I've always been reticent to read anthologies because they seldom deliver on all fronts. The problem with most of them is that they usually contain a number of very good short stories, while the rest seems to consist of half-assed and uninspired stuff. The only anthology I've read which turned out to be good from start to finish was Warriors, another anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Hence, when it was announced that both GRRM and Dozois would team up with another cast of big names to produce Rogues, I had high hopes that it would be a quality read as good as Warriors was. But when the table of contents was released, it became obvious that Rogues wouldn't benefit from the all-star cast of contributors that made Warriors such an awesome read. Still, you'd figure that with such authors as Neil Gaiman, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham, and Carrie Vaughn contributing material, you couldn't possibly go wrong. Right?
Though there is a central theme to the anthology -- rogues -- once again George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois envisioned a cross-genre work that would be comprised of short stories and novellas in various styles and tones. A brief look at the table of contents shows that, although many of these writers are bestselling authors in their own genre or sub-genre, compiling fiction from each of them could make for a disparate and dysfunctional work. Yet again, that was probably my biggest concern.
And unlike Warriors, which was able to dodge that bullet and allowed the anthology to stand well on its own, as the sum of all its parts, it's unfortunately not the case with Rogues. After a strong start, Rogues peters out and loses steam with each new piece of short fiction. So much so that by the time I reached the middle of the anthology I had completely lost interest and was simply going through the motions. Even short fiction by Gaiman, Rothfuss, and GRRM failed to reel me back in. Sadly, there is way too much filler and not enough killer material for Rogues to capture the imagination and satisfy readers the way Warriors did a few years back.
Here's the blurb:
A thrilling collection of twenty-one original stories by an all-star list of contributors—including a new A Game of Thrones story by George R. R. Martin! If you’re a fan of fiction that is more than just black and white, this latest story collection from #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin and award-winning editor Gardner Dozois is filled with subtle shades of gray. Twenty-one all-original stories, by an all-star list of contributors, will delight and astonish you in equal measure with their cunning twists and dazzling reversals. And George R. R. Martin himself offers a brand-new A Game of Thrones tale chronicling one of the biggest rogues in the entire history of Ice and Fire. Follow along with the likes of Gillian Flynn, Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Cherie Priest, Garth Nix, and Connie Willis, as well as other masters of literary sleight-of-hand, in this rogues gallery of stories that will plunder your heart—and yet leave you all the richer for it.
The anthology opens up with "Tough Times All Over" by Joe Abercrombie. It's an entertaining piece that could be summed up with the classic "shit happens" proverb. It changes perspectives numerous times as we follow one rogue after another trying to get away with the prize. It may not be Abercrombie's best piece, but it is a fun read from beginning to end.
"What Do you Do" by Gillian Flynn was a well-written piece about a prostitute turned false psychic who gets into trouble. The whole ghost story angle doesn't work all that well throughout, but it is a good contribution to the anthology. It's followed by "The Inn of the Seven Blessings" by Matt Hughes, a short story about a rogue who becomes possessed by a god. This one was pretty much a failure to launch
Things get back on track when a man sets out to rescue his stepdaughter from sexual slavery in Joe Lansdale's "Bent Twig." Michael Swanwick's "Tawny Petticoats" features two rogues being outfoxed by a female rogue in a zombie-filled New Orleans. It's nothing to write home about, but it is a fun, if light, read.
"Provenance" by David Ball features an unscrupulous art dealer trying to sale a rare painting looted by the Nazis. When I started reading it, I had concerns that this was going to be the story that would be too disparate and could potentially kill the vibes of the anthology. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Ball's piece could well be the very best found within the pages of Rogues. Carrie Vaughn seldom disappoints and "Roaring Twenties" was another fine read featuring two magic-wielding women during Prohibition. Times are changing and they are aware that they need to adapt or all could be lost.
In Scott Lynch's "A Year and a Day in Old Theradane," a retired rogue is blackmailed into resuming her former career by a crafty wizard. I was looking forward to this new Lynch story, but it never really delivers and from that point everything goes downhill with the anthology. "Bad Brass" by Bradley Denton features high school students stealing brass instruments from school and trying to sell them on the black market. Pretty much half-assed and boring. . . "Heavy Metal" by Cherie Priest is about man who exorcises a demon from an abandoned mine in rural Tennessee. This one really had potential, but it fails to live up to it for some reason. Another disappointment. I absolutely loved Daniel Abraham collection of short fiction, and yet "The Meaning of Love", in which a prince in hiding falls in love with a beautiful young lady, was totally forgettable.
In Paul Cornell's "A Better Way to Die" an alternate universe interacts with our own reality as well as other alternate universes. It felt intriguing at the beginning, but the execution was rather flat and I couldn't finish it. "Ill Seen in Tyre" is Steven Saylor's attempt to weave the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser with our own history and it turns out the be a rather pointless failure to launch. "A Cargo of Ivories" by Garth Nix goes nowhere and is uninspired throughout.
"Diamonds from Tequila" by Walter Jon Williams turns things around and is definitely one of the highlights of the Rogues anthology. When there is a murder during the shooting of a movie in Mexico, the star must solve this mystery before someone else gets hurt. It's fun and cynical and I had a blast reading that one. Sadly, "The Caravan to Nowhere" by Phyllis Eisenstein, in which a minstrel with the ability to teleport travels as part of a caravan through the desert with a shrewd merchant and his drug-addicted son, also feels like an half-assed effort and can be considered nothing but filler material.
Things do pick up a little bit in "The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives" by Lisa Tuttle. It features a Victorian detective hired to find a missing person who is dead and buried. It is a little weird, to be sure, but it does work out in the end. Neil Gaiman's "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back" is set in London Below and features the unforgettable Marquis. It's a fun and entertaining read, yet not good enough to help save this anthology. I had high hopes for award-winning Connie Willis' short story, "Now Showing." It's about a girl and her ex-boyfriend, as they uncover and unravel a conspiracy at a multiplex movie theater in the future. It's okay and cute at times, but it's too long and lackluster in the end.
Patrick Rothfuss' "The Lightning Tree" features Bast and it was interesting to have a novella based on him. I have to admit that I was expecting more out of Rothfuss, but he still managed to write something fun and interesting. The premise of the tale is that Bast grants wishes and fixes children's lives in return of favors. For a while it all feels pointless, but the author wraps everything up at the end in an unanticipated and quite satisfying fashion. The last piece and the pièce de résistance was of course George R. R. Martin's "The Rogue Prince, Or, A King's Brother," which is not a short story per se. As was the case with "The Princess and the Queen" in the Dangerous Women anthology, it reads more like an extract from the forthcoming A World of Ice and Fire. Hence, although it does shine some light on past events which led to the Dance of Dragons, it doesn't grab hold and suck you into the tale the way the Dunk and Egg adventures.
Overall, Rogues failed to come together as a whole and turned out to be a discordant and dysfunctional work. Even though every piece does feature the rogue theme, the various styles and tone never quite mesh together and make for a crooked, slow-moving, and often boring book. Especially the middle portion, which at times thoroughly kills the vibe and the momentum of the anthology.