Tales of Wonder – 7/10

As one would expect from an upcoming anthology named “Tales of Wonder”, Inklings Press here treat us with an eclectic grab-bag of science-fantasy stories, channelling a multitude of influences and styles that ensures that there is something for everyone here.

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Rob Edwards’ The Lair of the Thunderlord has possibly one of the most unique models of hyper-space travel I have ever come across – what essentially amounts to voodoo. While in some places Lair feels like two story ideas battling for supremacy, the premise and the deft twist at the climax make this an enjoyable read.

Also niftily-constructed is Changeling Child, a pleasantly eerie piece of spec-fic, where science decays and blends seamlessly into folklore. E. M. Swift-Hook should equally be commended for her excellent command of the child-like perspective of her protagonist.

From the daft and the eerie the anthology turns towards Ricardo Victoria’s Kaana, which channels instead Japanese-inspired Saturday-morning cartoons. However, dialogue that might make sense on screen ends up slightly jarring on the page, and a preponderance of “telling not showing” makes the overall decent plot feel like a slightly wasted opportunity to homage and transform the source material into a truly compelling story.

Jessica Holmes’ An Honest Trader was a surprise to me. What began as a fun take on air-ship piracy (which for me evoked Treasure Planet and Final Fantasy XII, among other things), quickly developed into a tight moral thriller with a curveball twist that genuinely took me aback and one of the highlights of Tales of Wonder.

Equally imaginative is Sedna’s Hair, an offering by Jeff Provine that infuses the monotony and danger of interstellar freighting with a healthy and refreshing dose of Inuit mythology. Having read a fair deal of mythology in my time, I was impressed by Provine’s ability to weave a story in a futuristic setting while maintaining the rarefied spirit of myth intact.

Another highlight of the anthology is Brent Harris’ A Twist in Time; a loving and knowing blend of steampunk, H. G. Wells and several nods to the works of Dickens. The theft of a pocket-watch that is more than it seems leads a Victorian pickpocket on a journey into our own dystopian, ecologically-ruined future in a tale that is both a warning of what may come to pass and an affectionate nod to writers gone by.

Matthew Harvey’s A Very Improper Adventure also takes heavy influence from Victorian-set steampunk, and draws much of its humour from the dichotomy of Victorian values concerning women – prudish and assumed to be inferior intellectually to men – and the reality of our mother-and-daughter protagonists who must ward off an assassin on a Titanic airship. The romp is fun and infused with a knockabout action-film quality, although the opening where the situation is laid out in a flashback during a scolding is particularly memorable.

Grace, by Terri Pray, provides a marked change in direction. The examination of the relationship between a reclusive genius programmer and his bodyguard-cum-butler who is more than she seems provides the bedrock of this narrative; where many stories in this anthology are built on a bedrock of action, the foundations of Grace are firmly emotional. It gives the reader space to breath before the final plunge into the last story of the anthology, and it is this that gives the story its strength.

The final piece in Tales of Wonder is Leo McBride’s The Last Sorceror. This gritty dystopian future in which the last practitioners of magic are being hunted down by the government is both thought-provoking and thrilling, while the characters are well-realised and often surprise (including the author – see his blog on how one character in particular took on a life of their own). The truly climactic ending is a perfect way to round off the anthology – as with all things, even wonderment must come to an end.

Tales of Wonder is definitely worth picking up if you like any kind of science-fiction or fantasy and a willingness not to take either too seriously. Inklings once again showcase a good away of established and emerging talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of them were people to keep an eye on in the realms of fantasy literature in the future.