A Stark and Wormy Knight - Tad Williams Recently, a friend sent me a link to a review in the LA Times of several of this year’s Best of… SF anthologies. The reviewer argues that the SF field has become complacent and self-satisfied; there are few authors really pushing the boundaries or using the genre to explore things other media can’t. In his opinion, most of the stories in these collections are good enough in a technical sense but lack any desire to make the reader think. In fact, he thought the best story was James Tiptree Jr.'s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” a short story written 40 years ago and included in one of the collections in honor of Tiptree’s lifetime achievements.*

Based on the stories to be found in Tad Williams’ A Stark and Wormy Knight, the review’s author may have a valid point. There’s no particularly bad story. All are entertaining to some degree and all are very, very “safe.” Seeds of potentially good stories are here (cf., “And Ministers of Grace”), and – as always – Williams is a fine story teller but most are too predictable and by the numbers.

“And Ministers of Grace” – This story is about Lamentation Kane, an assassin for the theocratic world of Covenant, whose mortal foe is the hyper-rationalist society of Archimedes. “Lamentation Kane,” alone as a name, nearly makes up for any shortcomings in the story. The greatest of which is that it reads like a chapter in a larger work (which Williams as much as admits to in his “Introduction”). That and we have seen this kind of anti-hero before.

I mentioned “seeds” of good ideas. Some to be found in this story include Lamentation Kane, who has the potential to be an interesting character, if Williams can find the time to write a few more stories about him. Another is the brain implants that plague both societies. On Archimedes, it’s a continuous feed of targeted commercials and infotainment; on Covenant, it’s called Spirit and it keeps everyone safely on the heterodox path.

“A Stark and Wormy Knight” – The titular story of the collection is a typical bedtime story about a princess, a knight and a dragon but told from the dragon’s point of view. It’s cute, though the dragonspeak it’s written in can get annoying, i.e.:

“Mam! Mam!” squeed Alexandrax from the damps of his strawstooned nesty. “Us can’t sleep! Tail us a tell Ye Elder Days!”

“Child, stop that howlering or you’ll be the deaf of me,” scowled his scaly forebearer. “Count sheeps and go to sleep!”

“Been counting shepherds instead, have us,” her eggling rejoined. “But too too toothsome they each look. Us are hungry, Mam.” (p. 57)

It goes on like that but only for a mercifully brief 12 more pages.

“The Storm Door” – This is the best piece in the collection. It’s about what happens when the hungry ghosts of the Tibetan hells learn how to possess the dead. Very dark, and with no happy ending.

“The Stranger’s Hands” – You can see the twist coming from the first page but it’s a likable story about an “evil” wizard who inadvertently gets the power to grant wishes (at the expense of his mind) and the “good” wizard who can’t have that. It’s another exploration of the theme that the good guys aren’t always that good and the bad guys aren’t always that bad which informs much of Williams’ work.

“Bad Guy Factory” – This is a pitch for a comic book series about where the villains go to get training.

“The Thursday Men” – This is a Hellboy story originally written for the Hellboy: Oddest Jobs anthology. I’m not a fan of the “Hellboy” franchise in comic or movie form so the tale didn’t make a great impression upon me, though – like “The Stranger’s Hands” - it wasn’t a bad one.

“The Tenth Muse” – This is the second best work in the anthology. It may or may not take place in the same ‘verse as “And Ministers of Grace.” Covenant is mentioned but there is none of Archimedes, whose rationalist polity seems to have been replaced by the Confederation. It has the potential to be a really good story about first contact and communication between alien minds.

“The Lamentable Comical Tragedy (or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee” – This is an homage to Jack Vance and his “Dying Earth” stories, and as such it succeeds fairly well. Williams can’t always capture Vance’s tone (who can?) but he comes close and it’s a good story in its own right.

“The Terrible Conflagration at the Quiller’s Mint” – This is a short story set in Williams Shadowmarch world. Well told if unmemorable.

“Black Sunshine” – This is a draft script for a horror film about an experimental drug, the teen-ager who takes it, and the consequences for his friends 20 years later. The story idea is pretty well known and well used by now, and I can’t see it as becoming a particularly good movie.

“Ants” – This one reminded me of nothing so much as Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter.” Anyone who’s read that classic will understand the general tenor of the story.

I wouldn’t recommend buying this unless you’re a Tad Williams completist but there’s enough good stuff here to justify a library checkout, borrowing from your friend the TW completist, or picking up a copy for less than a buck at a library remainders table.

*I read the story when I was about 14 in the collection Ten Thousand Light Years From Home. Anyone who’s read this collection will understand what a powerful impact these stories can have on an adult reader; you can imagine what they had on a newly pubescent teen-age boy. On the other hand, I’m very glad my parents exercised no censorship on what I could read (except for the obvious stuff most parents censor like “Playboy”).