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The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley

The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley
Book Name: The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy
Author: Edited by Mike Ashley
Publisher(s): Running Press (US) Robinson (UK)
Formatt: Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: August 5, 2008 (US) June 26, 2008 (UK)

“Extreme” seems like a pretty loose term in a genre where the only limit is the mind’s capacity for imagination, but Mike Ashley’s anthology, The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, attempts to uncover the murky horizons of fantasy’s furthest limits in this addition to the Mammoth Books series.

Ashley’s goal for this collection was to gather together 24 stories that develop a simple idea “beyond the impossible” and essentially blow genre expectation out of the water. In his introduction he explains that fantasy, whilst being the “most liberated form of literature”, has suffered a certain amount of typecasting based on the success of the high fantasy tropes of Lord of the Rings-type epics. His book therefore attempts to banish all illusions that stoic elves and intermittently powerful wizards are all the genre has to offer, and unleash fresh ideas and methods of presenting them into the world in a sort of fantasy revolution.

In theory, there is supposed to be progression within the book, which somewhat ironically begins with a story about racism in Middle Earth – “Senator Bilbo” by Andy Duncan – and the penultimate story, “The Dark One” by A. A. Attanasio, being the most extreme of all extremeness (the final story, “A Ring of Green Fire” by Sean McMullen, is less intense, to allow the brain to recover from all the extreme). I didn’t find this to be strictly the case, but I think that might have something to do with my personal refusal to pin an extremity level on each tale, which are all inventive in their own way.

If I was feeling pedantic I might draw attention to Ashley’s comment that “fantasy is the literature of the impossible, which means it’s pretty extreme to start with”, and regular visitors to Fantasy-Faction won’t need to be told about all the things that fantasy and its multitudes of subgenres have to offer. However, while the introduction makes me think cynical thoughts of self-congratulatory marketing ploys, the editor’s good intentions have inspired a collection that is among the most imaginative and engaging I’ve seen in any anthology (which, let’s face it, tend to be a bit hit and miss). In keeping with Ashley’s plan, the best are the ones that go in a completely unexpected direction.

“Using It and Losing” It by Jonathan Lethern

After spending a liberatingly peaceful couple of days among foreigners on a business trip, Pratt decides to “divorce” himself from the English Language so that he can wholeheartedly embrace this perfect solitude he has discovered. He comes up with a plan to forget his understanding of English words by repeating them over and over again until they lose all meaning, hacking away at the threads of communication that tie him to the rest of humanity until, defying the claims of John Donne, he exists alone on the island of his personal philosophy:

“He was a tourist everywhere. A tourist originating from a land so private and complete that it didn’t require a language.”

“Using It and Losing It” explores the significance of language and social expectation, understanding, communication and loneliness. But the most interesting thing about it is Lethern’s own use of language throughout the story. In describing the process of banishing English from Pratt’s mind, he uses violent and volatile terms, phrases and imagery that demonstrate the very power of the words Pratt is trying to forget.

Perfect in its simplicity and applying a certain amount of practical comedy, it is a joy to read and stays in your mind long afterwards.

“Charlie the Purple Giraffe was Acting Strangely” by David D. Levine

The wonderfully original “Charlie the Purple Giraffe was Acting Strangely” is about a character in a comic strip who becomes aware of his readers. Feeling exposed and vulnerable at their laughter, Charlie attempts to become less interesting in the hope that they will stop reading.

Utilising comic strip jokes, puns and visual narrative techniques such as thought bubbles, the story is a hilarious parody of the medium but also hints at something darker; a sad commentary on the decline of newspaper readership, or perhaps drawing attention to a poorer quality of writing. We can only speculate as any underlying message is almost completely veiled by the enjoyment of the story itself, which can’t be a bad thing.

“Cup and Table” by Tim Pratt

“Cup and Table” is my favourite story in the anthology. It blew my mind a little bit.

Essentially an urban fantasy hunt for the Holy Grail, the story follows a selection of mildly deplorable characters with unique and fantastical talents on a mission to meet with God and ask him the question that is burning within each of their souls. Each character is useful to the group because of their abilities but, because of the nature of the quest, every member has their own agenda and is liable to act unpredictably.

The protagonist can travel through time but requires the help of cocaine to use his ability. The structure of the story mirrors its content and the narrative is very disjointed, jumping through time to give the ending the greatest possible impact.

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I suppose anthologies aren’t always terribly appealing because you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting, and this one can seem mildly off-putting simply from its attempt to hurl the obscure definition of “extreme” all over the place, but the standard of these stories is unusually high. Most are fairly modern, published after the mid-nineties, and are from a variety of authors, including the big players like Orson Scott Card and Christopher Priest, as well as lesser known, but equally brilliant, writers within the genre. Mike Ashley introduces the author before each story, often explaining why he selected them for the anthology, as well as providing useful information on where more of their work can be found. Because of this, it’s an excellent book for discovering new authors – and most of them are well worth discovering.


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