Mixing traditional symbols and ideas of the afterlife with parodies and fragments of the real world, this anthology provides a solid frame of reference without rendering the afterlife in any way mundane.
This anthology contains eleven stories from a variety of authors set in a common universe. Each story follows a recently deceased person as they discover that they are in a hell designed for them, and that they can leave if they learn the lesson it’s designed to teach.
The feature most likely to divide readers is the lack of answers. While each story is based around the protagonist (or protagonists) having an opportunity to learn a lesson to leave hell, most of the stories end without the protagonist achieving freedom or even gaining an idea what they should be doing. Some of the stories feature rules or guidance for finding the way out, but those stories where the rules are clearest provide no idea what lesson following them will teach. And where a protagonist does leave their hell, the reader is not told what the lesson was. As such, readers will probably find the stories either an annoying tease without a satisfying ending, or an amusing challenge that captures the essence of the challenge facing the protagonists.
Apart from this common trait of obfuscation, the stories display a wide diversity of styles and approaches to the theme. Some hells are closer to the traditional uncomfortable realm of punishment, others are outwardly pleasant other than the subtle pressure to consider the lesson.
However, the closer these trappings are to the classic symbols of faith, the more they are subverted. Sinners writhe in burning lakes, but take statutory breaks with their tormentors. Demons stalk on goat legs, but take their horns off when they aren’t working. While initially amusing, this layer of irony also destroys the readers certainty in the symbols they do recognise, adding to the sense that everything is stage-managed to support a lesson that isn’t obvious.
This range of qualities applies equally to the protagonists. Religious people discover that they didn’t follow the right faith in the right way. Atheists rage argue against the injustice of a deity who didn’t provide any clues to the right faith. Children face lessons for not having parents who raised them in the right faith.
And at least one protagonist wanders through other people’s hells (and stories) remaining constant yet only adding to the lack of answers.
Overall, I enjoyed this anthology. I recommend it to readers looking for fantasy with a thought-provoking or surreal edge.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.