Sunday, September 28, 2014

September's Book: Songs of Love & Death

Songs of Love & Death ed. by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Science Fiction / Fantasy (2010 - 468 pp.)

Songs of Love & Death is, as advertised in the book's dust jacket, a "star-studded cross-genre anthology" replete with "brand-new tales of ill-fated love". While some of the stories end more happily than this, the theme holds generally, as even the more fortunate characters endure hardships that thrust their relationships into jeopardy. There are seventeen stories in total, ranging from 15-39 pages, each by a different prolific science fiction or fantasy author. That George R.R. Martin is one of the two editors is what grabbed my attention at first. I had not read any of the authors here before.

As with any anthology, Songs of Love & Death is up and down. There were times when I couldn't stop reading it and times when I had to force myself to keep going. The former made up for the latter. The opportunity to sample so many authors is one of the biggest draws of a book like this, so I could see reading 15-39 pages of a bad story being worth not having to read 300 pages of something I wouldn't like later. I read the book over the course of twenty-four days (September 3-26), reading a maximum of one story each day, so it was a far more methodical read than my usual mad dashes near the end of the month. (This is especially apparent in my reading of Maus, which began on July 31 despite being July's book, and in numerous 2012 Book a Week entries.) 

Some of the stories kept me in suspense the whole time - I've shown them in my "Highlights" section below. "Rooftops" is as swashbuckling as an urban low fantasy story can be, although the end is frustrating. "Hurt Me" is the most chilling story in the whole book, giving the reader a feeling of something wrong yet mysterious lurking throughout the plot. "The Thing About Cassandra" is likely the best written and also has some interesting plot twists, although the end is a little confusing. "His Wolf" plays with the editorial edict of writing a story about lost love in the most playful way found in the entire book. "Kaskia" combines an '80s nostalgia sort of cyberpunk with a decidedly modern narration style that places it firmly in the (almost) present day. "The Man in the Mirror" takes the sort of setting "Hurt Me" has but replaces the horror with something closer to warmth but not quite there. "A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows", the final and longest entry, is a WWII fiction story with just enough of the supernatural to break it away from pure historical fiction, which is an interesting reprieve from the aliens and sorcery throughout many of the others.

Not all of the stories connected with my admittedly at least somewhat fantasy nerdy self. Some of the stories ("Demon Lover", "The Wayfarer's Advice", "Blue Boots", "You, and You Alone") are essentially teen fiction, which immediately limits my attachment to them. The semi-frequent loss of female virginity theme ("The Marrying Maid" and "Blue Boots" come to mind first) drives home this dissonance between my experience and that of a possible different reader, given my understandable lack of experience in this realm. "Love Hurts", the book's initial tale, occurs in a pre-existing universe I had never explored before (Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series), so although I enjoyed the plot, I had a more difficult time appreciating the titular character than a reader who is already a Jim Butcher fan would have. "Courting Trouble" and "The Demon Dancer" fit very traditionally into their genres (science fiction and urban fantasy respectively), making them fun getaways from my usual reading but not the highlights they would likely be to devotees of those genres.

A minor qualm that comes up in a few stories is the use of slang while in third-person omniscient. As effective as it in dialogue to show many characters' informal speaking styles, in the third person it breaks from the atmosphere of having everything be descriptive and value-neutral. It is also a little jarring to see modern-day turns of phrase in historical settings, even when said by characters who speak casually. The juxtaposition of historical setting and modern diction is difficult to deal with effectively, though, as the alternative is often anachronistic over-correction.

Something particularly stunning about my apparent lack of science fiction and fantasy knowledge is that every one of these authors has written dozens of books (over a hundred, in the case of a couple), yet I had only heard of a few of the authors and only a few of the awards they've won. Whether I look further into many of these authors probably hinges on whether I happen to run into their books at a bookstore and find them interesting, which is of absolutely no help for anyone seeking recommendations, I realize.

Oddly, two of the best stories, "M.L.N. Hanover's "Hurt Me" and Yasmine Galenorn's "Man in the Mirror", involve similar concepts. In each, a deceased man haunts a woman under similar circumstances. Frustratingly, many of the best stories were the shorter ones. For a particularly annoying example, Neil Gaiman's "The Thing About Cassandra" is only 15 pages long.  Similarly, "Hurt Me" is only 19 pages. As someone who generally veers toward short rather than long, in everything from writing essays to listening to albums, I suppose it makes sense I'd prefer the shorter stories. Diana Gabaldon's "A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows", the longest at 39 pages yet also at the upper end of a strong second tier of this book's stories, is a notable exception to this very loose rule.

"Rooftops" by Carrie Vaughn
"Hurt Me" by M.L.N. Hanover
"The Thing About Cassandra" by Neil Gaiman*
"Kaskia" by Peter S. Beagle
"Man in the Mirror" by Yasmine Galenorn (unsure if Michael Jackson reference is intentional)

A full list of the stories is here.

*I recently bought Neil Gaiman's Coraline. Considering I've been recommended Gaiman's work on numerous occasions and Coraline is my favourite movie of 2009, I anticipate only good results. Stay tuned for this one in a future installment, Gaiman fans.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 1

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