22 January, 2015
Scoundrel? I Like The Sound Of That: Reviewing the 'Rogues' Anthology
Greg Van Eekhout wrote a great blog last summer about the magic involved in a successful heist, and he's right-- there is something irresistible about that sleight-of-hand smile-at-me-while-my-partner-steals-your-wallet kind of character. As it turns out, George R. R. Martin feels the same way, and so he went about assembling a collection of stories all featuring rogues in one form or another. As with any anthology, this was a bit of a mixed bag, with some stories sticking more successfully to the theme than others. I've briefly reviewed each story in terms of its relevance to the theme, and its overall awesomeness, below the cut.
“Tough Times All Over,” Joe Abercrombie — Since I haven't yet read Best Served Cold, I didn't recognize the city of Sipani when I started this story, but that didn't affect my enjoyment of it. This story is like that song kids sing in elementary school about the thigh bone connected to the knee bone, the knee bone connected to the shinbone-- one rogue clashes with another, who picks up the thread of the story and moves on to interact with another unsavory character, who then becomes the narrator, and so on and so forth throughout a crazy night in the city of Sipani, with a mysterious package everyone is fighting over but no one is willing to open. Also, lesbians. Love you, Abercrombie. 4/5 stars
“What Do You Do?” Gillian Flynn — This one was just awesome. Shamefully, I've not yet read Gone Girl or anything else of Flynn's, but knowing what I know of her work thus far, I wasn't surprised that the narrator was a smart, slightly self-absorbed, ambitious woman. What I didn't anticipate was the way her story bounced around, keeping me guessing as to what kind of story I was reading. Oh, she's a con artist-- no wait, she's the victim in a horror movie-- no, this is a different kind of horror movie-- or a psychological thriller? There were parts of this that genuinely creeped me out, and I loved the unsettling note it ended on. Anything that turns perception on its head like this story did is bound to get a high rating from me-- I love to hate being left wondering what actually happened. 4/5 stars
“The Inn of the Seven Blessings,” Matthew Hughes — This was a really funny one, reminded me of reading Sir Apropos of Nothing and similar fantasy/humor blends in the past. One of the most straight-up fairy-tale-esque stories in the anthology, nothing really remarkable here, but very readable and funny. 3/5 stars
“Bent Twig,” Joe R. Lansdale — This one was interesting, at least in premise, though it wasn't really my style. I liked the two main characters' interactions and it was fast paced enough that I was never bored, but nothing about any of the characters hooked me enough to consider reading a full book about them. 2.5/5 stars
“Tawny Petticoats,” Michael Swanwick — I cackled all the way through this one. Like the Hughes story, it was witty and quick-moving, but it did one better because it made me really interested in the world it depicted. Zombified indentured servants? Anthropomorphized animal people? Tell me more! The con was fun, the characters were vivid, and the ending was predictable, but enjoyably so. 3.5/5 stars
“Provenance,” David W. Ball — This one didn't grip me at all, despite its premise. I love WWII history and all the thorny stories of the Nazis' stolen treasures (that plotline on White Collar, for example, was one of my favorites in the whole show) but the author's attempt to blend a history lesson with an interesting story fell flat for me. The evangelist character might as well have been a cardboard cutout with a credit card taped to its face, for all the dimension and movement he brought to the story. The surprise ending was cool, definitely made me understand why the main character was a rogue instead of just a dude making money off of stolen Nazi art, but it wasn't cool enough to gloss over the pacing and style issues. 2/5 stars
“The Roaring Twenties,” Carrie Vaughn — This one was fun-- I liked the club atmosphere, Vaughn did a great job of immersing me in the setting via her first-person narration. It felt a little long to me; the whole bit from the raid through the end seemed to drag in relation to the rest of the story-- though that might've been because I was way more interested in the narrator and Madame M's relationships to the other lowlifes around them than I was in the interaction between the fairy club and the mundane FBI. The infiltrating agent added complexity to the plot, but wasn't interesting enough to become the main plot hinge as it did toward the end. I do love a good lady rogue, though, and this one delivered a bunch of them. 3/5 stars
“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane,” Scott Lynch — Well, this clinches it. If Scott Lynch wasn't already my hands-down favorite writer, he is now. When it comes to creating awesome fantasy, the man can do no wrong-- his settings are inventive and vivid, his characters are complex and funny, and he can weave a story like nobody's business. This is one of the longer stories in the collection, and easily my favorite of the bunch. A group of ex-thieves (4/5 of whom are women, 1/5 of which is a man who turned himself into a robot, the only part of the story whose mechanics (har) are unclear to me) are forced out of retirement when their leader gets piss-up-a-wall drunk and picks a fight with a wizard, who then demands an impossible theft as repayment for the insult. I refuse to spoil this rollicking romp for anyone, but I will say that in under 100 pages I came to love this group of characters with all my heart, and I hope to god we see them in the Gentlemen Bastard series proper.
And god, just, how are you so cool Scott Lynch? You created a bar built inside the skeleton of a dead dragon, and a city where the lampposts are statues containing the souls of executed criminals, and an ensemble cast entirely different from, but just as cool as, the ensemble cast you already created for your main series. These women and their cyborg compatriot are funny, smart, stubborn, inventive, and each terrifyingly capable at their various jobs. I could read an entire series of 7 books about these badasses and their ingenious thefts and still come back for The Thorn of Emberlain ready and raring to go. I will definitely be rereading this story (more than the one reread I've already given it while writing this review) and oh yeah, will be shipping Jean Tannen and Amarelle Parathis until the end of the GB sequence proves me wrong. 5/5 stars
“Bad Brass,” Bradley Denton — This one was... weird. Kind of funny in concept-- a group of high school kids stealing the school's tubas to sell on the black market (and yes, there is a black market for tubas in Texas, who knew?)-- but it's framed through the POV of a substitute teacher who's tailing them in order to steal the money they make off of selling the tubas, and that didn't work for me. I don't even remember the narrator's name, just his general depressive whining about his ex-wife the high school principal and being annoyed when he couldn't make bank stealing money from teenagers. IDK, this one didn't really fit the rogues theme to me, and wasn't that much fun. 2/5 stars
“Heavy Metal,” Cherie Priest — Ugh, I love Cherie Priest's writing so much. The story didn't really contain any rogues, though that didn't stop it from being a damn good story. I love the trope of outsiders coming into a small town with a secret; it's borderline cliche, especially for a horror story, but it can be done really well in the right hands and I enjoyed this one a lot. Still, it loses half a star for not really fitting with the anthology; I just didn't get the rogue connection at all and it took me out of the story a bit. 3.5/5 stars
“The Meaning of Love,” Daniel Abraham – This was a really unexpectedly sweet story-- funny, with one of those cities (like the Budayeen in George Alec Effinger's books, which I mentioned in my post about worldbuilding) you just want to dive into and explore every twisty street and darkened alley. There were a lot of shady characters bopping around, and the way the narrator goes about getting his beloved friend his heart's desire is inventive and fun, even as it's poignant and a little sad. Even more excited to read Abraham's work as James S. A. Corey now. 4/5 stars
“A Better Way to Die,” Paul Cornell — This was like what would happen if Connie Willis decided to write a story about James Bond. I liked it, but I don't think I fully understood it-- the flashback parts, at least, the stuff that led up to the "present day" scenario in which the narrator is hunting his alternate-universe self throughout various alternate universes. That part was pretty awesome, and Cornell definitely has a deft touch at worldbuilding through context and dialogue. The whole thing might've read better as a longer standalone piece, though. 3.5/5 stars
“Ill Seen in Tyre,” Steven Saylor — This one was funny, but not terribly memorable. The punchline is basically "don't be gullible", though I did like the meta-literary allusions to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, whose books I now want to try and hunt down. 3/5 stars
“A Cargo of Ivories,” Garth Nix — I enjoyed the hell out of this duo. I've only read Nix's Abhorsen trilogy so this was a departure in tone and style for me-- not that he isn't funny in the Abhorsen books with Mogget and the Disreputable Dog, but this whole story was delightfully ridiculous. A sorceror who's a wooden puppet, are you kidding me? It was wacky and fun and I really enjoyed it. 4/5 stars
“Diamonds From Tequila,” Walter Jon Williams — Man I love those characters who are horrible people you can't help liking anyway. The narrator of this story is kind of a douchebag, but he's interesting. I blame the X-Men fandom; between the pot smoking and his name being Sean, I couldn't help picturing him as Caleb Landry Jones (who played Sean Cassidy in X-Men First Class) with an oversized head. But I digress-- the story was fine, a fast read and not boring or predictable, but I'd probably have gotten more out of it if I'd read Williams' related novels first. 3/5 stars
“The Caravan to Nowhere,” Phyllis Eisenstein — AKA "Alaric the teleporting minstrel and that time he traveled with a caravan of mutineers and drug traffickers". This one was really, really cool-- I loved the juxtaposition of Alaric being a minstrel, an artist, and having such a physical power. He can teleport to anywhere he can see with his eyes or anywhere he's been before-- which turns out to be damned useful when his camel-back road trip goes pear-shaped and he finds himself left for dead inside a mine full of drugs. That sort of outsider perspective (especially in context of a voyage) always makes me think of the Canterbury Tales, and the way the mystery of the imagined city interwove with the very real attempt at mutiny and murder put me in mind of Company of Liars. I really want to check out Eisenstein's previous books about Alaric now. 4/5 stars
“The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives,” Lisa Tuttle — I liked all the parts of this that weren't about the knockoff Sherlock & Watson, who did not a thing for me. It felt like Tuttle went on this recursive loop where she wrote Elementary AU fanfiction set in the actual Sherlock Holmes era, but managed to strip all the goofy banter that makes the show fun. The actual mystery was quite creepy, and I liked that aspect of it a lot, but I'm also not sure who the rogue is supposed to be here-- Jesperson the crazy detective, or Smurl the Bluebeard wannabe? All in all a resounding "meh". 2/5 stars
“How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” Neil Gaiman — I could write a whole post comparing this story to Anansi Boys and the way Gaiman writes sibling relationships in all their ineffable complexity, or about his facility with creating rounded and complete minor characters and how they are vital to the texture and dimensionality of his stories. I could probably write a small book about the ways in which Gaiman borrows from folklore, fairy tales, history, and modern culture to make the perfect model of an urban fantasy world in London Below. But I'll be brief, and simply say I loved this story-- for me the Marquis is one of the greatest scoundrels ever to grace the pages of genre fiction, and it was so deeply awesome to hear things from his POV. Damn, but Gaiman can write. 5/5 stars
“Now Showing,” Connie Willis — In reviewing this on Goodreads, a friend of mine likened this story to one of the wacky near-future episodes of Doctor Who, and that is, indeed, what this felt like-- colorful, fast-paced, high-pitched, and gaining momentum as it barrels on. As an ex-Blockbuster employee, I really loved all the movie references, and I liked how Willis managed to capture that popcorn-and-neon excitement of being at the movies and dial it up to eleven in an imagined future setting. I also thought the ultimate explanation of the Dromes was great-- and chilling in no small amount, referencing something that's still a fairly recent tragic event for us in 2015. The romance angle was fine, not my favorite part of the story by far, but cute and a fun plausible way to keep the story moving along. I laughed a lot, as per usual with Willis's work, and this made me even more excited to pick up the Doomsday Book, which I'll be doing within the next few weeks. 3.5/5 stars
“The Lightning Tree,” Patrick Rothfuss — Okay, so, unpopular opinion time here... I had a hard time with this story. I like Pat Rothfuss's work just fine-- he's a great storyteller and a really good writer... but he is sometimes so icky to the women in his stories. So, so, icky. I almost couldn't make it through the Felurian parts of The Wise Man's Fear, they were so disgustingly teenage male fantasy fodder, and I had a similar problem here-- specifically with Bast and the town boys bartering for the right to spy on this girl Emberlee as she takes her bath. I get that the implication through the story is that she spied on Bast taking his bath and he knew it and made sure no one else could spy on her except him, but unless they'd had a prior conversation in which she explicitly told him it was OK for him to spy on her if he could figure out where to do it, that's not cool.
I wrestled for a while with that too-familiar feeling when confronted with media that plays into exploitative gender stereotypes: am I blowing this out of proportion, am I being too sensitive? Then, thankfully, I snapped myself out of it. Bast not only buys the right to look at this girl's naked body without her consent, but then promises to come back and tell an adolescent boy all about what her tits look like-- in what universe is that not gross objectification? No universe, that's what. If it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or if Rothfuss thinks he's making some kind of commentary on how that sort of behavior is despicable, he's not doing it very well, and it did critical damage to my enjoyment of what was otherwise a delightful day-in-the-life of the best secondary character in the Kingkiller Chronicles. 2/5 stars
“The Rogue Prince, or The King’s Brother,” George R.R. Martin — This... this is not what I was expecting from Martin at all. Most overviews of this anthology list his introduction, "Everyone Loves A Rogue" as an essay or contributing piece; it wasn't fiction, so I didn't consider it part of the anthology, and frankly after the fourth paragraph of "How many nerd references can I pack into a single sentence?" I was pretty much done with it, and skipped ahead to the fiction. That's Martin's specialty anyway, IMO. So I was extra disappointed to find that his contribution to the stories in the anthology was nearly as dry and lack-luster as the opening essay had been.
It's not that I have anything against the fake-history type of storytelling, but as with any story, it has to have emotional impact. A story, whatever its format, should be driving toward a climax or turning point of some kind, and I didn't feel like Martin ever got there-- he cuts off right before the start of a war that ends with the death of every dragon in Westeros. I don't know about you, but that maybe would've been something I'd have thought about including, since it's one of the most famous (or infamous) events in Westerosi history.
It bugs me to be so disappointed by an author I used to love almost without reservation, but I just wasn't impressed. If Martin had given us a first-person version of events, even or especially with an unreliable narrator-- for example, if he'd given us more of those salacious reports of court drama as told by Mushroom the dwarf jester, or even Prince Daemon's account of one of his schemes to get his hands on the crown-- it would have felt much more immediate and real, and much more relevant. As it is, I didn't enjoy any of the characters here except maybe Lady Laena and her queer-as-Christmas brother. Princess Rhaenyra was cool and I liked the path of her story, but again, she would've been much more interesting as the narrator. And Daemon just fell flat. I pictured him like a less fun Jafar with Targaryen coloring, twirling his beard and muttering to his parrot dragon. Sorry Martin, but if everyone loves a rogue, Daemon Targaryen is no rogue. Han Solo would laugh that guy right outta Mos Eisley.
I really thought Martin would do better with this, especially since the anthology was, after all, his baby. How could he read pieces like Lynch's and Gaiman's, and then offer up this dusty snoozefest to stand beside them? It's largely symptomatic of the issues I had with Martin's last two novels-- he's lost his focus. I know he's a gardener, not an architect, but the emotional difference between reading A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows was as vast as that between standing in the mosh pit at a rock concert and waiting for a bus in a chilly drizzle with no umbrella. One was visceral and painful and made me feel alive; one was boring and uncomfortable with periodic, but always disappointed, hope that the tedium was about to end. Unfortunately that lost-in-the-wilderness trend of Martin's continued in A Dance With Dragons and, it seems, is bleeding over into his short fiction as well. Nothing will keep me from finishing A Song of Ice and Fire when it's published; one does not simply walk away from a book series one has followed for thirteen years, after all. But if "The Rogue Prince" is any indication, I'm not going to enjoy the experience much. 2.5/5 stars
Overall rating: 4/5 stars. I gave Rogues four out of five because it wasn't perfect, but it was highly entertaining. I spent an entire day recovering from holiday insanity by way of lying on my bed reading over half of it in one sitting. Even the stories that weren't amazing were mostly fun, and the stories by authors I love were sprinkled through in a way that kept me reading even through stories that didn't entirely hog my attention.
Geek quotient: 5/5 stars. There's enough geek in here to satisfy even the most hardcore nerd.
Girl quotient: 4/5 stars. While not every story contained great examples of interesting women, most did. Most stories had more than one woman character, and by my memory at least nine of them passed the Bechdel test (including the Martin story, which doesn't contain any actual dialogue, but refers to several interactions between named women that weren't about a man).
Gay quotient: 3/5 stars. A decent number of textual references to queer people and queer relationships, all of them positive portrayals (ie: zero instances where queerness was conflated with immorality), and six of them pass the Russo test (the Martin story doesn't pass for me because its queer characters could be removed without significantly altering the story).
You can buy Rogues on Amazon, and read my reviews crossposted to Goodreads.