Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch (eds.)

Wakefield Press (2003)

ISBN: 1-862546-22-3 

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in May 2006)

Forever Shores is an outstanding collection of 17 Australian short stories. The editors have specifically sought to anthologise fantasy stories. While there is always room for argument about the line between fantasy, science fiction, and other “genres”, I think that in this case most readers would agree that all these stories are closer to fantasy than science fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and struggled with this review simply because the quality of each story was so high that it made it difficult to settle on which to single out for comment.

As a collection, this also works; although the stories are linked through their fantasy theme, they are nevertheless a diverse selection. There’s a connection that makes the anthology a satisfying whole, but doesn’t produce the same-ness that can arise from a theme that is too tight. There’s variety in the length, as well. In the end I was satisfied not only by each individual story, but by the collection as a whole.

Most – but not all – of the authors represented here would be familiar to regular readers of Australian science fiction and fantasy. Certainly, there were few writers here I had never heard of. Nevertheless, this was an original volume – none of the stories were familiar to me, unlike some anthologies where I find I’ve read half the stories before in other volumes. That doesn’t mean that these are cut-rate stories, sold on the writers’ other successes; they are universally strong and well written.

The volume opens with Isobelle Carmody’s “The Phoenix”, a story that initially reads like a traditional medieval fantasy, but within paragraphs has morphed into something more complex and more ambiguous. It is a strong and powerful story in itself, and serves as a good entry to the collection. It draws you in, and makes you eager to see what else the volume contains.

Trudi Canavan’s “A Room For Improvement” was my favorite of this collection – and that was a very hard call to make. It’s a brilliant, carefully worked out tale of how her un-named protaganist finds extra time for her art. More time is a fantasy we’ve all had, and Canavan’s understated prose has a lot of impact as the consequences unfold.

“Dr Who? (or The Day I Learnt to Love Tom Baker)” by Ben Peek was a very funny tale of Matt’s only inheritance from his grandfather – a full-size cardboard cut-out of Tom Baker as the Doctor. This was a story I wished had been longer. Much as I enjoyed the other stories in the anthology, I felt that most of the authors had judged their length well; but this was one which could easily have been extended much further.

Humor is hard to write successfully, but the other overtly humorous tale in this volume – “Waste”, by Michael Pryor – also succeeded in being very funny. Pryor’s deft characterisation of the men who deal with disposing of the dangerous waste byproducts of magic had a great deal to do with the story’s success.

Terry Dowling’s “Rynemonn” deserves a special mention, being a part of his Tom Rynosseros series. Like all of those stories, this stands alone and is an interesting and lively read. However, there are deeper layers of meaning obvious to those who have read other stories in the series. I’ve read several, and have always found them engaging. It is also the longest piece in this collection, being made up of three stories and an introductory fragment. Dowling is particularly skilful in that he never stops to explain his world or what is going on to a new reader; and yet, it isn’t hard to pick up what you need to know.

Other strong stories included Marianne de Pierre’s startling twist on conspiracy theories; Leanne Frahm’s tale of desperation, obsession, and ultimate surrender; and Alexander James’ story, which benefited from his skill in conveying atmosphere and a subtle use of real people.

There weren’t any stories in this collection that I actively disliked, or which let the collection down. This is largely a testament to the high standards the editors have held the authors to. However, some of the less successful pieces were those that used themes that were more well worn.

For example, “Stone Gift”, by Robert N Stephenson was well written, but the story felt more familiar, less original, than many of the other stories in this collection. Stephenson manages it well, and in any other collection this story would be a stand-out – it is only in the context of the overall strength of this collection that it looks more average.

Similarly, “The Sword of God” by Russell Blackford is again a fine story, but with its themes of power-mongering, vampire-like drinking of blood, and changing the future, it felt familiar. Edward Burger had the distinction of presenting the story I enjoyed least – “A Gorilla Becomes a Jeep”. Athough an interesting idea, and well handled, I thought it was heavy-handed in regard to its underlying themes.

Overall, this is an outstanding showcase of high quality contemporary Australian fantasy. In terms of consistency of quality, it may well be the best anthology I’ve ever read.