In the introduction by George R.R. Martin, ‘Everybody Loves a Rogue’, he tells us how he supported the black hats in old western television series and always had a soft spot for the less than spotless character. In real life, I’ve always felt a charming crook is still a crook and when they steal your television and kick your little dog so she’s nervous of strangers for the next six months, I feel they should be taken out and crucified. ‘Rogues’ indeed! But in fiction I’m prepared to give them some leeway.
First up is Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Tough Times All Over’ which follows a package through the sin-soaked city of Sipani after it is taken from courier Carcolf. The narrative point of view shifts every time the package changes hands so we get a look into the lives of the various thieves, brigands, cut-throats, pickpockets and moneylenders who handle it. This unusual structure put me in mind of a Tarantino film and the prose was elegant throughout. Even though the ending was a bit of a letdown, it was worth reading.
Gillian Flynn’s ‘What Do You Do?’ has adult themes as the heroine is a sex worker who moves into the supernatural trade of swindling middle-class housewives with hogwash about horoscopes and the like. Sex work is probably more honest. At a point about two-thirds of the way through, I thought this was going to be brilliant but at the end it turned out to be inconclusive or left hanging which I do not like.
Matthew Hughes contribution ‘The Inn Of The Seven Blessings’ is a tale of Raffalon the thief. I’m pretty sure Hughes sells these stories to ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science-Fiction’, wherein I have read them. They’re generally okay as is this one.
I’m a fan of Joe R. Lansdale so was looking forward to his contribution ‘Bent Twig’ which I did enjoy. It was a ‘Hap And Leonard’ thriller in which Hap goes in search of his girlfriend’s wayward daughter. She’s fallen in with a bad crowd of drug dealers and pimps. This was entertaining in a brutal way and might be optioned for a film by Quentin Tarantino. No one else could do it justice.
Michael Swanwick contributes ‘Tawny Petticoats’ featuring his rogues, Darger and Surplus. This is set in a post-utopian New Orleans run by the crooked mayor, a crooked dealer in zombie labourers and a pirate. Darger and Surplus team up with a beautiful con woman to trick this gang. The plot clicks along smoothly and it works well enough.
‘Provenance’ by David W. Ball is another thriller, this time about a missing Caravaggio painting that turns up in the hands of a crooked art dealer. He decides the best buyer is a prosperous preacher man and takes it to his customer. The story is basically him explaining the provenance of the picture and the diverse hands it has passed through to get to him. A solid mainstream story and a nice change of pace from the fantasy and Science Fiction.
Carrie Vaughn gives us ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and a pair of dames going into a Speak-Easy with an invisible entrance. M wants to speak to Gigi and her bodyguard, the narrator, is worried. Matters get complicated when a federal agent comes in, which is definitely odd as he shouldn’t be able to find the place. Many of the clientele are quite furry under their tuxedos and some have tails tucked between their legs. A nice piece of noir but it didn’t seem to have much drama.
‘A Year And A Day In Old Theradane’ by Scott Lynch features Amarelle Parathis and her gang who have retired to the city of Theradane. It takes in rogues on three conditions: 1. they pay a big fee. 2. they give up their profession. 3. they never criticise the city‘s ruling wizards. Amarelle falls foul of this last condition when drunk and is blackmailed into stealing a street, a whole street, which happens to be a locus of power for one of the wizards. It was an entertaining romp.
Bradley Denton goes mainstream with ‘Bad Brass’ in which a schoolteacher in Texas tries to make a dishonest buck by stealing from teen-agers who have stolen the school bands instruments and are flogging them on the black market. None of the characters were especially sympathetic but the real world is frequently like that.
Cherie Priest, on the other hand, gives us a very likeable protagonist in ‘Heavy Metal’. Kilgore Jones is sent to investigate the death of two men at an old copper mine, long since closed. Environmentalists have done good work to restore the devastated local scenery. Happily, under America’s next regime, tax dollars won’t be wasted on this kind of foolishness and billionaire ‘dealmakers’ will be able to rape the landscape at will and tax-exempt, no doubt. The story was a bit thin on plot but so well-furnished with good characters and nice little observations of everyday life that it worked fine.
Aside: this collection bought it home to me that the United States are not so very united after all. Even apart from the usual lines of demarcation, wealth, ethnicity etc, there are very real differences between the states and there always have been. Most dramatically, this was shown in the civil war between north and south but the western and eastern states also have different cultures, not to mention the bible belt. Unlike our own small island, the place is just so damn big! Good writers with local knowledge make it clear that Texas is very different to New Orleans and New England isn’t California. E Pluribus Unum, indeed! I hasten to add that I’ve liked every real life Yankee I’ve ever met and they are generally fine folks but it’s hard to get more than 200,000,000 people singing the same song, even an inspiring tune full of rhetorical questions.
Back to fiction. Like Mervyn Peake, Daniel Abraham dares to open his piece not with action or dialogue but with a long description of the setting. In this case, it‘s the Sovereign North Bank of the River Taunis in the city of Nevripal, which long since became lawless territory. Two pages of description before the story even starts. Bravo! These ‘rules’ for popular fiction are nonsense. ‘The Meaning Of Love’ is mainly the story of Asa who’s trying, on behalf of another, to save a fine maiden about to be sold into the workhouse. Lots of scheming and double-dealing with a twist near the end.
‘Ill Seen In Tyre’ by Steven Saylor is a story of the youthful Gordianus and his tutor Antipater in ancient Tyre where they contemplate the heroic legends of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser then try out an invisibility potion. Quite amusing, as was ‘A Cargo Of Ivories’ by Garth Nix, featuring his characters Sir Hereward, a roving knight and Mister Fitz an ancient sorcerer now in the form of an enchanted puppet. This was good enough to make me want to look up more adventures of Hereward and Fitz. I especially liked how Nix makes reference to the ancient history and lore of his world to give it more substance. The way that a theft is complicated by the presence of another thief brought to mind ‘Rogues In The House’ by Robert E. Howard.
Walter Jon Williams contributes ‘Diamonds From Tequila’ which features Sean Makin, an actor with a very large head and small features due to some medical condition. He looks like a Klingon and normally plays the heavy. This story supposes that the romances, bust-ups, betrayals and so forth of celebrities are not real and simply put on to get their names in the papers. Preposterous! More interestingly, it puts forth the notion that with 3D printers folks can print their own drugs at home using simple ingredients thus putting both big pharmaceutical companies and drug cartels out of business. Oh, happy day! Presumably you can print off the warning labels for the drugs with an ordinary 2D printer.
Narcotics also play a part in ‘The Caravan To Nowhere’ by Phyllis Eisenstein, featuring her teleporting bard Alaric, a rich desert merchant and his son who is addicted to certain white powders which make you feel like a king, for a while. The powder is a fantastical thing here but I have heard there are similar ones in real life (see previous story). They scare me, frankly, so I have never touched them. Beer is good enough.
Lisa Tuttle does a Holmesian riff in ‘The Curious Affair Of The Dead Wives’ which is okay. Neil Gaiman delivers the usual delights in ‘How The Marquis Got His Coat Back’ which takes place in London Below, the setting for his novel ‘Neverwhere’, which I haven’t read. Who reads novels, anyway? Great, long bulky things that take days to make a point. Short stories are much better. This was very pleasant. Gaiman obviously enjoys his work and gets across that stories are fun both to read and to write. There is joy in the prose, a playfulness and several moments of real comedy. Excellent.
Connie Willis has won more awards than any SF writer ever and ‘Now Showing’ about a girl going to the movies and finding a conspiracy theory is okay but a bit chick-lit for my tastes. It did remind me why I don’t go out to movies anymore.
More lightweight entertainment with ‘The Lightning Tree’ by Patrick Rothfuss. Bast works at an inn but has most of the day free for mischief such as selling lies to children and peeping at bathing girls. He does good deeds, too, so I guess he’s a loveable rogue and the story was an easy reading kind of faery tale. It’s worth saying on behalf of Willis and Rothfuss that because a piece is easy reading doesn’t mean it was easily written.
This volume closes with the lure that’s meant to make you buy it, a ‘Game Of Thrones’ novella by George R.R. Martin. ‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’ (title as in the book) precedes the novella that appeared in the ‘Dangerous Women’ anthology and is just as good. I read somewhere that it’s all based on the Wars Of The Roses. Certainly, the treachery, sexual infidelity, family rivalries, torture and murder accurately reflect the history of the British aristocracy, now seen occasionally on television lamenting the burden and responsibility of holding vast estates granted long ago to some king’s bastard.
Most of the stories are well-written by professional writers and work as smoothly as clockwork with the right amount of twists and a satisfying denouement, so it’s entertaining, and there’s certainly a lot of it! Most of the stories feature the authors’ series characters in a clear attempt to make you want more. This is a good way to taste many writers and see if you like their styles. Then you can chase up the series and characters that appeal to you for further reading. It’s a sampler and a very good one.
(pub: Bantam/Random House, 2014. 802 page hardback. Price: $30.00 (US), $35.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-53726-3
pub: Titan Books, 2014. 806 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78329-719-1)
check out websites: www.randomhousebooks.com/genres/science-fiction-fantasy/ and www.titanbooks.com