Fiction Reviews

Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales

(2013) Melissa Marr & Tim Pratt (editors), Headline, 7.99, pbk, 372pp, ISBN 978-1-472-21055-5


"There are some stories as timeless as they are involving," says the back cover. "There are some authors who can tell any story. In Rags & Bones, award-winning and bestselling authors retell classic fairytales and twisted tales in the way that only they can. With magic and passion they bring these stories whether much loved or forgotten back to life."

This anthology was inspired by a remark of Neil Gaiman's about how classic stories can haunt authors, remaining with them and helping to shape their own work. His own story retells Sleeping Beauty with a heroine instead of a hero and with a new denouement, but it's perhaps the only one in here which does what you might expect. The remit which the contributors were given actually allows them more scope:
"The two of us thought it would be fun to return to those best-beloved old stories, intentionally this time rather than in the usual subconscious ways. We asked them to choose stories that had moved them, influenced them, and fascinated them, boil those stories down to the rags and bones, and make something new from their fundamental essences."

"The results are wonderful," they say, and they certainly are different. The first, Carrie Bryant's 'That the Machine May Progress Eternally', takes E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops and literally turns it on its head, following a dweller on the surface who escapes to a new life and eventual disaster below. Garth Nix's 'Losing Her Divinity' follows the narrative style of The Man Who Would Be King but inverts the story-line, with gods trying to escape their worshippers and pass as human. Margaret Stohl's 'Sirocco' brings The Castle of Otranto up to date, and Kelley Armstrong's 'New Chicago' sets The Monkey's Paw in a post-apocalypse future. Holly Black, Melissa Marr and Kami Garcia take their cues from Sheridan Le Fanu, Kate Chopin and Rumpelstiltskin, respectively, but tell very different stories from the originals. The inspiration for Tim Pratt's 'The Cold Corner' is a road-not-travelled story by Henry James, and funnily enough I read it just before I came across a quotation elsewhere by one of the designers of the Space Shuttle: "The configuration you didn't build is like the girl you didn't marry". The sentiments are just the same.

At 62 pages Rick Yancey's 'When First We Were Gods' is the longest story in the book, and by ill-luck it was the only one I didn't like, even though its inspiration comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Tanglewood Tales was one of my childhood favourites. Yancey's inspiration is The Birth-Mark and its central character is a killer whose selfishness wasn't justified for me by the forgiveness of one of his victims at the end. No doubt different readers will have different preferences, but for my taste the last two stories in the book were the best. Saladin Ahmed's 'Without Faith, Without Joy, Without Law' tells part of The Faerie Queene, Book 1, from the very different viewpoint of the Saracen victims. I would have given it top marks were it not followed by Gene Wolfe's 'Uncaged', which wins on the sheer quality of the writing. If a writer can be his own inspiration, the style, structure and treatment owe at least as much to The Fifth Head of Cerberus as they do to the William B. Seabrook story which is the source but 'Uncaged' is none the worse for that.

Each story is followed by an author's Afterword explaining the story's relationship to the one which inspired it. But six of them are preceded by drawings by Charles Vess illustrating other classic works (The King of Elfland's Daughter, Kai Lung's Golden Hours, Figures of Earth, The Shaving of Shagpat, The Wood Beyond the World and Goblin Market), each accompanied by a one-page plot summary. Good as the drawings are, there is no reference to them in the editors' Introduction and I naturally assumed that their inspirations were also the inspirations for the stories which followed them. So I read each of those six stories and their Afterwords looking for connections which weren't there not just confusing, but spoiling my enjoyment, undermining the artistic purpose and integrity of the book. The anthology works a great deal better once one realises that the illustrations are 'rags and bones' in their own right. It would have been better if for consistency if the artist's comments had come after the pictures, like the authors' 'Afterwords', instead of before them, but better still if their overall significance had been explained up front.

Apart from 'When First We Were Gods', I liked all the stories in the book, and it fully lives up to its sub-title. Although many of the authors were unfamiliar to me, they might not be for more regular readers of modern fantasy and whether the readers know them or not, they are unlikely to be disappointed.

Duncan Lunan

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