Witch Way to the Mall by Esther M. Friesner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let me put my cards on the table first: I adore Esther Friesner as a writer – and having seen her at a few conventions, she is just as boisterous and witty in person. So even though I’m not a huge fan of urban (or suburban) fantasy, I came into this anthology with high expectations.
I admit, I did find the introduction over-the-top to the point of being too-obvious funny, which usually doesn’t hit my laughter bone. It is clever, though, and sets a nice opening tone.
(FYI – if you don’t want to read a story-by-story, flip down to the line of asterisks for a summary.)
“Birdwitching” by Harry Turtledove starts off the anthology with a witchery arms race – centered around the birdwatching count / competition between two neighboring counties. This is a folksy, funny tale with seamless integration of birding jargon. It builds well throughout and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The problem that muddied some of the reading for me was the fact that Turtledove wasn’t wholly clear about how witches fit into the real world and how the birding count related to witch activity until very late in the story. That marred some of the tension.
Steven Piziks’ “Witch Warrior” takes the legend of Baba Yaga and brings it to a world of and suburban Celtic warriors when the famed witch attempts to claim a father’s adopted children. Another tight, witty tale, crackling with energy and well-incorporated personal knowledge. Here I found only one small quibble, that the protagonist’s inward debate was illustrated in a way that was a bit too on-the-nose, but it was definitely enjoyable.
“Nimue and the Mall Nymphs” by Lee Martindale has an amusing setup: a witch lost in the back corridors of a suburban mall runs into a group of bubbleheaded pretenders. The events are humorous, but it came off a bit flat and dry for me – a funny concept that didn’t wholly translate into a funny story. I also had trouble suspending my disbelief about the labyrinthine construction of the mall and honestly, expected it to have supernatural origins.
Kevin Andrew Murphy provides us with “Tacos for Tezxatlipoca,” the story of a young man who buys himself a stuffed manticore and finds himself a magician. This story has a more subdued sense of humor than the first two, but in this one, it works, providing smiles along with the grins that the absurd situation conjures up. Unfortunately, I thought the story flatlined at the end. I was expecting more drama and consequence from the conclusion, though there are hints …
I thought Hildy Silverman’s “The Darren” was one of the best stories so far. It takes place at a dance for a school where witches are segregated from the normal population. Mariah has to chaperone a wayward friend and gets more than she bargained for. Typical teenaged shennanigans take on a mystical cast with an intriguing glimpse into how publicly known witches would interface with the rest of society. (I thought it was fairly realistic, too, or maybe I’m just cynical.) There was an element late in the story that I thought didn’t walk the silly-scary line quite properly, diffusing some of the tension, but that was a minor flaw.
Sarah A. Hoyt’s “The Incident of The Inferno Grill” is another entertaining story that peters out somewhat at the end – though more forgiveable as this is a very relaxed story to start with. The fun is watching the bewildered narrator cope with his new boss, a psychic investigator, and the possessed grill they have been called in to deal with. File this under cats, properties of, and be prepared for a few real belly-laughs in this otherwise low-key humor story.
Dave Freer’s “Soot” features a charming feline narrator whose sarcasm and superiority are the highlights of this story. The plot follows a witch, her familiar and a local troll as they attempt to stop the opening of a door to the world of the fey. The background and goal of the story are somewhat muddled. However, it is enjoyable sharing Soot’s point of view for a while.
Storm Christopher’s “The House of Lost Dreams” starts with vivid descriptions and a lush, metaphor-laden tone that perfectly suits the story that follows. A restless salesman stops at this mysterious store and finds unusual merchandise within its array of boxes. I loved this story: it’s sweet, sorrowful and absorbing, with the perfect conclusion. If I have to pick any nits, the narrator’s angry outbursts early in the story seemed excessive – but a minor point in a lovely tale.
“Queen of Suburbia” by Selina Rosen is one of the highlights of this anthology. This the story of a witch with a plot to take over the world with good luck generated from an email chain-letter … and the writer who runs afoul of her. The build and tone of this story are pitch-perfect, and I loved the ending. Rosen should have foreshadowed her protagonist’s knowledge of sorcery earlier, but that’s the only thing I could point out that could possibly be improved. Great story.
Esther Friesner has a knack for writing great humor stories intimately involving mundane professions, and “Twice A Year” is no exception – about a dental hygienist and her yearly struggle against an entity of the sea. If there is a flaw here, it’s the over-the-top, expository dialogue. People don’t explain things they know to each other in quite the fashion herein, and the rest of the story is close enough to real-world logic that it didn’t quite jive for me. However, the story is intriguing and whacky both and builds slowly to an entertaining – and walrus-y – conclusion.
David Vierling’s “Neighborhood Witch” delivers a delightful tale of a husband and wife pair who arrive in their new neighborhood … and stumble not just one but three bizarre local communities. In attempting to find peace and quiet in their new surroundings, they provide the reader with an excellent tale, good to the stomach-turning conclusion. Very well-done.
K.D. Wentworth’s “Hex Education” is an entertaining story that begins with a soccer mom – literally – and her suddenly uncooperative Honda. Suspecting magical meddling from her well-meaning husband at first, she soons discovers there is more afoot. This is a nice, solid story that pffts out a bit with a too-mild climax, but the turns it takes are fun to read.
Jan and S.M. Stirling’s “The Importance of Communication” is a lighthearted story about a retired witch whose old friend and evil-battling buddy shows up on her doorstep to discuss her daughter’s potential gifts. This is another one of those stories that doesn’t really seem to climax, maybe through a lack of tension. It’s frothy and enjoyable, though, and has a few perfect snicker-worthy lines.
From David D. Levine comes “Midnight At The Center Court,” a story set in the seventies about a young boy discontent with the gender division of magic, his best friend, and a haunted mall. The references to popular television shows of the era were lost on me, but might be more familiar to older readers. I thought this was a sweet, simple story of friendship, though one of the central issues posed – the reasons why certain kinds of magic are reserved for women – was never answered.
“The Price of Beauty” by Robin Wayne Bailey is about an appearance-fixated woman whose trips to a charmingly-named witchery salon are the only thing – as far as she believes – that can keep her on top. Can a shallow siren learn the true meaning of beauty? While the story leads the reader on to find out, the spoiled-brat behavior of the lead character makes it hard to sympathize with her. (Also, way too many exclamation points.)
I would classify Brenda W. Clough’s “Making Love” as slipstream, a story where you’re not entirely sure whether it’s fantasy or simply the perception of the character, but it’s a quiet, touching tale nonetheless. Milly’s magic is in her knitting, small works of art that bring love wherever they go – but she’s at a loss how to convince her husband of their curative powers. Nicely done.
Ellie Tupper’s “Yo Moms A Dragon” takes on the idea of a dragon banished from another dimension and trapped in human form and pits her against a trio of too-perfect self-help divas. It’s an energetic story with one of the best food fights I’ve seen in fantasy (now there’s something you don’t type every day) and great twists and turns. I felt there were a few too-convenient loose ends that weren’t properly addressed, but this is still a fun ride.
“Witch’s Brew” from Berry Kercheval is the cute tale of a reluctant witch who finds that doing homework while serving as a barrista can lead to unexpected complications, as she and a school crush chase after an imp. While not dramatic, it’s fluffy and enjoyable.
Daniel M. Hoyt’s “The FairWitch Project” follows a group of mortalos – children of witches who choose to live non-magical lifestyles (?) – as they plan to play the biggest prank yet on the magical community. That question-mark indicates my main problem with the story: I was never a hundred percent sure what the exact definition of a mortalo was. The conclusion is certainly worth the read, though. Overall, this story is a nice examination of the perils of using magic to the exclusion of the real world.
Julia S. Mandala’s “Valley Witch” is a (sometimes painfully) exaggerated story of a cross-world sorceress and her son hiding out in high school. I loved the description of the Evil Academy which the main character (the son) attended, and the references to it were gems. It’s a good clash of humor and tropes, though I found Tiffany’s character to be overdone.
Jody Lynn Nye closes the anthology with “There’s No ‘I’ In Coven,” the story of a competitive Pentackle mom and one memorable game where both her children have an opportunity to shine. Sports stories are always hit and miss with me; after a certain point, I tend to lose interest in the play-by-play. This was a very well-done example, though I found the amount of parental interference from adults who were portrayed as seasoned spectators stretched my credulity. (This could, however, just be because I don’t have any personal experience with sports parents!) Sometimes, it’s all right to have a narrator who’s just a spectator … and the engaging tale of the two siblings would have held up without their mother taking part.
Overall, this was a strong anthology, with no stories that I would classify as really “bad,” several solid stories, and a few gems – one of the best being the only non-humor piece in the anthology (“The House of Lost Dreams”). Some of the jokes flatlined for me, but the majority worked – which, the sense of humor of individuals and authors both being so varied, is quite an achievement. As far as the construction of the anthology, I thought the pace from story to story was well-constructed, though the opening – two boisterous, in-your-face stories followed by one of the weakest in the anthology – could have been improved.
The virtue of this anthology is that every story takes the mundane, the ordinary, the tiny rituals and patterns of modern life, and brings them to life – sometimes with magic, sometimes athwart it, but always putting it in a new light. And if urban fantasy draws on the vast, sometimes ineffable power of the big cities, then this is the heart of what suburban fantasy should be. On that count, forging a new definition (however tongue-in-cheek) and living up to it, this anthology succeeds.
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