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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"Paper Cities" edited by Ekaterina Sedia

Watch the Paper Cities Video HERE

Bring up urban fantasy nowadays and most readers will probably assume that you’re talking about such authors as Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, Simon R. Green, Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harris, Sherrilyn Kenyon and so on, but in this new anthology from Senses Five Press that is edited by Ekaterina Sedia (The Secret History of Moscow, The Alchemy of Stone), “Paper Cities” reveals that Urban Fantasy has actually been around for almost two hundred years and can be traced as far back as the Arabian Nights. You see this anthology doesn’t treat Urban Fantasy as a subgenre, but rather as a form of storytelling and the common denominator with these stories is the setting. So what Senses Five Press and Ekaterina Sedia have done here with “Paper Cities” is compiled a list of twenty-one writers and their original short stories—each of which offers a uniquely rich setting to explore—who they feel represent the next generation of Urban Fantasy:

01)Andretto Walks the King’s Way” by
Forrest Aguirre. Before even starting the anthology I knew that the stories in this book were going to be quite different from what I usually associate with ‘urban fantasy’ and “Andretto Walks the King’s Way” just confirms that. Set in a conventional fantasy milieu—think European medievalism—that alternates viewpoints between a king, a queen, a prince, the dwarf Andretto, a whore, a soldier and others, Forrest’s short is a tale of irony that quickly degrades into something much more horrific when the Black Death surfaces…

02)The Tower of Morning’s Bones” by
Hal Duncan. Like his previous novels “Vellum” & “Ink” and “The Prince of End Times” short story from The Solaris Book of New Fantasy, Hal Duncan’s latest offering is at once dazzling and frustrating, featuring beautiful and poetic prose that is offset by a nearly incomprehensible plot. Definitely more for those who like to read between the lines…

03)Courting the Lady Scythe” by
Richard Parks. This short story is also set against a fantasy backdrop and is like a gothic fairy tale where a young man employs the help of a mythical creature to win the woman—Lady Scythe—of his heart and ends up getting much more than he bargained for… An enjoyable story even though it doesn’t really offer anything I haven’t already read before :)

04)The Bumblety’s Marble” by
Cat Rambo. On her website Cat Rambo’s writing is described as ‘urban mythopoeia’ and I think that’s a pretty apt description for her story which takes place in a magical world that is part Harry Potter, part Brothers Grimm and part ‘New Weird’. While the plot is fairly simple—two youths on a quest for a marble that holds something valuable—I definitely wouldn’t mind visiting the port of Tabat again in the future…

05)Promises” by
Jay Lake. One of my favorites, this tale of the City Imperishable (Trial of Flowers, the forthcoming Madness of Flowers) blew me away with its portrayal of one female’s harsh ascension from Girl to Little Gray Sister to Big Sister in a world that requires the women of the Tribade to be “strong enough to stand against it”… I know that “Promises” is really only a glimpse of what the City Imperishable has to offer, but it just sounds like a place I want to get lost in…

06)Ghost Market” by
Greg van Eekhout. At only four pages “Ghost Market” gives new meaning to the term ‘short story’, but it’s an intriguing concept where inhaling ghosts is a form of drug dealing, and I think it would make a pretty interesting series. We’ll have to wait on that though because Greg’s first novel “Norse Code” (Bantam Dell) is “a mythic fantasy set in contemporary Los Angeles in which a minor Norse god, a modern valkyrie, and a Viking thug are pitted against the Norse pantheon in an attempt to stop Ragnarok, the long-ago foreseen destruction of the entire universe.”

07)Sammarynda Deep” by
Cat Sparks. This one was interesting. The backdrop is an Egyptian-influenced port that features such strange customs as sacrificing something of great value—an eye, love, etc—in return for honour, water jousting, the forbidden Glass Rock and the Sammarynda Deep, a Lovecraftian chasm that can change a person in unnatural ways while the story concerns a man, a woman and the tragic past that they share… Considering the way the short was narrated and its ending, I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Sammarynda Deep” expanded into a novel and personally, I hope that’s exactly what happens :)

08)Tearjerker” by
Steve Berman. Keeping in tone with the anthology, “Tearjerker’s” best quality is the setting, specifically the Fallen Area, a ‘reality infection’ that has been quarantined from the rest of America and populated by Talented, Afflicted, normals, tearfreaks, hags, carnivorous alleys and other wild ideas including a man who communicates by making sentences appear on his skin. Apparently Steve has written a number of stories set in this Fallen Area and it’s easy to see why…

09)The Title of This Story” by
Stephanie Campisi. From a writing standpoint I was very impressed by Stephanie’s prose and was really intrigued by some of the ideas in the story like onomastics—the study of proper names of all kinds and the origins of names—photographia, the linguistic angle and the city of Skendgrot. As far as the actual plot, “The Title of This Story” is rather ambiguous but I hear Stephanie is writing a novel set in this same world so perhaps some of the short story’s many questions will be answered…

10)The One That Got Away” by
Mark Teppo. I’m not quite sure what to make of this story. It’s basically about a bar—The Alibi Room—where people go to escape from their mundane lives by telling made-up stories, but tired of the same lies four friends decide to make a new story by hunting a unicorn. While the short asks some interesting questions, “The One That Got Away” never really grabbed my full attention. Nevertheless, Mark has a new book coming out in September called “Lightbreaker” (Night Shade Books) which sounds really promising…

11)Alex and the Toyceivers” by Paul Meloy. According to the preface this short is actually the first chapter in a novel that draws from a bunch of the author’s other stories so readers are thrown right into the fire with little idea of what’s going on except that a menagerie of grotesque beasts called Toyceivers have come for a boy named Alex. There’s also a cat called Bong, a dog named Alehouse, the old man Hemog who is a friend of Alex’s and the town of Quay-Endula which looks to figure prominently later in the book. Definitely possessing more of a YA tone—at least so far—this novel shows potential…

12)Godivy” by
Vylar Kaftan. Another short one—only three pages—“Godivy” is quite crazy with office workers mating & producing offspring with photocopiers, strippers who produce espresso from their nipples, and walking mermaids :) It’s also quite pointless…

13)Painting Haiti” by
Michael Jasper. I initially heard of Michael earlier this year when his SF novel “The Wannoshay Cycle” was released, but this short is the first time I’ve actually sampled the author’s work and is more of a suspense/horror tale that follows a financially struggling artist whose past comes back to both haunt and free her… Not one of my favorites, but the story was well-written and I appreciated the painting & voodoo elements :)

14)The Funeral, Ruined” by
Ben Peek. This short story starts out slowly, but once the setting was established—Issuer is a city that trades in the industry of death—I was captivated by the tragic love story with its Frankenstein/steampunk influences. Definitely one of the anthology’s better contributions…

15)Down to the Silver Spirits” by
Kaaron Warren. Narrated in the first person, Kaaron’s short is a disturbing ghost story about a group of desperate parents who are unable to conceive a child, but are given a second chance when they learn of Cairness, a forgotten city where the souls of unborn babies are supposedly waiting to be reborn. The truth of course, is far more terrifying and will make you shiver…

16)They Would Only Be Roads” by
Darin C. Bradley. This story was pretty weird, featuring a world where technology & magic has collided, resulting in hacker-like people who have mechanical familiars and use the Pipeline—think Internet—and charms to cast rites that have something to do with wishes. Definitely inventive, but the story was one of my least favorites…

17)Taser” by
Jenn Reese. Another succinct story at six pages, “Taser” examines street life through the eyes of a youth who must make a decision that will scar him forever. Short, but intense…

18)The Somnambulist” by
David J. Schwartz. When awake Judy is just your normal everyday housewife. When sleepwalking though, Judy becomes a powerful tool—bodyguard, mechanic, dragon slayer, assassin—for her magician husband and embarks on fantastical adventures that she thinks are only dreams. But when her husband’s life is in danger will the somnambulist become his savior or his destroyer… Creative and empowering, I enjoyed this little short story and really look forward to David’s debut novel “Superpowers” (Three Rivers Press) this June :)

19)The Age of Fish, Post-flowers” by
Anna Tambour. One of my least favorite stories, Anna’s short is a meandering mess about a post-apocalyptic world plagued by deadly orms—fish/worm-like creatures—and a shortage of food…

20)The Last Escape” by
Barth Anderson. I was really impressed by Barth’s new novel “The Magician and the Fool” (Reviewed HERE) so I couldn’t wait to try out his short fiction and the author doesn’t disappoint. Starring the Houdini-like Scarab, “The Last Escape” is an engaging tale of escapology that ends on a darkly ironic note…

21)Palimpsest” by
Catherynne M. Valente. Author of the excellent Orphan’s Tales (Reviewed HERE + HERE) duology, Catherynne is really starting to make a name for herself and for me her short story was the one that I was most anticipating. Basically a preview from her novel of the same name (Bantam Spectra), Palimpsest is a viral city whose citizens bear parts of the city on their flesh and can be visited in dreams, while the plot “follows four such people as they search for others like themselves and a way to enter the city permanently.” As usual, the prose is excellent, the story alluring and the author’s imagination mind-bending… I can’t wait for the novel’s release!

Overall, “Paper Cities” is much like any anthology. It has a theme and stories that range from excellent to bad depending on one’s tastes, but it’s also unique in several ways. For starters, I knew virtually nothing about this side of Urban Fantasy, so for me this anthology was an eye-opening experience that made me appreciate the aesthetics of this particular brand of storytelling. Secondly, despite the predominant theme, the twenty-one stories included in the anthology were vastly different from one another and is an aspect that I really value in my reading, so I loved the book’s diversity. Thirdly, aside from
Catherynne M. Valente, Jay Lake, Hal Duncan and Barth Anderson, “Paper Cities” was my introduction to seventeen extremely talented writers who I had never read before and who have significantly increased the number of books that I want to check out :) And lastly, “Paper Cities” is just a pleasure to read and will at times entertain, challenge, and inspire the reader…


Anonymous said...

As mentioned I have this on reserve at the library, so I will get it soon, but this review/description made me order it; I had no idea what to expect since urban fantasy with vampires and sorcerors is not my cup of tea, but urban fantasy a la Mieville, Harrison, KJBishop is.


Anonymous said...

Kind of like a sampler plate at a restaurant...

Robert said...

Liviu, the anthology is definitely of the second variety and of course I'll be interested to see what you think of it after you've it :)

Konrad, that's a very nice description :D

ThRiNiDiR said...

I like the cover very much but as you've said...I think the "urban fantasy" tag might be very misleading, if strictly from the point of understanding of majority of readers (not modern cities and very little werewolves,vampires and such; correct?). Great review though! gratz.

Robert said...

Well it may not be the kind of 'urban fantasy' that most readers today are familiar with, but it's definitely worth reading so hopefully the title alone will attract readers who might not normally cater to such material :)

Btw, I finally linked your blog :) Sorry it took so long. I've been meaning to for a while now. Great review of "Before They Are Hanged"!

Larry Nolen said...

I finished reading this a couple of weeks ago and I had much the same conclusions as to the stories (I'll try to write a review within the next week or so, but I'm considering pairing this with the Datlow-edited Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, so it might have to wait until I am done with that anthology). As for the meaning of "urban fantasy," what else can one call scenes that transpire in city settings but that? I think the point of the anthology (I raised this question in passing with Sedia in my January interview with her) is that "city" occupies so many different places and conceptions within the mind as to make one streetcorner vary so much from another. Considering it from that angle, I believe this anthology does quite well in achieving its goals.

Robert said...

Larry, that's an interesting point about how one streetcorner can drastically vary from another, and like you said, the anthology captures that variance beautifully. So, I'm very much looking forward to your review of the anthology as well as The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction & Fantasy since I probably won't have time for that one. A great lineup though...

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