I recently had the pleasure of reviewing "Trees and Other Wonders," a short story collection by Stephen Case, an author I'd run into doing reviews for TangentOnline. Based on the stories I'd already read by him, I expected greatness, and I was not disappointed:
“Trees and Other Wonders” by Stephen Case is a collection of 12 SF/F short stories and novelettes, 10 of which are reprints from respected SF/F magazines and 2 of which cannot be found anywhere else in print. Several of the magazines which these stories appear in are pay only, so the anthology is a good value. The majority of the 12 stories represent a solid range of science fiction and fantasy which showcases Stephen Case's versatility as a professional genre writer.
1. The Stone Oaks
“The Stone Oaks” is a fantasy novelette that tells the story of a nun apprentice who quickly finds that her task of magically strengthening the abbey's ancient oak grove is fraught with mystery and danger. When soldiers arrive to investigate the grove, they set into motion a series of tragic events that play on the apprentice's – and our – naivete.
For a story told in first person, “The Stone Oaks” is not heavy on introspection or internal dialogue, and its strength lies in showing rather than telling, mostly in the form of delightful, poetic descriptions of magic. Case's careful foreshadowing keeps the ending a surprise, and the falling action, after the big reveal, is a bit of a tease and leaves plenty of room for follow-up stories. That being said, “The Stone Oaks” delivers on the big mystery and leaves the reader with the impression that there is an open, dangerous world outside of the safe confines of the abbey.
2. My Bicycle, 4500 AD
“My Bicycle, 4500 AD” is a short, concise, fun piece with an edge of the absurd. I love the idea of a anti-zombie bicycle-stealing time traveler. The comedic buildup allowed me to guess the ending just in time to truly enjoy it. It's a sign of a good flash piece when the protagonist goes unnamed, but you don't notice until afterward.
3. The Story of the Ship that Brought Us Here
“The Story of the Ship that Brought Us Here” give fairy tale and epic fantasy archetypes an invigorating scifi makeover dressed in gorgeous prose. With a Sleeping Beauty whose mother is a tree and a prince not-so-charming who inhabits three bodies simultaneously, it's no wonder that this short story feels very big for 6,000 words.
I love the high SF ideas, from the planet that sleeping beauty comes from, to the envoy who comes to fetch her, to the prince's title of “The Prince of the Fair Worlds and the Glorious Clusters.” The build up at the end loses me a bit and makes me wish that that the end was longer, and that it was only the beginning of a larger story.
Told from the first person POVof a man who discovers that the park is actually the giant Tome's prone body, this cute little fantasy genre romance adds welcome diversity to Stephen Case's collection. With its mention of the laws of energy, you could almost peg the story as slipstream. The feel, though, is definitely that of fantasy.
5. What I Wrote for Andronicus
Lovers of mythology will enjoy “What I Wrote for Andronicus” for its epic Greek feel, as conveyed by Harold Half-Helm's first person POV. You don't have to be a mythology expert to love this story for its epic humor, though, which ranges from the obvious adult references to the subtle ending. If you had to cut down a tree older than the gods themselves, what would you fashion from its wood? This is another entertaining read that feels delightfully more expansive than its 4,700 words.
6. Bonus Track 1: A SHOT IN THE BACK OF THE HEAD
“A Shot in the Back of the Head” introduces us to a near-future where machines that can vaguely predict a person's death inspire panic in those who use them. In this case, two lovers who read each other's death predictions end up miserable and contribute to their self-fulfilling prophecies.
Like most stories about fate, this one is a bit dramatic. Since the main character is a military sniper, there is a bit of cursing and a lot of moral ambiguity. I found the story interesting and was happy to see another set in the same universe later on in the collection.
7. The Silver Khan
“The Silver Khan” is a wonderfully crafted fantasy novelette that follows the first person narrative of a spy attempting the ferret out the mystery of the Silver Khan's flying castle. As we explore the castle grounds and the ominous silver statues, we get the impression of a larger fantasy world of which this 9,000 word novelette is only a sliver. When our spy solves the mystery, he gets a good old fashioned life-and-death conflict for his troubles, and we get a tight, action-filled ending that turns a few traditional fantasy elements on their heads.
This fantasy-mystery is one of my favorites in the collection.
8. Starlight, Her Sepulchre
“Starlight, Her Sepulchre” is a straight-up horror SF that takes us to the far future where human soldiers who die war are regenerated in special ships, where this story takes place. The story follows a caretaker scientist on board who notices that a frequent visitor has developed an unhealthy obsession with a certain regeneration pod. You may think that this story does not take place on the front lines. We'll see if you feel that way by the end.
9. Read this quickly, for you will only have a moment . . .
“Read this quickly, for you will only have a moment . . .” is a thoroughly engaging fantasy flash story that plunges us in medias res by way of a conspiratorial love letter with jail break instructions. This wonderful example of flash fiction shows us the beginning and the end of the story all at once, while only technically showing us the middle. I often dislike open endings but this bittersweet one stole my heart.
This is my favorite story in the entire collection, despite the tough competition.
10. The Glorious Revolution
“The Glorious Revolution” is another great story that appears to be fantasy at the beginning but then takes us into a bigger-picture SF conflict. This novelette is written in first person as an address to the main character's lover, who has more or less ended up on the opposite side of the revolutionary war. Our protagonist endeavors to explain his change of heart, having begun as a revolutionary spy and now standing on the side of the King. But when his lover and her soldiers arrive, it is not the typical clash of swords that you might expect, because the King and our protagonist know something that will change the course of the revolution.
Sentient animals and interplanetary ships – this story is epic.
11. Bonus Track 2: LIGHT AND NOISE AND PAIN
“Bonus Track 2: LIGHT AND NOISE AND PAIN” brings us back to the near-future world of machines that can predict a person's death. Because of its placement in the collection, the story does not bother re-explaining the premise. Although this one also explores the theme of fate, it has a completely different set of characters and accomplishes a different feel that at some points venture into dark humor.
12. Driving East
Don't let “Driving East” through you for a loop with its real-life setup; it is definitely fantasy, what with the moon getting stuck in a tree. With a light, humorous tone (complete with a bit of cursing) and a great ending, the 3,000 word fantasy adventure tale wraps up the collection nicely.
You know an anthology is good when you actually read the afterword, like I did!
Click here and purchase to enjoy "Trees and Other Wonders," by Stephen Case. :)