Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: This is How You Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki!

Earlier this summer, I tripped up on the book Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics), short fiction writer Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki! (of Wondermark). The book is a massive collection of short stories centered around the same premise: an invention that tells you how you will die. Suddenly, you get a bunch of different takes from a variety of authors on the topic, and there really isn't a bad one in the batch. For such a seemingly limiting topic, there's not too much overlap and there's lot of humor to go along with the darker, more serious stories.

I don't generally like short fiction as a rule, but this had a lot going for it - humor, interesting social commentary, and lots of death. Recently, the sequel, This is How You Die came out, and it's chock full of more death.

Where Machine of Death succeeded is how well it struck a balance. Every story felt like it could be a realistic take on what a society with a machine that predicts death would be like. In the afterword of This is How You Die, North talks about a bit of a struggle with editing the first volume, and the results of those struggles come through somewhat with a second volume that is a little more adventurous and a little less accessible as a result.

Things I liked included the attempt to spread their wings on the concept a bit. There's a Sherlock Holmes tale, there's some alternate histories, some futuristic scenarios, it feels a lot more like a genre piece than a concept piece. There are also some great illustrations to go along with the first book, and I might come right out and say that the illustrations in this one are much better than in the first book.

If I have a complaint, it's that the conceit is far from played out, but the story selection came across as if they needed to go into different directions with the concept. I understand the fears of wanting to not act as if the second book was a collection of b-sides or also-rans, but some of the stories fell flat less because they were bad stories, but more because they were stories with a tenuous relationship to the topic that almost felt shoehorned in.

My complaints should not keep anyone away from this book or Machine of Death, however. They're both really solid pieces with stories of a good enough length where you can visit regularly and not get tired of anything, and there are still a ton of gems in This is How You Die to be a great second volume and companion piece.

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