The metaphysics of feminism and the baroque influence of the late Angela Carter are weighty presences in this generally accomplished collection of 30 stories by British author Maitland (Ancestral Truths, 1994), etc. A suave, amused narrative voice--sometimes first-person, sometimes omniscient, unafraid to address the reader directly--is a virtual constant in these witty, skillfully woven tales, whose variety and vitality are compromised chiefly by a recurring (and off-putting) impression of smugness. Several contemporary pieces, which tend to focus on women's erotic, marital, or maternal dilemmas, include ``The Loveliness of the Long-Distance Runner,'' ``The Eighth Planet,'' and the amusingly grisly ``Apple Picking.'' The many stories inspired by history or legend are stronger, with several based on Greek myths, others on European folk tales: ``Cassandra'' explains how its title character received the ``gift'' of prophecy from her lover Apollo; the title piece presents the witch from ``Hansel and Gretel'' as a conscientious midwife and abortionist; and ``The Wicked Stepmother's Lament'' memorably justifies that character's mistreatment of Cinderella (``I just wanted her . . . to see that life is not all sweetness and light . . . that fairy godmothers are unreliable . . . and that even the most silvery of princes soon goes out hunting and fighting and drinking and whoring''). If Maitland's weaker tales display a jarring archness, her better ones may be said to succeed precisely because they embrace a variety of viewpoints and allow her readers room for choice among them. ``An Edwardian Tableau,'' for example, which features superbly contrived period language, reveals the confusion of conflicting emotions in the suffragist movement. Even better is ``The Burning Times,'' a complex and powerful portrayal of awakening lesbianism set in Europe during the Middle Ages and capped by a truly magnificent and disturbing final sentence. Strong and challenging work from a highly skilled writer who, apart from a tendency toward argumentative stridency, may be counted among the best of her generation.