The publisher, Cheryl Morgan, has this to say about Dark Spires:
I’m not going to wax lyrical about its chances in awards, because it is not that sort of book. Dark Spires was not created to compete with the blockbuster anthologies produced by the likes of Ellen Datlow or Jonathan Strahan. … Rather it was created with the specific intent of showcasing writers from a particular part of the UK. If you want an analogy, it is rather like doing a book using only writers from the Sacramento area and the rest of California north of the Bay Area (complete with a rather rural focus).
As a showcase of Wessex-based authors, how does Dark Spires rate? Before we proceed, I should point out that the last short story collection I’d read was Metatropolis (edited by John Scalzi), and that a few general parallels will be drawn.
My impression is that Dark Spires could do with a clearer sense of editorial purpose. Metatropolis contains an introduction to the book and five stories, each preceded by their own introduction, which provides a buffer between stories and paves the way for the next one smoothly. In contrast, Dark Spires contains an introduction to the book and then lays the stories out simply without any further explanation. This leads me to a question: why are there afterwords to “Last Flight to West Bay” and “Milk” that contain no fiction, and nary an afterword for any of the other nine stories? The afterwords do contain certain tidbits about Wessex, but they have no place in a collection of stories unless they are part of an intentional buffer. If the choice to include a non-story afterword was intentional, why were the other authors not solicited for afterwords? Or why not, in lieu of an afterword, include a bio of each author for those authors who chose not to write one, instead of putting all of the bios at the very end of the book? This particular point bothers me a lot (as you may be able to tell), because for me it muddies the structure and presentation of the book. Unless otherwise intended (such as for artistic effect), I prefer anthologies to be structured unambiguously. That’s one of the reasons editors exist: to bring order to chaos.
My second comment is that the Wessex-centered theme could have used some refining. Is this supposed to be a fantasy anthology? A science fiction anthology? A horror anthology? Wizard’s Tower Press’s website is unclear, saying only that Dark Spires “will take the settings that inspired Hardy but update them and add the fantastic elements of speculative fiction–fossils and monorails, sea wolves and antigravity.” Wessex is undoubtedly a worthy subject to focus on, but without any other guidelines, the stories do not form a coherent collection, as they span the genres from fantasy to near-future general fiction to science fiction, with horror and urban fantasy thrown into the mix.
As a gallery of the variety and breadth of work available by Wessex-based authors, Dark Spires does well. As a reading experience, it is rather less so, especially without a buffer between stories. Lest it be said that I am narrow-minded, the books on my shelves span the gamut mentioned above (and more). Skipping between genres in one collective work, however, is an unsettling reading experience, especially when one is reading an e-book (the edition I am reviewing). There is some argument out there on what sort of books are best suited to the electronic format, and I am of the opinion that editors creating e-books should consider this: the vast majority of your readers are going to be reading from the first page to the last serially. Novels have no problem with this; anthologies such as Dark Spires need to remember that a smooth transition from story to story is actually quite important.
The overall quality of stories in Dark Spires is decent but noticeably uneven. Some, like “The Preacher,” could have done with more red ink and a sharper editorial eye. Some, like “Spindizzy,” exhibit mastery of the technical points of writing, but somehow seem just a tad lacking when it comes to character and motivation. Some, like “Last Flight to West Bay,” have no plot, or at least none I could discern. Novels can get away with certain imperfections, as they have hundreds of pages in which to make their case and ample time for the reader to engage with the characters. Short stories have nowhere to hide such flaws. As a friend of mine put it: “It’s easier to write an okay short story than an okay novel, but it is much harder to write a good short story than a good novel.” The stories in Dark Spires are mostly okay short stories.
I hate to say it, but Sarah Singleton‘s “The Preacher” is possibly the weakest story of the entire anthology and does not contribute towards a favorable first impression of Dark Spires. It’s the story of a witch hunt with a twist which I will not elaborate on in order to not spoil the ending. The world-building is vague: this is a generic small village that is nominally in Wessex but could be any small, secluded European village not too far from the sea. I don’t believe the prologue was necessary; it provided some foreshadowing, but also performed as a crutch that allowed the story to be much less fleshed-out than it could otherwise have been. A boy was mentioned in the prologue, but if he plays any sort of part at all in the story proper, I must have missed it, for after the prologue he is never to be seen again. Character motivation is thin; in particular the motivation of John Rowe in hiring Thomas is completely invisible to my eyes. This is a case of a story where the plot dictates character action. While “The Preacher” has a satisfying ending, there are too many literary holes for me to enjoy it.
In “Pump House Farm” by John Hawkes-Reed, the narrator is a blogger looking for a scoop and something rather more personal. Whether or not he finds what he seeks can be left to the reader’s judgment. The writing is well done and the story is paced appropriately. However, I take issue with the premise, in which the UK government is trying to cover up the flooding at the Somerset Levels Wetlands Reserve with a story about nuclear radiation. With all the technology available to us today, and considering the ubiquity of the Internet as a source of news, this is a particularly hard conjecture to swallow. Even if the UK government acts as a whole in the way described–unlikely unless the British population collectively loses all common sense between now and the time of this story–what’s to stop UK citizens from seeking international news sources? International health organisations and aid agencies would have been involved in some way. In particular, it is frankly impossible to imagine that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would not investigate a purported nuclear accident. I haven’t even started on how the airship navigates in fog (the story attempts to make a case for supposedly undetectable human-audible echo-location, and has the ship landing with the help of laser pointers taped to a tree.) If you take the story at surface level, “Pump House Farm” is well-written and solid, but if you start asking the questions “Why?” and “How?” it falls apart. Whether you will like this story depends on how you like your (pseudo)science and how far you are willing to suspend disbelief.
The protagonist of Adam Colston‘s “Cobalt Blue,” Christian, is a man who steals time from others, discovers he has more abilities, and uses them to try and solve a crime. It’s nice to see a street-level description of Exeter as Christian attempts to trace him; I like Colston’s introduction and use of the mind-link as a key plot point. Christian’s motivations are clear, logical, and well-reasoned, and the story moves along briskly. The ending is not entirely obvious, and Colston manages to seed in a twist that is both satisfying and reasonable. Well-written and nicely paced, this is one of my favorite stories in the anthology.
Joanne Hall‘s “Corpse Flight” features a retainer of Alfred the Great called Fluke. Under Danish siege, Fluke makes a discovery that saves the day, with some help from a magic sword. It’s an interesting and enjoyable story, but the writing could use a little tightening up. Most of the drawbacks are quite minor: small things, such as having two different characters sharing focus sequentially in the same paragraph (a pet peeve of mine). A slightly heftier issue is that Fluke (and a host of other implied characters) slip through the siege lines incredibly easily, leading me to wonder what sort of soldiers the Danes were supposed to be. A siege with holes that size and so easily exploited is no real siege; surely someone among Alfred’s retainers should have been able to circumvent the Danes and bring reinforcements before it came to possible starvation? That said, “Corpse Flight” is an enjoyable and fun read despite the gruesome title.
Richard Henchard is the protagonist of “Spindizzy,” Colin Harvey‘s contribution. It’s a train story, a love story, and a vignette, all rolled into one. The vast majority of the story takes place on a train, though there are brief periods on platforms. I don’t see a good reason why it should be in present tense, but beyond that the writing is solid. Colin Harvey does a good job of integrating Indian culture into the world, and his is the only story that hints at a multicultural Britain; all the other stories give the impression Wessex belongs purely to the Anglo-Saxon. Sadly, Harvey fails somewhat in his research of other Asian cultures when he mentions that public servants speak any two of the languages Hindi, Mandarin, and Chinese. This instantly jolted me out of the story. Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese, and is otherwise known as Putonghua, so when people say they speak Chinese, it’s assumed they mean they speak Mandarin; thus that list of languages is effectively cut down to two. Perhaps Harvey meant to say Cantonese (a major dialect most common in Hong Kong and in Guangzhou); considering the number of immigrants from Hong Kong to the UK before the sovereignty of Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997, this is more than a little likely. Another rudimentary mistake was misspelling “Konnichiwa” as “Konnochiwa”. As an overseas Chinese who has lived several years in Japan, these two points cost the story a number of credibility points in my eyes. Finally, I found the ending incredibly unsatisfying on a personal level, but your mileage may vary. The points I’ve raised aside, this was technically one of the strongest stories in the book, and I applaud the attempt at multiculturalism, though it steps dangerously close to exoticising Indian culture. It’s a great pity “Spindizzy” was marred by easily-avoidable mistakes.
“Spunkies” by Eugene Byrne has Adams, a government spook, solving the mystery of some supernatural trouble in the Somerset Levels with the help of an old mentor. It’s a nostalgic piece, with tidbits of Wessex in the eighties sprinkled in, juxtaposed with descriptions of Wessex as it is today. The descriptions are detailed without being rambly. As with “Pump House Farm” and “Spindizzy” (as well as “Last Flight to West Bay”), the antagonists of “Spunkies” are extremist environmentalists, which leaves me to wonder as to the state of the environment in Wessex and whether or not ‘sustainable living’ is a dirty word around those parts. The writing as a whole is all right, and the plot acceptable, but there’s nothing in particular that stands out about the story besides the throwaway lines. A serviceable story, but quickly forgettable.
Christina Lake‘s “The Sleeper Stone” is literally a mixture of Rip van Winkle meets The Time Machine. Elinor, the protagonist, finds a strange man in the woods who shouldn’t be there, and Bertie (aka the great H.G. Wells) quickly manages to shake the foundation of her way of existence. A few small mistakes escaped editing, such as when Bertie is accidentally referred to as Wells when he shouldn’t be. Overall, the story is notable for its premise, particularly when you spot the parallels and dissimilarities between the Eloi and the Morlocks of Wells’ story and the humans and suneaters in Lake’s version of this tale. Fans of H.G. Wells may like this story.
Joe Stevens, the protagonist of “Outside” by Guy Haley, is apparently a survivor, under siege from some sort of monstrous creature Joe calls ‘hagfish.’ Out of the eleven stories in Dark Spires, only “Outside” seems completely unrelated to Wessex except as a peg to hang a story on. The entirety of the story takes place inside a nondescript building that does not seem particularly representative of Wessex, unless all of Wessex has ‘uPVC’ windows sealed with rubber. “Outside” uses a diary or journal to impart information to the reader, but it often crosses the line between ‘believable chronicles’ and ‘infodump’. Instead of a frame, the story would have been much more effective told in first-person, a la Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart.” I also didn’t enjoy the present tense prose. I understand the use of present tense in “Outside” to be an attempt to increase the tension in the story, but because most of the story consists of Joe’s journal, the effect is lost. On the bright side, Haley has a good eye for tension and the slow reveal of information that adds to that tension. If you liked “The Tell-tale Heart,” “Outside,” though not in the same league, is worth a look.
I did not like “Last Flight to West Bay” by Roz Clarke very much, solely because this is a story that has misplaced its plot. Polly, our main character, is shot down in an airplane trying to get home. She’s apparently a person of some import, but it’s unclear why she was chosen for her mission, why she is the way she is, and how a person like her is targeted. In between the plane chase scenes are interspersed snapshots of Polly’s childhood that increase the word count but don’t do anything for the story. Like three other stories in Dark Spires, the role of antagonist is played by extremist environmentalists, who are responsible for shooting down Polly’s plane. “Last Flight to West Bay” is a contender for the weakest story in this anthology, but manages to avoid last place by virtue of technical ability. However, at least “The Preacher” has a plot and a real story to tell. I can’t help feeling that a better (and more Wessex-centered) approach would have been to forget the present-day frame and just tell the story of Polly, growing up in Wessex with a grandfather who respected the land. Also, the afterword is completely out of place here and unrelated to the fictional experience.
In Liz Williams‘s “Milk,” Whiteshadow, a new Queen, rises to the throne, but the old queen Grain is reluctant to step aside, and challenges her. Williams chooses to tell the story from the viewpoint of Sea, Grain’s daughter, which may have been a fatal mistake. Calling Sea a protagonist is a stretch, though she is the POV character. The real protagonist is Grain, afraid for her health, possessive of her throne, clinging to what was. There is a rich background of magic here, but it is only just barely hinted at, and the confrontation at the end of the story was the very definition of anticlimactic. A far better choice for the story would have been to have presented it from Grain’s POV, or perhaps even a shared Grain/Whiteshadow POV. Grain in particular is far more active a character than Sea, even though Grain is bedridden for most of “Milk.” As a Celtic reboot of the legend of King Arthur told from a wholly new perspective, “Milk” has potential, but Guinevere as the enigmatic Whiteshadow could have used more attention, Grain does not recieve the spotlight she deserves, and Sea is a static and not-very-interesting character. The choice of POV character hobbled what might otherwise have been a gripping story, and as a result “Milk” is a milksop could-have-been. Again, there is an afterword, though it is less out of place than the one that follows “Last Flight to West Bay,” due to its role in explaining how Arthurian legends led to “Milk.”
The last story in the anthology is Gareth L. Powell‘s “Entropic Angel,” in which so-called angels cause entropy by causing machinery to fail. An angel arrives in a village, followed by a man calling himself Kenya, who offers to kill the angel. It’s a solid story and feels somewhat like a Western (in the American movie fashion), albeit very simple and straightforward. Kenya isn’t the only character of interest; Reverend Pike, who seems to lead the village, turns out to be rather interesting in the end, with the beginnings of a feisty personality. “Entropic Angel” closes out the anthology with a servicable tale, though not a particularly interesting or unpredictable one.
Title: Dark Spires
Editor: Colin Harvey
Publisher: Wizard’s Tower Press
Publication Date: November 2010
Price: £8.99 (paperback); US price unavailable
E-book Price: $3.99/£2.98 (Kindle)