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WesternSFA


The Book of Magic
edited by Gardner Dozois
Bantam, $39.00, 553 pp
Published: October 2018

This is an anthology of magic stories by some of the most competent writers in the field today.  And, as such, it holds together quite well.  I did find that few of the stories took a light-hearted approach but overall, the tome felt ponderous.

First one up is from K.J. Parker – a layered, complex story of academic rivalry that almost read like a novella.  It was very well done.  Next is Megan Lindholm, one of my most favorite writers.  She gives us a great, tricky tale of wicked witches and lost childhoods.  I really liked this one.  John Crowley took an insignificant young Irish boy and put him in the center of a great conflict twixt human rulers and the greater powers that lie “beyond”.   It was the sort of story usually described as “poetic” or “lyrical” and not particularly to my taste.

Matthew Hughes, however, had a delightfully tongue-in-cheek story of an arrogant wizard’s comeuppance.  The cautionary tale that advises one to keep friends even when making enemies is so much easier. And Ysabeau Wilce’s contribution was in a similar vein – a cocky master-thief who has all his heart desires...except love.  His efforts to find someone worthy of him has him bouncing from one circumstance to another while endeavoring to avoid the enmity of the ruler only to find his true love in the most unlikely place.  Another example of one reaps what one sows.  This one was fun.

Rachel Pollack offers a light story that is basically a detective story with a djinn in it. It was nice enough but it did offer enough backstory to make one think this is just an excerpt from a larger story.  And Eleanor Arnason gave us a basic folktale from Iceland; no big surprises there.  But then we get classic Tim Powers in a scant 23 pages (one of the shortest in the book) that was pure gold for me: controlling rich man dies and tries to take over the body of one of his children; it just didn’t turn out as any of them imagined.

Liz Williams is daring in her story of sentient comets and stars but I found it a bit dull.  Garth Nix didn’t disappoint with his tale of country wizards, sentient rowan trees, misbehaving black wizards and a Grand Wizard who plans a sting.  I liked this one. I have some reservations about the one from Elizabeth Bear.  It’s a mystery with probable murder – but who and why?  The first part of the story was fine misdirection but when the payoff came, I felt a little off-balance as the tone of the story shifted too much for me.

Lavie Tidhar had a fine and complex tale of a “wandering jew” who seems to have lived for much longer than normal, searching for his homeland that has been gone so long, little of it remains within human memory.  In this story, he takes a job guiding a caravan to find a weapon while he hopes to find some trace of himself.  What they do find is both horrifying and miraculous and he experiences visions of both past carnage and wars yet to come.  And after all that, the only thing our hero wants is to find home.

I really enjoyed the one from Greg Van Eekhout which is about a young espionage agent who works undercover at the La Brea Tar Pits excavating bones from long-dead magical creatures.  The bone residue is used to create magical weapons and she’s there to gather intel to protect her homeland of Northern California.  This was a very compact and satisfying short story; in the end it felt like it had been much longer.  I sort of enjoyed George R.R Martin’s offering but not as much as I thought I would.  I think it was a treatise on the law of conservation – nothing is ever really lost including wizards.  When they die, their essence lives on…and on. Until the end of time.

And there was a really fun story about outwitting the Devil from Andy Duncan.  A bit of twist on this one whereby the Devil is persuaded to stop punishing someone only because the person is impelled to do good because of the punishment…but you’ll need to read it yourself. And I was impressed by Kate Elliott.  In her world, houses of power breed to magic users but when the pool grows thin, they forage for young children just coming into their power and persuade the family to sell the children to them.  The story focuses on a traveling “diviner” from one of the smallest, least powerful houses.  He is set in his ways and reluctantly apprentices a young woman who divines for these children in a different way.  When he is finally able to acknowledge her skill, it opens the door for his personal redemption. A fine story.

And the last and most delightful comes from Scott Lynch.  It’s a take on what happens when AI technology and magically-bred creatures are left on their own.  Change might come slowly but with enough resources and enough time, all things can change; even stubborn arrogant AIs and pathetic, weak, stupid little kobolds…

Over all, the book felt a bit ponderous but there were enough little gems within to make the time worthwhile.  ~~ Catherine Book

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