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Friday, May 9, 2014

Magic City: Stories of Wonder, Stories of Darkness

Magic City: Recent Spells edited by Paula Guran is an anthology of reprinted urban fantasy. I hadn’t read any of the anthologies in which they had originally appeared so they were all new to me. I received this book from Net Galley and this is my review.


When I read anthologies, I often stop reading stories that don’t hold my attention.  So it’s important to point out that although there were 24 stories in Magic City: Recent Spells,  I read 11 of them in their entirety.   This is almost half the anthology.  I actually consider this a good percentage.  There are many anthologies in which I find only one or two stories that I’m willing to read.

I would first like to digress, as bloggers often do, and discuss why I read urban fantasy. When I was a young fan, I was taught by older fans that the prerequisite for reading any fantasy or science fiction is a sense of wonder.  Like many of the fans of my generation, I am a xenophile.  I want to encounter new things in fiction with the expectation that they might be wonders, not horrors.  This is not because I think that the real world is a wonderful place.  I am an escapist.   To me, this is not a shameful confession.  C.S. Lewis once said that the only people opposed to escapism are jailers.  I feel that escapist fiction is a source of hope.  When I read fantasy, it’s with the hope that magic can transform lives for the better.  The books that I define as urban fantasy take place in the urban present in the world that most of us consider reality.  I want the illusion that I could walk down the street in any city, and encounter wonderful magic.  People who are not escapists, who are apparently the majority of the book buying public these days, want to read fiction that replicates their experience. They know, as I do, that the world is a place full of ambivalence and uncertainty, and that there are no completely happy endings.  This is what is driving the market for darker, more realistic fantasy.  The lives of the characters are rather grim.  The stories have ambivalent or uncertain endings.  After all, no one can be certain of the future.  There are dark stories that fit this description in Magic City, but there are other stories that are more in accordance with my taste for wonders. I am writing this paragraph for the purpose of transparency. I don’t want to imply that dark fiction is badly written.  It simply isn’t what I prefer to read.

My favorite story in this anthology is “Seeing Eye” by Patricia Briggs, who writes an urban fantasy series about a woman garage mechanic who turns into a coyote (Mercy Thompson), and a related series about a female werewolf named Anna Latham who has an unusual paranormal gift.   I love both these series and their continuing characters.  “Seeing Eye” contains a blind witch with quite a back story and an extraordinary approach to the concept of the witch’s familiar.  Terrible things happen in this story, but there is justice in the end which isn’t necessarily what would happen in the real world.

“Stone Man” by Nancy Kress is about a homeless boy whose magical gift is discovered by a doctor when he has a rather strange skateboard accident.  This is another story that I loved because someone who is completely without hope finds a new constructive purpose for his life. 

I would also particularly like to mention “Kabu” by Nnedi Okorafor (with Alan Dean Foster).  I don’t know  Alan Dean Foster’s role  in the process of writing this story, but I read Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Who Fears Death and considered it brilliant.   So I was looking forward to her story, and wasn’t disappointed.  It’s about how a Nigerian American manages to get to Nigeria in an unexpected way.  I really enjoy Okorafor’s use of African tradition in her work.

Catherynne M. Valente is also included in this anthology. The story is “A Voice Like a Hole”.   She is a highly praised author whose creativity actually bothers me.  If a fantasy writer is a person who can dream up “seven impossible things before breakfast”, to quote Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, then Valente is fifty times more of a fantasy writer than anyone else.  The trouble is that she puts all of these concepts in one novel.  Each one could potentially have an entire book devoted to it.  Unfortunately, I have never read a novel by her dealing with a single story line. (Though I did read a novella by her with a single story line called Six Gun Snow White and found it superficial. ) So I never get the sense that her novels are ever fully developed.   Can Valente manage to do this in a short story format?  Well, yes and no.  The protagonist is a runaway who encounters magic, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of resolution.  Her fate remains uncertain.  The prose is lovely, as is usually the case with Valente.  This is the sort of story that I usually love.  The character and plot line remind me of the work of Charles De Lint, a founder of urban fantasy and a favorite author of mine.  I liked “A Voice Like A Hole” , but it confirmed my impression of Valente as someone who doesn’t fully develop what she writes.

Charles De Lint has a story in this anthology called “Dog Boys”.  I liked the inter-cultural interaction in this story.   It contained a fictional Native American people called the Kikimi that De Lint has used in other contexts. The advantage of creating a fictional people is that it’s theoretically possible to create traditions for them without offending anyone.  At least, I would hope that no one is offended by this type of creative license. 

I feel that this anthology is worthwhile for urban fantasy fans who haven’t encountered these stories previously, or for those who particularly liked these stories and would like to own them all in one volume.


                                                         Gold Venetian Mask
                              Courtesy of Victor Habbick


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