Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
One of the first things that I noticed with the transition from pixels to print is that there's a remarkable difference in the way one reads the story. The fiction of Realms for example seems compact and never too long. Apparently the editorial ethos (stated in the introduction) of the online magazine Clarkesworld makes for a good print anthology. This becomes evident when one glances at the table of contents: 24 stories in under 300 pages. This is where the second value of Realms comes in: evaluating Clarkesworld as a whole rather than the individual issues or stories.
One question is how shall we judge this anthology? Thankfully, the introduction, written by Mamatas, shares with us his goals and his philosophy behind his editorial decisions. I appreciated the insight and to a certain extent, I do agree that Realms espouses more of a quality-over-quantity direction, many of the stories having a strong and lingering impact (especially when you're aware which stories were edited by Mamatas). However, Mamatas is only one-half of the equation and it's unfortunate that we don't get the other editor's views on the matter, especially considering Sean Wallace is responsible for several stories in this anthology as well. Personally, I'm aware that the solicited stories were edited by Wallace while the ones in the slush pile were edited by Mamatas. Because of this, I was evaluating the book under two different paradigms and I think there's a difference between the choices of the former from the latter.
There's a couple of good stories as well as some mediocre ones. Surprisingly, stories that struck me come from a mix of both established and unfamiliar writers. For example, Jenny Davidson's "The Other Amazon" has a very modern and informal sensibility at the same time calling out to the bibliophile in me while there's something both wondrous and terrifying in Ekaterina Sedia's "The Taste of Wheat". In many ways, the "newer" writers were a real treat for me as their unfamiliar voices were refreshing and unique.
Having said that, here are my top three stories from the anthology. After much deliberation, one of the best pieces is Elizabeth Bear's "Orm the Beautiful". It works on many levels, from the sophisticated and lyrical language to the depth of the story. I like the details which aren't explicit, such as the alien-ness of the dragons which is evident from their naming convention. And then there's the ending which feels inevitable. Overall the story is simply well-crafted and hits the right spots in all the right areas.
Lavie Tidhar's "304 Adolph Hitler Strasse" immediately catches your attention and titillates all throughout. This is actually a complex story as it features homages to the pulps, a bizarre alternate reality sequence, and an ambiguous ending that's well-crafted. The first scene is just as purposeful as the last and there are several instances where a less talented author would have faltered. Instead, Tidhar whets the reader's appetite.
Paul G. Tremblay's "There's No Light Between Floors" is another winner. It all boils down to skillful writing with an emphasis on characterization and subtlety. The reader actually feels the claustrophobia the characters are facing and there are details which simply heighten this sensation. The last line of the narrative also doesn't feel forced and makes perfect sense in the context of the story.
While not every story in Realms appealed to me, for the most part it succeeded in its goals of making an impact on the reader. There's a lot of good, sophisticated fiction in here and features new as well as veteran authors (and if anything else, the fiction of the new authors is worth the price of admission). Again, for a relatively short book, it manages to cram a lot and features a diverse set of stories. This is certainly one of the more memorable publications for 2008 and if there's any doubt whether online fiction is any good, Realms is more than enough to convince even the skeptics.