A Totally Timely Review of the anthology The Coyote Road

I recently read through Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling’s anthology The Coyote Road, which isn’t a new release or anything. But hey. Since I took notes on the anthology, I thought I’d share them, for whatever they’re worth (probably not much).

I thought this was an excellent anthology. Anything edited by Ellen Datlow has, in my opinion, a high chance of being excellent, but I was especially impressed by this one. I’ve been reading through the Datlow/Windling fairy tale anthologies recently as well (and may blog about them), and I thought Coyote Road shone in comparison. I don’t know why that is. If i had to take a guess, I’d say that the rewritten fairy tale genre represents territory that’s more trod, particularly by the time Datlow and Windling hit book 5 or 6. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the fairy tale anthologies, and particularly some of the stories — I do very much like the fairy tale anthos. But I thought that the Coyote Road had a higher overall quality.

In my personal rating system (which is not at all a fair; it’s tilted severely toward giving things low ratings), I rated two of these stories with fives (total adoration), one with a four (strong enthusiasm), eight with threes (enjoyment), two with twos (competent stories that didn’t appeal to me personally for whatever reason), and nine with ones (stories I didn’t particularly like for one reason or another).

My favorite piece from the anthology is Kij Johnson’s Nebula nominated novelette, “The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change.” Diatryma says she adores the character, and there is nice character development here of both humans and canines, but I was particularly impressed by the weaving of different types of narratives into this story. It’s an extremely well-rendered balance of scene, meta-fictional intrustion, and mythic stories, all of which add up to an extremely moving piece.

The other story I rated a five was Kelly Link’s “Constable of Abal,” the story of a woman and her daughter who keep ghosts on ribbons. This story has all the best hallmarks of Link’s work: extremely vivid imagery, appealing strangeness, a carefully constructed mood. My most common complaint about Link’s stories is that they are sometimes structurally weak, or have trouble finding an ending, but this story is plotted extremely well and ends satisfyingly without losing the imagery or the mood.

I also enjoyed Ellen Kushner’s “Honored Guest” which makes me want to check out her Swordspoint series. For some reason, I’ve never read any Kushner before. I’m missing something.

Many of the stories in this anthology are well-written, engaging, diverting reads. For instance, Pat Murphy’s “One Odd Shoe” and Delia Sherman’s “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche” are both very entertaining stories that play with interesting characters, settings, and voices, even though neither felt totally fresh to me. I enjoyed reading them, and I’d read them again. Barzak gives some gorgoeus details about Tokyo in “Realer Than You” and Caroline Stevermer made me laugh in “Uncle Bob Visits’swith her ghost who hates diagramming sentences.

I adore Elllen Klages’s work, which may be why I was a trifle disappointed in “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s,” the perfectly nicely written and entertaining story of a private school girl who plays a board game with Queen Mab. The story as a whole is diverting and fun and was a pleasant read, but I missed the feeling of emotional resonance I’ve found in most other Klages stories.

There were two stories in the anthology — Jebediah Barry’s “The Other Labyrinth” and Jeffrey Ford’s “The Dreaming Wind” — that I wanted to like more than I did. Both had absolutely gorgeous imagery. I’m a sucker for labyrinths of roses and mirrors, not to mention winds that can recreate people in the image of goats or parrots in the image of baby dolls. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel either story was able to bring their stories to a conclusion that suited their vivid beginnings. “The Other Labyrinth” seems to set up one kind of story, and then switch tone in the middle. “The Dreaming Wind” establishes a phenomenon so cool that I never quite forgave the author for refusing to let the event actually happen.

Like “The Other Labyrinth” and “The Dreaming Wind,” Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “The Listeners” had an extremely compelling beginning — though in the case of that story, I was drawn to characterization and world-building rather than imagery. Unfortunately, I also felt this story tapered off at the end.

The stories in Coyote Road are supplemented by author’s notes, which I love. Will Shetterly argues in his author’s note that author’s notes in general reduce a story’s appeal to that of a “show” with its backstage tricks revealed — I absolutely can’t agree. One thing I enjoy about fiction is being able to enjoy it through multiple facets. Seeing a story from a writer’s perspective does not dim my ability to see it as a reader.

In my usual persnickety way, I read through this anthology haphazardly instead of straight through — and as usually happens, there were a few stories left at the end whose first pages I kept glancing at and going “I don’t want to read that” before flipping to the next piece. I always end up reading those stories last, and it’s possible that I was just done with the anthology’s theme by the time I got to them — but, as always, I enjoyed those stories least. There were four stories in this anthology that I had to push myself to skim. I abandoned those four at their halfway points.

There are a number of stories in this anthology that take on trickster myths directly, particularly a number that engage with Coyote. Of these, I thought the best was Pat Murphy’s “One Odd Shoe.”

However, in general, I wasn’t as fond of the stories that took a direct look at the trickster myths rather than finding different ways of engaging with trickster legends. I love coyote stories — but I love them enough that I’d rather read the originals than derivatives. Kim Antieu’s “The Senorita and the Cactus Thorn,” for instance, was perfectly competent and entertaining enough, but it was sufficiently similar to the style of the original legends that I found myself wanting to go back and reread those instead.

The authors in the anthology take on a number of different kinds of tricksters, from Hermes, to a labyrinth maker descended from Daedelus, to Louisiana fiddlers. I think the anthology would have been improved by a little bit more diversity in terms of the tricksters that authors chose to work with. For instance, I was surprised that no one engaged with Odysseus or Anansi (Edited to add: Ellen Datlow has kindly pointed out that while no stories took on Anansi, there is a Jane Yolen poem in the anthology that works with the spider trickster). I was also disappointed in the only piece that worked with the historically complicated Brer Rabbit narrative.

For me, the most successful stories were those that found unique ways to engage with trickster mythology. Kij Johnson’s is the msot obvious example. In her piece, she’s directly engaging with trickster myths — and with Coyote — but she’s doing so in a way that engages with and recontextualizes the trickster myths, deconstructing them to investigate their cultural traction, and then rebuilding them to create new insights.

This was a really cool anthology, and I highly recommend it.

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4 Responses to A Totally Timely Review of the anthology The Coyote Road

  1. 1
    Sailorman says:

    Damn, that Kij Johnson story is incredibly good, and powerful. i’d never have read it absent your link; thanks.

  2. 2
    Ellen Datlow says:

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful review Mandolin.
    I’d just like to point out that although there is no story about Anansi in the book, there is a poem on that trickster by Jane Yolen: “Kawaku Anansi Walks the World’s Web.”

  3. 3
    Mandolin says:

    Oh, thanks Ellen. Mea culpa — I skipped the poetry. I’ll edit the post.

  4. 4
    will shetterly says:

    I’m delighted you like the anthology, ’cause it’s swell, but I have to quibble with what you said I “argued.”

    I said I hate afterwords as a writer, because as a writer, I believe a story should speak for itself, Then I said, “But as a reader, I love them. It’s the chance to go backstage at the magic show.” Maybe I should’ve added this: I love going backstage at magic shows.

    Mind you, it ain’t no thang. Just don’t want anyone to think I’m slamming writers who like to write afterwords. My answer depends on whether I’m here to read or to write.