Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Urban Fantasy Anthology (edited by Peter Beagle)

Peter S. Beagle is probably best known for his book The Last Unicorn though I think my favorite novel of his is A Fine and Private Place. His work has a certain quality about it that makes it unique, so when I heard that he had edited a collection of urban fantasy short stories I was definitely intrigued by the notion.

The title of the collection is The Urban Fantasy Anthology, and is divided into three sections covering three broad sub-genres of urban fantasy.

There's the kind of urban fantasy that Peter Beagle wrote in A Fine and Private Place. Charles de Lint writes the same kind of thing as does Emma Bull, Terri Windling and many others. I've called this kind of urban fantasy "contemporary fantasy" because it might not be urban and it probably doesn't feature things like werewolves or vampires.

Then there's the paranormal urban fantasy. To paint in broad strokes this kind of fantasy is at least nominally noir in style and centers around a mystery that needs to be solved. Most of the heroes are women, with a few notable exceptions (chief among them Harry Dresden). They also tend to run towards long series.

Finally we have a category that's a bit harder to define and explain, but which I like to refer to as the New Weird (though I know that there are others who dislike that term). Authors like Chuck Wendig and Joe Landsdale write in this category. Tim Powers might be classified as New Weird, because his novels aren't "urban fantasy" in the sense that's been made popular, but they aren't really the same style as de Lint or Beagle either.

In this collection Beagle has stories from each of these types of fantasy. Since it's Beagle I tend to expect both a certain type of fantasy as well as a certain quality. The first expectation was shattered. The second wasn't.

The book is laid out by sub-genre, with an essay before each section and an overall introduction by Beagle. The introduction gives a brief history of the genre, and does a decent job of it. Charles de Lint provides an introduction for the contemporary fantasy section (which he calls 'mythic fiction'). Paula Guran writes an introduction to the paranormal fantasy section and Joe Landsdale writes an introduction to the "New Weird" section.

I was mostly disappointed in the introductions. I like de Lint's best of all because he actually gives some history of the sub-genre. In my opinion if you're going to be writing an introduction to a section in a short-story collection you should at least provide some sort of connection to the short stories in the collection. If you can't do that an interesting or new take on the genre would be great. By far the weakest portions of the book were the introductions.

Of the three sections I thought that the Paranormal section was the strongest. Some of the other sections had better stories, but I don't think there was a story in the paranormal section that I didn't like.

My notes are a bit jumbled from my reading but I did want to highlight some of the best stories from each section.

Mythic Fiction

Bird That Whistles--Emma Bull
What can keep a fey creature tied to one location except for excellently played music?

Make a Joyful Noise--Charles de Lint
Great little short story based on Native American mythology and centered around two raven sisters in the big city who try their hand at doing a good deed with their trickery.

Goldfish Pond and Other Stories--Neil Gaiman
A screenwriter goes to Hollywood to work on his script and learns about the history of the town.

Paranormal Fiction

Seeing Eye--Patricia Briggs
A blind witch needs to help a policeman find his werewolf brother.

Companions to the Moon--Charles de Lint
A woman thinks her husband is cheating on her and finds that it's not quite what she thought it was.

Hit--Bruce McAllister
A hit man is given a job by an angel (and by that he means a real live honest to God angel).

New Weird
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown--Holly Black
Some people try to get into Coldtown to become vampires. Some try to get out.

Talking Back to the Moon--Steven R. Boyett
In a post-apocalyptic landscape two odd companions wander.

The Bible Repairman--Tim Powers
He doesn't do that kind of job anymore, but he has extra incentive this time.

Overall I'd rate the book at 4 out of 5 stars. There are some big names in the urban fantasy field who have contributed stories, and almost all of them are worth reading.

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