Thematic Shared-world anthologies used to be, once upon a time, all the rage, and one of my favorite forms of genre reading. Wild Cards, Thieves World, Heroes in Hell, Forever After, Time Gate, the Man-Kzin Wars…at one point, I couldn’t scan a shelf in a bookstore without running into one I had not seen or read before.Thematic Shared World anthologies are original short story collections put together by an editor and authors, creating a whole and complete world, be it a fantasy kingdom or a space empire. The participants work together to bounce ideas and concepts off of each other, the stories crafted to reference and allude to each other, and ultimately forming a suite of stories that has a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Nowadays, such theme shared-world anthologies are far less common, despite the profusion of channels such as ebooks to act as new delivery systems for them. There are many original short story anthologies to be had these days, ranging from collections of sword and sorcery to Hard SF solar system space opera. And while these stories might share a style, or an idea, or a subgenre, the stories do not talk and inform each other. They are often set in worlds of the authors previous novels and stories, rather than in a single world and universe.
The true themed shared-world anthology is not so common. They are indeed rare birds, rara avis. So, the opportunity to dip into a new world built by an editor and selection of authors both familiar and new to me gets me excited when one finally rears its head.
Enter Walk the Fire, a theme/shared world anthology edited by John Mierau.
In Walk the Fire, Mierau has created a universe where a group of talented individuals, called Ferrymen, have the ability to span time and space by stepping into specially prepared fires. In addition, they can bring the desperate, the needy and the adventurous with them. And sometimes there is a high price to be paid for such a service. A high price indeed.
Walk the Fire consists of nine stories:
In the collection naming opening story by John Mierau himself, Walk the Fire introduces the concept of Walking the Flames, as a quest brings a group of pre-Columbian Mayans far from the world they knew.
Nathan Lowell’s Flame in the Night tells a variation on the Fountain of Youth story, as a conquistador-turned-slave learns about the secrets of the Flame in Florida.
From Fire, Bring Ice, by Patrick McLean, the Diogenes Club in London is the setting of the recounting of a tale by a British explorer who discovers that knowledge of the Flame is not limited to the New World by any means, and has been a tightly held secret for a long time indeed.
Lighter, by Brand Gamblin, we switch from the fantastic to a more SF dystopian, as a former Ferryman, perhaps the last one, comes face to face with a would be Dictator.
Jason Andrew Bond’s story, Embers, brings us inside the mind of a man who has a burning need to traverse the Flame, no matter the cost, and no matter that he has no Ferryman to guide him.
From J Daniel Sawyer, The Faithful May Also Be Burned, in short form, tells of how, with the aid of the Flame, an utopia was made, and then lost, and those who struggle against the world they have made.
Three Boxes, by Jake Bible, is a tragic and metaphorical story of a man who moves heaven and earth to distill his desires into three fateful boxes.
Aborted Love with Chaos Motor at Lucky Pierre’s by Matthew Sanborn Smith, is a fun and rollicking tale of a group of young revolutionaries who use the Flame for less than salutary purposes, and is my favorite of lot.
And in Remember your Fangs, the anchor story of the collection by Edward Robertson, a Ferryman acts as a conveyor through the Flame of unusual cargo. Cargo not at all pleased by her choice of profession when given the chance to protest.
The stories are by turns entertaining, touching, and well written. And best of all, the stories hang together, inform each other and together form a whole. Plaudits to Mierau for gathering an interesting set of authors and stories and bringing back the idea of a themed shared world anthology to a new set of readers.