Friday, June 28, 2024

Of Proper Short Story Collection Assemblage or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Rogues Anthology Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois by Karen S. Wiesner


Of Proper Short Story Collection Assemblage

or {Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Rogues Anthology

Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

by Karen S. Wiesner



Rogues, published in 2014, is far from the first anthology George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have edited and assembled together. It's just one in a veritable showcase that doesn't skimp on a significant volume of diverse stories, as you can see from this listing: 

Ø    Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance (sci-fi and fantasy stories in tribute to this author's Dying Earth Series, published in 2009)

Ø    Warriors (cross-genre stories on the subjects of war and warriors, published in 2010)

Ø    Songs of Love and Death: All-Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love (cross-genre stories of romance in science fiction/fantasy settings published in 2010)

Ø    Down These Strange Streets (urban fantasy stories published in 2011)

Ø    Old Mars ("retro Mars science fiction"-themed stories published in 2013)

Ø    Dangerous Women (cross-genre stories published in 2013 "showcasing the supposedly weaker sex" "...if you want to tie these women to the railroad tracks, you'll find you have a real fight on your hands")

Ø    Old Venus ("retro Venus science fiction"-themed stories published in 2015)

With confidence, I'd have to say Martin is pretty much a household word at this point with his A Song of Ice and Fire series (HBO's Game of Thrones). I hadn't heard of Dozois, per se, before the Rogues anthology. He was a science fiction author and editor before he passed in 2018, the founding editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies (from 1984 through 2018) and editor of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine (1986–2004). He won many awards for both his writing and his editing. Not surprisingly given his contributions to literature, in 2011 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. 

Upfront I'll confess that I'm not fond of short story collections for the chief reason that so few short stories are or can be well written. The forced brevity inherent in a short story is the very reason they don't usually succeed in engaging my interest, let alone my favor. To be a great story, all the elements have to be there--in-depth, three-dimensional characterization, conflict development, and world building. The shorter a story is, the worse this gets because there isn't time or space to capture everything required to draw readers into a story and commit themselves to following it through to the end. Literally (pun intended), a single (well- or poorly-chosen) word might spell the difference between a story making or breaking it for the reader. In essence, a short story has to have all the hallmarks of a fully-fleshed out story that equals the impact a novel counterpart has more hope of providing for its readers. This is a hard, some might even say close to impossible, achievement. 

Full disclosure, although I'm determined to try short story collections if their subject matter appeals to me, I've found that, in general, I'm lucky if I actually like a single story in an anthology. This is the largest reason for why I review so few short story collections. It almost seems unfair to spotlight a single story, holding it up as worthy, while basically spitting out "Eeh" or "Yuck" concerning all the other tales in that anthology that just didn't do anything for me, or (again, very commonly) I outright disliked. Short stories seem to have two extremes--either good or bad, no in-between. Word constraints see to that inevitability. Add to this another detriment: Most collections of stories tend to be at least 80-100,000 words in length, so they're huge. In print format, the price is usually exorbitant. Even in ebook format, they tend to be too expensive, especially considering how few stories I know I'm probably going to end up liking. Bottom line, to find one story I like in the same collection is rare enough to be something of a miracle. That's why Rogues is one of the few anthologies I've ever taken the time to review. That I liked multiple stories in Rogues is almost unprecedented, so it warrants the distinction of being formally reviewed by someone who isn't completely sold on story collections. 

I'm no stranger to anthologies myself--filling roles as a contributing author along with commissioning, assembling, designing, formatting, and editing them. The very first collection I'd ever commissioned and assembled, Mistletoe Marriages, was a Frankfort Award nominee. I contributed a novella to that anthology as well as sharing the credit for editing the four stories included with the other three contributing authors before it was  published in 1999 (currently out of print). However, my main editing experience was within the promotional group of award-winning authors I created--Jewels of the Quill--in 2004. The group was spotlighted in the September 2003 issue of RT Book Reviews and eventually disbanded in 2014. From 2005 through 2011, we produced two group anthologies every year. I commissioned each of these, working directly with the contributing authors, the publisher, and their copyeditor. Additionally, I assembled each one and handled all the formatting and cover designs (one of which was nominated for a prestigious award). I also contributed my own story to all fourteen of these story collections. (While all the group anthologies are now OOP, my offerings have all been republished in my own series or story collections.) Additionally, I was the lead editor on them. All the group anthologies received countless rave reviews as well as award nominations and wins. So I'm very familiar with each of these processes, and I learned a lot about their construction while I was handling them. 

I'd like to go over the importance of each stage in putting together a short story collection before I review at least some of the 21 stories included in Rogues. A facet of multi-story collections that few editors truly understand is the arrangement of the included stories. An editor has to look past an author's name and credentials and judge a story solely on its worth, which isn't easy to do. Even editors get too caught up in the popularity contest. However, for the sake of discussion, let's talk about a short story collection scenario where all that matters is quality. 

Depending on how many stories are included in any given collection, it's imperative that the first and last stories included be the strongest of the entire showcase. The first has to capture readers' interest so completely, they'll want to continue. Once that's achieved, their enthusiasm must be kept high. For that reason, it's a good idea to ensure the second and maybe even the third story is nearly as good (or as good) as the first. The final story, of course, is the one that will leave a lasting impression on readers, and must have been worth the wait for it at the end, slogging through the middle stories that are generally not as good as the others. 

I hate to say that, but it's been my experience that middle stories tend to be simply filler, sometimes readable but nowhere as good as the first and last should be. Like it or not, when an editor has commissioned other authors to participate in an anthology, some of the stories he or she receives sometimes fall short of the mark but they're still decent enough to be included. Editors worth their salt will cull bad stories, even if they're from otherwise usually solid authors--something I've had to do and, believe me, it's never fun. One terrible story can bring down the whole collection, though, so it simply can't be tolerated. When I was editing Jewels of the Quill anthologies, I retained the right to reject a story if it didn't come up to standard. The authors were aware of this from the start, so having it be common knowledge from the get-go made it easier to handle. As much as possible, I tried to work with the author to bring a weak story up to spec, but that wasn't always possible and I did have to make some hard decisions. 

How the middle stories are arranged is absolutely crucial to the overall effectiveness of an anthology. Rogues, for instance, has 21 stories included. That's actually quite a lot and some of the stories are pretty long. Many collections have a tremendous amount of stories but none of them are more than a few pages long (with little space for fleshing out, so many very short or "flash fiction" stories are subpar). The Rogues stories were longer than most usually are in collections, so there was a bit more time to develop the core elements in them. In any case, the more stories, the riskier it is for the editor(s). Yes, there are more chances to engage with the readers, but there's equally a higher likelihood of disappointing them. It's a very fine balance. 

So let's go over an effective strategy of arranging the stories in a collection with 21 stories. As I said, first and last stories have to be the best of the entire group. First one engages readers; the second (and third, if possible) stories should have them fully committed. At that point, the editor can start introducing some of the weaker stories, interspersing them with stronger ones. So story numbers 4 through 10 should be alternated between average and strong stories. #11 should be an extremely strong story. With potentially five stories forming a weaker chain than the rest, readers might find themselves unsure whether they want to continue with the rest of the stories, so the dead-center middle story should be another killer one that recaptures any flagging interest. From #12-18, the editor should again alternate between average and strong stories. Like for the beginning stories in an anthology, the bracketing end ones all need to be strong (so #19, 20 and 21) in order to provide a good finish that will have lasting impact and repeat read value for the collection. 

How did Rogues stack up to this challenge? As I said, I found 10 of the 21 stories worthy of being reviewed. The best stories in the collection were numbers 1, 2, 3, 11, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. Unfortunately, there was too much of a gap between #3 and #11.

Here's another way to look at it: Ideally, there will be at least 13 really strong stories in any collection with 21 stories included. This would allow the best stories to make appearances in this order (interspersed with weaker stories which I haven't included in the following sequence): 

#1 #2 #3 #6 #9 #11 #12 #16 #17 #18 #19 #20 #21 

Ideally, the 10 strongest stories in Rogues should have been arranged in this order: 

#1 #2 #5 #7 #9 #11 #15 #17 #19 #21 

All in all, Martin and Dozois didn't do a bad job arranging the stories at all, but I admit there were places my interest waned a bit too much because of back-to-back stories I just didn't find compelling enough in a prolonged gap.

Now, let's get to the reviewing. I won't be reviewing any of the stories I had bland or unfavorable reactions to after reading, only the ones I actually enjoyed. While it's true that opinions are subjective, most of the reviews I read for the Rogues collection agreed with my selections. Even in fiction, the cream rises to the top while rocks sink to the bottom. 

I will note quickly before I start the reviews that each story in this collection is prefaced by a fairly in-depth biography for the author. The last paragraph of that included a short introductory blurb for the story. I highly applaud the editors for setting it up this way. I do like to know upfront more about any author I'm reading. More than that, I simply don't like reading any story without having first read something of a summary of what I can expect from the story I'm about to read. So few short story collections include either of these, especially presented in this very appealing manner.                                                                   

1)              Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie (this was actually the very first story featured in the collection): In a city infested with rogues, thieves try to out-thieve each other to gain possessive of a certain, unnamed something. Point of view switches between each of these rogues in turn. This was just good, circular fun all the way around. This story was a nice opener for this collection--however, I'm not sure I would have put it first (or technically even second--I would have placed this one between #6 and #9 or #16-28.


2)              What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn (technically was the very second story in the anthology): This story didn't know what it wanted to be in terms of genre. It was a mystery thriller, as many of Flynn's novels are, but included a paranormal twist. I can't begin to describe this escalating tale that I read with a dropped jaw pretty much from start to finish. By all rights, I should have been repelled by it. It starts (as the author usually does her stories) by setting up a thoroughly despicable character she can't possible expect most readers to root for. For the most part, I tend to full-on hate her characters and want to see the worst possible outcome possible for them--I actually feel dirty reading about such creeps, which tend to be the lead characters. Yet I was sucked into this story despite all this. Everything felt like it was coming out of left field, and it knocked me on my butt from the first sentence to the last. I was led on a merry chase through "corridors" intended to deceive and stun the senses. All my preconceptions and assumptions were like mocking funhouse mirrors, showing me time and time again where I'd gone wrong. No matter how many times I guessed right about where the author was going, she pulled the football out just as I was about to declare a goal (or whatever these sports ball outcomes are). She also twisted on the twist at the end and left me winded and disoriented. Bravo!


3)              The Inn of the Seven Blessings by Matthew Hughes (this was the third story included in the collection): A "small god" of luck falls into the hands of a thief when the devotee who was supposed to free the small god and return it to its full power is kidnapped by a band of cannibals. Clearly, this isn't a meal anyone who abstains from eating human flesh would want to attend…unless it means bargaining with the small god for a lifetime of good luck in exchange for the rescue of its only hope for escaping the cauldron. But once the thief has done what he and the small god have bargained for, the devotee (a hedge sorcerer that serves a powerful spell slinger) double crosses the thief and the small god. Now there's hell to pay. And, yes, this story was just as much fun as it sounds.


4)              The Meaning of Love by Daniel Abraham (technically this was the 11th story featured in the collection): This story was one I was looking forward to, as I'm a huge fan of The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey (the joint pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). In a world where life is cheap and everyone is out for #1, love and friendship are rare and almost undefinable things. This story took most of its pages to develop, but the last of it went in a direction I didn't anticipate at all, making it seem a lot like two separate stories that were merged together, and I'm not entirely sure it was successful. I'm also not certain I understood what the point of it was. Disparate as it was, it was well-written and absolutely never boring or predictable.


5)              The Caravan to Nowhere by Phyllis Eisenstein (technically, this was the 12th story in the collection): A minstrel is convinced to join a traveling merchant caravan through a desert with evil spirits, mirages, and dangers he's never conceived of in his wildest imaginings. By all rights, I couldn't help thinking as I read this story that it shouldn't have been as compelling as it actually was. I think what really fascinated me was that this story was very similar to Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (which I'll be reviewing later this year), but not quite the horror that tale is. True, the bard angle interested me just 'cause I've always found Old World bards intriguing. This particular minstrel has the unusual ability of being able to "fast travel" from one place to the other. Instead of doing that, he chooses to ride one of the caravan's camels. His motivation starts out being the means of crafting new song material but ultimately he finds himself immersed in the lives of his fellow travelers. Because he's come to care for them, he's no longer content with just completing the journey with a new song. He wishes for a happy ending, which may be impossible.


6)              The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives by Lisa Tuttle (actually the 17th story in the collection): Complete with a Sherlock Holmesian title, this 19th century detective story tells the very strange mystery of a woman both missing and dead--and neither! What a clever whodunit with all the wonderful twists and turns a reader could want, told from the point of view of a young, female Watson sidekick to a brilliant detective (with a few intriguing flaws). Together, they undertake a case that provides no monetary compensation, only the satisfaction of a good--if rather odd--deed done.


7)              How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman (the 18th story featured in the anthology): In this adventure set in London Below (first featured in Gaiman's Neverwhere novel) he who is one with the shadows has lost his one-of-a-kind coat with 30 pockets "11 of which were obvious, 19 of which were hidden, and four of which were more or less impossible to find…" Similar to Puss in his wondrous boots, "Marquis de Carabas" loves his coat and refuses to let it go at any cost. While I confess that I've tried to read many of Gaiman's works before, including Neverwhere, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, I've never been able to get into them, though everything about them seems right up my alley and he's undeniably a talented author. This story is the one that captured my interest from the first, irresistible sentence. I read it straight through to the end. I'm sure Gaiman didn't intend it, but I couldn't help picturing the intrepid rogue as Disney's sweet, swashbuckling Zorro, Puss in Boots, casting about with his adorable, gigantic eyes. That visual just added more pizazz to an already great story. If anyone's wondering, I think this story is considered Book 1.5 that fits in the London Below series following the first installment, and coming before Book 2, The Seven Sisters. But you don't have to read anything but this story to know what's going on.


8)              Now Showing by Connie Willis (technically the 19th story in the collection): A night out at the movies for a college student nursing a broken heart over the scoundrel she still loves turns out to be infinitely more complicated than simply buying a ticket to the show. Set in a future time (based on references to movies with currently unmade--and very highly anticipated at least to me!--sequels, like Back to Back to the Future, The Return of Frodo, and Oceans 17), and punctuated throughout by rave movie reviews, this little romantic "ditty about Jack and" Lindsay is anything but predictable.


9)              The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss (the 20th offering in the anthology): This story apparently features a character from one of the author's Kingkiller Chronicles series. Bast is a mysterious "errand boy" who teaches his lessons and learns one or two of his own in the course of one very busy day. This tale blew me away. I'm not even sure why, considering how lazily it unfurled, almost as if absolutely nothing was actually happening to warrant a story being told. That said, the boy was (superficially) like a simple and clever Tom Sawyer yet he was a changeling--someone and something different--to everyone he encounters. I found him irresistible. Bast is a being that knows how to make the most of every single moment in his day--for work, play, and everything in-between. As soon as I finished the story, I started looking for other stories about Bast and found the author has written a series where this character is featured. In each of the novels of the trilogy, a single day is covered. (Note that there are also prequel, in-between, and companion stories, so there are technically more than three books in this series.) In any case, the series flows into each other day by day, so three books means three consecutive days in the chronicling. That means they probably shouldn't be read out of order. However, the author intended The Lightning Tree to be a story within that series, like an off-shoot, so reading this one before the others is a good way to get a taste of what's in store for the main series. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a A Song of Ice and Fire thing going on with this series. The author has been promising the final book that would "conclude Kvothe's story" and complete the current arc for years but the release has been delayed by decades (for many reasons). Because of that, I'm very wary about jumping into another series where I may never get the full story. When I start a series, I like to binge-read it all the way through. That's simply not possible here. Sigh! More writers should be adamant about writing the whole series from start to finish before the publication starts. It helps to prevent the author from becoming "paralyzed" in writing (fame, success, and expectation often clash head-on, causing burnout and/or writer's block) in mid-series. But enough of that. This leads us very appropriately, into the final story in this collection, the very one I bought the anthology for.


10)          The Rogue Prince, or, A King's Brother by George R. R. Martin (technically the 21st story in the collection): This is a prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis of House of the Dragon television series (Season 1 focused on this and other characters of his time period; we'll see what Season 2 holds). If we're going to get very specific, this story is just a very long excerpt from Martin's Fire & Blood, which is anything but a dry historical accounting of the Targaryen family (which I've read from cover to cover twice now). Daemon Targaryen is the king's brother, never destined to become king himself, though he'll be damned if he doesn't try. This means plunging the entire world into a war fueled by his obsessive desire. I'm actually amazed how Martin wrote such a compelling history that isn't presented as fiction at all. It's just deeply engrossing. I read his 700-page+ historical account cover to cover almost in one sitting both times I read it. This particular bit of that history is set 172 years before the events of A Song of Fire and Ice, during a period of time known as the "Dance of the Dragons". The devastating war of succession as House Targaryen declines is told. If you like this story, you'll love the TV series as much as I do.

This collection of stories far exceeded my expectations. I'm anticipating picking up more of these Martin/Dozois anthologies in the future. If others are worthy, I may also increase my reviews of story collections here on the Alien Romances Blog.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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