I've only read one of Tad Williams' short stories before - "Child of an Ancient City", included in this collection, but previously published as a novel. I've read most of his novels, including his three massive series - Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Otherland, and Shadowplay. I've found the quality to be profoundly mixed. Much of the content is overwritten, and not highly original (The War of the Flowers was good). Still, Williams puts together familiar elements in an interesting way, and I thought it would be interesting to see what he can do when forced to a less epic scale.
The result is decent but not stunning. The writing is good, but not compelling, and the narratives are relatively simple. Few of the stories really stand out as good, though there are a couple that are pretty weak.
- The Old Scale Game - an aged dragon and an equally aged knight find common cause. Light-hearted and fun, but not very deep.
- The Storm Door - a demon hunter finds evil close to home. This stands out for the unusual tone of its ending, which I liked.
- The Stranger's Hands - a pair of mysterious strangers can grant wishes, but there's something dark behind their power. I like this one quite a lot for most of its length, but the end was disappointingly simplistic and cheapened the rest of the story.
- Child of an Ancient City - tales within tales within tales, with a vampire at its heart. Good, but too long for the ending to really work well.
- The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story - a sequel of sorts to the Otherland series, starring Orlando Gardiner, now a resident troubleshooter in Otherland. I liked the fact that Williams seemed to have actually read beyond the first book, and be a genuine fan of Oz; the Glass Cat is a key character. Well told, but again the ending is a bit of a letdown - too much buildup, too little impact.
- Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn - a priest, a maid, and an artist accompany a stuffed animal to its destination. This is one of the best stories in the book. For once, Williams reaches for an ending that's not pat and simplistic. He doesn't quite reach it, but he's close.
- Not with a Whimper, Either - participants in a chatroom deal with a crisis. Far too long for its unoriginal premise.
- Some Thoughts Re: DARK DESTRUCTOR - an after school note from one boy to another. Very funny, very well done, and by far the best story in the book. Williams find exactly the right balance of tone and content.
- Z is for... - a man coming off a drunk struggles to remember where he is. Probably the weakest story of the set. Flat, confused, and unoriginal.
- Monsieur Vergalants Canard - a purveyor of wonders talks with his brother. One of the better stories, with a nice balance and ending.
- The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of - a struggling stage magician fills in as a detective. As with so many others, a decently crafted story that fizzles out at the end.
- A Fish Between Three Friends - three friends each encounter a talking fish. Uninteresting except for one little flourish at the end.
- Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air - God's daughter interferes in the Earth's creation. This was a good idea that didn't quite take off. There are a lot of bits that could and should have been funny (the creation of the platypus), but didn't quite make it. I really wish this one had worked.
- A Stark and Wormy Knight - a dragon tells her son a good night story. Mildly humorous, but told in a clever patois that isn't nearly funny enough to hold the story for so long, and there's not that much else there.
- Omnitron, What Ho! - a young aristocrat tells how he acquired his automated butler. This one reminded me vaguely of Jack Vance - primarily due to the characters and situations, rather than the language. I liked it.
- Black Sunshine - old friends meet up again to relive a horrible episode of their youth. Written as a screenplay, which is handy in signposting the rapid changes in perspective and time frame. Mostly, I got the feeling that this could have been an effective film. As a story, the frequent references to background music are obstrusive, though I know and like most of the songs mentioned. The resolution is vague and undeveloped, but the ending works reasonably well emotionally.
- And Ministers of Grace - a trained killer prepares to take out his target, and finds himself. This had promise, though it's desperately slow to start, and the intrusive ad snippets are as irritating to the reader as to the protagonist. Unfortunately, as so often in this book, the ending is too simple to sustain the story.
Overall, good for serious Tad Williams fans, but not recommended for others.
* As a final point - the cover art is attractive, but seems to have nothing to do with any of the stories. Always annoying.