Take No Prisoners
by John Grant - $13.95
Over the years, science fiction and fantasy have developed an undeserved reputation as the ugly stepsisters of so-called "literary fiction". Neglected by critics, disdained by academics, and largely considered little more than juvenile escapism by the majority of mainstream culture, the two genres have existed in a kind of literary limbo, despite the fact that both science fiction and fantasy have produced novels with depth, substance and ingenuity that rival even the greatest works of the western literary canon. And yet, every so often there comes along an author who is able to bridge the gap between literary elitism and the world of speculative fiction. John Grant is one such author; his work filled with an equal measure of substance and imagination. For those unfamiliar with Grant, he has earned an impressive number of accolades over the years, including two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, a Locus Award, and about a dozen other notable prizes.
Take No Prisoners is the first collection containing many of Grant's shorter works, and is filled with Grant's lavish prose and abundance of creativity. Perhaps the most enjoyable element of Take No Prisoners is that the work contains familiar elements of speculative fiction even as it seems to operate within its own strange continuum. The end result is a weird and entertaining fusion of literature, horror, science fiction and fantasy, similar in tone and nature to the work of China Miéville or Michael Swanwick. It is almost impossible to predict how each of Grant's stories will end, or indeed in some cases to even label the work within the confines of one particular genre. In all cases though, patient and thoughtful readers will be entertained by Grant's ability to play on readers expectations and develop tales with rich characters, vivid settings and innovative style.
Perhaps one of the more entertaining selections is "The Glad Who Sang a Mermaid in from the Probability Sea", a brilliant hybrid of science and magic set in the detailed universe of "the World" (one of Grant's many reoccurring settings). Recounting the story of the Finefolk (a kind of Elven race capable of magic) and their enslavement at the hands of the Ironfolk (presumably humanity), the story is a rich tapestry of complex characters and setting that becomes remarkably clear in only a short period of time. In the hands of a lesser writer, the work would simply devolve into a convoluted and overly confusing tale, but with Grant's keen eye for detail and economy of language the story is a brilliant and beautiful tale of love, loss and redemption.
Similarly, "The Wooden Horse" is yet another entertaining selection; a classic example of an alternate reality tale written with a subtlety and care that is rarely seen in science fiction. Recounting the narrators love of the cinema (and in particular of old World War II movies), the element of the fantastic seems to come out of nowhere and the character and narrative are so well developed it is genuinely surprising when the reader is suddenly confronted with elements of the bizarre and surreal.
Where Grant truly shines however, is in his range and flexibility. He alternates between genres with ease, and it is rare to see an author with the capability to work within multiple areas with such skill and clarity. For example "A Lean and Hungry Look", offers an hilarious look at the world of amateur theatre with a touch of the fantastic, even as "The Dead Monkey Puzzle" tells a horrifying tale of rape and torture with a grizzly supernatural ending. Grant also explores the philosophical nature of humanity itself in "The Machine It Was That Cried," a tale of space exploration and the hidden cost it may have on our entire species.
In all instances however, Grant writes with both subtlety and style. Readers hoping for a quick fix of mindless action or a formulaic narrative would do well to look elsewhere, but those with patience and dedication will be well rewarded by Take No Prisoners. Perhaps the only down side of the book is that Grant does indeed adopt many of the mannerism found in British SF, which can occasionally be unpalatable for North American readers unfamiliar with the style. That being said such a complaint is minor compared to the rich variety of work Take No Prisoners has to offer. There is literally something for everyone here, with a selection from almost every genre; from fantasy to horror, to traditional hard SF and space opera.
Ultimately, Take No Prisoners is well worth picking up. Collections are a difficult prospect at the best of times and tend to be fairly hit or miss, and yet almost every story in the fifteen collected works of Take No Prisoners is an enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening read. Furthermore the work is written with such skill that is can easily be enjoyed by those who normally look down their noses at works filled with starships and sorcery. In this sense, Take No Prisoners is more than just a simple collection of short stories, it is a volume of work that both entertains and challenges its readers, a classic example of an SF collection done well and a brilliant compilation from a master of the field.