I’ve been reading a lot of story anthologies lately, and the word “uneven” comes up in my reviews so often I sound like a broken record. Many anthologies are mixed in terms of quality, and while you might guess the problem to be the difficulty of finding enough strong writers to participate, I think it’s more that some of the most prominent writers earn their spot by name recognition alone, and just go through the motions. Most of the stories with “New York Times bestseller” as part of the author bio seemed to me rushed, superficial and generally lacking, as if cranked out to fulfill a commitment rather than to express ideas. There are exceptions. Jim Butcher is well-known, with a successful series of novels, and his lead-off story “Curses” is enjoyable and engaging. The strongest work here, and there is certainly enough of it to justify purchase of The Naked City, comes from emerging or mid-list writers.
Matthew Kressel’s “The Bricks of Gelecek” may have been the most beautifully crafted piece here, and certainly the most poetic. It’s my first exposure to Kressel and I’ll keep his name in mind. Jeffrey Ford’s “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening” overcomes a somewhat puzzling and ultimately not-entirely-satisfying central concept by virtue of a pleasing narrative voice and wonderfully crafted prose. Lucius Shepard’s “The Skinny Girl” is likewise stronger on style than content, but the piece is relatively brief and moves along well. Shepard is one of the truly fine craftsman of sentences in genre writing. Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Way Station” feels like the most heartfelt and intense of stories here. As with Kressel, this is a name I’ll follow in the future. Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of my favorite writers of weird and fantastic fiction, and her “The Colliers’ Venus (1893)” was an excellent, flavorful period piece with a bit of steampunk feel, but not so much as to annoy those of us who find steampunk tiresome.
Lavie Tidhar’s “The Projected Girl” started off strong and had me engaged for a while, only to drag later on. Could’ve been a great 20 page story or even a very good 30 pager, but at 40 pages overstayed its welcome. Likewise, I went back and forth on Elizabeth Bear’s lengthy closing piece, “King Pole, Gallows Pole, Bottle Tree.” It’s well-written and emotionally real, but often the fantasy component to the story felt tacked-on to a real world story about a couple of friends.
I understand story anthologies are tough to put together. Often bigger names have to be included in order to get a publisher interested. This necessity makes things tougher on Editor Ellen Datlow, who’s better at this kind of thing than anyone, as the all-stars don’t seem to be putting in as much effort as the players off the bench. That’s not a reason to avoid The Naked City, not at all, but this will be of greater interest to fans of writers like Kiernan, Ballingrud, Ford and Shepard than fans of the better-known names prominently featured on the cover.