Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
It’s such a shame that there are only so many hours in the day! I have more books than I know what to do with, and that isn’t even to speak of the new releases I receive for review each week. Reading everything I mean to hasn’t been an option for longer that I like to recall.
You mustn’t mistake me. I ain’t complaining, just saying: so many promising prospects slip through the cracks that at this point I have enough interesting genre fiction stockpiled to last me a long lifetime. A very pleasant problem to have, I’d add, yet when prior obligations preclude me from reading something I would otherwise love to, I feel frustrated in any case.
This week, I aim to address at least one such would-be bungle, because I will not stand to have the release of the first volume of The New Solaris Book of Fantasy pass by unremarked. Fearsome Journeys features original short fiction from Salahdin Ahmed, Trudi Canavan, K. J. Parker, Jeffrey Ford, Robert V. S. Reddick, Glen Cook, Elizabeth Bear and Daniel Abraham among others... others including Scott Lynch, whose long-delayed next novel is, unbelievably, nearly here.
Needless to say, I’m very keen indeed to read The Republic of Thieves, so “The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats” kept me up well past my bedtime. If anyone out there was wondering whether Lynch had lost his touch, let me put you out of your misery up front: if this excellent novelette is any indication, the third book in The Gentlemen Bastards saga could be the best yet.
The Red Hats are a band of freelance magicians who habitually lend aid to the causes of underdogs. This delightful open oath lays out their noble notions:
To take no coin from unjust reign
Despoil no hearth nor righteous fane
Caps red as blood, as bright and bold
In honour paid, as dear as gold
To love no bondsman wrongly chained
And shirk no odds, for glory’s gain
Against the mighty, for the weak
We by this law our battles seek
Led by the Sorceress Millowend, the Red Hats are essentially Robin Hood and his merry men in a land where wars are won and lost largely by magic. Theirs, then, is an especially dangerous profession, and in their inaugural outing—merely the first, fingers crossed, of many misadventures—they go up against the greatest threat they’ve faced to date:
It was a bold and ugly, pure threat without elegance. Its overlapping iron plates were draped in netting-bound hides, which I presumed were meant to defeat the use of flaming projectiles or magic. The black barrels of two cannon jutted from ports in the forward hull, lending even more credence to my earlier impression of a rearing spider.
The effigy engine is a monstrous machine powered solely by brute sorcery, and when the Red Hats arrive at the scene of its appearance, it has single-handedly changed the tide of battle between the evil Iron Ring and their gallant Elaran counterparts.
And as usual, the good guys are losing.
I’m almost certainly embellishing. It’s true that the Iron Ring were the aggressors initially, but both sides have likely behaved badly in the six months since the Elaran border was crossed. In any event, thousands of lives have already been lost because of the ongoing conflict, and many more now hang in the balance. If the Red Hats can just find a way to take the effigy engine out of play, they’ll at least have saved them that they may die another day.
Beyond a scant paragraph at the start of the story, we don’t get a great sense of why this war is being fought. It’s enough that it is. Similarly, we’re told where it takes place, but setting seems of very little actual interest to Lynch, except insofar as it enables our characters to put into practice their unrivalled grasp of the arcane arts. And the most you could say about the magic system is that it exists.
The world of “The Effigy Engine” is a sandbox, in short: a place and a premise designed primarily to facilitate fun. In which respect it’s an immense success, because this fantasy shenanigan is fun and then some.
In large part that’s thanks to the warmth and affection the central characters evidence. Millowend, Rumstandel and Watchdog—whose reports this story purports to be based on—are always poking fun at one another, playing pranks and sharing rapid-fire banter. You’d think they were having the time of their lives, never mind the fact that they’re targets from the moment they take to the trenches.
It’s not hard to understand their love for one another, and seeing it shine through under such alarming circumstances makes it very easy indeed to fall for these three, up to and including grumpy old Rumstandel. Hell, him particularly!
It’s been so long since the last journey of The Gentlemen Bastards that I’d almost forgotten Lynch’s natural knack for crafting characters. “The Effigy Engine” is all the reminder I require. It also serves to underscore Lynch’s love of puzzles; seemingly impossible problems that his heroes must solve to move forward. In this short story, the question is how the Red Hats can feasibly defeat the Iron Ring’s arachnine contraption, and the answer they eventually arrive at is undeniably satisfying.
I was already looking forward to reading The Republic of Thieves, but after “The Effigy Engine,” I’m afraid the wait is going to feel like ages. It’s an inordinately enjoyable short which bodes exceptionally well for Lynch’s next novel.
It also serves to set a high watermark for Fearsome Journeys, and though, to come full circle, I haven’t had a chance to read any of the subsequent stories, I mean to make it. By all accounts this looks like a stonking fantasy anthology, and given the preponderance of science fiction I’ve read for the Spotlight so far, what better way to begin balancing the scales than via the first volume of The New Solaris Book of Fantasy?
I’m going to end it there, but be prepared, because I hereby declare: there will be further Fearsome Journeys in the future!
Next stop... K. J. Parker, perhaps? Or should I leave that to Jared? Chime in, Folding Knife fans.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.