Let’s review another anthology, shall we? The theme of this anthology is (in case you can’t tell from the title) witches, in all their varied forms, and, unlike the last anthology I reviewed, I recognize the majority of the authors who contributed to it. (The list includes Mercedes Lackey, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, and Ursula K. Le Guin.)
Once again, I’ll be going story by story, giving my overall impressions of each.
Before I begin, please note that some of these stories may be triggering for racism, rape, pedophilia, cannibalism and suicide (thankfully, not all at once).
Walpurgis Afternoon by Delia Sherman
This is a charming story about a house that appears out of thin air in a quiet neighbourhood…and gardening, lots of gardening. I really like the spin on “magic”. It brings to mind the quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In this case, just replace “technology” with “science”.
Nightside by Mercedes Lackey
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. In an urban setting, a woman with extraordinary powers teams up with a French vampire in order to solve crimes. If you said “Gee, that sounds like Anita Blake…” you would be WRONG! Well, you would be right, but in this case, the author is Mercedes Lackey and this story is set in the world of Diana Tregarde, first published in 1989. It was urban fantasy before urban fantasy became a dime a dozen.
I liked this story. I liked how the word “vampire” isn’t mentioned once in the whole thing and Lackey leaves you to figure it out through subtle hints as opposed to “He’s a vampire. Did I mention he’s a vampire? Yep, he’s so a vampire.” The only real issue I have with the story is that the plot can basically be summarized as “Two white folks beat up an Asian guy” which is…yeeeeeah (it makes sense in context, sort of)….
Anyways, I’m definitely intrigued and I’ll definitely take a look at those novels.
The Cold Blacksmith by Elizabeth Bear
This is a story about how Weyland Smith tries to repair a broken heart (literally). He can’t seem to do it properly so he goes to consult a witch about it. It’s short and a little sad, but not a bad story by any means. In fact, in some ways it seems like an exercise in myth-making.
Basement Magic by Ellen Klages
I didn’t really like this story because it seemed kind of…typical. You have a girl learning magic in order to protect herself from her stepmother, only the magic is conjure and she learns it from their black maid. It’s just so predictable, and I can’t help but think that it reinforces the whole “magical POC” stereotype.
Mirage and Magia by Tanith Lee
Finally, a Tanith Lee story I actually understood. This story is about a fictional town (seems to be a mixture of Chinese and Japanese cultures) plagued by a witch who blinds young men after they stay the night with her. It’s a story about vanity, heartbreak, and revenge, and I really liked the imagery. Seriously, if they made this story into a movie, the costume and set piece porn would be amazing.
Lessons with Miss Gray by Theodora Goss
(TW: racism (or, at least, archaic racist language)
I didn’t really like this one that much. For one thing, what is it with this anthology and its obsession with pre-Civil Rights times? (Okay, maybe two stories isn’t an obsession, , it’s just weird, and this one makes use of a couple different n words (seriously, the word “negro” is used five times in one paragraph). I suppose it makes sense for the time period (one of the main characters is black) but it was just that one paragraph.
The plot is basically a group of girls learning to be witches under the tutelage of the titular Miss Gray. The narrative voice is interesting, as it is first person omniscient, but it doesn’t really seem like it “fits” in the story, and I was left wondering whether the narrator was one of the girls or something/someone else entirely. It’s just sort of meh.
The World is Cruel, My Daughter by Cory Skerry
(TW: brief mention of rape, suicide)
This is a dark take on a familiar fairy tale (I’ll give you a hint: it involves a tower and long golden hair) that I quite enjoyed, it’s also, the editor notes, one of the few stories in the anthology with an evil witch. I liked it, and I liked the spin on one aspect of the tale.
Ill Met in Ulthar by T.A. Pratt
I love this story! Our main character, Marla Mason, is called to an institution specializing in magic users who have gone insane from magic use. She ends up having to enter a patient’s mind to disrupt his fantasy that he is a mighty hero out to destroy the forces of darkness, and she needs to stop him before his thoughts become reality. It pokes ALL THE FUN at epic fantasy/sword-and-sorcery stories, and I really, really enjoyed it. Marla also makes a great protagonist (and antagonist). She’s confident and capable. Just, the whole concept is great.
The Witch’s Headstone by Neil Gaiman
This is a touching story from Neil Gaiman (wait, what? He doesn’t write touching stories….) that’s set in the world of The Graveyard Book. Usually I like his stuff, but I found this story to be kind of slow. Basically we have Bod trying to find a headstone for a witch. The title’s self-explanatory.
Overall, I thought this story was kind of meh, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that about any of Gaiman’s works.
Boris Chernevsky’s Hands by Jane Yolen
No anthology about witches is complete without a story about Baba Yaga, and this short but sweet tale delivers. It’s basically about a man who wishes he had jugglers’ hands, and so everyone’s favourite Russian witch shows up to help him out.
Bloodlines by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This is a story about a Latin@ family of witches where witchiness is passed down through the maternal bloodline. It’s one of those spurned lover/revenge stories, , but pretty much everyone in it is a POC and I believe the author is one as well, which is a definite change from all the white people writing POCs in this anthology. I also really liked the bond between the main character and her cousin.
The Way Wind by Andre Norton
I was kind of surprised that I ended up liking this story because nothing much really happens in it. You have a town full of outlaws (and other subversive folk) and the Way Wind, a phenomenon that apparently blows strangers into the town every year, of course, a mysterious herb-seller is blown into town, and then, predictably, there’s a witch hunt. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the story seemed so typical that I found it was easier to enjoy than some of the other stories in this book. I’ve heard some really good things about her Witch World series so I’ll probably check it out after reading this.
Poor Little Saturday by Madeleine L’Engle
I couldn’t really get into this story. It’s this boy meets girl thing and there’s a witch with a bunch of familiars. Oh, and a witch hunt, again. I guess it’s not bad compared to a couple of the other stories in this collection.
The Only Way to Fly by Nancy Holder
This is a cute story about an elderly witch looking to reconnect with her fellow witches before having no choice but to go to a retirement home. It’s a very short story about learning to live again and the ending isn’t a downer for once!
Skin Deep by Richard Parks
This story is about a witch who puts on different skins in order to access that skin’s talents and abilities while having to contend with the bits of the skin’s consciousness that are left. It’s sort of like shapeshifting but not really. It was interesting, but I kind of think it went on a bit too long. Still, great concept.
The Robbery by Cynthia Ward
I don’t know how to feel about this one. I was basically left with the feeling that the protagonist was a huge hypocrite and how she dealt with her house being robbed smacks of disproportionate retribution. Really, arthritis? Well, I guess its saving grace is that it’s short.
Marlboros and Magic by Linda Robertson
This story is meant to be a prequel to Robertson’s Circle series (Vicious Circle et al.) starring Demeter Alcmedi (grandmother of the main character in the series) who decides she’s going to get her landlord to okay a smoking area in her nursing home by….casting a spell that makes everyone “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em”. Hilarity ensues as the spell goes awry and the residents start smoking more than just tobacco.
To be completely honest, I think I would have liked this more if the dialogue didn’t irritate me to no end and I was skeptical of how smoking weed seems to have made everyone super horny (I was under the impression weed gets people to relax, chill out, not run naked through the halls and have threesomes). It could have been much better, honestly.
Magic Carpets by Leslie What
(TW: racism, abuse)
Okay, seriously, what is this anthology’s obsession with a particular period of time where “negro” was an acceptable way to refer to black people? Anyways, I digress, this story is about two girls who are abused by their father. One of them gets fed up and runs away with a (sigh) “Mexican”. Oh, and something about baseball, and avocados. The witch in the story gives one of them a magic glass and somehow she can fly. Yeah, I kind of lost patience with this one. There’s probably some big symbolic thing I’m missing.
The Ground Whereon She Stands by Leah Bobet
This is basically the trope Fertile Feet turned up to eleven. A woman decides she wants to fix the fact that wherever she steps sprouts flowers all over the place (due to an enchantment, of course) and goes to see her friend Alice, who has some skill with plants. I’m sure you can see where this story is going, if not, the story all but comes out and says that Alice and our narrator were going out at one time.
Afterward by Don Ward
So, there’s this witch, and she’s not really a bad witch. Well, she kind of says she’s a bad witch but her idea of rebellion is helping people (her reasoning actually makes a whole lot of sense). Oh, but then people burn her anyways and it’s really terrible, and you feel sorry for her and angry at the ignorant fucks in her area.
April in Paris by Ursula K. Le Guin
A college professor on “vacation” (actually unpaid leave from teaching) in Paris is summoned by a magician who can only seem to use his incantation to summon anyone from any time period who is somewhere near where the room currently is/was. So the professor is all like “Okay, I’ll just live with you now because my life sucks,” and they live together in an absolutely platonic relationship (I was kind of disappointed, actually). I like this story, it’s kind of absurd but not trying-too-hard absurd, and the writing is great. (Le Guin is an SFF genre staple for a reason.)
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
(TW: rape/pedophilia, more rape, cannibalism)
This is an extremely dark “sequel” story to the tale of Hansel and Gretel, slotted firmly into the horror genre. I am not kidding when I say that those trigger warnings are there for a reason and that I very nearly became physically sick while reading this. It’s such a shift from the other stories (The World is Cruel, My Daughter, is not half as dark as this) and I’m pretty sure this was written on some sort of drug. It’s like H.R. Giger, Neil Gaiman, and Clive Barker were all doing acid together and this is the result of a really bad trip.
Usually I love horror stories, but in this case, do not want. DO NOT WANT!
Note: You can find this story online, but trust me, THOSE TRIGGER WARNINGS ARE THERE FOR A REASON! (In case you thought “Let’s check this out in case Gef is exaggerating,” because Gef is definitely not exaggerating this time.)
Ugh, I feel ill just writing this. I need to go take a bath.
Catskin by Kelly Link
After that last story, I’d found that I’d run out of fucks to give, and Catskin is just….I don’t get it. It’s a revenge tale that reminds me a bit of the fairy tale “The White Cat” (probably because there is a cat who is white in it) and there are people who turn into cats except not they’re really cats underneath their human skin or something. The only thing I really liked about this story was the fourth wall breaking. Seriously, I don’t care how craptastic a story is, if you break the fourth wall, I will be entertained.
But in all honesty, at this point I was out of fucks.
In sum, this anthology started off strong and then….I don’t know what happened to it. My guess is that drugs were involved somehow. This is seriously the only explanation I can think of for how the stories went from WHEEEE! FUN! to “OMFGS WHAT DID I JUST READ???”
I’m beginning to notice a pattern with these anthologies. I should find that fairy themed one I liked and review it. It’s on one of my shelves somewhere….