Tad Williams is renowned for his huge doorstopper SFF yarns. Hence, it's always somewhat surprising to realize that the author is also a prolific short fiction writer. And since it's often too much of a bother to try to keep track of all the anthologies in which his short stories and novellas are published, I always relish the chance to sit down and read a collection such as A Stark and Wormy Knight.
Here's the blurb:
Tad Williams is an acknowledged master of the multi-volume epic. Through such popular series as Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and Otherland, he has acquired a huge and devoted body of readers who eagerly await each new publication. A Stark and Wormy Knight offers those readers something both special and surprising: a virtuoso demonstration of Williams’s mastery of a variety of shorter forms.
The range of tone, theme, style, and content reflected in this generous volume is nothing short of amazing. The title story is a tale within a tale of dragons and knights and is notable for its wit and verbal inventiveness. “The Storm Door” uses The Tibetan Book of the Dead to forge a singular new approach to the traditional zombie story. “The Terrible Conflagration at the Quiller’s Mint” offers a brief, independent glimpse into the background of Williams’s Shadowmarch series. “Ants” provides an ironic account of what can happen when a marriage goes irrevocably wrong.
Two of the longer entries show Williams working, with great facility, within the fictional creations of other writers. “The Thursday Men” is a hugely entertaining foray into the world of Mike Mignolla’s Hellboy comics. The wonderfully titled “The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee” is both a first-rate fantasy and a deeply felt homage to Jack Vance’s immortal Dying Earth. Two other pieces offer rare and hard-to-find glimpses into other facets of Williams’s talent. “Bad Guy Factory” is the script for a proposed series of DC Comics that never came to fruition. “Black Sunshine” is the immensely readable screenplay for a movie that remains, at least for the moment, unproduced. One can only hope.
These and other stories and novellas comprise a stellar collection that really does contain something for everyone. For longtime Williams readers, and for anyone with a taste for literate imaginative fiction, A Stark and Wormy Knight is a welcome—and indispensable—volume.
The first short story, "And Ministers of Grace," was first published in the Warriors anthology, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. I loved it then and I loved it the second time around. The interplanetary confrontation between Archimedes and Covenant, the first a bastion of science and the other a bastion of religion, truly captured my imagination. It's probably the very best short story ever written by the author, and here's to hoping that Williams will one day reveal more about Lamentation Kane and his universe.
"A Stark and Wormy Knight" didn't work for me at all. Williams wanted to explore how dragons felt about the knights trying to slay them. It's told in a weird and humorous and playful style that may or may not appeal to readers.
"The Storm Door" is about zombies and the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. An original and pretty damn good read!
"The Stranger's Hands" was another miss for me. Williams wanted to show how good and evil are not always as clear as we would like to believe, and how personal relationships in fantasy stories are often under-examined. It's a cute wizard tale, but it fails to make an impression the way other stories did.
"Bad Guy Factory" is the first issue of a series Williams proposed to DC Comics at the time he was working on Aquaman. It's based on the premise that all those villains have to get their training and equipment somewhere. It's interesting but short, and the absence of the appendices prevents readers from understanding everything and really getting into it.
"The Thursday Men" was originally written for a Hellboy anthology. It's an entertaining supernatural/ghost story featuring the inimitable Hellboy, called upon to deal with a haunted house. Good stuff!
The space opera short story "The Tenth Muse" is another engrossing read that sadly ends too quickly. I wonder if there was a wordcount limit precluding Williams from fleshing out this one as much as it should have been, for the ending is a bit rushed. A good First Contact tale which could have been excellent.
"The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee is an homage to Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Most of you are aware that I could never get into Vance's signature work. Hence, it's no surprise that that this novella did nothing for me.
"The Terrible Conglagration at the Quiller's Mint" was originally written when the entire Shadowmarch project was still an online serial. Fans of the series will realize that it drops a number of hints regarding the history of the land and its people.
Black Sunshine is a fucked-up screenplay about 70s music and an acid trip that went wrong. It's a cool piece, though you never really know what the hell is going on. But it does make sense in the end. By far the weirdest thing Tad Williams has ever written. . .
"Ants" is a very good Twilight Zone story about a marriage that went down the crapper. The graphic violence was unexpected, but it was necessary for the tale to make sense and end in a surprising way.
In terms of themes, tone, and style, A Stark and Wormy Knight explores the length and breadth of Tad Williams' fertile imagination. Entertaining, imaginative, and fun, this collection should satisfy the author's legions of fans.