Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins, Aiki Flinthart, ed. (Cat Press 978-0-648-99173-1, $29.99, 460pp) January 2021.
On her website, novelist and editor Aiki Flinthart tells us that “after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2019, [she] reached out to as many of the best sci-fi/fantasy/horror authors as would answer.” The end product of this clarion call is Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins, an anthology that, despite the tragic circumstances surrounding its origins, compiles 24 eclectic and wildly entertaining stories (including five reprints) from a mix of new(ish) and familiar names including Garth Nix, Alison Goodman, Cat Sparks, James S.A. Corey, Kylie Chan, Jasper Fforde, and Neil Gaiman.
The anthology opens with Juliet Marillier’s “Washing the Plaid”, a beautiful and delicate tale about the friendship sparked between a young girl, Rachel, who dreams of being a writer and Mrs. Mac, the “old lady” and possible witch who moves into the neighbourhood. There’s a mythic quality to the story, embodied in the dilapidated house that Mrs. Mac purchases (“old and crumbly and falling apart”) and Mrs. Mac’s interest in the Cailleach, which influences Rachel’s own nascent attempts at story-telling. Marillier’s appreciation of folklore and the passing of the torch between one generation to the next are cleverly inverted in the final piece of the anthology, Aiki’s very own “Old Souls”. Her story is set in the distant future where only babies with souls – passed on by a dying relative – are allowed to live. In contrast to the positive, mentor relationship between Mrs. Mac and Rachel, Jena, the young Soul-Breaker at the centre of “Old Souls”, repudiates her teacher’s pedagogy. These two stories alone would make an excellent duology, but in between “Washing the Plaid” and “Old Souls” are 22 other tales that, in covering all the genre bases, echo the same themes about legacy, about deep history, about the mythologies that inform our diverse identities. We see it in Angela Slatter’s deeply disturbing “The Name of the Drowned Are These” involving a sunken village and the blood (and magic) that binds multiple generations to a single place; and Ken Liu’s evocative and melancholy “Cosmic Spring” (originally published in Lightspeed in 2018) about a self-aware island ship, floating through the reaches of space, witnessing the final sputters of the Universe; and in Kylie Chan’s achingly tragic “Geisha Boy”, where a clone soldier – the remnants of a war fought and won – has flashbacks of a past that is not her own.
As much as the themes rebound and resonate across the anthology, what I found so remarkable about Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins is the joy of jumping from genre to genre, from rubbery science fiction to high fantasy to balls-to-the-wall horror. There’s Jan-Andrew Henderson’s ingenious “The God Complex”, which uses the observer effect and quantum computing to tell a story about subjectivity, empathy, and the Holy Grail; there’s the delightful deus ex machina at the climax of Lee Murray’s “The Wreck of the Tartarus” injecting a dollop of the fantastic in what’s otherwise a hard-knuckle story of a sunken submarine; and there’s Kate Forsyth gorgeous, “Morgan of the Fay”, which describes the titular character’s first encounter with Arthur and her animosity toward him. The diverse story-telling continues with the worldbuilding and frantic drama of Alison Goodman’s “Relict: (noun) A widow; a thing remaining from the past” set in a parallel 19th-century England where aliens have crash-landed, and the elite have access to their technology. This piece sits alongside the gritty, Australian dystopia of Cat Sparks’s “Dreams of Hercules” with its gut-punch ending; the mordant humour of Marianne de Pierres’s far-flung, space opera “The Echo of Love”; and Pamela Jeff’s heart-rending and evocative “In Opposition to the Foe”, where aliens hunt and experiment on humans, particularly children. And that’s to say nothing of Jasper Fforde’s brilliantly cruel and twisted “16 Minutes” where, Groundhog Day-style, people are imprisoned in a repeating time loop for the duration of their sentence.
As good as the above pieces are, three stories knocked my socks off. In Jack Dann’s outstanding “The Mirror in the Mirror”, an octogenarian couple sees a reflection of their younger selves in the bathroom mirror and are presented with the opportunity to relive the last five decades. Told in a wry, knowing tone, with Dann intruding here and there into the narrative, the story is a poignant meditation on old age, on the road not taken, on the choices we regret and those we don’t. Despite its post-apocalyptic setting, Dirk Flinthart’s incredible “Heartbreak Hotel”, like “The Mirror in the Mirror”, is a story with an eye to the past. A rag-tag militia, desperate for a power source, converges on a hotel where a hologrammatic Elvis, along with Frank, Marilyn, Johnny Cash, and an assortment of stars, hold court. “Heartbreak Hotel” is pure, unabashed entertainment, with Flinthart doing a fabulous job in depicting both the end of the world, but particularly the lively and famous, albeit very much dead, residents of a Vegas hotel. And finally, there’s Sebastien de Castell’s sublime “Six String Demon” where Jen, desperate for cash, reluctantly subs in to play the guitar for a house-gig, unaware that she’s about to take part in a rock-and-roll exorcism. De Castell’s tale of demonic possession, which wouldn’t feel out of place in Jeff Glebb’s foundational anthology Shock Rock, is elevated by the vivid, sweaty, transcendent descriptions of Jen, wielding her Rickenbacker, as she fights for her sanity and the soul of a young boy against the forces of darkness.
In her short introduction, Aiki hopes that, as her last anthology, Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins “will bring to your attention, dear reader, several new authors as well as let you relax with several old friends.” She need not hope. The anthology achieves all that and much more.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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