Beyond the Pale edited by Henry Herz is a YA anthology containing fantasy and paranormal stories by some well-known authors in speculative fiction, including Saladin Ahmed, Peter S. Beagle, Jane Yolen, Gillian Philip, and Jim Butcher. It consists of an eclectic mix of writing styles and speculative fiction stories, including mythic and urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, historical fantasy, a ghost story, and a vampire tale about Dracurat. I found most of the stories enjoyable and will certainly be reading more by some of these authors who are new to me after sampling their short fiction.
My favorite story in the entire anthology is “The Children of the Shark God” by Peter S. Beagle, a lovely but sad tale about a god who falls in love with a human and the tragic consequences, including the effect this has on their children. Mirali, a young woman living on an island, is noticed by the Shark God who protects her home. The Shark God gains her favor, and the two marry and have twins, a boy and a girl. The children grow up without knowing their father or his identity since he only visits once a year while they are asleep. When they are older and Mirali reveals to them that their father is the Shark God, they do not react the way she expected—they are not honored, awed, or fearful but angry at the father who abandoned them—and her daughter Kokinja sets out to find her godly father and tell him exactly what she thinks of his actions. This is a skillfully written story with both excellent storytelling and writing. Every word seems to be crafted with care, and I would now like to read more of Peter S. Beagle’s short fiction even though I usually prefer longer stories.
Another story I particularly loved is “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela” by Saladin Ahmed, a well-written story reminiscent of fairy tales with the main character being shown that the world is not as ordinary as he had thought. A young physicker, the Caliph’s son’s personal favorite, is sent away as punishment for falling in love with a woman from a wealthy family. After he is dismissed, he spends time in a small village filled with rumors of the hermit Abdel Jameela. When Abdel Jameela hears that a court physiker is near, he sends a messenger to him to request that he aid his ill wife. Though discouraged from doing so, the physiker goes as requested since he feels it’s his duty to help if he can—and ends up performing a surgery combined with magic unlike anything he’s ever done before. While I enjoyed the writing, I also thought this story was fantastic because of the earnest main protagonist and its wondrous nature.
Gillian Philip wrote two stories in Beyond the Pale, both among the best in this anthology. I especially loved “Frost Child,” a dark historical fantasy and prequel to her novel Firebrand, even though the beginning was not compelling. It begins with the Queen’s captain, Griogair, setting out to destroy his Queen’s enemies and without having any stake in these characters, I found the fighting rather dull. However, once Griogair finds one of his people with his enemies, a rather indifferent little girl named Lilith, it became quite engaging. It’s a story of the Sithe with witches, warriors (both male and female), and kelpies and is the type of setting I find appealing, but it was Philip’s deft hand with portraying her characters that made me want to read Firebrand. Her other story, “South,” is a creepy tale in which an old man watching his grandson reminisces about meeting the boy’s grandmother—a mysterious woman who appeared out of nowhere on a remote, cold island and seemed completely unaffected by the freezing temperatures.
While I did not think any of the other stories were as excellent as those four, I did enjoy most of them, especially “Even Hand” by Jim Butcher. Despite not having read any of the Dresden Files, I had fun reading this tale narrated by the villain, Harry Dresden’s enemy Johnny Marcone. He’s an interesting bad guy since he’s not quite as hard as he appears to others, and his narrative voice is well done and contains some good humor. In addition to Marcone, there is a compelling cast of characters in his employ, including a valkyrie and a very competent man who does his job well despite his disapproval of Marcone’s actions.
The only stories I did not enjoy were the two written by Heather Brewer. “Misery” centers on a mysterious town of the same name that is more bland than miserable, and that’s also how I would describe the story: not terrible but quite bland. The characters in “Misery” do not know how they arrived in this place or have memories of their lives before then, and I found the revelation about the actual purpose of Misery predictable. Aside from that issue, I thought the story lacked emotional resonance and did not find the writing as smooth as in other stories. While I didn’t dislike “Misery,” I didn’t like it either, but the same cannot be said of “Shadow Children,” in which a boy afraid of the dark is swallowed by darkness. I had similar problems with it as the previous story—predictability, lifeless writing and characterization—but despite its short length, I found it a chore to get through since it did not have a hook at the beginning like the mystery of the town in “Misery.”
Like most anthologies, Beyond the Pale contains stories varying in quality, but it only has a couple of stories that I did not find at all enjoyable. Most of the stories had more strengths than weaknesses, and some were quite excellent. I found it worth reading for the stories by Peter S. Beagle, Saladin Ahmed, and Gillian Philip alone—and it has certainly added more books and authors to my to-read list!
My Rating: 7.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Electronic ARC from the editor.