Review: 'What Happens Next', edited by Fred Patten
What Happens Next: An Anthology of Sequels is a collection of short stories by 11 authors, assembled and edited together by Fred Patten. The theme? Each work is an expansion upon story universes that the authors have previously established.
If you're not familiar with the writers or their worlds, don't worry; each story is pretty self-contained. You're not going to feel like you're being left out; Fred provides an introduction to each, explaining the settings and contexts to new readers. Altogether it's about 430 pages long, and was published in July 2013 by FurPlanet, ISBN 9781614501169. The cover art is by Sara Miles, and each story is accompanied by at least one illustration, from a variety of artists.
This review was heavily re-written after listening to episode 4 of the Fangs and Fonts podcast.
This book also serves as a good companion to The Ursa Major Awards Anthology, which shares five of the same story settings. The advantage of What Happens Next is that 10 of the 11 contributions have never been published before. Without further ado, let's launch into mini-reviews!
1. Second by M.C.A. Hogarth:
This takes place in Hogarth's science-fiction Pelted universe, and was the only work in this book that was previously published. It's an early scene from Alysha Forrest's experiences in the military fleet: a team-building exercise that suffers from an irresponsible leader. As she deals with the situation, Alysha befriends a fellow ensign, and between them and the leader, the story is largely a character piece. What made it interesting to me were their conversations, and how the two women try to gain insight into each other's personalities, making observations that neither would admit to themselves. I thought this was a very believable story, with a good antagonist. A strong start to this anthology.
2. Festival of Vampires by Brock Hoagland:
Hoagland's Tales of Perissa, the leopardess assassin, are very much in the spirit of Conan the Barbarian. I must admit I'm not a big fan of this character. Sure, there's a good amount of action and sassiness thrown in; it fits the genre of sword-and-sorcery perfectly, and it certainly wasn't a bad read. I'm just not into this particular kind of story, and it felt a bit formulaic; the only thing that was new to me was her chipmunk companion Maelith. It's a good read if you like the genre (if a little on the short side); just don't expect anything especially deep here.
3. False Doctrine by Kevin Frane:
Bringing together two characters from Frane's spy-adventure stories, Monserrat Léonide has been hired by Arkady Ryswide to go undercover to investigate a suspicious priest. The main story here is how Monserrat is still haunted by memories of her past. As the operation continues, she finds it increasingly taxing on an emotional and psychological level. Arkady's not entirely without flaws either, and the two of them will probably never comfortably work together. Mildly dark; there's a feeling of oppressed anxiety to Monserrat's situation. Still, she didn't quite gain my sympathy somehow. I liked reading this more than her earlier story, Shadows of Novoprypiatsk, but I still prefer Frane's earlier novel, The Seventh Chakra.
4. Reflections of Things to Come by Kristin Fontaine:
This takes place among the crew of the Tai-Pan merchant starship. One character has recently learned that he has a three-year-old daughter he never knew about, and he reflects upon this while an ex-crew member and her child are visiting on board. The Tai-Pan universe has personally never quite grabbed me, but this was a decent slice-of-life vignette. A little soap-operish without being overly so; a quiet, subdued story.
5. Immolation by Michael H. Payne:
I've wanted to read more of Payne's stories about Cluny, the sorceress squirrel and her human familiar, and this definitely delivered, as they try to fix an out-of-control bungled spell that's threatening the denizens of the Realm of Fire. It's fantasy fluff with a bit of light humor and tension mixed in. Actually, a good chunk of this story was more about one of the Ifreet rulers' underlings, but it doesn't matter, this was amusing to read. Payne expresses himself well; I could hear the dialogue in my head as I was taking it in.
6. Pick-up at Hanging Drop by Jenner:
This was the first story in this anthology where I hadn't read anything else set in the story universe. I was distantly familiar with the Australian comic Doc Rat, but had never followed it. In this story, Ben (a doctor) and a friend take a guys-only weekend camping trip with a teenager going through an angry phase, upset that his carnivore father has rejected his wolf heritage and now lives with rabbits. Although the story reaches a satisfactory conclusion, Ben's dedication to saving people's lives felt a little over-the-top; I thought he was taking on too much at once. I wondered if he's the type of character who always manages to fix everything - or if this ever manifests as a flaw by trying to carry too many people's burdens. What I found the most interesting is that the narrative voice in this story is quite unlike the others in the book. It frequently shifts into Ben's internal point of view, offering short, spur-of-the-moment mental notes and quips.
7. Blackest Before the Dawn by Elizabeth McCoy:
A first-contact story between some aliens and the Kintarans, a race of tribal feline centauroids. To say things get off to an awkward start would be an understatement. This was definitely the strongest piece of science-fiction in the book, what with the different outlooks of the two civilizations towards one another, and how they try to communicate. It's more complicated than that, but I don't want to spoil anything; I enjoyed this a lot, it's my top pick.
8. The Magi Decree by Chuck Melville:
As usual, Check Melville's stories involving Felicia (the rogue vixen sorceress) manage to combine action, drama and light comedy. Felicia joins up with an army while an unknown enemy confuses the commanders and soldiers by issuing false orders. There's a fun, cartoony feel to Chuck's work; he manages to make you worry about the characters as their problems escalate, even if things get sillier and more dire at the same time. The Magi Decree may eventually be re-worked into part of a larger novel. If that's the case, I'd like to see it when it's done.
9. Game of Fox and Rabbit by Ken Pick:
Brigit is an anthro-rabbit who was originally bio-engineered for sexual purposes - a bit of a furry cliché - and managed to escape that life, fleeing to another planet where she now works as an actress at a production studio. In this story, the head of the studio recruits her at the last minute be a hostess for a small but elite party. Despite Fred's introduction, there was a ton of universe-specific jargon being used. This was difficult to get into, and I didn't relate to Brigit very well. A surprising amount of the story was taken up with a discussion of past movies and the studio's future plans, and I felt this was distracting. It stole a lot of focus from Brigit's identity crisis about her career. After 30 pages, it finally got interesting - Brigit's conversation with the Baroness on the terrace was the highlight of the work for me, but it came too late and was all too brief. The story itself wasn't badly written, it conjures up quite a complex culture and story universe; it just didn't work for me.
10. Sibling Rivalry by Kyell Gold:
Although I've read some of Kyell's work, I hadn't read anything in his medieval Argaea series until now. This story involves Volyan, the elder of the two sons of Lord Volle, going through a period of jealousy and resentment towards his younger brother. A well-done tale of a youth coming to terms with personal maturity and responsibility; it's one of the stronger pieces in this book. The only thing that threw me was the way one of the royal servants talked with Voylan; it felt oddly forward, as if setting up a later story. I also particularly liked two sections, one that delved into the world's mythology, and a moment of introspection on the cognitive dissonance of anthro-goats being shepherds of wild, non-anthro goats. You don't often see that brought up in furry stories!
11. The Monkeytown Raid by Roz Gibson:
Jack Salem is an anthro-sable-cat criminal, currently surviving in a run-down city on a colonized planet Mars. Even though he's extremely dangerous and unpredictable, he's hired to be part of a small group conducting a night-time attack against a rival gang. This isn't exclusively a Jack Salem story - it's more of an ensemble piece, involving the whole team on their mission. What really works about this story is the tension and momentum, once it starts, it never lets go. Very fast-paced; it really works well at the end of this book.
Furry-wise, all of the stories here mention furry body language occasionally. (Kyell Gold is especially good at incorporating a lot of this.) The contribution that gets the most out of using its characters' species as an integral part of its plot would definitely be Blackest Before the Dawn. The different physiques of the team in The Monkeytown Raid is also very important, and furry-ness relates to one of the goals of their mission. Most of the other stories have a furry background to their premise, but it's not overly crucial to the plot. In descending order of furriness, I'd say Sibling Rivalry, Game of Fox and Rabbit, Second, Immolation, Pick-up at Hanging Drop and False Doctrine. The remaining stories have furry characters, but they could have been humans just as easily. Personally I didn't mind, but it matters to some.
Overall, despite personal interests towards some of the story universes, I thought this was a well-written collection. There's quite a range of creativity and imagination that's gone into these worlds, and I think there's something here for everyone. Good work, Fred!