Rogues (2/2)

Rogues is a collection short stories commissioned by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois with a cover very similar to the Ice and Fire saga (Game of Thrones) novels to pique the interest of the casual shopper. The ploy certainly worked on me especially when it was selling for £3.50 in Tesco as opposed to the theoretical cover price of £9.99.

The stories are not all fantasy by the way, despite the impression given by the style of the cover. It’s a big book and so I split the reading into two. This is therefore the second post of two, the first one is here: Rogues Part 1.

‘A Better Way to Die’ by Paul Cornell is a very peculiar parallel worlds tale involving an alternative history of the development of Britain just after Elizabethan times following the discovery of alien technology allowing the use of portals to explore alternate realities. A special forces major is confronted with a younger version of himself and faces a couple of challenges – the first a complex card game (told in a way reminiscent of Bond) and the second a deadlier cat and mouse shoot out. The story, like many of the others in the collection, contains a fantastically rich and intriguing set of ideas which are the basis for some of author’s other tales.

‘Ill Scene in Tyre’ by Steven Saylor refers to the work of Fritz Leiber in its mention of the characters Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and benefits greatly from doing so. Without this content this simple story of a fake invisibility potion sold in a disreputable inn in the ancient city of Tyre would be quite humdrum and lacking any great depth. As it is the discussion of what makes a rogue different from a hero and therefore suitable to be the subject of epic poems fits very nicely into this collection. There is one very bad proof reading error when Saylor writes about the dyeing industry that Tyre was renowned for in ancient times which I will leave to the reader to see if they can spot.

Garth Nix is a name familiar to me from the shelves of bookstores although I’ve never had the pleasure of reading any of his work until now. ‘A Cargo of Ivories’ is a fun tale about a cat burglary that goes wrong. The main characters, a swordsman and a puppet possessed by a sorcerer, work for an agency protecting reality and want to destroy some ivory figurines that contain the trapped essences of minor gods who if released could cause chaos. They find that someone has beaten them to the loot and one of the gods is accidentally released. The ensuing scenes aboard a sea vessel are like something out of a Disney fantasy and an albino miniature mammoth (an oxymoron if ever there was one) saves the day.

‘Diamonds from Tequila’ by Walter Jon Williams is a welcome change of scene away from fantasy and to contemporary life albeit that of a struggling Hollywood actor. Big in computer games and known for playing bad guys, the film Desperation Reef is Sean Makin’s first time as leading man and he will stop at nothing to make sure the film gets made despite the fact that the leading lady is accidentally killed while on location in Mexico and one of the crew is in trouble with the local drug cartel. Makin is wonderfully self-absorbed and the story is a great tale of the lengths some people will go to progress their careers and also contains some interesting ideas on where 3D printing technology might end up in the near future.

Phyllis Eisenstein‘s ‘The Caravan to Nowhere’ is the first new story in decades to feature her teleporting minstrel Alaric. He accompanies a camel train through the desert with a worldly wise trader, the trader’s band of men and his drug-addled son. A mirage city comes and goes on the horizon and the son keeps having to be held back from chasing after it. Alaric goes with the trader and his son to the source of the drug – poisonous stinking mines out in the middle of the desert where the strange blue mold, the source of the drug, can be found. Alaric’s curiosity and quest for new material for his songs takes him into danger and only his innate ability to teleport out of trouble saves the day. The tale seems allegorical in some ways and the rogue takes somewhat of a backseat in this tale until the deceit towards the end. It’s more straightforward than some of the truly fantastical tales contained in this collection but no less entertaining.

‘The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives’ by George R. R. Martin’s onetime collaborator Lisa Tuttle is something of a penny dreadful mixed with a Sherlock Holmes story. I thought initially I was reading a vampire tale only to find that the macabre story had more realistic foundations – if a master hypnotist collecting a zombie like harem can be called realistic. However, having seen an episode of QI in which the grave pulley and bell system was featured I didn’t find it as far-fetched as some readers might. It was well written and whether it was a pastiche of Mulder and Scully or Holmes and Watson is ultimately beside the point.

(At this point my reading of this collection experienced another break as I went off on holiday and there was no way I was going to take this huge tome with me.)

Neil Gaiman‘s ‘How the Marquis got his coat back’ is the much anticipated short story sequel to ‘Neverwhere’. In the surreal world of London Below the recently resurrected Marquis is in search of his coat which was sold off when he got his throat slit. The Marquis eventually tracks down this essential piece of attire but not before he has fallen foul of a number of the dark denizens of this fantasy underworld in the form of an elephant and a shepherd. The handy deus ex machina is his brother Peregrine who helps extricate the Marquis from his entanglements and keeps the story jogging along to its conclusion. I expected nothing less than a witty nicely shaped short from Gaiman and he delivered. It’s a shame howevear that more of the Neverwhere characters weren’t along for the ride. Hopefully ‘The Sevean Sisters’ is more than a well stoked rumour and we’ll be hearing more from them all in a future novel.

Less well known to me than Gaiman is Connie Willis a most celebrated sci-fi writer. In ‘Now Showing’ she riffs on the idea of massive multiplex cinemas advertising so many films on so many screens that the studios can’t keep up and only produce trailers for some films that you then find you never get to see no matter how hard you try. If that sounds far-fetched then well… yes it is. Obstacles are placed in your way even if you buy a ticket for one of these aforementioned non-existent films and the people running the cinema experience just expect you to buy lots of food, drink and movie related items and shrug it off and go and see another film. Willis I feel tries to be too clever with mentioning lots of sequels that haven’t been made met e.g. Saw 7 which technically hasn’t been made yet but when today I read about the possibility of a Saw 8 film in the pipeline this kind of smartassery falls flat in the face of reality. I was actually unimpressed by the story and I found the idea of a couple of teens being really into the kind of old films a middle aged female writer would like (e.g. Jumping Jack Flash and French Kiss) rather tenuous. Moving on…

‘The Lightning Tree’ by Paul Rothfuss is a delightful tale about Bast who is most likely from fairy stock. He has a way with the ladies in the village where he lives and and makes deals with their children at the lightning tree. This is a very well-constructed and playful fantasy tale that follows a day in the life of Bast. He could be the guardian of the village, possibly capable of great evil but instead choosing to help the villagers with as little magic as possible. In this way he is a little like one of Pratchett’s witches dispensing practical magic and using information traded for riddles and advice to his advantage. He certainly fits the bill as a rogue.

And finally we arrive at brand new ‘Game of Thrones’ tale chronicling one of the biggest rogues in the history of Westeros. George R. R. Martin writes a fictional history of the early life, adventures, misdeeds, and marriages of Prince Daemon Targaryen in ‘The Rogue Prince, or A King’s Brother’. As you would expect the chronicle is full of detail of family trees, deceit, perversion and quite a few dragons. I’m sure he could get an HBO prequel series commissioned simply based on the few pages contained within this collection and maybe he will. The other thin that struck me when reading this account was how similar it is in form to the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien in ‘The Silmarillion’.

To sum up’ ‘Rogues’ is an amazing showcase of writing talent and if I only read one book by each of the authors featured, I will be entertained for a few years and have a much richer reading experience as a result.

 

 

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