Monday, January 19, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Extraordinary Engines edited by Nick Gevers

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
I imagine Extraordinary Engines to be this huge Tesla Coil, fascinating everyone in its vicinity right away and the current doesn't drop until the very last page. It's adventurous, it's upbeat, and it's well-written--qualities that would have hooked me whether I was reading it a decade ago or the present. That's perhaps what I liked the most about this anthology: most of the stories are simply fun. It's not trying to be experimental or breaking new frontiers as far as form and technique is concerned but on the other hand, this isn't another rehash of a popular derivative titles out there. Weaving it altogether is a tight theme, in this case steampunk, and while I'm not exactly an expert in that particular field, the stories more than make up for any lack of an explicit definition.

Most of the stories in the anthology are actually quite striking in their own right, each one kinetic to the point that you simply can't put it down. Some say that in assembling an anthology, you put your best stories at the beginning and at the end. That pretty much sums up how I feel about Extraordinary Engines. "Steampunch" by James Lovegrove is aptly titled and fits the atmosphere it's going for. It starts with a compelling narrator and what wins me over is the unique tone, which is consistent, sympathetic, and lively. The definitely feels like it's a period piece although obviously, it's not.

At the end of the book is "The Dream of Reason" by Jeffrey Ford and tackles the combination of pseudoscience and romanticism that Ford has been known to produce from time to time. Less 'punk here and more of of a Victorian atmosphere with preposterous theories given credibility. It was an enjoyable change of pace and the author hits all the right chords, from an immediate compelling hook to the sprinkle of tension throughout the narrative. For me this is Ford reverting to his tried and true formula but you know what, I like it.

Somewhere in between are equally impressive stories, each one ambitious and trying to accomplish a specific agenda. "Elementals" by Ian R. Macleod for example is mind-blowing as he ties two of his central characters into a unifying concept that mutates into something titanic. "Machine Maid" by Margo Lanagan has this sense of the frontier but at the same time, subverting a cliche--the sex robot--for her own use that's stimulating, liberating, and horrific all at once. And "American Cheetah" by Robert Reed channels the best aspects of cheesy spaghetti Westerns and while it won't win literary awards anytime soon, ranks high in my "coolness" factor.

There's a couple of other interesting stories in this anthology but I think it's best for me to stop here. A vast majority of the stories included are adrenaline-pumping without being too gratuitous, having mainstream appeal yet not falling into the pit trap of formula. Easily an anthology I can recommend to the casual reader. Extraordinary Engines reminds me why I initially got into fantasy during my teens: not because it's well-written (not that the stories aren't) but because it's simply cool and has lots of fireworks.

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