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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Anthology: "Down These Strange Streets"

Title: Down These Strange Streets (17 short stories) 

Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF), but heavy on traditional fantasy 

Violence, Sensuality, and Humor Ratings: Vary from story to story, but most have medium to high violence, low sensuality, and low humor

Publisher: Ace, 2011 

     One aspect of this book that makes it different from the usual anthology is that each author is introduced with an extensive review of his or her works, with each series being given a brief explanation. Unfortunately, the single most important element that is missing from these "urban fantasy" stories is the "urban" part. Also, I define urban fantasy as taking place in the modern, present-day world, and many of these stories are historical, going back as far as Ancient Rome. In addition, some of the stories are lacking in supernatural power. One last disappointment: only seven of the stories have female authors. With all that said, however, I did enjoy many of the stories, particularly those by Charlaine Harris, S.M. Stirling, Carrie Vaughn, Conn Iggulden, Laurie R. King, Melinda M. Snodgrass, M.L.N. Hanover, Diana Gabaldon, and Patricia Briggs. The average story length is 25 pages. Here is a very brief summary of each story, with a quotation from each. 

*****George R. R. Martin: "The Bastard Stepchild"
     Five stars for this short essay (just four pages). This is the single best description of modern urban fantasy that I have ever read. I recommend it to any reader who wants to know exactly what UF is, where its roots lie, and what drives its heroes and heroines. Too bad the story collection doesn't match up with his definition. 
     Here's the opening sentence: "There's a new kid on the shelves in bookstores these days. Most often he can be found back in the science fiction and fantasy section, walking with a certain swagger among the epic fantasies, the space operas, the sword-and-sorcery yarns and cyberpunk dystopias. Sometimes he wanders up front, to hang out with the bestsellers. They call him 'urban fantasy,' and these past few years he's been the hottest subgenre in publishing." (p. ix) 
     And just one more quotation: "The new urban fantasy may be some kin to that 1980s variety, but if so, the kinship is a distant one, for the new kid is a bastard through and through. He makes his home on streets altogether meaner and dirtier than those his cousin walked, in New York and Chicago and L.A. and nameless cities where blood runs in the gutters and the screams in the night drown out the music." (p. ix)  

Charlaine Harris: "Death by Dahlia," from her SOOKIE STACKHOUSE world (paranormal aspect: vampires and other supernaturals)
     In this story, Dahlia Lynley-Chivers attends the celebration party in honor of Joaquin, the new vampire sheriff, and winds up investigating the murder of one of the human donors. Harris is a good story teller, and this one has lots of action and suspense and a splash (literally) of sensuality. Click HERE to go to my review of the SOOKIE STACKHOUSE series. Here's a quotation from this story: "Werewolves were always hungry, and they could drink alcohol until the cows came homeand then the Weres would eat them." (p. 3)

Joe R. Lansdale: "The Bleeding Shadow" (paranormal aspect: demon)
     Set in the mid-1950s South, this story edges closer to horror than UF, with its Robert-Johnson-at-the-crossroads story line and its monster-in-the-closet ending. An amateur detective does a favor for a friend and tracks down a blues guitar player who is in the grip of a soul-stealing demon. Here's a the hero's first look at the victim's hotel room: "The wall on the far side was marked up in black and red paint; there were all manner of musical notes drawn on it, along with symbols I had never seen before; swiggles and circles and stick figure drawings. Blood was on the wall too, most likely from Tootie's bleeding fingers....Paint was splattered on the floor and had dried in humped-up blisters. The guitar had bloodstains all over it." (p. 39)

Simon R. Green: "Hungry Heart," from his NIGHTSIDE series. (paranormal aspect: witches and other creatures)
     This is the shortest story at slightly over 16 pages. In this typical adventure, NIGHTSIDE's hero, John Taylor, is hired by a witch to find the box in which her heart is being held by her treacherous former mentor. As usual, as soon as John begins his investigation, he learns that his client is lying and that someone else—someone dangerous—also wants the box. If you're a NIGHTSIDE fan, you'll enjoy the story, as Green follows his usual pattern of unwinding the story slowly and humorously and then finishing it off weirdly in a paragraph or two. Here's a quotation: "A bunch of female ghouls out on a hen night were getting tipsy on Mother's Ruin and complaining about the quality of the finger buffet. Ghouls just want to have fun. A pair of Neanderthals who'd put away so many smart drinks they were practically evolving before my eyes...Just another night at Strangefellows." (p. 54)  

Steven Saylor: "Styx and Stones," part of the Seven Wonders stories, which are a prequel to his ROMAN BLOOD Series (paranormal aspect: a lemur who really isn't)
     Set in about 92 BC, this story follows two Roman citizens, Gordianus and Antipater, as they travel to Babylon, where they hope to see the famed Hanging Gardens and the fabled walls of Babylon. When they stop at a small Babylonian inn, Gordianus has an encounter with a lemur—the spirit of a dead woman. Here's a quotation: "On such a vast, featureless plain, you might think that you could see forever, but the ripples of heat that rose from the earth distorted the view, so that objects near and far took on an uncertain, even uncanny appearance. A distant tower turned out to be a palm tree; a pile of strangely motionless—dead?—bodies suddenly resolved into a heap of gravel, apparently put there by whoever maintained the road." (p. 72)

S. M. Stirling: "Pain and Suffering," from his SHADOWSPAWN Series (paranormal aspect: Shadowspawn)
     In this tautly written police procedural set in Santa Fe, Detective Eric Salvador and his partner, Cesar Martinez, must solve a strange case in which a house goes up in flames and one of the tenants disappears without a trace. As their investigation proceeds, they are visited by governmental MIB types who warn them off the case. Then, tragedy strikes Martinez, and Salvador is left to track down the mysterious Brézé family, who leave no paper trail at all and who have seemingly vanished into thin air. This is a well-constructed, cleanly told story with lots of suspense, right up to the end. Salvador is a modern police officer who uses all kinds of state of the art electronic aids, but how much help will they be in outwitting an ancient evil? I haven't read any books in this series yet, but that's about to change. Here's a quotation describing one of Salvador's frequent dreams about the case: "This time something walked out of the fire to where he lay....The shape twisted and its wrongness made him want to scream out the bloody foam in this lungs, but the eyes were flecked yellow. And the voice slithered into his ears: 'Who's been a naughty boy, then?'" (p. 100)  

Carrie Vaughn: "It's Still the Same Old Story," from her KITTY NORVILLE Series (paranormal aspect: vampire as leading man)
     This story features Rick, the vampire leader of Denver, as he discovers the body of Helen, a woman who has been his friend for decades, and then tracks down her killer. Vaughn moves back and forth in time, beginning in the present day and then flashing back to scenes from the late 1940s when Rick first met Helen. This is a nice little snippet of Rick's history that provides a few more details of the events that shaped his character. Here's the moment when Rick meets Helen for the first time: "She walked through the doorway, and every man in the place looked at her: the painted red smile, the blue skirt swishing around perfect legs. She didn't seem to notice, walked right up to the bar and pulled herself onto a stool. 'I'll have a scotch, double, on ice,' she said." (p. 128)  

Conn Iggulden: "The Lady Is a Screamer" (paranormal aspect: spirits of the dead)
     Jack Garner is a con man, making a meager living pretending to commune with the spirits of the dead. Then, one day, he is hired to rid a home of an annoying spirit who constantly blows into the ears of the owner of the house. Jack discovers that the spirit is tied to a lock of hair, so he takes it with him and thus begins his new career of ghostbusting. Eventually, Jack collects three spirits, who assist him in getting rid of pesky ghosts. The ending is nicely twisted, and the story is very entertaining. Here is Jack's list of some of the Barnum statements that he uses to con people into believing that he can speak with their ancestors: "'You have a great need for others to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.' and so on. You get it? They apply to everyone." (p. 155) 

Laurie R. King: "Hellbender" (paranormal aspect: the SalaMan)
     Mike Heller is a SalaMan, a genetic mutation that resulted when a graduate student blended human genes with those of the hellbender salamander. The survivors of the experiments eventually must have surgery to get rid of the remnants of their gills, tails, and other salamanderish characteristics. The government agreed to allow them to be citizens and promised not to keep track of them in any way. Now, however, it looks as if someone is definitely tracking the SalaMan. When Mike is hired by the SalaMan sister of a man who has disappeared, he learns that many of that man's SalaMan acquaintances have also vanished. The story follows Mike as he solves the case. This is an inventive and well-told story with a fast-moving plot. Here, Mike describes how he does his research: "I'm a big fan of libraries: information, comfort, and safety, all in one place. And over the years, library associations have fought hard for privacy rights, which makes them more secure from snoops than any cyber cafe. This library even had a coffee bar attached to it...." (p. 186) 

Glen Cook: "Shadow Thieves," from his GARRETT, P.I. Series (paranormal aspect: many supernatural creatures)
     I have not read this series, so the story was difficult for me to get into. This is a complicated fantasy world (more traditional fantasy than urban fantasy) filled with a wide (and wild) variety of creatures. In this story, Garrett and his friends must solve the case of the Shadow of Ryzna, a mysterious box that holds powerful secrets that many strange and dangerous beings want to capture. Here is a description of Garrett's partner, who is known as the Dead Man: "My partner is a quarter ton of defunct nonhuman permanently established in a custom-built oak chair. First thing you notice, after his sheer bulk, is his resemblance to a baby mammoth with a midget trunk only a quarter of the length you might expect. Most visitors don't look close. They're petrified by the fact the he can read minds." (p. 207) 

Melinda M. Snodgrass: "No Mystery, No Miracle," from her EDGE Series (paranormal aspect: demonic Old Ones)
     Cross is an investigator for Unique Investigations, and his job is to search out and eliminate dark forces known as Old Onesdemonic creatures from another dimension that possess humans in order to carry out horrible deeds. Set in the Depression-era Midwest, this story finds Cross in Buford, Oklahoma, where a strange hobo symbol leads him to a mission filled with dark shadows and remnants of the presence of an Old One. Written in the manner of a noir detective story, the story follows Cross as he tracks down the Old One at the 1932 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago, where Cross proves himself to be much more than an ordinary man. This intriguing story made me want to read the entire EDGE series. Here is a quotation in which we learn a bit of Cross's history: " the distant past, Eolas, as Conoscenza had then been called, had found Cross, created by human compassion and weakened by human cruelty, and Eolas/Conoscenza had offered Cross a bargain. Cross would help against the alien creatures, and, in exchange, Eolas/Conoscenza would help Cross die. They just never seemed to get around to the dying part." (p. 230) 

M. L. N.  Hanover (aka Daniel Abraham): "The Difference between a Puzzle and a Mystery" (paranormal aspect: and exorcist who is something elsesomething not quite human)
     In this supernatural police procedural, Detective Mason works with an exorcist named Scarrey to solve the murder of a young woman when the prime suspect claims to be possessed by a demon. With its twist at the end, this is an entertaining story. Here is Scarrey's answer to the question posed in the title:  
     "Puzzles have solutions," Scarrey said....The lock opens. The wine bottle comes free....Mysteries aren't like that. With them, there's an element of judgment. Guesswork. Not just to reach the solution, but within the solution itself." (p. 271) 

 Lisa Tuttle: "The Curious Affair of the Deodand" (paranormal aspect: magical deodands)
     Set in nineteenth century London, the heroine, Miss Lane, takes a Watson-like job as an assistant to a young Sherlock Holmesian amateur detective who has just become a professional. Their first case together involves a young woman who has lost one fiancé to unsolved murder and is afraid that she will soon lose a second. The key to the case is the concept of a deodand, an object that becomes forfeit to God when it causes a person's death. Here is the scene when Miss Lane, who is a sensitive psychic, first enters the girl's home, where she lives with her strange and hostile guardian: "...what I felt in that hallway was as bad as any haunted house. But it is difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced such things. If I were describing a smell, I could compare it to a tannery, a slaughterhouse, or a sewer. Only someone with no sense of smell could bear to live there." (p. 290) 

Diana Gabaldon: "Lord John and the Plague of Zombies," from her Lord John world, which is part of the OUTLANDER Series (paranormal aspect: loas, Obeah-men, and not-quite zombies)
     This is the longest story, at 66 pages. Lord John Grey is a lieutenant colonel in the British army during the Colonial Period. He has been sent to Jamaica in response to the governor's plea for assistance with a series of uprisings by the Maroon people, descendents of escaped slaves who live in the mountains. Complicating Grey's task is the rumor that zombies are afoot and that the governor may be in danger. As it turns out, this story is probably the furthest from being urban fantasy that it could possibly be, owing to the fact that much of it takes place in the jungle and that there is very little real magic involved. It is, nevertheless, a suspense-filled story with dry humor and quirky characters...and snakes. Here is the scene in which Grey first hears the word "zombie": 
     "Tell me what the Obeah-man said," Grey said, leaning forward, intent. "I promise you, I will tell no on."
     Rodrigo gulped, but nodded. He bent his head, looking at the table as though he might find the right words written in the grain of the wood. "Zombie," he muttered, almost inaudibly. "The zombie come for him. For the governor."
     Grey had no notion what a zombie might be, but the word was spoken in such a tone as to make a chill flicker over his skin, sudden as distant lightening." (pp. 320-321)  

John Maddox Roberts: "Beware of the Snake," from his SPQR Series  (paranormal aspect: snake-charming magic)
     This is another snake tale. Set in Ancient Rome, the story follows the adventures of the aristocratic Decius Caecilius, a senator during the reign of Caius Julius Caesar. Caesar has promised a priest that Decius will find the missing Serpent of Angitia, a swamp adder that is sacred to the Marsi people. The plot unwinds as Decius interrogates the priest and then heads off first to the snake market and then to a Marsian shrine. Once againnot much magic and no supernatural beings, except for some snake charming done by the priest. Decius tells the story in the first person with dry, understated humor. Here is a scene in which the priest grabs a poisonous snake: "Then he moved his right hand gradually toward the snake's head until it was behind the flaring base of the wedge-shaped skull. Julia gasped when he grasped the thing by the neck. At least I'm pretty sure it was Julia. I don't think it was me." (p. 384) 

Patricia Briggs: "In Red, with Pearls," from MERCY THOMPSON world (paranormal aspect: werewolves and zombies)
     This story stars Mercy's friend, the werewolf Warren Smith, who is now a private investigator for the law office of his partner in life, Kyle Brooks. One evening, a zombie (dressed as the title indicates) arrives at the office and tries to kill Kyle. The plot follows Warren as he saves Kyle's life and then tracks down the perpetrator of the crime. It's a fast-moving, suspense-filled story, even if we can figure out some of the mystery before Warren does. Click HERE to read my review of the MERCY THOMPSON series. Here's Warren as he tries to get some help before the zombie does her thing: 
     "Would you do me a favor?" I asked tossing him my cell phone. "Call Elizabetaher number is under w." Under witch; he'd figure it out, he was a smart man. "Tell her we have an incident, a her kinda incident, we'd like some help with...."
     "Your kind of thing"? Kyle asked obliquely. Something supernatural, he meant. (p. 390) 

Bradley Denton: "The Adakian Eagle" (paranormal aspect: a bit of Eskimo magic)
     Set in 1940s AlaskaAdak in the Aleutian Islands, to be exactthis story follows two army non-coms as they try to solve the mystery of two murders: an eagle and a sailor. The private telling the story is a veteran of the Battle of Attu but is now an unwilling assistant to the arrogant and incompetent colonel who is second in command at the base. (You could compare the two to Major Frank Burns and Corporal Radar O'Reilly on the old MASH TV series.) After the private discovers the eagle's mutilated body on a mountainside, the colonel tells him to take an older soldier, a corporal nicknamed Pop, up to the murder scene and try to figure out what happened. The plot follows the two as they investigate a crime that is much more complex than they realize. This is a great story, but very light on the magical element. Here's the private's first look at Pop as he defeats an opponent in a ping-pong game: "He was wearing fatigues buttoned all the way up, but there wasn't a drop of perspiration on his face. He was white-haired, brown-mustached, tall, and skinny as a stick, and he didn't look athletic. In fact, he looked a little pale and sickly. but he swatted the ball with cool, dismissive flicks of his wrist, and it shot across the table like a bullet." (p. 421)

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