Short story anthologies are a nice read every now and then, especially if your reading time might be intermittent, as they allow you to obtain a variety of stories without the time commitment of a comparably-sized novel. That is also their disadvantage, since it can be difficult to be caught up in the stories the same way that you would be in a novel. Their other disadvantage would be that they require extra work to review, but that won’t really be a problem for you.
I’ve been meaning to read at least one of the Writers of the Future anthologies for years now, and it just never rose to the top of my reading list, despite all of the emails I get from them. It took seeing this volume packaged under the same discount as Witches Abroad for me to finally obtain a copy, and I now wish that I’d done it sooner. Anthologies can be somewhat hit-or-miss (for instance, the first Unfettered was much stronger than the sequels), especially ones catering to new authors, but this one lives up to the expectations built up around it. I enjoyed almost every story the volume features, as you’ll see from the reviews I’m about to present.
Before I do, though, I’ll also mention that the volume comes with bonus content from established authors, many of them giants in their fields. The essays were insightful, although most of them I had seen expressed in other formats by their authors before. What might be most helpful to new and aspiring authors are the biographies of each author, which are likely to give you ideas of new places to submit your own work. So, if you’re an aspiring author, definitely read this book, and if you’re not, you should still consider giving this anthology a read, because there are some great stories in it.
An interesting, if not entirely unique, take on the jinni concept, Turnabout works because of the characters, and the author’s cleverness. If it was not wholly original, it was still an enjoyable read, with a fun twist and more feel-good than I expected from its beginning.
A Smokeless and Scorching Fire
When A Smokeless and Scorching Fire starts off with reference to djinn, you might start to wonder if the whole anthology is themed around them, but it turns out that is not the case, and that this story as very little in common with its predecessor in the volume. I thoroughly enjoyed the world-building in this one, which was wonderfully inventive and conveyed almost wholly by implication and action. To be honest, it carried me through more than the characters did, who were somewhat predictable.
The Howler on the Sales Floor
I guess this story was somewhat interesting, but to be honest, it didn’t have a lot going on, and I’m not exactly certain what the point of it is. It was, I suppose, enjoyable, but there was little plot, and the characters were somewhat flat. This might have been the most generic of the stories that made it into the anthology. If you enjoy the “supernatural-in-a-generic-office” kind of thing, then you might find this amusing, but that’s about all it was.
The Minarets of An-Zabat
This story was excellent, although it was not my favorite of the whole volume (that one comes later). It had excellent world-building, interesting characters, and my biggest complaint about it is that there wasn’t enough of it. TeGrotenhuis seems like he’s trying to fit an entire novel (or maybe more than one) into a short story, which doesn’t wholly work. If there is a novel version, though, I will absolutely add it to my reading list, because all of the bones were exactly what I’d hope for in a new fantasy story.
The Death Flyer
L. Ron Hubbard
Not part of the contest, this story felt out of place to me. It’s sort of a supernatural mystery, sort of a supernatural thriller, and to me, neither very mysterious nor very thrilling, as I figured out the “big reveal” within the first few paragraphs. Considering that Hubbard’s essay on storytelling which precedes The Death Flyer is about creating suspense, I would have expected a little more, well, suspense. Plus, with a name like The Death Flyer, I was expecting something more than a ghost train. It’s not a bad story, it just was kind of generic and lacking in excitement.
Odd and Ugly
I like what Cruz was trying to do here, I really do. Unfortunately, it is described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with Philipine background, and that’s about what it is. The characters are interesting, and I found the incorporation of local mythology fascinating (as you might expect, coming from me), but the story just hewed too closely to the source material.
This. This is by far my favorite story in the anthology. It is one of the best stories I have read in a long time, and it is the kind of story that makes me wonder why I even bother to write, because surely I’ll never because able to write something as wonderfully intricate and carefully plotted as this masterpiece. The characters are compelling, the decisions they have to make striking, the storytelling eerily prophetic in places when you consider when the volume was published, the plot masterful. There is a flashback sequence woven in that seems unrelated until it becomes deeply related, and the ultimate inciting incident is exactly what I would hope for in the story. If you read no other stories from this volume, you should read Mara’s Shadow.
I’m not going to bother reviewing this one here, because Sanderson took a cop-out and just gave us an excerpt from The Way of Kings, which we’ve already reviewed.
What Lies Beneath
This was another story, like The Minarets of An-Zabat, that made me wish I was reading a novel on the main character (who reminds me a little of Verdon), instead of a short story. This would be a much more powerful piece if it were coming on the end of a couple hundred pages of learning about the protagonist’s tragedy.
The Face in the Box
Honestly, this story felt like it ended right when things were about to get interesting…and I think that was the perfect place for Bell to end it. There is a lot of world-building that is sketched out but not belabored, just enough to make us wonder what’s really going on. My only complaint is that I think Bell makes accidental computer consciousness seem too easy. Otherwise, this is an excellent piece of science fiction.
Flee, My Pretty One
This was my least favorite story in the anthology. It was a polemic, almost as overt and heavy-handed as Pilgrim’s Progress, and the story wasn’t even interesting. The characters weren’t sympathetic, their opponents were straw men, and the whole them was overdone. I’d expect this sort of thing from some teen dystopian novel that I would avoid; it does not at all match the caliber of storytelling and creativity featured in the rest of the volume. Sorry, Brodski, but if you want to write editorials, just write editorials, not thinly veiled and poorly considered allegories.
Jody Lynn Nye
Illusion reminds me of Dragonsbane, in that it is rather an unassuming fantasy tale with a surprising depth of characterization and meaning and a few twists on the usual tropes that make it much more compelling. It was also inspired by an illustration, rather than the other way around (which is how most of the artwork in the volume is arranged), which I think is a fascinating way of writing, especially short stories (I don’t think it works as well for novels in most cases).
A Bitter Thing
This was an excellent piece of hard science fiction, with convincing and actually alien aliens who still manage to be relatable. Plus, the concept that drives them is absolutely fascinating in all of its implications, which Roshak does well in exploring in such a short piece of writing. I felt a little bit like I was reading an early Asimov story, because Roshak doesn’t waste time with a lot of extraneous world-building; he just plops his aliens into modern times and calls it good enough. Somehow it works, just like it did for Asimov in so many cases, even though I can never quite convince myself to write that way.
Okay, I guess. I was hoping for more. Miss Smokey feels like a riff on the core themes of the X-Men franchise, and Hart never gives us a satisfying resolution to what seems like the core conflict of the story. I would consider reading more in this world, although it risks being too over-told. How many times are we going to tell the story of the Star-Bellied Sneeches? Yes, it bears repeating, but there just isn’t enough original in Miss Smokey for me to think this is the next telling.
All Light and Darkness
Amy Henrie Gillett
Yes, this is a dystopian story, which I usually don’t enjoy, but this one worked for me. It worked because it wasn’t really about the dystopian set-dressing; it was about the protagonist, family, friendship, trust, and loyalty. It may not have been the best story in the volume, but it was one of the better ones, and after scaring me for a moment, it left me with a satisfying note on which to end Volume 34.