Many themed anthologies have difficulty sticking to their nominal theme. The more ethereal the theme, the more the stories tend to wander. Most often, they seem in fact to be mere compendia of the stories the editor could dig up, with little in the way of connective tissue. This anthology is no different. "Extreme" means different things to different people, I suppose, and certainly I could construct a case for why each story is extreme, but in simply reading through them, I certainly wasn't often struck by the thought "Wow! That was really far out!"
That's not to say the anthology is bad; it's not. In fact, most of the stories are quite good, and it's nice that the editor, Michael Ashley, made an effort not only to find new stories, but to include older ones that he felt strongly about. As with anyone else's taste, there are hits and misses, but they're mostly pretty solid hits.
Despite a cover suggesting epic fantasy, Ashley's taste seems to hew much closer to the urban/historical realm. Relatively few of the stories take place in created universes, and some of them could just as easily be classified as horror or something else than fantasy. That was a disappointment, despite the quality of the stories.
Some of the highlights:
- Elric at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock - I start with this because it was the most surprising. Who would look to Moorcock for humor - especially about Elric, the gloomy Prince with a soul-eating sword? Certainly not me, so this was an especially fun discovery. I grew tired of Elric many years back, but this is a whole new take on him and much of Moorcock's Eternal Hero cycle that's not afraid to make a little fun of itself.
- Sandmagic, by Orson Scott Card - A classic by Card about the perils of power.
- A Ring of Green Fire, by Sean McMullen - I know McMullen only from his longer work, which is generally good, but has ups and downs. It was nice to read a short piece, and this one (about a man's struggle to cure a highly personal malady) was well done.
- Tower of Babylon, by Ted Chiang - I'd never encountered Chiang before. This story, combinging Babel and Babylon, was intriguing and well written. It was stronger on journey (construction of the tower and an assault on heaven) than arrival, but still a good read.
- Lost Wax, by Leah Bobet - I've read some of her short work before, but this piece, even with its somewhat unresolved ending was stronger than most of what I've seen. It deals with the efforts and hopes of a floor-sweeper to magicians.
- I am Bonaro, by John Niendorff - the editor suggests this story will stay with you, and I think he's right. It's a short piece about a man on a search, but it delivers a powerful impact.
- Using It and Losing It, by Jonathan Lethem - Another author new to me. This story about the power of language is both dark and striking.
- Boatman's Holiday, by Jeffrey Ford - What exactly does Charon do when he's not on duty. Another story stronger on journey than arrival, but well worth reading for its unusual setting and descriptions.
- Cup and Table, by Tim Pratt - A very unusual quest for god. This, unlike some of the others, is good most of the way through, but it's really the finish that makes it worthwhile.One of the reasons I read anthologies is to discover new authors. I can't say this selection drove me out to immediately pick up anyone's books, but there are certainly enough interesting new names that I'll keep an eye out for them should I see them again.
One of the reasons I read anthologies is to discover new authors. I can't say this selection drove me out to immediately pick up anyone's books, but there are certainly enough interesting new names that I'll keep an eye out for them should I see them again.
Overall, this anthology stays no closer to its nominal theme than most such books, but it's a strong selection of good Earth-based fantasy nonetheless, and worth exploring, especially for the reduced price you can now find it at.