Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"Powers of Detection" review

The introduction to this book sets a somewhat ambivalent tone. While Dana Stabenow’s tongue-in-cheek manner made me grin, I felt somewhat put-off by her definition of fantasy as “woo-woo” in the introduction of a speculative fiction anthology. Her self-deprecation doesn’t go far enough to cover a slightly sour first impression.

“Cold Spell” by Donna Andrews is a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek story about the young apprentice to a malady-afflicted sorcerer. She ends up along for the ride when he is summoned to solve a murder. Almost every piece of information in the story ties in a neat and satisfying fashion into the conclusion – without feeling too pat. Unfortunately, what this story lacks is context. Why is Gwynn outside of the door of the Headmaster when the story starts? Why doesn’t he find this odd? Why not send another mage to solve the murder if the one requested by the duke is under the weather? Compressed detail is a virtue in a short story, but this one eliminates to the point of feeling generic. The duke, the king (named what? Of where?), magic vaguely described and some of the rules provided too late in the story – these elements don’t kill “Cold Spell,” which is still a satisfying read, but keep it from being truly immersive.

“The Nightside, Needless To Say” by Simon R. Green, on the other hand, exudes context and flavor, packing a potent combination of a gritty other-world, a noir plotline and a wise-cracking narrative. As a newcomer to the Nightside, I found this slice of the setting cohesive and intriguing. I didn’t even feel I needed the introductory scene explaining the nature of the Nightside. This is a fast-paced, entertaining story that unfortunately ends a bit lopsidedly – like the author had some kind of set word count and realized they had to tie it off soon (I’ve been there!) – and like me, you may see it coming. I was also distinctly off-put by the author using bodily functions to make a story point. As to the plot, mystic detective Larry Oblivion has a personal problem. A big one. To say anything else might give the game away.

“Lovely” by John Straley is a bird’s-eye view – literally – of a murder. The narration is swift and entertaining, and the story moves at a lively clip. One really gets inside the head of the raven-turned-inadvertent detective, and the story is the perfect length to sustain the somewhat limited vocabulary and syntax Straley uses to enhance the viewpoint. The only flaw here is that an important event in the end is too casual, an unsatisfying accident.

While “Lovely” was not openly comedic, it definitely had its moments. By now, I’m beginning to wonder if there should have been a “humorous” in the anthology title.

“The Price” by Anne Bishop is the second story in this collection set in the same world as one of the author’s series. Former assassin Surreal investigates three deaths … in a society where murder is not a crime, an interesting twist. Unfortunately, the balance of background and action here is uneven, with several patches of explanation that are obtrusive or clumsy. Even at that, I was not totally sure of the society being portrayed because there were so many comparisons drawn to places and people that didn’t need to be referenced. The character of Surreal is intriguing and sympathetic, and I would enjoy another peek inside her head … and “sidekick” Rainier provides some very satisfying moments. Though I was somewhat annoyed by the cameo of high-powered assistance (both novel protagonists) near the end of the story, I cheered the eventual denouement.

“Fairy Dust” by Charlaine Harris was, for me, a lively introduction to the world of Sookie Stackhouse, who is recruited by fairy twins (or is that triplets?) to solve the murder of their missing third. The prose is clean and quick-paced with a nice dose of humor and the bizarre. The fact that most of the suspects work at a strip club is handled without turning gauche, though there was a part in the story where I had to think, “Geesh, everyone here is horny.” A nice dose of madness in a tight, tidy package. I thought this was a great introduction to Sookie and her world, and it made me glad that I have “Dead Until Dark” waiting on my bookshelf.

“The Judgement” by Anne Perry is a witchcraft trial set in an amorphous world, where Anaya – our heroine but not protagonist – is charged with killing her sister’s husband when he spurns her sister’s advances. This story is told in a unique omniscient point of view and in general carries it off with grace, though the switches don’t start early enough to sustain the style smoothly, and it is somewhat hampered by Perry’s decision not to give the Prosecutor, Defender or Judge proper names. The conclusion is foreshadowed and paced to perfection, though the story could been told in a more compressed form. I confess that the twist in the end – after the solution to the crime – missed me entirely. It didn’t seem to fit.

“The Sorcerer’s Assassin” by Sharon Shinn is a delightful story about the mayhem that follows when one of the quarrelsome senior mages in the Norwitch Academy is found dead … and his contentious colleagues are left to put the pieces together. The main character’s misanthropy and the office “politics” are narrated with panache, and I couldn’t help rooting for her – even as I recognized that if I ever met someone like this, I’d want to throttle them. I particularly liked the element that the narrator, though in charge of the investigation, was a suspect herself … and had to put up with being investigated in turn by her own prime suspect. I only had a few small quibbles. The initial arguments of the sorcerers sometimes seemed too childish for grown adults. I also felt that the spell which saves the narrator later on was misrepresented as being common practice, which makes its crucial influence feel cheap.

“The Boy Who Chased Seagulls” by Michael Armstrong is an intriguing urban fantasy story that slowly unveils both the central mystery and the fantastic element. Uncle wanders the beaches, picking trash and beach glass according to precise rules. It is when he catches a boy chasing seagulls and decides to tell him a cautionary tale that this work of fiction takes wing. Armstrong does a great job of making the ordinary rich with detail, though there are couple descriptions in the internal tale that break the otherwise absorbing mood. I do question whether this story belongs in this anthology, as though there is a mystery, there is no crime and no process of detection.

“Palimpsest” by Laura Anne Gilman follows the team of Wren – a magic-using Retriever – and Sergei on a museum heist that turns into murder. The characters are likeable, the nature and consequences of magic intriguing, and the story whets the appetite for more. Unfortunately, I felt that the murder was an afterthought, inadequately explored and somewhat confusing, while the heist – though worth reading the story in of itself – carried a disproportionate weight. The conclusion, nonetheless, is an enjoyable one in large part because of this emphasis. One minor quibble: Wren seems to have an inordinate number of alternate names. I’m sure there’s a story behind this, but it’s distracting in a work of short fiction.

“The Death of Clickclickwhistle” by Mike Doogan is a madcap science fiction story – the only one in this anthology – of two young men, one diplomat and one ship’s officer, who stumble upon the corpse of an alien representative. This story is quick-paced and humorous, with interwoven pop-culture references that feel fairly natural, and entertaining takes on the difficulties of inter-species translation. A particular highlight is the bizarre menagerie of alien species Doogan introduces. There is so much going on in this story that it can become easy to lose track – and the narrator is largely passive through most of the second half of the story, dragged along by his officer cohort. Still, this story strikes an excellent balance between parody-and-humor and a believable element, from first page to last.

“Cairene Dawn” by Jay Caselberg is a story with a subtle speculative element, but one that will quickly become apparent to students of mythology as narrator Jacques looks for the dead husband of a mysterious woman. The strength of this story is the well-realized atmosphere of Cairo and the familiar myth that is never quite brought to the surface – a fleeting touch of the supernatural. At times, the story bogs down in the sheer amount of detail in the setting, much of which is unnecessary for the eventual denouement. The conclusion may come as no surprise, but it brought a grin to my face.

“Justice is a Two-Edged Sword” by Dana Stabenow is the story of two women appointed Sword and Seer by their country to dispense justice. Once the body of an unfortunate young girl is discovered – and the two main characters find themselves forced to solve a crime in the middle of the night and in the middle of a mob – the investigation and the evidence build nicely. There is a surprising but fitting sentence for the guilty party. However, while I appreciated the stylish way Greek mythology was woven into the underpinnings of the setting, I felt there was too much description of the background and most of it was placed too early in the story – there are multiple pages of history and explanation before the story’s central problem of the murder. It always seems a bit self-centered when an editor puts his/her own story in an anthology, and I question whether this story was exceptional enough to merit it.

Overall, this was an enjoyable anthology with some interesting worlds and flavorful narration. Most of the mysteries are solid and easy to follow, while still holding surprises for the reader. Some of the stories have problems with too much or too little worldbuilding, and what’s interesting is that the writers who seem to have difficulty aren’t necessarily those from the mystery background. A few stories rush or slight the mystery elements, but stand as solid tales in their own right. Out of this collection, “The Sorcerer’s Assassin” was definitely my favorite and seemed the most cohesive blend of fantasy and mystery here, though each story has a unique experience to offer.

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