Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Jack Dann

Harper Voyager (2010)

ISBN 978 0 7322 8848 8

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

The premise behind this anthology seems essentially to have been that Australian authors would contribute short stories set in worlds they had already created, which would fill in certain plot elements or backstory, though there’s one story that doesn’t fit this mould. The difficulty with such a premise is that, if you are not familiar with every single author’s work, you might find that you only read or enjoy a handful of the stories. Of course, the other possibility is that it could act as a gateway to work you’ve not previously encountered. Happily, the latter case was largely how this anthology worked for me. I only knew the worlds of three stories in this anthology: those created by Garth Nix, Isobelle Carmody, and D M Cornish. I’d read some works by Sean Williams, Jennifer Fallon, Juliet Marillier and Cecilia Dart-Thornton, but not from the worlds represented here.

The first story is contributed by Garth Nix, and is set in his Old Kingdom where Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen were all set. “To Hold the Bridge” is set in the Old Kingdom, where magic is real and nasty critters might come get you if you don’t know the right Charter mark (enchantment). Morghan is a young man, down on his luck, hoping to join the Bridge Company and thereby find both gainful employment and a secure bed (and food). Morghan himself is a likeable fellow – it was enjoyable to follow his discovering about the Company, and his fellows. Some of the other characters were also amusing – none too similar to another – and it’s clear Nix has a wealth of stories about this land just bubbling away inside his head. I don’t know whether it would be as engaging to someone without knowledge of the Charter and its magic from the novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve not read the Black Magician trilogy, so I was dubious going into Trudi Canavan’s “The Mad Apprentice.” However, even without background knowledge of the world and characters, I still rather enjoyed it. The siblings Tagin and Indria had a complex relationship that felt plausible. I liked that while they – and Tagin’s ultimately-destructive actions in particular – were central to the story, other points of view were also introduced, giving a well-rounded narrative. I’m not sure whether I want to rush out and buy Canavan’s novels, but I’m pleased this was included in the anthology.

A tale from the Sevenwaters series, “’Twixt Firelight and Water,” is Juliet Marillier’s contribution. I am often a bit suspicious of attempts at Celtic fantasy, because I’ve read a few too many bad examples; it’s why I’ve not read this series, despite adoring Marillier’s YA novels (Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret). Marillier does it fairly well, weaving Celtic myth into a plot that’s not completely beholden to it. It’s a somewhat complicated story, with multiple levels of narrative operating that occasionally make it hard to remember what the point of a particular event is. I enjoyed most of the character interactions, although the main female character towards the end – Aisha – annoyed me a lot.

I adore the Obernewtyn chronicles, so to find an Isobelle Carmody story set in that world was a great delight. “The Dark Road” is set well before Obernewtyn begins, and fills in some of the little details that long-time devotees might be curious about – about the world and how it got the way it is, about some of the people groups, and the origin of some traditions. I think, although of course I can’t be sure, that this would be an accessible story to those unfamiliar with Obernewtyn, too. There is no pre-supposed knowledge; instead, it can be read as a post-apocalyptic tale, following one woman’s attempt to fulfil what might be her destiny. Hannah is a wonderful character with whom it was impossible for me not to empathise. Although bleak, the story is also hopeful; I think it might be favourite of the entire anthology.

As with my doubts about Celtic appropriations, overt Anglo-Saxon or Viking similarities can also set me on edge; it’s the curse of being a medieval historian. So Kim Wilkins’ “Crown of Rowan,” set in her world known as Thrysland, was also not really going to be my thing. It combines a love story, a country’s struggle about either staying with its old gods or going over to new ones, as well as internecine strife between neighbouring kingdoms. For me, this was too close to the story of early medieval England, with little new of interest added. I didn’t find the characters particularly engaging or sympathetic.

Sean William’s science fiction is wonderful, but I’ve not read his fantasy stories; “The Spark (A Romance in Four Acts): A Tale of the Change” was my first foray there. I think this is one of the stories in the anthology that definitely benefits from prior knowledge, because I felt like I was lacking the necessary information the whole time I read. Adi and Ros were interesting enough characters, but it was obvious I wasn’t getting all of the subtle references a more well-versed reader would have – there were issues I just didn’t understand. That said, Williams writes exceptionally well, and the structure of the story is a clever one. And he manages bittersweet very well: neither as a cop-out from a tragedy nor a blight on a happily-ever-after.

D M Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo is one of the YA series I have immensely enjoyed over the last couple of years. “The Corsers’ Hinge,” set on the Half-continent, was one of the stories I was really looking forward to, and I was not disappointed. As with some of the other stories in the anthology, Cornish plays with structure and point of view to great effect here, which he doesn’t in his novels. Here, a corser – someone charged with finding appropriate dead bodies for those who need them – finds himself entangled with the Half-continent equivalent of a private investigator. As with the Carmody, I think this story would be accessible to readers unfamiliar with Cornish’s other work. The one thing I would warn potential readers about is his tendency to use madey-uppy words. This usually gets up my nose, but Cornish generally manages it such that it’s not (too) annoying.

Ian Irvine does a clever thing with his story: it’s set in the world of his forthcoming novel, so while it ties in with his other work there’s no sense (if you read this story soon) that you might be missing out on things that other readers already know. And, of course, in writing it Irvine has had to be careful with details, and not assuming knowledge. “Tribute to Hell” is quite a good story, dealing with the trouble mortals can find themselves in when they get involved with the gods. Irvine’s gods are quite Greek, in many ways; by no means pure and good, and just as prone to rivalry, boredom, and nastiness as the humans they interact with. “Tribute” is an amusing, rollicking adventure story, with a cute little twist. This may be my favourite of the stories set in a world I didn’t know.

John Birmingham’s story, “A Captain of the Gate,” is the exception in this anthology: it’s an entirely standalone story, as far as I can tell. It falls squarely in the alternate-history genre, in which America invaded Japan rather than using atomic bombs to coerce its surrender. It follows an ordinary soldier, Branch McKinnon, through his experience of that invasion and subsequent events. I don’t know enough World War 2 history to know precisely where and with whom Birmingham is playing games – aside from the obvious – but it’s certainly an interesting idea.

Jennifer Fallon contributes “The Magic Word” to the collection, and it is very hard to know how to review it without giving away the entire plot. I will simply note that you can read it without knowing any of Fallon’s other work, although of course you lose some subtleties; the twist is clever enough, although a bit too cutesy for my liking; and I didn’t find any of the characters developed enough to be especially engaging.

Finally, for me this anthology ends on a bum note. I am most definitely not the market for works by Cecilia Dart-Thornton: I do not enjoy “olde-worlde” language for its own, supposedly-elegant sake; I am not a huge fan of damsels staring lovelorn out the window for no particular reason. So “The Enchanted: A Tale of Erith” is not my cup of tea. That said, there are some entertaining enough characters – especially Thrimby, the brownie – that I did keep reading right to the end, to find out exactly what the star-cross’d lovers would have to do, and how they would find their way our of various entanglements.

This anthology is a remarkable look at the contemporary fantasy scene in Australia. It’s not a particularly deep look; with a relatively small number of authors, it is by necessity broad. It gives a good cross-section of the types of fantasy being written, showcasing up-and-comers (Cornish) next to the establishment (Carmody). Thoroughly recommended for fans of fantasy – you may not enjoy every single story, but there will be at least a few that float your boat.