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Fantastic Companions

by Julie E. Czerneda, ed.

The use of animal companions in fantasy writing is a difficult balancing act: walking the line between coy anthropomorphism (with its risk of sentimentality) and sage-like omnipotence is a feat for even the most seasoned writer. Thus Fantastic Companions, a new collection of contemporary fantasy writing dedicated to beastly sidekicks, comes as a most pleasant surprise.

The latest volume in Realms of Wonder (an ongoing series of fantasy collections intended for both the trade and educational YA markets), skillfully edited by Toronto writer Julie E. Czerneda, collects 19 them-atically linked stories. Although many of the writers are new or little-known (Janny Wurts probably has the highest profile), there’s not a single dud in the collection. In fact, it’s among the strongest anthologies of fantasy fiction in recent memory.

Although intended for young adult readers, the stories don’t feel constrained by that target audience (there is no sex, but there is some violence here and there), and the collection will appeal to adult readers. It serves as an effective sampler of contemporary fantasy, with stories ranging from traditional high fantasy to gritty urban fantasy, from the folk-tale-inspired to the scientifically informed.

Among the highlights are: Matt Walker’s “The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake,” a delightful fantasy in which the animal characters in a child’s books come to life and lead him on a quest; Vancouver astronomer Daniel Archambault’s “A Sirius Situation,” an amusing romp that begins when Ursa Minor and Canis Major chase each other out of the sky and into a suburban backyard; and Connecticut writer Fran LaPlaca’s first published fiction, “Wings to Fly,” which maintains a folk-tale tone in its chronicling of a young woman coming of age guided by a crow.

Truth be told, however, they’re all highlights – none of these stories is anything less than solid, and most of them soar. Highly recommended for any reader.