The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ

(mild spoilers)

Every book leads to another. In this case, looking up Fahfrd & The Grey Mouser on wikipedia led to me reading the following: “Joanna Russ was familiar with and appreciative of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, and in addition to critical reviews of Leiber, also referenced Fafhrd in her The Adventures of Alyx sequence as one of Alyx’s former lovers.” Joanna who, I asked myself? And how the fuck is Alyx?

Well apparently Joanna Russ was once a big deal and Alyx a time-travelling, wise-cracking, quick-thinking, hard-living adventuress she wrote about. That sort of thing is music to my ears and this collection of short stories and novellas by and large delivers on the promise of such a character. Best of all, she does it with heart and a purpose born from her own particular experiences and psychology.

Instead of looting ancient tomb and endangering dangerous species, Alyx rescues women from marriages (for a large sack of money) and guards the frivolous in paradise. She can be hired to steal but if she doesn’t like her employer’s morals, watch out.

The first half of this collection was compulsive reading. Russ’ prose and sense of humour is sharp and clear, mostly understated but no less effective when she goes for the loud and dramatic. Alyx is a splendid hero and the characters she deals with are well-drawn and quirky.

It went downhill for me when Picnic in Paradise, the fourth story, started to done on. It’s a lot longer than the others – possibly novella size – and expecting it to be short story size made the build up feel tedious. Even when I adjusted my expectations it never quite fulfilled the promise of the first three stories. Parts were brilliant, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. I liked it more than disliked it and it came together at the end, more or less, but I was as much relieved to hit the ending as excited.

The fifth story, The Second Inquisition, was a fairly action free first-person tale from the 1920s that doesn’t actually involve Alyx. It’s possible it has merit on its own but after being primed to want more stories like appear in this book, it missed the mark.

It’s a shame it ended in this way as otherwise this is a very solid piece of Science-Fantasy adventure that could easily find more fans today. Could and should. It’s well-written with a fine blend of picaresque and compassion, wildly imaginative yet down to earth. For any spec fic fans on the lookout for more tales of adventure, The Adventures of Alyx is well worth a look.

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