September 07, 2017

James Wymore et al.: "Borderlands Anthology"

Title: Borderlands Anthology [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: The Actuator (book 1.5 of 4)
Author: James Wymore et al. [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Year: 2014
Age: It's marketed as an adult book, but it can be read by teens, though a few stories are a bit heavy on horror
Stars: 3/5
Pros: Eclectic bunch of stories, covering a wide range of genres and (fictitious) eras. We get a glimpse of how the Change affected some people unaware of the Actuator's existence. But one doesn't necessarily have to be familiar with the series in order to read this collection.
Cons: Not every genre tackled in here can be everybody's cup of tea. The quality (and most of all, originality) spectrum varies from high to less impressive.
Will appeal to: Those who like eclectic short-story collections. Those who want another perspective about the Actuator.

Blurb: When the Actuator breaks the earth into a patchwork of altered realities, the remaining Machine Monks begin looking for the Keys to put it back. In the meantime, everyone in the world has been transformed without knowing why. This collection tells about some of the people struggling to deal with the change. (Amazon excerpt)

Review: First off...DISCLAIMER: I am a semi-regular reviewer of Curiosity Quills titles (like this one), but if you look back at my ratings, this never prevented me from being unbiased. And all the books I received from them were generously sent with no string attached.
Note: Apparently, an earlier version of this book featured a story called Cult of the Actuation instead of Cyber Cowboy (both by James Wymore). Judging from the blurb for the first story, it has been later incorporated into Book 1 of the series, Fractured Earth, providing its new ending. Cyber Cowboy was originally included in the Curiosity Quills anthology Primetime (2013).

WAR OF THE WORLDS

Sort-of-disclaimer: I usually don't read anthologies, unless they 1) contain stories by one of my favourite authors, 2) are part of a series I'm reading (like in this case), or 3) have a unifying theme that calls to me like a siren song (like the excellent Windows into Hell, also by Curiosity Quills Press). The reason why I'm wary of short-story collections is that, most of the time, I don't enjoy them as much as novels. They need to be as homogeneous as possible (which isn't an easy feat), or at least to have a strong common theme. The stories in Borderlands loosely fulfill my second condition in that they all give us a taste of the life right after (or simply after) the Change, that is, after the Actuator (a reality-bending machine) has turned the whole world into a patchwork of different, often plain weird realities. On the other hand, such a premise gives the authors ample freedom when it comes to creating a bunch of worlds at odds with one another, or playing with any genre or trope under the sun. This probably accounts for my having mixed reactions to these stories, since some of them are not my scene, but it's not the only reason. I'll come back to that in a minute, but first off, let me tell you that despite my overall rating, there are a few gems in here. [...]

HIDDEN GEMS

Borderlands features the best horror story I've ever read, because it's masterfully done...but most of all, it manages to have a heart as well - if a broken one. Halfway by Jay Wilburn is nightmarish, poetic and brilliant. It incorporates classic horror tropes (like clowns), but in an original way. At its core, it's the story of a damaged family, where the Actuator is just a catalyst and at the same time a metaphor for the split that tore it apart.
Anna and Lena by Jason Purdy is both poetic and raw. This time the Actuator has built Utopia amidst a world in ruins (the 30-year long aftermath of the Cernobyl disaster), if only the last soviet guard can reach it in time. I have to say I got confused about the Actuator timeline, because apparently, the guard's story stretches for a period of time, but we don't know yet how long the new realities created by the machine are supposed to last, and if all the effects of the Change will ultimately be reversed when (or if) the Actuator itself gets shut down. Great story though, and the prose sucks you in. The author was only 23 when this one was published, which amazed me.
I was already familiar with author Matthew S. Cox via his YA novel Nine Candles of Deepest Black and a story he contributed to the Darkscapes anthology. As usual, he doesn't disappoint. Stolen Orchid is set in a cyberpunked China, and weaves sci-fi (of course), mobsters and a love story. The "ghost" character is surprising and imaginative, and the story as a whole is one of the best fits into the Actuator's world.

THE FINE ART OF PUNCH-PACKING

The good thing is that Borderlands can be read as a standalone - you don't need to be privy to the Actuator's backstory in order to enjoy its contents. On the other hand, without the Actuator premise, some of the tales (especially those where the Change is not openly accounted for) lack a bit of substance, or have a lackluster ending - at least if you're like me and want something you can't easily get out of your head once you've read the last sentence. It seems to me that a few of these stories aren't strong enough or might have been bolder, while others left me with a bunch of questions and the impression that the Actuator had been promoted from a sci-fi device to a magic one (also, the fact that it managed to reach and change the whole world sounds a little...extreme? There were only a bunch of Monks feeding it their fantasies after all...).
This been said, whether you like steampunk, retellings and/or historical novels, Eastern and Viking folklore, hardboiled detective stories (there are TWO of them, which seems a little redundant, but then again, I'm not a fan of the genre) and/or horror, you'll find something to sink your teeth into. And like I said, there are a few brilliant or good stories in here, even if - like me - you aren't a huge fan of anthologies.

For my "Fractured Earth" review (first installment in the series) click here.
For more Adult books click here.

Borderlands old cover.
The new one is nightmarish but symbolic - the Actuator is a monster of many heads...

4 comments:

  1. I do like anthologies, even if they aren't connected, but it's rare I love them because sometimes the stories are wildly different and the poorly written ones stick out. I am intrigued a bit by this one! I'll keep my eyes peeled (but not literally, because that sounds a bit like an actual horror, right?).

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    1. Haha, indeed.
      I would like you to read this collection because, as an experienced horror reader, I wonder what your reaction to Halfway would be. I really really loved that one!

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  2. I both - don't understand this at all...and am intrigued lol

    Anthologies are so hit or miss. Some leave every story hanging in some way so you feel unsatisfied but they can also be a great way to get a taste of an author's writing or a glimpse into a cool new world or some authors give a sidekick type of character a chance to shine.

    For What It's Worth

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    Replies
    1. There are stories hanging in this one, but of course, till the situation with the Actuator is resolved in the rest of the novels, it's expected. These stories only explore a tiny fraction of the Change and its impact on people. Either way, I do like it when things are not spelled out in the end. It's just that I wanted more from a few of these stories. But as you said, one always finds some new author to watch when reading anthologies, and I have my eyes on some after reading this one :).

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