Fantasy collections tend to be like the genre itself: a few gems among the dross. This collection is a refreshing exception, with many good stories and only a few that I didn't enjoy. Mike Ashley displays a great deal of knowledge about the genre and about what makes a good fantasy story.
"Mammoth Book" kicks off with an intriguing story by Theodore R. Cogswell, "The Wall Around the World," a HP-esque story of a wizard boy who yearns to cross an incredibly high wall that blocks off another part of the world. "Darkrose and Diamond" is one of Ursula Le Guin's returns to Earthsea, a touching little love story. Robert E. Howard's "Valley of the Worm" is a relatively dry piece of work about a warrior reliving a battle against a monster. Ashley then digs back to the very beginning of fantasy for George MacDonald's "Golden Key," a story about a young boy who finds a strange golden key. Another pre-Tolkien master is Lord Dunsany, whose chilling "Hoard of the Gibbelins" tells about a man's run-in with the goblin-like Gibbelins, who eat "nothing less good than man." Clark Ashton Smith's "The Last Hieroglyph" is a vaguely Dunsanian story taking place on a future time when the world is dying. Jack Vance's "Sorcerer Pharesm" is an intriguing story about the naive thief Cugel and the creature TOTALITY.
Darrell Schweitzer's "King Yvorian's Wager" is a very traditional-feeling fable about a proud king who makes a wager with Rada Vatu, a very sinister god. Fritz Leiber's "Howling Tower" is a story about a barbarian and his sidekick Gray Mouser, who find a strange tower in a wasteland, and a man who has been afraid for many years. Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn bring back Moorcock's classic anti-hero Elric of Melnibone for an adventure with a love interest, ghouls, and a mad minstrel. Robert Zelazny brings Dilvish the Damned from Hell for a new battle in "Bells of Shoredan." Tanith Lee produces an intriguing, beautifully-written short story in "Hero at the Gates," where a strange man arrives to help a desert city escape an evil scourge. Patricia McKillip's beautiful "Lady of the Skulls" has a group of men arriving at the home of the mysterious Lady. Louisa Cooper's "Sunlight on the Water" is an excellent story, in which a man mourning his beloved late wife finds out a few things he hadn't noticed about her personality. Harlan Ellison's "Paladin of the Lost Hour" is about young Billy's friendship with the strange old Gaspar, who hides a secret side to his personality.
Theodore Sturgeon provides the slightly disturbing "Yesterday Was Monday," in which it is found that the world is only illusion. Charles de Lint's "Pixel Pixies" is a light fantasy about irritating little pixies and industrious hobs. Another classic fantasy is A. Merrit's "Moon Pool," a bizarre fantasy about strange and beautiful things along the moon path. Lucius Shepard's "Man Who Painted the Dragom Griaule" includes many of the usual trappings of fantasy, but thankfully does not fit into the ordinary mold. James P. Blaylock's "Nets of Silver and Gold" is an intriguing story about two childhood friends, one of whom definitely has an unusual outlook. Lisa Goldstein's "Phantasma of Q____" takes place in a world quite like ours, except slightly different in its fantasy elements, in which a phantasma has shown up in front of the author. James Womack earns an "Audience," a poignant story in which a curator tells a saddening story to the narrator. And the collection rounds out with Michael Swanwick's "Edge of the World," a slightly bizarre but very snappy story.
With a gorgeous, intricate cover and a foreword by Ashley before every story, this is obviously not a quick-and-dirty collection. Rather, it shows a great deal of thought. Only a few of the stories left me unaffected; I wasn't really impressed by Moorcock's, Howard's, or Sturgeon's. On the other hand, most of the others were ones I had not read before, and I enjoyed the introduction to underrated fantasy authors.
Fantasy fans searching for good, original, non-derivative reads should check out this book, for stories ranging from earliest fantasy to modern-day twists and turns. Good work, Mr. Ashley.