01/12/2008. Contributed by Kelly Jensen
pub: Night Shade Books. 272 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-9780-094-5.
check out websites: www.nightshadebooks.com
An anthology is like a treasure chest, a mixture of pieces. Some shiny. Some multi-faceted. Perhaps a rusty bit here and there and, of course, the gold. Night Shade Books is garnering a reputation among fans of Science Fiction and fantasy as being a purveyor of varied goods. Like that treasure chest, they have a varied offering of shiny new authors mixed liberally with the golden veterans of the genre. A
n apt illustration of this mix is their new anthology, 'Fast Ships, Black Sails', edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. After exploring the worlds of 'The New Weird' and 'Steampunk', the VanderMeers have collaborated once again on a collection of pirate stories. Featuring well-known authors Kage Baker, Michael Moorcock, David Freer, Eric Flint, Naomi Novik and Garth Nix, this collection also showcases some lesser known (to me) and newer authors, many of them collecting their own private hoard of awards and accolades.
Your voyage into unchartered waters actually begins within the belly of a large fish. Not an auspicious beginning, you're thinking, but wait, it gets more...interesting. The 'fish' is actually a Boojum, a creature of deep space. They evolve in the 'high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants' and resemble 'vast spiny lionfish'. In my own mind's eye, I pictured them as huge whales with spines and fins.
The Boojum Lavinia Whately (absurdly named for a carnivorous plant) is a pirate vessel crewed by characters like Captain Song, Dogcollar the chaplain and Black Alice, a junior engineer. Keel-hauling is still done in space and doesn't sound pleasant. During a pirate raid, a mysterious and disturbing cargo is discovered and taken aboard, only to be reclaimed later by angry traders who 'harvest' more of the same cargo from the crew of the Lavinia Whately. Black Alice survives this fate, while simultaneously 'freeing' the Boojum from service and they both head out to 'The Big Empty' of deep space.
Written by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, both newer authors rapidly accruing awards, critical acclaim and loyal fans, 'Boojum' is a great starting point for the anthology. Pirates are a recurrent menace in any good space opera and I was mildly disappointed there wasn't more Science Fiction in this collection.
Moving on, we meet Castor Jenkins in 'Castor On Troubled Waters' by Rhys Hughes. According to the author notes, Hughes plans to write exactly one thousand 'items' of linked fiction. I wonder if Castor's tale of woe features into this project. The story begins with a card game which after being forced to abandon his 'special' deck of cards, Castor loses handily and immediately sets out for the cash machine in order to make good on his loses, only to be abducted by pirates on the way back. You're left to judge if the yarn he subsequently spins is truth or fiction.
One of the funniest stories in the collection would have to be 'Skillet And Saber' by Justin Howe. Have you ever seen the fabulously popular Japanese TV show 'Iron Chef'? Set it on the beach of a deserted island. One pirate crew pitched against the other. One chef is passed out on the sand, presumed dead, his enchanted skillet burning the hands of any who touch it. The other chef is the opposing captain's mother. The resulting dishes are judged by the two captains, one whose body is being held together by tar and rum barrels, the other who barely retains a hold on his own mind. Insanity and hilarity deftly told by a young author with several stories now under his belt.
'The Nymph's Child' is one of those perfect pieces of short writing. Grace Lark, known and feared during her pirate career as Gregory Lark is 'retired' and has been raising her daughter Kate in a way that would encourage her against going to sea. But when Kate learns of her mother's history and exploits and the chance to live the life presents itself, she is off to sea with her mother's heart and words of wisdom to guide her. A well-written and sentimental tale, 'The Nymph's Child' is none-the-less packed with pirate adventure, written by Carrie Vaughn, better known for her books about a werewolf named Kitty.
One of my favourite stories in this collection has to be 'Pirate Solutions' by Katherine Sparrow. Three friends find a bottle of bone rum and drink it. After hallucinating, they pack up their computers, buy a ship and become pirates. Sailing to an uncharted destination, they dig up their treasure, another case of bone rum. Upon drinking each bottle they hallucinate further and stuffing notes into the empty bottles inviting others to find them, they build a community or 'collective' on the island. Each new group finds its own cache of rum and sends out more empty bottles, their numbers growing exponentially.
But their spread across the island is not the only viral activity going on. They all brought their computers, equipment and solar arrays and after mounting a mission to splice into the trans-Caribbean cable, these pirates are on-line, spreading 'Pirate Solutions' beyond their sandy shores.
There are eighteen stories in 'Fast Ships, Black Sails', many more worth reading though I've detailed only a few. While pirate stories naturally lean toward the fantastic, you'll find great variety here. These pirates battle against the law, mythic creatures and each other. They come in all shapes and sizes from puppets, rats, cats, geeks and feisty young maidens to your more traditional peg-legged, hook-handed parrot friendly sort.
They're not always sailing the high seas, neither. Sometimes they fly over it in airships or skate across its frozen surface and that's just on Earth. While I could have mentioned the stellar entries from award-winning authors Michael Moorcock, Naomi Novik and Garth Nix, I knew you'd want to read them anyway. Delve more deeply and you'll find that the brass shines as brightly as the gold and like any treasure chest, the variety sparkles and spoils you with choice.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA