Under Cover of Darkness
by Julie E. Czerneda
Review by Cathy Green
DAW Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0756404045
Date: 06 February, 2007 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In Under Cover of Darkness, Julie Czerneda and Jana Paniccia have assembled 14 interesting and varied stories with the overarching theme of secret societies. The stories feature traditional secret societies such as the Masons as well as more unusual interpretations of the theme. The collection achieves a nice balance between well-known authors such as Larry Niven, Tanya Huff, and Esther Friesner with not as well known authors such as Stephen Kotowych.
Doranna Durgin's "The Scoria" is a fairly traditional fantasy story involving people not like us although born to us who have special powers. The babies are exposed to the elements but rescued by the surviving Scoria and raised to embrace their powers. Larry Niven's "The Gatherer's Guild" is an amusing tale of intrigue amongst various tax and tariff agencies. In "Kyri's Gauntlet", Darwin A. Garrison tells a story of a hidden coven and its familiars, except that it takes place in outer space and the familiars are actually neurologic engineered symbiotes taking the form of talking hamsters. The coven is attempting to make contact with and test potential new allies, several legions of soldiers who have deserted after being betrayed by the central government. This gives the story two layers of hidden societies, since there is the coven and a hidden rebellion. Tanya Huff's story, "The Things Everyone Knows", also contains multiple secret societies. It's the story of a thief asked by the thieves Guild to ferret out a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The thief tracks the alleged conspiracy to a graveyard and encounters several more hidden societies - the religious order caring for the cemetery, the ghosts of the dead, and various gods and demons. "Borrowed Time" by Stephen Kotowych is also a tale of a secret society within a secret society, focusing on a group of people who borrow time from the general population in order to keep the Universe going and on a group within the group who do not agree with the larger group's methods.
Nick Pallotta turns in a humorous story about a traditional secret society - the Masons - and makes the point that if you win the apocalyptic battle and usher in the Age of Miracles, you've just made yourself obsolete and your life a bit boring. Paul Crilley's "The Invisible Order (Being a Most Small and Concise Part of the Hidden Histories of Mankind)" also deals with a traditional hidden society, telling the story of Emily Doyle who unfortunately finds herself in the middle of a battle between the Seelie Court and its enemies. As is often the case with humans who have dealings with Faerie, Emily is forced to enter into a bargain she would have preferred not to make in order to avoid even more unfortunate consequences. In "The Good Samaritan", set in a near future somewhat dystopian Toronto, Amanda Blass Maloney also tells the story of battles between the Seelie Court and its enemies, involving a hidden princess and her Faerie protectors. Just remember that your annoying downstairs neighbor could turn out to be a member of the Queen's Guard. So be nice, even when he plays his music too loud and too late.
Janet Deaver-Pack's historical fantasy "Shadow of the Scimitar", set during the Middle Eastern campaigns of World War I features T.E. Lawrence in an adventure with a very special member of the British Secret Service, an old school chum who just happens to be a Rosicrucian. Lawrence of Arabia, Egyptian gods and mummies make for a fun adventure. Esther Friesner offers a slightly different and humorous twist on the notion of a secret society in "Seeking the Master". At first it appears that the narrator is joining a coven or selling her soul but then it turns out to be an even more exclusive fraternity, even if its roots are somewhat more mundane. In "When I Look to the Sky" by Russell Davis, a man is given the chance to go back in time and right a wrong; in the "Sundering Star" by Janny Wurts a double agent finds that the allegedly primitive people she was sent to help can manage just fine on their own (again, a nice doubling of secret societies within the story); and in the "Exile's Path", Jihane Noskateb tells the tale of a group of people who have set themselves up and apart as moral arbiters for the greater good. Douglas Smith's "The Dancer at the Red Door" winds up the collection with a cautionary tale about getting what you wish for.
This is an interesting and varied collection of stories. Buying and reading an anthology is like going to the short film night at film festival - you might not enjoy them equally, but you quickly move on to something you like better. Not every story in the collection will be to everyone's taste; however, with fourteen stories there's definitely something for everyone. Czerneda and Paniccia have also thoughtfully provided a brief biography of each author at the end of his or her story. Listing author websites and other publications in which their work can be found is useful to readers who discover authors previously unknown to them and want to seek out other things the authors have written. And for the record, the reviewer knows no secret handshakes and belongs to no secret organizations. Or so she says.