Jeff VanderMeer's Leviathan series of anthologies is one of the most remarkable such series going (though VanderMeer's taking a break from editorial duties this time around, leaving them to Forrest Aguirre). The first volume was subtitled Into the Gray, and had stories ranging from "mainstream" to "genre." The second focussed on novellas rather than stories. The third gigantic volume, in addition to winning at least one WFA, also has one of the longest subtitles on my bookshelf: Libri quosdam ad sciéntiam, álios ad insaniam deduxére. This fouth, Cities, has an obvious enough theme, and while it's not as good as some of the previous entries, it's not bad, either.
The first thing you note when you pick up the book is its hideously gorgeous cover. Though the cover art is credited to Myrtle Vondamitz III, the only writing I could find on the cover, in the very lower right corner, was, oddly enough, in Hebrew. Simcha, a name meaning "happiness." Already I was intrigued.
Looking past the cover, I noted that there was no introduction, which was too bad. I like introductions to anthologies, or at least frame stories. Some sort of overview of what I'm about to get into. Oh, well.
Having read the stories, I guess my taste in fiction is closer to VanderMeer's than to Aguirre's, because I've more consistently enjoyed the stories in the other volumes than here. Here, some of the stories were excellent, some weren't really stories at all but experimental fiction psuedo-story type things, some I didn't understand, and at least one simply left me cold.
"The City of God" by Michael Cisco is a very surreal, dreamlike story. If you've ever read any of Cisco's novels, you'll know that he can be a very pleasantly difficult writer. The problem I have with his writing on occasion is that I can't always tell whether he's bending grammatical rules for effect, or if a particular sentence is just sloppy. Either way, this is a story without much substance or plot, but a whole lot of language and city-ness.
"The Dreaming City" by Ben Peek is almost a great story. A story of Mark Twain dreaming in Sydney Harbour's dream, it's a wonderful Australian story that had me wondering just how much of it had actually happened, and left me wanting more than ever to visit Australia. The reason the story doesn't quite achieve greatness is that, as one of its characters once said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug," and it seems that in this story there were a lot of almost right words, keeping sentences that should have been fantastic merely workmanlike. Still, a highly recommended story.
"The Soul Bottles" by Jay Lake may be the best story in this collection and is, along with "The Dreaming City," the most straightforward.
"Encyclopedia of Ubar" by Catherine Kasper is not a story at all, although it feels like it could fit into one somehow. Despite a couple of interesting images near the end, it really did nothing for me.
Star Wars fans should recognize the name of the writer of "Mimosa in Heligola," Allan Kausch. "Editorial note: This tale was composed using an obsessive collage technique. Each word was cut out, pondered, abandoned, rescued, positioned, repositioned and then finally glued down. Conventional punctuation would only slow it down and make it boring." An intriguing, very readable story of the seemingly self-writing variety, this was another worthy entry.
"We the Enclosed" by KJ Bishop is my favorite story in the anthology. Kirsten Bishop is one of the most exciting new writers out there; I liken her to Matt Stover in that I've yet to read anything by her that I haven't enjoyed tremendously. Even when I don't immediately "get" what she's writing, I love the way she writes it, though this story I get. It's funny and a bit sad and hopeful and a pleasure to read.
"The Revenge of the Calico Cat" is another gem by extraordinarily underknown writer Stepan Chapman. Set in Raggedy Ann and Andyland, though its stuffed-animal characters don't know that, it's tragic, bleak, hilarious and quite unlike anything I've read before.
"The City of Lost Languages" by Darla Beasley started off on the wrong foot, but then proceeded to break my heart before ending with a not-so-good poem.
"The Wizard of Wardenclyffe" by Ursula Pflug left me cold. This surprised me, as in some other reviews I read it's touted as the best story here, but hey, de gustibus non est disputandum. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever particularly cared for an Ursula Pflug story. The last one I read, Album Zutique's "Python," didn't do it for me either.
The final story in this volume, "The Imaginary Anatomy of a Horse," is a fun story-within-a-story-within-a-story-etc sort of story that works well enough. Call me Ishmael.
In the end, this anthology had a fair number of good stories, but they didn't come together as more than the sum of their parts as the best anthologies will. Chances are, if you're thinking of picking this book up, you'll already know if you like the kind of stuff you find in it -- and you'll still find something new, different, and exciting. But it's not the best of its type, and if you haven't already, I recommend picking up Leviathan 3 instead.