As intellectually stimulating as it is, I found The End Was Not the End to be emotionally hollow. Joshua H. Leet has done a masterful job of putting together a collection of Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Tales . . . but that's precisely the problem.
Fantasy is, by it's very nature, a genre of hope and heroism. It's all about tales of grand adventure, noble quests, and epic battles. There's may be a darkness approaching, or even directly overhead, but there's always the knowledge that a glimmer of light exits somewhere just beyond the horizon. It's a genre the embraces the struggle to rise above ones oppressors, and to engage in the dogged pursuit of justice.
With The End Was Not the End there is little hope, and no valiant acts of heroism. Adventures and battles are doomed before they begin, and quests are a forgotten luxury of a bygone era. The darkness has come to stay, to settle upon the land, and to swallow all within it. There is no light upon the horizon. The only struggle that matters is that of basic survival, and if there are any dogged pursuits to be found outside that struggle, they are for vengeful retribution.
Artistically, this is a stellar collection, with some exceptionally well-told tales. On an intellectual level, I appreciated their telling, not to mention the creative hurdles required subvert the positive tropes of the genre. Emotionally, however, I found it hard to connect with any of the tales, and harder still to become invested in the characters or their fates.
The Halls of War was a great opener to the collection. Here, Deedee Davies subverts just about everything about the genre, presenting us with post-apocalyptic tale where even mankind's demon conquerors must suffer through the end. There's an aspect of anti-heroism here, and perhaps the brightest of the increasingly bleak endings to follow.
Blood and Fire quickly changes pace on us, presenting us with a story that originally seems to be borne of epic quests and heroic adventure sts, but which slowly reveals its bleak, hopeless, coldly calculated waste of human lives.
Make Way for Utopia changes things up again, giving us a more traditional tale, with a very clever twists upon the Arthurian legends. What Scott Sandridge says about the disposable nature of entire realities, and the pragmatic acceptance of risking the end of others, probably feels a bit more biting for the company, but I enjoyed the way this one developed.
Twenty Year Plan struck me as the cruelest of the lot, a coming-of-age story that concludes with a horrifying truth about the monsters around us. Nightmares and Dragonscapes offers an interesting take on the very real fear of what might happen to a world where dragons are neither rare not benevolent. The Stone-Sword is another subversion of the Arthurian legends, and one where the sword-in-the-stone is not a symbol of hope and renewal, but of tragedy and failure.
In the Hills Beyond Twilight, Blade of Fire, and Waist Deep are all very strange little stories, the kind of unusual fantasy tales that could only exist in a collection such as this. There is a little dark humor to be found in this batch, but it a guilty, creepy, awkward manner.
Ben was a difficult story to read, a very spiritual tale, and not necessarily an uplifting one. Darra L. Hofman offers up a future where a good boy brutally murders others out of love, and where the young woman signing Christian rock tunes tries to convince him it's all okay, because he has good intentions. I think I would have preferred a more ambiguous ending.
Story’s End wraps things up very nicely, offering up a very different take on gods than the story before it. Like the story that started it all, there is an element of heroism here, but against a very discouraging backdrop. It's a story of humanity, of casting aside all the pettiness that brought about our various ends, and getting back to the animals that we are.
Maybe it's the bleakness of it all, or maybe it's the pessimism that comes with knowing the end has already come, but this was a difficult collection to review, as much as I appreciated it. I found myself having to walk away after each story, unable - or perhaps unwilling - to subject myself to another grim, protracted demise. It's probably not all as grim and hopeless as I made it out to be, and I'm sure different readers will see something else within the stories, but there's no mistaking the fact that Joshua H. Leet succeeded in his goal of capturing the cycle of destiny.
Published March 26th 2013 by Seventh Star Press, LLC
Paperback, 306 pages