A Quest-Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic
It’s a cumbersome title, but it truthfully advertises the theme of this anthology. “We turn to quest stories to learn how to be the heroes of our own lives,” Margaret Weis writes in her brief introduction. Maybe so, but I turn to books for sheer escapist pleasure, and I was amply rewarded by this treasure trove comprised of eleven gems mined from a wide range of talents, each of whom brought a unique voice and vision to the ensemble.
C. J. Cherryh leads off with “Gwydion and the Dragon,” a short piece set in a might-be Wales and told in her inimitable style, part stream-of-consciousness, part high fantasy flourish. It includes all the classic elements you’d expect; a young prince and his loyal friend, a princess or two, a dragon and a curse. Gwydion’s heroic intentions come to naught when he is trapped by his own sense of honor, and it is up to his friend Owain to finish the quest and save Gwydion’s inheritance. It turns out that princesses do not always need rescuing.
Tanya Huff has her tongue firmly in cheek in “Mirror, Mirror on the Lam,” a droll pastiche of knavery in which Magdelene, also known as the most powerful wizard in the world, teams up with a thief to steal back that which the thief has stolen: a powerful demon imprisoned in an enchanted mirror. Quick, before a blundering bureaucrat completes his spell-casting and gets more than votes for his efforts! And if the thief manages to steal a corner of Magdelene’s heart along the way . . . all’s fair in love and war.
We get both love and war from Orson Scott Card in “The Bully and the Beast.” This fairy tale gone awry is the story of an ambitious count in love with his own conceits, a princess whose beauty is only skin deep, a simple but good-hearted giant, and a dragon who cannot bear the truth. Card’s gift for turning expectations inside out continues to surprise and delight me. Initially I was scornful of Bork, the clumsy giant, but Card soon had me rooting wholeheartedly for his hero as Bork blundered from one herculean labor to another in his quest to win the hand of the princess. The wisdom he gained along the way was not what he set out to achieve, but it served him better than love in the end.
Death is the theme of the somber “Misericorde” by Karl Edward Wagner. Four thoroughly unlikable villains, a conniving and deceitful woman, and a cunning, merciless assassin--and not a hero in sight. But a quest is undertaken and fulfilled nonetheless, for a price. Not a tale for the squeamish. And about as different as could be from Poul Anderson’s raucous tale of the adventures of Cronkheit the Barbarian, a broad parody on the heroic fantasy in vogue when “The Barbarian” was first published in 1956.
An anthology of quest stories would not be complete without a tale by Michael Moorcock, and “The Lands Beyond the World” will not disappoint fans of Elric of Melnibone. Weis chose to end the anthology with Moorcock’s classic from 1953, but my personal favorite was Neil Gaiman’s “Chivalry.” I was hooked from the first sentence: “Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.” She buys it from the Oxfam shop, along with some paperback romances, takes it home and cleans it up. And it looks nice on her mantle, between a small, soulful china basset hound and a photograph of her late husband, Henry, on the beach at Frinton in 1953. Then Mrs. Whitaker has liver fried in breadcrumbs, with onions, for dinner. She is the most ordinary of people, a pragmatic pensioner eking out a simple life comprised of mundane routines; the quest in this story is not hers. When Galaad shows up (complete with shining armor and white steed) to offer her first gold, then enchanted sword, in exchange for the cup on her mantlepiece, she is not impressed. But when he offers her a two-for-one trade, Mrs. Whitaker proves that though she may be old, she still has a sharp eye for a bargain.
Though none of the stories are new for this anthology, they were published in such a wide range of magazines over a forty-year time span, making this collection is a worthy endeavor, and a worthwhile addition to any fantasy-lover’s bookcase.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu sa 05.22.02