Ossus Library Index Fantasy Index

ONCE UPON A TIME

A short story collection edited by Lester Del Rey, illustrated by Michael Pangrazio (1991, Ballantine Books)

A variety of fairy-tale type stories, written by various authors specifically for this book.

 

 

4 stars

Read November 30th to December 5th, 2002 for the second time  
    A really good mix of short stories, obviously lovingly written by everyone involved.

This book must be just the perfect length, because I enjoyed most of the stories, but was growing tired of short tales by the end. Still, this book was able to keep me interested, which is much more than I can say about most short story books these days.

It was not my intention to re-read this book, since it disappeared soon after I read it the first time. However, the moment I saw it on a friend's bookshelf, I humbly asked to borrow it so that I could get a cover scan, having been unable to find one anywhere. But after scanning it, I flipped through it, and was hooked.

I expected more fantasy-type stories, with magic and nasty twists, with the hero being fooled and then becoming a hero again. But the stories rarely had more than one of these traits, and even though some of them might have taken place in a medieval time or setting, they were more every-day oriented, with the magic being easily explained away. Still, most of the characters were quite lovable.

The artwork, one painting for each story, is outstanding. Each picture is so detailed, so full of imagery from the stories, and so full of color. They should each be framed!

Isaac Asimov's Prince Delightful and the Flameless Dragon, which is repeated in his Magic collection, is a hilarious fairy-tale that makes fun of fairy-tales, mixing in some science, to boot. This is a story only Asimov could have written, though it is written in a tongue-and-cheek style that Terry Pratchett brings to his stories. Both the Prince and the Dragon were touched by a fairy who always mixes up her spells, giving the dragon foul-smelling but flameless breath, and the Prince complete awkwardness. When they meet, they decide to team up, and help a neighboring king conquer his enemy. The humor is in the way the story is written, especially the way the sorcerers are ignored for saying strange things like genes, dinosaur, and gas mask! It must be read to be truly appreciated.

Imaginary Friends, by Terry Brooks, is much more serious, as a tale of a boy who must deal with learning he has leukemia. It is a touching tale of battling inner demons, with the elf Pick showing Jack the beautiful forest, with the bridge troll and the place where the dragon is imprisoned, when he is young, then asking for his help after the boy learns about his disease. Jack learns to battle the dragon, which affects the outcome of his disease, hiding it away in a deep inner cage. I only wish Jack didn't hit his head both times he "imagined" Pick, as it makes the magic less real.

The story of Gwyndion and the Dragon started off interesting, but petered out about halfway through, with an anti-climactic and much less interesting end. It was almost as if this story was set in a world we were supposed to know. Still, it was well written (aside from stumbling over so many difficult names), and kept me guessing how the evil King was going to conquer Gwyndion's land. I supposed that his fairy-given "Luck" would fail because his kingdom was no longer poor, but was rather disappointed that his wife decided to sacrifice herself, with what seemed like very little motivation.

The Fairy Godmother, by Lester Del Rey, was a fun tale about Samantha's growing up, becoming less selfish and more reasonable. This was one story where I expected a neat twist, like the old man and woman being some incarnation of the aunt she despised, having her work on the land to test her, and make her into that "responsible person". Alas, the story seems less impressive when I find out they were telling the truth. I liked Sammy's gifts, though, being able to turn invisible and summon people in dire but selfless emergencies. But the mundane nature of the old couple made me wonder "so what?"

The tale of Thistledown the unicorn, by Susan Dexter, was pretty cool. It was very quiet and unassuming, like the young man Flax. A wizard, though he didn't know it, Flax takes in the newborn unicorn after its mother was shot, and his life is changed forever. The story is really about Flax's gentle manner and lifestyle, and about protecting his charge when danger comes near. But the unicorn knows that Flax needs to be trained, and leads him to a wizard in need of an apprentice. The sub-plot of Duke Lothair and his fiancÚ Lowise was amusing, as the young girl rarely stopped talking. Flax lets her join his journey when she runs away, and the unicorn changes Lothair's life when it heals him from some leaf-beasts. Well written, this tale had the characters at its center; not much of a plot, but the characters were very interesting and could be easily related with. Why does the back cover say that Flax didn't know he had a unicorn, though?

The Old Soul, by Wayland Drew, was one of the very few stories included that failed to hold my interest. The journey of the Merchant, Doctor and Architect mostly bored me, in addition to being hit over the head with a Moral, that organization and technology is BAD, while nature and wilderness is GOOD. I enjoyed their discussion about who was more worthy of taking a lone horse to the end of their trip, but I don't believe either would bow to the architect as being more important. It sounds more like the author, someone who does not appreciate sciences. The old woman's tale was just as dull, if not more so, though I thought I liked the character of Eiver, delivering a message to the Prince that he has forgotten nature in the big city. The reasons for the Doctor and Merchant gave for leaving the journey didn't make sense, either. If the Merchant long ago learned to take no more than necessary, why did he ever start a mill or mine? Did the Doctor go back to his mountaintop? Most of all, the story proved its own point, that it was treacherous to travel that route, and that people never returned!

Changeling, by Barbara Hambly, was a cautionary tale about taking appearances for granted. I loved the different forms that the Dragon's children took, each different: toddler girl, green deer, and sparkling lights. The lights showed transformation first, and appears to be the least effective disguise! It alerted its keepers to its true nature, which made the near-sacrifice very painful. Each was loved regardless of their form, and returned that love by never returning to rampage that kingdom. Some animals can learn love and loyalty!

I found The Tinkling of Fairybells, by Katherine Kurtz, to be the best of all the stories. It was so full of love, pure love, before becoming so sad I had tears in my eyes. Just partaking in the love between the Fairy ("she" in the tale) and the priest Peter, as she discovers him, later introduces herself, sharing his life with him, was so beautiful. The magic of the light of love, ah... It is something that really has to be read to understand; the story is really a character piece, with the interaction between two worlds as a plot. When Peter is killed in a shipwreck, I was heartbroken along with "her", as she futilely tried to help him, then hovered over his grave. But God allowed him to return in the form of an angel, so that they could blend their light forevermore.

Anne McCaffrey's The Quest of a Sensible Man was only mildly enjoyable. I liked the mystery of the forest, and their inability to get through it, for ages and ages. But I didn't find the characters to be very engaging, and the volume of names, from servants in the past to the companions, the mares, and the people living in the castle, was too much! Having them not know what the amulet looked like, and the speculating that the father didn't really want to leave, seemed rather silly, but I liked that people who knew nothing of the curse could pass through, but as soon as they were informed that they couldn't pass, then they physically couldn't!

The last story, Portrait of a Hero, by Lawrence Watt-Evans, was very enjoyable. I really enjoyed Wuller's exploration of the lands around him, discovering what an Inn was, trying to work for food and shelter (once he even got a warm bed-wink). As he looked for the woman who could get rid of the dragon that took over his village, he came across so many things that he didn't understand, and it was really neat to see everything from his point of view. Sometimes the dialog and narration was stilted, but that was simply a minor problem. The people of his village were a simple lot, not even trying to get rid of the dragon, because they were told by the oracle that Seldis would do it. The simple poison worked into bags in the stomach of the sheep that the dragon ate was very effective, and I felt as Wuller did about the idea to sacrifice Seldis -nobody even asked if she was a virgin! And maybe the Dragon would know what would happen to him if fed one, so would refuse to eat her. I would have left the village, as Wuller did, also!

I don't remember which tales I didn't specifically like the first time I read the book, but apparently I enjoyed more of them this time. Some were better than others; most were very simple fairy tales, with simple characters, and a simply plot. The paintings that accompanied each story were a wonderful idea, as they accented each perfectly. I am not saying that I will return to short stories any time soon, but with this kind of quality, I would consider it.

 

 

3 stars

Read May 2nd to 18th, 1996  
    Some very excellent stories, and others I didn't enjoy as much.  Isaac Asimov's was hilarious!  
   

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