Ages of Wonder, edited by Julie E. Czerneda and Rob St. Martin
Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy
26 June 2009
The old complaint goes that fantasy writing is rooted in a handful of concepts and milieus. Contemporary "urban fantasy" aside, Medieval Europe (and a simplistic, stereotyped version of it at that) is far and away the predominant one—as those hostile to the genre (prone to seeing it as all consisting of J.R.R. Tolkien knock-offs) often charge.
Of course, Robert Howard, Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock (to name a very few, and very canonical, examples) all drew on a much wider variety of inspiration in ways that no reader can easily miss. Plenty of newer authors also do this, Hugo-winners David D. Levine and Michael Swanwick coming instantly to mind. Nonetheless, there is more than a grain of truth to the basic criticism, especially where the best known and biggest-selling fantasy sagas of recent decades are concerned. (Even Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga, despite its clear use of Asian cosmology and philosophy, strikes me as having that pseudo-Medieval feel.)
Intended for those who would appreciate something different, editors Julie E. Czerneda and Rob St. Martin offer in their original anthology Ages of Wonder nineteen new tales set in (comparatively) unexplored milieus, organized into six categories: the "Age of Antiquity," from which the set pointedly overleaps the Middle Ages to the "Age of Sail," the "Colonial Age," the "Age of the Pioneers," the "Pre-Modern Age" and finally, overleaps our own day and age to the "Age to Come."
While two of the stories—Jana Paniccia's "A Swift Change of Course" (a Japanese-influenced tale in the "Age of Sail" set) and Tony Pi's "Sphinx!" (which takes place in a city somewhat reminiscent of early twentieth century Paris)—develop fully separate alternative worlds that were simply inspired by those milieus, and two more are set in the future—K. J. Gould's "Mars Bound" and Costi Gurgu's "Angels and Months"—the rest are historical fantasies, bringing supernatural elements into the life of actual eras.
In the course of doing so, many of them incorporate a broader range of cultural traditions and perspectives, as with Ika Vanderkoeck's "Crossing the Waters," in which the technology of European seafarers is pitted against the magic wrought by Malayan villagers. Three pieces deal with the experiences of immigrants to North America—Ceri Young's sensitive and well-crafted "Blood and Soil," Sandra Tayler's engaging early Industrial Age fable "Immigrant," and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's "Gold at the End of the Railroad," about an Irish railroad man and the leprechaun he meets during the building of the Transcontinental railroad.
In addition to looking to other settings, the stories in the anthology tend to eschew the familiar approaches of heroic fantasy, both sword and sorcery and high fantasy alike. There are no wandering warriors, cosmic destinies, struggles over thrones, or towering battles between Good and Evil. Rather, some add an element of fantasy to other well-defined genres—the Western in Linda A.B. Davis's "Pony Up," the archaeological horror-mystery story in Pi's "Sphinx!" and hard-boiled crime in Queenie Tirone's "A Bird in the Hand." Pi and Tirone in particular offer more than an easy tweaking of well-known conventions, Pi providing some of the most impressive world-creation in the volume, while Tirone brings enough imagination and style to her story to make the familiar noir-with-a-twist approach sparkle. (This is also the case with the futuristic stories by Gould and Gurgu, "Mars Bound" being about an elf turned astronaut in the hopes of being the first of her race to land on the red planet, while "Angels and Moths" brings a surprising and compelling twist to what initially seems like a stock situation of interstellar diplomacy.)
Other stories in Ages of Wonder draw magical elements into actual historical conflicts, as in the aforementioned stories by Vanderkoeck and Scarborough (who successfully combines a realistic acknowledgment of harsh historical realities with the whimsy one expects of a tale with a leprechaun in it), but also Kristen Bonn's "A Small Sacrifice" (in which a Native American tribe faces the westward advance of the railroads), and Brad Carson's "Here There Be Monsters," wherein a mermaid finds herself caught in the struggle between an idealistic Royal Navy seaman and a slaver plying the African coast.
Still other pieces have the feel of fairy tales. Liz Holliday's beautiful, deeply moving "Fletcher's Ghost," about a lovelorn English ship's carpenter's mate in 1762 Manila who meets a mysterious creature with an unusual request, epitomizes that approach. (It is also my pick for the best piece in the group, and one I would be disappointed to not see award-nominated next year.) Natalie Millman's "Cloud Above Water," which depicts an elemental spirit's struggle with an uncomprehending merchant literally attempting to bend nature to his will, also works particularly well on that level, and Jennifer Crow's Saint Petersburg-set late nineteenth century romance, "The Stone Orrery," also has that quality.
Even the stories in the section devoted to the ancient world (the most heavily used of the six settings included here, and also the one most easily lending itself to the usual approaches) go in unexpected directions. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's "The Curse Tablet" is the story of a young slave caught up in a struggle between two wealthy Roman merchants over a mistress, one of whom has enlisted a witch to aid him in his battle in another sort of "urban fantasy." Caitlin Sweet's "To Play the Game of Man" is a brisk, clever retelling of the life of Alexander the Great, from the standpoint of his horse Bucephalus, in this tale sent to Alexander by the Olympian gods. Urania Fang's "Mist Wraith" offers a tragic ghost story from Vietnam while Karine Sumner-Smith's "Written in Smoke" portrays a duel between two magicians in the Arabian fringes of the Roman Empire.
Predictably, the organization of this anthology referred to earlier in this review proved problematic. The breakdown of the period following the Middle Ages into a distinct and implicitly sequential "Age of Sail," a "Colonial Age" and an "Age of the Pioneers," in that order, struck me as narrowly American in perspective—so much so that I imagine some of this review's non-U.S. readers are confused by it. The colonial age here refers to the period when what would later become the east coast of the United States was a British colony—still very much the "age of sail" by any measure. (In fact, Carson's "Monsters," presumably set during the period when the British navy was actively suppressing the slave trade, is set after the "Colonial Age" stories, despite being in the "Age of Sail" section preceding them.) The "Age of the Pioneers" refers exclusively to the pioneers of the American Old West, with which the term tends to be synonymous in American usage.
The placing of the "pre-modern" age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (between the reign of Czar Alexander III in "The Stone Orrery" and the 1920s in "A Bird in the Hand") may also confuse some readers. While the editors' note tells the reader that "most historians" view the period before World War II as "pre-modern," I have usually heard and seen the term modern used to refer to the period dating roughly from 1500 to World War II or later—World War II actually marking the end of modernity for many of them, rather than its beginning. (That more widely accepted and more expansive definition of "modern" would, of course, encompass the book's four middle sections.)
It would be easy to dismiss this as a quibble over inherently tricky labeling if it were not connected with a possible geographic criticism. Western history and legend apart, these stories draw mainly on North America and East and Southeast Asia for their elements, some regions (including South America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent) entirely left out. In all fairness, however, the volume's editors do not promise a comprehensively global collection, only one that samples a greater variety of periods ("ages") and places-a more realistic object given the space limitations of the three hundred page paperback this happens to be. Of course, one can still argue that a few more stories might have been devoted to achieving greater variety (and certainly a follow-up collection would do well to include more tales from other places and traditions). Nonetheless, as it is Ages of Wonder succeeds in its goal of not only presenting the reader with a set of very good (and in several cases, outstanding) short stories, but offering a reminder of how much more there is to the genre than a large swath of opinion appreciates.