The editors of Twenty Epics begin their paean to the epic story in a slightly backwards fashion, by deploring its decline. "We used to like epics," laments the introduction, but "somewhere along the way, they lost their charm." Reacting strongly to the current crop of unending doorstopper series, Groppi (also the editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons) and Moles went looking for short stories: not the usual source for the grandeur that they assert is the key to the epic sensibility, but when novels have let us down, the theory seems to go, short fiction is the last bastion of hope for lovers of grand gestures and flamboyant flair.
The authors of these twenty mini-epics have done an admirable job of rising to this somewhat odd occasion. Christopher Rowe's two-page opener "Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms" is a perfect mood-setter, providing a crash course in epic vocabulary with words like "bloodstains" and "gauntleted" and "furrows" and only hinting in the last moment that these tales might be rather more than the reader expects. The collection as a whole takes the same approach, the old and familiar peppered with bits of the new and unusual. Whether harkening back to ancient mythology, emulating the old-time sword-and-sorcery greats, or taking an aggressively modern approach to structure or content, each story attempts in its own way to both pay homage to and modernize the epic.
Most notable on the modernist front is Marcus Ewert's "Choose Your Own Epic Adventure," which is just what it sounds like: 28 snippets of second-person story that may be assembled in a variety of different ways. Flipping from page to page is only entertaining for a moment (even for those of us who remember the original Choose Your Own Adventure books with deep nostalgia), but reading it straight through provides an odd sort of condensed satisfaction, as though one were simultaneously living all these possible lives at once. Yoon Ha Lee takes on a very different sort of artificial structure in "Hopscotch," a tale of stymied love and stubborn dreams that is formatted like a hopscotch grid—one column, then two, then one, then two—to emphasize the focus on what it's like to have one foot in each of two very different worlds. Like most of Lee's work, this story is probably best on its third or fourth reading, at least for those who have the patience to keep poking at it until they find the best way in.
More self-conscious and less succesful is Scott William Carter's metafictional "Epic, The," which collects his letters to the editors detailing his attempts to collaborate on a contribution to the collection and pleas for deadline extensions due to the otherworldly nature of his collaborator. Despite Avram Davidson having the last word on the fantastical editorial correspondence subgenre three and a half decades ago, for some reason writers can't resist writing these stories and editors can't resist buying them. "Epic, The" is no "Selectra Six-Ten," but it's entertaining enough in its own way. It's an unfortunate choice for a closer, though, as its self-referential humor strips away the dreamy glamourie evoked by the more traditionally epic stories, particularly the immediately preceding and deeply haunting "A Siege of Cranes" (of which more below). It seems to have been put at the end mostly because it would stick out even more in the middle. Jack Mierzwa also breaks with literary convention in "A Short History of the Miraculous Flight to Punt"; the blend of Galileo, Atlantis, and space travel is intriguing, but like its title, the poem has an insufficiently high proportion of meaning to words. "Have You Any Wool," Alan DeNiro's surreally vague parable of the power of stories and belief, and "The Book of Ant," a tale of great formicidean boldness that Jon Hansen couches in pseudo-Biblical styling with moderate success, round out the nontraditional contributions, which count for a rather startling 30% of what one might expect to be a very traditional collection. Both the editors and the authors seem to enjoy going to great lengths to make it clear that such expectations should be left at the door.
The historical weight of the term "epic" comes down firmly on the side of grand travels and travails, beginning with the exploits of Gilgamesh and his friend and rival Enkidu and going on to the voyages of Odysseus and the tasks of Hercules. Where early epics used the perspectives of a handful of protagonists to tell the history and describe the attitudes of an army, city, or country, many of the traditionally structured pieces in this collection pass over localized extrapolation for more general metaphors of the human condition. Unable to resist the latter-day urge towards super-tight third-person narration, they collapse even vast cities and towering mountains to human size. The only real exception is K.D. Wentworth's account of a bloody century-long horticultural feud in "The Rose War," and though the magic plants are genuinely creepy, the generation-skipping and detachment from any individual viewpoint leaves it feeling a bit empty, like a Patricia McKillip story without all the extensive character development.
In some cases, this marriage of the past focus on big ideas and places and present emphasis on individual experience is an awkward one. Tim Pratt's "Cup and Table" brings together a diverse cast of anti-heroes who share a quest to find and talk to God, but their very diversity works against his attempts to make them real, and instead they end up defined by their attributes: Ray, the guy who takes on attributes of the living creatures he eats; Carlsbad, the mild-mannered living embodiment of all that is evil in the hearts of men; Sigmund, whose ability to see into the past is amplified by extraordinary quantities of cocaine and methamphetamines, and Carlotta, the oversexed tough chick. The resulting story has some charm but no real depth. David J. Schwartz drops a Minnesotan man into the middle of Norse mythology in "Five Hundred and Forty Doors," and Zoë Selengut drops a goddess into the lives of some disaffected Belgian artists in "Smitten"; both stories are stylistically authentic but don't go terribly far beyond gimmickry, though Selengut at least has the sense to keep hers fairly short with a sweet punchline.
"The End of the Road for Hybeth and Grinar," Elizabeth McGonagill's homage to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, starts out with the promise of high adventure but ends up sounding like a bunch of college gamers doing a dungeon crawl:
"So your count might be off then, if we were taking shorter steps?"
"Yeah, but I figured that in. We've gone back two hundred and twenty steps. We've messed up somewhere."
"Yeah." (p. 45)
Likewise, Ian McHugh's "The Last Day of Rea," wherein everyone cracks wise at the ineffectual hereditary king as he attempts to lead them in battle against a city of people with mysterious powers, is neither quite sharp enough to be parody nor quite original enough to be anything else. It may be possible to write a terrific story wherein people in a far-off place speak or act as though they think just the way the reader does, but if such a story exists, it's not to be found here.
On the other hand, two of the most engaging and true-ringing stories in the collection, "The Rider" by Meghan McCarron and "Life Sentence" by Sandra McDonald, deal solely with here-and-now characters in the here-and-now world. "The Rider" is the tale of two acquaintances, Nell and Lewis, on a cross-country trip undertaken for no particular reason. Over the long dreary hours of Midwest driving, Nell gradually reveals that her occasional strange behavior has even stranger stories behind it. "Life Sentence" follows ex-soldier ex-con Frank Hayes through his numerous attempts to fix his hopeless future by changing his terrible history. Both stories share an atmosphere of fragile present-day peace heavily informed by past experiences of war; the characters are isolated from one another and the world around them, always in motion but never really getting anywhere, trying to break through the patterns of behavior—influenced by past trauma and error—that cut them off from the possibility of love and fulfillment. These are personal sagas, the epic writ small, but the big ideas are present in full force. While the core elements are familiar (the metaphor of the road trip, though used by McCarron to good effect, is hardly original, and "Life Sentence" is straight out of the Groundhog Day school of karmic progress), the protagonists are well-drawn and unique, and the very different resolutions are equally compelling.
The bridge between our world and distant lands is Stephen Eley's "The Dinner Game." The game is played by two nameless protagonists, a man and a woman, whose affair is carried on in the stories they tell each other about who they are and have been. On the night we see them, the story is of a king and a goddess and their beautiful, tragic love. Eley plays the same game that the lovers do, contriving both to convey elements of the real world—his unusually disheveled appearance, her recollections of their previous encounters, the beautiful faces of the other people in the restaurant—while drawing the reader deeply into their mythical shared past, with just enough blurring of the lines between the two. The ending is very slightly too sharp, like a song cut off a beat before the final note, but the story is so intensely gripping that it's almost hard to complain about being thrust out of it.
With disbelief fully suspended, we move on to the more fantastical gems, the ones that do honor to both the sensibilities and the style of their epic ancestors. Most successful is "Bound Man," Mary Robinette Kowal's stark re-humanization of the hero archetype. When the soldier-priest Halldór, hard-pressed by foes, chants the spell to summon the legendary warrior Li Reiko, he has no idea that he is in fact bringing her out of the past, separating her from her children and the life she knows and setting in motion the chain of events that leads to the development of his own culture. As she struggles to adapt to her new reality, Reiko's grief and anger stand in sharp contrast to the usual devil-may-care attitude of mythical heroes. Similarly, in "The Creation of Birds," Christopher Barzak takes up the ancient idea of attributing human emotions to godlike entities but passes over the usual lust and rage in favor of hapless love, depression, and the peculiar blend of hope and despair that comes from romance gone awry. A great many parallels with more earthly lovers can be seen in the Star Catcher's attempt to win the Bird Woman over with gifts of dying stars while she vacillates between trying to understand him and being annoyed by his naïveté, and hilarious commentary from the disembodied head of a Freudian psychoanalyst only underscores the story's metaphorical nature, but it stands very nicely on its own for those who would prefer not to think about its similarities to their own past or current relationships.
Paul Berger also goes small-scale in "The Muse of Empires Lost," focusing on the very human lust for power in two people with superhuman abilities: Jemmi, a very young woman, and Yee, a very old man, who live in (not on, in) terraformed, sentient asteroids. The science fiction setting does nothing to detract or distract from the fantastical atmosphere or the depth of emotions displayed as Jemmi and Yee struggle to use each other's powers for their own gain. Finally, Benjamin Rosenbaum takes on mourning and revenge in "A Siege of Cranes," wherein Marish, the sole survivor of a destroyed village, takes it on himself to in turn destroy the White Witch and stop her rampaging destruction across the land he loves. Rosenbaum doesn't shy away from the realities of vengeance and what happens after it's taken, and the last sentence is easily the most powerful in the entire collection.
In the epic tradition, the best of these stories deal with grand and important ideas, and yet each one also illustrates the way that such ideas can be compressed until they fit into a human mind, or perhaps the way that minds can stretch to encompass them. While these tales are not themselves diminished by the narrow focus of their viewpoints, they provide an intriguing reminder of the ways that the current sensibility differs from that of epics past. Vanished are the historical asides, the lush descriptions of scenery and paeans to the glint of the sun on a soldier's armor. Most 21st-century readers and writers would say that the people are the story, and everything else is at best an aside and at worst scorned as infodumping. To successfully handle epic themes in this fashion, the contributors to Twenty Epics had to attempt a marvelous balancing act of using subtly evocative world-building techniques to develop places, cultures, and concepts on an enormous scale, all within the confines of a few thousand words. It's remarkable that this collection exists at all, given such seemingly conflicting constraints, and impressive that so many of these stories do succeed in their attempts to scale the lofty epic peaks one personal, introspective step at a time.
Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.