Pileaus: Symphony No. 1
Scott Colby (ed.)
I don’t usually quote things in my reviews, relying on my own semi-confused ramblings to entertain those poor souls who read this blog, but I recently came across a quote that really resonated with me and put into words – better than I ever could – about my thoughts on the fantasy genre. It’s by author and editor Scott Colby, and it states:
“Frustrated with the generic, paint-by-numbers state of modern fantasy writing, Scott Colby is working hard to give the genre the kick in the pants it so desperately needs. Shouldn’t stories about people and creatures with the power to magically change the world around them be creative, funny, and kind of weird? Scott thinks so.”
I came across that quote on the Kickstarter page for the upcoming anthology Pileaus: Symphony No. 1 from Outland Entertainment, and it’s stuck with me ever since. That’s primarily because it struck a chord with me: while there are some fantastic exceptions, so much traditionally published and self-published fantasy fiction seems to have become bland and generic, blurring together into innumerable series where each doorstep-sized novel barely progresses the plot and instead attempts to lure the reader into purchasing the next in the series – and then the next, and the next, and the next. I’ve written about this situation in previous reviews, and of course I can hardly begrudge authors attempting to maximize their readership and profits in an increasingly-difficult career to undertake; but it also makes it incredibly difficult for me, personally, to pick up any new fantasy works. Because inevitably, plot and characters are going to blur together until I reach a predictable cliffhanger that can only be resolved by buying the next in the series – almost inevitably Book 2 of 14 (and more to preorder).
As such, I’ve been cautious in my recent attempts to dive back into the Fantasy genre (and indeed the same with the Scifi genre) and spent a lot of time sifting through hundreds of titles looking for those sparks of originality, creativity and – above all – fun. I managed to hunt down a couple of titles, and one of those was the aforementioned Pileaus: Symphony No. 1 anthology, due to be published just before Christmas 2021. From the moment I started reading the advertising blurb, I had to admit that I was hooked: a fantasy world revolving around a fusion of music, magic and mystery, with the lives of the inhabitants of the land of Pileaus blending together to create a symphony? It sounded absolutely fantastic as a concept, and the descriptions of some of the stories included in the anthology sounded awesome – musicians kidnapped by ethereal Fae to satisfy their strange desires, a girl who can read people’s secrets, and a skyship pilot haunted by a song that only she can hear. These all sounded like the sort of fun and engaging stories I wanted to see in the fantasy genre, all taking place in a unique setting, and I couldn’t wait to dive in. While I was too late to back the Kickstarter, Outland Entertainment were kind enough to send me a review copy so that I could read it and give my impressions before publication date.
The collection is comprised of twenty-seven stories, which sounds like a large number for an anthology, but many of them are quite short and often inter-connected, ensuring that they flow together easily enough. It opens with an Introduction by author Max Gladstone, who also contributes a number of stories to the collection, in which he discusses the difficulties of writing stories in already-established universes, as well as the ways in which the fantasy genre has been both inspired, and restricted by, the Dungeons and Dragons universe and its story-telling structures. He makes the excellent point that, while DnD stories can often be fast-paced and exciting, they’re also often rather limited in terms of plot and action – “they go on adventures. They hit spiky critters with sharp sticks. They cast spells and gather gold pieces to fund their next adventure.” It’s an excellent point that I’ve considered before, and Gladstone goes on to discuss the possibilities provided by the Pileaus universe, one which follows fairy-tale logic rather than adventuring logic. It’s a fascinating and inspiring introduction, and made me all the more intrigued to see what he and his fellow authors would conjure up. The first two tales, No Matter How You Hide Her and She’s Never Hard To Find, are both by Alana Joli Abbott and act as excellent introductions to the setting. Both tales follow Rhia and Dilys, reluctant agents of the immensely powerful and utterly terrifying Black Queen, whose Pilean military only recently occupied Norrington, the region the two women live in. In the first tale, Rhia and Dilys trail a mysterious group of strangers new to the region on the direct orders of the Black Queen, having to contend with the attention of prior acquaintance Llew, as well as the nature and motivations of the strangers themselves, the latter starting to come to the fore when half-Fae Dilys is able to read their minds. In the second tale, Rhia, Dilys and Llew are participants in a grim vignette set during a pogrom by Pileans and sympathisers against native inhabitants of Norrington. As the violence reaches a crescendo, and it seems as if Llew and many others will become victims of the vicious attacks that the riots have culminated in, a surprise intervention involving Dilys and Aiemer – a form of magic that seems to be linked to music and singing – leads to their salvation and some surprising revelations. It’s a genuinely fascinating pair of stories that throw readers into the deep-end of the story universe, and in less assured hands could easily have been overwhelming and confusing; however, Abbott is a talented and skilled author who instead deftly draws us into this fascinating setting while laying out some of the key characters, factions and magical systems in play. They’re followed by My Kind of Place by Robert Lee Beers, a brief but entertaining story that follows Lieutenant Sanctim Dosadi, Pilean veteran and survivor of a dozen wars, as he encounters a band of piratical thugs in a dingy bar; it’s a short but violent encounter that’s entertaining, but also fills in some more crucial details about the setting. Scott Colby then gives us two stories – Debt and Dreams and Nightmares – that act as short character studies. The former focuses on Darin, a talented violinist whose natural powers were magically enhanced through a deal he made with a sinister and unsettling entity, and who is suddenly surprised by the entity’s reappearance to demand he repay the favour granted him. But the musician soon finds that no matter how fast he is, he cannot outrun a deal made with a member of the magical Guild and the terrifying powers they wield. The latter tale introduces us to the Lady Dream and her world, the Dreaming Land, as well as the conflict-ridden relationship she has with her brother, Nightmare and the hold that he has over poor souls like Darin. Colby shows us the near-unimaginable powers that these two demi-gods have over mortals, as well as the delightfully complex and multi-layered musical motifs interwoven into the source of that power.
The collection continues with a story by Gwendolyn N. Nix, Ballasts of Magic, one of the longer tales in the collection, and which follows skyship captain Lera as she heads on a dangerous journey in search of rne haunting melody that has been her constant companion from the moment she started sailing in the skies. Nix presents us with a fascinating and multi-faceted setting, one in which the very atmosphere is infused with magic – Aiemer – and skyships are designed to channel the substance, with crews handpicked to be able to sail by singing songs and carefully composing melodies that match with the Aeimer. It’s genuinely one of the most compelling and original magic systems I’ve ever come across, and Nix imbues it with such passion and creativity that this soon became my favourite story in the collection. The worldbuilding is paired with an engaging story, as we see the often dire effects the magical melody has had on Lera over her time sailing in the skies, culminating in a twist-filled and surprisingly emotional conclusion. It’s followed by Dylan Birtolo’s Duty to Extremes, an unusual tale that edges towards the horror genre at times, as a Fae known as Morann takes it upon himself to ‘find balance’ in the lives of mortals around him. Attempting to act upon some twisted sense of duty, the Fae rescues two mortals, only to sacrifice one; or attempts to kill the crew and passengers of a skyship to balance the unexpected survival of a damaged skyship. It’s another short tale, only a few pages long, but it has a brutal and shocking ending that was both apposite and caught me by surprise, putting Birtolo firmly on my radar. Emma Melville then gives us a duology – Oceans of the Heart and Discord about adventurous trio Nikos, Akhali and Gwynhaefar. The first story features the three attempting to help an injured Shuen – a seafaring creature – found far from any source of water, only to find themselves accompanying it to a mysterious and bizarre destination. The second sees bard Nikos summoned to the Great Hall of Bards and told a terrible, impossible truth about him and his musical contribution to the world – and is then betrayed by the Guild in a shocking and distinctly unsettling passage that still resonates with me long after finishing the collection. Through the two stories, Melville develops the concept of the World Song in some fascinating directions, and also crafts an intriguing trio of characters in the process, ones that I’d be interested in following in future stories or even novels.
Jeff Limke gives us Arest’s Tale in which the titular Arest protects her newborn son with sword and magic, while her husband has been conscripted for a distant conflict, and strange beings watch her from afar and covet her child. But there are other forces in the depths of the forest than Arest and the strange beings, and before long a chaotic melee of human and inhuman forces erupts around Arest and her babe. Limke weaves a compelling and ethereal tale that deftly demonstrates just how strange and unusual the world of Pileaus can be. At this point in the collection, Max Gladstone then provides a pentalogy of stories which features the eerie and distinctly unstable Aelfric, who slinks unseen through the fishing port of Brailee’s Steps to listen to a young girl who has entranced him with her songs. But there is another, far more sinister purpose to his visits, one has been putting off, but cannot delay forever; he tries to fight it, yet finds himself deceived and robbed of the girl, Lydia, by those even curler than he. Thus begins the set of interconnected stories, as Aelfric desperately searches for Lydia and seeks to rescue her from her imprisonment within Lord Nightmare’s Court so that he can hear her music again, while Lydia survives imprisonment and assault by a terrifying, elemental presence. It’s a spell-binding set of stories from Gladstone, blending music, obsession and nightmarish visages together to create something hauntingly melodic and memorable that definitely demonstrates the power of music in Pileaus.
Moving onwards through the collection, Andrew Schnider’s Traditions is an incredibly brief but nonetheless intriguing story featuring the character of Asa, one of the shuen who live beneath the waves, and his relationship with the complex traditions of his people, and their violation by outsiders. Then it’s rapidly onto another set of interlinked stories, this time by by Scott Colby, all of which follow another immortal, the titular Thistle, as he follows a long, complex and winding path with the aim of becoming a Riddari, one of the guardians of knowledge in the Dreaming Lands. But once he finds one of the Riddari in hope of apprenticeship, he instead finds himself thrown into the mortal world and at the mercy of its short lived, violent and often loutish inhabitants. It’s another intriguing set of tales that bring yet another realm in the Pileaus setting to light, whetting the readers appetite for other stories to come. After that, Alana Joli Abbott gives us the tongue-twisting The Trick to Tricking a Trickster, in which a traveller finds herself confronted with a Fae attempting to pass itself of as the traveller’s own race, but in a particularly incompetent manner. Bemused, the traveller strikes up a conversation with the Fae, sending the makings of a tale that they can then use in their travels as a musical performer. What follows is a delightfully playful and ephemeral look at the nature of the Fae, how their bargaining nature works, and the ultimate truth – whether a mortal playwright or immortal Dreamland creature – that the devil is in the detail. It’s a superb tale, and another standout in the collection. As the collection comes to a close, Emma Melville offers up two more tales – The Sound of Betrayal and Naming Place. The first follows Marcos Darkanian, a talented professional mercenary who becomes embroiled in political machinations and murders committed by an invisible assassin, and must infiltrate a heavily-guarded mansion in a particularly tense and atmospheric piece of writing; and the second features Bramble, the elderly Riddari found in an earlier tale, and details his journey to the mystical city of Maeda Criacao to witness a complex and fascinating naming ritual for Fae that determines their path in life. Both tales further enrich the Pileaus setting, and make me ever-more eager to read more about it. Of the final trio of tales, Dylan Birtolo’s A Day of Strangers is as horrifying as it is unexpected, delivering a shock of body horror to the Pileaus setting that had me on the edge of my seat. Imber’s Ocean of Glass from Scott Colby demonstrates the wicked side of the phrase ‘kindness is it’s own reward’; and the final tale, Mark Adams’ Shadivengen is a great story to finish off the collection, as it focuses on the legendary Black Queen, ruthless and vengeful daughter of Emperor Pileaus, a name whispered throughout the collection. Calib is one of the Shadivengen, or Royal Shadow, a peerless bodyguard and assassin who spends each day fending off attempts to assassinate his liege. In his duties, he finds himself caught in a plot beyond even his preternatural skills, and eventually learns of the terrible sacrifice he may have to make to guard the Black Queen
Pileaus: Symphony No. 1 is by far the most unusual, surprising and – above all – unique anthologies that I’ve ever reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, and I enjoyed it all the more for its quirks and peculiar format. Peculiar because it isn’t just a collection of short stories – in many ways it also acts as a kind of player’s guide to the Pileaus setting, skipping in and out of the many regions – geographical and ethereal – to be found in Pileaus, introducing the various races that populate these lands, as well as sketching out many of the key figures that influence the course of the world’s history. It’s a fascinating and rather novel concept for the reader and I really enjoyed it, as editor Scott Colby has gathered together a group of supremely talented authors to bring Pileaus to light; my only gripe, really, was that a summary of the history of the setting, and some kind of glossary for the various terms introduced across the stories, would have been a welcome addition and enhanced my enjoyment further. That minor issue aside, however, Pileaus: Symphony No. 1 is a fast-paced, action-packed and often surprising collection of fantasy stories set in a captivating and original fantasy world, and I am genuinely intrigued by Pileaus as a setting, especially with its musical-focused magical system. I thorioughly recommend this anthology, look forward to reading some of the other Pileaus novels by Scott Colby, and also hope to see Symphony No. 2 produced by Outland Entertainment before too long has passed.