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Thursday, June 6, 2013

The End Was Not the End: Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Tales by Joshua H. Leet (REVIEW)

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

2 comments:

  1. I'm the editor. Thank you for reading and reviewing the collection.

    Post-apocalyptic tales in general tend toward bleak more often than hope, for even if the heroes defeat the darkness, the world has already gone to ruin. Sometimes victory just ensures an ongoing struggle in the wasteland. The hope that exists, though, comes in the form of the allowance of a future. There are several tales where the heroes, and readers, should still have hope at the end.

    In some of the tales, including my favorites, that hope does not exist. It's not that I sought bleakness, but rather that I found there was more power in some of the less optimistic tales.

    As the editor, I did my best to try to find a balance between the despair and light as I was arranging the chosen pieces. I'm disappointed that you found the overall work to be more depressing, and I wonder if you didn't read all of the tales, or if you simply don't see the light at the end of some of the tunnels. And as in the "more traditional" fantasy you might prefer, sometimes hope for the hero and hope for the world can't both exist.

    You began your review with a comment that fantasy is about hope and heroism. You also suggested the stories were all working to subvert the normal tropes of fantasy. I'd counter that fantasy often contains those benevolent elements, but fantasy is far broader than tales of heroes overcoming evil, and the genre offers more variety than pure brightness. I do personally prefer a happy ending to a tragic one, but I also appreciate so-called dark fantasy, the grim tales where heroes aren't always innocent and evil empires don't always fall when the tyrant is destroyed. Sometimes the ongoing struggle reminds us more of reality, and it's something we can identify with and appreciate. Your enjoyment of such works would depend largely on your motives for reading fantasy on a given day. A very popular fantasy television show just shocked a lot of people recently by not presenting exactly the type of story many fans expected and wanted. Martin’s Game of Thrones is darker than most traditional fantasy, but he’s also been part of a movement toward that kind of fantasy, so it is in many ways becoming the new standard.

    We made the anthology because of a love of the post-apocalyptic, settings where evil, or simply disaster, has already triumphed. The stories in the collection simply explore what comes after, both in the form of heroes fighting on and in the form of worlds continuing to die. Knowledge that the good guys have already lost, and perhaps can’t recover, may be enough to turn away many readers.

    I'm glad you found it to be a strong anthology, even if it didn't wholly appeal to you.

    Thank you,
    Joshua H. Leet

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    Replies
    1. All fair comments, Joshua.

      Each reader finds something different in what they read, and what they find is heavily influenced by what they're experiencing off the page. Were I to give the collection a second read a few months (or even weeks) from now, I know full well that my perception of it might be very different indeed.

      That's one of the pleasures of revisiting a book - you never experience the same read twice. It's also why I made sure to acknowledge in my conclusion that it's probably not all as grim and hopeless as I made it out to be. :)

      I'm not sure why it is that post-apocalyptic fantasy should strike me so differently than post-apocalyptic horror, but it's something to think about. All emotional elements aside, I really did appreciate many of the stories, and there are several authors I've added to my "must read more" list.

      Thanks for pulling together such a unique collection. I'm sure it couldn't have been easy, but despite my issues, I think it works.

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