Friday, April 20, 2012
Running With the Pack
Author: Various (edited by Ekaterina Sedia)
Publisher: Prime Books
I'm happy to report that the popularity of werewolf fiction has not declined during my hiatus: all the books that I had planned to review first thing I got back had been checked out of the library before I got there. So, I improvise. I got Running with the Pack as a gift from a blogging friend a while back, and had meant to get around to it last year, but stuff kept coming up. So, maybe this is fortuitous: one should, after all, dispense with old business before getting to new.
There's no major theme or gimmick for this anthology, beyond werewolves. That means the authors have full license to unleash their creativity, and produce a remarkably varied body of work.
Let's get right into the play-by-play:
Wild Ride (Carrie Vaughn): Since I've reviewed this before, I skipped over it. I do note, however, that it's one of Vaughn's better shorts, and thus well-suited to an opening act.
Side Effects May Include (Steve Duffy): After breaking a wisdom tooth during a business trip to Hong Kong, a London businessman goes to a back-alley doctor and gets more than he bargained for. Good writing, but poor consistency. It's a mixture of comedy and horror, but the comedy is too restrained, and the horror doesn't hit in full force until near the end. The swing is pretty abrupt, too, without the growing dread that one expects of a horror story's second act. The story also struts out ethnic stock characters. Though not offensively stereotypical, they're still stock characters, and in poor taste. Actually, the whole story is pretty stock, like a less-then-stellar episode of The Twilight Zone. Average.
Comparison of Efficacy Rates for Seven Antipathetics as Employed Against Lycanthropes (Marie Brennan): What, was there a special award for the longest title? Sheesh. Well, anyway, this is the research paper of a slightly-mad scientist, documenting his field-testing of various traditional werewolf-killing implements with the aid of a colorful assortment of hunters. A black comic yarn that pokes fun at detached scientists and various cliche werewolf-hunter plots. Swift-paced and very entertaining. Bonus points for linking Patricia Briggs' article on silver bullets.
The Beautiful Gelreesh (Jeffrey Ford): A mysterious creature uses his glamour and a talent for sympathy to prey upon depressed individuals. After a promising beginning, the plot goes nowhere. It piles on exposition, seems to be building to something, then ends with a pointless campfire-tale twist. Doesn't even seem to have a point, though I suppose it could be a screed against therapists or something. And by the way, Gelreesh is nothing like a werewolf. As described, he's more of a beastman. Shenanigans!
Skin in the Game (Samantha Henderson): The newcomer in a group of Bunco-playing ladies schemes to cheat them out of the pot. Good buildup let down by poor characterization. Only the main character has any, and she doesn't have enough. A disposable tale with little to recommend it.
Blended (C.E. Murphy): Victorian romance about a she-wolf in search of a suitable mate who finds the hunter that killed her family instead. A compelling story, tense and well-written. Some fridge logic, thin characterizations, and a too-convenient ending work against it. But it holds together very well despite these problems. Worth reading.
Locked Doors (Stephanie Burgis): After Mom walks out, an eighth-grader is stuck alone caring for his lycanthropically-afflicted father. Emotionally powerful, but undermined by metaphorical dissonance. The author seems to want us to believe a cigar is just a cigar, but it's very difficult to interpret this as anything other than a story of domestic violence. Consequently, it's an awkward read, sympathetic toward its werewolf when that sympathy seems undeserved. And if it is meant to be taken at face value, it's hard to ignore the fact that the central conflict could have been solved easily by a dumbwaiter, or a food chute, or just taking better precautions.
Werelove (Laura Anne Gilman): The neighborhood's Cool Old Woman dispenses brutal honesty to the local children, then has to advise a woman trying to break from her husband. Enthrallingly written. The main character conveys a sense of the world-weary resignation and iron will common to cool old ladies. Unfortunately, I was put off by the fact that it's the second story in a row to deal with domestic violence. This makes the title feel like false advertising, and the story a cliche even though it really isn't. Enjoyable, but depressing.
In Sheep's Clothing (Molly Tanzer): ...and from that to a story that begins "My daughter turned into a lamb and I ate her." Real ray of sunshine, this book. A hippy woman and her daughter survive an apocalypse brought on by high-fructose corn syrup. Then things get really weird. Distinctive tone: crazy woman in a crazier world. The narrative is well-paced and well-written, but something about it just failed to grab me.
Royal Bloodlines (Mike Resnick): Resnick had a story in Full Moon City, about a gyspy-cursed lycanthrope and a 40's gangster entering the former in a dog show. And this... is the same story. I mean, literally exactly the same. We're dealing with a gambling preacher instead of a racketeer, but other than that the major plot points are identical right down to the twist ending. Shenanigans! Shenanigans and BULLSHIT! I admit that it's improved over the last version. And yeah, it's funny, and with a lot of dark stories in here something lighter is welcome. But c'mon, Mr. Resnick. You've been in the writing business a long time, and this kind of shameless recycling is unbecoming.
The Dire Wolf (Genevieve Valentine): A were tracks down a murderous fellow-were while dealing with a human lover she abandoned years ago, but still carries a torch for. Difficult to follow: the perspective jumps in and out of several time periods, giving it a rambling quality. But the tone is very compelling: moody and contemplative without being emo, hopeful without being happy. Very nice.
Take Back the Night (Lawrence Schimel): Aging lesbian feminist meets werewolf version of same and joins her for some vigilantism because... umm... well, basically because they have nothing better to do. Interesting protagonist, well drawn and sympathetic. But she's wasted in a plot that's a stream of cliches.
Mongrel (Maria V. Snyder): Homeless teenager who hangs out with dogs takes in an injured werewolf and gets mixed up in his problems. Exemplary work, powered by distinctive voice, brisk pacing, and a clever heroine. The swing to romance in the last few pages is unnecessary and awkward, but takes nothing away from what precedes.
Deadfall (Karen Everson): Teenage she-wolf in a hick town goes out to avenge a hate crime. Quality storytelling all around, despite some reliance on cliche. The twist ending is both highly appropriate and surprisingly satisfying. Well worth reading.
Red Riding Hood's Child (N.K. Jemisin): Young boy in pre-industrial town draws the eye of the local pedo in an allegorical tale of gay sexual awakening. Very suspenseful, with a fast-paced plotline; top-notch work on technical merits. However, the story falls apart completely when you take a minute to think about it. Halfway through, our hero escapes the predator by fleeing in the woods, meeting a werewolf who offers him lycanthropy and a gay relationship. The boy refuses, which the wolf is cool with, but then returns home to find his caregiver murdered. He returns to the wolf, takes him up on his offer, and then the story ends with them heading out to take revenge. Here's the thing: if the boy is still young enough to be the target of a pedo, how is the wolf any different for taking advantage of him? If the boy isn't young enough, then it's an issue of consent, so that makes sense. But it doesn't gel with tone and characterization up until that point. You could claim, I suppose, that he becomes an adult when he sees his mother-figure murdered and is left to fend for himself, but on any level but the purely metaphorical that's absurd. A compelling story, but it needed a few more revisions.
Are You a Vampire or a Goblin? (Geoffrey H. Goodwin): A woman in an asylum is trying to decide whether she's a vampire or a goblin. Starts off as a black comedy about mental healthcare, but then spirals further and further into WTFery. I think it's trying to pull the same trick as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: the perspective character's mental problems distort reality so that the story becomes surreal, but understandable. The true reality is there, just beneath the surface, and with a bit of effort you can see it. Here, though, the author goes too far with the bizarre and dreamlike, so that clarity is lost. As a result, I have no idea what to make of it. It seems like pure weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and it left me feeling baffled and unsatisfied.
The Pack and The Pickup Artist (Mike Brotherton): Title says it all, really. Pickup artist targets a knockout, gets more than he bargained for. Rich characterization and snappy dialogue pulls you into this one. Suspenseful, although this may be a mistake. It's primed to end bloodily throughout its length, but doesn't. Still, I did like the way it turned out, and enjoyed the story as a whole.
The Garden, The Moon, The Wall (Amanda Downum): Haunted by ghosts, her dead boyfriend, and a craving for the meat of the dead, a young woman is drawn into a dreamlike journey into the underworld. Very evocatively written, but threadbare. Feels more like an outline than a complete story, and left me feeling like I'd missed something. Also very thin on backstory details, with the effect that there seems to be a very long history here that we're not getting. I suspect this may be an excerpt or side-story from a full novel or series.
Blamed for Trying to Live (Jesse Bullington): A black teenager living in a poor neighborhood of Tallahassee searches for an escape. Very interesting on technical merits. It seems like it's going to descend into cliches at any minute, but deliberately fakes you out before sidestepping them nimbly. After the early scenes, you expect that the dad will be either uncaring or outright abusive. But he turns out to be an alright guy who cares deeply for his son. You expect the local assholes to take the opportunity to bully the main character just because. In fact, when they run into each other, the assholes just walk on, having other things on their mind. You expect our hero, upon wolfing out, will roam the streets and take revenge for his screwed-up life. Instead, he just sneaks around, observing the ghetto like a fly on the wall, and eventually makes his way back home. And in fact this is exactly the point: our hero thinks he's in a horrible, lousy situation, and he may be, but things are also a who lot less bad than he thinks. In other words, the story is about opening your eyes and seeing past your preconceptions to see the world as it is. Very, very nicely done.
The Barony at Rodal (Peter Bell): A travelogue through Norway with a bit of intrigue tacked awkwardly on at the end. The scene-setting is great, but takes up half the story. And the other half is all buildup. The story ends as soon as it should be getting interesting, and nothing is explained. Boring and tedious.
Inside Out (Erzebet Yellowboy): A were struggling with her affliction finds another of her own kind imprisoned and tries to free her. Very well-written, with a pseudo fairy tale tone that reminded me of the excellent Sisters Red. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into it. Part of the problem may be that it's too long. A short story is supposed to be briskly-paced, but this one drags its feet, with lots of scenes that serve little purpose. Still, it's well-crafted and I liked it.
Gestella (Susan Palwick): Bitter, cynical, brutally dark feminist fable about a werewolf who gets tamed to be a college professor's trophy wife. By turns heart-rending and rage-inducing, a sign of good writing. But also the single grimmest story in the anthology, with a powerless protagonist, an unsympathetic supporting cast, and an ending that borders on nihilistic. And as a general rule, I'm not terribly appreciative of being beaten over the head with how much my gender sucks.
My final assessment is... surprisingly tepid, I'm afraid. The overall quality level of the writing is above average, but the book's a huge downer. Most of the stories feature characters in horrible situations, often unavoidably destined for tragedy. The occasional hopeful resolution or comic tale does nothing to dispel the relentless miasma of gloom that hangs over the book. So while I can definitely admire the stories on display for their technical merits and craftsmanship, I'm hard pressed to say I enjoyed them. In fact, this may be part of why it took me so long to get through the book. Somewhere past the halfway point, I had to start forcing myself to read. I thought it was simple fatigue, but looking over the review I've just written, I'm convinced it was actually that I just couldn't stomach another depressing story of loss and suffering.
The bottom line is that while I respect the quality and more or less enjoyed the book, I enjoyed Strip Mauled more. Yes, the quality was a lot spottier, but it was fun, and for all its merits Running with the Pack is not a very fun book.