by Michael M Jones
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Schrödinger's Bookshelf columns.]
As the title suggests, this anthology is quite clear inspired by the infamous Internet list of the same name (a rather nice version can be found at www.eviloverlord.com) but the stories do branch out on their own, at times. Fourteen authors take varying looks at the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the much-maligned "Evil Overlord" (also known as Dark Lord, Evil Ruler, Bad Guy, Plot Device, Antagonist, and Hero's Chewtoy...). It's a celebration and exploration of what it means to be the guy everyone loves to hate. So let's take a look at some of the stories, and see if the villains in question have read the List, and therefore know what to do, and what not to do...
"If Looks Could Kill" is one of Esther Friesner's famously comedic stories, featuring the annoyingly-beautiful elven prince, his much-abused sidekick, and an extended stay in the evil ruler's dungeon. Now, this prince is well aware of the rules of the game, specifically "The evil overlord's beautiful daughter will always fall for the hero, help him escape, and help him save the day," and he plans to use said knowledge to, well..., you get the point. Of course, things don't always go according to plan. As always, Friesner's ear for comedy, and her ability to conjure up entertaining imagery makes this a great lead story, full of self-aware humor, and ending on a wry note.
David Bischoff's "The Man Who Would Be Overlord" is the tale of a rogue who partners with a con man in a successful attempt to gain ultimate power. Of course, there's always a catch to these things, and our unlikely antihero discovers just how catchy his new position really is. Both serious and comic, this story doesn't miss a beat as it follows the protagonist through his rise and fall in fortune.
Jody Lynn Nye's "Ensuring the Succession" takes more than a hint from James Bond, as one evil mastermind does his very best to make sure that his son will have every talent, skill, and experience needed to follow in his footsteps. Of course, even the greatest plans have their flaws, or do they? Nye presents a rather sympathetic view of someone who regularly maims, murders, tortures, and kidnaps others for his own ends; it's almost a shame to see this one end.
Dean Wesley Smith turns in "The Life & Death of Fortune Cookie Tyrant," the singularly odd tale of an ordinary man whose life is ruled by fortune cookies, all of which come true for him in unexpected ways. But which rule from the Evil Overlord List will prove to be his downfall? It's an odd story, to be sure, but nonetheless entertaining.
In Jim C. Hines' "Daddy's Little Girl," we get a much more serious tale involving familial love and obligation, and the raising of the dead, when one evil overlord's daughter engages the services of her father's deceased architect to invade a forbidden citadel and finish her father's work. This one's a creepy, but effective tale.
J. Steven York gives us something straight out of a comic book, or the pulps, with "Gordie Culligan vs Dr. Longbeach & The HVAC of Doom." Invading booby-trapped air ducts of certain death is all in a day's work when you're the guy hired to fix them. But is saving the world part of the job? In this entertaining story, it might fall under 'hazard pay.'
One of my favorite rules has always been the one where the overlord runs his plan past a 5-year old to eliminate oversights and loopholes. No wonder I got a kick out of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Advisers At Naptime," in which one overlord does just that.
Tanya Huff's "A Woman's Work" features a rather likeable queen who just happens to be ruthless, intelligent, and clever in all the right ways. Though it always feels weird rooting for the bad guys, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Huff's protagonist at work.
Over in John Helfers's "Stronger Than Fate," an evil overlord faces the end of his glorious rise to power when that pesky pigtender's son comes to exact revenge in the time-honored tradition. But this overlord's been quite smart in his progress over the years, can he defeat this enemy, or is tradition (and fate) about to ensure the triumph of good over evil? Helfers lays out an intelligent tale with a rather satisfying ending.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman's evil overlord, on the other hand, seems to have lost his knack for ruling, and his subsequent stay in a villain rehab program is chronicled in "Art Therapy." Can this guy find his groove and get back in the game, or has he finally gone soft? Only time will tell.
Other authors featured include Fiona Patton, David Niall Wilson, Donald J. Bingle, and Steven Roman. All things
considered, If I Were An Evil Overlord does great justice to the concept, with more than a healthy does of
entertaining, well-told stories to make it well-worth picking up. I was thoroughly pleased with how well the authors and
editor followed through on the promise, ranging from comic to serious, insightful to self-aware.
Who doesn't love secret societies, conspiracies, and mysterious organizations? Their goals unclear, their methods inscrutable, and their influence uncertain, they're the perfect explanations and scapegoats for everything that has ever seemed off-kilter throughout the course of human civilization. From the Illuminati to the Boy Scouts, there's always someone to blame for just about everything. And now in this collection, fourteen authors risk life and limb to pull back the curtain to reveal just who might or might not be pulling our strings.
Larry Niven turns his attention towards the United States government, in "The Gatherer's Guild." Or rather, to the numerous secretive departments of the IRS, who possess technology and privileges beyond imagining. But who's behind a rash of mysterious deaths, and how does it all relate to the intricacies of the American tax system? Niven's story is tongue-in-cheek, highly entertaining, and cleverly told. Hey... it makes sense to me.
Nick Pollatta unravels the true secrets of the Freemasons, and the enigmatic, all-important Key they safeguard, in "Falling Like The Gentle Rain." It's an action-packed summer blockbuster full of twists, turns, and hidden revelations as one P.I. fights for his life to fulfill his destiny. This one may be over the top, but then again, so are many conspiracy theories.
In "Borrowed Time," Stephen Kotowych confirms what we already suspected, that there's a secret group stealing away the idle moments of our lives, stockpiling it in service to a greater agenda. But are they doing us a favor, or do we deserve every moment of our lives, even the ones we waste? There's a rogue faction dedicated to exploring this very question in this nifty little tale.
Esther Friesner breaks all the rules in "Seeking the Master," when she unravels the secrets of a most insidious organization. I don't dare give away the surprise ending, but I will say I know the secret handshake... do you? As always, Friesner's ear for dialogue and wry tone make this an enjoyable read.
"When I Look To The Sky," by Russell Davis, chronicles the convoluted tale of a man chosen to become a time-traveling assassin. In order to ensure history remains straight, he has to make a very personal decision, but does he have the strength to carry through? This one may require several readings, as it really does fold in on itself in a complex, yet imaginative manner.
Tanya Huff's master thief, Terizan, is recruited for another job, in "The Things Everyone Knows." Her search for proof of existence of a conspiracy dedicated to overthrowing the city's ruling Council leads her to the shadowy world of the recently dead, in one of her most harrowing adventures to date. But when faced with a genuine secret society, will Terizan help, or hinder them? As always, the thief's morality will lead her to find a unique solution, with Huff's trademark ingenuity.
Paul Crilley's "The Invisible Order" shines a spotlight upon a strange war raging among the Fae on the dirty streets of old London, and the effect it has upon those mortals who stumble across the hidden conflict. I daresay this one has potential for further exploration.
Also dealing with the hidden nature of the Fae in human society is Amanda Bliss Maloney's tale of secret identities and mysterious heritages in a future where technology has taken a step back, in "The Good Samaritan." No one is who, or what, they seem to be, in this story which really does deserve a follow-up or two.
Rounding out this collection are stories by Doranna Durgin, Darin A. Garrison, Janet Deaver-Pack, Janny Wurts, and Jihane
Noskateb, and Douglas Smith. As with all anthologies, there's a little something for everyone, but more often than not, these
stories genuinely entertained and interested me. It's certainly easy to see some of these concepts working in today's
society, while others, a bit more far-fetched, certainly take the theme of the collection to heart. I enjoyed this one quite a bit.
"Titanium Mike Saves the Day," by David D. Levine explores how myths are created, and how they evolve over the years. Starting in the far future, we're granted a story of Titanium Mike, a space-age Paul Bunyan, born from the union of Gravity and Vacuum, whose adventures and exploits are as impossible as they are legendary. Three more installments, each one reaching further back in time than the last, likewise tell tall tales of the mythical man, and although he may be slightly diminished in each earlier incarnation, he still proves to be both inspirational and influential in man's journey to the stars. The last story, well... that tells the truth of the Titanium Mike story, putting the perfect cap to things. This is as perfect an examination of how reality becomes legend and legend becomes myth as any I've seen, and it's a sure bet that when we really do go out into space, we'll need someone like Titanium Mike to keep us company.
In Donald Mead's "A Thing Forbidden," we're introduced to a young woman suffering from some profoundly disturbing conflicts
following her traumatic experiences as a member of the ill-fated Donner Party. A somewhat struggling Methodist, she has sworn
to convert to Catholicism, despite the reservations of others and her own internal struggles. But can she reconcile the
Eucharist -- the symbolic eating of Christ's blood and flesh -- with her vow to never again taste human flesh? And what secret
is her mother hiding from her? It'll all come to a head when an enemy tries to make Virginia choose a bloody path. This is
a thought-provoking, strange look at the nature of faith and symbolism, intent and principles, and what it means sometimes
to survive against all odds. Definitely one of those stories that sticks with you afterwards.
K.D. Wentworth's "Kaleidoscope" is the story of Ally Coelho, who, after retiring to take up a quiet life of gardening at home, begins to experience divergent timelines. One day she rescues a dog, yet her memories also tell her, quite firmly, how the dog died. She goes out to dinner with friends, yet misses the dinner altogether. She goes out on a date with one man named Barry, yet remembers an entirely different one. As the weeks pass, the prismatic effect grows worse, with people -- including a whole host of variant Barrys -- parading in and out of her life with alarming and confusing frequency. Is Ally going insane, or is the universe just indecisive where she's concerned? This is a charming, somewhat bittersweet story about how life isn't just what we make of it, it's what it makes of us. How Ally and Barry navigate through the minefield of reality's shifting decisions speaks of a lot about how we handle the many aspects of our own lives. An excellent, thought-provoking story.
Don Webb's "The Great White Bed" is a creepy, spine-tingling tale of the fateful summer one young man spends at his grandfather's
house. The old man seems to be losing his mind due to age, but the discovery of a mysterious book may be reversing the
process. But at what cost to the narrator? Something's going on, and it's taking a terrible toll in the process. Unfortunately,
there are no easy answers to the questions raised in this spooky story. Webb certainly has a knack for invoking uncomfortable
reactions, as evidenced by this story.
Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.
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