Review: Ruins Terra, edited by Eric T Reynolds

RuinsTerra

(Hadley Rille Books, 978-0-9785148-5-3)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, March 2008)

Hadley Rille books appears to be a relatively new SF-oriented press: they’ve released several themed anthologies over the past year or so. Ruins Terra, as the name suggests, features stories set in, or involved with, ruined buildings and other structures on planet Earth. It contains twenty-five (mostly quite short) stories and one poem.

“Rising Tide” by Ann Walters is a short, understated opener that works well enough. While lacking any obvious speculative character, it’s considerably more faithful to the stated theme than are several of the stories which follow it.

“Icebound” by Kate Kelly is a largely effective story, set in a future where Earth’s overfished oceans have mysteriously become devoid of all life. The ‘ruins’ connection here struck me as clunky and awkwardly placed, but otherwise the story flows quite well.

“The Moment of Glory” by Brendan Connell is historical, rather than speculative, describing a bloody confrontation between Spaniards and Aztecs. I don’t know if it’s an accurate depiction of a real historical battle; I felt it lacked the sharpness of characterisation that would have more fully engaged the reader’s empathy.

“A Glint Through Smoke and Flame” is a piece of flash fiction by Michael Merriam. It’s too short to carry any real power to surprise, but it works well enough.

Ted Stetson’s “Pilgrims”, another flash piece, seems (if I’m reading it right) to be a veiled complaint about other nations’ criticism of US foreign policy.

“The Outdiggers” by Jean-Michel Calvez is a somewhat ephemeral night-time tale of metaphor and excavation. The metaphor didn’t really connect for me.

Stefan Pearson’s “The Last King of Rona”, the collection’s longest story, is a powerfully atmospheric tale of grim goings-on on a derelict Scottish island when a party is sent there to exhume and conduct autopsies on the bodies of two shepherds, who died in mysterious circumstances. Though the writing is, for the most part, effective and evocative, it’s let down by some inconsistencies between present and past tense, and by a descent into darkness which was not, for my tastes, sufficiently graduated to be plausible.

“The Ruin” by Skadi meic Beorh is a poem which matches well the anthology’s mood.

“Rock Visions” by F. V. ‘Ed’ Edwards, written in a flat, sparsely descriptive style, presents a saga of life within a camp of the Utan people, somewhere in the American midwest of 400 years ago. It’s not without its faults (I’m not sure that life among these people would have been as idyllic as the author portrays, and its speculative touches are a trifle clunky), but it’s one of the anthology’s more engaging stories.

“The Chamber of Azahn” by Thomas Canfield is a reasonably straightforward, plainly moralistic tale of a pair of treasure-seekers looking to rob a site sacred to the locals.

“Maximum Entropy” by Kfir Luzzatto is another somewhat moralistic tale, this time warning of the dangers of achieving technological utopia. It’s assisted by some gently comic touches.

A ‘local’ contribution, “After the Stonehenge Bombing” by Ivan Sun has at least a degree of depth to it, though I’m not 100 percent sure of what it conveys. Then again, neither is the protagonist …

“Burrow” by Joel Arnold is a quite effective piece about a young man who’s spent much of his life digging towards the surface. Is he finally getting close?

“Python” by Jenny Blackford, is another local offering. It has Pausanias, a second-century historian, exploring the ancient Gaian temple at Delphi. The scene-setting is highly effective, though I found the speculative element incongruous and not fully developed.

“Seagull Inn” by Adele Cosgrove-Bray has rather too much info-dump presented as dialogue, but this tale of a landscape painter and her nephew, fog-trapped on a coastal island, is otherwise worthwhile.

Douglas A. Van Belle’s “Clonehenge” doesn’t directly concern a ruin, though it does involve a dubiously artistic representation of one. Presented as one side of a telephone conversation, it’s a wicked dig at the unnamed figure in Texan politics who’s on the other end of that phone.

“It’s a Temple” by Gareth Owens is similar in tone to Van Belle’s story, and probably more effective. The idea of future archaeological exploration of modern-day Earth culture has, of course, been done before, but this is fresh and funny.

“The Guardians of Llarazan” by Stoney M. Setzer is concerned with the infiltration of an ancient, secret society by a megalomaniac who wishes to plunder its secrets. But the society isn’t about to divulge everything …

Angeline Hawkes’ “The Tour Guide” describes a visit to a Mayan temple, complete with realistic-looking tour guides. There are no prizes for guessing what fate befalls the hapless, unwitting and, I have to say, criminally slow-witted tourist, but the journey there is effective nonetheless.

“The Tomb” by Leila Eadie details an exploration of an ancient tomb. There is, naturally enough, a twist.

“The Boy Who Found Atlantis” by Jacqueline Seewald is a short tale about a clubfooted boy who excels at diving. It’s drawn quite well, but the ending is unsatisfying.

“In Every Place that I Am” by Adrienne J. Odasso, about the embalming of an ancient Egyptian noblewoman, is probably the collection’s strongest flash piece, and works principally through the clarity of its imagery and the fable-like tone of the writing.

Lisa Fortuner’s “Amazon Library” is a reasonably amusing flash story. The more things change …

“Moss Memoirs” by Lancer Kind is a kind of nature documentary narrated by a plant. The limited vocabulary, though thematically appropriate, makes it difficult to get into the story, and antipodean readers are likely to take the overuse of the verb ‘root’ quite the wrong way.

“Airholes” by George Page describes another artefact excavation, with another twist at the end. It’s predictable and too obviously foreshadowed, but pleasant enough.

“Rats in the Walls” by Lyn McConchie is a tale of rebellion against a despotic regime, set in the far-future Australian settlement of Melbin. It’s reasonably efficient, and feels like it could be intended as a vehicle to introduce McConchie’s teen protagonist, in a prologue to a book-length work. (Then again, I could be wrong.)

Overall, Ruins Terra is a somewhat frustrating anthology. While it contains stories which I certainly found enjoyable, the collection as an ensemble failed to fully satisfy. Part of the problem, I believe, is that the theme is too narrow for such a large collection of stories – there are several stories here which can be seen as mere retellings, with different imagery and characters, of pieces already encountered earlier in the book. The brevity of many of the stories is also problematic – in many cases, I was left feeling that the narrative hadn’t fully gone underway before it finished. A collection of fewer stories of longer average length might have addressed both of these perceived problems, if those stories succeeded in immersing the reader in a vivid imagined world. As it stands, too few of the stories here do this.

I wanted to enthuse over this collection. Hadley Rille Books is to be commended for offering a reasonably prominent anthology market to up-and-coming specfic writers, in an environment where (in my opinion) too few such markets exist. But, in my assessment, the stories here are likely to fall below reader expectations. Are there exceptions? Certainly; but I don’t feel those exceptions are enough to satisfactorily carry the anthology.

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