Ursula LeGuin The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975)
I've actually already read half of these short stories, having picked up The Wind's Twelve Quarters volume two some years ago which, bewilderingly, wasn't a further grouping of tales following on from this collection, but is actually the second half of this book divided and published as two separate volumes for no immediately obvious reason.
Ursula LeGuin writes fiction of undeniably literary character which tends to use genre as the narrative demands. Some of her work is easily identified as fantasy in that it features wizards and the like, and whilst sometimes this works fine for me, as a rule I tend to glaze over during passages in which people say 'twas and yonder or address each other as my liege. Simak pulled it off admirably in The Fellowship of the Talisman because he's Simak, and although it might be argued that LeGuin is either the better or at least the more poetically erudite writer - not that I'd necessarily agree with either - she's a lot more readable when there's some contrast between the setting and the language by which it is described; in other words those tales of Kings and their dragons to which her writing seems best-suited engage me less than the more fantastic scenarios involving space travel and life on other planets, these being rendered all the more plausible through the sharp relief of faintly Baroque prose.
I say that the collection was divided into two separate volumes for no immediately obvious reason, but having come to the end of the last and seventeenth story, I'm inclined to wonder if somebody at Panther - publishers of the bifurcated edition - didn't deem this material just a bit too chewy for 275 pages, deciding that it might work better served in smaller helpings. It isn't that LeGuin is a bad writer - far from it, given the excellence of The Left Hand of Darkness and at least a few of the stories here - but God her prose can be dry and uninviting at times.
I'm not even sure why this should be, or perhaps more fairly why I myself should find this to be the case, but even though I'd already read half of the stories included, I just couldn't get on with this collection and actually found the author's notes more engaging than many of the tales they introduced. Semley's Necklace, April in Paris, Things, The Stars Below, and Direction of the Road each stood out as wonderful and perfectly formed almost to the point of absurdity, and given that I've been unable to detect any obvious variation in quality of writing, I have absolutely no idea why the other stories did so little for me. What a strange book.