Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Review: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder

Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I complained of this book's predecessor, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, that some of the stories, far from being masterpieces, had been rescued from well-deserved obscurity. I didn't have the same reaction to this volume, though, even though the same editor had taken a similar approach: combine well-known genre classics with long-out-of-print pieces by famous authors, some of whom aren't usually thought of as belonging to the SFF field.

At the same time I bought those two books, I also bought The Fantasy Hall of Fame, and there's a considerable overlap in contents. This volume shares Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned Giant," and R.A. Lafferty's "Narrow Valley" with the Hall of Fame volume, none of which, to be honest, were among my favourites in either book; the Hall of Fame shares with the first volume "Our Fair City" (Heinlein), "The Silken-Swift" (Sturgeon), "The Detective of Dreams" (Wolfe), and "Operation Afreet" (Anderson).

I'd also previously read some others in this volume: Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf," a typical Beagle piece in its beauty, its depiction of people trapped in their stereotypes, and its tragic arc; Anne McCaffrey's "A Proper Santa Claus," a powerful story about the crushing of childhood creativity and wonder; and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Beyond the Dead Reef," which, slightly unusually for that author, focusses more on ecological disaster than on gender role disaster.

There are, however, plenty of pieces that are new to me, many of which I enjoyed. John M. Ford's "Green is the Color," which opens the book, is a lovely human story filled with magic and wonder. So is Robin McKinley's version of "The Princess and the Frog". Patricia A. McKillip's "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath" is magnificent and unexpected, as you'd expect from her if you've read much of her work. John Brunner's "The Things That Are Gods" is a hearty bit of sword-and-sorcery with some depth to it. I also enjoyed Osbert Sitwell's version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," something that you'll not see reprinted in many places, I suspect.

Other pieces I wasn't so keen on. I've always disliked Jack Vance, whose characters use stilted dialog to convey their utter lack of any admirable qualities, and the samples in this book don't change my mind. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Parrot," as well as being not to my taste, had, I felt, limited claim to be in a book about "fantasy and wonder," since the fantastical element could well have been in the mind of one character. Although Graham Greene's "Under the Garden" has the same ambiguity about whether anything fantastical has actually occurred, I enjoyed it more as a story.

There are rescued treasures as well, though, from Charles Dickens ("Prince Bull," a political satire), W.S. Gilbert ("The Triumph of Vice"), J.M. Barrie (the original "Peter Pan" story, which I seem to somehow have never read, though I've read Peter Pan and Wendy many times), Mark Twain ("The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," a fine satire on the value of a conscience), Frank R. Stockton ("The Griffon and the Minor Canon," which I'd read in his own collection, though I suspect few other people have), George MacDonald ("The Gray Wolf," an early, and unusual, werewolf story), L. Frank Baum ("The Enchanted Buffalo," a blend of Western tall tale and native legend), E.T.A. Hoffmann ("The King's Bride," a quirky wonder story), Fitz-James O'Brien ("The King of Nodland and His Dwarf," another political satire with a strong anti-slavery message, by an author who died in the American Civil War), and William Morris ("The Hollow Land," a pseudomedieval tale so authentic that I felt I needed scholarly notes to explain it to me).

In the first book, I felt that the editor had compiled an odd mix of often-collected 20th-century SFF stories with deservedly obscure earlier works, and that it didn't really come together into an interesting collection. Here, I felt he was much more successful, and that the stories were better chosen.

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