(DAW Books, $6.99, 320 pages, mass-market paperback; published in April 2004.)
Editor Pamela Sargent's Conqueror Fantastic contains thirteen all-new historical fantasies dealing with the role of the conqueror in history. Some of these stories speculate on hidden histories, others recreate perhaps more mystical worldviews of past eras, while others explore different paths history might have taken.
Conqueror Fantastic is a fairly strong assemblage, with only one out-and-out dud, George Zebrowski's cliché-ridden virtual-reality tale "Nappy".
The other stories are all at least good. Some of them try to convey too much in too little space, ending up slightly too heavy on exposition and slightly too light on storytelling. These -- including Michelle West's "To the Gods Their Due", Janeen Webb's "The Lion Hunt", and Pamela Sargent's "Spirit Brother" -- read more like novels in progress than complete fictions.
The most memorable selections are provided by Stephen Dedman, George Alec Effinger, James Morrow, and Ian Watson.
Dedman's "Twilight of Idols" is a deftly imagined secret history of Hitler's fascination with pagan religion that doubles as an exquisite revenge fantasy directed at the twentieth century's most notorious conqueror.
In "Walking Gods", Effinger offers a first-person tale of Saladin at the end of his life; it's a story replete with unusual and effective ideas, imbued with profound compassion and empathy.
Morrow's ironically clever "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole" combines, to unique effect, Genghis Khan, John Wayne, nuclear testing, cancer, film history, Cold War dichotomies, alternative medicine, and the politics of marriage.
My favourite story in this anthology is Watson's "An Appeal to Adolf". This bizarre comedy takes place during the Second World War, in a timeline in which flight was never developed. The story occurs on a gigantic sea ship en route to invade England, from the relentlessly amusing point of view of an overzealous Navy man whose sexual preferences are forbidden by the Reich.
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© Claude Lalumière 29 May 2004, 16 October 2004