The trouble with heroes, is, of course, that the truth about them is never quite as heroic as the songs, ballads, and stories would have us believe. Using this conceit, editor Denise Little has collected 22 short stories of the off camera character and lives of Greek heroes, English bandits, German musicians, and future heroes of whom we have not yet heard. The result is a frequently hilarious, certainly creative anthology of the wacky and the wonderful.
After Little’s introduction, author Kristine Grayson (who also ends the anthology under her other pseudonym Kristine Kathryn Rusch) presents to the reader a spin on the modern dating service with “Geeks Bearing Gifts”. Called Eros.com, this fictional service gets sent into upheaval when the very god it is names for arrives on their doorstep. After some misadventures, the female protagonist is left all the stronger after her encounter with the Greek god of love. This story was really fun, and I enjoyed the way that Grayson did not make this a love story, though it had all the earmarks of being one.
Adrian Nikolas Phoenix writes a paean to H. P. Lovecraft in “The Horror in the Living Room”. This is probably the most unusual story in the anthology, in that the hero is a writer, and the “heroics” are literary with a splice of the absurd. Some knowledge of H. P. Lovecraft as person and writer will be necessary, and I think that the tale is quite imaginative.
“Take My Word For It: Bad Idea” by Mike Moscoe returns the reader to Greek mythology, but this time in an ancient setting. Heracles (also known as Hercules) is at the stage in his life where he must serve as slave to a queen. Told from the Queen’s perspective, the narrative is built upon the troubles one would have in bringing in a strong, handsome, half-immortal man into a small kingdom worried about its future. The title belies the conclusion, which ends up being sad but sweet.
Robin Hood gets a less than idealistic treatment in Jean Rabe’s “Merry Maid”. Told from the perspective of Maid Marian, the story uses the hard truths about life in the forest (the smell, the unsavory aspects of the bandit life, and the small minds that usually accompany such a profession) to humanize the oft-idealized Robin Hood. Maid Marian’s final act will surprise you, and Rabe does an excellent job portraying Marian as a strong-willed woman tied to a bear of a man.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman rewrites the Greek myth of Zeus and Io from Io’s perspective in “The Problem with Dating Shapeshifters”. If you will remember, Io is one of Zeus’ many lovers that was turned into a heifer to hide her from Hera. But whereas the original tale glorifies the prowess of Zeus and highlights the jealousy of Hera, the roles are reversed in this one, with Hera and Io coming out the heroes and Zeus as libido incarnate. This role reversal makes the sympathetic character of Io even more so. But the really surprising part is the portrayal of Hera, which in truth is actually more in line with her supposed nature than most of the Greek legends usually portray. This is a fine work.
Only one Ape stands head and shoulders above the rest. But what happened after Kong’s death? Terry Hayman takes a look at life-after-Kong of the “heroes” of that story in “Reclaiming His Inner Ape”. This story is less funny and more poignant as it explores the psychology of marriage between a man and a woman. It certainly resonated with this young married. Maybe I ought to ask my wife to read it? Maybe she might get me a little better.
Annie Reed visits many women’s greatest fear in “For a Few Lattes More”. Working late at night in a Starbucks, the female protagonist encounters a strange cowboy who arrives by horse, orders a coffee, and lives in a nearby park. But she wonders if he might also be the rapist that has been prowling the parks and local college campus. Circumstances give her the answer. This story was quite good, subtly making the point that women do not need a hero and can rely on themselves, until the author goes and botches it by telling the reader this point, concluding the story with, “The only hero Terri wanted to rely on from here on out was herself.” The tale had gone so very well until Reed decided to assume her readers are idiots and wouldn’t get the subtleties of the text (which really aren’t that subtle anyway.) This story’s ending was the only real disappointment of the anthology.
“Beloved” by David H. Hendrickson revisits the story of David (of David and Goliath fame) and his future wife Michal. Told from the perspective of Michal’s older sister, the story seems to be, at first, a denigration of David, making him out to be shallow and vain. But the conclusion turns this on its head in a funny and honest way. I also found the last line in this story to be the funniest of the anthology by far.
Phaedra M. Weldon presents and urban fantasy involving Puck and King Oberon in “Inspiration”. Saved from rape by a naked man with tiny wings, the protagonist is skeptical when he claims to be King Oberon. The dialogue becomes a discussion on the nature of heroes, and Weldon brilliantly segues from fantastical hero to real life hero in a quite unexpected and highly metaphorical fashion.
Odysseus had an unwritten trial that Pauline J. Alma rediscovered in “Honey, I’m Home”. Alama builds on the inconsistencies on this supposed genius’s character upon his arrival home. Poor Odysseus must face the final trial of convincing his wife he truly is who he says he is. Written with wonderful use of adjectives in the dialogue, Alma conveys a sense of two exasperated people trying hard to maintain their composure. It is hilarious!
Robert T. Jeschonek writes from the perspective of the Pied Piper of Hamlin’s muse in “Ballad of the Groupie Everlasting”. The life stories of modern day rocker’s wives are nothing new, as the muse can attest. The poor girl may make the musicians successful, but she can do nothing about their character. This story is great for its mashup of modern sensibilities in a medieval context.
The always awesome Laura Resnick creates a new (and hilarious) origin for the King Arthur/Lancelot/ Guinevere love triangle in “The Quin Quart”. Told in third person, the titular characters are a medieval version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The story only gets funnier from there. This was my favorite story of the anthology, hands down.
John Alvin Pitts not only mashups a couple of favorite fairy tales and nursery rhymes in “How Jack Got His Self A Wife” he also recreates the style of a Grimm fairy tale. And of course, because “behind every great man is an even greater woman”, Molly, the wife in question, becomes a delightfully intelligent and satisfying character whose ability to manipulate Jack is well-meaning and entertaining. This story is one of the best in a collection of good tales.
The truth behind the marriage of Cinderella and Prince Rupert is revealed in Dayle A. Dermatis’ “If The Shoe Fits”. The story bends some of the factual elements of this classic tale to turn it into something completely different. We again find a story with modern sensibilities in a medieval context. It is good, though I admit to a pang that Dermatis changed one of my favorite love stories into something much more businesslike.
Dory Crowe takes the classic American tall tale of Paul Bunyan in “Big Man’s Little Woman” and adds a new character to the litany of the unusual people in Paul’s life. This story of unrequitable love, man’s inability to keep it in his pants, and sisterhood is quite amusing. Crowe’s only failure is in stopping the story midstream to make an environmental statement (Paul is a lumberjack after all) that is only tangentially connected to the tale, and really ruins the experience of the tale. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is so obviously political and rips the reader right out of the story that is otherwise unrelated.
J. Steven York visits the writer’s room of a proposed epic fantasy TV show in “Boldly Reimagined”. The tale is about how the story of Jason and the Argonauts gets changed from standard hero quest with few female characters into something wildly dissimilar, more L-Word than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Though creative, I did not think that this story really fit into the conceit of the anthology, as it didn’t explore the background of a hero, but rather simply “reimagined” him. An argument could be made for its inclusion, and though I enjoyed it to an extent, I just felt it was not what I expected from the anthology.
“Roxane” is both a song by The Police and the name of Cyrano de Bergerac’s lady love. Peter Orullian mixes the famous “red light” of Sting’s song with the “red light” profession of Cyrano’s lover. The story is classic Cyrano, with his low self-esteem issues caused by the length of his nose. This story of a love triangle is comical, and well done.
“A Long Night in Jabbok (Or, Who, Exactly, Is In Charge Here?)” by Janna Silverstein is another Bible based story that explores the idea that great men only become great because they have great wives. Very feminist in tone, the story sees Rachel, not Jacob, as the hero of the great wrestling match that gave birth to the Israelite nation. Though a little sacrilegious (to me) I still found the story to be a creative reinterpretation of an old tale.
Ken Scholes writes the only superhero story in the anthology in “Love in the Time of Car Alarms”. The fire-fighting female protagonist desires to break up with her insurance agent boyfriend, due to his tardiness and lack of attention. But an attack by a supervillain gets in the way with surprising results. This is another of the great stories in the anthology. Though it is simple in plot it just entertains so very well.
Steven Mohan Jr. writes the only space-based hero story of the entire anthology in “The Problem of Metaphors” Probably the most creative tale of the anthology, the problem of the title is not so much that metaphors exist as the fact that sometimes, the metaphor is true. This is great fiction, perhaps a little too high-minded for this type of anthology, but still an excellent read.
“If I Did It” by Allan Rousselle is another Jason and the Argonauts story told from the perspective of Medea where (like a former football player) she writes about how should would have committed the crimes she is accused of, all the while protesting her innocence. I enjoyed this particular story twist immensely, with its satiric tone and sense of righteous indignation from the main character.
A museum curator encounters the god winged god Mercury after a forged statue is delivered to her in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Clay Feet”. The narrative is about art, history, and mystery. Even as the protagonist tries to solve the mystery of the forgery and its provenance, the reader is introduced to some the good and bad of the business of art. I liked this story, though I’m not sure I would have closed the anthology with it, as it only barely fits into the conceit of the anthology.
Overall, this anthology is a lot of fun to read, and has some really creative stories in it. Editor Denise Little compiled a wide variety of tales, so even though many are about women (which makes sense if you are flipping a predominately male genre – historically speaking – on its head) or that share similar roots or characters, no one story is anything like another (mostly). I highly recommend this anthology to those who like humor and twists on old tales, but also to those who just like good storytelling.