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Boondocks Fantasy edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg – review
I enjoy reading short fiction; it’s remarkable how much world building and ambiance can fit into a small piece. I usually look forward to DAW anthologies, because they’re themed but the themes are loose enough to offer a wide interpretation, which leads to some very interesting stories. The news that Martin H. Greenberg had passed away last Saturday made me feel sad, because his name is one of the ones that I regularly search for when I’m book shopping, trolling through the shelves and websites to find my next anthology.
Boondocks Fantasy is billed as “urban fantasy” that takes place in rural or isolated areas. That’s honestly what it says in the introduction. I think a couple of brain cells popped when I read that, because I know what urban means, and I know how utterly nonsensical that explanation really is. It’s so clear that politicians could have written it. Surely, for those who read introductions or prefaces to books, readers would have been far better served by being told that it is Contemporary Fantasy that takes place in a rural or isolated setting. Nothing has ever said that Contemporary Fantasy actually has to take place in a city, it just needs a modern setting. I’m not here to get into a semantics game with anyone, but I wanted to get that off my chest while I was writing the review. I’d like to think that people who make their living with words would know how important connotation and definitions really are. Everyone makes mistakes, however, and this is the only glaringly obvious mistake in the book, so, honestly, I should just relax and enjoy the book. Which I did. Immensely. Fortunately, the theme itself and the stories that are in this book make a whole lot more sense than the explanation in the introduction did. These stories fit together. They aren’t all connected, but they do make a cohesive collection that’s very entertaining.
I was a little bit worried that there might be a lot of redneck stereotypes in this book, mostly because of that “boondocks” in the title. I am very happy to report that I needn’t have bothered to be fearful. As always, I’m astonished by how open-minded writers of fantasy can be. They embraced this challenge and made a book that’s an absolute hoot to read. There are stories by Gene Wolfe, Timothy Zahn, and Jay Lake, along with Mickey Zucker Reichert and Donald J. Bingle.
“The Giant,” Gene Wolfe’s contribution to this anthology, is a dark tale. A man who writes children’s books travels to the town where his wife grew up to investigate some of the stories that he has told her. He gets very specific directions from a gas station attendant that he willfully ignores. He soon finds out why he should have heeded their warnings.
Timothy Zahn’s “Protection” is actually my favorite story in the anthology. Jeff Harfeld is a werewolf sheepherder. He’s friends with a mermaid who lives in an isolated lake. She reports to Jeff about some strange goings on, and Jeff finds himself having to defend his territory from some mobsters. Their solution is both ingenious and hilarious.
“Cat People” is the story of a couple who live on a farm, which they intend to live on during their retirement. There’s a fire in their barn, and all the husband manages to rescue is a new litter of kittens. As the kittens grow and the couple tries to figure out how they can replace that barn and still retire, they discover that the barn appears to be replacing itself. Mickey Zucker Reichert takes a decidedly fairy-tale style voice for this piece that makes it both uplifting and magical. It’s exactly the right tone for exactly the right story.
“Jefferson’s West” is actually more of a wilderness set historical fantasy piece by Jay Lake. It takes place during the Lewis and Clark expedition and tells about a startling discovery they make while they’re investigating what, exactly, the United States bought during the Louisiana Purchase. It’s an interesting “what if” scenario, as well as bringing up some very interesting ideas about morality and human nature.
I can only describe Donald J. Bingle’s “Rural Route” as one of the creepiest horror stories that I’ve read in a very long time. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. A farmer discovers that one of his cattle has been mutilated at the end of his field. He tries to report it, but everyone, including him, thinks that it’s the work of some unruly neighborhood kids. Meanwhile, a programmer for the CDC trying to get a vector program that shows how diseases are spreading finds a very bizarre anomaly. She assumes it’s a programming error, but she can’t find it in her coding. Unfortunately, they’re both wrong.
Another story that reads like a rurally set fairy tale is “Trophy Wife” by Vicki Johnson-Steger. Axel Boyce, a confirmed bachelor and expert hunter, fisher, and taxidermist, finally catches an enormous fish that he’s been pursuing for more than fifty years. He hauls it out of the lake and takes it back to the isolated cabin where he lives. The fish turns out to be a woman, and Axel finds that he’s caught much more than he thought. This one actually has a bit of a twist at the end that adds some good black humor to the story.
I really enjoyed this anthology, much as I have the other DAW published anthologies that I have read. There is very little in the way of graphic content in this book. Some stories may not be all that appropriate for some teen readers, but overall, there’s much to be enjoyed here, and even a couple of stories that could be safely read to younger kids with no problems. It’s well put together and very well edited. I would recommend it for fans of urban fantasy who might be curious what happens to fantasy in the absence of a city. I think that you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
As for myself, I very much want to see “boondocks fantasy” become a sub-genre all to itself. There are stories in this anthology that are clearly part of bigger worlds, and I think that readers would enjoy them greatly. If you’re looking for some quality fantasy short fiction that, if not breaks the mold, at least trickles out of it, definitely check this one out.