DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER, by Helen Marshall

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Gifts for the One Who Comes After
By Helen Marshall
Published by ChiZine – 16th September 2014
ISBN 1771483024 – 270 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
– The Hanging Game
– Secondhand Magic
– I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said
– Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects
– All My Love, a Fishhook
– In the Year of Omens
– The Santa Claus Parade
– The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass
– Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta
– Crossroads and Gateways
– Ship House
– A Brief History of Science Fiction
– Supply Limited, Act Now
– We Ruin the Sky
– In the Moonlight, the Skin of You
– The Gallery of the Eliminated
– The Slipway Grey

The disturbing cover of Marshall’s second collection and its feature on i09.com made me eagerly seek this out and I quickly found that it was exactly the type of short fiction that I most enjoy, well written with a distinct shade of darkness. To call her stories dark and unsettling is accurate, but the supernatural and horrific elements of these stories provide an enshrouding tone for the basic character exploration beneath. By delving into a reality of human emotions rather than a focus on the odd aspects Marshall makes her stories graceful and stirring like the similar use of darkness by writers like Neil Gaiman, Karen Russell, or Shirley Jackson.
There isn’t a single story in this collection that I didn’t enjoy and I now will have to go back and read her first collection from ChiZine, Hair Side, Flesh Side, which I expect should be equally as sublime and haunting as this. The stories making up Gifts for the One Who Comes After are mostly unified by character explorations around the theme of family: couples, parents, children. The frequent presence of children gives some of the stories an additional chill because of that sense (correct or not) revolving around the ‘innocence’ of childhood.
The opening story “The Hanging Game” is one of my favorites in the collection, and it perfectly introduces the major theme of Gifts for the One Who Comes After. In this story, children play a grim and treacherous game that has passed down through the generations in their community, a twisted tradition of ritual. “The Hanging Game” was originally published at Tor.com, so I’d encourage you to go read it there for a great sense of what the rest of this collection is like.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE YEAR’S BEST DARK FANTASY & HORROR (2014), Edited by Paula Guran

21432372
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014
Edited by Paula Guran

Published by Prime Books, 17th June 2014
ISBN: 1607014319 – 569 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley

CONTENTS:
“Wheatfield with Crows”, by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Blue Amber”, by David J. Schow
“The Legend of Troop 13”, by Kit Reed
“The Good Husband”, by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Soul in the Bell Jar”, by K. J. Kabza
“The Creature Recants”, by Dale Bailey
“Termination Dust”, by Laird Barron
“Postcards from Abroad”, by Peter Atkins
“Phosphorous”, by Veronica Schanoes
“A Lunar Labyrinth”, by Neil Gaiman
“The Prayer of Ninety Cats”, by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell”, by Brandon Sanderson
“The Plague”, by Ken Liu
“The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning”, by Joe R. Lansdale
“Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella”, by Brian Hodge
“Air, Water and the Grove”, by Kaaron Warren
“A Little of the Night”, by Tanith Lee
“A Collapse of Horses”, Brian Evenson
“Our Lady of Ruins”, by Sarah Singleton
“The Marginals”, by Steve Duffy
“Dark Gardens”, by Greg Kurzawa
“Rag and Bone”, by Priya Sharma
“The Slipway Gray”, by Helen Marshall
“To Die for Moonlight”, by Sarah Monette
“Cuckoo”, by Angela Slatter
“Fishwife”, by Carrie Vaughn
“The Dream Detective”, by Lisa Tuttle
“Event Horizon”, by Sunny Moraine
“Moonstruck”, by Karin Tidbeck
“The Ghost Makers”, Elizabeth Bear
“Iseul’s Lexicon”, Yoon Ha Lee


If you aren’t too familiar with the current fantasy and/or horror that is being published today, or if you only know these genres from the novel form, there is no better place to start than this mammoth collection. Featuring varied stories across the genres from both print and electronic sources, regular and individual publications, established and upcoming authors, Paula Guran assembles a great overview of 2014. As typical for these types of anthologies, I wouldn’t consider all of these my favorites of the year – and some of the stories here I had no appreciation for at all – but there is assuredly a good chunk of material  to satisfy most readers here. Even if you don’t normally read short stories, this would be useful for finding authors whose voice and style you enjoy to perhaps then search out a novel you otherwise would never have picked up.
A handful of stories in this were familiar to me from their original printings in the magazines I regularly consume and for the most part they had remained in my mind fondly. Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar” and “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn fall into this category with tales that feel timelessly familiar yet with beautiful unique voices. I also adored “The Creature Recants”, by Dale Bailey for its take on the outsider ‘monster’ and for being immersed in the world of film and the classic Universal Films Horror. The story isn’t particularly dark or horrific (in the sense of scary), however, and indeed many of the stories in the collection aren’t particularly ‘dark’, so don’t let that term scare you off if you don’t typically go for such tales.
The majority of pieces included in the anthology were completely new to me. Since I first read about it prior to its release I’ve been interested in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters from Small Beer Press. “The Good Husband” affirms this feeling and his collection now is in the top of my list of volumes to get as soon as possible. I was also particularly impressed by Schow’s “Blue Amber”, Evenson’s “A Collapse of Horses”, and Marshall’s “The Slipway Gray”. (I have a review of a Marshall collection that I read soon after this coming up).
Some of the authors known to me have strong showings here, particularly Tem (“Wheatfield with Crows”), Gaiman (“A Lunar Labyrinth”), and both Lees (“A Little of the Night”, Tanith and “Iseul’s Lexicon”, Yoon Ha). Typically I’m nothing but praise for Ken Liu (I can’t wait to write up the review of his upcoming novel), but “The Plague” failed for me here. I may try a reread, but it felt too short and unfulfilling.
One of the things I noticed in the midst of reading this anthology was a few stories that are written in the second person. Unfortunately I’ve been noticing this crop up more frequently throughout my reading. I don’t know if this is because I’m reading a greater range of short fiction or if it is some kind of trend, but I find it incredibly awful. In general I know most people feel this way and that the stories published with the narration constantly referring to ‘you’ are supposed to be the minority exceptions where this point of view is made to work. Only in the extreme minority of these published cases do I find them worthwhile, and in most of those cases it is just random chance that they do align vaguely with ‘me’.
I previously reviewed the 2014 science fiction entry from Prime Books ‘Year’s Best’ series for Skiffy & Fanty. Both that anthology and the one here were the first I’ve read in the series. Despite reading fairly widely in the genres there was a lot of new stuff here for me to discover and fond rereads. I look forward to the years to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Prime Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Fearful Symmetries, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: ChiZine
ASIN: B00EXOT73U
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister
“Kaiju” by Gary McMahon
“Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan
“In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall
“The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling
“The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Window” by Brian Evenson
“Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman
“Power” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren
“The Worms Crawl In,” by Laird Barron
“The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
“Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” by John Langan
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix

Ellen Datlow’s name to me is synonymous with horror anthology. I see the two together so often, and usually with accolades, that I decided I really did need to just read one of her collections. This one really impressed me in its variety and its quality. I typically enjoy reading horror stories like these around Halloween time, and this collection would be suited well for that kind of celebration. The hard decision will be whether to reread this one or try out another one of her collections.

A review of each single story seems excessive, and there isn’t a single story that failed here. There are no common themes uniting this collection other than the very general fitting into the category of horror or dark tales. They range from very realistic to paranormal, from gruesome gore-filled feasts to nuanced, atmospheric tales, from pulp to literary. Fairly well-ranged in background and style, this is an ideal volume to discover new authors or names that you may merely recognize.

Frankly, it is hard to even pick out favorites from this. For someone like me who has a wide range of tastes across the genre, each of these represents top contributions to their respective category of story type. If you are discriminating regarding the type of horror you like then this may not be the best collection. There will certainly be some or several stories here that you like, but others may hold no interest, in which case you might search elsewhere for a themed collection or just read certain selections here. But for those wanting an intro or return to the range that the horror genre has available, “Fearful Symmetries” is absolutely perfect.

Five Stars out of Five