Book Review: Rogues: The Good and the Bad of the Short Stories

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roguesA copy of Rogues, an anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozios, recently followed me home from the library.

I had been introduced to one story from it—Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Lightning Tree”—by a friend during a delightful trip to the ocean. It is sometimes frustrating not to own a piece of fiction that I remember so fondly—both as a piece alone and for its association to those memories—by one of my favorite authors, to not have it readily accessible whenever I’d like its companionship. So first I reread “The Lightning Tree,” a story from the perspective of the Fae Bast, Kvothe’s often truant assistant innkeeper. This story gives us a better grasp on the inhabitants of the village around the Waystone Inn, particularly its younger residents, for whom Bast does favors in exchange for favors, and its women, who excite Bast and whom are excited by Bast. During The Kingkiller Chronicles so far there’s been little mention of children and entrances by only a few characters from the village. The helpful guardian Bast depicted in “The Lightning Tree” is one that I’d like to see more of, even though I recognize that there’s no room for him in The Kingkiller Chronicles. Kvothe may not even know about this side of Bast. I really enjoyed this story for its focus on the children, on their problems—big and little—and its depictions of their different personalities.

Rothfuss’ story is followed in the book by one by George R. R. Martin, “The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother,” an excerpt from a history of Prince Daemon Targaryen, whose misadventures along with those of his family lead up to the mysterious dance with dragons. This read like a history, and it was more difficult to get through for that, though the insertions of stories told by the jester Mushroom did help to lighten the tone and the intrigues and romantic trysts were plentiful even in these 32 pages. Pretending myself in Westeros and this book being forced on me by a maester did make it seem more fun. I mean, serious points for accurate tone since a history tome is what Martin claims to be translating here. But while it is really interesting history, I’m just not sure history is what I looked to read—especially since so much of “roguishness” is in a character’s attitude and performance. It’s difficult to make a character in a history textbook seem attractive—and most rogues are by connotation if not definition attractive—or else they are criminals or cads.

I’ve read too little of Neil Gaiman and really ought to rectify that, so I hopped backwards to his story, “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” next. Gaiman presents a fantastical, underground London, where each neighborhood more accurately reflects its name, Elephant and Castle being ruled by an elephantine man—not just large, but possessing a trunk and huge elephant ears—and Shepherd’s Bush being ruled by shepherds who turn unwary travelers into mindless sheep whose only desire is to remain a part of the flock. A thief called the Marquis de Carabas loses his coat, he tries to follow it, has to do a favor for a man who has devoted himself to a Mushroom and has mushrooms growing on his moist skin, he is betrayed, his past catches up to him, and his coat ultimately saves him by being so forcefully his. I really enjoyed this world, especially knowing a bit about London, and I enjoyed the Marquis and his brother particularly.

Gwen suggested that I might enjoy Scott Lynch’s short stories even more than his novels and even sent me a link to “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” online without realizing I had my hands on a copy of Rogues. Like Gaiman, Lynch built an interesting fantasy world here. Theradane is ruled by feuding wizards. A thief frightened by the government into retirement gets drunk with retired gang, but their debauchery is interrupted by a monster falling through the ceiling. This thief, Amarelle, goes off and drunkenly rails at one of the wizard rulers, who records her threats, then uses that recording to blackmail Amarelle into stealing a rival wizard’s locus of power—which is an entire street. Three strong female characters, two of them lovers, an automaton, and a government paper-pusher are our protagonists. The story is broken up into chapters for easy reading, and leaves open the possibility of the group returning in more stories of thievery and government overthrow. This was by far the most lighthearted of the short stories I’d yet read in this collection because of its camaraderie, outlandish hijinks, and irreverence.

I’ve heard good things about Joe Abercrombie’s books and have wanted to read some of them, so I went back to the very beginning to read “Tough Times All Over,” with strong females abounding in many positions of power, including thieves and leaders of thieves’ gangs. The genders are actually fairly well balanced here. The story follows not a character but a package across the Venetian city of Sipani, the perspective changing every time the package changes hands. Like Lynch’s here are a pair of female lovers—or would-be lovers if the time and tide allowed. This story I really enjoyed. Short stories make a great canvas for form experimentation, and I think Abercrombie took good advantage of that canvas.

Gillian Flynn’s “What Do You Do?” followed. A female sex worker who does only hand jobs turns aura reader then gets drawn into the employ and into a friendship with a woman whose husband is a regular customer. Though when Susan introduces herself to the narrator it is as the victim of a potential haunting—or the stepmother of a sociopathic son. Flynn leaves open to interpretation the truth of the situation at Carterhook Manor. I didn’t dislike Flynn’s style, but her subject matter—and she deals with the dead with the hurting often (the sole survivor of a ritualistic massacre, a missing woman from a crumbling marriage, a journalist investigating murders)—is raw enough for me to have left a free copy of her novel Dark Places behind. I’m glad to have sampled, but I’m not sure hers are dishes I would order for myself. If you like a bit of fictional darkness more than I do, though, I think I’m ready to recommend Flynn.

For “The Inn of the Seven Blessings” Matthew Hughes has created an interesting world where fantasy and religion meet science in the form of machines meant to leach power from captured minor gods and half-men created by experimentation gone wrong who hunt for ritualistic meals of human flesh. Raffalon did not overly appeal to my sense of feminism, capturing instead the sort of womanizing, self-idolizing rogue that, well, is typical of the fantasy trope. The woman he joins up with proves herself competent but he is desirous of her only because she is the only thing there until a goddess of sexual desire gets hold of them both, transforming her into a more classically sexy woman and him into a more endowed man. I would happily spend more time in the world, but I’m less certain that I’d want to spend that time with Raffalon.

Joe R. Lansdale wrote a short story as an addendum to a series with which I am otherwise unfamiliar. In “Bent Twig,” with his partner Leonard elsewhere, Hap helps a female friend find her missing daughter, a girl who has before fallen into drug abuse and prostitution. This contemporary, sort of rough-and-tumble vigilante detective adventure worked pretty well, I thought, as a standalone. The details in this story were dark too, but Lansdale painted clear black-and-whites where Flynn did not and the distance between myself and the characters was greater in Lansdale’s than Flynn’s. This was a tour down a gritty back alley. Flynn’s was a walk in someone else’s body.

Michael Swanwick’s “Tawny Petticoats” is a con job in a corrupt dystopian future where the U.S. seems to have become wilderness and city-states, but technology is more advanced than at present, which makes me hesitate to call it post-apocalyptic. Our three con artists try to swindle three wealthy marks out of silver and then out of payment for worthless black paper that they believe ready to be made into untraceable counterfeit bills. I was intrigued by the world where debtors and criminals are made zombies via puffer fish poison and humanoid canines are a possibility, but the characters for the most part seemed a bit caricature-ish.

David W. Ball’s “Provenance” took research. His is the story of an aging art dealer, unafraid of an under the table deal every now and again, who finds a missing Caravaggio and goes to sell it to a televangelist. He tells the televangelist the piece’s history, but then sells the same piece to the arms dealer from whom it was stolen. Neither of these though are the original and the art dealer’s story turns out to be the most fascinating of all. The unexpected revelations towards the end of this story are probably its highlight (and I just dropped a few spoilers and for that I apologize).

Carrie Vaughn sets her story “Roaring Twenties” in an underground bar and jazz club that can only be found if one possesses at least a little magic. I was reminded of Taki’s Diner in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, where Shadowhunters and Downworlders mingle and dine—though Gigi’s establishment in Vaughn’s story has much more class. Partners Madame M and the narrator, Pauline, go to the club to speak with the owner, but are left waiting, and while they wait, help a couple of star-crossed lovers escape their warring and dangerous bosses. Vaughn’s prose glitters a bit more than others’ in this anthology (at least than the last few mentioned above, which were all a bit more direct). The story itself is… a bit odd. The protagonists don’t do much but wait and pass the time. The ultimate goal seems to be to prevent a raid on Gigi’s place, which they cannot do, though by being late they are on hand to help minimize the damage. Particularly, the narrator, Pauline, seems to do little. Her job seems to be to keep Madame M safe through sharp observation and a quick mind, almost a Watson to Madame M’s Sherlock, though the metaphor does not hold very well beyond the partnership of the impossibly capable with a less capable but more human partner.

Bradley Denton’s “Bad Brass” is a contemporary piece about the theft and resale of band instruments, a love of music, tangled family histories, and love triangles that get in the way of rational thought. This was a well-executed story. I can appreciate it, but I don’t think I particularly enjoyed it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, but the characters are varied and solid, the writing itself was good.

Cherie Priest’s “Heavy Metal” was more poorly executed (though I am struggling to identify what exactly I found offensive in the prose), but I was more on-board for the low fantasy monster-hunter adventure. It took me about two pages to get sucked into this story, but once I was in it, I really enjoyed it. It was almost exactly my cup of tea: monsters plaguing nature activists who are outsiders in a tiny town, monsters fought by old or new gods or both….

By this point in the book (I’d read more than 500 pages of the anthology), I was frankly getting pretty tired of the rogue trope and of short stories too, and Daniel Abraham’s “The Meaning of Love” was not doing much to inspire my patience, one protagonist being a melodramatic flop and exiled prince in ridiculous and childish Romeo love/lust. (That being said, “killing” someone to help them is always interesting, and the Sovereign North Bank is an interesting setting, a sort of riverside Tortuga built like an early 19th century city slum and treehouse.)

The rogue is definitely likeable; that is almost implied in the title “rogue” which could easily be replaced by a title with less pleasant connotations like “thief” or “idiot,” “crime lord” or “arrogant snot.” But often the rogue comes too with less likeable personality traits, the type associated with those alternate titles, and often adding “condescending” and “womanizing.” I can only have so much patience for such a character especially when the format in which he is presented doesn’t allow for much character growth or often the portrayal of a broader range of human feeling or action.

Short stories have their place, but I am a novelist and read novels almost exclusively. I like novels because they allow for a broader canvas, a broader range of human experience and a more sweeping plot. Some writers are very good at condensing all of that experience and story into a smaller illustration, but it is a rarer talent. I think a lot of the challenge is in picking a broad enough topic to be interesting and a small enough topic to fit the piece. Alternately, some good short stories read like scenes of a broader piece with the rest of the story being provided by the readers’ imaginations instead of the writer’s, but these scenes have to have an arc, have to have an end and have to have enough of a beginning so as to not throw the reader too jarringly into action. These are thoughts of mine. I am no expert on short stories.

I still had a few days left on my library loan, though, and maybe I’d stumble onto another gem, so I kept reading.

Paul Cornell’s “A Better Way to Die” was next, a science fiction where parallel worlds have been discovered and transportation between the parallels made possible. Some people are harvesting the bodies of younger selves and transplanting their older minds into these younger selves. Some worry that they’ll be replaced by newer models. One person of the latter mindset meets his younger self at a party and they play a card game for the highest stakes—enough to bankrupt their purses and, though neither has spoken it, the chance to survive in this world. The loser storms away and steals the money—or so it seems. In a parallel “heaven” it is revealed that they’ve been set the one to try to kill the other. This is an interesting look at the meaning of self, the influences of time and of circumstance. It’s an interesting warning to future generations who might discover parallel worlds. The science of the story is not very clear, but I don’t think that it really has to be. It’s focus is not on the science, but on the implications and the questions.

Steven Saylor’s “Ill Seen in Tyre” reads like a not particularly well-researched historical fiction—but maybe that’s not fair; I’ve not done the research, but a few details jarred against what I thought I’d remembered from various classes, and that kept me from really investing in this story. A student from the city of Rome—but before Rome becomes an empire, maybe?—is travelling with his teacher, Antipater, a man from Tyre. The story is set in Tyre, described as an old city even now, but a bit of a cultural backwater, taken with folk heroes, whose stories seem chronologically impossible, suggesting that these heroes did not age in 200 years. But these are Antipater’s childhood heroes, and he seeks a book of magic from their adventures. He thinks he has found someone willing to sell him that book. The folk heroes are rogues themselves, but so too are the protagonists tricked by a rogue, and maybe they are rogues themselves. This story taps against the 4th wall, the characters questioning the narrative form and the definition of rogues, so it seemed a decent ending place.

Though I started in on Garth Nix’s “A Cargo of Ivories” too and got enough of a taste to decide that, after a break from rogues, I may want to return to this anthology.

An anthology like this really has its merit in its ability to provide a sampling of authors that a reader might not otherwise encounter or might not follow so easily into a whole novel.  Already, reading his story in this anthology has prompted me to snatch Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King into my hands when I saw it at the local used bookstore.  Only a few of these authors had I read prior to this anthology.  Several other authors here are ones whose works I was familiar with prior to reading this anthology–in at least so far as having handed copies of their books to customers.  Now when a customer asks me about one of these authors I can give a more informed opinion.  Not only will I know whether the author sells, but I’ll have some idea of her style and her subject–and I did not have to devote much time to reading a whole novel by the author to be able to do so.

Rogues.  Ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.  New York: Bantam-Penguin Random, 2014.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, Bantam Books, Penguin Random House, any of the contributing authors, or anyone involved in its production. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

2 responses »

    • Wow. I thought that I replied to this ages ago. Sorry.

      They can be enough on their own certainly, but I think the short story is a difficult medium that takes a great deal of skill and hard work to write well, and frankly, it’s not a medium that I often risk, preferring to give a writer a longer span to invest me in her characters and world and to impart her secrets to me and finding many writers can do more and interest me more in more than 50 pages. For me, because most of the writers in this anthology are novelist–and novelist that I had considered picking up prior to reading this anthology but hadn’t invested in–the short stories in this anthology in particular served more as introductions to authors and to their writing style than the short stories served as distinct entities. I was reading more with the intention of getting to know a few new pens than I was to enjoy the short stories alone–and that’s reader error–or maybe reader bias–certainly its a very particular lens through which to read. A few of the short stories stick in my mind regardless. A few of these short stories are well written, separate stories–in fact, most are, though some are more to my taste than others.

      Does that answer the question? I feel like I might’ve gone about the bush a bit. 🙂

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