Monday, May 25, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Firebirds Soaring edited by Sharyn November

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

At the Penguin site, Firebirds is described as an imprint designed to appeal to both teenagers and adults. That's a fair summation of this anthology which features nineteen fantastical stories, all of which have a young adult tone. Sharyn November assembles a gamut of authors and stories tackling various ideas, from adventures in the real world to high fantasy settings to anthropomorphic protagonists.

My assessment of this anthology is that it's a mixed bag, although for the most part it was a pleasant experience. Initially, there were some stories that felt too didactic, and a rare few where the prose was clunky. Firebirds Soaring also has its share of excellent stories that stand out, which I'll talk about more later on. Majority fell somewhere in the middle, above average as far as I'm concerned, although perhaps not as memorable as I would have wanted. Still, at nineteen stories, there's a lot to devour, and each story is accompanied by an explanation from the author on how their story developed.

"A Thousand Tails" by Christopher Barzak is an excellent story. The language is compelling, even as Barzak tackles a very discomforting social issue. While his setting is alien to most readers--save for the cliches we see in anime or read in manga--Barzak includes just enough detail that makes it feel right. There's also the incorporation of the fantasy element, not overt but a subtle piece that keeps readers wondering whether it's true or not. All of this however is for naught if the reader doesn't sympathize with the protagonist and the author successfully juggles the right amount of vulnerability and empowerment.

"The Ghost of Strangers" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is one of the lengthier pieces in the anthology but it earns its keep. In a certain way, this is a miniature epic in itself as we witness the maturation of the protagonist from youth to a certain level of adulthood. What's dominant here is the sense of exploration, whether it's discovering our heroine's capabilities, the mystery of dragons, the crisis that pops up in the story, or the characters and the world she eventually encounters. While Hoffman's writing is not perfect--the pace could have been faster--she does manage to pack a lot of complex elements into this tale and re-invent how we perceive dragons.

"Court Ship" by Sherwood Smith is this adventurous fantasy romp featuring princes, pirates, drama, and action. It's an upbeat story that keeps you wanting more and Smith creates a cast of characters that are fleshed out and complex. Perhaps in terms of depth, there are other stories in the anthology that fit that bill but if you want a story that's fun without falling into the trap of a two-dimensional fantasy, "Court Ship" is one of the better secondary world fantasies that I've read.

Overall, while there are some low points in Firebirds Soaring, majority are competent reads that's accessible to a wide audience. Mike Dringenberg has excellent art that captures the atmosphere of each story and there's an elegance in the book's design.

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