Sunday, February 29, 2004

Review: "Legends II"

The first "Legends" collection, released in 1998, was a fantasy fiction fan's dream come true. It featured new short novels from 11 of the heavyweights of the genre, set in their signature worlds. It served as both a treat for long-time fans and a good introduction for the newbies - a way to test the waters before diving into a 700-1,000 page doorstop novel.

"Legends II" ($28.95, Del Rey) brings back a couple of the alumni of the first volume, while mixing in a few new writers, as well. Robert Silverberg is back as the editor, and also contributes a story from his world of Majipoor. Other returning authors include George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Tad Williams, Anne McCaffery and Raymond Feist. New to the collection are Robin Hobb, Diana Gabaldon, Elizabeth Haydon, Neil Gaiman and Terry Brooks.

As with the first book, the stories are a mixed bag, depending on your tastes in fantasy. Among the best stories are those by Martin, Gaiman and Williams. Martin continues the tale of the hedge knight Dunk that he began in the first "Legends" collection with "The Sworn Sword." Gaiman contributes a dark and atmospheric tale set in the world of his novel "American Gods" with "The Monarch of the Glen." Williams dips into his virtual reality "Otherland" world, and also takes a time to have a little fun and play around in Middle-Earth in "The Happiest Dead Boy in the World."

Some of the authors in the book truly fit the title. While they all have their fans and detractors, no matter which side of the fence you're on, you can't deny that names like McCaffery, Feist and Brooks are indeed legends in the fantasy field. If you like their previous work, you'll probably like these stories.

A few of the stories I found disappointing. Over the past several years Hobb has become one of my favorites in the fantasy genre, but her story "Homecoming," written as a series of journal entries, didn't really work for me. Though the approach is a unique idea, it kept me from really getting into the flow of the story. Likewise, Card, who is an outstanding writer, gives us another story in the world of Alvin Maker with "The Yazoo Queen," but I much prefer his Ender series. Being science fiction, Ender doesn't really fit into this collection, but I've never been a big fan of the Maker tales.

Unlike the first book, which contained 11 authors that I'd read before, I got my first look at a couple of writers in this book - Gabaldon and Haydon. I'll definitely be checking out more from them in the future. Gabaldon's characters in "Lord John and the Succubus" are among the more interesting I've read, and while it perhaps isn't a true fantasy tale, it definitely earns its spot in this collection.

Haydon's story, "Threshold," may be the best in the book. Set in her "Symphony of Ages" world, it's certainly the most sweeping and ambitious work in this collection. It takes readers on a journey they won't believe is possible in a mere 80 pages and leaves the reader wanting to dive right into one of Haydon's novels.

In the end, that's the best part of these collections. They give people the opportunity to sample some of the genre's biggest names and best writers in bite-sized chunks that are just enough, if you like the writer, to whet your appetite for more. Long live the "Legends" series.

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