Review: Magic City: Recent Spells edited by Paula Guran


MagicCityPublished by:
Prime Books
ISBN: 1607014270
ISBN 13: 9781607014270
Published: May 2014
Pages: 480
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Publisher Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five

An anthology of reprints, this anthology shows how magic really sparkles when grounded in reality – without the natural, how can there be no supernatural to juxtapose? A novel needs to have its own reality (limitations, and such) even when different from our own reality, to show the magic, however common it may be in the fantasy world, in order for to be both believable and engaging. In this anthology we see a range of urban fantasy set in Chicago, New York, London… but also in the ancient city of Babylon, and in fantasy worlds, or near-future cities. We meet wizards, faeries, shape-shifters and more. With many well known names, and those not so well known, this anthology will certainly had me heading straight to Goodreads to see what else the not-so-well-known-names had written. Anthologies are always such a curse for the wallet! They’re the best way to try and test authors, to see if you’d love to read more of their work.

“Street Wizard” © 2010 Simon R. Green.

A good opener to the anthology, we meet a street wizard of London, known only as Charlie boy. He wakes at 9pm to patrol his little spot in Soho to perform little spells to keep the unwitting safe from what really lurks in London’s back-alleys and shadows. It has a nice balance of ‘not much happening’ while so much really is – a general night as a street wizard means feral pixies, a golem, and vermin who look like homeless people living in boxes, prostitutes or otherwise – the trick is in being able to tell the actual from the demon. All in a nights work for Charlie boy. First publication: The Way of the Wizard, ed. John Joseph Adams (Prime Books).

“Paranormal Romance” © 2013 Christopher Barzak.

A witch who works only in love, never in vengeance, is curiously single herself, even though she’s thirty-seven. And she’s happy alone, even if her mother isn’t. Which is why her mother sets her up on a date, with Lyle. Lyle. What kind of name is Lyle in epic, fantasy dramas. With a sweet ending beckoning of more to come, this is a short that keeps you wanting to read on.

First publication: Lightspeed Magazine, June 2013.

“Grand Central Park” © 2002 Delia Sherman.

Set in Central Park, a girl who used to see faeries, sees them once again. It’s only thanks to the mention of her childhood friend that other, meaner faeries leave her alone. Having to admit she was rude in not wanting to believe in faeries anymore as she outgrew them, and felt embarrassed about the whole issue is someone she quickly admits to, though then she has a battle of wits with the local queen of faeries. In thinking of three wishes she would have if she was willing to do a deal with the Queen, she discovers that they are qualities she’s already earned.

First publication: The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest, eds. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (Viking Juvenile).

“Spellcaster 2.0” © 2012 Jonathan Maberry.  

A database that continues to gain errors no matter what the users to do both protect their data, and try to figure out where the errors could be coming from. Add in a nasty professor several students are working for, and intelligent, snarky and wonderful said students, and you have a winning short story that draws you in effortlessly. Trey is the snarky, elegant team leader of the students, and at a loss of what to do – it just doesn’t make any sense. Anthem is the student responsible for data entry (and several of the languages they’ve had to translate to build the database) and she’s so sweet and innocent you can’t help but worry about how she’ll go at the mercy of these events.

The one of the other student dies.

Did I mention the database is a collection of magic spells from throughout history and cultures?

Maberry’s writing makes this engaging and makes me wonder why I still haven’t read any of his novels – I certainly have enough of them on my to read pile.

First publication: An Apple for the Creature, eds. Charlaine Harris & Toni L. P. Kelner (Ace).

“Wallamelon” © 2005 Nisi Shawl.

Taking on the Blue Lady myth, we have a tight-knit family who protect their own, drawing magic from everyday things such as nature. With the help of watermelons, their vines and their seeds, a young girl protects the neighbourhood and those she considers family.

The richness is one of the strengths of this piece. The dialogue captures the way the characters talk so you can almost hear their words spoken aloud, and the intricacies of their family ties comes through so easily even though it’s a tangled mess – it could have so easily been confusing in this instance. A warm tale, that ends in a satisfying way.

First publication: Aeon 3, May 2005.

“-30-” © 2010 Caitlín R. Kiernan.

Written in the present, active text (where everything is ‘you walk along a road’ etc), I just couldn’t get into this one. Apologies to the author, but it just didn’t grip me, and I already struggle with that writing tense.

First publication: Sirenia Digest #61, December 2010.

“Seeing Eye” © 2009 Patricia Briggs.

A witch is sought out one night to save a werewolf and his brother, stolen for his Sight ability. Confronting the worst coven in the area is something everyone else would avoid, but the witch is known to some as being the only one able to do such a thing, for reasons revealed within the text.

The characters within this are instantly their own selves, and you get such a strong sense of who they are, that you forget for a moment that you’re reading a short story rather than a novel series. The ending may have some a little quickly, but you can put certain plot points down to character traits. pack mentality is normal to a werewolf after all.

First publication: Strange Brew, ed. P. N. Elrod (St. Martin’s Griffin).

“Stone Man” © 2007 Nancy Kress.

Ahh, Nancy Kress. You’ve been an author I’ve watched out for since reading ‘After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall.’ This is a piece of a young guy from the lower end of the socioeconomic area, who gets hit by a car when skateboarding. As it happens, he has the claustrophobic feeling of being covered by rocks, but puts it down to fear and pain and loses consciousness. He wakes in a medical centre and meets a quiet doctor who tells him he suspects he’s …a wizard. To which he swears, assumes the guy’s a perv, and fucks right off. Only to come back.

This is an interesting collection of characters who are rough and real and really showing that if magic existed, it probably would end up in the hands of a range of humans… and some would be uneducated, bitter and suspicious, hardly daring to think they could be special. This is the type of short story that makes you wish so badly it was a novel so you could keep reading.

First publication: Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy, eds. Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois (Berkeley).

“In the Stacks” © 2010 Scott Lynch.

Aspirant wizards in their fifth-year exams have armoured up for their physical exam which is to take place within the Living Library of Hazar in the High University. They are given three simple-sounding requirements to pass their exam. Retrieve. Return. Survive. Unfortunately as it’s a living library… well, you can guess just how difficult it must be.

As always, Scott’s work is witty and razor-sharp with edgy, delightful dialogue and a perfect balance of characters. This was my favourite short story by him for so long, and it’ll always remain in my memory fondly – I’m so glad I have it in two anthologies now! Strong female characters. We thank you, Scott.

First publication: Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery, eds. Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders (HarperCollins).

“A Voice Like a Hole” © 2011 Catherynne M. Valente.

A wonderful story from Valente, about the thin border between our world and that of faeries, told from a homeless girl who manages to overcome what holds her back and finds her own strength.

As one can expect from Valente, everything is not as it seems, and there are slight jumps in what you would expect to happen. You don’t realise you think you know what’s going to happen next until it doesn’t happen, and you’re fumbling to catch up.

Wonderful characters with her perfect magical whimsy that suits the setting and mythos down to the ground.

First publication: Welcome to Bordertown, eds. Holly Black & Ellen Kushner (Random House Books for Young Readers).

“The Arcane Art of Misdirection” © 2012 Carrie Vaughn, LLC.

A casino worker is trained to notice unlikely things – trained to catch people who don’t belong, who are doing the wrong thing, or are too clever for their own good. One day Julie catches someone doing something even she isn’t supposed to be able to see, and from there it all spirals out of control.

This is an engaging story. From start to finish you’re interested in Julie and what they’re going through. Taking place in a casino and hotel is an easily familiar place to visualise which only makes this piece feel real, like it could be happening right now.

First publication: Hex Appeal, ed. P. N. Elrod (St. Martin’s Griffin).

“The Thief of Precious Things” © 2011 A. C. Wise.

Another I couldn’t seem to get into, unfortunately. The writing style felt distant to me, and I kept glazing over it.

First publication: Bewere the Night, ed. Ekaterina Sedia (Prime Books).

“The Land of Heart’s Desire” © 2010 Holly Black.

Set mostly in the Moon in a Cup coffeehouse from her Modern Faerie Tale series, we simply see her characters interacting, showing us a little extra scene that builds them more. Easy to pick up even if you haven’t read that series, this goes more into general character relationships and how one can hate as a defence when fear or love come into the picture.

Holly’s writing is, as usual, mesmerising with a hint of the fantastic.

First publication: The Poison Eaters (Big Mouth House).

“Snake Charmer” © 2006 Amanda Downum.

A dragon is going to die, but Simon isn’t going to let it happen. He’ll find the dragon first and protect it, not matter what comes.

I found this piece a little bland, but readable. The action left me wanting more, and you don’t get much of a sense of the characters.

First publication: Realms of Fantasy, October 2003.

“The Slaughtered Lamb” © 2012 Elizabeth Bear.

There is a lot more to New York than there seems. A Queen leaves her work to walk home, and runs into trouble of the Faerie kind – mounted riders and slobbering hounds chasing someone or something, which Edie only just manages to avoid. There are those hunting the hunters though, and once she teams up with them she finds the means to gain something she’s wanted for a very long time.

The writing quality in this piece is fantastic – that goes without saying, as Elizabeth Bear is a magnificent author. What I loved about this piece was how the characters were handled. Subtle, with dignity and respect, taking real-world issues and layering them with subtext and symbolism that covers more than it may seem at first glance.

First publication: The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, eds. Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray (DAW).

“The Woman Who Walked with Dogs” © 2006 Mary Rosenblum.

A young girl waits for her mother to go to her night job. She does her homework first as to not ruin her 4.0 average, but then she leaves the house, off into the night, for unknown reasons that keep you reading to find out what she could possibly want off into the night, and why she’s risking everything for it.

Overall this piece was a little disappointing, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. The writing quality is there. I don’t think I got a real sense of why the child feels the need to leave her home, nor the feeling in her breasts etc – it all amounted to nothing, in the end. I think I missed something here.

First publication: Modern Magic: Tales of Fantasy and Horror, ed. W. H. Horner (Fantasist Enterprises).

“Words” © 2005 Angela Slatter.

‘She was a writer, once, before the words got out of hand,’ is such an excellent start to a piece of work. A word witch (though something really more than that) is spelling stories to children who’ll listen, but their parents aren’t amused.

With it’s sudden end, this piece packs a punch which only makes you want to re-read it. Slatter’s work is eloquent and distinctive, and only gets better as she goes on.

First publication: The Lifted Brow #5, June 2005.

“Dog Boys” © 2012 Charles de Lint.

A kid starting at a new school is trying to take on the wisdom a friend gave him: ‘Keep your head down until you get the lay of the land. Don’t make waves, but don’t take any shit.’ And he’s trying to do just that, at the same time he also knows that if you come to certain situations, you need to step up and do the right thing.

Very engaging throughout, we see cultures clash and the magic that’s part of their culture come into play, in a raw and earthy way. A piece that’s all about brothership and family not always bound in the usual blood way, this shows the spark of new friendship and the instant feeling of belonging that’s heartwarming to see.

First publication: Dog Boys (Triskell Press).

“Alchemy” © 2011 Lucy Sussex.

Taking place in ancient Babylon, a perfumer catches the interest of a demon.

A piece that mixes names taken from history into a fiction of fantasy and myth, this is one of the stronger pieces within the anthology, capturing an exotic place and presenting it as somewhere you feel you know as well as your childhood home.

First publication: Thief of Lives. (Twelfth Planet Press).

“Curses” © 2011 Jim Butcher.

A man speaking on behalf of a company who don’t wish to disclose their name, wish to hire Harry Dresden’s services. In his usually insulting yet charismatic manner, Harry easily figures out who the company must be and offers his services for a fee as high as he reasonably decide upon – being up front about it all the while.

Butcher has an easy way of writing, so that even if you haven’t read his series, you still instantly know what kind of person Harry is, and you’re interested in how he’s going to handle everything that’s thrown at him.

First publication: Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, ed. Ellen Datlow (St. Martin’s Griffin).

“De la Tierra” © 2004 Emma Bull.

An assassin with technology hunts down illegal immigrants with their own special abilities in LA. The line that captured my attention in this one was how a musician in a bar would still be playing at 3:00am. ‘That would be a good place to be at 3:00a.m. Much better than rolling up a rug, burning the gloves, dropping the knife over the bridge rail.

All in all this one had trouble holding my attention. The lines showing their abilities were written in a way that seemed to be aiming for subtle, but were just missing the mark and becoming clunky. I liked what you got to see of LA.

First publication: Faery Reel: Tales From the Twilight Realm, eds. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (Viking Juvenile).

“Stray Magic” © 2012 Diana Peterfreund.

A stray dog begins to communicate with the dog shelter employee, pleading for help to be reunited with her wizard familiar.

A lovely piece, well handled, with witty and fun voices for the characters – dog included. A good ending that has you breathing a sigh of relief. I hate stories that include animals – they make me so nervous for what could happen to them. I’m so thankful Goneril has a happy ending.

First publication: Magic Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron, ed. Jonathan Strahan. (Random House Books for Young Readers).

“Kabu Kabu” © 2013 Nnedi Okorafor (written with Alan Dean Foster.)

Kabu Kabu is an unlicensed taxi, which the main character decides to tempt fate with as she’s late for a flight to New York then London (though then says Nigeria, for a wedding). The interior of the cab is stunning, hand-inlaid glass beads , a potted plant, rosaries hanging from the rearview mirror. Though then there’s a computer in the front console, with a masquerade mask rotating slowly around and around. Which comes across as a little threatening. From there, we have a roller-coaster of an adventure.

This would have driven my crazy, had it happened to me. Poor Ngozi! This is certainly weird and zany and keeps you reading because you have no idea what’s about to happen next. Nnedi has a talent for capturing characters in a way where you know little about them, but can see how they’d move, hear how they’d sound, and you would mimic the reactions of the poor main character.

First publication: Kabu Kabu (Prime Books).

“Pearlywhite” © 2003 Marc Laidlaw & John Shirley.

Homeless children and what they do to survive. Guided by Pearlywhite, the smokedragon, Inchy does whatever Pearlywhite instructs, for he hasn’t led him wrong yet.

Not the most engaging short to end on, but readable none the less. I think having a quieter tale after such a crazy set of random happenstance in the short just before it sets you up for minor disappointment. Perhaps they could have been switched around.

First publication: Carved in Rock: Short Stories by Musicians, ed. Greg Kihn (Thunder’s Mouth Press).

Overall this is a strong anthology, probably one of the best collections I’ve read. The theme throughout is well connected, and the stories have a good balance of setting, characters, diversity and plot.

Highly recommended.

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