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Twenty Epics
edited by David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi
All-Star Stories, 373 pages

Twenty Epics
David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi
David Moles's fiction and poetry have been published in Polyphony, Say..., Rabid Transit, Flytrap, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Asimov's, as well as on Strange Horizons. He co-edited All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories with Jay Lake.

Susan Marie Groppi is a graduate student studying the history of science at Berkeley, and a fiction editor at Strange Horizons, a free weekly magazine of speculative fiction.

All-Star Stories
ISFDB Bibliography (David Moles)
SF Site Review: All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories
Chronautic Log: David Moles
Changes: Susan Marie Groppi

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

"In an age of lengthy movie trilogies and endless fantasy novel series," the publicity sheet for Twenty Epics declares, "epics have lost their charm. There was a time when you finished an epic. When an epic left you feeling not discontent and exhausted, but joyous, melancholy, rejuvenated, satisfied -- left you feeling that you were a better person for the experience. Twenty Epics will bring that feeling back. In ten thousand words or less."

A rather grandiose goal for a themed anthology, perhaps -- and indeed, in most cases, it's hard to see how the authors of the included stories have addressed it any more effectively, or indeed any differently, from other writers of fantastic fiction who conjure up imaginary worlds or drop their characters into the midst of pivotal events. What's not in doubt, however, is that this is a superior collection -- entertaining, inventive, original, and almost without exception, very well written, with remarkably few entries that drag or miss the mark.

Inevitably, some of the authors have chosen a metafictional approach, playing on the idea of the epic rather than creating one. Taking inspiration from role-playing games, Marcus Ewert's "Choose Your Own Epic Adventure" consists of a series of story snippets, with options at the end of each to take the reader hopscotching through the text. Each series of jumps cleverly creates an alternate tale. Rachel McGonagill's "The End of the Road for Hybeth and Grinar" articulates the truth that lurks behind most epic quests: the Dark Lord is really just a plot device to get the protagonists on the road. Scott William Carter's "Epic, The" is an amusing riff on the pretensions of a would-be epic novelist (I suspect its humor will be best appreciated by other writers). And Christopher Rowe's evocative "Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms" compresses epic possibilities into a single image and a page and a half of text: one epic moment, frozen.

A few of the stories are SF, such as Paul Berger's "The Muse of Empires Lost," in which stranger arrives in a small outpost of a once far-flung galactic empire and discovers a young girl who shares his destructive power to control others' minds. Interesting world building, ambiguous characters, and a twist at the end make this one of the anthology's stronger pieces. As one might expect, however, most authors have chosen fantasy, in a wide variety of styles and settings. There are high fantasy tales set in imaginary worlds -- "The Rose War," K.D. Wentworth's lyrical account of the savage symbiosis between an army of sentient roses and the family that employs them; "The Last Day of Rea," Ian McHugh's biting take on the corruption of empires and the unreliability of the historical record. Meghan McCarron's eerie "The Rider" uses a modern setting for a tale of a woman who may have been kidnapped in childhood to another world, or who may be mad. In "Cup and Table," the always engaging Tim Pratt creates characters and situations worthy of a graphic novel, for a story that turns on its deceptively simple final line. David J. Schwartz reinterprets Norse myth in "Five Hundred and Forty Doors," a twisted tale of Valhalla, while Jon Hansen creates a myth in "The Book of Ant," a faux-Biblical account of an insect prophet, from the insect's point of view.

Two stories deserve special mention. In Sandra McDonald's "Life Sentence," a murderer repeatedly re-lives his crime and the subsequent disintegration of his life, each time going back a little farther until, finally, he has made enough alternative choices to get things right. The premise is familiar, but strong writing and excellent characterization make it feel fresh, and though the narrative doubles back on itself over and over, it doesn't feel repetitive. It's a grimly effective study of bad decisions and thwarted hopes that ends, unexpectedly, on a note of optimism. In Benjamin Rosenbaum's "A Siege of Cranes," a man returns from a hunting trip to find his village destroyed and all its people gone, victims of a witch who eats souls and rides in a carriage composed of the body parts of her victims. Pursuing her blood trail, the man crosses strange lands and encounters stranger beings; when he finally confronts the witch, she proves to be both stranger and more familiar than he could have imagined. With striking images and restrained prose, Rosenbaum creates a narrative that feels like folklore, but isn't derivative of any particular tradition. Unlike a folk tale hero, the protagonist is complexly human, and his bittersweet memories of his wife and his grief for his murdered daughter are movingly portrayed. More than many in the collection, this piece fulfills the theme of epic, with sparing but carefully chosen details that suggest, rather than define, a world of substantial depth and breadth.

Twenty Epics concludes with an Index, an annoying conceit that takes up space that would have been better used for author bios (which don't appear anywhere in the book). All in all, this is an excellent anthology; I won't be surprised to see it on awards shortlists next year.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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