BOOK REVIEW: The Very Best of Tad Williams
REVIEW SUMMARY: Tad Williams’s third collection includes 17 stories from across his career, ranging in publication dates [1988 through 2014] and across the genre landscape [fantasy, horror, mystery/detective, science fiction] highlighting one of the genre’s most potent storytellers.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Very Best of Tad Williams is just that, a retrospective of a superb writer/storyteller.
PROS: A master of the Epic displays his storytelling abilities in the short form with great success.
CONS: A couple of the shortest stories of the bunch connected with me the least.
BOTTOM LINE: An essential addition to the bookshelf for fans of Tad Williams and also a great opportunity for new readers to sample the breadth of his storytelling prowess.
The Very Best of Tad Williams is the third collection of the author’s short fiction and includes stories published as far back as 1988 to a story new to this volume, 2014. To most genre readers, Tad Williams is best known for door-stopper epic sagas like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Otherland, and Shadowmarch, in addition to the recent Angel Detective series Bobby Dollar. This latest collection illustrates that it is not the size of the epic, but the teller of the tale.
I’ve read a handful of his shorts in various themed collections and am a very big fan of those aforementioned large-scale Epic sagas, and I consider Memory, Sorrow and Thorn one of my favorite series. So how did the collection work as a whole?
The first story in the collection, titled “The Old Scale Game” begins with an old knight and a dragon devising a scheme to travel the countryside to procure money from unsuspecting villages. From that point (which is very reminiscent of the Sean Connery/Dennis Quaid film Dragonheart), Williams takes the story through a path involving many fantastical creatures. This was a pleasant, hopeful and engaging story which made for a great way to opening to the collection.
The second story, “The Storm Door” was very moody and gives a hint of what one might expect in the author’s Bobby Dollar books. The story is something of a mash-up of a private eye story and zombie story, melded together in a nearly perfect horrific execution. The story offers up a slightly different take on the zombie mythos that has a bit in common with alien take-over stories. The dread snuck up on me and left me feeling the same way the best episodes of The Twilight Zone do.
“The Stranger’s Hands” takes the common fear and reality of the aged and places that burden on to the most evil wizard the land has known. Dealing with the old and infirm is no pleasant task, but proves more challenging when the wizard in question has something of a Midas touch. When he touches others, the other’s wish is granted.
“Child of an Ancient City” is a vampire tale set desert landscape, perhaps a Silk Road story, and is one of Tad Williams’s early forays into short fiction. The story involves a wampir, a middle-eastern version of the classic vampire. Williams engenders his monster with a great deal of pathos in this story which features a terrific ending. This story shows the range of Williams’s storytelling skills, for in the small space in this story (compared to his equally enjoyable doorstopper epics) he tells a great story.
The author returns to the many worlds of his Otherland saga and the character of Orlando Gardiner in “The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story.” This is the second story featuring young, deceased Orlando and plays with the tropes of Oz in a very quirky and fun fashion. I’d like to see more about Orlando.
“Three Duets for Virgin and Nosehorn” is a nested story with in a story, playing on the potential mythological implications of the beast once known as a nosehorn. In the tale, an artist, to keep his subject’s attention whilst painting, tells the tale of a thief and the young girl whose lives become intertwined. A great pacing and measured reveals is on full display in this story.
“Diary of a Dragon” is exactly what the title implies, a short glimpse into a young dragon’s diary. This was a very brief story and could work very well as a bed-time story told from parent to child.
The end world ends not quite as expected in “Not with a Whimper, Either.” The story is told as a text/internet conversation between some younger folk when bad things happen. Those things being the network hiccupping, lights flickering on and off, and an emergency address from the president to assure the world all is OK. Well, when something enters the internet discussion with the kids announcing itself as Moderator, things aren’t OK. It took a bit for me to fully slide into the structure of this one, but that structure helped to make this a top-notch story and helped to make it feel more plausible and immediate.
Tad Williams’s comic-book scripting may be some of the ground from which “Some Thoughts Re: Dark Destroyer” grew for it is essentially a conversation between two people, one of whom is the story’s creator.
“Z is for…” is a story of a confused man who wakes in the middle of a party, or is a drug-induced hallucination or is it an alien invasion. The protagonist’s bearing don’t quite settle except for something about a zebra.
“Monsieur Vergalant’s Canard” is another very brief tale featuring two brothers and their strange creations.
“The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of,” like “The Storm Door” serves as a hint of what’s to come in the Bobby Dollar stories. Here, a one-time magician and now private investigator is contacted by the daughter of a former colleague, the magician having died under mysterious circumstances as rumors rose about a tell-all magician’s memoir he was going to publish. This one evoked a noir-ish feel and in the end turned out to be one of the more fun stories of the bunch.
“A Fish Between Three Friends” is is a stab at a fable.
I quite enjoyed “Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air” which is a very humorous and charming look at how some of the creatures and living things of the earth came to be and were named. Sophia, God’s daughter, renames things she thinks have silly names, decides that lion cubs are too cute to be birthed from eggs and the leaves of trees should be in the air rather than in the ground frustrating the angels Gabriel and Metatron as they build creation. Sophia is wisdom and the story is perhaps the most humorous of the bunch.
Language and communication are played with in “A Stark and Wormy Night.” The clever trick of the story posits humans as the legendary creatures and dragons as the dominant and ‘real’ species of the world. This story was fun and packed quite a bit as one of the shorter stories in this collection.
“Omnitron, What Ho” is a short story of manners, so to speak, wherein a young man acquires a robot companion. The young man is tasked, by his aunt, with extracting his cousin from a frowned-upon relationship. A humorous and quick tale.
I haven’t read very many scripts/screenplays so settling into “Black Sunshine,” like “Not with a Whimper, Either” was not immediate. Like many of the stories in this collection, however, my patience paid off because this was a doozy. Consisting of flashbacks, dream sequences, and drug-induced hallucinations, the story is an extremely effective horror tale featuring a group of friends remembering what happened on a very bad night 25 years ago…or maybe tonight. Creepy and effective, one of the characters reminded me a great deal of Andrew from the film Chronicle. If filmed properly, this would make a great film or installment in anthology like sadly defunct Tales from the Darkside.
The setting of the final story “And Ministers of Grace” is the future and humanity has spread to the stars. Faith holds strong sway over the colonies of humanity, and religious conflicts have continued to a driving factor of war and subterfuge. The story also feels like a small part of a bigger Space Opera novel or saga. In that sense, this story is merely a tease of what could be achieved given the author’s eminent skills at large scale Epic Fantasy. I would love to see him ply those skills at an Epic Space Opera saga.
Some of these tales are also very squarely in the horror genre and many of the author’s novels have featured scary or horror elements, but none have truly been flat out horror. Again, I’d love to see a full-out horror novel from him. What I’m getting at is that Tad Williams can really write stories of any length and from any branch of the Speculative Fiction tree; proof of that is The Very Best of Tad Williams. The best of these stories have me hoping readers will get to revisit them in some fashion or revisit their genre at greater length like Horror or Space Opera. Highly recommended.
The standouts in the collection for me would be:
- “The Old Scale Game”
- “Black Sunshine”
- “The Storm Door”
- “The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of”
- “Not with a Whimper, Either”
- “And Ministers of Grace”
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