DAW, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0659-2
Imagine this: there is a bar. It’s a magical bar in that it can travel through time and appears at any place in this world, apparently at its own whim, and its appearance changes accordingly in order for it to blend in with its surroundings. At the whim of the owner-cum-bartender, you may be served a special brew that can make a wish come true. The bar is a prison for this person, however: the person is blessed with immortality, but this person can never leave the bar. The stories in After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar feature this bar in one way or another, although, in some stories, it just happens to be the setting where fun things take place.
Benjamin Tate’s An Alewife in Kish is the author’s own spin on the events at the end of the old tale The Epic Of Gilgamesh. In this one, he presents the story of how the Ur-Bar gets its present owner, Gilgamesh, when it was originally fashioned by the Sumerian gods as a prison and punishment for Kubaba, the very ambitious lady who eventually rules her own kingdom, according to history. This is a nice way to introduce the anthology, especially because the accounts of Gilgamesh’s muscular tussles with Enkidu are charged with erotic electricity that is made even more, er, intriguing because it’s not really about sex. Or maybe it is. You know what I mean, I hope.
SC Butler’s Why The Vikings Had No Bars sees the bar popping up in a medieval Viking village, introducing the joys of alcohol, brewed by the Arabs, to the local men who are more familiar with mead and ale. What happens is a party to remember, for all the wrong reasons. This one is a darkly amusing and violent tale, but while I enjoy it, I feel that the author’s inserting some contemporary “violence is wrong, these Vikings are wrong” disapproval of those guys’ beliefs, through Odin himself, is an unnecessarily preachy thing to do.
Jennifer Dunne tells the story of an unwise Roman emperor who wants to achieve glory for his dynasty in a manner he is ill-suited for in The Emperor’s New God. It’s a nicely written tale, but it’s essentially another “love peace, go study your books, because war is bad” tale at the end of the day.
Barbara Ashford has a very quaint and entertaining tale in That Tale That Wagged the Dog. Tam Lin is transformed into a Border collie by the Queen of Faerie as punishment for his efforts to leave her court, but that doesn’t stop him from shagging – or humping the legs – of any female that gives him the time of day. He hangs out with other characters from folklore at the bar. Recently, he hooked up with a selkie – bestiality is okay if both partners aren’t human, naturally – only to have the selkie lost her skin and be stuck in her humanoid form. Oh dear, what will happen now? Tam Lin is such an unrepentant rascal, he’s most amusing and almost adorable, heh.
Sake and Other Spirits by Maria Synder takes place in a medieval Japanese village terrorized by a blood-sucking kappa. Of course, there has to be that feminist heroine that challenges the establishment – our heroine Azami – who is wiser than all the guys around because they are blinded by male arrogance while she, by virtue of her amazing female intuitive and intelligence, is all that and more. This one is also a very readable story, if predictable.
Kari Sperring goes to France in The Fortune-Teller Makes Her Will, where it is the mystics, oracles, and fortune-tellers that are target of the witch hunt instead of aristocrats. A lady’s maid feels reluctant compassion when a fortune teller’s simple daughter is dragged to prison to face what seems like inevitable death sentence, but the Ur-Bar may have a solution to her dilemma. This one is the author’s personal A Tale of Two Cities. It’s not bad, but it begs me to compare it to that other story despite my better judgment, and, naturally, the other story is better.
DB Jackson blames the Great Boston Fire of 1872 on the wish-granting brew of the Ur-Bar in The Tavern Fire. Okay.
In Patricia Bray’s Last Call, she offers a darker look into the mind of the big boss of a secret cabal of warriors against evil paranormal woo-woos. This one feels largely unsatisfying because of the way the author rushes through things – understandable given the circumstances, but still – but it leaves a pleasant bittersweet aftertaste, so to speak, that I like.
Seanan McGuire is next with The Alchemy of Alcohol, and it’s amazing how the author manages to introduce a new urban fantasy setting vividly enough to pique my interest, insert an adorable female protagonist, and put together a story that brings me a smile to my face. It has little to do with the Ur-Bar theme, though, as the author replaces Gilgamesh with our bartending alchemist heroine. Her bar ends up being a battle zone among two powerful factions, but don’t worry, she can deal with things just fine. This one is easily my favorite of the bunch.
Juliet E McKenna’s The Grand Tour is all about how tolerance and understanding can make the world a better place. Of course, those scumbags that shot at the good guys in the World Wars still need to be exterminated with extreme prejudice. No goodwill and love for them! It’s all so touching, really.
Laura Anne Gilman’s Paris 24 tells me that it is fine to have middling ambitions and wanting a life free from stress and uncertainties, as long as you are certain that you are happy with what you want. Or something. Following the previous story, this one makes me feel like these authors are aware of some kind of inadequacy in my life and are now lecturing me to change… something.
Ian Tregillis presents a guy who is so afraid of getting married – he’d rather play the field – that, when he ends up sleeping with a girl whom he can barely stands even as she adores him, and she gets pregnant, he starts to freak out. Steady Hands and a Heart of Oak tries to pass off commitment-phobia as some kind of noble sacrifice, when I personally think the guy is just being unnecessarily melodramatic. Then again, the story is set in 1940, a time before Oprah, so maybe I should be more understanding.
Avery Shade tells of a woman sent from the future to the present day, to collect and study genetic materials of living creatures that have long become extinct in her time. In her time, people all share the same hive mind and many fun things are forbidden. Naturally, she likes the life here better so she’s now unsure as to whether she can go back to her sterile time. Forbidden is, like most of the stories here, pretty readable while it lasts. It’s very predictable, though.
Jackie Kessler’s Where We Are in Hell is a nice companion piece that sheds some light into a previously unexplained development in her Hell on Earth books, but as a standalone story, it doesn’t really make much of an impact.
Finally, Anton Strout is up with Idzu-Bar, where the Ur-Bar is now is a future where the zombies are everywhere. One night, a stranger with a guitar shows up to entertain the guests, while a bartender plots to steal the man’s guitar and money after the show. This one is actually a fun read, but I can see the twist coming from a mile away. Also, I’m quite disappointed that there is no story to provide some closure to the Ur-Bar itself.
Taken as a whole, the stories in this anthology are a good way to pass the time, although most of them are either too short to leave much of an impact or telling me something that I have read many times before. While I don’t feel that this is a “must read” anthology, it’s a decent way to forget the tedium of, say, a long plane ride or something similar.