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.
The inaugural volume of The New Solaris Book of Fantasy has already been the source of several of the superlative stories featured right here in recent weeks. We read “The Effigy Engine” for the Scott Lynch Special, and “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” for Particularly Parker, yet for all the time and space we’ve devoted to these terrific tales, even now we’ve hardly scratched the surface of the fine fantasy fiction that Fearsome Journeys has to offer.
But with any number of awesome new anthologies a-knocking—not least Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Margo Lanagan’s latest, Yellow Cake—the time has come and very probably gone to move on. Which we’ll do... after one last trip through this best-in-class collection. A victory lap, if you will, by way of a final pair of personal favourites: namely “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear and “The High King Dreaming” by Daniel Abraham.
The work of the former author was a relatively recent discovery for me. Baby’s first Elizabeth Bear was Range of Ghosts, the first part of a horse-heavy high fantasy saga which I wholly adored. Its sequel, Shattered Pillars, suffered somewhat from being the middle act of a trilogy; nevertheless, it left me with ludicrously high hopes for next year’s Steles of the Sky.
I expected great things from “The Ghost Makers” as well. Great expectations, however, have a nasty habit of leading to dreadful disappointments, and a few pages into Bear’s short story, I worried I was in for one of those.
This was the issue:
Even at dusk, these streets teemed. Foot traffic, litter bearers, and the occasional rider and mount—mostly horses, a few camels, a mule, one terror-bird—bustled through the lanes between the torch bearers. There were soldier and merchants, priests and scholars, a nobleman or woman in a curtained sedan chair with guards crying out “Make way!” The temples were arranged around a series of squares, and the squares were occupied by row upon row of turmeric, coriander, roses, sandalwood, dates, meat sizzling, bread baking, and musty old attics—among other things.
What we have here, I fear, is a list. A list of pretty things, perhaps, but no less a list. A systematic catalogue of objects—alive or inanimate—rather than a natural introduction to those that readers need note. Worldbuilding, in other words, at its most rote.
I’m a supporter of short stories, of course—the best and brightest give us glimpses of concepts and conflicts, characters and narratives that for any number of reasons simply wouldn’t exist if every notion needed its own novel—but I’ll be the first the admit the form also has its drawbacks. Its authors work to word counts, thus they must prioritise some aspects of their narratives above others. To wit, worldbuilding, I find, often falls by the wayside.
Most of the time, that’s fine. But worldbuilding is to my mind a key component of fantasy fiction. Without it—or with a list of pretty things in its place, as in this case—the flights of fancy that are so fundamental to the potential success of said are far harder to imagine. I certainly don’t come to short stories expecting settings with the same depth and texture as their larger counterparts, but surely some effort must still be made. In fairness, Bear does attempt to set the scene, but in such a perfunctory fashion that her efforts seem superfluous.
So “The Ghost Makers” occurs in a city that I was never particularly interested in. Luckily, this is only a problem for the first few pages, at which point Bear’s central character Gage—an automaton of sorts who has come to Messaline to put an end to a ghost-maker’s rampage—crosses paths with a dashing Dead Man whose mission is suspiciously similar. They compare notes and knowledge in a nearby tavern, agree to a passing partnership, then set to tracking down this wicked Wizard, who “kills for the pleasure it affords him. He kills artists, in particular. [Because] he likes to own them. To possess their creativity.”
Gage and the Dead Man are a tremendous twosome that I hope to learn more about in subsequent stories. As it transpires, both are wolf’s-heads, or masterless servants. Each has his or its own reasons for wanting the Wizard dead, which Bear metes out masterfully as the pair grow closer and closer to their goal, and one another in the interim.
Credit where it’s due, too, for the unqualified clarity with which Bear renders the climactic clash. Few of the authors I’ve encountered in my years of reading write better action scenes than she; in part because they erupt so seldom, but also because of balance of finesse and physicality Bear brings to the table when these rare occasions arise.
Though Bear’s methodical worldbuilding proved too routine for my tastes in this case—and so forth, the start of the story is slow—“The Ghost Makers” is recommended reading for discerning fantasy fans regardless. The fight that functions as its finale is in a class of its own, yet its central characters are its central attraction: a heartbroken golem and a moral machine which could only exist in genre fiction.
“The Ghost Makers” is a measured success in the end, then, but the appeal of “The High King Dreaming” is immediate. Apparent, in fact, from its first suggestive sentence:
The High King is not dead but dreaming, and his dreams are of his death.
The sun is bright in the blue expanse of sky, the meadow more beautiful than it had ever been in life because he sees it from above. The banners of the kingdoms he unified shift in the gentle breeze: Stonewell, Harnell, Redwater, Leftbridge, Holt. The kings who bent their knees before him do so again, and again with tears in their eyes. The Silver Throne is there, but empty. The sceptre and whip lie crossed on its seat. His daughter, once the princess and now the queen, sits at its foot, her body wrapped in mourning grey.
How the High King died isn’t important. Indeed, very little of his life is, except for the fact that he fought for peace and achieved it. This story is interested, instead, in what happens after his passing; in a father looking down on his daughter from a funeral pyre on high.
Early on, he watches her come to terms with his death. Later, he sees how she handles the kingdom she has inherited. He watches as crises arise, and are resolved, or left to fester.
His dreams are of his daughter, her face gaunt, standing before her lords. Their condition fills him with dread. The great kings are shades of themselves, withered by hunger and by years. Only King Cormin of Leftbridge and Queen Sarya of Stonewall and Holt who have never seen battle are hale enough to lead an army. His peace has lasted too long. There are no war leaders left but him. The irony is bitter.
“The High King Dreaming” is a story about legacy, essentially—about how you don’t always give (or get) what you expect—and it is positively phenomenal. Haunting and heartening in equal measure, for as time marches ever on, the queen grows into her role, and begins to handle things her way as opposed to his. This of course troubles the High King, and whilst his worry is for her, firstly, and for the wellbeing of a weakening kingdom, a distinct sense of disapproval undercuts his seemingly selfless concern... which, if you’ll pardon the pun, annoyed me royally.
Daniel Abraham handles all this with the incrementally powerful prose and absolute mastery of character development he demonstrated over the course of The Long Price quartet. These elements are accelerated in “The High King Dreaming,” but appropriately so given the scope of his short, which is ambitious, if not meticulous in the mode of “The Ghost Makers.”
Both are superb stories—among my foremost favourites from Fearsome Journeys—but I dare say Abraham’s tale takes the cake, because it begins with what’s interesting rather than delaying the onset of its concept for too long... which, at bottom, was Bear’s mistake.
And with that, the time has come, I’m afraid, to file away the inaugural volume of The New Solaris Book of Fantasy. Here’s hoping, however, that there are many more to come—above and beyond the second in the series, which editor extraordinaire Jonathan Strahan is already in the process of putting together. Late 2014, folks!
An awfully long ways off, but between you and me, I’m sure we can find a few good short stories to read in the intervening period...
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.