Firebirds Rising is the second in what is now an ongoing series of Young Adult anthologies edited by Sharyn November. There are contributions by a number of well-known authors, most of whom have been published by November's Firebird imprint. For the most part that is all that connects these stories together—there's no theme or overarching mood to give the anthology a sense of unity.
One of my favorites was "I'll Give You My Word" by Diana Wynne Jones. Jethro's got a few problems: for example, his brother Jeremy is just a little bit odd. He's very full of words, but what he says contains little sense:
"Ponderous plenipotential cardomum," he would say. "In sacks." And after a bit, "Sententious purple coriander." (p. 121)
At first, Jethro is convinced these are made-up words, but once he starts looking them up, he always finds them in some dictionary if he searches long enough. This worries him because they seem to appear in Jeremy's head out of nowhere, but his parents (Graeme and Annabella) are more exasperated than concerned. They seem right to be unconcerned until Jeremy ends up in a class taught by Miss Blythe, who takes an instant dislike to him. Jethro also has Tests on All Subjects to contend with. If he doesn't do well, his life isn't going to be worth living in Seniors, and worse, it's taking forever for him to get his scores.
But these troubles are merely adjuncts that play into the main storyline. Graeme and Anabella run an agency called Occult Security, and they've got a tough case they haven't been able to crack—someone is haunting the mayor in town, and they can't find the coven responsible. But since they've got the haunting's effects locked down pretty well, Annabella heads off on a world book tour. That's when things get a little weird.
The family hires a woman to come in and cook for them while Annabella's away, but she doesn't do dishes. So they hire another one to do that. And then another to vacuum and one to do the laundry and a couple for the yard work, and the next thing you know they are a dozen women living in the house with Graeme, Jethro, and Jeremy. All up to no good.
That's when Jeremy shines—his words are not all babble, and he's able to channel the magic which puts the coven in its place. It's a fun story that delights in obscure words. The parents are the affable, yet ineffective type that you occasionally see in children's literature. This is often annoying, but here it works well because of the humorous nature of the story. (In fact, this is only story I've read in recent memory that had me laughing out loud.) Although it has a light tone, Jethro's affection and concern for his "special" brother adds depth. But really, Jones had me at "borborygmata."
"In the House of Seven Librarians" by Ellen Klages is this year's foundling story. (Well, maybe there's not going to be one in every Firebirds anthology, but the two so far have been impishly delightful, so I am hopeful.) The official town library moved to a new ultra-modern building across town, so the seven librarians closed the old place up, locked the door, and proceeded to live inside isolated from the rest of the world.
Things go along smoothly until one day they find a baby in the return book slot. (That, and the closedness of the setting, are what remind me strongly of the "The Baby in the Night Deposit Box" by Megan Whalen Turner, from the Firebirds anthology.) The baby had been included with a book as payment for late fines.
They take the child in and raise her. She amusingly names herself Dinsy based on the lowest shelf of the card catalogue and manages to bring some sparkle back into the librarians' lives, but occasionally wonders what life is like outside. I suspect Ms. Klages spent a lot of time in libraries as a child, because this story shows a great affection for them.
At times the story verges on twee (for example, the children's librarian who grows smaller as time passes), and the sections told from an objective point of view about the nature of the library never really mesh with the rest of the story, but it is a sweet and touching story. Fittingly for someone raised inside a library, the child is wiser than the parents in the end.
Unfortunately, not all the stories are as engaging. "Unwrapping" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman isn't so much a story as the written equivalent of one of those moralistic tales we used to watch in health class—you know, the ones where you were doomed to become an alcoholic with No Future if you had one drink one time at a party.
Hoffman relates the background of two friends, Brenna and Nadia, while they get ready for a costume party. Predictably, Nadia has been keeping a secret from her best friend, but now wants to reveal it. In this story the revelation is speculative, but you could easily imagine this scene structured around any number of real-life revelations. The real lack in this story is that Brenna's reaction to the revelation is so sketchily developed that the reader is simply left with the message: true friends will love you no matter what.
"Perception" by Alan Dean Foster similarly sacrifices story for message. Stefan is a minor official in a large corporation who is currently a shopkeeper at a small, unpleasant outpost. He's also a bigot, so he doesn't react well when an alien assistant is thrust upon him:
Nostrils flaring in revulsion, he looked over his shoulder and down at the creature. Morey had declared it his new assistant. Until he could make the notoriously gruff Outpost administrator see reason, Stefan realized with a sinking feeling that he was probably stuck with the creature. (But fortunately, he told himself, not to it.) If he abused it physically there could be trouble. Members of the station's scientific contingent, who infrequently mixed with the much-younger less experienced team of trader apprentices, would report him. His advancement up the company ladder would be questioned, and he might even be dropped down a rating or two. That could not be allowed to happen. Not after the horrid half year he had already been forced to put in on Irelis. (p. 392)
Charming fellow, isn't he? Which, of course, is part of the sledgehammer-like point. Stefan doesn't learn anything or do anything of interest anywhere in the narrative. Then, at the very end of the story, when he has gotten the girl and a promotion and is about to leave the planet, he is told (unsurprisingly, since the title helpfully points it out to us) that his perception of his relationship with the alien was completely wrong. Don't worry if you miss the obvious moral to this story, because Foster helpfully repeats it in his author notes.
It's not that there's a moral to these stories that I object to—it's that there's a moral and an absence of anything resembling a *good* story.
In contrast, there is "Hives" by Kara Dalkey. Both "Hives" and "Perception" touch on the cruelty of groups, and how they exclude. In his author notes, Foster compares his narrator to a jock who won't give the time of day to the geek. In "Hives" the cruelty is far more deliberate and has lethal consequences—it's the story of how girl groups can and often do cut a member dead, and in a moment the victim goes from being "in" to being an outcast.
The story centers around a fairly straightforward extrapolation of cell phone technology and text messaging. Only now the technology is in your head and all your friends are on a private network with you called a "hive." Intimate, incestuous, and addictive. The narrator, Mitch, is a former addict who tried to kill herself when she was cut from her hive. Now she's trying to bring another girl who's just been hurt out of shock:
I popped in the tongue pad (I wear mine left-lower). I tasted the sharp tang of the embedded disinfectant—the most delicious taste in the world to a hive-girl. I dialed Angela's number and heard a riff from Frivolous Genocide's latest track. The tone quality had gotten better, I thought, though that one was probably an illegal download. A click of connection. "Angela," I said.
Her whole body jerked. She blinked and sat up, eyes wide, suddenly very alive. Now somebody was home. (pp. 340-341)
Mitch discovers that Angela's part of a pattern—the queen bee in her hive likes to take in girls, build them up, and then cut them dead, with the hope that they will commit suicide. Mitch decides to play Veronica Mars when her uncle, a cop, doesn't take her warning seriously.
The end is suitably horrifying, but the story does suffer in two areas—the voice is a bit choppy at times, and the story ties together far too neatly (so much so that the author mentions the convenience of the ending in the story.) Still, Dalkey grasps an essential bit of teen psychology and puts an interesting twist on it—definitely worth reading.
"Quill" by Carol Emshwiller is the story of a family that has retreated from the world. We aren't sure why at first, but a mother has taken her children and moved high into the mountains. But you know things are not quite usual right from the beginning:
Mother says, "Don't sing. Don't dance. Don't wear red." She says, "Simplify!" She says, "We don’t eat bugs. We don't eat crawdads." Aren't they simple enough? She says, "We ... our kind ... doesn't do that, doesn't do this." We heard it in the egg—so to speak. So to speak, that is.
We do eat eggs. (p. 294)
The trouble begins when a man finds his way up into the mountain and sprains his ankle. The children bring him to their mother, but she sends him away. Rather than obeying, the children take him to their secret place and care for him. He leads the two oldest higher up into the mountains to search for their origins and starts a chain of events that leads inevitably to the tragic ending. Emshwiller deftly unfolds the layers of who these children are and what they mean until all at once you are left with a sense of alienness. It's the kind of a story where you can see the train wreck coming from far off, but keep hoping beyond hope that it isn't going to happen.
Stories like "Quill" make this anthology very much worth reading and worth struggling through the weaker ones. Other enjoyable stories include Kelly Link's "The Wizards of Perfil" and Emma Bull's "What Used to be Good Still Is."
Unfortunately, as a book, the anthology never feels like a cohesive whole. Compared to a book like Trampoline, edited by Kelly Link, Firebirds Rising merely feels like a bunch of stories gathered together and organized rather ineffectively. November included authors she had published or desired to publish, so Firebirds Rising feels representative of her Firebird imprint, but the stories never develop that nebulous connection, the synergy whereby the reading of an anthology becomes an experience unto itself, rather than the collection of the individual experiences of each story. This is disappointing, but should not diminish the fact that there are a good number of quite enjoyable stories in Firebirds Rising. It is definitely worth reading.
There isn't much to say about C. M. Morrison that hasn't already been reported by the foreign press. Mikhail Gorbachev said, "That woman, she was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union." She has been banned by sixteen countries and the state of Nevada.