Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers (editors), Little Red Riding Hood in the Big Bad City (2004, DAW)
Imagine this situation. You are a female peasant in the Middle Ages. Your husband's a farmer. You have seven children. Seven children who don't feel like behaving, helping with the endless chores, eating all of their vegetables, or going to bed on time. Doctor Spock hasn't been born yet, with all of his pointy-eared Vulcan parenting wisdom. On the other hand, child-beating isn't exactly a crime, but your chances of marrying your daughters off will decrease quite a bit if you leave them with permanent scars. What's a medieval mother to do? Why, tell your little brats a fairy tale or two. If you aren't polite to strangers and old ladies, you'll end up chopping off a hand with your axe. If you go into the woods alone, you'll be eaten by a wolf. Gingerbread is very, very bad for you and is not a very good building tool, so you should stick to broccoli and onions instead.
In this day and age, however, the fairy tales have lost a bit of their lustre. While they are no longer used to scare children into cleaning their rooms, they've also lost their relevance as well. Yes, yes, Beauty married the Beast and turned him back into a handsome prince, but marrying a prince no longer guarantees a happy marriage or a happy ending. Sure, wolves sound scary, but they've got nothing on Al-Qaeda or the Chechnya terrorists. This anthology, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, helps to prove that the fairy tale is not yet dead, that the essential morals behind the stories of princesses and frogs and peas are still important in today's age of technology.
I find I can review this anthology better if I divide the seventeen submissions into categories. The type of story I was most expecting was the re-invention of a well-known fairy-tale into a modern setting. Among these, one of my personal favourites was "Jack and the B.S." by Tanya Huff, where thrash-metal guitarist Jack must sell his "cow" (a beloved leather jacket) to buy food for his starving band and ends up with a handful of magic guitar picks instead. Another was "The Nightingale" by Dena Bain Taylor, a futuristic piece where the crimelord Emperor of Chinatown sees the chance to control a chunk of the music industry when he hears the beautiful voice of a street nurse from the speakers in his limousine. However, she isn't nearly as pretty as her voice is, so his executives copy her voice onto a biogenetic android, but it just isn't the same. The last gem in this category is "If You Only Knew My Name" by David Niall Wilson, where a woman lies on her resume in order to get hired by a computer programming company, and gets more work than she can handle. She's finally able to spin straw into gold by clicking on the "help" button and confronting the Brothers Grimm equivalent of Windows' Helpful Paper Clip.
Into the second category fall original stories that are about, or are influenced by popular fairy tale characters. "The Rose Garden" was a surprisingly good yarn by Michelle West (an author I usually despise), where the passage of several unsuccessful centuries forces the cursed Beast (who has gradually returned to more-or-less human form without, but not within) to move to the suburbs in the hopes of breaking the spell. In the end, love does set him free, but in a decidedly original, tender, and heartfelt way. "Trading Fours with the Moldy Figs" by Jean Rabe has Bigbad Wolf join a blues quintet made up of wolves from various Grimm tales ("Little Red Riding Hood", "The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids", etc.), in order to escape justice after he kills three little pigs, and I don't mean the bacon kind. Lastly, in "After The Flowering" by Janet Berliner, a desolate old man comes to terms with the loss of his wife to cancer, as he treasures the long, golden braid of his "Rapunzel", which was cut off during chemotherapy.
The third, and smallest category is of new stories that follow a fairy-tale theme, but have nothing to do with Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault. The majority of the entries in this category are sadly mediocre, like the lacklustre "Mallificent" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, which is about a girl who has to rescue her brother from the mall and its cloying, hypnotic spell of materialism and greed. "Signs are Hazy; Try Again Later" by Fiona Patton lives up to its title: I could barely understand it. I seem to recall a haphazard plot about three members of psychic families who pick up an eerily accurate magic-eight ball in the shape of a Chihuahua, and try to win an SUV. I might have to read that one again. The only decent entry is "Exterminary" by Patricia Lee Macomber, a gentle tale about a pair of loving brothers who are rescued from their abusive father by a swarm of sympathetic fairies.
Even with such a diverse collection, several themes were used and re-used prominently throughout. Music is a common one, from the heavy-metal in "Jack and the B.S." to the blues of New Orleans in "Trading Fours with the Moldy Figs" to the sweetness of one perfect voice in "The Nightingale". Music plays such a prominent part in such a large number of the stories that the anthology could have inspired one hell of a soundtrack CD. True love, of course, is also present, as well as the concept of just desserts, both themes that are integral to the structure of a good fairy-tale. That's one of the reasons I enjoy them so much, because in the fairy-tale world the bad guys are punished, rights are eventually wronged, and the good people come through in the end.
In this day and age, reading about how the wicked old witch was defeated by the handsome prince and the resourceful princess just doesn't cut it anymore. With all of the bloody headlines splattered across the front pages of newspapers, it is sometimes very hard to convince oneself that magic and happy endings do exist. The best of these stories, regardless of whether they take place in the robotic future or the frantic pace of now, manage to keep a handful of the magic and wonder that the original tales held, and mingle them flawlessly into the fabric of our own times. The aura of the fantastic continues to reside in this tales, but now there is a connection, some facet of the plot that we share. None of us have encountered talking frogs or enchanted princes or boys who could fly (well, not outside of our Green Man offices), but most of us have had to deal with pushy clients, computer viruses, and bills we can't pay. While this book isn't entirely perfect, the majority of the entries do succeed in demonstrating that magic doesn't only belong to plucky apprentices and damsels in distress.