Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
When reading an anthology, there are two things that I'm looking for as a reviewer. One is "good" stories--however you may define the term good--and the other is the overall flow of the book, how each piece fits the larger picture and contributes to the theme. The former is easy to come across and distinguish, even it might simply be a gut feeling. The second is rarer, mostly because it can get drowned out if the stories aren't of superior quality and requires keen editorial oversight. Leviathan 4: Cities is one of those anthologies that satisfies me on both counts, especially when story choice comes into play.
There are ten stories included in this anthology and each of those narratives have a specific purpose when it comes to the book's theme. The stories have a distinct voice and agenda, exploring a facet of cities that's unconventional for its time and betraying the author's skill and talent. As a personal bias, I didn't like each and every story, but as a reviewer, I have to acknowledge the skill that went into those stories, in much the same way I might not be enthusiastic in reading The Silmarillion but acknowledge Tolkien's greater contribution to the fantasy genre. There are simply stories that delve into topics that I'm not a big fan of, or because the author's writing style is a struggle for me to read, but their inclusion is nonetheless positive as it covers a wider breadth of the field.
Having said that, here are the three stories that really got me excited and has me raving all about them. "We the Enclosed" by KJ Bishop stands out the most for me. She conjures a certain Borgesian atmosphere that's both disturbing and curious. There are also various elements going for her including a mastery of the language whether it's the inclusion of puns that don't make you feel guilty to apt descriptions that simply make you want to re-read them. It all comes together with the emotional resonance that Bishop manages to elicits from the text, wisdom imparted to the main character but rings equally true to the reader.
Another favorite story is "The Soul Bottles" by Jay Lake which is set in the same world of his Trial of Flowers novel, The City Imperishable. This is more of a conventional narrative but where Lake succeeds is his inclusion of bizarre and exotic vistas, whether it's a land populated by boxed dwarfs or our protagonist whose lips are sewn together. There's this sense of scope but at the same time, this is anchored by the personal history of our narrator whom readers will sympathize with, even if he is not the most moral of characters. Those who haven't read the novel only have to give this short story a try and be swept up in what makes The City Imperishable appealing.
"The City of Lost Languages" by Darla Beasley is one of the shorter pieces in the anthology but there's a tightness to it that makes the length perfect. Beasley's biggest asset is her lyricism and tone which immediately captivates readers. Another element going for it is how the story is divided into four parts and each section prepares you for the next, building upon what was previously established and increasing the ante. It ends on an unexpected note--a good thing--and the skill in the craft is evident.
While I highlighted three stories in the anthology, in a certain way the review doesn't do the book justice as each of the included narratives produce a cascading effect. One might perceive Leviathan 4: Cities to only have ten stories but each one stands out, for good or for ill. Again, Forrest Aguirre's vision as an editor comes to the fore and the anthology covers a wide variety in terms of both technique and ambition.