Cities have fascinating and often troubled histories. So much so that the older cities begin to secrete layers of historical clashes and cultural shifts, with elements of the old mutating to fit the needs of the present. Prod a bit under a city's surface and you are bound to turn up a few skeletons and other rotting vestiges of the older cultural orders. Perhaps it might be best to say instead that if one digs deep enough, one will find all sorts of mythical alligators lurking underneath the surface layer.This comment of mine regarding Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow can just as easily be applied to a recent anthology that she edited, Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy. A city is not a monolithic entity; it shifts and warps the viewer's perception from one street corner or block to the next. If New York's Brooklyn and Bronx neighborhoods differ so much that each has its own accent, why can't there be wildly different cities of the fantastic? As Sedia herself notes in the Editor's Note:
I selected these stories because they share the insight into the cities as living entities, benign or sinister, that can shape the existence of their inhabitants. And they share the passion for those agglomerations of flesh and inanimate matter, with all their foibles, glories, and hidden truths.In addition, these stories typically do not represent the facets of the subgenre "urban fantasy;" werevolves and vampires in a modern "real" city do not constitute a major part of what transpires in this anthology of 21 stories. What does happen is that in cities real and imagined, with stories that sometimes stretch for many years or historical periods, people interact with these amorphous entities of brick and mortar, or stone and cement, or perhaps wood and iron and tin, all to create vistas that can be exciting or terrifying.
Forrest Aguirre's "Andretto Walks the King's Way" sets the tone early by describing a rural traveler's travels into the city. With its shifting perspectives and Andretto's perplexity on full display, by the time the story concludes, one begins to get the sense of the mysterious allure that cities can have for those who grow up in the countryside. Hal Duncan's "The Tower of Morning Bones" is set in yet another fold of the Vellum, mixing other mythologies together to create a story that is dense, but ultimately rewarding for those who engage the story.
Other stories that I thought were highlights of this collection were Ben Peek's "The Funeral, Ruined," Michael Jasper's "Painting Haiti," and Catherynne M. Valente's excerpt from her upcoming novel, Palimpsest. In each of these tales, there is a beauty to the prose, one that offsets what is transpiring within the stories, creating a dissonance that enticed me to pay even closer attention to what was occurring. The other stories were only a small step behind these in quality, as I do not recall a story that disappointed me.
Paper Cities is an excellent anthology whose stories ought to appeal to a wide range of readers, especially those curious about "urban fantasy" but who may be uncertain if any of the authors who write in this amorphous field might be worth reading. Like real cities, each city presented has its own facets, its own charms, and its own dangers that the characters come to experience. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: April 1, 2008 (US); tradeback.
Publisher: Senses Five Press