Hit and Miss

I may have mentioned that I visited the used bookstore on Monday, the observed holiday.  And, as has become my wont, I bought an anthology or two.  Today’s I didn’t even think twice about grabbing off the shelf – edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois?  That’s just begging to be read!  And the title, Dangerous Women: Part I.  I do love tales of women in positions of power, rather than subservience.

Instead of being the final entry, Martin’s novella is the first in this particular anthology.  And whereas the last story of his I read, “The Mystery Knight,” gave me reasons to consider reading A Song of Ice and Fire, this one…had a different result.  Entitled “The Princess and the Queen, or, The Blacks and the Greens” with a futher subtitle “Being A History of the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of that Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown (here transcribed by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN).”

This is an incredibly unwieldly title, and sounds very dry.  Unfortunately, the so-called story is worse.  It is a good eighty pages of Martin listing off events that happened in Westeros before his series began.  Literally, that’s all it is.  There’s a quote on the front cover of the book about this story, saying “Martin’s story reads like an outline for a Game of Thrones prequel that never was.”  In that case, I’d much prefer he fleshed it out into a full novel because I’ve had history lectures that were far more entertaining.  I even had some faint flashbacks to when I attempted to read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and suspect there may be some similarities, though it’s been too long for me to properly remember.

I may not be an avid reader of Martin’s, but this was still a disappointment.  The man is talented and I do understand it.  I have two copies of his short story “The Ice Dragon,” and I’m damned proud of it because that tale is terrific.  This though…this is just…ugh.  If not for the fact that it’s canon background information on Westeros, I’d take it to be some highschool student’s failure to attempt writing a short story.  It could have been a gripping novel, filled with intrigue, betrayal, and war.  Instead, it was a dry recitation of events that, presumably, most fans already knew or guessed at.

The second story in this volume is “Raisa Stepanova,” and it is one of the more conventional in this book, at least as far as what I was expecting from the title.  It’s the story of a Russian pilot, a member of the woman’s wing.  In fact, that setting sounded so familiar I had to stop reading and check to see if I already had this story.  (I didn’t, though I did find three other tales from Carrie Vaughn in my collection.)  Still, I do like reading about the women who helped their countries in the World Wars.  I do know that most of these stories are only based on facts…but those facts exist nonetheless.  Somewhere in my library is another story about female Russian pilots, but I’m not sure where.  Still, this was a good read and I was happy to find it.

Third up was “Second Arabesque, Very Slowly” by Nancy Kress.  I do apparently have one other short story from this author, but the title alone brings nothing to mind, and I’m disinclined to grab the book and see if it jogs my memory.  This one I was less than interested in simply for the dystopian setting.  I’ve mentioned that the only post-apocalyptic books I’ve truly enjoyed are Mercedes Lackey’s Hunter and its sequel Elit, and that’s still true.  “Second Arabesque” was interesting, and I give it credit for not having zombies or superpowers or whatever, but it’s still not my first choice.  At least it has a hopeful ending.

“I Know How to Pick ‘Em” by Lawrence Block is…I don’t even know how you’d categorize this one.  Fiction, sure.  Maybe crime?  I don’t think it’s a mystery…I just have no idea.  This is the story that I’m still trying to understand how it fits into the anthology.  The man, our protagonist whose name is once given as Gary but that’s probably a lie, is clearly in control of the situation the whole time, even though he usually gives way to the woman, whose assumed name is Claudia.  Between the first person perspective (from the man’s point of view) and the probable namelessness, you can easily read this as a power fantasy.  Which seems to defeat the purpose of an anthology titled Dangerous Women.  This was the point where I started wondering if I would actually bother keeping this book.

Then we get to “My Heart is Either Broken” by Megan Abbott.  This story, I could tell right away was written within the last five years.  There’s been a trend I’ve noticed, especially with writers around my age, where they like to take the “dream” we’ve all been raised to desire and peel the skin back to reveal the rotting flesh beneath.  They don’t rip the facade away entirely, oh no.  They simply poke holes into it, revealing those awful secrets that we’d really rather ignore and pretend don’t exist.  In a way, these are horror stories, because the people in them are so ordinary and mundane and just like us that it shows how likely some of these things truly are in every day life.  Again, this isn’t my cup of tea for every day reading, given the rather negative tone these tales tend to evoke, but I can appreciate when they’re well-written.  The protagonist in this case, Tom, is even quite sympathetic, as opposed to Lawrence Block’s man.

I was getting fairly sick of male protagonists as I came to Joe R. Lansdale’s “Wrestling Jesus” and found yet another.  Even worse, it’s one of those profoundly male stories, a kid who gets beat up by bullies, gets rescued by an old man, becomes his protege, etc.  The formula’s not limited to wrestling, of course, but wrestling stories tend to be male oriented.  As far as the tropes go, it was a good enough story, and the author’s no slouch.  But it took thirteen pages of a thirty page story for the dangerous woman to even be mentioned.  That’s almost halfway gone!  Admittedly, she did fit the bill, and everything resolved well in the end.  I simply wasn’t thrilled by how chauvinistic this anthology of Dangerous Women was turning out to be.

At least I had high hopes for the final story in this volume: “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell.”  After all, it’s from Brandon Sanderson and there are two things I know about him.  Firstly, the man writes.  He writes a lot, he writes long books, and he writes well.  I have yet to read something by him I dislike, though there’s a lot of his work I haven’t gotten around to reading yet.  Secondly, whenever you read a new world from Sanderson, it is a world.  You may not see much of how it works or what it is, but you can have confidence that he’s got it all figured out and that the rules exist and they’re being consistently applied.  Frankly, I’d be interested to know if this short story ties in with any of his existing novels…or if there’s a new book or series I should keep an eye out for, so that I can learn more about the Forests of Hell and how humans ventured there from Homeland.

As you can see, the seven stories in Dangerous Women: Part I are a truly mixed bag.  I think, for the time being, I’ll hang onto this book in appreciation of the three stories I find enjoyable.  Really, there’s only one that I’m going to flat-out refuse to read ever again, and one or two that I may choose to skip.  On the plus side, as I’ve said, there’s a couple really good stories in here that I do like.  I think my preference in the end will be to hope for collections by the authors I like so that I can get copies of these stories and be able to ditch Dangerous Women for once and for all.  If I do manage to locate Parts II and III, I’ll think carefully about buying them, and likely only do so if there are authors I trust inside.

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