Book 52: Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod, isbn 9780312598341, 357 pages, St. Martin's Griffin, $14.99
This is the fourth P.N. Elrod-edited urban fantasy anthology I've picked up. Honestly, the deciding factor to purchase each lay in the fact that each includes a story / novella of The Dresden Files written by Jim Butcher. I also have to be honest and say I haven't really finished any of the other anthologies. Over time, I've picked out a story or two to try out but have never really had the urge to read the anthologies cover to cover. I didn't have that urge with this anthology at first, either, but I kept finding first lines / first paragraphs that interested me, and after the third time that happened I decided I needed to just read the whole thing.
I'm glad I did. The contents of any anthology can be described as "hit or miss," but I can say this collection actually had more hits than misses for me. According to the back cover text, the characters in these stories are "the shadow defenders of humanity -- modern-day knights committing the darkest of deeds for all the right reasons." Most of the main characters fit that description well, both in the stories that are part of an already existing larger fictional world and the stories that introduce us to new settings.
As I've already reviewed each story individually on the 365shortstories community on livejournal, I won't retread those thoughts here in any detail. Of the nine stories in this collection, five are definitely part of existing fictional worlds: Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books, Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty" books, Vicki Pettersson's "Sings of the Zodiac" series, and editor P.N. Elrod's Jack Fleming mysteries. I was already very familiar with the Dresden books and have a decent familiarity with the Fleming stories; the other three were new to me. Of those, I thought Ilona Andrews and Carrie Vaughn did the best at making a new reader feel comfortable. Pettersson's story was interesting (especially in terms of the question "what makes us human?") but I felt like I was being penalized for not having read the novels -- too much of Pettersson's story seemed to rely on knowing exactly where in the novel series the characters were, while Andrews and Vaughn gave me enough world and character background to enjoy the story as a stand-alone piece. As for the two worlds with which I was already familiar, I'm probably not in a good position to judge whether the Dresden story (which does not feature Harry Dresden himself, but rather gangster "Gentleman" John Marcone) is easily accessible without knowledge of the novels. I think it is, but readers new to Dresden can judge better than I. The Fleming story, as with the others I've read, is a decent little mystery, serviceable towards the anthology's theme, and I think ultimately accessible to new readers; Elrod gives you everything you need to know about Jack to get you through the story.
The remaining four stories in the anthology appear to be truly stand-alone tales. Shannon K. Butcher's "The Beacon" reads like an introduction to a series. I have no idea if she plans to continue with the Ryder Ward character, but I think she certainly could and could build up an interesting world around him. Rachel Caine is always a favorite of mine in these anthologies, and this time she gives a tale of dragon-hunting in the modern day that is both funny and heart-breaking. The Lilith Saintcrow story also felt like it might be an introduction to a new series (or perhaps it is part of something that already exists -- it didn't seem so from the author's notes, though). And the Diedre Knight story felt so complete that I can't imagine where she would go if it was part of a series.