Paper Cities, edited by Ekaterina Sedia
Senses Five Press (288pp) $14.95
Paper Cities is subtitled “An Anthology of Urban Fantasy”. “Ahhh!”, I thought, “A bunch of stories about irruptions of magic in a contemporary city. (Probably either Minneapolis or Seattle, or somewhere in Canada.)” Not sure how many of those I could have stomached all in a row, fine as they can be on occasion. But this book defines “Urban Fantasy” rather more expansively. Indeed, the great bulk of the stories are set in secondary worlds, albeit indeed in cities in those worlds. There is no question that makes the book more interesting in a sense. In many cases the “urbanness” of the stories is sort of a side issue, at least in that many of the stories are not in any real sense about the experience of living in an urban environment. Which doesn’t mean they don’t work!
Instead, the single element that marks many of these stories as “urban” fantasy is the way that their fantastical cities are central to the interest of the narrative. That is, they are not just a backdrop, or a convenient setting, but integral to the story. Indeed, these are “stories about cities” more than “stories about living in a city”, if you see what I mean. So with Cat Rambo’s “The Bumblety’s Marble” is believably set in a fantastical city and redolent of that city’s atmosphere, as it tells of a girl happening onto the title marble, then feeling obligated to return to a boy she meets from the underworld who says it is his mother’s heart. And with Jay Lake’s “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable”, a dark story of the initiation of a girl into an order of “Sisters” in the title city. And “The Title of this Story,” by Stephanie Campisi, about a man whose job is to assign names to things, and his difficulty titling an obscure religious book from a distant village. And Ben Peek’s “The Funeral, Ruined,” about a city of cremation ovens and Morticians, and a woman mourning her lover, whom she calls dead—but he, perhaps, disagrees. Richard Parks’s “Courting the Lady Scythe” tells of a lower class man’s infatuation with the Lady who serves as the executioner in his town. The results of his scheme to meet her are predictable, but well told. The story is at one level fairly traditional fantasy, but it does tell —sort of behind its ostensible central story—the story of a city.
Other fine stories turn on striking central images, as with Vylar Kaftan’s “Godivy,” a very odd very short piece about an ambitious office worker and his unusual office, complete with living photocopier. Or Kaaron Warren’s “Down to the Silver Spirits”, in which a couple find a highly unusual way to have a baby. Or Greg van Eekhout’s “Ghost Market,” about buying ghosts, of course, but more sharply about the worst consequences of such a market. And Barth Anderson’s “The Last Escape” is a oddball little piece about an oddball escape artist making trouble for the rulers of a curiously isolated island city in time of plague – central here is not so much an odd image as an odd character. One story I both enjoyed and found frustrating was Cat Sparks’s “Sammarynda Deep,” which tells a moving and original story of a woman coming to her lover’s home city after the war they fought in is over, trying to find him and learning why he left. I thought the point-of-view choices were a bit off, and the setup a bit too labored, but the story I detected behind all that is lovely.
There are other strong stories here, by the likes of Anna Tambour, David Schwartz, and Jenn Reese; and only a couple real disappointments, most notably Hal Duncan’s piece, which is, as ever with him, very strikingly written, but, as too often with him, doesn’t tell a coherent story. The book on a whole is a strong, original, selection; giving a useful reinvigoration to the idea of Urban Fantasy.—ISBN: 978-0-9796246-0-5—reviewed by Rich Horton