Ole from Weirdmage's Reviews lives in deepest darkest Norway, and reads an utterly obscene amount when he is not lurking on Twitter. He has become a great friend, and deigned to write a review for me. Settle in, guys, this one is an epic!
This anthology contains eleven stories from what was arguably the top fantasy series at the time it was published in 1998.
I’ve chosen to write a little review of every story in this anthology, including a paragraph about how it represents the series it is a part of. At the end there will be a short review/comment on the whole anthology.
THE DARK TOWER: THE LITTLE SISTERS OF ELURIA by STEPHEN KING
This is a prequel to the first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger.
Although unlike most of Stephen King’s writings, this still bears some of the hallmarks that make it distinctly a Stephen King story. Like many of King’s stories it is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but this is not our world - it is instead a world that mixes the fantasy and western genres.
The story itself reminded me a lot of H.P. Lovecraft. The reader knows all along that something is wrong, but we are seeing the events through the eyes of the main character, and are told it as he discovers it for himself.
If I had to classify this story into a SFF subgenre, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it horror.
King manages to put his own twist on several creatures that will seem very familiar to both fantasy and horror readers. It is a very good story and that it is mostly confined to one small location makes it stronger. The pace of the story is relatively slow, and there isn’t really much action, but for this story that is the strength. I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the better Stephen King short stories I have read.
Having read the first three books of King’s Dark Tower series I found this to be an almost perfect story. It is an interesting look at what Roland was up to before the events of The Gunslinger.
If you have yet to read anything of the Dark Tower series this is a good introduction. You get to know a bit about the series’ main character, and you are also given quite a good glimpse into the world that is the setting for the series.
NOTE: The two page introduction to the story contains spoilers for the Dark Tower books. If you don’t like spoilers, do yourself a favor and skip it.
DISCWORLD: THE SEA AND THE LITTLE FISHES by TERRY PRATCHETT
Set in Lancre, this story stars the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.
It’s basically a story about what happens when someone acts out of character and does things that are not expected of them. And anyone that has read the Witches series-within-a-series will understand, and perhaps even sympathize with the eerie feeling that the secondary characters have throughout this story.
It is a good standalone that shows us two of the most popular Discworld characters on their home turf.
There’s plenty that will make you laugh, or at least smile here. I think everyone will to some degree recognize some of the situation that Pratchett describes.
Pratchett shows that he can bring the same craft and imagination to a shorter story that he does to his novels. This is a great example of the master of humorous fantasy at his best.
For any fan of Pratchett’s Discworld books this story will probably be worth picking up the anthology for. If you have somehow managed to never read a Discworld book this would be a good place to start.
THE SWORD OF TRUTH: DEBT OF BONES by TERRY GOODKIND
This story takes place over a generation before the events of the first book in the series, Wizard’s First Rule.
This is a bit hard for me to review because, having read the whole series, it is hard for me to really keep my feelings of this story separate from that. I’ve given it my best shot though, and I hope I have given this story a chance to stand on its own.
There’s quite a bit of Goodkind’s overwriting here. The story starts slowly mostly due to unnecessary descriptions that don’t really add anything to it, and I got a bit impatient for it to really get going. I can’t help but feel that this story will be somewhat confusing to anyone who is not familiar with the series, and that it does not really function as a standalone.
On the plus side there are a couple of twists towards the end of the story that are well handled, and that raises the quality of the story a little bit.
The first time I read this anthology, in 2002, it actually got me curious enough about the series to check it out. That is because there are some good ideas here and actually in the series itself too. Unfortunately Goodkind is not very good at handling his ideas, and his blatant preaching of right-wing politics and semi-fascist views on what is heroic tend to leave a slightly sick feeling in your stomach as you read his work.
This does showcase what you can expect from the first part of the Sword of Truth series, but I have to say that the series only gets worse as it progresses, and I can’t really suggest you start on the series unless you think this is one of the best stories you have ever read.
TALES OF ALVIN MAKER: THE GRINNING MAN by ORSON SCOTT CARD
This story is quite different from the others in this anthology. Not only is it an alternative history story, but it is written in a close approximation of the style of fairy tales.
I actually found it quite hard to cope with the style and tone this story was written in; it was just too short for me to get used to it before it was finished.
The story follows many of the tropes you would expect from a fairy tale and the magic you find here has very little difference from what you usually find in folklore. The alternate history setting felt a bit wasted to me. It doesn’t really come into play except that it introduces a famous American, and gives a wholly different version of his legend. This was actually done in a very good fashion, so it might seem as if I am contradicting myself a bit here. But I still can’t let go of the feeling that the alternate history aspect could have been removed without it really affecting the story.
If you look at this story as a Young Adult, or perhaps Mid-Grade, fairy tale this is quite a good story despite the problems I had with getting into it. For fans of fairy tales, and those who have an interest in US history, I think this will be a good read.
Since I haven’t read any of The Tales of Alvin Maker books I can’t really comment on whether this story is a good representation of what to expect from the series. And as I didn’t really connect with the style of writing Card used here, I can’t say I feel very tempted to pick up the series in the future.
MAJIPOOR: THE SEVENTH SHRINE by ROBERT SILVERBERG
This story is set in the years after the novel Valentine Pontifex.
A murder at an archeological dig is the setting for this story starring the Pontifex Valentine. Although space travel exists in the Majipoor universe, and the different species here are aliens rather than fantasy races, it is a fantasy setting.
This is a very intriguing and varied story. One of the themes it tackles is reconciliation after a war between two different groups and the suspicions and prejudices that follow that.
As someone who has a stronger than average interest in archaeology the setting here is an immediate draw for me. Silverberg also manages to use the archaeological setting as more than just window-dressing, it is integral to the story as a whole.
The murder mystery part of the story is not very complex or original but I didn’t feel that this mattered much since what is really important here is the whole setting more than the story itself.
This should hit the right note for fans of crime, archaeology, and fantasy.
I have read the first Majipoor book, Lord Valentine’s Castle, and the story collection Majipoor Chronicles. This story makes for a good addition to those books, as well as a very good taste of what you can expect from the series. I feel like re-reading Lord Valentine’s Castle after reading this story.
NOTE: Both the introduction to the series, and the story itself contains spoilers for the Majipoor series.
EARTHSEA: DRAGONFLY by URSULA K. LE GUIN
This story starts out as what seems like a run-of-the-mill unrequited love-story, and with a male point of view character. After the first part it suddenly changes to the point of view of the women he was in love with, and he disappears completely from the narrative. What follows after that seems like a re-telling of Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites. However nothing really happens at all before the female main character saves the day without there being any real explanation as to how she managed to do this.
Dragonfly contains the beginning and ending of a standard “chosen one” fantasy tale, but it completely lacks the middle part of such a story. There is very little character building, no heroine’s journey and no discernible development of any power that is needed to fight evil. It is a bit like reading the chapter of The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf tells Frodo that the ring is the One Ring and then skipping ahead to Frodo and Sam exiting the cave on Mount Doom and congratulating themselves on a job well done –and that is all you get.
Added to the, in my opinion, extremely poor story you have a tendency from Le Guin to infodump and overwrite that made it a hard story to get through. I really wanted to skip ahead to the next story before I was halfway through this one. I couldn’t help but feel that the time I spent reading this story was a total waste.
About fifteen years ago I read the four Earthsea books in Norwegian. I don’t remember anything else about them than that I liked one of them and thought one of them was bad. I was actually planning to buy Wizard of Earthsea and see what I thought of it now. But after reading this story I have moved the Earthsea books to the bottom of my to-buy/read list, and I’m even a bit reluctant to start reading The Dispossessed by Le Guin, a book I have already bought because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.
For me this story couldn’t have failed more than it did, and my suggestion is to skip it if you read this anthology. I don’t think it is worth reading.
MEMORY, SORROW AND THORN: THE BURNING MAN by TAD WILLIAMS
Told in the first person, this is the tale of Breda. It encompasses several different threads without feeling in any way like it tries to do too much.
Breda tells the events of her fifteenth year with the wisdom and hindsight of old age. The story is strengthened by giving us a quick recap of events prior to the story’s beginning, and although it is quite short it manages to build up a good background to what is happening.
The central love story, that binds together a story of exile and Breda’s stepfather’s search for an answer that is very important to him, is made all the much better for the analysis Breda gives as she narrates the story.
Williams’ writing is excellent here. Breda’s voice as a narrator is incredibly natural. He also manages to incorporate a surprising twist into a story that at its heart is very familiar.
It’s been years since I last read the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, and reading this I realize a re-read is long overdue. The story is a great addition to the world of an excellent fantasy trilogy.
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE: THE HEDGE KNIGHT – A TALE OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS by GEORGE R. R. MARTIN
This story of a roaming knight without a lord, a hedge knight, is set about one hundred years before the beginning of A Game of Thrones.
With the central stage for the story being a knightly tournament it reminded me very much at times of the two film adaptions I’ve seen of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and I wonder if either of these has served as an inspiration. If the tournament had been the only element to the story it wouldn’t have been very interesting as that part in itself is not really very original. But Martin has mixed in another element, and although this is not very original either the mix of the two makes for an interesting and entertaining tale.
Martin’s writing is very good and he manages to convey quite a lot about the life of hedge knights in general, and the main character Dunk in particular, in what is relatively speaking a few pages. This feels very focused and tightly written, something that makes it a very good story in my opinion.
Only having read the first volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, and that some years ago, I can’t really remember if the events told here have any bearing on, or are even mentioned, in the series. It is however a point that is not really relevant as this works perfectly as a standalone story. It also serves as a good introduction both to Martin’s writing style and the world in which it is set.
If you have ever wondered if you should start reading A Song of Ice and Fire this is a great place to start.
PERN: RUNNER OF PERN by ANNE MCCAFFREY
It’s refreshing to read a fantasy story about some of the “invisible” people who are a part of every world. This tale is about runners, messengers who run from place to place like a non-tech Internet, or perhaps more accurately a human Pony Express.
What I liked most about the story is that McCaffrey has chosen to not set it during some momentous event. It would be easy to tell a tale of a runner delivering a world-changing message against all odds. Instead we get the personal story of Penna, a young woman from a family of runners who is just starting out in her career.
There are a lot of details here of the life of a runner, and it is a good glimpse into a closed group of a society. McCaffrey manages to deliver the details without making the reader feel like they are having information dumped on them. It feels like an integral part of the story and adds to the overall feel of it.
I must say that this one of the stories I really enjoyed, perhaps mostly because it was so different from what you usually see in fantasy.
I’ve not read any of McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and don’t know much about the world. But this story did feel like it at least gave me some sense of how the society on Pern is set up. This one glimpse into the Pern series has made me curious about the series, and I now plan to try it out.
THE RIFTWAR SAGA: THE WOOD BOY by RAYMOND E. FEIST
This standalone story is set during the events of the Riftwar Saga trilogy.
Central to this story is the wood boy, Dirk. As the name implies his job is to ensure that there is an adequate supply of firewood.
Actually I think this story would have worked well even if it was just a tale of daily life during enemy occupation, which it basically is. Feist has added an extra twist to the end of the story, however. This twist works very well, and separates the story from the normal “growing up in fantasyland tale” that we already have in McCaffrey’s tale. It is not a very happy tale, and that may make some readers feel let down by it.
I think the story is well written. It is short but it does tell a lot. Dirk is also a realist and quite an interesting person to get to know better. And I don’t think the story suffers from being read as a standalone.
There are some events from the Riftwar Saga mentioned here. And this story is a good indication to what you can expect if you choose to move on to Feist’s series.
THE WHEEL OF TIME: NEW SPRING by ROBERT JORDAN
This is a prequel to The Eye of the World, the first novel in the Wheel of Time series.
Here we get the story of how Moiraine and Lan meet. If you are not familiar with the Wheel of Time series, they are two of the main characters.
The story itself is a bit of a mess, many things are not explained and many of those that are get lost in Jordan’s tendency to over-describe inconsequential details. Trying to get a grip on what is important by looking at how much room they are given in the text will not be very helpful.
There are definitely some good ideas here, but as I said above they get lost in a lot of waffle. This is a shame, because by cutting out the unnecessary description there would have been more room to explore them.
This is what I would define as a true prequel. In the way that I don’t really see how you could make much sense of what is happening without being familiar with what is going to happen later. But it does give a good idea of what I found when I read The Eye of the World, the only Wheel of Time book I have read.
If you have read my The Eye of the World review on my blog you will know that I didn’t like it. So I will suggest this as your starting point with Jordan’s series. It may leave you a bit confused, but at least you don’t have to read that many pages to find out if it is something for you.
I do realise that the Wheel of Time has many fans. And if you are one of them, you may think you have already read this. But this version predates the New Spring novel and is much shorter. So you might want to get hold of this anthology to read this story as it was originally written
There’s really not much to say here. Although I did not think every story in this anthology was good, this really is essential on the bookshelf of any fan of fantasy. If you have already read and enjoyed any of these series you’ll like the addition that the short stories make to them. And if you have never read an epic fantasy series, and are curious to whether you should, this anthology lets you check out the worlds of eleven authors in one place.
Not the greatest anthology in fantasy publishing, but the most essential.