Dagan Books, $4.99, ISBN 978-0-9831373-9-9
With the rise of reader devices, it is probably timely – if somewhat ironic since this anthology is most likely read on an electronic reader device – that Bibliotheca Fantastica serves up stories mostly revolving around books and, often, how reading is an integral part of living. Reading is crucial for the spread of knowledge need to build and maintain civilizations, keep us enlightened – that kind of thing. Since this is a fantasy anthology, often, the books are quite… magical.
As in the case of the first story, Garry Kilworth’s The Secret Atlas, where a perfectionist inter-dimensional explorer discovers a book that allows him to change the geography of the world as he sees fit. First to be sunk is Australia, because his ex-wife moved there with a new love, and it’s downhill from there. He means well, but most control freaks are like that, no? This one is a pretty whimsical story despite the global apocalypse happening among the pages, and I like it.
Andrew S Fuller’s The Crimson Codex is a space tale revolving around a bunch of people who live in a time when some aliens have taken over and planted chips in each of them, so that they would receive only knowledge allowed by these alien rulers. Books are illegal. These people have removed their chips and are on the run, meeting up with another species who is carrying the last copy of a sacred book. They would make copies of the book and distribute them, when they are not having orgies – everyone needs a hobby, after all – but things never go as planned. This one is decent, although there are too many things happening here and everything ends up all crammed up within the limited number of pages.
David Sklar’s The Philosopher’s Nectar isn’t about a book, but it attempts to combine the thirst for knowledge with the suffocating conformity of the hive mind along with some inter-species insect sex (don’t ask). This one has me thinking for a second about profound things in life like how I’d fare if I were a bee – maybe life would be boring – but only for a second, as it’s too short to grant me enlightenment or anything close to that.
Megan Arkenberg is one of the few authors who choose to portray books and knowledge as dangerous – some people always want to stand out from the crowd in a radical way, I guess – so she offers The Gallery of Vespasian Marat, a horror historical story in which the narrator catalogs several unusual artifacts in the collection of a mysterious reclusive woman who vanished after a fire consumed her home. The stories behind these artifacts come together to give a sinister picture of the events leading up to this “accident”. This one is interesting, conceptually and thematically, but the execution doesn’t work for me. I can’t help feeling that the narrative lacks that compelling factor to keep me reading, I don’t feel any tension or build-up, and when I reach the end of the story, my reaction is pretty much, “Okay, that’s it? Let’s move on now.”
Lydia S Gray is another author who chooses to go all “Ooh, knowledge is dangerous!” as her story, The Book of Doors, presents the corruption of the protagonist, a teenage girl, when she finds a book of magical spells. This story also has the charming theme of “girl who dates several guys = whore”. Look, can we keep this “happy girls are whores” thing out of my fantasy stories? I come across this theme way too often in those so-called “new adult” stories, and I’d like that theme to be confined there like a plague in a quarantine zone, that I can avoid by staying far away.
Michael J DeLuca is next with Other Palimpsests, where our narrator in a future setting, a failed academic, discovers that his late uncle spent his last days frantically trying to write again. Writing, along with books, is dead as far as the people of that time are concerned, so our hero is puzzled by the reasons that could have compelled his uncle to not only try to write but to create his own ink and paper in the process. This story presents an interesting look at how information dissemination can lead one to a state of utopia that can make one feel… discontent. Yes, you may scoff at the whole thing as the philosophy of a grognard unable to embrace progress, but this story resonates with me to a considerable degree.
Ray Vukcevich’s The Go-Between is a time-travel story about a girl who reads a book in the future, discovers that the book is about her and she’s in love with the author, somehow travels in time to meet our hero, and asks him to travel back in time to meet the author and tell him she loves that man, after which the girl decides to kill herself. This sounds like another “a man’s love is so amazing that a woman is destroyed without that man, while he himself stoicly moves on, feeling blessed at being loved this much” nonsense that Nicholas Sparks passes off as “romance”. Let’s just move on.
Yarrow Paisley wants to write a sexy story about sexy times with a lynx, in a story called Lynx, but forgets to use the right sexy words and, instead, serves up a weird Fifty Shades thing that… let’s move on, shall we?
JS Bangs goes all Arabian Nights on me with The Typographer’s Folly, which revolves around Asref trying to produce the perfect copy of a book that will just sing and dance off the pages. This one could have a memorable read if the hero had cut down on his wringing of his hands, cried less often, and given up less easily at the slightest obstacle. He is basically pushed all the way to his happy ending, often despite himself, so when the happy ending arrives, I can’t get too happy about it.
AC Wise’s The Book of Her is either a botched effort at erotic writing or a clumsy effort to equate writing to mental masturbation.
Next, Todd T Castillo’s Where Love Is Written, which is a sappy story of a book who finally finds an owner that loves him to read him always and cherish the memories they share together. I’m the person who cries every time I watch movies involving valiant dogs overcoming disasters and obstacles to be reunited with their owners, so this one gets to me way more easily than I’d have liked to eat. So don’t tell anyone, please.
George S Walker’s story Cathedral Rising isn’t about books as much as it is about the need to share and spread knowledge instead of hoarding it. The complete opposite to Michael J DeLuca’s story, come to think of it. A former soldier guides a priest to a cathedral that sprung up overnight, only to discover that the local kooky lady, whom everyone dismissed as a crazy person, may be speaking the truth about the secrets of the cathedral. This one has action, a disillusioned hero who is nonetheless a knight in all that rusty armor, and good build-up and pacing. I like this one.
Ursula Pflug’s The Dream of Trees is about a woman who just can’t remember the name of her husband and some other important details of her life. This one is very prettily written, and ends at just the right spot to make me pause and ponder about how profound and sage this story makes me feel, just from reading all those pretty words. Then I realize I am not much different from before I read this story, and reach for a hamburger.
SJ Hirons’s Pages Torn from “Eminent Phantasists: A New Edition” is basically excerpts from biographies of well-known authors of “phantasy” – the author says that you will know phantasy when you read it – and at first, this one is pretty amusing. Then the author just goes on and on and on, the novelty wears off, and I get tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Michael Skeet’s Read Me goes all medieval China on me, as a thief attempts to retrieve a priceless scroll for a lovelorn client. Things are not what they seem, and at the end of the day, everyone learns an important lesson: no matter how priceless a book may be, it’s worthless if its content is prevented from being read by other people. After the previous story, the straightforward narrative and the no-nonsense entertainment contained in this story are most welcome.
Trevor Shikaze’s The Fox and His Book is his way of going all Aesop on people: read your books, appreciate your libraries, wear your reading glasses, and don’t let the seductive promises of convenience in newfangled technology stop you from reading because the inventor of these newfangled things are all foxes that will devour you without remorse. So there! I hug myself and feel comforted that I’m still reading this on my iPad instead of having it read to me while I lay back on a comfortable couch and let some hot guys massage my feet. Thank goodness I’m still a good guy!
Amber Polo’s Egyptian Holiday starts out pretty interesting, and ends up making me scratch my head because it ends in a manner that makes the story feels incomplete somehow. Then I discover that it’s a prologue to the author’s series The Shapeshifter’s Library, which, from what I can see, don’t feature the characters in this story at all. Huh? Still, I have to admit that I like this story. I just wish it has been longer so that it would end less abruptly. Oh, and I tried buying the digital version of the first book in that series from the publisher website – since I can’t buy anything from the Amazon Kindle store, but the “Add to cart” link doesn’t work. Oops!
Paperheart by Tina Connolly is about a widower who is trying to bring his wife back to love, only to be visited by a… walking stash of pages shaped into a girl, I guess… and finds a way to voice his weariness of having to keep searching for knowledge that continues to elude him. This story is here, it’s short, and then it ends. Okay, what’s next?
Colleen Anderson’s The Book with No End is easily the most gruesome and disturbing story of the lot, and it’s about the extent a crazy woman would do in her pursuit of dangerous knowledge. I like this story, especially for the author’s charming willingness to take her story into a direction that would horrify some readers, but a part of me will always wonder whether this story is more at home in a different anthology. It just feels so horribly out of place, like Freddy Kreuger showing up in an episode of Glee… although now that I think of it, an episode of Freddy murdering those brats would make some excellent TV.
Gord Sellar has a nice idea in the last story, The Rite, which is about the inherent violence in some classical music pieces that would drive people to extreme lengths of not-so-nice behavior, but the rambling narrative and self-indulgent navel gazing make it too easy to set this one aside and dismiss it as an exercise in misplaced self-importance. Are we certain that Gord Sellar is not a “phantasy” author?
At the end of the day, Bibliotheca Fantastica is a very uneven anthology. I have to say, though, there is no shortage of unusual and creative ideas even behind the weakest stories. This one has done a pretty decent job in keeping me intrigued even if I’m not as entertained as I’d have liked to be, so I’m going to file this one under “Okay”.