Hal Duncan is not always an easy author to read; he plays with form and style, encourages the reader to dig deeper and work harder to uncover the point of a story. No, not encourages—demands. Duncan doesn't seem at all interested in making the experience of reading his work easy on his readers. This is especially evident in most of the stories in Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites; as with the title characters themselves, appearances can be deceiving.
For instance, if one were to judge expectations of the book's contents solely by the titles of four of the first five stories ("How a Scruffian Starts Their Story," "How a Scruffian Gets Their Name," "Scruffian's Stamp," and "An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names"), one might expect a collection of deeply interlinked stories about a hidden society. While those four stories do link together, and while several other stories feature characters with the same names as the Scruffians but different histories, at least half of the book is comprised of stories that are not directly connected to each other. Part of the joy of the book, however, is considering the thematic links of the stories: how exactly do the characters in "Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!" or "Sons of the Law" mirror the Scruffians of the earlier stories?
It might be best to start with the definition of Scruffian the author provides, such as it is. It's more of a list, really, in the form of a children's jump-rope rhyme:
Orphans, foundlings, latchkey kids. Urchins, changelings, live-by-wits. Rascals, scallywags, ruffians, scamps. Scoundrels, hellions, Scruffians STAMP! (p. 43)
All of the characters in the directly linked stories (the aforementioned four, plus "Jack Scallywag") fall into one of these categories (as well as occasionally also being called "scofflaws"), and spiritually, at least, most of the characters in the unlinked stories do as well. Scruffians, then, are the young people on the fringes: the ignored, the beaten, the turned-away. They've formed a loose society all to themselves, based around a stamp that "fixes" them and essentially turns them immortal. Not all of this is apparent at the start of the first story, "How a Scruffian Starts Their Story," in which Duncan throws the reader into this hidden society behind the eyes of their newest inductee, but hints are dropped throughout the second story, "How a Scruffian Gets Their Name." Both of these tales are classic Duncan in that they shift through time and point of view without warning and almost without any structure. Events and characters are alluded to and very little about Scruffian society is explicated despite the story titles. These two stories will either intrigue a reader enough to continue or frustrate them enough to give up. (For the record, I was intrigued enough to continue.)
The placement of the collection’s third story, "The Behold of the Eye," could be another source of frustration for readers expecting everything to be linked. With a main character who shares the name of a Scruffian from the first two stories, that expectation is raised . . . and then shattered as the story goes in a much more classic fantasy, rather than urban fantasy, direction: faeries bonding with humans. I was disconcerted when I realized what Duncan had done, giving us a story as disconnected from the previous two as those stories had been connected to each other: the author is giving us his first explicit warning that he will not conform to expectations, just as the Scruffians don't.
In "Scruffian's Stamp," we get the legend behind the actual Stamp that "fixes" Scruffians permanently into who they are, as Duncan riffs on the Orpheus myth. (There's a reason the rhyme starts with "Orphans," as it turns out.) In "An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names," we’re introduced, or given more details on, the leaders in current Scruffian society as well as some of their legendary ancestors like Orphan and Jack Scallywag; Duncan is not the first author to use an alphabetical listing as a storytelling device, but he does it very well. Finally, in "Jack Scallywag," Duncan merges the story of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail with the "Everyman Jack" stories we're all familiar with (whether it be Jack the Giant Killer or Jack Flash) to flesh out the history and concept of the Scruffian Stamp.
As I read through the remaining hundred-plus pages of the collection, I expected eventually a return to the Scruffian world, to find that perhaps these tales with no direct connection to the Scruffians were at the very least stories the Scruffians were telling to each other. But there is not another explicit reference to the Scruffians throughout; the book turns from an almost-novel of linked short stories to a more ordinary author's collection. For me, this was a disappointment. Not in terms of the content—the second half of the book contains some of its strongest stories—but rather in the fact that Duncan defies expectations and does not link everything together in the end. I can almost picture him gleefully giving us the bird as if to say "fooled you again, didn't I!" But I like the worldbuilding Duncan has done with the Scruffians and would have been overjoyed with more stories about them.
While characters and worldbuilding do not carry over to the remainder of the book, character types and themes do. Flash Jack Carter of "The Island of the Pirate Gods" is absolutely a hellion; the card-players of "The Angel of Gamblers" are live-by-wits and scoundrels; the main character of "The Origin of the Fiend" falls through the cracks of society as easily as Orphan or Jack Scallywag and like them becomes someone different by the end. "Pirate Gods" and "Angel" and "Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!" all trade on our current cultural obsessions with pirates, angels, sparkly emo vampires, and faithful werewolves and tweak those obsessions mercilessly. "The Disappearance of James H—" is about changelings. "Sons of the Law" is a mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and the New Testament. (Yes, really. And it works.) "The Shoulder of Pelops" retells the Greek story of Tantalus.
None of these stories are what they first seem; like the Scruffians who precede them, they have hidden depths not obvious at first glance (a pirate story, a western, a vampire tale . . . but more than "just" those things). Duncan's collection is worth the effort it takes to see deeper into these stories, to see past the raggedy clothes of the Scruffians and the tropes of the genres represented.
Anthony R. Cardno's reviews have also appeared in Icarus and Chelsea Station. His short fiction can be found upcoming in Beyond the Sun (Fairwood Press) and Oomph (Crossed Genres). He interviews creative types at www.anthonycardno.com and can be found on Twitter as @talekyn.