Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray, this anthology of fantasy stories has a fun concept that acts as a connective thread: all the stories take place, at least partly, in a bar. The same bar. And not just any bar—the Ur-Bar, run by Gilgamesh himself, historical king of Uruk and hero of Mesopotamian mythology. The stories begin in ancient history, when Gilgamesh takes over management of the bar, and move through time. They’re all set on Earth, though the introduction admits it could be an “alternate Earth,” but due to the bar’s magical, time-traveling nature, the anthology becomes a trip through the world’s civilizations and mythologies.
“An Alewife in Kish” by Benjamin Tate begins the anthology in Kish, an ancient Mesopotamian city-state. The story sets up the premise of the anthology and introduces Gilgamesh, who will play a part in every entry. Kubaba, the alewife, has been cursed by the gods for her hubris—she must serve in this alehouse for eternity, never able to set foot outside of it. As cities rise and fall, the alehouse will move to another place, but always Kubaba will be trapped there, imprisoned by the curse. But then a large, strange man enters her alehouse one day, and when Kubaba hears his story, she realizes he could be the key to her escape—someone willing to take her place. The dialogue occasionally falls into the trap of sounding clunky and unnatural in its attempt to fit its historical time period, and the story feels a little rushed and stilted when it starts, but settles into itself as it goes. Gilgamesh’s tale is also a bit over-the-top, but that’s forgivable as his dramatic language is part of the method of oral storytelling. “Alewife” fulfills its purpose in setting up the concept of the anthology, but on its own would be one of the weaker stories on offer.
In “Why the Vikings Had No Bars” by S.C. Butler, we move to Viking country, specifically, the settlement of Hedeby in Daneland. Gilgamesh—now called Gisl—introduces the locals to al-kuhl, a clear Arabian liquor unlike anything they’ve ever tasted, but underestimates the effects of hard alcohol when combined with a warrior’s desire to reach Valhalla. Odin’s interference doesn’t help matters much, and soon enough everyone’s favorite aspect of bar stories—the brawl—kicks in. As the title suggests, this story has a lighter feel. A sly humor is woven throughout the story, though by the end it’s shifted to a much darker tone. The writing doesn’t suffer from the attempt to sound historically appropriate, as Tate’s offering occasionally does, which makes the story easy and enjoyable to read.
We then move to Italy during the height of the Holy Roman Empire in “The Emperor’s New God” by Jennifer Dunne. Otto III, Emperor, has received a vision that he will be the greatest Emperor the world has seen; he will rule all. The catch is that he must first conquer all, and Otto is a scholar, not a soldier. So he seeks out a mysterious bar in Venice, where gods and men still meet, and appeals to Mars for help. It’s an interesting spin on the life of Otto, who was known for being an extremely devout Christian, but the last third of the story loses its compelling grip on the reader. The trouble is a feeling of imbalance. At the beginning of the story, much time and detail is spent on Otto sneaking into Venice, settling us firmly into this time and place, but the latter part of the story whisks through time, and we lose our connection with the narrative and with Otto.
Set in Scotland, “The Tale that Wagged the Dog” by Barbara Ashford is the most absurd entry in the anthology, and a whole lot of fun because of it. It’s very funny, crude, and even quotes Billy Joel. In an unusual tavern, dead heroes such as William Wallace (whose body parts tend to drop off) and Robert the Bruce hang out with faeries, a selkie, and a man who has been turned into a dog. The main character and narrator, Tam Lin, is said dog, and the tale is about his quest to become a man, which according to “Gil,” the bar’s proprietor, takes longer for some people than others. Tam Lin hopes it doesn’t take too long, because after all, he’s “just like other men. Only more so.” In Scottish mythology, Tam Lin was rescued from the Faerie Queen by his true love, Janet. “The Tale that Wagged the Dog” picks up where the ballad leaves off, only Tam Lin has not escaped unscathed. He’s not the most noble of heroes, but his opinion of himself is unmatched. As this story is written by a woman, it’s possible Tam Lin’s frat boy approach to life, and his claim that he’s more manly than most, is a scathing bit of tongue-in-cheek gender commentary, a view that makes the story even more amusing. By the end, though, we can see the beginning of character development. There’s hope for Tam Lin yet.
“Sake and Other Spirits” by Maria V. Snyder moves us to feudal Japan for a story about feminism. Azami works for Gilga-san in his sake-house, hiding from her past. She fled a forced marriage and longs for independence and freedom, two things a woman can never have. When a kappa, a water vampire, takes up residence in the local lake and begins killing traders, the skills Azami learned in order to be a samurai’s wife may help her save her town, earn her freedom—and find love. “Sake and Other Spirits” is a modern but entertaining take on its era. Azami is smart and skilled, and Gilga-san’s fondness for her is endearing. The story includes arrogant samurai, a sword fight, and a sweet romance that is resolved a bit too easily, perhaps, but then, there’s only so much room in a short story. Azami triumphs because she listens to Gilga-san’s wisdom – which the elders of the town and the samurai will not do, because he’s a foreigner—and because she is not shackled by a “delicate male ego.” Snyder does fall into the trap of giving historical women modern sensibilities, but then, who are we to say that some women in patriarchal societies didn’t think this way?
Kari Sperring takes us to France during the reign of Louis XIV for “The Fortune-Teller Makes Her Will,” a story about a witch-hunt, love, and sacrifice. Thaïs is a maid for the Madame, mistress of the king, who uses the services of a fortune-teller who summons “angels” to speak through her daughter Madeleine. When the witch-hunt begins and Paris is scoured for those dealing in witchcraft or magic, the fortune-teller is arrested, and eventually so is innocent, beautiful Madeleine. The Madame, of course, will do nothing to save the young woman, despite the fortune-teller’s plea, but Thaïs thinks there must be a way. Monsieur Gilles, proprietor of a mysterious cabaret, might be able to help. Thaïs is a great character, a cynical maid who occasionally dresses in men’s clothing and makes extra money by writing scandalous ballads about her mistress and the courtiers she entertains.
“The Tavern Fire” by D.B. Jackson explains the source of a mysterious, historical fire that raged through Boston in the years just before the Revolutionary War. The story is told through the eyes of Tiller, a slightly mentally handicapped young man who finds odds and ends that people have lost or thrown away and sells them. One day he is given free food by Mary, a surly tavern owner, and plied with questions about Janna, who runs the Fat Spider Tavern with Gil. Janna, a former slave from the Caribbean, is also a witch, and Mary needs a love spell. The consequences of this spell are much more devastating than anyone—except perhaps Gil—could have anticipated. Janna’s dialect is well done, but perhaps a bit heavy and distracting over the stretch of the story, as some sentences seem to be made up of more apostrophes than letters, which is hard to read. Tiller is also handled well, which is impressive as characters like him are hard to pull off, and there are hints that he has some magical ability of his own. Compared with the rest of the anthology, “The Tavern Fire” isn’t a stand-out story, but by no means a bad one.
We then move to gothic, Victorian Europe in Patricia Bray’s “Last Call,” a continuation or spin-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In this story, we follow the career of George Harker, monster hunter, and the two meetings with Guillaume the coffeehouse proprietor, that bookend it. “Last Call” starts in London, moves to France, then to Scotland and Switzerland, covering the decades of George’s career and life. The jumps in time and lack of a solid, overarching plot make the story a bit scattered, not as cohesive as others in the collection. George’s last conversation with Guillaume is bittersweet as they discuss the curse of immortality, and the first-person narration evokes thoughts of Dickens and Stoker. There’s even a cameo by Mary Shelley. Despite this, however, “Last Call” is one of the weaker entries in the anthology, notable more for its allusions than its storytelling.
In contrast, “Alchemy of Alcohol” by Seanan McGuire is a rollicking good time, set in San Francisco at the turn of the century. Mina Norton, the alchemist proprietor of Norton’s, is pulled into a magical feud when the Summer King drops the body of his wife, the Winter Queen, on the bar and begs Mina to wake her up a few weeks early. “The tedious thing about magic,” Mina tells us, “is the way it insists on existing. There’s far more of it than the world’s assortment of magicians, alchemists, shamans, and sorcerers could ever make use of, and so it gads about manifesting in inconvenient places.” The story cheats a bit when it comes to the anthology’s premise: Gil sleeps through the entire thing in an upper room, and while the events take place in the bar, its mystical properties never come into play. Mina has mystical properties enough of her own at hand to handle the situation. The story possesses a sense of humor, and it also involves a Golem named Andy and a bang-up magic fight as the Summer King and Winter Queen defend their titles and their lives. It even comes with cocktail recipes at the end, so you can partake in a little alcoholic alchemy yourself.
In “The Grand Tour” by Juliet E. McKenna, two young English gentlemen traveling in pre-WWI Austria encounter a group of angry German youths. They get jumped, beaten up, and stagger to a tavern for help, where the large, enigmatic barman dispenses some strangely knowledgeable advice. Readers familiar with Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility will recognize the last names of heroes Eustace Ferrars and Harold Brandon. As presumed descendents of Edward and Eleanor Ferrars and Colonel and Marianne Brandon, Eustace and Hal live in Devon, and at the end of the story, it’s noted that Eustace even marries a Dashwood girl. The writing suffers from the occasional distracting adjective (“obdurate engine,” “repellent spittle”), but these are balanced by sentences like, “Hal swung with all the pugilistic science of an English boarding school education.” The sudden leap to the present at the end of the story, in which a family vacationing in England walks through the historic Brandon estate—now a museum—and learns about Eustace and Hal’s impressive, philanthropic political and military careers, is a bit jarring. It’s a heavy-handed way to go about it, but effective in showing that Eustace and Hal’s experience in Austria, and especially Gil’s words, had their effect.
Laura Anne Gilman’s “Paris 24” follows a team of young American fencers in Paris for the 1924 Olympics. They hunt down this amazing bar they’ve heard about, a place you should go before your event for luck. The bar is, of course, run by Gil, who feels drawn to Richard, the youngest of the fencing team, and wants to grant him his desire. The question is what Richard’s desire will be, what with the Games and the looming threat of war. It’s a quiet story about one young man on the cusp of adulthood trying to figure out life, and the small nudge he is given by an immortal demi-god. Another entry that tends to blend in with the landscape of the anthology, not standing out in any way.
The main character of “Steady Hands and a Heart of Oak” by Ian Tregillis is Reg, a sapper, one of Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers who disarm and disassemble unexploded ordnance during the London Blitz. Reg has the Sight—the ability to see how things work and thus manipulate those workings. He’s mostly used it to get what he wants in life, but after performing a near-miraculous bomb disarmament, Reg finds himself in a bind. A girl he doesn’t love is pregnant with his child. His captain doesn’t want to promote him despite Reg putting in his time. Another bomb, one only Reg could disarm, lies waiting in the rubble of a chemists’ shop. The strange, clear liquor of the large barmen Gil makes Reg’s Sight expand, grow stronger than it ever has before. Suddenly Reg can see all his futures—and none of them are good. Except, perhaps, one. “Steady Hands” is a fascinating look at the life of a Royal Engineer, the terror and skill involved in making unexploded bombs safe. Reg isn’t all that likeable, but that’s the point—his final choice is perhaps the only selfless (or at least somewhat selfless, because even this choice is heavily influenced by his own legacy) thing he’s ever done. Tregillis’ strong writing supports the story, making for an utterly compelling read.
“Forbidden” by Avery Shade introduces a time-traveling woman to our mystical, time-traveling bar. G5S36 has come back in time to 1987 to collect genetic samples of species that no longer exist in her time. She comes from a sterile, safe, regulated environment, so the wildness and difference of America in the ‘80s is overwhelming and exciting for her. The interior of the bar overwhelms her senses, but the longer she sits there, and the more she talks with the bartender, the more she starts to realize that she doesn’t want to go back to her world, to the future of Everyman, where everyone looks the same and thinks the same, and if you don’t fall in line with everyone else, you disappear. Perhaps she can stay here, in this unregulated decade, where she can have the life of her choosing and be Rebecca instead of a number. “Forbidden’s” future sounds like every dystopian movie you’ve ever seen in which the characters wear white jumpsuits and have every aspect of their life controlled for the greater good, and G5S36/Rebecca’s tendency to refer to herself as an addict seems to have little basis. But the voice is good, and Shade does an excellent job of providing an outsider’s view of our world, how every aspect of it is a sensory assault—and the sheer intoxication of the little freedoms we take for granted. You can’t help rooting for G5S36 to become Rebecca.
“Where We Are Is Hell” by Jackie Kessler takes us to the after-life. Tracy is lost in a never-ending maze of corridors, darkness, and doors. She’s been there so long that she doesn’t remember her life, barely remembers her name, has given up hope of ever escaping. But still she opens doors, until one door opens on a bar. As Tracy talks to the intimidating bartender, she begins to remember her life, who she is—and why she is here. The bartender tells her she has one more door to open—the final door, which leads to either Heaven or Hell. Of course, there is another option… A compelling and evocative story—Tracy’s journey through the doors does a fantastic job of making you feel the darkness and hopelessness and interminability. Once Tracy enters the bar, the mystery of her existence is quickly answered, but Kessler’s version of Gil is interesting—he’s the first incarnation to offer someone his place, to acknowledge his need to escape as well. Tracy’s starry-eyed love for her fiancé takes on a somewhat saccharine aspect toward the end of the story, mostly through the sheer emphasis put on this part of her personality. It’s all we really know about Tracy, that she loves Paul (to be fair, it’s almost all she really knows about herself), and it’s the driving factor in her decision. Its importance to the story is undeniable, but the focus on this one part of her character makes her feel shallow and one-dimensional.
The anthology closes with “Izdu-Bar” by Anton Strout, the obligatory zombie story. In a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies, Bouncer Billy works at a bar. Billy doesn’t possess a shred of care or concern for his fellow humans, and he only lets in the lone traveler after dark because he plans to steal the small, wiry man’s guitar later. A guitar like that, in pristine condition, would be worth a lot of money. The plot contains a great, if slightly predictable twist, and Strout’s take on Gil’s bar plays up the magical aspect, as though the bar has fused with Gil’s soul and responds to his mood. Billy has a distinctive voice, and making him unlikeable makes the ending a bit more palatable; we’re actually rooting for the zombie. Strout plays to the cult of zombie lore with the title—IZDU stands for the International Zombie Defense Unit—and the evolution of zombies is an interesting idea, if only for the how aspect. They’re dead; how do they evolve? And yet, in the world of “Izdu-Bar,” they do.