Reading Alternate Plains is like eating your way through a tasting platter at an experimental new restaurant. Some stories will be to your taste. Some will not. Maybe you’re more interested in a raconteur’s yarn about cursed hockey skates than a self-aware YA fantasy escapade in a dusty coal town ravaged by climate change, or vice versa. There are 12 stories here, curated to showcase diverse flavours of prairie speculative fiction, and some will resonate more than others.
The most frustrating part of Alternate Plains is not the stories that leave no impression—it’s the stories that tantalize, only to end too quickly. Linda Trinh’s “Eggshells” includes fascinating references to Vietnamese mythology and a protagonist who finds a sliver of magical amber eggshell embedded in her body. Rhonda Parrish’s “Purple City” uses an iconic piece of Edmonton folk legend to explore grief and loss. These stories are beautifully written and chock full of interesting characters and settings. But they (and several others) read like first chapters of longer works, and therefore leave you feeling incomplete. This may be an effective strategy for inspiring readers to explore the author’s other works and see if there is indeed a continuation of the story in a longer form. But for this anthology it means we get many setups and few resolutions.
Nonetheless, a few standout stories work as standalone narratives. Sheryl Normandeau’s “The Slough” oozes with a dark, prairie gothic vibe, telling the tale of a demon-infested farm pond. Chadick Ginther’s “Lurkers in the Leaves” is a captivating blend of body horror and magical forest enchantment.
Wayne Santos’s “Yet Another Roadside Manifestation” combines the best of both worlds, telling a complete story—about a transdimensional being hatching from the Vegreville pysanka (egg)—that could also function as the pilot episode of a “monster of the week” TV show or a graphic novel series. It also provides a rare and palate-cleansing moment of comedy amid the otherwise mostly morbid and macabre stories.
Indeed, the collection leans more towards grim and grisly than quirk and whimsy. But within these darker tones, the editors have expertly balanced a range of genres—from hard and soft sci-fi and fantasy to ghost stories to straight horror. They have also made sure to include stories with totems of folk history that ground the book to its chosen region—from Manitoba’s Halfway Tree to Edmonton’s Purple City.
Ultimately, Alternate Plains provides an effective sample menu of fantastical stories. Some are sharp and spicy. Some are acidic and icy. And some leave you hungry for more.
—Bruce Cinnamon is the author of The Melting Queen.