Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 3 1/2 pints of blood
The entire premise of the anthology is to explore what it means to be human by allowing a variety of... uh, non-humans and entities to be human for one day. How does being human differ from being anything else? What sets us apart, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? This is the sort of premise that draws me in like whoa, and it doesn't hurt that a few authors I love have contributed to the anthology, as well as a couple that I've been meaning to try out.
Since there are 16 stories in here and they're all very different, allow me to give you a very brief rundown of each of them. Let's see if I can capture them in a line or two, and after we're done that, I'll give a few thoughts on how the stories hold together as an anthology.
The Mainspring Of His Heart, The Shackles Of His Soul by Ian Tregillis
As a golem, Jax has no choice but to follow the orders he's given, no matter what they are. He's willing to do just about anything to become human and own his own soul, but it's a difficult and risky process. It's a strong opening for the anthology, and in a short space manages to explore both the best and worst parts of humanity and creates a memorable character in Jax.
The Blade Of His Plow by Jay Lake
Immortal soldier Longinus has seen more wars than anyone else on the planet and over and over again has watched everyone around him die in nearly every way conceivable until an unexpected stranger comes with a very welcome but not entirely believable offer. Most of this story is told in short flashes, pieces from Longinus's many lives and his part in the many, many wars loosely woven together. Partially because of the disconnected storytelling and partially because of Longinus's (necessary) apathy towards everyone and everything around him, I found that while there are some interesting ideas here, there wasn't much else here to keep me involved and the whole thing ultimately wound up as forgettable as the names of the soldiers Longinus served with.
Cinderella City by Seanan McGuire
When the city of San Francisco finds herself inexplicably in human form, it's bartender/alchemist Mina Norton who comes to find her and figure out what's happened so the city can be returned to her natural state. There seems to be another alchemist involved, though, someone whose ambition means they'll fight to keep things unbalanced until they get what they want, no matter what the cost is to the people caught in the way. As always, McGuire's writing is something to suck a reader in and hook tightly. This isn't her first story about Mina Norton, and I'm thinking I might have to take a look around and see if I can find the others.
Tumulus by Anton Strout
A desperate young woman tries to secure a boon from the long-dead Mongfhionn, who is returned to life one night every hundred years. Mongfhionn has her own agenda, though, and things don't go exactly as planned. This is one of those stories that reveals just a little at a time, providing not quite a twist but more of a shift in perception as you keep reading and discovering more details. Really enjoyed this one.
The Sentry by Fiona Patton
Death comes searching for the last soldier of the great war, and picks an unusual form in which to do so. A story with two characters whose lives focus on the past much more than the present is an unusual beast, but appropriate in this case. It could have taken a morbid turn, but instead becomes a story about courage and love.
Ten Thousand Cold Nights by Erik Scott de Bie
The Bloodsword hungers. All the blood in the world can't sate it, as he searches for his eternal rival, the Soulsword. When the two finally meet for their final encounter, the result isn't one anyone would have expected.
Mortality by Dylan Birtolo
An angel is to live as a mortal for twenty-four hours to test him, and finds that not only resisting temptation but keeping faith in everything he's ever believed is more of a challenge than he would have thought. More than the others, this one has an agenda, a view of mortality and morality presented by the characters as fact instead of just as a possibility or one side of the story.
The Dog-Catcher's Song by Tanith Lee
When a man finds a dog at the side of the road, he decides to return it to his owner, but winds up hearing a rather extraordinary story about the dog instead. I feel like I'm being coy with the short summary on this one, but when it comes to short stories there's a very fine line between giving an idea of what the story is about and giving away the entire plot. Suffice it to say the narrator finds he has more in common with the dog than he would have thought possible, and at its heart, this is a story about the nature of love.
Mortal Mix-Up by Laura Resnick
A vampire wakes up in the body of a human teenage girl after the results of a spell go awry. What makes this one stand out is the immediate "EW NO!" reaction of the vampire once she realizes she has to deal with mortal things like hygiene. It's not as introspective as some of the others, and the conflict isn't really a direct one, since the narrator has no power over her situation or the resolution.
Band of Bronze by Jean Rabe
A handful of statues from Central Park are given life for one day and use the time to protect their territory from "undesirables." This one took some risks, portraying well-known characters like the Mad Hatter or William Shakespeare using brute force to discourage drug dealers and others from conducting their dealings in the park. The premise was a fun one, but the story had such a narrow and violent focus it ultimately fell flat for me.
Zombie Interrupted by Tim Waggoner
To escape a swarm of carrion eaters, zombie PI Matthew Richter uses an enchanted coin to turn himself into a human for a short time. His plans for his one day of flesh are interrupted, however, when a demon comes looking for him. This takes place in Waggoner's Nekropolis series, but stands alone pretty well for new readers. It's strongly urban fantasy, and the fun part is watching Richter deal with the sudden disadvantage of a mortal body in an area largely populated by supernaturals.
Beneath The Silent Bell, The Autumn Sky Turns To Spring by Eugie Foster
When the wealthy Alan Brandt comes across the bell at the Dojoji temple, he knows immediately he must buy it at any price. When he speaks with the head priest about the possibility, he is told the story of the bell and discovers the reason he was drawn to it in the first place. This one is very different from the others in the anthology, in part due to the setting, but also because it's the only one that really plays with the fate and wheel of life aspects. I did wish the big tragic story was due to something more than a Big Misunderstanding, though.
The Very Next Day by Jody Lynn Nye
After a letter to a little girl named Virginia is published in the newspaper, the rekindled belief of the usually cynical New York citizens brings Santa to life out of season, but he'll only remain in existence as long as he can keep people believing in him. I very much liked the idea of a Santa Claus who is not only brought to life by peoples' beliefs, but is aware of the fact and is willing to do what he can to ensure people keep their faith, because he wants to live, and not only for one day a year. I also liked the exploration on the nature of faith and how it changes as people grow older.
The Destroyer by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A feral cat is offered a chance to become any animal he wants for twenty-four hours, after which point he'll have to decide if he wants to stay in this new life or return to his own. A warning on this one: our feral cat hero comes across a mean-spirited man who abuses animals, and while a point is made of him getting his comeuppance for it, some parts still may be upsetting to readers.
Into The Nth Dimension by David D Levine
Superhero Phyto-Man and his sidekick Sprout are sent into a strange new dimension by their nemesis, Dr Diabolus. This new dimension is more complicated than Phyto-Man could ever have imagined, but there's a wonderful freedom about it, too, and he'll have to decide if he wants to stay in this world or return to where he came from to finish the battle with Dr Diabolus. When I first read this, I thought Phyto-Man might be an established character from a larger universe Levine wrote, because it had that feeling of deeper undercurrents than I was really getting, but in retrospect I think that's a purposeful part of the writing, and as far as I can tell Phyto-Man doesn't appear anywhere else. He is meant to be a typical comic book superhero, larger than life, with the long and complex backstory of any character written by Marvel or DC, and I think this was a really fun choice, with a great revelation/twist near the end.
Epilogue by Jim C Hines
A young woman trapped alone for days in a mine begins reading some of her late father's books on her cell phone in an effort to distract herself from her own impending doom. It's almost like having him right there with her... I'm not sure if this bittersweet story was chosen to end the anthology because of the title or because of the reflective nature of the story itself, but either way it fits nicely into its role. It's also an interesting look at the life and priorities of a writer from a loved one who never truly understood the importance of these fictional worlds and characters, an unusual choice for obvious reasons.
So having taken a look at each of the stories individually, how does this hold together as an anthology? Pretty well, actually. Some are stronger than others, but on the whole, there's a lot of fodder for thought and some fun to be had, and while unrelated, a lot of the stories expand on ideas that were just touched on somewhere else. Anthologies are usually a mixed bag, but this one is better than most.
Human For A Day is available in mass market paperback or as an e-book.