Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****

This is the fifth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, and Wolves of the Calla (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”

Also, this time I’m going to have a special book-only spoiler section called “The Clearing at the End of the Path,” because there’s one aspect of this book that I wanted to discuss at length, but didn’t want to spoil for people who hadn’t yet read the book. (If you’ve read it, you probably know what it is.)


As I approached Song of Susannah in this re-read, I’m not going to lie; I was a bit anxious. Over the years, Song of Susannah has been held up as the nadir of the series – a mess, the point at which the meta commentary became too much, the book where King’s ambition stretched too far. And in some ways, I’ll grant some of those points. There’s no denying that Song of Susannah sometimes feels like too many books in one, nor that it feels…well, weird. And that’s saying something, given how strange this series is already, and how disjointed the books are almost by design. But more than most, Song of Susannah swings for the fences, going between the surreal to the action-packed, from the nightmarish to the esoteric, often without even a hint of a change coming. And that doesn’t even get into the main thrust of the narrative, which somehow has to explain a truly baffling pregnancy that…well, I can’t even begin to explain this one to you, because King doesn’t quite either, despite the number of pages he devotes to trying to hash it all out.

And yet. (Come on. You knew an “and yet” was coming.)

And yet, by god, broken down to its individual pieces, Song of Susannah WORKS. There’s no denying that King’s ambition cranks up dozens of notches here (and I’ll have lots to say about the major one – and the most controversial one – in a book spoiler section below, before I get to series spoilers), but it’s easy to forget how much King has a way of making even the most bizarre and dysfunctional concepts somehow work when you’re lost in his worlds. On paper, most of Song of Susannah shouldn’t work, but as we immerse ourselves into the heart and soul of these characters, and King brings his worlds to vivid, intense life, it’s hard to remember your complaints while you’re carried along.

More than that, Song of Susannah has some truly great scenes waiting for you, most notably a climactic section that may rank as one of the most disturbing, horrific things King’s ever written – no small feat, that. But it makes sense, because King’s horror usually has at least one foot in the real world, one foot keeping things grounded. But in the world of the Dark Tower, all bets are off – there’s no reality to keep it tethered. And what results is genuinely horrifying and disturbing, with some of the darkest, grimmest images I can remember King writing – an ending (setting aside the coda, which I’ll address in those book spoilers) that leaves you dying for more in a great way. More than that, even with the weird, sometimes disjointed approach that finds us sometimes leaping from scene to scene, King retains that command of momentum and pacing that makes him one of the best writers around – and that goes double here, as King barrels us toward the ending of this series.

But maybe what I really love most about Song of Susannah is the way that it makes King’s ambition for this series plain, crystallizing something that’s been a theme for some time. Song of Susannah, in other words, is the book where it becomes most clear that in many ways, this is King’s most ambitious and career-defining work, in his own mind, and that the book is as much as about him as an author as it is these characters. It’s something that’s been a part of the series since the beginning (if you remember, it’s one reason why I advocate for the original cut of The Gunslinger, because it makes King’s evolution as a writer part of the text of the series), and even more so over the past few, as the ideas of story and storytelling has become more and more intrinsic to the plot of the series as a whole. The idea of stories – why we tell them, how they inspire or define us, how they motivate us – is only more and more relevant as the Tower series progresses, and Song of Susannah starts turning that from subtext to text, as characters grapple with their roles in stories that they had no idea they were a part of.

Does Song of Susannah spend alternately too long on some explanations (Mia/Susannah, I’m looking at you) and not enough on others (how Susannah knows the importance of a street preacher, for instance)? Undoubtedly. Does it suffer from “middle book” syndrome a bit, bridging between the setup of Wolves of the Calla and the payoff of The Dark Tower without sometimes knowing how to define itself? Most definitely. And is there a bit of me that resents spending so much time in this penultimate book of a great series on one of its weirdest, most nonsensical plot threads, to say nothing of the fact that most of it is devoted to maybe my least favorite member of the ka-tet? (Again, I’ll get into why in the spoiler section below.) Yup.

But for all of that, so many of the individual pieces of Song of Susannah work so well that I can overlook that. Any book that features that horrific sequence in the Dixie Pig, the fantastic shoot-out, that eerie scene where they meet a sort of god, and our first glimpses at what lays in the blasted lands near the Tower…when your book has all of that and more, I’m okay with the weaknesses, especially because all of them work so well thematically, and they’re so well told. And more than anything, when a book leaves me this ready to jump into the final volume, even after I’ve already read it…well, it’s doing its job, isn’t it?


The Clearing at the End of the Path (book spoilers follow – no series spoilers) Continue reading “Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****”

The Waste Lands, by Stephen King / *****

This is the third entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


In a lot of ways, I’m glad The Waste Lands was already out when I started reading The Dark Tower. Yes, the strange, alien nature of The Gunslinger is intriguing, and yes, The Drawing of the Three immerses us into its cast of characters incredibly well. But for my money, it’s really here, in the third volume of the series, that it feels like the quest for the Tower truly begins. The players have assembled; the ka-tet is formed; and now, the march to the Tower truly begins in earnest.

That makes it sound as though nothing has really happened in the past two books, and that’s not the case at all; it’s just that the first two books are largely about immersing us in this world and letting us get to know our cast of heroes (maybe “protagonists” is a better term). But in The Waste Lands, we finally begin moving along the path of the Beam, and we begin to see what’s left of Roland’s world – and what he means when he says that it’s “moved on”.

The Waste Lands, more than either of the previous two novels, taps into King’s strengths as a horror writer, whether in a harrowing sequence set in a malevolent house or introducing us to a machine that’s lost its mind somewhere in the past centuries. The book absolutely pulses with unease and tension, pushing our heroes more closely together and making the threats more palpable. In The Gunslinger, we felt that Roland could pretty well take care of himself, and we had few worries. But now, there are bonds of friendship and love, and even Roland has been wounded by this world – and we’re early on. King uses that tension and unease masterfully, forcing our heroes to fight for their survival and become active participants in this quest and the fight to survive this mad, broken world that they find themselves in.

More than that, though, The Waste Lands is King’s best effort at world-building to date in the series. It’s the first time we get a sense of what this world is truly like, with discussions of some of its mythology, people reacting to the sight of the last gunslinger with awe and unease, and a sense of some of what’s happened to this world since its peak. We see huddled colonies of elderly, marauding gangs of bandits, and desolate, horrifying wastes warped by some unimaginable conflict. It’s the book that truly began to build what I think of as The Dark Tower for me, and in many ways, it’s the one that made me truly love the series.

But it’s also the first book in which King starts to build the complex cosmology and mythology of the Tower, establishing not only the links to “our” world in more explicit ways, but introducing some of the threats that are pursuing Roland on behalf of darker forces. It’s here that we learn the importance of the Rose, or start realizing who the Ageless Stranger may be, or realize just how important this quest is going to be.

Mind you, The Waste Lands does all this while telling an exciting, rocket-paced story. The first half largely revolves around the completion of the ka-tet and the rescue of a lost friend; the second finds the group moving along the path of the Beam into the broken city of Lud and into the Wastes beyond. There’s a lot that happens here, and it’s a welcome reminder of how well King writes action/suspense pieces, especially as he cuts back and forth between different parties, using their perspectives off of each other masterfully and leaving us in doubt sometimes about the accuracy of their beliefs. The Lud section especially is absolutely fantastic, giving a sense of dread and insanity that leaves you uneasy for chapters at a time, even before you meet the chief villains of this place.

And of course, no discussion of the book would be complete without mentioning the introduction here of Blaine the Mono, one of my favorite characters of the series – the mad train whose insanity and malice makes him instantly horrifying, even without a true physical presence in the book. That King uses Blaine to set up the infamous cliffhanger at the end of the book works only because Blaine has instantly solidified himself as a threat, both mentally and physically, to our characters; the fact that the cliffhanger is so maddening is even better, even though I would have disagreed with it while I was waiting for the next volume.

In short, it’s one of my favorite entries in the series – it’s exciting, engrossing, moves the story along, and deepens both the world and the mythology of the series. And more than anything else, it’s the one that truly hooked me into the world of the Dark Tower.


“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow)

Continue reading “The Waste Lands, by Stephen King / *****”

The Road to Rebirth, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

20601427The Road to Rebirth is the second entry in Dean F. Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy, after The Call of Agon; in fact, not only that, but it opens less than an hour after the previous book ends. And given that Wilson doesn’t really offer a summary of the previous book or any kind of glossary/list of characters, I definitely spent the first couple of chapters trying to remember who was who and where exactly we left things. (I feel like that’s a peril of high fantasy, especially when you have a dense cast of characters and lore like Wilson has created here.) Luckily, though, Wilson’s naturally gift for storytelling allowed me to follow everything that was happening in this second book while slowly reminding myself of the stakes and our characters.

If The Call of Agon was Wilson’s Fellowship of the Ring, with the characters uniting and defining the nature of their threat, then The Road to Rebirth could easily be his Two Towers. His group of heroes has suffered a massive setback, and they’ve scattered to the winds. Some have fallen in their battles; some are greviously wounded; and worst of all, their one possibility for victory – a child who was the incarnation of a god – has died. It’s classic “middle book” fare, as the quest evolves and we expand the scope.

But as usual, Wilson does it in an imaginative, unique way, expanding his story in directions that I never expected. A wounded hero returns home to a kingdom where he never belonged. One character finds himself amongst heroes he only knows from legend. And most surprisingly, we dive into the land of the dead, where the rise of the demon Agon is most imminent. On every front, Wilson expands the lore and depth of his world, fleshing out new gods, new legends, and new complexities.

But the primary story of the book revolves around a desperate attempt to revive the dead god, as a cluster of forces for good huddle in a besieged fortress and try to hold the line. It’s here that Wilson’s knack for action sequences shines through as usual, giving us a chaotic, tense siege where the stakes are always clear and the cost is always known. Battle sequences of this scale are a strength of Wilson’s (see his Great Iron War series), but it’s still nice to see him use those skills in his high fantasy mode and not miss a beat.

While I enjoyed The Call of Agon, there’s little denying for me that The Road to Rebirth is by far the superior entry in the series. Yes, part of that is due to not having to set the stage and offer the exposition necessary for a series like this. But more than that, Wilson’s interweaving of plot threads, plus the central drive, gives the story a quick, solid momentum that I loved. And even better, the story is allowing the themes of this saga – responsibility, morality, our relationships with gods, and more – to find rich and complex expression in its characters. I enjoyed Call of Agon a lot, but Road to Rebirth is fantastic, and just a great read, through and through.


The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King / ****

This is the second entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my review of The Gunslinger. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


One of my least favorite tropes in sci-fi and fantasy novels is the idea of characters showing up in the “real” world. I’ve always hated that sort of “fish out of water” story, with its wacky misunderstandings, vocabulary clashes, heavy-handed moral lessons that often result, and so forth. And maybe that’s part of why I had never really liked The Drawing of the Three as much most of the other Dark Tower fans – that instinctive dislike of that genre and its shortcomings.

And so it was sort of a relief to re-read Drawing of the Three and remember how little of that element there is to the novel. Yes, Roland has a few moments where he comments on the weirdness of this “modern” world; yes, there are a few silly misunderstandings (the neon tower sign is the one that bugs me more than the others); but for the most part, The Drawing of the Three is anchored in its characters – not just Roland, but those who he is drawing – the three deeply flawed characters drawn into the orbit of our deeply flawed hero.

As he did in The Gunslinger, King populates his fantasy series with characters who inhabit a wonderfully murky, grey moral area. Even with the first figure drawn from our world, King gives us a co-dependent heroin addict who’s smuggling drugs – not exactly a standard fantasy figure. And that pattern repeats with each of the next drawings, where King gives us broken, even horrific people, and tries to give us empathy and feeling for each of them. They – along with the coldly ruthless Roland, still willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive and to succeed in his quest – are our protagonists, and it’s another sign that King’s mythic fantasy quest isn’t going to be like many others.

But what makes The Drawing of the Three a strong second entry in the series is the reminder of how great King has become at storytelling since that young, inexperienced man wrote The GunslingerThe Drawing of the Three feels like multiple books shoved into one, mixed wildly together – there are thrillers and dramas, crime novels and fantasy worlds, all shoehorned together into a strange, alien world that doesn’t always give us answers. (Indeed, one of the best things about the book is how little explanation is there for the drawing and the mechanics that surround it.) But no matter where the story is taking us, King makes it move, constantly ratcheting up tension, shifting the stakes of the conflicts, leaving us to question what it will mean to survive and succeed. Even better, he makes the characters’ evolutions intrinsic to the plot, making the drawing part of the shaping of their lives and their destinies.

None of which is to say that The Drawing of the Three is perfect. There is absolutely no denying the weirdness and discomfort of King’s racial choices when it comes to Detta Walker; while King makes the exaggerated caricature a conscious choice and has the characters themselves comment on the awfulness of it, it doesn’t make it less distasteful. (There’s a sense that, if King were to revise this one as he did The Gunslinger, he might make more of an effort to explain exactly what has turned Detta into such a hateful stereotype – there’s an explanation there, but it’s never made concrete in this novel.) And while it’s generally a good choice to lean into the inexplicable, alien nature of the doors, the way King uses them to resolve one character’s arc/dilemma ultimately feels a bit odd and shoehorned in – again, a rare case when a tiny bit more exposition might help things out a little bit.

For all of that, though, I think I better understand The Drawing of the Three‘s appeal for so many fans. I still don’t love it the way I love the rest of the series – it feels like a transitional book, and a stage-setting one at times – but there’s little denying that after the bleak, strange atmosphere of The Gunslinger, this second book feels like momentum is building in the series, and gives us characters we can more easily identify with than our strange, stark protagonist.


“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King / ****”

Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman / *****

61ydlztifql-_sx326_bo1204203200_There is no logical reason that Anno Dracula should work, honestly. To call Anno Dracula “overly ambitious fan fiction” wouldn’t seem like a bad idea, based off of the description of the novel. After all, this is a book in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula ascends to the British throne by marrying the Queen, resulting in the emergence of vampires out of the shadows. Oh, and it also means that Bram Stoker has been arrested for trying to write the book – which is better than what happened to Abraham van Helsing. But not content with just writing a sequel to Dracula, Newman turns Anno Dracula into a positive maelstrom of cultural, literary, and social references, with Sherlock Holmes (and his brother Mycroft, as well as more than a few other Holmesian supporting characters), the good doctors Moreau and Jekyll, Gilbert and Sullivan characters, opera icons – oh, and Jack the Ripper, of course. Indeed, it’s such a dense web of allusions both fictional and factual that this anniversary edition has a multi-page guide to some of the more obscure ones after the book ends.

And yet, not only does Anno Dracula succeed, it’s an absolute blast of a book, focusing on telling a great story rather than just playing an elaborate game of “spot the reference”. Using the Ripper’s crimes as a framework, Newman dives deeply into his alternate history, exploring how Victorian England might have shifted with the introduction of vampires, diving into the mythology of vampires (as well as the politics, given that they might not all be fans of the famed Count), exploring how class politics might change with the possibility of “turning”, and more. Rather than just telling a simple vampire story, in other words, Newman builds a whole alternate universe, and takes his time exploring it, following every small change and watching as it ripples outward, and investing us in disputes ranging from paid murder to broken engagements.

More than that, Newman invests us in his characters, letting the sides of his book be populated with the allusions and giving us his own original takes for our heroes (and some of the villains). From the outwardly mild-mannered Charles Beauregard (who covertly works for Conan Doyle’s infamous Diogenes Club) to Newman’s fascinating elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne (older, indeed, than Dracula, and somewhat disgusted by the violence and depravity of the Count), Newman doesn’t just create an interesting, rich world; he gives us characters that we enjoy and care about, and makes their stories every bit as important as the macro story going on behind them. Indeed, despite the title, Dracula himself is barely in the book as a character, instead mainly working as scene-setting – although his eventual appearance is well worth the wait.

Yes, Newman has some great ideas about vampires (my favorite is the “murgatroyds,” vampires who wear capes and act like, well, stereotypical vampires in an effort to appear fashionable); yes, his use of the Ripper makes for a great hook for the book, particularly with the identity of the Ripper in the novel and his motivations. But more than anything else, every single page of Anno Dracula is just dripping with imagination and surprises. From obscure allusions to surprising cultural shifts, from character evolutions to horrific violence, Anno Dracula is, first and foremost, a fantastic piece of storytelling. I got swept up into this ambitious, wonderful world, and I’m glad to know that Newman kept it going – I’m guessing that he’s like me, and just didn’t want to have to leave it.



Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears / *** ½

371638A collection of 21 stories inspired by fairy tales, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears can be hard to describe. Yes, generally, the collection favors dark, “mature” takes on fairy tales (sexuality and violence are prevalent here). Yes, there’s a nice feminist undercurrent here, with passive women characters being given more agency. But really, the biggest weakness of Ruby Slippers is also its biggest strength: its diversity in approach. Some stories modernize the fairy tales, while others retell classic ones from a different perspective. Some are funny, some are horrific, some are dramatic. And while that leads to a more variety-filled and surprising experience, it also keeps the collection from feeling as cohesive or unified as it feels like it should, and leads to a bumpy reading experience as we jump from genre to genre and tone to tone.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean that there aren’t some fantastic stories here. John Brunner’s “The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” dives into (what I assume is) Chinese folklore to tell the story of a demanding, arrogant emperor and his quest for glory, while Ellen Steiber’s “The Fox Wife” takes on the Japanese trickster fox. Gahan Wilson brings his usual dark humor to “Hansel and Grettel,” turning the iconic orphans into cocky social climbers who always feel the need to outdo everyone else. Roberta Lannes’s “Roach in Loafers” brings Puss in Boots (despite the anthology’s comment that this is “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” this is a fairly obvious “Puss in Boots” homage) to modern-day society with a great twist and a sense of humor. “Billy Fearless,” by Nancy Collins, creates a rural fairy tale with a wonderful voice, and Delia Sherman’s “The Printer’s Daughter” ends the collection on a surprisingly sweet and funny note, following a printer that’s made his daughter half out of sermons and half out of, shall we say, “adult” material.

That sounds like a lot of great material, and to be fair, the collection feels generally strong. There aren’t any pure misfires that I can think of, and a decent percentage of good ones. But the problem comes in how vague many of the stories go, feeling as though referring to fairy tales or just telling them in a new way should be appeal enough. That’s preferable to the cavalcade of “grimdark” stories, which mainly find ways to tell the fairy tales with added emphasis on brutality and violence. “The Princess and the Pea” becomes about a sadistic ruler and his mutilated servant who just wants to see women die. The updated “Match Girl” becomes a tour of rape and prostitution. “Beauty and the Beast” becomes about the pursuit of happiness and the desire to take it by force. And so on and so forth. It’s not that any of them are ever quite bad, per se, but it so often feels violent for its own sake, and without as much interesting to say as you would hope, other than “oh, I reimagined this fairy tale and now it’s for adults.”

The thing is, there are some great stories in Ruby Slippers, and a few that will no doubt stick with me. But it’s the rare case where some more focus and editorial control might help the collection – it would help it feel more focused, perhaps, but it could also cut down on the “fairy tales after dark” vibe that the collection falls into sometimes. It’s a decent collection, with some strong highlights, but I can’t say I’d recommend reading it all of a piece.