Monday, 29 August 2016

Rogues - Review

Traditional holiday reading involves the huge, wrist-bending saga, but my favourite books to take away on a break are collections of short stories. There's something about the ephemeral nature of short stories that fits perfectly with that strangely detached-from-reality feeling of being on holiday. This year I'm opting for three very different collections: Sandlands by Cambridge academic and novelist Rosy Thornton, The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, and here Rogues - a mostly fantasy collection edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

Given the respective genres the editors write in, I assumed that Rogues, a fat collection of short stories edited by George R. R. Martin and  Gardner Dozois, would be a mix of fantasy and SF stories, but in fact the 21 stories (mostly fairly long, in the 30-50 page range) are predominantly fantasy with a couple of crime stories and only one solidly science fiction piece.

All but a couple of the stories are good, but I was surprised to find that the ones that captivated me most were the 'straight' stories, particularly a highly entertaining tale by Bradley Denton involving the theft of a high school sousaphone and a dodgy teacher's attempts to muscle in on the action. As is the case with all the stories, the main character is something of a rogue - but also like most of them, a likeable one.

Although I'm not a great fan of swords and sorcery fantasy books, I found the short stories (which are mostly in this style), perhaps because of the tongue-in-cheek rogue main characters, highly entertaining, and in a couple of cases I noted down an author for further reading. I'm wondering if this sampler effect is why the book is such amazingly good value - a 900+ page paperback for just £2. Whatever the reason it's a great read.

Interestingly, of the three big names in the book, only one came across well - this was Gillian Flynn, whose books I've never read, but who provides a thoughtful non-fantasy tale. The story I was most looking forward to was by Neil Gaiman - and this was a significant disappointment. I love urban fantasies, and Gaiman's Neverwhere is one of my favourite books. This story is situated in the same world and features that amiable rogue the Marquis de Carabas, but it very much felt like a piece that was written because it had been commissioned - it just didn't work as a good short story.

The absolute low point for me was the George R. R. Martin 'story' that finishes the book. Even if you are a Game of Thrones fan (which I'm not), you might like to read this first to get it out of the way, as it is dire as a short story. It is to his books what the Silmarillion is to Lord of the Rings - essentially a set of background historical information but containing far too much 'history' and very little story. What it reminded me of most was that part in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when everyone is wet from the pool of tears and the mouse recites an extract from a truly dull history book as 'the driest thing I know.' It's exactly that kind of writing.

Don't let that put you off though - losing the Martin contribution still leaves over 850 pages of excellent, entertaining stories. Avoid this collection if you can't stand fantasy, but if you tolerate it, this is a fantastic (in every way) book.

Rogues is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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