reviewed)
“I Hid in the Bathroom When the Aliens Arrived” by Lisa Foiles
“The Only Road” by Susan Forest
“The Cat and the Merrythought” by Matthew Hughes
“Anamnesis in Ruins” by Heli Kennedy
“Angel and Monica” by Helen Dale
“Root Mother” by Adria Laycraft
“The Cool Sequestered Vale of Life” by Edward Savio
“The Lost Cipher of Dr. Dee” by Lisa Kessler
“Message Found in a Variable Temporality Appliance” by Ira Nayman
“Salvage” by Carrie Vaughn (reprint, not reviewed)
“Casey’s Empire” by Nancy Kress (reprint, not reviewed)
“I Remember Paris” by James Alan Gardner
“The Chthonic Op” by Tim Pratt
“The Little Tailor and the Elves” by Barbara Hambly (reprint, not reviewed)
“A Murder in Eddsford” by S.M. Stirling (reprint, not reviewed)
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
As with the first volume in the series, all the works in this anthology come from the pens of writers interviewed on the editor’s podcast The Worldshapers. With no common theme, the stories offer a wide range of imaginative fiction, with great variety in genre, style, and mood.
Set in a fantasy version of the Old West, “Shadow Sight” by Kelley Armstrong is narrated by one of a family of women who can perceive the true nature of people. They often act as hired vigilantes, killing those who deserve death for their crimes. She accepts an assignment to track down raiders who slaughtered a pioneer family, only to find out that the woman who hired her has something else in mind. The narrator has her own surprise in store for the woman.
The premise and the setting are unusual and interesting. Some readers may find the story’s apparent defense of violent frontier justice unpleasant, even if those subjected to it are wicked persons.
“Ghost and Fox” by Marie Brennan is narrated in second person, addressed to a woman who is the reincarnation of a ghost. The narrator reveals her own supernatural nature, and the past she shared with the ghost.
This brief tale, inspired by Chinese mythology, is more of a mood piece than a fully developed story. As such, it is effective, but one might wish for more backstory, as well as an account of what will happen to the two characters in the future.
The lengthy title of “Letters from an Imprisoned Wizard to a Young Queen, and Associated Explicatory Correspondence” by Garth Nix makes it clear that the author has tongue firmly in cheek. The wizard writes to the monarch, asking to be released from prison. Complicating matters is the fact that the missives travel through time, so that he is addressing a queen who ruled centuries ago. His magical threats against the present ruler have serious consequence for her realm and its inhabitants.
The plot complications of this lighthearted tale are clever, and are likely to be appreciated by those who prefer fantasy stories to be less than completely serious. Others may find it a bit too long for such a featherweight piece.
“Gone to Ground” by Candas Jane Dorsey is a very strange, surrealistic work that is difficult to describe. In brief, the narrator is imprisoned in a dystopian world where even painting landscapes is a crime. The narrator can not only create living spiders from dirt and hair, but has the power to choose which possible future will become real. Other prisoners include enhanced cats and dogs.
I hope I have conveyed some of the bizarre nature of this story, although I have mentioned only a few of the weird things that occur. The narrative style is equally eccentric, with some sections just containing the words “this space intentionally left blank.” One cannot fault the author for lack of originality or imagination, but readers are likely to scratch their heads over what it all means.
The narrator of “Beneath a Bicameral Moon” by Jeremy Szal is held prisoner by aliens on a planet where humans are fighting a war with them. She has memories implanted in her mind of a much earlier time. A journey into ancient ruins in the company of one of her captors unlocks a secret about the true source of the conflict.
The way in which the narrator and the alien become reluctant allies is interesting, as is her slow transformation from a prisoner subject to torture to a fellow soldier of the aliens. The reader is likely to predict the story’s revelation about the relationship between the aliens and the humans before the narrator discovers it. I did not understand why the narrator has implanted memories, but maybe I just missed something.
“Thibauld’s Tale” by editor Edward Willett takes place on a Moon colony. The narrator is a thief, contacted by a woman who wants him to help her stop a plot by terrorists to blow up the Lunar government headquarters. The plot also involves a cat enhanced with a quantum computer that allows it to talk in whatever human voice it chooses.
Despite a serious, action-packed plot, the narrative style is full of wisecracks, adding more than a touch of humor. The author points out that this story is a prequel to an upcoming novel, so its main purpose seems to be to introduce the three characters. Fans of outer space adventures that offer some laughs along the way are the best audience for this tale.
“The Cancellation” by Bryan Thomas Schmidt carries the subtitle “A John Simon Story,” so I assume it is one of a series. Simon is a police detective, working with a robot partner. They investigate the murders of two high school students, eventually finding the killer and his motive.
Other than the presence of the robot, this is a straightforward police procedural tale. As such, it offers a realistic look at forensics and other investigative techniques. Although the robot has a few special skills that help the case, it could be replaced by an ordinary human being without changing the story in any major way. The robot is very fond of quoting movies, which some readers may enjoy, but which I found slightly annoying.
“I Hid in the Bathroom When the Aliens Arrived” by Lisa Foiles is a comic tale of a baker on a colony planet who survives an attack by vengeful extraterrestrials in the company of a scatterbrained robot. The wacky machine offers a sacrifice to save the life of its human companion when all seems lost.
The openly humorous nature of the story contrasts awkwardly with some of its content, particularly the deaths of the baker’s siblings and the wholesale destruction of the human colony. The narrative is full of references to modern popular culture, some of which are already outdated in 2021, let alone the apparently far future setting. (There is a tiny hint at the beginning that this may be some other universe entirely, but this is unclear.)
“The Only Road” by Susan Forest takes place at the time when the British ruled India. The setting is Sikkim, a supposedly independent kingdom, but in effect a British protectorate. The protagonist is a thief, blackmailed by an acquaintance to act as a guide for an Englishman, while actually stealing his plans for an arms factory. The Englishman is dying of cancer, and seeks the fabled land of Shangri in search of a supernatural cure. (This appears to be an allusion to Shangri-La, the imaginary land in the famous novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, although the current story is entirely original.) An encounter with a magician from Shangri changes the life of the protagonist.
This compelling tale works well both as historical fiction and as fantasy. The author portrays the time and place convincingly, and the story’s supernatural content is equally believable. Richly developed characters and a dramatic climax add to the work’s appeal.
Although not labeled as such, I recognize “The Cat and the Merrythought” by Matthew Hughes as one of a series of tales about a pair of former minions of a wizard, now on their own. An ancient coin involves the pair with a sorcerer from long ago and the woman he changed into a cat.
As with other stories in this series, the plot is full of magic, although the mood is surprisingly calm, with a touch of subtle humor. In this tale, a meeting with a necromancer decked out in the typical outfit of a magician in fantasy fiction suggests a sly parody of the genre. The two protagonists play a mostly passive role in the story. The ending hints that this work is primarily intended to set up another tale in the series.
The narrator of “Anamnesis in Ruins” by Heli Kennedy seeks her sister, who disappeared when their father condemned her for practicing magic. The narrator follows her trail into forbidden ruins. A rare insect that stores the memory of those whose blood it feeds upon offers a possible clue.
The insect is the most intriguing and original concept in this otherwise fairly typical fantasy story. The ending comes very suddenly, and leaves the main plot unresolved. Perhaps the author intends to continue the narrator’s search for her sister, but this tale leaves the reader frustrated.
A long introduction from the author explains that “Angel and Monica” by Helen Dale is a chapter left out of a novel at the time of publication. It also describes the setting, an alternate version of the Roman Empire with more advanced technology. The story involves a trader and the slave girl with whom he falls in love. He purchases her from her owner and then frees her, so he can marry her.
This simple synopsis makes it clear that the alternate history aspect of the story is not relevant to the plot. As an early chapter in the novel, its evident purpose was to introduce the characters. As it stands, it can be enjoyed as a pleasant love story, which could easily be made into mainstream historical fiction.
In “Root Mother” by Adria Laycraft, a woman and her brother, a druid, try to get her niece to take on the magical role named in the title. The girl has her own connection with a supernatural being and resists. The conflict leads to an encounter with a powerful entity and a change in the woman’s life.
Based on Celtic mythology, the story creates a world full of dark magic, populated by deities upon whom one must depend, but who are also to be feared. Many scenes provide the reader with a true sense of wonder, simultaneously beautiful and frightening.
“The Cool Sequestered Vale of Life” by Edward Savio takes place on a human colony planet where the region best suited for settlement has been abandoned for mysterious reasons. The narrator investigates the area with a guide, a woman who has her own motive for entering the place. He discovers the strange truth about the region, and struggles to escape.
The premise begins like a familiar science fiction puzzle story, but it soon becomes much stranger than that. The nature of the area is truly peculiar, and somewhat difficult to understand. The author creates a powerful sense of uneasiness, but the reader is likely to be confused.
In “The Lost Cipher of Dr. John Dee” by Lisa Kessler, an FBI agent who works for a secret department dealing with the supernatural meets a woman who possesses an ancient book that threatens to end the world. She proves to be something other than an ordinary human being. Together they work to make sure the book will never be used to bring about Armageddon.
The story is a realistic work of urban fantasy, and the agent’s meditations at the end are intriguing. The rest of the tale lacks excitement, with no real conflict involved. It would be a mistake to add stereotypical villains to the plot, but the fact that the fate of the entire world is at stake never really comes across in a completely convincing manner.
“Message Found in a Variable Temporality Appliance” by Ira Nayman deals with technology that allows time to flow at different rates in different places. It is used to allow a building to be constructed in what the outside world sees as a few days, while the workers living inside the zone of altered time experience several months. Some of the workers make use of the device for what proves to be a trivial reason, drawing the wrath of a Time Agent.
This is a silly story, full of characters with outrageous names. The fact that abuse of the time device results in the deaths of nearly eighty thousand deaths in another universe is tossed aside lightly. Readers who enjoy goofy comedy may get some chuckles out of it.
“I Remember Paris” by James Alan Gardner retells the well-known story of the start of the Trojan War in new ways. In the familiar version, Paris selects Aphrodite as the winner of the beauty contest of the goddesses, and is awarded Helen for his choice, leading to the conflict. The author briefly considers a variation in which a middle-aged Paris chooses Hera instead, and becomes the ruler of a great empire.
Most of the story deals with a third version, in which an older Paris selects Athena, gaining wisdom as his prize. There is no Trojan War, and the Greeks and Trojans fight together against monsters sent by the jealous losing goddesses. With the help of the witch Circe, Paris communicates with the angry deities, and uses his wisdom to outwit their schemes for revenge.
This is a very clever new look at Greek mythology, making use of many characters from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The author turns them into real people, and the story makes for delightful reading.
The narrator of “The Chthonic Op” by Tim Pratt was once a human being, and now serves the rulers of the Underworld by being incarnated into different bodies. The current form is that of a woman, her appearance that of a stereotypical private eye. The assignment is to aid a woman in recovering a chalice from her uncle, whose ghost inhabits his rotting body. Things turn out to be quite different than they seem at first.
This combination of dark fantasy and hardboiled detective fiction manages to balance the two genres in a skillful way, and the story will appeal to fans of both. Some readers may find the characters too unpleasant, and the plot overly gruesome.
Victoria Silverwolf has never listened to a podcast.