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Under Cover of Darkness by Julie E. Czerneda and Jana Paniccia

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

What is the allure of the idea of a secret society running things from the shadows behind everyday life? We need only look at the popularity of conspiracy theory Websites on the Internet to know it exists and its pull is strong. In this volume the editors have brought together fourteen stories that illuminate the fascination that the idea of a secret group of movers and shakers holds for us.

In antiquity unwanted infants were routinely exposed -- left outside to die, or to be picked up by any passer-by who might take pity on them or see their raising as a worthwhile investment. In "The Scoria" Doranna Durgin gives us a secret society who make it their business to find such children and rescue them, raising them to take their place in the order. However, such a group, taking its strength from society's acts of rejection and owing no allegiance to the authorities, will be seen as a profound threat. And doubly so when a significant part of those rejected people have strange magical gifts which might give them the power to overturn the system that condemned them to a death they narrowly escaped.

Larry Niven's "The Gatherers' Guild" takes us to a United States at once familiar yet strangely changed, where the various taxing agencies strive against one another in an endless hidden war. It's also a world where Proxmire never got the Saturn V production line destroyed and we have a base on the Moon, so you'll have to read it for yourself and decide whether it's better or worse than our own.

In "Kyri's Gauntlet" Darwin A Garrison takes us to a future where the Coven battles the tyranny of the Ogliarchy with the assistance of bioengineered hamster-like organisms. But they're not strong enough to stand against the Ogliarchy, and need allies. But just because another group also opposes their enemy, will they necessarily make a reliable ally? Thus it becomes necessary to present them with a test -- but even that examination has to be done in secret to ensure it cannot be gamed.

When people start talking about secret societies, the Freemasons are one of the first to come to mind. Of course they're not all that secret -- almost everyone knows where the local Masonic lodge is located, and many famous people are known to have been Freemasons, including several Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. But what if there really were grand secrets of profound antiquity behind all the appearance of harmless flummery? In "Falling Like the Gentle Rain" Nick Pollotta takes a humorous look at just what kinds of grand secrets might be lurking under your local Masonic lodge, and what might happen if evil powers of equal antiquity might broach those secrets.

Everybody knows… -- how many statements that start with those two words are in fact wrong? That's the central theme of Tanya Huff's "The Things Everyone Knows." It starts with our protagonist being caught at a bungled heist, and sent to scout the Necropolis to find out just who is behind the conspiracy that's gnawing at the foundations of society. Except sometimes the disaffected aren't necessarily the marginalized and despised that everyone assumes must be fomenting rebellion.

In "The Invisible Order" Paul Crilley takes us to a strange alternate London, and to a secret battle among the factions of the Fair Folk. Emily Doyle is a young mortal woman who has to thread her way through the intricacy of alliances and lies to find out what's really going on.

What is time? We can spend it, waste it, while it away. In "Borrowed Time" Stephen Kotowych gives us a secret society of Chronographers who are dedicated to salvaging all the time that people let slip away --but what if they're not doing anyone a service, but actually bringing about terrible harm? Might some of their number form a society within a society dedicated to righting the wrong?

Janet Deaver-Pack's "Shadow of the Scimitar" takes us to 1917 and the Middle East, where Lawrence of Arabia bridges East and West. However, the Society of the Rosy Cross, the Rosicrucians, have taken a most peculiar interest in events in this desolate corner of the world.

In "The Good Samaritan" Amanda Bloss Maloney gives us another tale of the Fair Folk, this time in a contemporary multicultural setting. But behind everything humanity had achieved, all the learning and technology, lies the endless meddling of the Fairies, both the Seelie and Unseelie courts.

Among beginning writers there's a lot of talk about secret handshakes that will open the doors to publication. In "Seeking the Master" Esther M. Friesner sends it up with the protagonist's initiation into a circle that opens doors of success -- but there is only so much room in it. For every new member who enters, an existing one who has proved unsatisfactory must be expelled. A situation that results in the most interesting level of competition.

Russell Davis gives us a story of covert operations and wet work in "When I Look to the Sky." The protagonist is the husband of a successful politician -- and an assassin. Until the nightmarish day when he accepts an assignment only to discover that the designated victim is his own wife. And in doing so he attracts the attentions of a mysterious organization that guards the integrity of history itself.

In "The Sundering Star" Janny Wurts gives us the story of a woman whose divided loyalties lead to a terrible choice. An entire world hangs in the balance, and she must navigate the path between disasters.

Jihane Noskateb's "The Exile's Path" tells the story of a society settled by successive generations of interstellar travelers. Those who left on the earliest ship arrived latest, for in the intervening years Earthbound humanity developed faster means of travel and leapfrogged ahead of them. Because the people of the generation ship underwent mutation in the slow centuries of their journey, they are no longer interfertile with the bulk of humanity -- but they remain close enough that they can still fall in love and be loved, a situation intensively offensive, even threatening to some.

So threatening that some would even commit murder against those they no longer consider to be fully human and would consign to second-class status. It is such a murder that the protagonist must investigate -- and in doing so comes into conflict with the hidden movers and shakers of her society.

Immortality has been one of the great yearnings of humanity, and many stories tell of hidden treasures that will grant it to those who can penetrate the secret. In "The Dancer at the Red Door" Douglas Smith gives us the story of a man who seemingly has everything, but remains persistently dissatisfied and doesn't know why. And one day he encounters a beautiful woman and follows her to the meetingplace of a secret society of immortals. A society to which he was once introduced only to be rejected, his memories of the encounter effaced. This time he is determined not to be turned aside, and will do whatever it takes to keep what he has discovered.

In all, this volume is a fascinating look into the hidden worlds that exist alongside the ordinary world of daily life.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Julie E. Czerneda and Jana Paniccia
  • "The Scoria" by Doranna Durgin
  • "The Gatherersl Guild" by Larry Niven
  • "Kyri's Gauntlet" by Darwin A. Garrison
  • "Falling Like the Gentle Rain" by Nick Pollotta
  • "The Things Everyone Knows" by Tanya Huff
  • "The Invisible Order" by Paul Crilley
  • "Borrowed Time" by Stephen Kotowych
  • "Shadow of the Scimitar" by Janer Deaver-Pack
  • "The Good Samaritan" by Amanda Bloss Maloney
  • "Seeking the Master" by Esther M. Friesner
  • "When I Look to the Sky" by Russell Davis
  • "The Sundering Star" by Janny Wurts
  • "The Exile's Path" by Jihane Noskateb
  • "The Dancer at the Red Door" by Douglas Smith

Review posted January 11, 2012.

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