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[BOOK REVIEW] The Q Word and Other Stories by Richard Lee Byers

Genre: Collection, Urban Fantasy, Horror, Sword and Sorcery
File Size: 180 KB
Print Length: 125 pages
ASIN: B00501N49S
Author Website: Richard Lee Byers

On my trip to Rome in March, I was able to borrow and use, for the first time, a Kindle 2 e-reader. The convenience of the reader is undeniable and for the long flight from Florida to Italy it was the perfect distraction from cramped coach seats.

To inaugurate my first ever e-reading experience, I chose to read Richard Lee Byers’ collection The Q Word and Other Stories. Byers, who has written often and well in the Forgotten Realms mythos, is a favorite writer of mine and since we met at OASIS 24 last year, I felt that now was an excellent opportunity for me to give the once over to his self-published collection. And I was glad I did. The short pieces of sheer entertainment were perfect for the often-interrupted flight. It was easy to fall into the worlds of Byers’ imaginings, leave and then return when turbulence, meals, or conversations interrupted.

The titular story “The Q Word” is an original tale first published in this collection. A sword-and-sorcery inversion of the classic monster tale, the narrative adopts the perspective of The Beast of Eld, some sort of monster whose heart will (supposedly) break the curse laid on the royal family of Silvermark by the Blind Prophet. However, The Beast of Eld is smarter than the knights that come to kill him, and teams up with his one-time antagonists to search for the real source of the curse. I really enjoyed this story. The inversion of perspective from traditional hero to monster has been done before, but I like the way that Byers humanizes The Beast of Eld while at the same time maintaining the monstrous aspect by developing the character as what in old school Dungeons and Dragons parlance might be called Chaotic Evil. The Beast of Eld isn’t a good monster and he will tie his fate to a paladin so long as their goals are not mutually exclusive. Byers employs the beast’s personality so effectively that the ending of the story is surprising and satisfying. And of course, there is the very fun sword and claw vs. sorcery action of the opening and closing sequences.

In “End of Life” two darkly suited polltakers come to Joey’s house to survey his Grandma about her beliefs and desires for ending her life. To Joey, something is off about these government men but he can’t quite put his finger on it even when they pull out some weird geometric shapes and his normally happy grandmother begins to act depressed. Byers’ science fiction horror tale ends hideously for all involved and leaves open an even worse fate for all of humanity. Like many effective horror writers, Byers takes an annoying but innocuous everyday situation and turns it into something truly horrifying. The ending will leave you shuddering.

A final confrontation between a trapped vampire and an exorcist in a cathedral is the milieu for “Blood and Limestone.” Told from the perspective of the undead character, this story becomes an opportunity for two enemies to discuss the nature of good and evil, of the difference between pragmatism and faith. Raoul, our sympathetic vampire, is a victim of circumstance and fate who denies self. His persecutor, on the other hand, is the zealous Genevieve of Amiens. The story raises questions, though the narrative construction leads the reader to favor Raoul, though I find his reasoning not compelling. That being said, the story is still interesting, and does what all good fantasies do by playing “What if?” questions. Byers draws some conclusions, but they are Raoul’s, not the author’s, and the apologetic is presented in a way that is intellectually stimulating and works as a story.

“Griefer Madness” is a neat mash-up of the tropes of fantasy, LARP gaming, science fiction, and noir. In it, a luddite, middle-aged private detective is hired to find a missing teenager before his billionaire grandfather dies and leave all his wealth to his young ex-porn star wife. Problem is, Jason Baxter has lost himself in the live action role-playing experience of Cosmopolis. In this future Earth, LARP is the successor to MMO and people actually move through a fantasy world as if they really exist in it, rather than just through a computer screen. See what I mean about mashed-up tropes? The story goes about like you’d expect as our protagonist tries to comically navigate a technology he does not understand, makes a few friends along the way, and dodges “griefers” working for the gold-digger who try to prevent him from finding Jason in the LARP world of Cosmopolis. The excellence of this story is in the way that Byers integrates the various elements of the genres. The clever worldbuilding of the setting is what makes this story special, even though the plot is pretty cut and dry. I found this to be my favorite story of the collection.

Black cats are disappearing all over the city in “Black.” A shaman black cat named Silent has been tasked by his queen to discover the cause and save the cats if he can. Byers builds on old superstitions about black cats for an urban fantasy. I liked the way that Byers’ magic system is shamanistic, in that Silent takes on aspects of other animals (all in the cat family) rather than using “shaman” as synonym for “magic-user” with no corresponding limitations. Byers manages to capture the aloof nature of cats while simultaneously providing an adventure that is essentially a sword and sorcery with a modern setting and cats for main characters. It’s a good blend.

The story of “Office Space” is extremely terrifying. Crandall wakes up in an empty downtown Tampa office building. This would not be such a problem, except that Crandall is being kept there, alone, for some unknown reason by strange beings he calls Gray Guards. Escape is impossible and each day is the same monotonous paper filing and phone answering to no discernible end. Can Crandall escape? The reader might think the story is some commentary on the drudgery of office work, and it is to some extent, but Byers has extrapolated out from that point into a horror story about entrapment and loneliness that has one of the creepiest endings I’ve read in some time. Byers has a talent for horror, and “Office Space” proves it.

“Things I Learned about Science From Popular Entertainment” is an essay originally published at Byers’ website that posits five different types of scientific experiment as we see them in fiction and film. From Mad to Miraculous, this tongue-in-cheek exploration uncovers fictional tropes that many a writer of fiction and film falls into, when the reality is much more prosaic. In a way, this short essay is as entertaining as the stories, as well as being an insightful piece on storytelling that includes scientific experiments as part of the elements.

“Wisdom” posits a different outcome for the ancient Greek tale of Paris and the Apples. Instead of giving his apple to Aphrodite and sparking the war between the Greeks and Troy, Paris instead chooses Athena, sparking a revolution that could destroy the gods. In this story Odysseus is no longer the mind that defeats Troy, but must instead save the gods from Paris’ evil machinations. The story becomes a sort of “alternate fiction” in which two classics of literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey become the basis for a whole new story. Readers with familiarity with or affinity for the Greek myths will surely enjoy this reinterpretation.

A Florida patrolman must deal with a murderer and unholy magic in the presence of a hurricane in “The Things that Crawl.” Called out to investigate the disappearance of animals, he finds that they, and then elderly humans are being attacked in their homes by what appear to be snakes. Only the intrepid patrolman makes the connection between a wheelchair bound serial killer and these snakes. But how can a man so disabled be committing such crimes? It is a very Floridian urban fantasy that as a fellow Floridian I particularly enjoyed. Too, the ordinariness of the hero is appealing. It is a good way to end the story and collection on a positive note that also encompasses the themes of the entire collection.

The Q Word and Other Stories is a solid collection of entertainment. Each story is satisfying, easy to read, and full of action-adventure with a few surprises along the way. It is a good introduction to Byers’ themes and style, and the short lengths of the stories make them good reading for when you can only snatch a few minutes at the doctor’s office, waiting for a plane, or right before bed (though be wary of some of those horror stories right before bedtime). I recommend it.

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