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Tales from the Secret City: A Cryptopolis Anthology
156 pages

Tales from the Secret City: A Cryptopolis Anthology

Past Feature Reviews

A review by David Hebblethwaite

Cryptopolis -- a writers' group based in Austin, Texas -- offers us an anthology of ten stories by its members, each introduced by another contributor. The book is elevated above the status of back-slapping exercise by actually being pretty good -- certainly I don't feel I wasted my time reading any of these tales -- yet at the same time, it's frustratingly not good enough to be much more than pretty good. I'd say that three of the stories in Tales from the Secret City go the extra distance to become something quite special; the other seven are interesting, but stop a little short.

A typical example is the opening piece, "DMZ Angel" by Patrick Sullivan. A mysterious plague has left the world in the hands of "Freeks," zombies originally engineered to promote fast-food outlets, and now running amok in gangs. Del and Lindy try to evade them, aided by the semi-legendary Hungry Tom. What could seem laughable feels properly threatening in Sullivan's hands; the problem is that the story itself doesn't do justice to the fictional world. I'd have liked to see greater exploration of the setting, or a more complete narrative; as it is, this feels more like a prologue (though nevertheless well written) than a self-contained story.

Contrast this with Sharon Casteel's contribution, "Dance of Life and Death," set in a society of intelligent insects. As with "DMZ Angel," much of this story's effect comes from having to "decode" the world (so much so that it would do the tale a disservice to describe much more). But reading the nine pages of "Dance of Life and Death" is like seeing the whole of Casteel's fictional setting at once, and the effect is dizzying -- a superb piece of fiction.

"Reform" by Melissa Tyler is another story which lacks that extra something. Our narrator desperately wants an architecture internship, but she'll need an "A" in Comparative Religion. So she goes along to the "Reform Vodoun" temple, the only one of its kind, where they've worked out how to preserve the spirits of the deceased -- just don't call them z*mb**s. "Reform" is nicely amusing, but that's about all there is to it.

Which is not something that can be said of "Ice" by Patrice Sarath. Somewhere in Europe, Delacoeur, an injured ice hockey player, has travelled to the city with his team. In a bar, he encounters a woman appearing in the ballet Giselle (and whose name may also be Giselle). After going to see a performance of the ballet, Delacoeur finds the lines between reality and ballet becoming increasingly blurred. There's nothing forced about the way Sarath handles all this; finishing "Ice" feels like waking from a dream except this one, welcomely, doesn't evaporate once it's over.

The third of my favourite stories in Tales from the Secret City is "Race to the Noonie" by Matthew Bey. Any kind of summary is just going to make it sound weird -- which, frankly, it is. Dean of Cosmology Franz-Joseph Babbock and Glodgia Prix, Assistant Protocol Officer at the palace, are sent, at royal behest, from the Patchwork Kingdom, to find the "noonie," the cleft that will allow access to the unknown underside of their flat world, before the Greys get there... See? I told you it was weird. But, thankfully, it's not weird for the sake of it; there's enough substance to the story to make it fun rather than tedious, and a fine way to round off the anthology.

In short, there's plenty of good stuff in this book, and some very good stuff. I don't hesitate to recommend it; and I trust that the "Secret City" won't be all that secret for much longer.

Copyright © 2008 David Hebblethwaite

David lives in Yorkshire where he reads a lot of books and occasionally does other things. His reviews have appeared in various venues and are all logged at his review blog. He also maintains a personal blog, Reading by the Moon.

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