Saturday, August 15, 2009


WIZARDS Anthology - Edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

I've heard this praised as one of the best anthologies of 2007 - so I figured no one would mind if little ol' me took a crack at evaluating it. Also, I was genuinely hoping for an excellent read.

Neil Gaiman's "The Witch's Headstone" was a wonderful opening to this anthology. It's an intriguing story, steeped in folklore and a sense of timelessness, about Bod (or Nobody) Owens, a boy who meets the ghost of a witch and promises to buy her a headstone. The development of the fantastic angle in the opening is particularly well-handled: it sneaks up on you and yet seems perfectly normal in context with this strange little boy. My only quibble is that I wanted to see more plot and conflict; it seemed that the premise was underused in such a short space.

I had mixed feelings about Garth Nix's "Holly and Iron." The historical setting, intertwined with magic, was immersive and authentic, and follows the struggles of the outcast heir to Ingland to reclaim the kingdom and take revenge. However, I found the main character, Robin, difficult to sympathize with. She seemed selfish and somewhat petulant, making the same mistakes in a tale that was somewhat longer than it needed to be. On a technical level, the opening could be clearer about the distinction between the two types of magic, and the Robin's goal in the later part of the story is made unnecessarily coy. You can read between the lines, but the very vagueness of it made me think something more complex was occurring. Kudos for the weaving of legend and magic, however.

I enjoyed "Color Vision" by Mary Rosenblum, which has a particularly fun opening sequence: an ability is displayed which looks supernatural, but turns out to have a rational explanation. However, it still deftly sets the scene for the real magic and the villain. Melanie has synesthesia and is also a Firstborn, a user of magic. When the new principal's silver words disrupt her world, she must find a way to defeat him. I dislike the gratuituous use of present tense and I think there were some holes in the logic in this story - why don't the Firstborn band together? Why wasn't the solution in the end of the story tried earlier? (and some things that would give away plot points) - but overall, I found it a satisfying read.

I was absolutely delighted with Kage Baker's "The Ruby Incomparable," a fairy-tale style story about the daughter of the tyrannical Master of the Mountain and the Saint of the World - a headstrong girl who surprises everyone. It was beautiful, it was engaging, Svnae sharply defined and fascinating to follow. Even with many years and many adventurers summarized, it holds the attention. (I can even forgive Baker for giving the main character an unpronouncable name.)

"A Fowl Tale" by Eoin Colfer made me laugh. This short, snappy comic tale is about an enchanted dove who must tell a story for his supper. The references to popular storylines - and seven master plots - particularly tickled my fancy. A charming story, well worth the brief read.

At this point, I have to say: if this is representative of the quality of the whole anthology, I will be a very happy reader.

Jane Yolen's "Slipping Sideways Through Eternity" certainly does not break this trend. This is the story of a young Jewish girl who sees Elijah during a Passover and finds herself aiding him. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching, always absorbing, this story follows our narrator through history. I loved how her talent for art, casually woven into the story at first, proved to play a central role - though by contrast, I thought it wasn't expanded well enough for the final conclusion. Still, a thoroughly satisfying read.

I enjoyed the conclusion of Tad Williams' "The Stranger's Hands," but I thought the story took too long to get there, and didn't give quite enough reason for the reader to be interested in waiting. A mysterious stranger appears in a small village and begins granting people their hearts' desires - but why? The question of the stranger and his origins is intriguing, but it is difficult to attach to any of the characters, and the story lacks some tension. I think the last seven pages or so could have been made the bulk of the tale - and like that, it would have been almost flawless.

The style and story of "Naming Day" by Patricia McKillip are light and enjoyable. This is the story of Averil, the best student at her sorcerous school, who can't decide what secret name to take. I sympathized with Averil while seeing her selfishness - a nice bit of work - but I still thought that her mother's response was unfair, and I was disappointed we never do find out what name she chose. (I think the author meant the method of naming to be important enough, but I still wanted the what.) The story also suffered from an unclear setting; it took me a while to be sure that it was in our world rather than a more technological fantasy setting. I did, however, very much like Averil's interactions with Fitch: it could have easily become a cliché, but was perfectly pitched. Cute story, but not one of my favorites.

Elizabeth Hand's "Winter's Wife" is a subtle, under-the-surface story that would have been perfect at a third of its length. As it is, this story about a man who brings back a mysterious wife who is not all she seems - told from the point of view of a teenaged neighbor - is too long, too stuffed with unnecessary details, and takes too long building to what should have been (for the length) an explosive pay-off. Every individual part of the story is well-written, but there is far too much meat on the bone.

At this point, I am really hankering for some solid worldbuilding. Most of these stories are set in our world; others are set in a blurry standard fantasy world. Baker's story included some intriguing setting details, and I did love the mythic-fantastic setting interpolated on Nix's tale, but I'm waiting for a world with unusual magic and an equally unusual sorcerer.

Winner of the longest title, Andy Duncan provides "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil's Ninth Question," which follows the adventures of young Pearl as she steps through a showman's attraction - the diorama of the title - into a house of ghosts and secrets. This is a lively, quirky story with an entertaining tone and some amusing details. However, the elements are puzzling and some of the nonsensical parts - the important ones, as opposed to the just-fun ones you let dart past you - never resolve, leaving the story with an unsatisfying gnaw at the back of the brain.

Peter S. Beagle finally gives me the worldbuilding I crave with "Barrens Dance," a narrated legend of what occurs when the sorcerer Carcharos - master of dance - falls in love with the wife of a shukri trainer. This is a story in the best tradition of fairytales; if it moves somewhat ponderously in the beginning, it is forgiveable. I wish that the shukris had been described properly earlier in the story, but that is the only other complaint I have: the ending contains both a satisfying conclusion and a justification for the frame narration - to say more would be to ruin it.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed "Stone Man" by Nancy Kress, considering it deals with one of the elements of fantasy-into-the-mundane-world that I find the most exasperating: how long it takes a character to suspend disbelief. In this case, Jared, a down-and-out skateboarder, survives a nasty accident through the use of stone magic and must come to terms with his abilities. What makes this tale appealing is the snarky adolescent tone, grown up too fast - and perhaps Jared's generalized suspicion of adults in general makes his ridicule of magic in specific more palatable. This isn't a new story, but it's a good one.

I have a confession to make about Jeffrey Ford's "The Manticore Spell" - I didn't get it. The point of the story completely eluded me, except that is a very poetic, lyrical exploration of - obsession? Mythology? In the tale, the wizard Watkin and his young apprentice seek to perform an autopsy on the last manticore. There is mystery, there is tension, but I'm not even sure there is a real plot … just a string of bizarre images and contradictions resolving into a sense of continuation.

Tanith Lee's "Zinder" is a snapshot of an unfortunate young man named Quacker, who at night has a mystical, all-powerful double-life. And it is just a snapshot: there really isn't a plot here, just the sweeping depiction of a single night. Zinder's attitude towards the world is touching and enjoyable, but the rest of the story seems wanting. Random details can add a perfect touch - but here, the details are just random, and they feel it, inserted to give the eye something interesting to read. (Also - present tense again. Argh. No. Just - no.)

My primary reaction to "Billy and the Wizard" by Terry Bisson was, "What? Huh?" This is the story of young Billy, accused of being a sissy because he still plays with dolls - but his dolls speak to him and have wizardly acquaintances. This story was written in a bald, simplistic style; I kept waiting for it to grow on me, but it never did. This is a disjointed tale with a lot of repetition, little explanation, and only a few brief points of disconnected conflict.

Terry Dowling's "The Magikkers" was a joy to read. Sam has come to train at Dessida, a school for magic, but soon learns that he is a magikker: someone with just enough ability for a single large spell. Is he willing to give that up, and for what? This is a great concept for a story; how Sam reacts to the question posed and the ramifications of his decision are well-illustrated, and the conclusion is simply lovely. I think there were a few small mis-steps - some hidden items that should have been visible earlier; a bit of a cheat in how magic can be transferred between people - but they leave little mark on a satisfying story.

Gene Wolfe's "The Magic Animal" is a unique take on Arthurian legend, with much jumbling of chronology. It begins when Viviane, a contemporary girl who can speak to animals, falls off her horse in the forest and meets a fairy. I thought the reinterpretation of the legend was clever, but I disliked the fact that the protagonist simply followed the directions of the fairy - and sometimes knew what to do without any decent explanation - without having much motivation of her own. Much of the story seemed to have loose ends, episodes whose significance was never revealed. The introduction of the name Merlin into the story made me smile, though.

I approached Orson Scott Card's "Stonefather" with some trepidation, as it fills a little over seventy pages in the anthology. I need not have worried. The story of Runnel, who flees his homeland to the city of the wetwizards, is even-paced and engaging. Its narrator is tough but vulnerable, cocky but endearing, and even though I could see what powers he would discover within himself, I enjoyed the journey. His often prickly interactions with the servant Lark are both real and entertaining. The legend incorporated into the tale is a bit hard to read at first, and I found that the final conclusion still strained my belief, but it was still thoroughly worth the read - and the worldbuilding, since I've mentioned it before, was fabulous. I look forward to a novel in this world.

Overall, I enjoyed most of the stories in this anthology and thought they presented some unique views of the use of magical power. I thought the anthology was paced and spaced well, with a strong opening and finish. Definitely recommended.

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