Monday, April 27, 2009

Witch High - ed. Denise Little

(Another one of Lindsey's insanely long anthology summaries. Run.)

The description - and a very entertaining introduction by Denise Little - makes this sound like a shared world anthology: the setting is described as the same fictional highschool. So of course, I am wondering if there's any crossover between characters … but I suspect that it's merely to provide a loose common framework.

I didn't find "Domestic Magic" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch a promising beginning. This is the tale of a young highschool student, blessed or cursed with domestic-based magic, who dreams that her old nemesis is burning up kids in the cafeteria. While the premise of someone whose magic has domestic capabilities is a clever one, and I enjoyed the use of prophecy and dreams in the story, I thought it suffered from two flaws. First, there seemed no reason to use first person present tense and it was distracting. (This is certainly personal: I don't find it works unless there there is a compelling reason for it - the story is being told in motion, the narration is alien in some way, etc.) Second, the use of severe torture didn't seem to fit the tone- even considering that it dealt with some dark subject matter, that particular turn made it difficult for me to grasp the story as a cohesive whole. Overall, it just didn't work for me.

Okay, I'm biased: I love Laura Resnick's sense of humor, and "Temporal Management" was a delicious and funny adventure for me. This is the story of a (too clever) student who decides to cook up some temporal magic to get through her heavy courseload. Besides the humor of the underlying story, there are lots of small tidbits throughout that are also laugh-out-loud. This is a smart, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable story. No complaints. (Boy, when was the last time I said THAT in a review?)

Phaedra M. Weldon offers "Boil and Bubble," which, apart from having a tenuous connection to its title - I swear the phrase was inserted into the story to justify said title - was an excellent read, turning from touches of mystery to an intriguing revelation. Kyle is invited to join the illustrious Omega Society, a mysterious organization that brings in one student a year. This story was paced perfectly and had a good sense of fair play without being an easy guess. My only objection is that conclusion had some awkward obscurity, and it raised questions about how a first person narrator would be able to tell a complete story under the circumstances.

I had some trouble with "Chemistry 101" by Pamela Luzier, the story of a young fire-witch, her crush on a boy, and adventures in chemistry class. Now, I was homeschooled and I never went through a boy-crazy phase, so I may have a skewed perspective, but though I felt sympathy for the character, the narration was so heavy with highschool idiom and the character's youth that I had difficulty enjoying it. That said, there is a cute concept here about fire powers, and you really do feel for Kenina's awkwardness.

Christina F. York provides "A Perfect Ten," the first third-person story in this anthology - involving the school's cheerleading squad and one girl's concern that the lead athlete is somehow cheating with magic. The first scene - and bits of the others - were so girl-clique that I had trouble reading them. I think a little goes a long way in that regard. It settles out, however, and I really liked the main character's guy-pal. Unfortunately, the mystery in the story was way too obvious, removing much of the tension because I could see what was coming a mile away.

Jody Lynn Nye's "Another Learning Experience" is another first: a story from the point of view of a teacher … or in this case, guidance counselor who fell into the role after a history of unrepentant prank-playing. I thought the setup was light and entertaining, and I loved the story's underlying message. However, I thought that the way the character's initial conversion (from hating her job to loving it) was described leaned on the pat side - too quick. This may have been to the better, as the story seemed to end abruptly, with a relatively brief mini-conflict (and a name mistake that should have been caught in copy-editing). Because I enjoyed the first half so much, I wanted more from it.

I had great fun with Sarah Zettel's "A Family Thing." The narrator strives to rescue her friend from the clutches of her grandmother, the Black Forest Witch, who would sweep her granddaughter away to Germany to follow in her footsteps. This story has a delightful use of traditions and bloodlines - both magical and technological - and takes some unique turns. The narrator has a strong and sympathetic voice while still being a convincing teenager. My only small quibble is I thought the element that provided the final solution was perhaps just a little underplayed earlier in the story.

Debra Dixon's "Coyote Run" is an entertaining tale of a girl searching for her familiar - and finding a dark and dangerous creature in the process. This story had an intriguing premise and a sympathetic main character … and I particularly liked how a few pieces of jewelry were incorporated into the story. This was a boy-pining character who came off convincing without being irritating. It is told with long first person sections, interspersed with briefer third person sections in another POV - once I got used to this, it flowed nicely, but I'm not sure the second narrator actually added anything. Overall, the story felt too short: there were pieces (particularly the conclusion) that seemed shortened, slighted or not fleshed out.

By now, I'm starting to get the sense that there were some basic groundrules laid down for this school by the editor. I've identified a few minor elements in different stories that could be argued are mutually exclusive, but you could make a decent case for this all occurring in the same setting. Cool!

Esther Friesner is a goddess. "You Got Served" is just more proof of this. This is a frothy concoction about the woman holding the worst job in a school of magic-wielding hooligans: the lunch-lady. The humor is bright, clever and peppered with grin-worthy moments, and the denouement was delightful (if just a little too easy in one respect). I also appreciated the vivid depiction of a character who just wanted to be a chef.

I was riveted by Bill McCay's "Remedial Magic," the second truly serious tale in this anthology. Saranne comes into her own as a magic user when her mother succumbs to cancer and fades into a coma. This story strikes just the right notes for being sorrowful without being a downer, and I became truly invested in the character early on. My quibble is that I didn't see the connection between the narrator's apparent talent of sucking magic away and what her gift is eventually revealed to be.

From Pauline J. Alama comes "Homecoming Crone," an entertaining story about two outsiders who bond together to defeat the clique known only as the Wickeds. So being picked on by the popular girls and deciding to thwart them in turn is really old hat - but the other elements in this story, including the family lineages, power effects, and the significance of Homecoming, were applied in interesting and engaging ways. Maria and Holly were definitely characters to cheer for.

It took me this long to realize that the vast majority of these stories are told from the female POV. (Yeah, I know.) Is this in response / rebuttal to the Harry Potter phenomenon? Either way, I would have liked to see more magical football jocks and boy problems. However, I also noticed that all but one of the authors were female, which would partly explain the spread.

Karen Fox's "Late Bloomer" suffered a little from its placement in the anthology - while the main character's crush is cute, it feels a bit stale after several other variants of the same thing. I think if I read the story out of context, I would have enjoyed this aspect more. Luckily, the story of Abbi, the only student in school who has no apparent magical talent, has other things to recommend it. Her struggles to fit in are engaging, and even though I saw her eventual power coming about halfway through the story, the anticipation just enhanced it. This is a sweet, fun tale.

"The Price of Gold" by Sarah A. Hoyt got off to a rough start, but it drew me in with an intriguing situation, a unique talent and a lovely conclusion. Interesting contrast from the previous story, this one follows the girl who has too much magic and is ostracized because of it. She sets herself to the task of finding a missing student, son of two wealthy and influential sorcerers … who appears to have no magic himself. My issue with the opening of this tale is that the first scene (and to a lesser extent, the second scene) felt less like the narrator's thought process as someone standing above her explaining things. Other than that, nicely done.

The final story, "The House" by Diane Duane is clever with an entertaining conclusion. Unfortunately, the charming details of spellcraft, cookcraft and humor are somewhat lost to the length of the tale. Done wrong by her would-be parascience partner Arthur, Brianna cooks up - literally - an idea to recreate a certain famous fairytale house. I did appreciate the fact that this story didn't have the expected romantic subplot; it was a nice subversion at the end of the anthology.

To sum up, there are four stories I thought really shined: "Temporal Management," "Boil and Bubble," "You Got Served" and "Remedial Magic." I thought that none of the stories were really disappointing - they were all at least readable. You do get a sense that all this could have occurred in the same school, which is nicely done for fourteen authors who don't seem to have a detailed world handbook. I'm still disappointed there weren't more guy-student stories. I also noticed that the first person / third person stories were badly divided - the book was almost straight down the middle. Still, even though the anthology started and ended weak, it delivered a lot of good stories overall. Worth a read, maybe not in the order the editor intended.

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