The Kansas City Star Review

Small press making a fabled name for itself

Of all the genres practiced by writers, fantasy is the second-most disrespected. Only horror authors take more abuse.

Mystery novelists are blessed with legions of fans and sympathetic critics. Science fiction enjoys a cachet because it is viewed as cerebral, or at least fashionably nerdy. Then there's fantasy, often dismissed as escapist fare, not really germane to real life.

Golden Gryphon, a small press based in Illinois, is changing that. Its two most recent titles, one a novel and the other a story collection, fuse imagination with relevance for bookworms who demand more than a good read.

The novel is Lucius Shepard's Louisiana Breakdown, superficially a yarn of dark magic, but in reality a cautionary tale about the hazards of situational ethics. The collection is Howard Waldrop's Custer's Last Jump, in which Waldrop and several collaborators offer entertainments that turn out to be meditations on the absurdity of warfare and fragility of human life.

Both books do what good fantasy always does: It keeps you up half the night with an adventure, then gets you thinking deeper the next day.

. . .

Eight tales

Like Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop has won the World Fantasy Award for his work. Unlike Shepard, Waldrop has collaborated over the years on stories with other fine writers in the field.

The result is Custer's Last Jump, which collects eight tales that team Waldrop with the likes of Leigh Kennedy, George R. R. Martin and Bruce Sterling.

This book should not work. Writing is such an individual, even monstrously egotistical endeavor that many of its practitioners reject the very idea of partnership. But Waldrop, a Texas fisherman transplanted from the Pacific Northwest, has the uncanny ability to get along with other scribblers. Thus, Custer's Last Jump is both an enjoyable volume of fiction and a satisfying peek into the creative process.

Like the late Philip K. Dick, Waldrop is adept at what is called "alternate history" ̶ a type of story that's kind of a photo negative of science fiction, in which a writer takes real events from the past and unravels them, then knits them into something of his own making.

"Custer's Last Jump!," the title story here, works some gleeful fun with this approach. In it, Gen. George Armstrong Custer's Native American adversary, Crazy Horse, uses airplanes to battle the U.S. Army commander. And airplanes formerly owned and flown by the Confederacy, at that.

This myth, concocted by Waldrop and Steven Utley, is perfectly silly — and also a bizarre reading pleasure. Again, though, this is fantasy with some bite: The story presents warfare as a patently ridiculous activity; the authors' insistence on blending technologies of various ages with the "Indian Wars" of the 1800s just drives the point harder.

"A Voice and Bitter Weeping," written with Barry Saunders, is closer to science fiction than fantasy: World War III has blighted much of the planet. But even nuclear destruction has not convinced humankind to stop making war; here, a renegade Texas army battles an Israeli force allied with what's left of America. (If this story sounds familiar, it's because it's an excerpt from Saunders and Waldrop's novel, The Texas-Israeli War: 1999.)

While Shepard's Louisiana Breakdown works on an intimate level, emphasizing issues of individual responsibility and group psychology, Waldrop and his collaborators operate on a more global scale in the stories that constitute Custer's Last Jump. Amazingly, even with all these writers involved, a dominant theme emerges: Can human beings overcome their violent tendencies, or are we all just slaves to the base impulse?

As Shepard and Waldrop and friends demonstrate, it's hard to dismiss such thoughtful fiction as "escapist."

As for Golden Gryphon, publisher of both these works, it is emerging as one of the Midwest's finest small presses. These titles are the 23rd and 24th from the Illinois house since 1997, and nearly all those books have drawn rave reviews. A 25th, an anthology called The Silver Gryphon, is due in May.

There's only one way to characterize that kind of success: It's no fantasy.

— John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, Sunday, April 20, 2003


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