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April 23rd, 2009

Books in 2009, #12

#12. The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling


There have been many tricksters throughout the years, and The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (with header illustrations by Charles Vess!) offers up a number of short stories showcasing why these mythical creations of torture and tease are just so fascinating and prominent in a myriad of cultures’ folklores. Some of these are retellings, some are explorations into the already known, and some just barely fit in. A high number of standout stories can be found within the book’s pages, and only a few failed to hold my interest or satisfy—or use the trickster theme to its greatest advantage.

We’ll start with the breadwinners, then.

The anthology opens with “One Odd Shoe” by Pat Murphy, a story within a story about the mystery that is those lone shoes left in the lurch on the side of highways. It’s not a true telling, as our narrator constantly reminds us; actually, for much of it, she wasn’t even there, but she assures us that she knows how it all went down, a notion that warms my imaginative heart. Who doesn’t love a little exaggeration here or there? Basically, a boy too full of himself tries to trick a trickster and ends up with a handful of problems. The trickster in question is Coyote, one that will appear again throughout The Coyote Road, and the soft, somewhat motherly tone to the prose helps make this a pristine example of what’s to come, as well a great starter.

“The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” by Delia Sherman is Southern fantasy with a tenebrous twist. Music is the name of the game, and Cadence is forced to partake in a trickster’s folly straight from her dead mother’s stories. She’ll have to dance to save what’s hers otherwise 'Dres Petitpas will win yet again. What I loved most about this one was its voice and how grounded it felt, despite the werewolves and swamps and magical dancing. Plus, there's French. Gotta love the French.

“Crow Roads” by Charles de Lint is, to sum it up in two small words, urban fantasy. A troublemaker wanders into town, and Annie is immediately drawn towards him. No wonder, as he is certainly more than flesh and bone. Beautiful, too...in that mysterious manner. Unfortunately, not many others feel the same way about it and try to force him out, giving the stranger no other option but to reveal his true powers. So yeah, the speculative element is slight and our many-named stranger isn't exactly a trickster per se, but de Lint writes so well and knows how to make us invest in his characters. Actually, “Crow Roads” doesn’t end like many might guess, all neat and nice and hands rubbed clean, but rather on a note of ambivalence.

“The Constable of Abal” by Kelly Link is a Kelly Link story. Meaning its prose is bewitching, its characters complicated and fully realized, and its world imaginative and dark as the night. Ozma and her mother Zilla are on the move after having murdered the constable of Abal and then keeping his ghost in their grasps. They soon hole up elsewhere, but Ozma is forced to pretend she is a boy (a rather common trope in fiction, genre or not) all while trying to figure everything out. Might possibly be the longest story in The Coyote Road, but it's totally worth flipping the pages.

Rounding out my top five favorites is “The Dreaming Wind” by Jeffrey Ford. The fascinating story is set in a town that once a year experiences the titular event: a windstorm sweeps in and wipes all attempts to display false feelings. Afterwards, all is fine, but the townspeople still view the incoming breeze as something to fear. But one year the Dreaming Wind doesn't show up. As always, Ford is phenomenal and at home in this sort of fiction. He builds a believable world—and then pulls the rug out from everyone's feet come the end.

So, those were what I enjoyed the most. I skipped all the poems (sorry, poets!). Other stories just didn't seem as strong as the above. In “Wagers of Gold Mountain” by Steve Berman, the surprises weren’t really surprising, and it all unfolded rather too neatly for my tastes. “Realer Than You” by Christopher Barzak, while fun, kitsune-filled, and set in Japan, didn’t seem to actually fit the theme of The Coyote Road. “Cat of the World” by Michael Cadnum stood out like a sore thumb in that it really was the only story to try its hand at situational humor.

Still, the greats far outweigh the lesser inclusions, and The Coyote Road offers a wide variety of stories on the idea of tricksters and trickster magic. The content ranges from YA appropriate to stuff for adults, but really—there's something for everyone here, whether you dig the urban stuff (Charles de Lint), a rousing romp (Will Shetterly), the modern tale (Ellen Klages), or a thoughtful piece to really invest your heart into (Kelly Link). It's definitely more of a “pick and choose” anthology, as I found myself growing slowly tired of the whole trickster theme as I read it from front to end, but overall enjoyed the anthology very much.

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