A Bard, a Prostitute, a Soldier, & a Cat: Enticing Fantasy Shorts
It’s been a long time since I actually had a box of chocolates, but I remember looking at the just-unwrapped package with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, because chances were just as good I’d select a yummy morsel (coconut creme, maybe) as a yucky one (like the dreaded cherry cordial). (And yeah, I know there are supposed to be certain shapes for the various flavors, but I never bothered memorizing them... hence all that uncertainty.) Anyway, the point is that not even the fear of biting into something I really dislike deterred me from enjoying my little box of choccies.
So, when a friend recently gifted me with A Fantasy Medley 2, a collection of four short stories written by popular fantasy authors (and based in the worlds they’ve already created), I treated it the same way as those long-ago boxes of chocolates--with equal parts excitement and concern. And, although I’d previously only read one of the authors in the collection (we’ll call her my coconut creme), I kept an open mind about the other three; you just never know when you’re going to find a delightful treat.
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The collection starts off with Tanya Huff’s “Quartered,” the tale of a young female bard, Evicka, who’s been tasked with spying on a married assassin couple in a remote corner of the kingdom. As she travels across the countryside, singing songs relaying history to the groups of people that she meets, she tries to pry gossip out of anyone who might know something of use to her (but with little success). Not until she finally reaches the assassins' small camp does she understand the truth: what her boss is actually afraid of, and how reality is similar to--and different from--it.
This story was the least effective to me, particularly as a standalone. While I finally got the gist of who--and, more importantly, what--the main characters were, after having read several pages in, it still felt like diving headfirst into the middle of something going full-stream... and me, without a life preserver. Bottom line, it’s an interesting story that didn’t feel entirely complete on either end.
Amanda Downum’s “Bone Garden” is the second tale in the collection. A young man who’d escaped a grim life of deprivation by moving to the big city and finding work as a part-time prostitute/part-time actor, finds himself unexpectedly drawn back into the world he’d fought to leave, when a cousin shows up out of the blue, needing his help... not to escape or for money, but to save the city’s lost children from a vengeful--and hungry--group of deadly spirits.
I found “Bone Garden” considerably more effective in this format; it no doubt complements Downum’s existing work (which I’m not familiar with), but also reads as a complete short story, and is quite good.
Jasper Kent’s “The Sergeant and the General” is the third tale in the anthology. Told from two viewpoints--first, that of a medical student, then that of a soldier under Napoleon--we get the story in reverse of a man’s “golden years” in retirement and his stint of military service (which he is haunted by in his later years).
While I love the structure Kent used in telling his tale--I’m a sucker for non-sequential storytelling, every time--and found his characters and their story extremely compelling, this was also the hardest story, by far, for me to read. Why? Because I’m an animal lover, and, while retribution is eventually paid, there’s a horrendous scene of brutality that just about did me in.
The reason I received this book, though, was for the final tale: Seanan McGuire’s “Rat-Catcher,” set many, many years ago in the October Daye series--specifically, in 17th-century London... where a young prince of a cat slips out of the Court of Cats as often as possible to visit the theater, his true passion. As the young cat finds a second (and kinder) home among the theater folk (who prize him for his pest-catching abilities and his affectionate purrs), trouble brews within the court and without... as a foretold scourge threatens to decimate all of London, both mortal and fae, and a cat must make a very big choice.
As much as I’m enamored of the entire October Daye series, to date (click on “October Toby Day” over in the far-right column and see my reviews, if you’re new to the party and unaware of how very fond I am of these books), it shouldn’t be any surprise that this was my favorite tale from A Fantasy Medley 2. (Seriously, cats? I am so freakin’ IN!!) It’s also complete, easy to read (and impossible to put down)... and managed to twist my heart around inside-out via the emotional payoff.
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A Fantasy Medley 2 would be worth the price solely for the McGuire story, as far as I’m concerned... but it’s actually a nice little collection with not one, but four worthwhile reads.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Lovely Little Collection of Mousies