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INTRODUCTION: While I love sf and selected weird/interstitial fantasy anthologies, I have always found more traditional fantasy stories less enjoyable, mostly because they are so hard to do well. Sf and weird fiction get a lot punch from twists or sense of wonder settings and those are much easier to convey at short length, while the world building and epic narrative of genre fantasy are harder to express in short pieces.
I found "Ages of Wonder" an unusually good anthology for its genre and when Bogdan Lascu who has loved it and published a Romanian language review, approached FBC about doing a joint review of the anthology I was delighted to agree and the result is the following, a joint collaboration, where my take will be noted as (FBC), the rest being the original translated review edited and formatted for our site.
Since the anthology contains a story by an up and coming Romanian sff writer Costi Gurgu, there is a third take by Adrian Craciun for that story only.
"Ages of Wonder" is a new Canadian anthology rigorously divided into distinct periods of evolution in the human society. The book was published by Daw Books, which according to Wikipedia seems to be the first imprint in history to publish exclusively science-fiction and fantasy.
Some of the great and well-known writers published by Daw Books in their 1400 volumes, in 29 years of existence are: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Fritz Leiber, Edward Llewellyn, Jerry Pournelle, Roger Zelazny etc. Nowadays we can find Daw Books as an imprint of the larger Penguin Group.
Getting back to the stories from the anthology, I can tell you that you`ll need to prepare yourself to go on a long journey into : The Age of Antiquity, The Age of Sail, The Colonial Age , The Age of Pioneers, The Pre-modern Age and The Age Ahead. The book before our eyes offers 19 stories which will have an astonishing impact on the reader`s mind with the density of the details and their high quality.
In the introduction we find out that the anthology was born from the desire and the ideas of the two editors, Julie E. Czerneda and Rob St. Martin to explore different specifics in various historical cultures. An excellent background, that is easily adapted into a well built-up setting with many fantasy roots. Yes, you heard me well, the anthology has plenty of fantasy and/or fiction narratives to appeal to everyone`s taste. It seems that the two editors had a very rigorous selection template, so the success of our Romanian writer Costi Gurgu to be chosen is highly complimentary.
“The Age of Antiquity” debuts with "The Curse Tablet" a story of Nina Kiriki Hoffman that give us a glimpse of the Roman world that is amazing in the fidelity and the accuracy of the details. Gods and witches, merchants and slaves, curses and blessings, all are interlocking in this text.
(FBC) - I enjoyed this story a lot, though it is fairly conventional
“To Play the Game of Men” by Caitlin Sweet is a fantasy story with more subtlety than the eye catches at first; you have to watch carefully the tracks well hidden in the text .
(FBC) - one of the two major highlights of the anthology for me, this story of Bucephalus hooked me from the first line and I re-read it twice to savor it; just superb
“Mist Wraith” by Urania Fung carries us on to the Asian continent with a story that seems to reproduce the "unknown" familiar from the Asian movie industry, full of phantasms and delusions.
(FBC) - another fairly conventional story, well written and with a twist
What will you do when you`re the last of your kind? How can you protect now your unborn child? And still, how can you write in the smoke? For all these questions and others, you`ll find answers in the appetizing story, "Written in Smoke" by Karina Sumner-Smith.
(FBC) - this story was completely forgettable for me; never really got into it
"The Age of Sail” is an Age that could not miss from such an initiative and I think everyone agrees with me on this one.
"Cloud Above Water" by Natalie Millman, "Crossing the Waters" by Ika Vanderkoeck, "Here There Be Monsters" by Brad Carson and the "A Swift Changing Course" of Jana Paniccia are acquainting us with the familiar characters often found in the neighbourhood of the sea: sirens, enslaved elemental spirits, pirates, slave merchants, ailliachi or some giant kraken - which is said to be the descendant of a certain degenerate fantastic species.
And these stories too, look to me like all are very well balanced, some of them are even sending messages of life and “how to make it” to the reader; the self-interest that drives to action the characters from the “Crossing the Waters” story, or the unsuspected resources that are staying well hidden in each can save us manny times from extreme conditions like we can see depicted in “A Swift Changing Course”.
(FBC) I loved “A Swift Changing Course”, a very well done coming of age story on board of a warship ready for battle; “Crossing the Waters” was also interesting though predictable, with wicked colonists luring naive locals, though with a twist, while the other two did not really hold that much interest for me.
"The Colonial Age" is an era in which myths have known a better spreading, from the larger area of coverage and a highlighted contact between more unknown civilization until then. In this Age we have a lot of innovative ideas for the stories:
The obscure and the attractiveness of the New World as we can see in"Blood and Soil" by Ceri Young.
The love dramas that are occurring as a result of starting wars between different nations in their expansionist policies in "Fletcher`s Ghost” by Liz Holliday.
The goblins, not so mean and aggressive like we usually encounter them, but fascinated by the incipient steam technology and mechanisms, as well as jealous at the same time of the girl in love with their beloved master, in "Immigrant" by Sandra Tayler.
For me this last story seemed to be the most interesting story from this period of time. The goblin is very funny and well drawn in his attempt to defend his "territory" against two “deadly enemies”.
(FBC) Here I had the opposite reaction from Bogdan; I liked quite a lot the "Blood and Soil" story, somewhat predictable, but told with emotion in great style and standing out from the rest; I also liked "Fletcher's Ghost", though I found that it over-promised as opposed to the final result, while the last story did not work for me and I fast forwarded through it.
"The Age of Pioneers" opens up with the story, "A Small Sacrifice” by Kristen Bonn, in which the need to keep away the tribe from the unhealthy new culture and things can only be done by blood and human sacrifice.
(FBC) I never could get into this story so I browsed it fast and cannot say I remember much
The Western wild atmosphere surrounds us in the "Pony Up" story, by Linda A.B. Davis. A text with a very suggestive title in which we can find a very fantastic Pegasus-like pony.
(FBC) Though not much into westerns these days, I thoroughly enjoyed this one since it is funny and fresh
"Gold at the End of the Railroad" by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, the only text from the anthology which failed to catch me, and therefore I have abandoned it quite early.
(FBC) Did not work for me either
"The Pre-Modern Age" is seen as a Period in which "man" ran undisturbed in his need to impose domination over nature but at the same time as a good moment for science and technology to blossom. The editors are wondering, and rightly so, can now the forces of mystical, mythology, and supernatural magic stand a chance in direct competition with these innovations?
"The Stone Orrery" by Jennifer Crow seems to be an episode off an already legendary myth meaning the "time machine". The destiny of a Russian princess blends with that of an avid researcher in search of his way up and a woman in a delicate situation. A solid story, but not necessarily great.
(FBC) A good story, I enjoyed it
Tony Pi, recently nominated for "The John W. Campbell Award” for best new writer, managed to catch me for good with his text "Sphinx!". In a Modern Period in which the Sphinxes and other hybrid fantasy figures have disappeared for centuries, fate still holds a major surprise for the heroes of our story. I liked the interesting combination of the Sphinx magic with the power of the riddles.
(FBC) Funny and thoroughly enjoyable
"A Bird in the Hand" by Queenie Tirone emerges as another foray in the world of fairy tale creature, phoenix birds, fairies, magic detectives, powerful spells and Excalibur swords, all that combined with some powerful Chinese mafia.
(FBC) Short but compelling, I liked this one for style more than content which is fairly conventional
"The Age Ahead" includes only two stories but one of the two authors is Costi Gurgu the romanian writer.
In "Mars Bound”, K.J. Gould follows an unconventional and out of the ordinary storyline. The author explores a credible future where elves live among people and manage to get on the planet Mars because of the ambition of such a being. This is a good opportunity for the author to analyze the roots of magic that the elves possessed and how they are using of it with so much grace. A story which proves that the imagination beats the stereotype and that there are still writers that can write original elves stories.
(FBC) The premise is interesting but the author' style did not quite work for me
In "Angels and Moths" Costi Gurgu deals with a missed, in the first instance, alien contact. It is a story with substance and literary force that brings to the table controversial topics. The belief in Divinity, the lure of the soul, the inexorability of fate, the weakness of the spirit and human consciousness are just a few of them. Recently I read some older stories by Costi Gurgu from "String”, an old Romanian magazine. My impression is that the story that we have here is similar, although not necessarily in the same direction and complexity, with "Cultural Relationships". Just like in "Angels and Moths", I could find in there the same interesting race of aliens, very well "dressed" literary, hypnotizing and unique through their numerical approach. The end makes you think a little and urges a re-reading of the last events for a better understanding which means that the writer managed a subtle and careful construction of the text. Far from me the desire to praise unnecessarily, but the writing here seemed solid and well done. An alien assessment of the atheism of the main character offered me the preferred paragraph from the whole anthology:
"You have decided not to believe not because you`re convinced that there is nothing divine, but because you don`t need the divine presence in your life. You can live without it."
Adrian Craciun presents his take on "Angels and Moths" – I have read form the anthology just the Costi Gurgu`s story. But I want to highlight some points independent of the rest of the volume. What`s hitting you at first in "Angels and Moths" is the richness of ideas compressed into a relatively short story. Costi's ideas here are not ones for a mere story but for a novel or even a series. In a swirl of 15 pages we have: alien contact, popular mythology, deity sclerosis, lost faith, a little bitter 'love', alien magic etc..
If I have read it with a pencil in hand taking notes I could find even more things to note. The second strength is the expression: plastic, almost poetic, with beautiful stylistic turns . The writing is natural and the speech is very fluid. "Angels and Moths" in three words: rich, consistent, attractive.(FBC) The above two takes are consistent with my opinion; I thought of the story as "best for last" and it was the second major highlight of the anthlogy, though I still have a weakness for sad Bucepahlus, the only horse in Hell. Great stuff from Costi Gurgu and another author to watch.
Conclusion: I was thinking that unlike Best Sci-fi's anthology that I have read recently, "Ages of Wonder" amazed me by its compactness, the stories having a moderate length, at about 20 pages maximum. But I should warn you that you should not underestimate it; on the contrary, a highbrow reader and a lover of fantasy style will find more than a handful of texts for her tastes, primarily due to the variety and careful construction of the subject matter. I sure have been impressed and in the future I will look out for more stories from the names present in the pages of this book, and why not, I will keep an eye on the work of the two editors also.
(FBC) While I liked "Ages of Wonder" a lot, I still do not think it compares with the great sf anthologies mentioned or reviewed recently here, but that for me is due not to the intrinsic quality of the stories but to the fact that it is truly hard to pack a true punch in conventional fantasy at short length as opposed to sf or the weirder reaches of the genre. "Angels and Moths" could stand very well in a sf anthology for example, illustrating my point.
Note: Bogdan Lascu and Adrian Craciun are members of the leading Romanian language sf website Cititor SF