Made in Canada Review
Summoned to Destiny
edited by Julie E. Czerneda,
published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2004 Trade.
(First in Julie’s new Realms of Wonder series)
Reviewed by Pat Forde
SUMMONED TO DESTINY
Summoned to Destiny, a recent collection of YA fantasy tales from Fitzhenry & Whiteside, is the first in the Realms of Wonder series of anthologies edited by Julie E. Czerneda. This first antho of the series includes tales by two veterans, Ed Greenwood and Michelle West. But the following review focuses on the new voices Czerneda introduces to the fantasy field, most of them Canadian, and some of them ringing in with their first published works ...
Summoned to Destiny opens with "Tangled Pages", by M.T. O'Shaughnessy. A good name for a fantasy writer, I thought, and a good meta-fictional title for a story that concerns the circuitous progress of a page seeking employment in an enchanted city dominated by rigid courtly hierarchy.
It's easy to see why series editor Czerneda chose this piece to open the collection: O'Shaughnessy offers us a strongly plotted tale that wastes no time putting Raal—its central character—into a no-win situation many YA readers will relate to, and then catapults Raal through a rapidly paced adventure with a surprisingly varied cast of characters, given the story's length and the writer's experience.
I enjoyed the way the tale's characters followed their own agendas only to find those agendas intersecting in the story's central adventure, which unfolds in a forest just beyond the city's Outer Court. Deep within the trees the city's junior mages are working a dangerous spell for the pleasure of a foolhardy duke. And Raal, in a classic out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire maneuver, makes the mistake of retreating to the forest for a respite from his sticky situation in the Outer Court. Raal soon finds himself embroiled in a life-or-death enchantment known as a 'Tangle', a spell that allows the author a chance to display his inventiveness.
What ensues is both a literal and figurative take on 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave': O'Shaughnessy has fun word-playing off the notion that a story must toss its characters into a sea of troubles—or a forest of ensnared enchantments.
This may be Summoned to Destiny's most densely plotted piece, and it serves its purpose, acting as both an enticing opener for YA readers and as a dramatic illustration of the anthology's theme ... For Raal's ensorceled plight in the forest is a calling to a fate far from the one the young page set out to attain.
If there's a drawback to "Tangled Pages", it's that the author hauls back from the brink of his inventiveness at the climactic scenes (ie. I wanted to see more of the Tangle's fantastical changes and creatures!) And Raal's emotions tend to leap from tears to laughter and back again a little too often.
Nevertheless, the story demos O'Shaughnessy's ability to stir up a recipe of mini-plots and an array of characters following their own noses and stew them all together in a satisfyingly way in a short number of pages indeed.
"Riverbend", by Ruth Stuart.
Stuart's story of a young bard on a quest for the confidence to believe in herself and her own talents is, in many ways, the opposite of O'Shaughnessy's plot-driven opener: this is a slower, more contemplative piece, offering few dramatic scenes. Instead of plot, the writer offers us a lot of internalized self-questioning on the part of its timid central character, Alicja.
Yet this approach plays to Stuart's strengths, for the story takes the reader much deeper into the feelings, fears, dreams, and life history of the young bard Alicja than O'Shaughnessy was able to with the page Raal, rendering Alicja as a more gripping, realized character.
The opening scenes of "Riverbend" unfold in an inn in Stoneweld, where Stuart places numerous characters in motion, characters with conflicting motives and secrets that our heroine Alicja must decipher. And she does, as Stuart wields dialogue and description in a way that keeps the reader completely in the scene. Alicja plays her harp, observes the customers, and the reader sees the interplay and intrigues between minor characters as clearly as Alicja does, for Stuart never missteps, never loses track of any detail she introduces. We're really there, in those inns along with the young bard, feeling her instrument as she plays in town after town, feeling the tension slowly build to the story's climax.
The world Stuart introduces us to in Riverbend is more somber and mature, more politically complex and realistically drawn than the O'Shaughnessy piece aspires to (granted, "Riverbend" is a longer tale, with more room for the telling detail, which seems to be Stuart's forte).
'Crowding and Leaping' is a potent short-storytelling technique, wherein a writer creates a scene crammed with description and emotion only to leap ahead to a later point in time, and in a way that reveals a lot about the story—what gets 'leapt over' can tell a tale all itself.
Stuart deftly fast-forwards "Riverbend" from its second scene to its third in a fine example of crowding and leaping, a technique writers of far more experience can fumble when applying. The leap here—and what is left out—tells the reader a great deal about Alicja's abilities as a bard, and suggests that a timid young teen can win over a crowded inn filled with people who need a voice that can lift them from despair.
"White Shadow", by Marie Brennan.
Having just read Brennan's story, I must pause this review for an important aside:
While attending a literary party at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Kansas University, I heard a Sturgeon Award-winning writer claim that the most important thing any editor hopes to see in a story is confidence. A confidence communicated by ease, and elegance, and power in the opening lines of prose; a confidence that instantly tells the reader "Relax, you're in good hands, I'm going to deliver just what you're hoping for."
That's the feeling I had reading the opening of "White Shadow".
While Summoned to Destiny's other strong debuts display occasional weaknesses, it's hard to find any fault with this astonishing first sale. I'd never have guessed Brennan was a newcomer. "White Shadow" reads like a gem by a pro in the prime of her talent. (Of course, taking Grand Prize in the Asimov's Undergrad Award is a bit of a give-away that we're dealing with a rising star here.)
Brennan's story achieves the elegance of a Bruce Holland Rogers fable, and is told in a voice as assured as Le Guin in her early Earthsea writings. The same sparse directness of scene; the same simple sentence structure, yielding prose passages of surpassing clarity and power.
Thematically, "White Shadow" is a rumination on power, violence, and self-control—on the nature of a being's true self, the dark and light together. The fable reflects and refracts issues being debated these days in our own Huntingtonian clash-of-civilizations world ...
I'll say no more about "White Shadow" itself; don't want to spoil your experience of it. Now hurry to the bookstore, buy this anthology just so you can say you have Brennan's first fantasy tale.
"Offerings of Trust", by Jana Paniccia.
Having opened with a new writer capable of strong plotting, and another who dives deeply into character and scene, Summoned to Destiny here debuts a writer unafraid to tackle particularly difficult subject matter: the trauma of war and death, scars that run deep.
Perhaps what most impressed me about Paniccea's story was the amount of world building she managed to squeeze in. I could picture her world clearly, both in the sweeping-vista sense as well as the small details of postwar reconstruction: the mountains, the castle, the dragons suddenly piercing the morning sky ...
If this is material Fantasy readers have seen before—dragons fighting to save a world, then returning to their own dimension—Paniccea brings her own touches to it. The encounter between a boy and an emotionally scarred dragon plays against the reader's expectations in a way I enjoyed. "Offerings of Trust" reads as a satisfying tribute tale to genre-great Anne McCaffery
"A Prayer of Sand and Salt," by Karina Sumner-Smith
Sumner-Smith is another writer picked out by the Asimov's Undergrad Award program and a Clarion grad.
So should readers hold the bar higher for this new writer?
Well, any reader who does will find Sumner-Smith capable of clearing the bar with room to spare in "A Prayer of Sand and Salt". (I may be wrong, but the cover appears inspired by this powerful tale.)
Again, I don't want to say much, don't want to spoil the reader's pleasure in encountering another significant talent in Summoned to Destiny. So I'll simply share with you a pair of passages that should give you the flavour of this powerful piece:
Asha sat on the edge of the cliff, allowing herself to savor the familiar fear. She inched closer, clinging to handfuls of the stiff yellow grass, and allowed her bare feet to hang over the edge into the empty air. She pushed herself farther still, grinning fiercely to belie the way her heart pounded. She felt herself begin to fall ...
She'd had dreams. They were vivid, powerful dreams; dreams of prophecy, some said, or dreams of divine will. Their images returned to her night after night as she grew: the streets of a drowned town, the houses choked with seaweed and the waterlogged wood crumbling; a great wave, hanging motionless in the sky; the feel of water entering and leaving her lungs in slow breaths, and a sensation of absolute calm.
"A Prayer of Sand and Salt" is accidentally leant a keener sense of sorrow by the tsunami of December 2004. 'Nuff said on that score; the story stands on its own strengths.
Sumner-Smith's bio at the back of the antho promises a full novel based on the world we encounter here. I expect to see her emergence as a Canadian fantasy novelist soon.
"When Dragons Dream" by Kevin McLean is the shortest tale in the anthology, and a fitting end to a fine collection. As a YA piece, McLean's story is written, perhaps, for a younger audience than the anthology's other offerings. It's a tale of sunsets and sadness, the passing of the torch of talent from a motherly dragon who nurtures the dreams of human youths.
I found myself thinking of Realms of Wonder series editor Czerneda, who has nurtured a wide range of talents in numerous anthologies over the past few years ...
An ideal end-of-the-collection story.