Posted on August 11, 2011 by alanajoli
If you follow Jim Hines’s blog, you know he’s been experimenting with electronically self-publishing short stories, many of which originally appeared in print publications. His first collection, Goblin Tales, did well enough that he’s releasing another group of six tales, Kitemaster and Other Stories, in mid-August. I caught Jim’s note for reviewers and volunteered, and I think this is another strong group of stories, mostly for the lighthearted fantasy crowd. Three of them I’d previously purchased via fictionwise, and have been favorites of mine since the first reading, but three were brand new to me, and I think all are solid stories — even the one that left me with something akin to the willies over a series of puppet deaths. But we’ll get there in a minute.
“Kitemaster” is the title story of the collection and also the opener, a tale in which a young, untrained peasant with a talent for kite magic is captured by rebels and forced, due to threats against her hostage brother, to work against the Imperial army. Nial is a sympathetic heroine, and the setting evokes ancient China without getting too specific — the use of manned kites to fly scouts has a historical basis, but much of the rest of the setting is invented, with only a slight Chinese flavor. The real star of the story is Osa, a spirit kite, who aids Nial in her plans to outwit the general who has captured her, and possibly help save the Emperor.
In “Untrained Melody,” another untrained magic user, Laura, is roped into the beginnings of learning how to be a bard when a dwarf drags her on a mission to undo the magic she’s inadvertently done. The setting this time is a modern one, and Laura is just trying to make ends meet. She also has, as her instrument of choice, an accordion. The plot may be serious on this one, but the trappings are all comedy, and the banter between Laura and the dwarf, Al, sparkles.
Three of my favorite Jim Hines stories follow: “Blade of the Bunny,” a sword and sorcery tale about two thieves outwitting a crooked wizard; “Over the Hill,” which features three granny warriors teaching a young, chainmailed lady guard the ropes of dealing with bandits (against the girl’s own better judgment); and “Spell of the Sparrow,” a sequel to “Blade” in which the daughter of the two thieves helps to undo a lovespell on her father. These stories worked for me on first read and they continue to feel like fantasy to come home to — while the settings are nonspecific, the trappings are easy to recognize. These characters could show up in your D&D game and you’d feel in good company (even if the grannies from “Over the Hill” did have to tug your ear to make sure you were following their lead). In some cases, that flavor detracts from the overall story, but in this case, it’s as though the story is speaking a language the readers already know, so Hines can get right to the meat of his tale. “Blade of the Bunny” has a love story at its heart — it’s about two people who haven’t really realized they’re in love until they’re in the thick of a quest together and have to outwit their employer to win. “Over the Hill” is, in some ways, about the powers that come with age — and a soldier uses every weapon she has available to her. The three elderly leads are fantastic; they’re reminiscent of the witches from Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books, with that same ability to see the truth of things, but with warrior skills in their backgrounds. “Spell of the Sparrow” offers up how stubbornness and a lack of nobility can sometimes be the strengths that make a relationship work — even in the face of evil magic — and how listening to your children really can come in handy.
Up until this point in the collection, all of the stories have similar trapping and similar themes — they’re definitely fantasy, and while there’s humor, they’re not necessarily joke stories. Even “Over the Hill” has characters with real depth and goals, even if they complain about their bodily functions and the effects of prunes. “The Creature in Your Neighborhood” is a departure from the tone of the rest of the collection, and it’s a direct parody of Sesame Street, but in a twisted, alternate reality where a werewolf has infected one of the puppets. The short becomes a horror story told in the structure of a children’s television show, and the result is… bizarre. It’s clear that Hines is a parent himself, and it feels like after watching Sesame Street one too many times, he was ready to get even, or at least subject the characters to horrible suffering. In some moments, it works, and I’d guess that for some readers, it’ll work all the way through. I may still be a bit too fond of the Sesame Street gang to gleefully watch as their counterparts spiral into murder and despair. Had it been in a collection with some of Hines’s other stories (“Nothing but Meat” or “Brainburgers and Bile Shakes: A Love Story,” for example, which feature cannibalism and zombies respectively), I think I’d have read it differently; in the context of the previous stories, it kind of made me want to sing, “Which of these things is not like the others?” (That may say more about me than about the story itself!)
As a bonus conclusion, Hines is offering a sneak peek into his new series, which starts with Libriomancer and is scheduled to release in 2012. If the excerpt is anything to judge by, this is going to be a series well worth following.
Overall, I felt the collection might have benefited from a short introduction about why these pieces were selected for the collection, or just offering a little bit about how the collection came to be, but the very short afterwords for each story filled a lot of that need. It’s a strong collection with several excellent pieces, and at the price Hines has mentioned ($3.99), it’s about 66 cents per story. This is a great entry point into Hines’s work for people who haven’t read his other series; fans of his earlier books won’t be disappointed.
Review by Alana Abbott