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Season of Wonder Paperback – October 23, 2012
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Top Customer Reviews
While there were a few selections that I felt did not fit well with the proposed theme of the anthology, there were several really nice stories and a few outstanding ones that make me pleased with the time spent reading.
Here are my brief, non-spoiler thoughts on the stories in this collection in the order in which they appeared. I decided to assign a letter grade to each based on my experience with each story. There were no stories in this collection that were poorly written; each author’s skill as a storyteller is well represented. There were stories that I did not connect with and/or that I opine do not “abound with wonder”.
James Patrick Kelly starts the collection with “The Best Christmas Ever”, a last-man on Earth story that had me conjuring images of old Twilight Zone episodes and Blade Runner replicants. Kelly examines what would undoubtedly be the psychological state you would be in if your only companions were realistic-looking robots. The story brings in the occasional juvenile male-fantasy elements, although very innocently, and while the story would have been fine without them I would have to admit that it also brought up some very genuine thoughts of what life might be like with this kind of technology, for both men and women. A good solid story to start off the collection. (B)
I have not read a lot of Harlan Ellison in my time in large part, I believe, because of his abrasive personality and stories I’ve heard about is treatment of fans. I must admit, however, that on those rare occasions when I’ve found myself holding an anthology with an Ellison story in it that the man can write. In “Go Toward the Light” Ellison uses the Jewish festival of Chanukah as the backdrop for a time-travel story about faith and religious practice. It is a short but effective story. (B+)
Ken Scholes’ “If Dragon’s Mass Eve be Cold and Clear” looks at the power of myth and what mythology/belief could possibly over time grow out of the Santa Claus mythology. Scholes manages to create a story that feels like one from a simpler time while at the same time feeling oddly futuristic, at least to me, a glimpse of what the world might be like if things returned to a more agrarian society. The story was well written and certainly had interesting moments but overall did not work for me, feeling much more like a chapter out of a larger book than a self-contained short story. (C)
“Pal of Mine” by Charles de Lint is a story that feels very much as if it should be set in Newford. It is a story with music, disaffected souls and animals, in this case a cat, that are more than they seem. De Lint examines every day pain and triumph in such tangible ways through clearly fantastical stories–he really is a master at doing so. (B+)
The first outstanding story in the collection, for my money, is Janet Kagan’s tale “The Nutcracker Coup”. Building on the long popularity of Tchaikovsky’s late 19th century symphony, Kagan introduces us to race of quill-covered aliens on a planet whose name translated into English is called “Rejoicing”. The Rejoicers, as they are affectionately known by the diplomatic corps and ethnologists stationed there, are a curious race who lived under a dictatorial ruler and suffer the punishment of having their quills clipped for any offense of speech or action. The reader follows Marianne, a diplomat with great affection for the Rejoicers who unwittingly touches off the sparks of revolution by befriending the locals, and speaking her mind. This is a delightful, smile-inducing story. If you like H. Beam Piper’s novel Little Fuzzy or John Scalzi’s reboot, Fuzzy Nation, I suspect this is a short story you would enjoy. (A+)
Gene Wolfe was just named a Grand Master a few days before I read his selection, “How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen”, which made it a special pleasure to read. Wolfe captures the cold sinister beauty of Ireland magically in this holiday ghost story. (B)
Ellen Kusher utilizes Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Windows as a foundation in “Dulce Domum”, a story about going home again, or rather what happens when going home is not possible because home is not what it once was. This is a story I read and enjoyed a few years back in Eclipse Three, only enough time had passed that I hadn’t recalled reading it. I liked it then and did this time too, a fittingly seasonal urban fantasy tale. (B+)
“Julian: A Christmas Story” is a Hugo-nominated novella by Robert Charles Wilson that examines an earlier chapter in the life of the protagonist of his novel Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. The story is told through the eyes of Julian’s friend Adam, a commoner of the time period in this post-industrialized era. Stories like this can either work or not depending, I believe, largely on whether or not a person feels drawn by the story to read the larger work. Although it acts as a fragment of what the reader can tell will be a larger adventure, Wilson’s story actually does a quite admirable job of world-building through the eyes of Adam. I’m not often interested in stories pitting faith and science in what to my mind is becoming a cliched vision of the future, but in this case the characters are compelling as is the time period as Wilson unveils it and it evokes an emotional look at soldiers in wartime during the season of Christmas. (B-)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written many a short story that I would highly recommend and although “The Loop” is far from her best work, this sweet “Its a Wonderful Life” turned inside out time travel short is a nice feel-good edition to this collection. (B-)
“The Christmas Witch” by M. Rickert was an odd choice for this collection. A strangely uncomfortable story with all too real moments of false accusations of child molestation and an oddly broken young girl in search of…something. I appreciated very much learning about the myth of La Befana, one I hadn’t heard of before, and had this story been in a collection of folk tales and/or one with a more sinister bent then I might have enjoyed it more. As it is, the fact that part of the story happens at Christmas did nothing to dislodge the very un-wonderous feeling I had in the pit of my stomach while reading it and after reading it. (D)
“Wise Men” by Orson Scott Card has an interesting premise, the devil telling us the story of Christ’s birth and the wise men as if all are beings from other planets, but it did little for me. I cannot quite tell if Card is trying to have the devil play the victim role here or not. This was interesting but felt oddly sacrilegious given Card’s religious affiliations. No doubt I am misinterpreting the intentions of this one. (C)
Christmas/Solstice is largely a tacked on device in “The Night Things Changed” by Dana Cameron, a Jim Butcher-esque story of a brother-sister vampire/werewolf team that takes it to evil in whatever form it comes. Although it did nothing to spark the holiday spirit, this introductory story is one that is interestingly told. The concept of the Fangborn may be similar to other urban fantasy stories but this was entertaining enough that I’m interested in checking out Cameron’s first Fangborn book when it comes out next year. (B-)
“Home for Christmas” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a real winner, a near perfect Christmas fantasy. This is a story very much in the spirit of Charles de Lint’s Newford tales, telling the story of a homeless young woman and her first real personal Christmas in many years. Matt, the story’s protagonist, has a very special gift of being able to converse with inanimate objects and Hoffman renders this so deftly that the magic of it envelops you like a warm blanket and comforts you as you read. The only disappointment is that it ends leaving you wishing you could continue to follow Matt and see what happens to her next. It may be a wish fulfillment story for those down and out but it is the kind of story that inspires one to be open to treating all of humanity with dignity and tangible love. (A+)
“A Christmas Story” by Saban is an interesting inclusion purely from an historical perspective. “Saban” was the pen name of John William Wall, appointed as Second Secretary to the British legation in Jedda, Saudi Arabia in 1939. It is a story-within-a-story tale that could very well be the recounting of an actual event in Wall’s life. He recounts the holiday traditions the British tried to keep up in their voluntary exile despite being in an arid, dry land. The story being told this Christmas Eve night is recounted by a Russian stationed in the same area who recounts a mysterious lost-world-ish winter tale that had me shivering despite the comfort of my warm reading room. A very nice inclusion. (B)
Robert Reed’s “A Woman’s Best Friend” is a brief story that splinters off from a scene in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life examining the idea of the multiverse. I liked the idea and found the world that George ended up in to be very imaginative, I would have liked something a bit longer and had it been so the ending, though nice, would have perhaps seemed less base. Coming so close on the heels of reading Asimov’s The End of Eternity, I could see a kinship here, as if this were one of the possible times that Andrew Harlan could have visited. (B+)
“Christmas at Hostage Canyon” by James Stoddard tells of an age old struggle between light and darkness that happens every Christmas Eve. It is a thrilling page-turner featuring a young protagonist. This story would be a fun one to read aloud to the kids…if your kids can handle a bit of fright, that is. This is the good kind of scary story, one filled with threat, but ultimately with heroics and one in which the featured child takes an active role in his own fate. I liked it very much. Gripping and entertaining with an early scene that brought back memories of a nightmare I remember having as a child involving the Big Bad Wolf. (A)
Von Jock’s “The Winter Solstice” is another story that feels cut from the same cloth as those of Charles de Lint. On this cold, dark winter solstice night Ivy MacDariach sits in a lonely cabin hoping to rekindle faith in her beliefs, in magic, despite the hopelessness she has felt of late. As Ivy contemplates stories of the Holly King and the Oak King an apparently wounded stranger arrives on the bitter wind bringing tangibility to the legends. Jock’s descriptions accurately capture the dark chill of the longest night of the year. (B)
It may be silly of me but I always feel a bit of triumphant glee when a short story collection/anthology ends with a great story. Recent Grand Master Connie Willis’ story “Newsletter” wraps up Season of Wonder in a satisfying fashion. Paying homage to the tradition of the Christmas newsletter and to classic science fiction films like The Puppet Masters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Willis’ protagonist Nan finds herself caught up in conspiracy during the Christmas season when her co-worker Gary begins pointing out odd behaviors among their fellow men (and women and children). This story was pure fun, told with a wink and a nod. (A)
Season of Wonder is a collection I would recommend picking up for a non-traditional look at the winter/holiday season. No doubt you would find gems among Guran’s offerings that are different than the ones that spoke to me, which is part of the fun of collections of this sort. When I picked up the book I had hoped to be captivated by the spirit of the season and for the most part that is exactly what happened. And in the course of reveling in the Christmas spirit I discovered some authors new to me whose offerings are now among my list of treasured short stories.
Some of the stories do stand out in my memory, but they were pedestrian. I enjoyed the idea of Harlan Ellison's Hanukkah time-travel story and Orson Scott Card's Mormon Wise Men story more than I enjoyed the A to Z approach to the stories. (I did find Card's thinly veiled Mormon theology incorporated into an aliens and Christmas story to be sociologically interesting, but entirely predictable.) Likewise, Ken Scholes odd story of a Santa Claus turned warrior God in warped future where hope is mined and babies are requisitioned was memorable and interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying for not giving a pay-off to he questions it presented.
My sense, by and large, was that the stories were uncomfortable with Christmas. Thus, Robert Reed's "A Woman's Best Friend" subverts "It's a Wonderful Life" by poring cold water on angels and Christmas and Christmas miracles. Several of the stories involve a grim life or death struggle in a neo-pagan setting, which again doesn't sell the Christmas theme that I bought the book for.
My unhappiness may be a matter of expectation. I expected something seasonal for Christmas and the stories seemed to be more about subverting Christmas than communicating the Christmas spirit. Someone reading my story summaries might very well decide that the collection sound enchanting.