book reviews by Althea

Magic City: Recent Spells – Paula Guran, ed.

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From the introduction: “Are these stories ‘urban fantasy’? Well, that’s a term that started out defining one thing, was accidentally applied to something else, and is now changing yet again…”
The stories here represent the ‘one thing,’ the ‘something else’ and maybe have a few extras thrown in. Personally, I prefer the original – but this is a pretty good mix.

** “Street Wizard,” Simon R. Green
Not so much a story as an introduction to what ‘urban fantasy’ is about. A night in the life of a ‘street wizard’ – a civil servant tasked with keeping the streets of London’s Soho reasonably safe.

*** “Paranormal Romance,” Christopher Barzak
A modern-day witch who specializes in patching up others’ romance was never had luck in love, herself. But when her mother insists on setting her up on a blind date, events unroll in a slightly unexpected and rather cute way.

** “Grand Central Park,” Delia Sherman
A modern fairy-tale designed to boost the self-esteem of nerdy young teens. An overweight young woman encounters the Queen of Fairies in Central Park, and relies on her knowledge of fairy lore to get her out of a sticky dilemma.

** “Spellcaster 2.0,” Jonathan Maberry
A team of grad students and their professor plan a dramatic presentation of their new subscription database of information on spells, myth and folklore. However, their academic skepticism is shot to hell by some unexpected phenomena. Not enough story, too much polemic.

**** “Wallamelon,” Nisi Shawl
Just about here, this collection picks up some speed… I believe this is the first story I’ve read by Nisi Shawl, and it’s very nicely done – the characters and setting really come alive. This is a small-scale story of four poor children in a run-down Detroit neighborhood who take on a gardening project when they find some watermelons growing in an abandoned lot. But it shifts into a tale of magic and power – and then again into a story of growing up and the pain & loss of realizing that sometimes best friends are not forever.

*** “-30-,” Caitlín R. Kiernan
A writer sells her ‘soul,’ in bits and pieces, in return for commercially successful writing. It’s a classic theme, and I’m not sure this iteration of it adds anything strikingly new, but it’s still well-done, and the details of the setting will be enjoyed by anyone who knows Providence, as I do…

*** “Seeing Eye,” Patricia Briggs
A cop, who happens to be a werewolf, shows up at the door of a witch, asking for help. His brother has been captured by a dangerous coven, and he needs supernatural assistance to try to rescue him. The witch’s powers are strong – but she’s also blind. Together, however, they make a good team. A short adventure that seems like it could very easily be the start to a series of paranormal adventures.

*** “Stone Man,” Nancy Kress
A re-read; previously read in the ‘Wizards’ anthology. Under stress, a boy discovers he has heretofore-unknown magical powers. it loses him a friend, but gains him a new group of friends and a mission in life… Not Kress’ best, but not bad.

**** “In the Stacks,” Scott Lynch
A renowned school for wizards has the largest collection of grimoires known to man. Strange things happen when you collect that many spells in one place – and the final exam features just one task: return a library book to the shelves. Fun and funny; a must for Scott Lynch’s fans.

*** “A Voice Like a Hole,” Catherynne M. Valente
This is supposed to be a ‘Borderland’ story, but, at least for me, it just doesn’t have the feel of the original stories. It’s an OK story, but the magic wasn’t there. Two runaway girls are on a downward spiral, and make it to the Border. But their transportation is just a bit too deus ex machina, and doesn’t fit with the original…

*** “The Arcane Art of Misdirection,” Carrie Vaughn
Nice bit of supernatural adventure here… A blackjack dealer teams up with the casino’s performing magician to catch a con using black magic to cheat. Another one that seems like it could be the introduction to a series.

*** “Thief of Precious Things,” A.C. Wise
The world presented here reminded me a lot of Ian McDonald’s ‘Out on Blue Six’ – which is a rather unusual book to be reminded of. A surreal and post-apocalyptic land, where humans attempt to regain technology, and war against vying tribes of creatures of myth…

**** “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” Holly Black
Now, this one technically isn’t a ‘Bordertown’ story – but it’s got the feel down pat. It’s about perfect. It’s set in New York City, with the characters from ‘Tithe’ – elf/human romance, characters working in a coffee shop, all the drama of trying to find – and more difficult, to believe in – love.

*** “Snake Charmer,” Amanda Downum
A phoenix-like dragon and ancient voodoo powers meet in a modern goth club, at the change of a magical tide. Nice, but it feels a bit like a brief glimpse into a larger world.

*** “The Slaughtered Lamb,” Elizabeth Bear
I’m pretty sure I read this one before. It was originally published in 2012. A drag queen has an encounter with the Wild Hunt in New York City, and events conspire to convince her to accept her werewolf nature – which she’s hidden for years. If only the real ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ pub was as cool as the one here…

**** “The Woman Who Walked with Dogs,” Mary Rosenblum”
Rosenblum is a bit of an underrated author. I was introduced to her by the excellent Del Rey Discovery series, which published two excellent novels by her. Since then, I haven’t kept up with her work – and I think I should have! This is a very enjoyable story about a rebellious teenager and a ‘crazy’ old neighbor woman… and a bunch of invisible dogs. You, too, will want one after you read this.

*** “Words,” Angela Slatter
A writer goes all Pied Piper on the children of her annoying busybody neighbors. A bit of wishful thinking here? I very much like the portrayal of the (here, literal) magic of writing.

*** “Dog Boys,” Charles de Lint
It’s DeLint-y. On his first day at a new high school, a boy from out-of-state gets caught up in a gang war between the Mexicans and the Native Americans. Two kinds of traditional magic duke it out, and the kid gets adopted into a mystical tribe, and a date with the cute girl too. Aww.

*** “Alchemy,” Lucy Sussex
Very nice, rather quiet piece, about a brilliant woman perfumer in ancient Babylon, and the powerful immortal who’s drawn to her, and offers her assistance in her goals. Strong themes of self-reliance and personal ethics twine through a bittersweet strain of ‘what might have been.’

*** “Curses,” Jim Butcher
A Harry Dresden supernatural investigation. One for the baseball fans; but mildly amusing for anyone.

*** “De la Tierra,” Emma Bull
What if aliens had the same prejudices against immigrants that many Americans do? And what if they trained human immigrants to do their dirty work for them? Draws some nice parallels; makes a point without being too preachy.

*** “Stray Magic,” Diana Peterfreund
Previously read in the ‘Under My Hat’ anthology. A sentimental and cute story with a message – about a kindly animal shelter worker, and the magical dog that comes into her care.

**** “Kabu Kabu,” Nnedi Okorafor
Every have one of those days where everything goes crazy? Ngozi does, when she hails an African gypsy cab to try to get to the airport to get to her sister’s wedding in Nigeria. OK, the story has a serious failing in the lead character’s unchallenged assumption that one MIGHT, even possibly, be able to show up at an American airport 15 minutes or even half an hour before scheduled takeoff, and have any chance of boarding a flight. But the wild ride through African folklore makes it all worth while.

**** “Pearlywhite” Mark Laidlaw & John Shirley
A long story about some street kids, their ‘familiar’ spirits, and a serial killer. A well-crafted horror story.

Advance copy provided by NetGalley. Many thanks for the opportunity to read; as always, my opinions are my own.


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