Jared Shurin & Anne C. Perry eds. – Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke brings you London as you’ve never seen it before – science fiction and fantasy in the great tradition of Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens lived and breathed London in a way few authors ever have, before or since. In his fiction, his non-fiction, and even his own life, Dickens cast an extraordinary shadow over the city he so loved – so much so, indeed, that his name has become synonymous with a certain image of London. A London of terrible social inequality and matchless belief in the human potential; a London filled with the comic and the repulsive, the industrious and the feckless, the faithful and the faithless, the selfish and the selfless.

This London is at once an historical artifact and a living, breathing creature: the steaming, heaving, weeping, stinking, everlasting Smoke.

Anyone who has followed my blog for any amount of time knows I love London. It’s my favourite city in the world and in my opinion I get to visit it way too seldom. So an anthology of SFF short stories inspired by London was sure to get my attention. Stories of the Smoke, however, is not based on any old London; the inspiration for these stories was the London as seen by way of Charles Dickens. The grimy, sooty, Victorian London, peopled by cold-hearted industrialists and the deserving poor; the London of Oliver, Fagin, Scrooge, Pip, David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorrit and Tiny Tim. All of the tales in this anthology contain the flavour of the Smoke, of pea-soup fog and horse manure, some more literally than others. And all of them contain the spirit of Dickens, whether it is his social activism, his humour, his sense of the darker side of human nature, his keen eye for the details of everyday life or some of the themes of his best-known novels.

As with any theme-based anthology, one of the main questions after finishing the book is whether the anthology achieved what it set out to do, in this case bring together short stories with a fantasy and science fiction slant, inspired by Dickensian London. So how is this question answered for Stories of the Smoke? In my opinion, very favourably; Stories of the Smoke clearly touches upon its theme in all of its stories. This isn’t to say that all of the connections are obvious, some of them are more so than others, but with a little thought the links can be identified in all the stories. I’m a rather indifferent student of Dickens: I’ve read Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations and I took in snippets of Our Mutual Friend and The Old Curiosity Shop while at university, but that’s about as far as my Dickensian knowledge goes. So I was surprised at how much I recognised in these stories as riffs on Dickens stories and it made me curious to read some more of Dickens work and see whether I can identify more. If only there were more hours in the day or I could dispense with the need for sleep! These riffs might be nothing more than a character name or a place important to Dickens, or a plot device – the three spirits past, present and future being a popular one – but it can also be just a quote from a Dickens work or a more thematic link, such as the dreadful living conditions of the poor and their disenfranchisement in Victorian London.

In any story collection, be it an anthology or a collection by a single author, there will be stories that work and stories that don’t work so well. In Stories of the Smoke the stories are all good, though there are some that worked better for me than others. What ties the ones I liked best together is the fact that they either were set in an obviously Dickensian London, such as Glen Mehn’s The Unkindness of Ravens, David Thomas Moore’s An Unburdening of the Soul or Kaaron Warren’s The Pickwick Syndrome, or they contained a clear plot element taken from Dickens, such as Adam Roberts’ Martin Citywit or Jenni van der Merwe’s Londoner. Three stories that I really liked that don’t fit as easily in either category are Sarah Lotz’s Inspector Bucket Investigates, Michelle Goldsmith’s The Hound of Henry Hortinger and James Wallis’ Aye, There’s the Twist. The conceit in Lotz’s story – a Disney-run Dickensian theme park populated by cloned Victorians called Drones, who live in a Truman Show-like reserve, where the affluent come to gawk at Dickens’ stories brought to life – was fantastic and I found the murder mystery for which it formed the setting fun and very cleverly done. Both Goldsmith’s and Wallis’ stories mixed Dickens with another literary great. In Wallis’ case this is quite clear in both plot elements and what the characters themselves put forth. He mixes his Dickens with Shakespeare, specifically Oliver Twist with Macbeth, and the combination is amazing. Using this mix Wallis addresses social injustice and questions if Shakespeare couldn’t speak truth to power and Dickens did exactly that, what should we do and what do we do today? I loved this story and its ending, for me it was one of the best stories in the anthology. Goldsmith’s The Hound of Henry Hortinger gave me not just a Dickensian vibe, but also reminded me of Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles. I adored the distinctly gothic feel of the story, from the creepiness of the dog to the heartlessness of the main character and the tragedy of his daughter’s demise, making it another favourite.

It’s hard to find something to really criticise in this anthology. True, some stories were harder to get into or to connect with, but if the reader (in this case me) put in the energy and thought, there was something worthwhile to find in all of the stories. Funnily enough I enjoyed the SFnal stories as much as I enjoyed the fantasy stories, which I hadn’t expected as fantasy is far more my comfort zone than SF. Shurin and Perry deliver a strong anthology that offers something not just to SFF readers but to Dickens aficionados and London lovers as well. If you fall in any of these categories, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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