Three of the worlds were already familiar to me. Terry Pratchett's "The Sea and the Little Fishes" is a Discworld story featuring Granny Weatherwax. I've never had much success describing Pratchett's humour, but this is a good sample. Almost as frivolous, Anne McCaffrey's "Runner of Pern" is a slight piece, a romance with science fiction trappings and without any real substance. It left me with no desire to read more Pern novels, though I read and enjoyed the first six many years ago. Tad Williams' "The Burning Man", set in the past of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series but completely independent, is a story of love, obsession, and betrayal. It builds slowly but steadily to its dramatic conclusion, holding the reader and never inviting disbelief.
Two of the worlds were new to me. George R.R. Martin's "The Hedge Knight", set in the past of A Song of Ice and Fire, is "hard" fantasy, with no magical elements apart from some distant references to dragons. The plot is hackneyed enough: a fresh young hedge knight without much of a clue comes to a tourney to make his name and some money, gets involved in more than he expected, and ends up a success. But Martin gives it a depth and a bite that overcome cliches, most notably in a battle account among the most convincing I have read. A Song of Ice and Fire is now on my reading list.
Robert Jordan's "New Spring", set just before the start of The Wheel of Time series, isn't really a complete story, more an opening chapter or a teaser for the longer work. I can feel the attraction of the intricate plotting and Machiavellian politics, but this story is not nearly as memorable as either the Martin or Williams stories in this volume — and after reading it Jordan's eight volume (and ongoing) epic looks even more like a trap. Still, if I'm ever laid up in bed for a week and need five thousand pages of entertaining but emotionally unchallenging reading...
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