Rating: 5/loved (1-5/hated-loved)
(Book received free for review from Tachyon Publications.)
I don't read many books of short stories. I can recall reading only three non-Stephen King books of short works: The zombie one two books ago, a GI Joe one last year, and now The Very Best of Tad Williams. I accepted this one for review because I had loved Tailchaser's Song as a kid, and wanted to see if I'd still enjoy Williams as an adult.
While I didn't like more than half of the short stories (10 out of 17), I enjoyed the others enough to give this book a 'loved' rating. Two of the stories alone would have been worth the cost of the book. The ones I loved:
The Stranger’s Hands, the third story of the book, was my favorite. Usually I love dark, depressing endings, but this one actually bothered me and made me feel bad for days (which is a good thing, that a story can affect me so strongly!). In Stranger's Hands, the most powerful wizard in the world was an evil one. One day he decided to make a magical item that would grant the owner's deepest wish. Right after he finishes, there's a cave-in during which rocks hit his head and the injury causes him to become "simple" to the extreme (basically unresponsive to the world around him). The man who was his most loyal servant takes care of him, keeping them moving from place to place so no one will recognize the evil wizard. Eventually it comes out that by holding the former wizard's hand, sometimes peoples' deepest wishes come true. (There's funny bit about the blacksmith's wish that made me laugh out loud.) Eventually the former wizard becomes well known enough that the local authorities become aware of the miracles, which leads to the other (good) wizards finding out about him. The strongest good wizard, the former evil wizard's mortal enemy, goes to confront him... [As usual, I suggest you got the book and read for yourself, but if not and you want to see spoilers, click here.]The good wizard, purposeless without his enemy to battle, uses the former wizard's power of wish-granting to make the evil wizard whole again. Turns out the evil wizard's deepest wish was to have a chance to stop the fighting, live in peace, and help people. ("Evil" was a matter of perspective, though he did do some bad things.) The good wizard's need to have someone to fight restored the evil wizard back to his whole, healthy, now-really-evil self, and so the war started once more.
Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn, the book's sixth story, was three stories in one, weaving around the "nosehorn" (rhinoceros). In one thread, a priest questioning his faith was accompanying an artifact across the sea. In another, an artist was drawing (and falling in love) with a maid girl. He asked for her to sit for him, which she did, and he told her the tale of the nosehorn (the third thread) while he worked. [Spoiler for how things turned out.]It wasn't until the end of the story did we learn the crate the priest was accompanying held the stuffed rhino that was a character in the story the artist told, and was the subject of the picture he asked the maid to look at while he drew her. Another sad ending here; even though the maid and the artist were both lonely and attracted to each other, they didn't end up together (mostly by the maid's worry about the difference in their stations).
Not with a Whimper, Either was story #8. I loved so much about this one! It was set in an online chatroom in 2002, so there was tons of fun, dated things. The plot was about how an AI evolved from the Internet and how it interacted with everyone using it at the time. Most of the story was honestly creepy, the feeling sticking with me even when I wasn't reading. The ending had me laughing in such an odd way, an "Oh god, you guys are SO SCREWED!" sort of thing.
And Ministers of Grace was the last story, though I haven't finished it yet. I don't usually review books before I'm done, but I knew this would be a long one and I have time now, so I wanted to do it. I have less than 1% of the book left, so just a couple pages to go. Even without having finished this story, it's one of my two favorites in the book (Stranger's Hands being the other). While Hands was self-contained and felt right as a short story, I want And Ministers of Grace to be a book. A series of books! The world it's set in is so interesting. Far future, the human race living on many planets. Religion is much less widely accepted (contained to a couple planets), but much much more extreme. The main character is a Christian Warrior/Assassin, fitted with nanobots and other tech to make him better able to kill enemies of their faith. He's sent out on a mission to kill the leader of the biggest planet of non-religious people. [Spoilers back here, I'd recommend getting the book instead of clicking for these spoilers!]He fails to kill the leader and is instead captured. The interactions between this holy warrior and the female leader were just so interesting! I'd like to have seen a whole lot more of it. He was a man of faith, raised with a "chip" in his head, which gives him a nonstop feed of the voice of the "Spirit" (a woman's voice reminding him of stuff from the Bible, he finds it a great comfort). The chip was removed for this mission (so their tech wouldn't pick up on it), so the holy warrior was being confronted with all this information he hadn't known and was raised to not believe -- he hated it. I can't wait to read the last couple pages, I ran out of time before having to go to work today. I'll finish it tonight for sure.
A couple other stories I read, but didn't like much. Some Thoughts Re: Dark Destroyer (seemed like just a way for the writer to lash out at how some editors/publishers can be condescending towards authors). Z is for... (I was certain that would be a zombie story, but instead was about aliens). Monsieur Vergalant’s Canard (about two brothers and a robot? duck. I stopped reading halfway through it). Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air (a story that could have worked for me if written differently; in it god's daughter "messes up" the Earth that the angels are trying to create).
The other stories I started, but gave up a few pages in. I found that mostly it was his "funny" stories that didn't work for me. Also, all of his dragons/knights seemed to have heavy British accents, which was odd and always knocked me out of the story.
All in all, I'd strongly recommend this book. Even if you like just a couple of the stories, it's worth the cost.
Edit: Oh, interesting, turns out And Ministers of Grace first appeared in a book edited by GRRM. Warriors. It's interesting to read the review at that site, to see another take on the story.