Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins is one of the most interesting SFF short story anthologies I’ve ever read, full of some wonderful authors and some really clever ideas.
Book: Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins edited by Aiki Flinthart
Read before: No
Publication date: 31st January 2021
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge by editor. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence and death, including a surprisingly large amount of child death; demonic possession; gore/body horror.
I was tempted into this anthology by the absolutely star-studded author list – anything with Garth Nix, Mary Robinette Kowal, Sebastien de Castell and Juliet Marillier was definitely going to be on my radar. The editor, Aiki Flinthart, put it together after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the relics, wrecks and ruins of the title allow the stories to explore all kinds of endings, legacies, and remembrance in a way that feels very fitting for a last hurrah. The range of stories within those themes is enormous, ranging from high-tech sci-fi to cosy fantasy to historical-mythological tales to dystopia to contemporary horror. Several of the stories are hard to categorise, and many play with timelines and structure to create something unique. It’s definitely not the kind of book you can go into expecting to love everything, but there should be something here for most SFF fans – plus the sales will help fund The Flinthart Residency for upcoming writers.
The stand out stories for me were, in some parts, as I predicted. Garth Nix’s “A Malediction on the Village” is exactly the kind of slice-of-life fantasy I love, with a young witch sent to investigate a cursed village, bumping into local bureaucracy along the way; I would read books and books about protagonist Mari walking the line between mundanity and magic, if only he would write them! I enjoyed the gentle, book-loving magic of Juliet Marillier’s “Washing the Plaid”, which was so light with its fantasy touches as to be almost invisible, but had an overwhelming sense of comfort and possibility to it. I also thought that Sebastien de Castell’s “Six-String Demon” was a tour-de-force: a horror story about a rock-n-roll exorcism that genuinely frightened me and amused me in equal measure. Mary Robinette Kowal’s “American Changeling” is a clever take on the fae that will be fun for anyone who is about my age and grew up on endless YA fae urban fantasy from Holly Black and Julie Kagawa.
But there were some stories I wasn’t expecting to love – I can’t be called Jasper Fforde’s biggest fan, but I thought his “16 Minutes”, which looks at the novel prison/torture method of locking someone into a tiny section of the past, repeated millions of times until they crack, was a brilliant idea and well-executed. Aiki Flinthart’s “Old Souls” is a heartfelt story – about a woman whose job it is to transfer souls from grandparents to newborns – that would approach the realms of cosy fantasy if it weren’t so heartbreaking. One of my favourites in the whole collection was Alison Goodman’s “Relict (noun): A Widow”, an alternate history story with a fantastically cool heroine and a rollicking adventure plot; this is another story I’d love to see expanded into a novel or series! Marianne de Pierres’ “The Echo of Love” was a very entertaining story of a professor engaged to interview a possibly hostile alien, who falls in love with her; I didn’t understand all of the science at the end but I thought the emotional pull of the story was fab. Finally, I really loved the moody atmosphere of Dirk Flinthart’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, though I didn’t (and still don’t!) have the foggiest idea of what was going on! This is definitely an anthology where the science can get hard fast, and as someone who doesn’t usually do tech- or science-heavy SF, I sometimes had to accept I just wasn’t going to get it – but even in those stories, there was a lot to enjoy.
Stories that didn’t work so well for me were very much due to personal preference. I rarely think that any author can pull off a short story featuring their characters from an established series in an unrelated collection, as it usually requires some level of investment that only those who are already fans will have; so Mark Lawrence’s “Thaw”, which was a Red Sister story, was one I only skimmed, as I dislike the series. Some stories I felt lacked a certain resolution for me; several of them took a turn for the weird with a final twist, almost as if they were trying too hard not to be predictable. Angela Slatter’s “The Names of the Drowned are These” fell slightly flat in the twist for me, though the idea of a cursed, drowned town is a great one; Jan-Andrew Henderson’s “The God Complex” felt like a long build-up to a rather basic punchline, though again, I loved the concept. I was really enjoying the claustrophobic horror of the crashed submarine crew trapped underwater in Lee Murray’s “The Wreck of the Tartarus”, but the final scene completely undercut all of that for me with a real tone shift. Most surprisingly, I was only so-so on Kate Forsyth’s “Morgan of the Fay” – I love her writing and I’ve always adored Arthurian stories, but something about the voice just didn’t click for me. However, as with any anthology, the stories that speak to you are going to be different for everyone.
I’m so glad I took a chance on this anthology. The Garth Nix story is worth its weight in gold, and there are so many wonderful worlds, ideas, and concepts between the covers. This is truly speculative fiction in the grand classic tradition; many of these stories would not be out of place among the tatty yellow-spined anthologies of classic sci fi I adore. If you love stories about possibilities, the power of past and future, and the ultimate speculative question of what it means to be human, this is well worth your time. Four out of five cats.