After the King: Stories In Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien
This excellent collection is of a much higher level than most of fantasy anthologies I read in the past and I must say that when I closed it, I was very impressed.
That being said, none of the stories comes anywhere close Tolkien's style of writing and in my modest opinion none is as good as his works. I agree also with some of the other reviewers, that naming this collection "stories in honour of J.R.R. Tolkien" is mostly a MARKETING STUNT. But still, let's stress it again - this is a VERY HIGH QUALITY collection and I enjoyed those stories mightily (with just two exceptions). Below you will find some more details, with LIMITED SPOILERS.
"Reave the Just" by Stephen R. Donaldson - a nice although a little bit simple young man tries to seduce an attractive and very wealthy widow, by using a little bit of magic - and that will get him in lots of trouble... I liked this story very much and as of Reave the Just himself I found him an absolutely impressive character. And this is a high praise coming from me because I must confess here that I absolutely hated Stephen R. Donaldson's opus magnum "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" and was very prejudiced against this writer when starting to read this collection. "Reave the Just" however reconciled me with him (although definitely not with his Thomas Covenant books...)
"Troll Bridge" by Terry Pratchett - well, the Great Master of humoristic fantasy can do not wrong, so I am certain that you will find this short adventure of Cohen the Barbarian funny and entertaining - I certainly did
"A long night's vigil at the Temple" by Robert Silverberg - this story is as much SF as fantasy, but I found it very good, as can be expected from such a famous writer; it treats of a founding myth of an ancient religion and an unexpected revelation which can shake this old belief to the core; although Christianity does not exist in this particular world, it made me think of this fundamental Christian belief - "the truth sets us free"...
"The Dragon of Tollin" by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough - this is the one story in this collection that seems at least a little bit close to what Tolkien wrote; a very powerful story about a kind of dragon whose greatest power (and danger) lies not in its gargantuan size, thick armour and incredibly fierce flames but in something much more surprising, not usually associated with the great scaly worms...
"Faith" by Poul and Karen Anderson - this story taking place mostly in a goblin fortress is I believe the best in the whole book; its quality is extremely high and it is very touching, although in places it is also heartbreaking; from the first page it is immediately clear that Poul Anderson didn't steal those seven Hugo Awards he got...
"In the season of the Dressing of the Wells" by John Brunner - another great name (although more associated with SF than fantasy) and another great story; in the 1920s, a young English gentleman, returned very damaged from the trenches of I World War, gets involved in a conflict between his wealthy aunt and her tenants concerning an ancient pagan tradition which somehow survived until now in this one village of England; the story is very well written and I enjoyed it, but I must say that I was very shocked by one particular choice of the author - he made his hero lose his Christian faith in the trenches "because he couldn't anymore worship a God who allows such atrocities" - but if he was so offended by the "heartless" Christian God, how come he immediately traded Him against the worship of a heathen divinity which unashamedly asks for human sacrifices?
"The fellowship of the Dragon" by Patricia A. McKillip - this is a "feminist" fantasy story, in which the Queen of the land summons her most trusted knights, all women, to go and look for her lost bard (who, together with the Dragon, is the only guy in the whole story); they obediently set on the quest, leaving their children with husbands... The story is quite well written, very well imitating the style of classical fairy tales and I rather liked it, even if I am not really a big fan of this "feminist" kind of stories. You must be however warned that the ending is not a real ending and in fact this whole story looks like the first chapter of a novel, which was never written...
"The decoy duck" by Harry Turtledove - this short story takes place in Turtledove's famous Videssos universe; if you are not yet familiar with it, it is important to know that in this world the two central powers are Videssos, an empire looking very much like VII century Byzantium, and Makuran, which is a mirror image of VII century Persia (before Muslim conquest); there are also some other minor forces, amongst which the Haloga northern tribes (the Vikings).
In Videssos the dominating religion is the monotheistic cult of Phaos (the equivalent of Christianity), but the Haloga are still polytheistic heathens, worshipping their own pantheon of grim, warlike deities. In this story a young Haloga who converted to Videssos religion and accepted Phaos as only God, comes to his native north to preach and convert - and faces the hostility of local elders.
This is a good story, but in my modest opinion Harry Turtledove, all professor of medieval history that he is, completely misunderstood how such missions worked and how powerful they could be - after all, in the real history, the terrible Norsemen defeated all their enemies, killed and enslaved innumerable thousands and conquered, burned and pillaged whole realms just to ultimately bow to the Christian faith brought to them not by conquering kings but by humble priests and monks (some being their slaves), many of which were martyred in the process...
"Nine thread of gold" by Andre Norton - the Great Lady of fantasy and witchcraft produced here another of her enchanting stories, in which a mysterious woman comes to take care of nine children, who hide in a ruined tower in the wilderness from the rampaging hordes of conquering barbarians; in this quite long story finally not so much happens - but Andre Norton's unique style of writing makes it a very pleasant and soothing read.
"The conjure man" by Charles De Lint - this story occurs in present times America and turns around an eccentric homeless man; not a bad story but clearly much weaker than all the previous ones, at least to my personal taste
"The Halfling house" by Dennis L. McKiernan - a particularly merry and funny story in which a bunch of fairy people (including a Brownie, a Pixie and a Leprechaun) try to rescue two of their kind who got lost and ultimately captured in a very nasty place... With some allusions to Tolkien and Lovecraft books skilfully included, this is a real pleasure to read.
"Silver or gold" by Emma Bull - a young village witch, Moon Very Thin, goes on a quest looking for her old teacher and mentor, Alder Owl. Usually, I am not a great fan of this kind of feminist stories dominated by the cult of the Great Mother and women controlled witchcraft - but in this one, Moon Very Thin captured my heart after a couple of pages and I couldn't stop to read about her adventures, being more and more scared for her and wishing her the best luck. An excellent story of highest quality with a lot of surprising twists!
"Up the side of the air" by Karen Haber - that is in my modest opinion the second weakest story in the book; it describes the tribulations of an aging wizard who reluctantly accepted a little girl as his apprentice. It is another feminist story, but this one I did not like at all. The only good thing about it is its shortness.
"The Naga" by Peter S. Beagle - a quite honest fairy tale describing a creature from Far East lore and her love for a mortal; maybe not really great, but a good read
"Revolt of the Sugar Plum Fairies" by Mike Resnick - a quite funny short story about a group of extremely upset fairy men, who want to take revenge on Disney and Tchaikovsky; indeed, they consider that their people were shown in an insulting way in "Nutcracker" and "Fantasia"; it is not really a masterpiece, but the fairies are a colourful bunch and their interaction with our world is very entertaining
"Winter's King" by Jane Yolen - a sad short story about a child which should not have been born alive, in which author seems to imitate a little bit the style of Hans Christian Andersen; but there was only one Andersen, and Jane Yolen is not him... It is an honest effort, but nothing more.
"Gotterdammerung" by Barry N. Malzberg - another short story which includes some elements of Wagnerian lore; it could have been really funny, but I had the impression that it is just a part of a longer story, that the rest was lost in a computer crash and then author simply send what was left to the editor... I did not like it very much.
"Down the river road" by Gregory Benford - this is in the same time one of the longest and in my opinion absolutely the weakest story in the collection. This is in fact a SF story, which seems to take place in a wrecked gigantic space ship floating across the space. The ship is so enormous that a gigantic river of liquid metal, at least as long as Nile flows across it and people live in towns on its shores. The river is the main communication artery of this "world", as people learned to navigate on its metallic waves.
The hero of the story is a young boy descending the river looking for his father. It could be a good story, but author added one more element - it seems that time flows very differently in every section of this "world" and towards the middle of the story things got so complicated that I got completely lost. The hero acts weirder and weirder with every page and most mysteries of this world are left completely unsolved. I completely did not understand the ending of the story (well, may be you will have better luck with that) and as far as I am concerned this is really a long and boring failure.
"Death and the Lady" by Judith Tarr - one more feminist story, with an almost exclusively female casting and the only man being (of course) the villain; but again, the quality of this story is so high and the main hero (Jeannette Laclos, a peasant woman living in XIV century France) is so gentle and in the same time so brave, that it charmed me greatly and I am really happy that I read it. It is a very good ending for an excellent collection of fantasy stories.
CONCLUSION: this is an excellent book, which I recommend wholeheartedly. Enjoy!