Book review: Evil is a Matter of Perspective
This collection of nineteen stories is a bold, comprehensive and worthwhile introduction to "grimdark" fantasy fiction. It contains several masterful tales that warrant the price of admission alone, and serves as a fabulous starting point for readers seeking to know more about the sub-genre.
It also requires a degree of tolerance and perseverance. Possibly due to the manner of its creation, as a Kickstarter funded project led by a man clearly in love with his subject, it is without a doubt the most uneven anthology I've read. After a fusty foreword which combines a spectacular misreading of The Lord of the Rings with some amateur moral psychology and the brave promise that grimdark brings realism, maturity and nuance to the world of fantasy, we are then subjected to a handful of stories which seem to be doing their utmost to prove the opposite. Thus we discover that we have been invited to join a game of literary Russian roulette. At the commencement of each chapter we have no absolutely no idea whether we are about to experience a work of originality and brilliance, or be subjected to a stinker. The good news is that the great and the good significantly outnumber the stinkers. The bad news is that the stinkers are really bloody bad, and for some profoundly eccentric reason, most of them come early. Essentially, this anthology includes three categories of story. To my mind the best are the genre bending oddities which range from Victorian Gothic horror via historical fiction through to warring insect people. These are mostly thought-provoking, often poetic and always interesting. Of particular note are "A Royal Gift", "Old Blood" and "Exceeding Bitter". More numerous are the tales of criminal and magical ne’er-do-wells. I found these very reminiscent of Robert Asprin’s classic Thieves’ World anthologies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. That's no bad thing. While the similarity may have reinforced my opinion that grimdark isn’t anything new, what that means for us is very written stories that usually contain at least one twist or novelty that lifts them above the ordinary. I thought the best of these was "The Tattered Prince." The final block of stories were the ones I found problematic. Stories which read like bad Warhammer/Dragon-Age fan fiction, assembled from a bargain bucket of tv-tropes and Marilyn Manson-esque symbolism. These routinely tried (and failed) to make themselves interesting by offering unexamined glimpses of domestic violence, rape and child abuse. Examining these topics in a fantasy context can be done with power, compassion and finesse, as George Martin and others have shown, but when they are handled with the sensibilities of titillated, sadistic teenager, you get a car crash. But if you forgive those missteps, or better still skip past them, this is mainly a cracking read. It’s always hard to know how to rank anthologies, and rarely do I feel that it's sensible to simply take an average score of the short stories included. What I look for in this kind of work is a couple that I know will stick in my mind long after reading. Evil is a Matter of Perspective contains at least a handful of those - which is an excellent result. There’s plenty of gold in this collection, you’re just going to have to sift a little to uncover it. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC