The fury of a woman scorned is just one of the perils encountered in “Dangerous Women,” a splendid cross-genre anthology featuring original stories by a number of writers, male and female. The title invokes that of “Dangerous Visions,” Harlan Ellison’s groundbreaking 1967 science fiction anthology, and even though there are no real game-changers here, it’s an impressive assembly of work by mostly well-known authors, with a few relative newcomers who make a strong impression.
Gardner Dozois, former editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and founding editor of “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” series, has at least 100 anthologies to his credit, six co-edited with George R.R. Martin.
Most readers will probably turn immediately to the anthology’s final entry, Martin’s marvelous novella “The Princess and the Queen, or, The Blacks and the Greens,” itself worth the price of the book. A prequel to his bestselling fantasy sequence “A Song of Ice and Fire,” this tale of internecine warfare begins with half-siblings clashing over the Iron Throne of Westeros and ends with a body count to rival that of the Trojan War. As one sage observes in the opening pages, “The princess will not stand meekly aside, and she has dragons.” Enough said.
Chief among the book’s newcomers is Samuel Sykes, whose “Name the Beast” is one of the book’s standouts. Beautifully written, the story gives up its meaning slowly, as a woman and her young daughter venture into the forest to enact a blood rite that at first appears inexplicable but later seems much too familiar. Evocative of William Golding’s classic “The Inheritors,” it’s one of the few stories here that challenges a reader’s expectations as to what it means to be not just a woman but human.
In “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Brandon Sanderson also sends a mother and daughter into the wilderness, with a very different though equally satisfying outcome.
Lev Grossman’s “The Girl in the Mirror” is an amusing return to Brakebills Academy, the setting of his “Magicians” books, where mean-girl mischief is augmented by magic. Plum, leader of a loosely organized and rather languorous female cohort known as the League, suspects another (male) student of shortchanging upperclassmen of their dining hall wine ration. A ghost makes an appearance here as well, but the real pleasure lies in Grossman’s sly take on the classic school story, with its student rivalries, secret societies and labyrinthine mansion.
Not surprisingly, the double-crossing femme fatale is well represented. In Joe R. Lansdale’s profane but poignant “Wrestling Jesus,” she cedes center stage to an elderly wrestler and his young protegé, a 90-pound weakling who learns a few classic wrestling moves, like the Bomb and the step-over-toe hold, along with some more traditional life lessons. It all culminates in a Christmas Eve smackdown, where the winner will make off (and make out) with “the best bad girl ever.” This being a Lansdale story, the real prize turns out to be something quite different.
Other femmes fatales show up in Diana Rowland’s “City Lazarus,” where the siren song of a devastated, near-future New Orleans is as irresistible as that of a gorgeous stripper; in Melinda Snodgrass’ “The Hands That Are Not There,” where the femme fatale is another stripper, albeit a human/alien hybrid with a long, furry red-and-white tail; and in Diana Gabaldon’s “Virgins,” where two young Highlanders escort a young Jewish bride-to-be through 19th century Bordeaux.
Creepiest and most fatal of all the femmes is the one who captivates the narrator of Lawrence Block’s deeply unsettling “I Know How to Pick ‘Em.” If you’re planning a night out at a country-and-western bar any time soon, you might want to reconsider.
You may also think twice before trusting your luck, or your child, with Lorie, the beautiful, perhaps disturbed, young mother whose little girl goes missing in “My Heart Is Either Broken,” Megan Abbott’s sinister and ambiguous account of the marital fallout from a nightmarish disappearance. The tale’s understated, fragmented narrative adds to its effect.
Megan Lindholm’s superb “Neighbors” is one of the few stories that actually feels as though it’s breaking new ground, by making an old woman its protagonist. Widowed Sarah lives alone in an upscale suburban neighborhood that’s become a way-station for elderly parents whose grown-up kids thoughtfully deliver brochures for assisted living communities whenever they drop by. Sarah’s desultory routine is disrupted one night at 3 a.m., when her batty neighbor Linda pounds at the door with a baseball bat, wearing pink sweats, fuzzy bedroom slippers and a Hello Kitty backpack.
“You come with me!” Linda shouts at her old friend before running off into the night. “Magic is better than crazy!” Lindholm’s depiction of a lifelong friendship that gives way to the creeping onset of forgetfulness and hallucinations that might signal Alzheimer’s — or something far more strange — is masterful and profoundly moving.
Hand’s most recent book is the collection “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Tor Books: 784 pp., $29.99