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Take No Prisoners Reviews

Bibliophile Stalker
March 17, 2008
by Charles Tan

Being a relatively "new" (I started reading fantasy in 1995--that still makes me young, right?) reader to the SF&F genre, I must admit that I have never heard of John Grant before and my only experience with him was through a recent story (which I quite enjoyed) in Datlow's latest horror anthology, Inferno. Take No Prisoners was more or less blind reading on my part and if I have any regrets with regards to the book, it's that I didn't discover it sooner. Grant is an excellent writer and it is evident in this collection that his greatest talent is his ability to inject character and humanity into his stories whether it's fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or anything in between. My only complaint with his writing is that at times, the ending is bombarded with information, sort of the reverse exposition. Nonetheless, they are perhaps necessary elements in conveying Grant's ideas, especially when it comes to explaining the science fiction stories. Here's my top three: "Wooden Horse" is the first story and it simply blew me away (and is a great choice when it comes to picking the first story in a collection). It starts out mundanely enough but even then, Grant already ensnares the reader with his well-crafted prose and characterization. However, as it slowly unfolds, this is undeniably a speculative fiction story and while it suffers from the previously-mentioned post-story exposition, this is nonetheless a great read. "A Lean and Hungry Look", on the other hand, showcases Grant's versatility and one gets to enjoy an unconventional murder mystery. The tone at least is very different from his other stories and shows Grant's versatility. My last choice is "Imogen", a compelling story about memory and tragedy. If you want to read well-written stories, you can't go wrong with Take No Prisoners as it tackles a wide array of subject matter and genres. And as I said before, Grant focuses on the humanity of his subjects giving each story a strong emotional resonance.


Take No Prisoners
by John Grant - $13.95
Willowgate Press

Over the years, science fiction and fantasy have developed an undeserved reputation as the ugly stepsisters of so-called "literary fiction". Neglected by critics, disdained by academics, and largely considered little more than juvenile escapism by the majority of mainstream culture, the two genres have existed in a kind of literary limbo, despite the fact that both science fiction and fantasy have produced novels with depth, substance and ingenuity that rival even the greatest works of the western literary canon. And yet, every so often there comes along an author who is able to bridge the gap between literary elitism and the world of speculative fiction. John Grant is one such author; his work filled with an equal measure of substance and imagination. For those unfamiliar with Grant, he has earned an impressive number of accolades over the years, including two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, a Locus Award, and about a dozen other notable prizes.

Take No Prisoners is the first collection containing many of Grant's shorter works, and is filled with Grant's lavish prose and abundance of creativity. Perhaps the most enjoyable element of Take No Prisoners is that the work contains familiar elements of speculative fiction even as it seems to operate within its own strange continuum. The end result is a weird and entertaining fusion of literature, horror, science fiction and fantasy, similar in tone and nature to the work of China Miéville or Michael Swanwick. It is almost impossible to predict how each of Grant's stories will end, or indeed in some cases to even label the work within the confines of one particular genre. In all cases though, patient and thoughtful readers will be entertained by Grant's ability to play on readers expectations and develop tales with rich characters, vivid settings and innovative style.

Perhaps one of the more entertaining selections is "The Glad Who Sang a Mermaid in from the Probability Sea", a brilliant hybrid of science and magic set in the detailed universe of "the World" (one of Grant's many reoccurring settings). Recounting the story of the Finefolk (a kind of Elven race capable of magic) and their enslavement at the hands of the Ironfolk (presumably humanity), the story is a rich tapestry of complex characters and setting that becomes remarkably clear in only a short period of time. In the hands of a lesser writer, the work would simply devolve into a convoluted and overly confusing tale, but with Grant's keen eye for detail and economy of language the story is a brilliant and beautiful tale of love, loss and redemption.

Similarly, "The Wooden Horse" is yet another entertaining selection; a classic example of an alternate reality tale written with a subtlety and care that is rarely seen in science fiction. Recounting the narrators love of the cinema (and in particular of old World War II movies), the element of the fantastic seems to come out of nowhere and the character and narrative are so well developed it is genuinely surprising when the reader is suddenly confronted with elements of the bizarre and surreal.

Where Grant truly shines however, is in his range and flexibility. He alternates between genres with ease, and it is rare to see an author with the capability to work within multiple areas with such skill and clarity. For example "A Lean and Hungry Look", offers an hilarious look at the world of amateur theatre with a touch of the fantastic, even as "The Dead Monkey Puzzle" tells a horrifying tale of rape and torture with a grizzly supernatural ending. Grant also explores the philosophical nature of humanity itself in "The Machine It Was That Cried," a tale of space exploration and the hidden cost it may have on our entire species.

In all instances however, Grant writes with both subtlety and style. Readers hoping for a quick fix of mindless action or a formulaic narrative would do well to look elsewhere, but those with patience and dedication will be well rewarded by Take No Prisoners. Perhaps the only down side of the book is that Grant does indeed adopt many of the mannerism found in British SF, which can occasionally be unpalatable for North American readers unfamiliar with the style. That being said such a complaint is minor compared to the rich variety of work Take No Prisoners has to offer. There is literally something for everyone here, with a selection from almost every genre; from fantasy to horror, to traditional hard SF and space opera.

Ultimately, Take No Prisoners is well worth picking up. Collections are a difficult prospect at the best of times and tend to be fairly hit or miss, and yet almost every story in the fifteen collected works of Take No Prisoners is an enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening read. Furthermore the work is written with such skill that is can easily be enjoyed by those who normally look down their noses at works filled with starships and sorcery. In this sense, Take No Prisoners is more than just a simple collection of short stories, it is a volume of work that both entertains and challenges its readers, a classic example of an SF collection done well and a brilliant compilation from a master of the field.


Take No Prisoners by John Grant
(Willowgate Press, $13.95, 248 pages, trade paperback; August 2004.)

I never had thought this would be the case, but I've started to enjoy a good short story collection. That may be a result of my growth as a reader, writer and human being (of course, that would be giving myself 'way too much credit). More likely, it is a result of higher-quality collections being published. Check out Live Without A Net to see what I mean. Or you could simply turn to John Grant's latest collection, Take No Prisoners.

Now, before I continue, let me make my disclaimer. John Grant (a.k.a. Paul Barnett) is one of the editors here at infinity plus. He is also a friend and is married to my agent.

So, to the meat of the matter: Take No Prisoners collects fifteen short stories, most of which have appeared in print before. They are widely varied, following no central theme or purpose, and instead offer a "something for everyone" approach. There are alternate histories, mysteries, character stories, crime stories, humour, you name it. The feather in Grant's cap is that he pulls them off with such flair and ease it leaves the reader wanting more.

Two tales in particular struck me as noteworthy. The opening story, "Wooden Horse" (available elsewhere at infinity plus), is a sort of alternate-history tale in which the changed historical events act as a full backdrop to the main character's plight. Grant avoids the trap of dwelling on how this change or that change would be brought about, but rather develops a strong character with a strong story. Having just recently reviewed Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna and now considering "Wooden Horse", I'm beginning to think that the short story is the perfect form in which to explore alternate history. It certainly works for Grant. As with many of the tales in this collection, this alternate history crosses genres, adding elements of fantasy into the mix.

"The Dead Monkey Puzzle" also crosses genres -- this time blending a horrific crime story (a disturbing rape described mostly through the rapists' dialogue) with a fantasy world of dragons and heroes and such. The blending of genres is so well done that part of the reading experience is wondering whether the fantasy is happening or not. In this story, for example, the fantasy elements may be nothing more than trauma-induced escapism -- denial of the main character's torment.

There are other stories worth pointing out, but in the end all are good. Grant takes artistic chances in these short stories and sometimes those chances undermine the tale, but always the strength of his writing prevails, giving the reader a worthwhile experience.

So, what about the bad side of things? What about the fair and balanced approach? Well ... I really don't have much bad to say. It would have been nice if he had mentioned me on his Acknowledgements page (though I had nothing to do with this collection and did not deserve such an acknowledgement), but that's about all. Other times I've reviewed his books, I usually had some constructive criticism worth mentioning; however, this time he has produced a collection that rarely misses.

I have had the pleasure of reading much of John Grant's work, and in the end it seems that he is most talented at the short form. So, more than his novels, I highly recommend this and any other short-story collection containing Grant's work. It is in the short story that he excels, giving all of us a good read and something to learn from.