There can be no doubt now that short fiction is officially cool.
Largely left for dead outside of the classroom, its resurrection became buzzed about in 2013, with George Saunders’s award-winning Tenth of December: Stories. But Saunders is a mere critical darling. Imagine the boost short stories will get this month with a new collection edited by George R.R. Martin.
Martin, most notably the author of The Song of Ice and Fire series which has been adapted to the HBO show Game of Thrones, has millions of diehard fans worldwide slavering over his ever word.
So even a book he just edited gets lots of attention. That explains the buzz around a new collection of short fiction titled Rogues. Edited by Martin and Gardner Dozois (former editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction), it is filled with stories from Martin’s favorite authors—including himself—all working within the thematic framework of the rogue. As Martin writes in the introduction, “Everybody loves a rogue.” They can be found in romance novels, crime fiction, fantasy, westerns—OK, everywhere.
With that kind of universal appeal, Martin has drawn from these various genres and gotten big names like Gillian Flynn, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie to contribute.
This is not the first time Martin has edited a collection of stories, but it is the first since he became the king of all things fantasy (just look at any of this genre’s book jackets in the past year). So, Martin editing and also contributing his own story to this book almost guarantees it a big audience.
But if Martin’s name is what initially attracts readers, what will hold them is the strength of this volume’s stories—not including Martin’s own story, which is, ironically, one of the weaker entries.
Martin’s “The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother” tells the story of Prince Daemon Targaryen, a loathsome enough cad but unremarkable in the greater pantheon of execrable Martin villains. Daemon is both brother and pain to King Viserys I, and his story is intertwined with a libidinous niece, an ambitious stepmother, and a prurient king’s fool named Mushroom.
Short fiction, alas, is not Martin’s metier. His notoriously lengthy books give him the space he needs to create compelling worlds. This story, however, never quite hooks the reader, as it lacks the flawed men and women who manage to be downright awful and simultaneously tug on our heartstrings. (Although, as long as he finishes the next installment of Ice and Fire in a timely manner there will be no hard feelings on my part.)
While some of the other stories are by writers many will know, a good many will be unknown to most audiences. “It’s our hope that by the time you finish Rogues,” writes Martin, “a few of the latter may have become the former.”
One of those writers well known to fantasy fans but not to general audiences is the truly delightful Patrick Rothfuss of The Kingkiller Chronicles. His entry takes the reader through a day of mischief with Bast, the somewhat mysterious creature from the Chronicles series. Bast, it turns out, runs a bit of a side business involving favors for children done in exchange for secrets. The story hits all the fun notes—violence, prurient details, gossip, deceit—and mixes it into a pleasurable ne’er-do-well-actually-does-well yarn.
Also, because of the length restrictions, it has none of the throat clearing some found tough to get through in Rothfuss’s first novel.
Gillian Flynn, the bestselling suspense writer of Gone Girl, has also spun out a juicy thriller. Without giving too much away, her tale plays on audience prejudices regarding adopted children and scorned wives. Never has the life of a happy-endings-masseuse turned fortune teller seemed more dangerous.
Rogues is no Boccaccio’s Decameron, but I tried approaching this collection in a similar way, giving each story one night. One of the benefits of this approach was to give individual attention to authors whose work I was not familiar with.
After reading Joe R. Lansdale’s odd-couple tale of a Texas dynamic duo (one is a former cop who doesn’t like guns, the other is a gay black man) who strive to save a woman many would consider past saving, I’m excited to check out more of Lansdale. Ditto for David W. Ball, whose art heist caper had me craving a Thomas Crown Affair detour (yes the Rene Russo/Pierce Brosnan version). His characters may be stereotypes and a bit one-dimensional—but it’s fun. Walter Jon Williams, the popular cyberpunk author, had me at “You can make diamonds out of tequila.”
For Westeros fans looking to whet their appetite on some history before The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros appears in the fall, Martin’s story will give them their fix.
However, whether it be television, politics, religion, or education, as more and more of our lives become segmented, this book’s best quality may be its attempt to break down some of those barriers. After all, reading would be pretty boring if romance novels got all the dashing rogues.