From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Double Review: Wings of Fire/Sympathy for the Devil

Wings of Fire
Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon
Sympathy for the Devil
Edited by Tim Pratt

A review by Rich Horton

Night Shade Books is one of the most impressive “small presses” in the business—and indeed they are one of several small presses who demonstrate that the division between “small press” and “major publishing house” is less clear than ever before. Certainly, in the SF field, many of the most important new releases come from the likes of Night Shade, Prime, PS Publishing, and Subterranean, among other “small presses”.

One of the most significant things small presses do is publish anthologies. Night Shade has, over the last couple of years, published several striking mostly reprint anthologies, on various fairly broad themes. Here in the summer of 2010 we see two more, one a collection of stories about the devil, the other a collection of dragon stories. Both are obviously significant Fantasy tropes, with a plethora of excellent short stories to choose from. And the editors, in each book, select some exceptional stories, a nice mix of fairly familiar work and worthy lesser known pieces.

Wings of Fire has a distinct bias toward recent work, but Sympathy for the Devil harks back to the nineteenth century for first-rate stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Louis Stevenson, and even farther back for an extract from Dante’s Inferno. There is also a Mark Twain story from 1904 and first rate mid-twentieth-century selections by Theodore Sturgeon and John Collier. In part I think this is purely a reflection of the currency of the two themes—dragons are a favorite of genre fantasy, but, it seems, were less prevalent in the pre-Tolkien days, while the devil has been a character in fiction for a very long time indeed, and is not a particularly common (nor uncommon!) subject today.

All that said, Sympathy for the Devil also includes excellent recent work. Space forbids much discussion here, but I was delighted to see Kelly Link’s “Lull”, a very odd story that begins at a lull in conversation during a poker game, and unpeels several layers of narrative to end up telling an odd and sad story of a marriage; and Michael Chabon’s witty and dark, rather Lovecraftian, “The God of Dark Laughter”; and especially Jonathan Carroll’s “The Heidelberg Cylinder”, a distinctly offbeat story about the dead returning because Hell is running low on space. Indeed, the term offbeat describes much of this book, which also includes very fine stories by such first-rate writers as Elizabeth Bear, Neil Gaiman (twice!), Andy Duncan, and many more.

Wings of Fire is also mostly reprints, but it does include two original stories, both very good. Holly Black’s “Sobek” is about a girl whose mother is insane, and worships a crocodile god, who demands a sacrifice. So the girl ends up in the sewers—and the denizen of the sewers turns out to be not quite a crocodile, as the anthology’s theme suggests. And Margo Lanagan’s “The Miracle Aquilina” is also about a girl mistreated by a parent—in this case, the narrator is disobeying her father’s wishes, so he forces her to witness the punishment of a woman who refused the King’s advances … a punishment that results in a miracle—but not necessarily in the end consolation.

There is something more conventional, I think, about how the genre sees dragons than how it sees the devil. So the stories in Wings of Fire seem on the whole less “offbeat” than those in Sympathy for the Devil. But they still involve, in many cases, reimaginations of the idea of the dragon. One of the most striking for me is Michael Swanwick’s “King Dragon”, the germ of his excellent novel The Dragons of Babel, in which the dragon is a sentient fighter plane of sorts. Another quite famous quasi-Science Fictional view of dragons is Anne McCaffrey’s “Weyr Search”, the Hugo-winning first story in her long Pern sequence. More traditional, but excellent, is Ursula Le Guin’s lovely early Earthsea story “The Rule of Names”, for example. There is an extract from Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. The book closes with the first story in Lucius Shepard’s long cycle about the sleeping, perhaps dead, dragon Griaule: “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”. All the Griaule stories rank among my favorite Shepard works, and this is one of the best of them.

Again, it’s a long book, and full of goodies—other excellent contributions are from Pat Murphy, Patricia McKillip, and Robert Reed. Both these books rank as first-rate pieces of canon-building—documentations of some essential shorter works about fundamental fantastical tropes.

Wings of Fire
Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon
Night Shade Books
$15.95 | tpb | 512 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59780-187-4
June 2010
Sympathy for the Devil
Edited by Tim Pratt
Night Shade Books
$15.95 | tpb | 448 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59780-189-8
August 2010

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