Like The Green Man and The Faery Reel, two previous anthologies put together by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales focuses on a particular mythic/folkloric theme. In this case, that theme is the trickster figure in its various incarnations throughout world mythology. According to Windling's introduction to the volume,
Tricksters are contradictory creatures: they are liars, knaves, rascals, fools, clowns, con men, lechers, and thieves—but they are also cultural heroes whose tricks can do great good as well as great harm, and whose stories serve to uphold the very traditions mocked by their antics. (advance uncorrected proof, p. 7)
The Coyote Road is named for one of the more famous tricksters of North America, whose exploits are recounted in the tales of many Native American tribes of the United States' Southwest. But the anthology features tricksters of many cultures from all over the world. Along with Coyote, there are stories here of Loki, Legba, Hermes, Raven, the Monkey King of China, and the fox spirits of Japan. In fact, a minor complaint I had with this volume is the lumping of both Japanese and Korean fox maidens into the term kitsune in the introduction. The term is Japanese, and the fox maidens in question serve different functions in their respective cultures. I would like to have seen differentiation made in the discussion of these figures.
Windling's introduction is otherwise an excellent one for the tales that follow. She says, "Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox" (p. 22), and the stories do not disappoint. The first, "One Odd Shoe," by Pat Murphy, starts us off with Coyote, but it's Coyote in her rarer female form, playing a trick on a human who is himself a trickster, with the tale related to the reader by a narrator who comes from a line of storytellers, tricksters in their own right. In fact, there are several points at which the narrator says, "I wasn't around for this next part. . . . But I'm pretty sure about the way it went" (p. 39). It's an honest admission from an unreliable narrator, but when the characters in a tale are unreliable themselves, perhaps that's the best kind of person to tell it.
The next piece is a poem by Carolyn Dunn. "Coyote Woman" is a good follow-up to the previous story, and the way the two play off each other is an excellent example of the balance achieved in this anthology (though the inclusion of more poetry would have made that balance more perfect): one Trickster figure weaves her magic of foolishness and wisdom, then passes the shuttle to the next variation. Dunn's Coyote is not Murphy's, but they're both part of the land, with an interest in shaping it. In the words of Dunn's Coyote,
These are our worlds,
yet from within
the story of my heart,
the part of me
you could not take
away. (p. 49)
Like "One Odd Shoe" and "Coyote Woman," none of the pieces in The Coyote Road are weak, but a few, such as "Realer Than You" and "The Fortune-Teller," are not as strong as they could be. The former, by Christopher Barzak, barely touches on the anthology's theme of the trickster. An American teenager in Japan runs across a fox, then meets a cosplaying Japanese girl who's not what she seems, but her nature's not tricksterish beyond the ability to shape-change. Though the narrator's fish-out-of-water sense of isolation is a common one, the story isn't mythically resonant. "The Fortune-Teller" features Patricia McKillip's usual facility with lyrical language and mythic characters, but it reads more as the setup for a story rather than a complete story in itself. A young thief steals an unusual deck of fortune-telling cards, then decides to return them to their owner when she can't read them. Unfortunately, that's the point at which "The Fortune-Teller" ends, just when the reader is anticipating the thief's adventures.
Then there's "A Tale for the Short Days," by Richard Bowes, which starts out promising to be one of the jewels of this collection: "The God of Thieves found himself in a vast hall, filled with people rushing about laden with packages and dressed in big, heavy coats" (p. 155). The first part of this story is strong, but the second and third parts don't live up to its promise. The imagery remains vivid, and his take on Loki is fascinating, but it is never fully explored. Still, these are just a few stories in an anthology of twenty-six pieces, and again, even the flawed works have things to recommend them.
Among the most successful pieces, of particular note are "The Fiddler of Bayou Teche," by Delia Sherman, "How Raven Made His Bride," by Theodora Goss, "Black Rock Blues," by Will Shetterly, and "The Dreaming Wind," by Jeffrey Ford.
"The Fiddler of Bayou Teche" features a wonderful narrative voice, memorable characters, and a contest of wills between two tricksters, Murderes Petitpas, the fiddler of the title, and Cadence, a girl who loves to dance and the narrator of the tale. Murderes threatens Cadence into being his accomplice in a dancing contest against his sons, and Cadence plans how to turn the tables on him: "There are knocks at my door, but I do not answer them. I am too busy thinking how I will make Murderes Petitpas sorry he mess with me" (p. 145). One of the best things about this tale is how it acknowledges the power of both tricksters, even as one has to win over the other.
"How Raven Made His Bride" is a gorgeous prose poem that interweaves a tale of the trickster with that of another mythic figure, the created bride. In order to gain a gift from the river, Raven must find a bride, but none will have him. So he steals from all of creation to make one himself:
Whatever Life had made Rich and rare, he stole: for her mouth The softness of granite, and the fragrance Of ice.
He looked at her, entranced And almost in love (remarkably, Since his heart was hidden in an egg In an eagle's nest, at the top Of a poplar tree). (p. 214)
For a change of pace, "Black Rock Blues" is the rollicking story of a West Indies-flavored trickster named Street, who brings more trouble on himself than anyone else when he steals from a truly sinister character called Bossman Sevenday and loses something valuable of his own.
Street says, "I remember everything I did for the last six days. I don't remember a thing before. It's like the world started then."
Mama Sky smiles. "World's much, much older than that, Trickster." (p. 359)
"The Dreaming Wind" begins,
Each and every year, in that brief time when summer and autumn share the same bed—the former, sunburned and exhausted, drifting toward sleep, the latter, rousing to the crickets' call and the gentle brush of the first falling leaves against its face—the Dreaming Wind swept down from somewhere in the distant north, heading somewhere to the distant south, leaving everywhere in its wake incontrovertible proof of the impossible. (p. 461)
The trickster figure of this tale isn't a person but a natural phenomenon, and the story of its effect on the people of one town in its path is intriguing.
It would be easy to mention highlights from each of the remaining pieces in this anthology, as Windling and Datlow have done their usual excellent job of selecting quality work, but a collection of trickster tales should hold a few surprises. While this anthology is listed as a YA title and has plenty of appeal for that age group, it's also a volume with a great deal to offer an older audience.
J.C. Runolfson has previously reviewed Oracles: A Pilgrimage, by Catherynne M. Valente, and The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, by Francesca Lia Block. She is a speculative poet and short-story writer whose work has appeared in Lone Star Stories, Goblin Fruit, and Reflection's Edge, among others. She can be emailed at email@example.com.