At the very end of the final story in Ken Scholes's debut collection, there's one of those paragraphs that helpfully sums up not just the tale at hand, but something about its author's approach to fiction in general, and that as a result is catnip to reviewers. I'm certainly not too proud to take advantage, so here it is:
The grandest adventures of our lives aren't about horses and swords and ghost cities lost to time. They are the choices we've made and why we've made them. And the greatest treasures in our lives aren't the sleeping vaults beneath moon-misted ruins or the treasure mounds of flaming dragons. They are the people we have loved and been loved by along the path of our choices. (p. 250)
The story these sentiments close is "Last Flight of the Goddess" (2006), in which Andro Giantslayer, exiled King of Grunland, the Finisher of Fang the Dread, and You Get The Idea, mourns the death of his wife, Luendyl the Fierce and Fair. Flashbacks establish how the couple met, married, and raised a daughter (the now-an-adventurer-in-her-own-right Karysa the White of the West), while in the story's present Andro sets out on one final quest, to take his wife's ashes to the resting place she wished for. It's a warm bath of a story which, depending on how much you like warm baths, you may take as either praise or opprobrium. Put another way, the regular-guy tone does for Fantasyland—and specifically for its Dungeons & Dragons incarnation—something similar to what John Scalzi does for traditional space opera in Old Man's War and its sequels, both domesticating and gently guying the conventions of the form while, as that quote indicates, insisting that even in Fantasyland, even among the most lurid of scenery, normal lives matter.
Accurate though it may be, it's unusual for Scholes to provide such tidy morals, or to gloss his work in quite such an explicit manner. (Excluding, that is, the comments made in the story notes included in this collection, which in the way of most story notes are amiable but unnecessary.) But it's the logical conclusion of a commitment visible elsewhere to finding the ordinary in the extraordinary, and the person behind the choice. "A Good Hair Day in Anarchy" (2005), for example, is an equally knowing take on space westerns, set in a frontier town on a planet called New Texas. It opens with a new kid arriving in town to hunt down a notorious gunslinger, whom he believes has gone to ground nearby; so far so hokey. But it becomes apparent that this knowingness is knowing within the story, too—that colonization authorities on Earth are consciously exploiting the iconography of the Wild West—which layers the setting nicely; and significantly, the showdown duel implied from the first page never materializes. Rather, the various characters get drunk together and chew the fat; the identity of the gunslinger is revealed, but only so that the choices he's made can be held to account, not so that he can.
It's a pleasant enough way to spend a few pages, and not untypical of the collection. In general Scholes is an unfussy writer in the manner of a Stephen King or a Neil Gaiman—although not, yet, as consistent as either—focused above all on getting a story told. He tends to be economical with his words, as evidenced by the fact that seventeen stories are squeezed into a mere 234 pages, although to my mind the very shortest, such as "Action Team-Ups Number Thirty-Seven" (2005), with its retired superheroes, or "Soon We Shall All Be Saunders" (2006), which attempts to articulate the horror of homogeneity, never quite become more than sketches. And his emphasis on the normal can sometimes be at the expense of the fantastic, such that some of his endings feel rather perfunctory. "Fearsome Jones' Discarded Love Collection" (2004), for instance, is for most of its length a convincing character study of a black ex-con in contemporary Seattle. He has taken to collecting, as the title suggests, relics of discarded love, and ends up collecting a three-eyed telepathic baby, dumped by its mother. This prompts thoughts of his own son and past relationship, and a story about the nobility and shame of male pride and need; and then, on the penultimate page, an alien turns up declaring that the baby is "the saviour of our race and the bridge between our worlds" (p. 176). The jarring nature of the visit is surely deliberate; but that in its wake Fearsome almost immediately turns around and makes steps to track down his son feels too convenient, too much liked the expected ending, and not enough like a right one.
There is, also, a question to be asked of the collection regarding the "we" making the choices in the paragraph I quoted: specifically, there are few long walks, last flights, or strange journeys for women in this book. (And when women do appear, Scholes's male narrators invariably pay attention to their breasts.) It's impossible not to notice, for instance, that for all "Last Flight of the Goddess" is intended as a love song to Strong Female Characters, Luendyl is a bit too perfect, a bit too much an image of a woman; and she's dead before the story starts, of course. (The story does take a dig at a kind of sexism, in that nobody ever remembers Luendyl's full title, always calling her either "the Fierce" or "the Fair," but you may reasonably ask why her appearance comes into it at all.) Elsewhere, everyone in "Soon We Shall All Be Saunders" is turning into Saunders, which means turning into a particularly male vision of decrepit middle-aged mediocrity: overweight, balding, and greasy. In "So Sang the Girl Who Had No Name" (2001)—set in a very American Hell—the titular Girl exists solely to protect and bless the male protagonist when his other magics fail; in "Hibakusha Dreaming in the Shadowy Land of Death" (2008), the Japanese narrator's American psychiatrist decides that the best way of healing him is to sleep with him, and proves to be absolutely right: after the deed, he feels so alive that he's at last able to recover his lost identity and memories. "The Doom of Love in Small Spaces" (2008), a highly original post-apocalyptic fantasy of bureaucracy, is dented a bit by this limitation, too, although not irretrievably sunk by it; as in "A Good Hair Day in Anarchy," a focus on talk keeps things interesting. The relationship that develops between the narrator, a Troll charged with controlling the flow of supplies such that everything is kept on the brink of collapse, and the mysterious woman who visits him in search of love (which in this world is a measurable commodity), has enough convincing verbal intercourse that the inevitable conclusion is swallowable.
Nor are Scholes's attempts to play with existing worlds or characters always convincing. "The Santaman Cycle" (2005), for instance, strains somewhat to construct a myth of death and rebirth around Santa Claus, while "Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk" (2001) borrows too much from the store of sentiment earned by A. A. Milne's original tales to be truly moving in its own right. Although some of the details of translation to an science-fictional setting are witty (Edward is quite literally a bear of very little brain, struggling to interpret the world in terms of the only stories he knows), and Scholes is to be commended for resisting the impulse to import the other characters as much as he does, it's one of the few pieces in the collection which feels as though it outstays its welcome. In "The Man with Great Despair in His Eyes" (2005), Meriwether Lewis gets charged with a secret mission, to track down a mysterious white holy man who possesses strange green papers with images of an elderly Andrew Jackson on them, and the date 1971. It's a competent story, but gains little from its choice of protagonist. Denser and more interesting is "Summer in Paris, Light from the Sky" (2007), an alternate history with no clear jonbar point, in which Adolf Hitler visits Paris in 1941 as a painter, falls in with Hemingway, "Chuck" Chaplin, and Charles de Gaulle (here a bartender), and ends up sparking a revolution that will overthrow Napoleon IV; its message that circumstances maketh the man is familiar, but articulated with some force.
To my mind, the most successful stories in Long Walks, Last Flights are those which excavate the lives of working-class men, such as Fearsome Jones, within a context provided by existing religious myth. Hence two of the collection's best stories, "That Old-Time Religion" (2007) and "East of Eden and a Little Bit South" (2006). The former starts out as a small-town America horror story, in which the local priest unveils his "new god" to the assembled congregation one Sunday, an eight-inch idol with "a large apelike head, tentacles, a fish tail, the body of a wolf, and very well-hung" (pp. 138-9). It quickly becomes something more apocalyptic, as other townsfolk, and then other people around the world, acquire and begin to worship their own idols, leading to general social breakdown. Meanwhile, the slightly bemused narrator finds that he's hearing the voice of God—a chummy, colloquial God who calls every human Stevie because it's easier that way, but who's royally pissed at the widespread idolatry, and plans to do something about it. Less character-focused than most of Scholes's work, the pleasures of the story have to do with the careful and clever management of tension and readerly expectation. "East of Eden," in which the biblical Cain decides to sell his story to an American tabloid newspaper, has a more tall tale-ish feel to it, but is pleasingly original: the world after the Garden viewed as one big trailer park, basically, with redneck Cain and Abel dismayed that they're going to be expected to sleep with their sisters to further the human race (for where else could Cain's wife have come from?), and setting out to do something about it, which of course doesn't end well. It's a story that recognises and feels free to play with religious cruft, while respecting the principles of faith.
No story demonstrates both the strengths and limitations of Scholes's vision more clearly than "Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise" (2006), which has become the seed for a five-volume novel series, of which the first is due from Tor in the near future. It's a story that starts from a memorable image—"Rudolfo's Gypsy Scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir. He crouched over a pile of blackened bones, his shoulders chugging and his bellows wheezing, his helmet-like head shaking in his large metal hands" (94)—and from there successfully implies an intriguing techno-magical setting, and starts to dig into questions engendered by the creation, reservation, and destruction of various kinds of knowledge. By some measures, it's the best piece in the collection, and shows promise for the future ... but the one woman in the story is almost purely a trophy, handed off from one male character to another. Despite Scholes's undoubted ability to command a narrative and engage a reader, it's hard not to feel that his stories won't truly be the grandest kind of adventure until they involve the whole of humanity.