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Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt (ed.) – Rags & Bones

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Building from the foundations.

Publisher: Headline (Hachette)
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4722-1052-4
First Published: 22nd October 2013
Date Reviewed: 25th October 2013
Rating: 5/5

A baker’s dozen of creators, including Marr, Pratt, and one artist, have teamed together to produce a collection of short stories based on others’ works.

Rags & Bones is an anthology that retells several stories – all with some sort of fantasy, paranormal, and/or horror base – to create one solid and undeniably excellent book.

It’s interesting to note that the title of the collection comes from its concept. Marr and Pratt wished for stories that were the result of existing tales rewritten it to the effect that the meaning was still there, and perhaps certain elements (for example Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper’s Spindle is very much Sleeping Beauty) – but were still original works. As the editors put it: “boil those stories down to the rags and bones, and make something new from their fundamental essences”.

And it works. Whilst the stories may indeed at times be easy to place within their context, at others it is more difficult. Certainly it is to the collective’s advantage that the stories chosen for reworking are not all timeless classics. There are lesser known works amongst them which means that there is a lot of ‘new’ for the reader, as well as ‘old’ – it is unlikely that any one reader will know of every story represented.

The stories themselves are compelling and the writers chosen are all rather famous. The horror in the tales is often understated and of the grim, psychological sort rather than the gore and violence sort. And the range of settings and times is vast. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain when or where a story is set. This adds to the tales rather than detracts.

So each story bares a message. Carrie Ryan’s brilliant That The Machine May Progress Eternally takes on E M Forster and weaves a foreboding tale of a child of a post-apocalyptic earth falling into the technological underworld where humans with no reason to move about study history from the safety of their kingdom. Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeping Spindle borrows from Hans Christian Anderson and switches elements around to create a humorous version of an already chilling children’s story. Melissa Marr herself channels Kate Chopin and writes of selkies, a mer-woman imprisoned by a well-meaning but abusive human, in a study of both the selkie myth itself and the wider context of inequality. And then there is the exceptional When First We Were Gods by Rick Yancey, the longest story in the book, a purely sci-fi retelling of The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne that focuses on a specific sort of human immortality, looking at what is lost when forever is achieved. Woven into the collection are Charles Vess’s illustrations, artistic retellings of older tales and poems. The addition of Vess’s work is a reprieve of sorts, a nice method of segmentation, that is provided just as much time for explanation as the written works. (Each contributor explains their inspiration and why they chose it following their story.)

The works highlighted above are those chosen by the reviewer – there are plenty more and each one is just as worthy as the rest. There are no average stories in the collection, the sensational quality is consistent throughout. And whilst the messages and meanings may differ from one to the next, the overall ideas of knowledge, of thinking before you act, of human agency in general.

On the face of it, Rags & Bones is a mixture of oft-scary genres, but it is so much more. Real horror comes in patches, slowly, and timeless fantasies tend to have a dark base. You don’t read this book, become frightened and miss a night’s sleep. You will sleep at night. What these stories do is creep into your consciousness and make you aware of very real ideas and possibilities, as well as things that already happen. And this is regardless of whether the story is of a believable future or of vampires and zombies.

The gorgeous cover art will stay with you, the collective of popular and talented talented writers will stay with you, and the concept of wishes coming with a price, like Rumplestiltskin’s promise, will stay with you and haunt you for a good while.

There are ways to scare, there are ways to inform, and then there is Rags & Bones.

I received this book for review from Headline.

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L J Smith – The Forbidden Game

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Seven teenagers battle against evil to free their friend from her abominable fate.

Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 746
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-84738-738-7
First Published: 1994 (as three separate books); 2010 (as one volume)
Date Reviewed: 8th September 2010
Rating: 4/5

The Forbidden Game is a bind-up of three books that form a trilogy: The Hunter, The Chase, and The Kill. Please note that I will be reviewing all three at once and as such will only be providing a bare basic synopsis.

When Jenny runs out of planning time for her boyfriend Tom’s birthday she rushes around trying to find a board game that would interest her sixteen-year-old friends. Upon finding herself chased she comes across what appears to be a mural of a shop drawn on the front of a store that has shut down. But “appears” is the word, for on closer inspection the painted door handle is an actual handle, the door a real door, and she sneaks inside. It’s a game shop, a creepy place, and the gorgeous but strange teenage owner is selling ancient and niche board games. She takes the one he suggests, discovering she’s powerless to resist. But when the guy says he will see her “at nine” he means it. Jenny and her friends have a paper house to create and a game of nightmares to play, one that will literally imprison them in their dreams. And even if they get through it all, who’s to say that that will be the end?

When I picked up this tome, never having heard of Smith before, I was expecting a darker paranormal than Twilight, and while initially I was disappointed it didn’t last for long. Definitely of importance is that this book was written long before Twilight and thus long before the gushy romance paranormal novels. It’s old school dark fantasy, with real horror. You can try to compare it to recent releases but that’s pretty difficult to do, regardless of the fact that Smith couldn’t possibly have been inspired by the stories of today. You could probably compare it to paranormal series of the 1990’s but since I’ve only read this one I’ll leave that discussion to those in the know.

So I was after a dark book. There were always going to be limits on this because of the age recommendation, but apart from the very first part of the very first game (in other words the first round of The Hunter) there is little to be frightened of in a big dark house, evil Shadow Men or not. The teenagers must each conquer their worst nightmares and they are all pretty standard nightmares, handled in a standard way, which makes them just regular reads. They aren’t given enough time and it’s all over too quickly.

This standard has changed by the final book where the setting is a still-predictable but far more spooky place, one which many people are likely to identify with. The gruesome aspects may, again, be somewhat predictable, but the horror factor is far more apparent, as you might expect for a book called The Kill. The scene where the group first come across old arcade games is difficult to read in a very satisfying way, and Smith goes into details, ones that everyone thinks about but then forgets. She makes it more disturbing than usual.

The enemy of the book, the anti-hero, is a Shadow Man, lesser than a demon but a literal world away from not-too-bad. Julian fell in love with human Jenny when she was five years old, and the feelings of being watched that she’s endured all her life turn out to be warranted when Julian admits he has coveted her ever since he laid eyes on her. He is a typical bad guy, and you know what will happen to him, but Smith has included in his personality some traits that make his part readable.

As to the other characters there are less stereotypes. The heroine isn’t an action hero but she’s no clumsy damsel either, she’s realistic and a good antidote for anyone sick of Bella Swans and Luce Prices. You do have your gutsy females, your feminine females, but you don’t have your heroic gallant boys, and the females don’t stick to their personalities. Everyone changes back and forth, they each have their interests and different appearances but there are no strong reasons to prefer one to another which makes a nice change.

Talking of non-heroic males I think I should probably say, before I invite dispute, that Tom is very protective of Jenny and does do some amazing things but he also sulks a bit, in other words he is your average person and for that realistic.

In order to create a different world Smith makes use of various mythology and mystical conventions, blending them together to good effect. She even puts a dark spin on fairy lore.

There are a few spiritual aspects to the trilogy that Smith employs. One is that a person controls who they are and that no one can tell you to do otherwise. She uses this to demonstrate that although Julian, on the face of it, is much more powerful than the teenagers, a little thought can cause his power to crumble. This strength of thought is used in all three books, especially in The Chase where the teenagers must walk through illusions to escape. Smith refers to those who walk on hot coals to illustrate that we can control a lot of things with our minds. A somewhat disguised theme is believing in yourself, in The Hunter it is all about believing in what you’re trying to achieve.

An interesting quotation, not unrelated:

When you get to a certain extreme, the elements all sound like one another – fire sounds like water sounds like wind.

The biggest topic of the trilogy is, of course, good versus evil. Smith blurs the lines that separate them in ways that seem lost to the paranormal genre at present. Julian really is evil, very evil, but he struggles with feelings of love and devotion, and protection. He says he’ll never change – he’s devilish, why would he? – but he keeps that goodness throughout.

I said I couldn’t make a comparison but that’s not strictly true because there is one obvious comparison to be made. The book Jumanji had been released a decade before, though it is not likely that Smith saw the film version because that was released in 1995. The reference, if true, concerns The Hunter, the bringing alive of a board game. I think that’s something each reader has to make their own mind up on.

Smith’s writing is generally simple. The inclusions of cultural elements are great excuses to open up Wikipedia and do some further reading, and the obvious regards to 1990’s life are good reminders that paranormal existed pre-2000. As someone in their twenties I loved reading a book both written and set in the time when I was growing up. Smith doesn’t have any weird literary tendencies, which is nice, and the only thing I could find worthwhile pointing out in this respect was her metaphor of “dandelion fluff” for someone’s hair, which is rather cute.

Here, in one large book, are three related but separate stories thanks to three different games and settings. The only bad thing about the bind-up is that there is never any true danger in the books and because of this I would recommend any would-be readers not to read them in one long haul like I did. Because it does trundle along in a decided pattern, it can become boring in that easy to put down way, which doesn’t happen during the first book. Yes, that is definitely my advice: read plenty of other books in between.

Before there were loved-up vampires, angels, and ghosts, there was L J Smith, a woman who wasn’t afraid to do her own thing. The Forbidden Game may not be perfect but it is a brilliant alternative to what is being produced now and, dare I say, far more worthwhile.

Will I be reading the rest of her books, even those that deal with vampires and love? Hell yes I will, for I’ve definitely been bitten by the bug.

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