I am not by nature, much of an anthology fan – I find it hard-going to keep up with all the novels and novellas I really want to read, without resorting to reading several smaller stories compiled into one bumper collection, some of which may or may not be particularly good. This, I guess, is a common predicament for many readers, so it’s with a mix of sadness and delight that I can categorically say that both these anthologies have gone a long way toward my conversion into a more accepting and less discriminatory reader. Bravo to the pair of them, and bang goes all hope of me trying to catch up with my “Really Want to Read” list anytime soon… Bah, humbug!
Titan Books, 409pp large format softback, £8.99 cover price
Dead Man’s Hand is edited by John Joseph Adams, and dubbed a “Weird West” anthology themed around the classic American Old West, complete with all the terror and heartache associated with such turbulent times, especially if you happen to have a soft spot for the humble horse and/or those regularly involved in the odd Cowboy/Indian shootout at whatever Corral is flavour of the week on any given day!
Over the last few years, I’ve been convinced there’s a big gap in the market where cross-genre Westerns with a supernatural, fantasy and/or science-fiction bent should be sitting (in a similar vein to Defiance and the tragically short-lived Firefly TV series for example), and this anthology serves as a reminder there is a whole vista of endless possibilities surely going begging in this particular market? Interestingly (to me), the graphic novel/comics scene doesn’t suffer quite as much on this front, with titles like Jonah Hex,Rawhide Kid, Caliber, Wyatt Earp and Preacher among others all familiar to fans of this medium – these are still perhaps not “funky” enough to be considered “Weird West” (granted, some of the stories can be, though!), but nonetheless show that it’s a market that still has its fans. Walking Dead is arguably a “modern” western, but that’s an altogether different story, I suspect.
Featuring great work and a sparkling roll call of genre authors, there are some fabulous tales to be found herein – of alien gold fever, dodgy playing cards, clockwork gunslingers, and reanimated corpses among others. And despite a distinct “steampunk”-ish feel running through a number of the stories, they are all definitively set in the traditional “Wild West”, showing a marked variety in both theme and tone…
Rather than trawl through every story and commenting on each, I’d like to mention a handful that really stood out for me, while still offering an inkling as to how varied the content is, sooo…
Joe R Lansdale’s “The Red-Headed Dead” sees the classic return of his Reverend Mercer character in another supernatural battle with evil, and kicks off this collection in fine style, while “Second Hand” by Rajan Khanna takes the concept of a deck of cards and throws a whole new meaning of “dangerous death-dealing” at it…
“Hellfire on the High Frontier” by David Farland, “Strong Medicine” by Tad Williams and “Red Dreams” by Jonathan Maberry all play on the trope of an artificial gunslinger finding its place in the Wild West, yet all of these tales approach it from wildly differing angles, with Farland’s “Hellfire…” leaning particularly heavy on the concept of the new age supplanting the old, as it were…
“The Man with No Heart” by Beth Revis and “The Old Slow Man and his Gold Gun from Space” by Ben H. Winters both run with the idea of travellers from another world in a Wild West setting, with the latter sporting a particularly amusing take on the concept.
“The Hell-Bound Stagecoach” by Mike Resnick is another of the more light-hearted in this collection, and somewhat far away from the tale you’d be forgiven for expecting, given the title.
With names like Orson Scott Card, Walter Jon Williams, Elizabeth Bear, Alan Dean Foster, Alastair Reynolds, Tad Williams, and Christie Yant also among the contributor list – none of which I suspect will be lost on many BSFA members – this really is an excellent showcase of their work and adaptability.
Fantasy-Faction Publishing, 313pp standard paperback,
available direct from the fantasy-faction.com website
or on Kindle from £4.99
In stark contrast to Dead Man’s Hand and the Weird West, I suspect there is no real shortage of fantasy anthologies nowadays. Alas, many are on a set theme, be it Magic, Wizards, Dragons, Zombie Elf Demons, etc. so it came as a very pleasant surprise that the standout thing about the Fantasy-Faction Anthology – for me at least – is the fact that it also carries Non-fiction. That’s right, and you did read that correctly, this also has several Non-fiction essays in it; and frankly, they’re a delightful addition to an already great collection. I’ll talk more about that a little later.
Although this anthology can be considered very much a new kid on the block for fantasy fans, the website itself, www.fantasy-faction.com, has been around since 2010 (and seen over 3m visitors up until mid-2014 apparently – I suspect it’s a lot more nowadays as there’s some cracking stuff on there). One can hardly say this first anthology was rushed, either – Marc Aplin, one of the co-editors for this and also the “ff” website founder, thought it a good idea to open this anthology up to all his website visitors with an ambitiously generic “just write fantasy” caveat… 1700 submissions and two years later, and this is the result – but my, what a wonderful little package they’ve put together!
This is a stirring collection and a marvellous volume in its own right, but as mentioned above, is made all the more entertaining because the stories are interspersed with non-fiction pieces. I’d like to stay on this point as I think it’s one worth celebrating. Those of you with older heads and greying hair may well recall that back in the late 70s there was a paperback magazine published by Ace Books called Destinies, edited by James Baen – this carried a number of fabulous science fiction tales by the likes of Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford and many other genre stalwarts (it did tend to be an “all-male party” back then, so I apologise in advance: that’s a different topic entirely)… but crucially, also featured articles dubbed “Speculative Fact” (later “Science Fact”) from Jerry Pournelle, Charles Sheffield, Frederik Pohl, and a number of other “science writers”. Similar magazines were around, but Destinies and the revised New Destinies were among the most prominent here in the UK if memory serves (and it doesn’t always, so forgive me if I’ve got that wrong).
Anyway, returning to the Fantasy-Faction Anthology and the non-fiction to be found therein, we have Richard Morgan to thank for “Killing the Magic (And Putting it in a Box)” which effectively tells all you naysayers and “fantasy realism” buffs where to park your troublesome thoughts on the so-called authenticity (and otherwise) of fantasy fiction. In stark contrast to this, we have both Anne Lyle and Kameron Hurley writing about bringing some consistency to your fantasy worlds, the former in a well-informed piece about “Historical Research for Fantasy Writers” and the latter discussing the thorny topic of “Creating Better Fantasy Economies: Who Does All The Work?” On a more light-hearted note, James Barclay covers “The Preservation and Evolution of Elves” with his usual wit and candour, while Mark Charan Newton writes a piece entitled “Advice I”d Give My Younger Self” that really does speak to the writer in us all.
So that’s the non-fiction well covered, so what about the fiction?
There were many standouts for me, but Mark Lawrence’s “The Dream-Taker’s Apprentice” and Richard Ford’s “The Halfwyrd’s Burden” both struck me as simply “Fantasy done right”, whilst “The House on the Old Cliffs” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, “Misericordia” by Rene Sears and “The Dealer” by Miah Sonnel all took the generic fantasy setting and made good with it in a twisty, gnarly “let’s shake things up a bit” way. Lastly, both “The Unsung” by Jessalyn Heaton and John Yeo Jr.’s “Overdue” remain touching and poignant tales that lingered in the mind for a good while after I read them.
In summary, a lovely collection of both fiction and non-fiction, and a very high bar with which to set the standard of future volumes to come… And I know there’ll be more to follow, but at least Marc has agreed to draft in some extra help for the next one, to ensure it doesn’t take quite so long to compile. I wish him and the rest of the fantasy-faction.com team the very best of luck in maintaining this kind of quality and consistency, however, because I suspect they’re going to need it. Highly recommended.
* This article/review originally appeared on the BSFA website here