From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Four New Australian Anthologies

Legends of Australian Fantasy
Edited by Jack Dann and Jonathan Strahan

Belong
Edited by Russell Farr

Scary Kisses
Edited by Liz Grzyb

Baggage
Edited by Gillian Polack

A review by Rich Horton

Australia has quite a busy publishing scene in SF and Fantasy for a relatively small (demographically speaking) country. There are two fairly regularly appearing print magazines (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Aurealis), and each year sees a number of original anthologies as well. To hand I have four 2010 anthologies, three from small presses and one from a major publisher. Not all of the books are restricted to Australian authors by any means, but in the way of things the majority of stories here are from that continent.

I’ll state upfront that not one of these books fully satisfies. Each is ambitious in its own way, and each has some nice work, but across the board I’d say there are two many minor stories, and indeed occasionally some very weak work. But for all that, there is, as I said, some nice work in each of these books: Let’s celebrate that.

I’ll begin with Scary Kisses, an anthology of paranormal romance. Here the stories are aimed quite directly at a popular contemporary theme—or subgenre. There is often (not at all always) an Australian setting, to boot. And several were quite enjoyable, including the two longest. “The February Dragon”, by Angela Slatter and L.L. Hannett, has an intriguing secondary world setting, and an interesting main character: a half-dragon woman who helps make magical glass—until she unexpectedly falls in love with a dragon, and has to confront a part of her nature unfamiliar to her. Kyla Ward’s “Cursebreaker: The Welsh Widow and the Wandering Wooer” has a main character cursed to break curses, who here deals with a Welsh family in which the husbands are doomed to die. Naturally, there is a twist or two behind the whole story. Among other stories I quite liked is Nicole R. Murphy’s “The Anstruther Woman”, more purely a “romance” featuring weres.

Belong has a more profound thematic base: it’s about home, about where you belong, even if that might be a distant planet, or even a parallel dimension. The stories do a pretty good job addressing that theme, if occasionally coming off a bit preachy. I particularly enjoyed Sarah Totton’s “Song of the Blackbird”, which sets up a captivating mystery as a man encounters a strange but enticing woman in an airport, and eventually tracks her to her remote home, where he learns about her unusual destiny, and where he might fit into it. Barbara Robson’s “Mrs. Estahazi” is a fine quiet piece about an odd woman who moves in next door to the narrator’s house. She’s foreign, so is regarded with suspicion. Only, how foreign is she? And Carol Ryles closes the anthology with “Deeper than Flesh and Closer”, a fine pure SF story about conflict between people living in a heavily bio-tech oriented village and others living in cities who fear the “nants” that support the bio-tech.

Baggage has a similarly profound – and in some ways outright similar – thematic base to Belong. The book is concerned with the cultural baggage we carry with us wherever we go—or, more specifically, in this case, the baggage immigrants to Australia (like the U. S., largely a nation of immigrants or descendants of fairly recent immigrants) carry to their new country. K. J. Bishop opens the book nicely, with “Vision Splendid”, a rather quiet story of an outwardly fairly ordinary woman whose inner life is ever affected by a childhood vision of UFOs. Janeen Webb’s “Manifest Destiny” rather more starkly takes on Australia’s colonial history, as an explorer, a “scientific man”, comes to grief in the outback when his fellows capture an aboriginal woman. Lucy Sussex’s “Albert and Victoria/Slow Dreams” is effective and absorbing, It concerns a New Zealand tour guide, a living glacier, and a found body. Jennifer Fallon’s “Macreadie v. The Love Machine”, about an actor troubled by the use of his image to create a sex doll, is lighter and quite amusing. On balance, Baggage is perhaps the strongest of these books—while none of the stories is a complete winner, the book is quite solid throughout.

Finally, Legends of Australian Fantasy is something of an outlier here. It’s the only one of these books from a major publisher, and it features a set of very well established authors. The concept is similar to Robert Silverberg’s Legends books of a decade or more ago: famous writers offering shorter works set (usually) in their familiar fantasy worlds. There’s a built-in problem here, which applied to Silverberg’s books as well as this one: sometimes a famous writer you don’t care for will produce a story that is faithfully consistent with his or her popular work, and if you (or I) don’t like it because we don’t like the writer’s novels. Well, we can’t blame the editors for publishing it! Here that applies, for example, to Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s “The Enchanted”, which as far as I can tell faithfully replicates her successful formula (if suffering a bit from a too abrupt resolution likely resulting from its shorter length than her novels), but which I found hard to read on the prose level. This is so for several stories here. But, ultimately, only Jennifer Fallon’s “The Magic Word”—which to me was a shaggy dog story that seemed contemptuous of its readers—is truly a cheat. But I was disappointed to not find as much really outstanding work as I’d have liked. That said, I was impressed by D.M. Cornish’s “The Corser’s Hinge”, a well-told and surprisingly dark tale of a girl kidnapped by worshippers of a vile god, and of the desperate struggle to find and free her. Garth Nix’s “To Hold the Bridge” is very satisfying: a new recruit to a bridge building company tries to defend a magical attack on his bridge. Juliet Marillier and John Birmingham show quite well in their contributions, as well. However, Birmingham’s is perhaps too much a novel extract as opposed to a self-contained story, and Marillier’s story seems likely to mean more to readers of her Sevenwaters series than to others.

Legends of Australian Fantasy
Edited by Jack Dann and Jonathan Strahan

Voyager
AU$35 | tpb | 546 pages
ISBN: 9780732288488
June 2010

Belong
Edited by Russell Farr

Ticonderoga Publications
AU$35 | tpb | 370 pages
ISBN: 978–0–9803531–2-9
April 2010

Scary Kisses
Edited by Liz Grzyb

Ticonderoga Publications
AU$25 | tpb | 208 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9806288-4-5
April 2010

Baggage
Edited by Gillian Polack

Eneit Press
Price not seen | tpb | 232 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9806911-2-2
Forthcoming 2010

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