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Take No Prisoners

by John Grant

(Willowgate Press, $13.95, 248 pages, trade paperback; August 2004.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

I never had thought this would be the case, but I've started to enjoy a good short story collection. That may be a result of my cover scangrowth as a reader, writer and human being (of course, that would be giving myself 'way too much credit). More likely, it is a result of higher-quality collections being published. Check out Live Without A Net to see what I mean. Or you could simply turn to John Grant's latest collection, Take No Prisoners.

Now, before I continue, let me make my disclaimer. John Grant (a.k.a. Paul Barnett) is one of the editors here at infinity plus. He is also a friend and is married to my agent.

So, to the meat of the matter: Take No Prisoners collects fifteen short stories, most of which have appeared in print before. They are widely varied, following no central theme or purpose, and instead offer a "something for everyone" approach. There are alternate histories, mysteries, character stories, crime stories, humour, you name it. The feather in Grant's cap is that he pulls them off with such flair and ease it leaves the reader wanting more.

Two tales in particular struck me as noteworthy. The opening story, "Wooden Horse" (available elsewhere at infinity plus), is a sort of alternate-history tale in which the changed historical events act as a full backdrop to the main character's plight. Grant avoids the trap of dwelling on how this change or that change would be brought about, but rather develops a strong character with a strong story. Having just recently reviewed Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna and now considering "Wooden Horse", I'm beginning to think that the short story is the perfect form in which to explore alternate history. It certainly works for Grant. As with many of the tales in this collection, this alternate history crosses genres, adding elements of fantasy into the mix.

"The Dead Monkey Puzzle" also crosses genres -- this time blending a horrific crime story (a disturbing rape described mostly through the rapists' dialogue) with a fantasy world of dragons and heroes and such. The blending of genres is so well done that part of the reading experience is wondering whether the fantasy is happening or not. In this story, for example, the fantasy elements may be nothing more than trauma-induced escapism -- denial of the main character's torment.

There are other stories worth pointing out, but in the end all are good. Grant takes artistic chances in these short stories and sometimes those chances undermine the tale, but always the strength of his writing prevails, giving the reader a worthwhile experience.

So, what about the bad side of things? What about the fair and balanced approach? Well ... I really don't have much bad to say. It would have been nice if he had mentioned me on his Acknowledgements page (though I had nothing to do with this collection and did not deserve such an acknowledgement), but that's about all. Other times I've reviewed his books, I usually had some constructive criticism worth mentioning; however, this time he has produced a collection that rarely misses.

I have had the pleasure of reading much of John Grant's work, and in the end it seems that he is most talented at the short form. So, more than his novels, I highly recommend this and any other short-story collection containing Grant's work. It is in the short story that he excels, giving all of us a good read and something to learn from.

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