Sunday, 17 August 2014

Review: Fearsome Magics

Fearsome Magics
Fearsome Magics by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After I finished (or mostly finished) reading this anthology, I realised what I didn't like about it: many, in fact most, of the stories are arguably horror, and I don't enjoy horror as a genre. I went in hoping for a book that was entirely fantasy, though the "Fearsome" part of the title probably should have warned me.

I did have my hesitations, because having read the same editor's Best of the Year picks, I knew that his taste and mine were very different. I decided, though, based on the names of the authors (particularly K.J. Parker and Garth Nix), that there would probably be some stories I liked, and indeed there were. They were in the minority, though, or close to it; the stories I liked even somewhat only account for half of the total, hence the three-star rating.

The collection starts out well, with "The Dun Letter" by Christopher Rowe. Like several other stories in the volume, it takes the idea of the changeling or the lost elf princess and plays with it. I particularly appreciated how the protagonist wasn't depicted as perfect; she isn't a good student or unusually diligent, and yet she takes care of her grandmother in a matter-of-fact way that suggests she thinks that's just what you do.

What tipped me over into requesting the book from Netgalley (who provided a copy for purposes of review) was seeing that there was a new Garth Nix story of Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz ("Home is the Haunter"). Unfortunately, I was disappointed by it. I've read the previous three stories with these characters, and reading this one brought me to the realisation that each one is basically the same story with new furniture. Sir Hereward is generally the viewpoint character, and because of his background, his sense of honour and his commitments, he has very little in the way of protagonism; he makes choices, but you know what they're going to be ahead of time. His companion, the self-willed puppet Mister Fitz, is indeed self-willed, more so than Sir Hereward. In this uncorrected proof, there were also several basic editing errors in this story, more than in the others in the collection, and that probably reduced my enjoyment. I did enjoy it - Mister Fitz is a wonderful character, and it's an interesting world - but I felt I was reading a story I'd already read.

Isobelle Carmody's "Grigori's Solution" I didn't enjoy. It's told in a stiff, distant style, and starts out with a long justification of why it's a story about magic, despite how it appears, which I thought should have been unnecessary. It persistently refers to an equation as a "sum". It describes the solution of the equation as somehow (in a way which didn't succeed in suspending my disbelief) causing the end of the universe or at least the world; I'm fairly sure there's a classic story somewhere that's already done this. I know there's a classic story that does what the rest of the story does, describes people's reaction to the end, and does it much better although coming to many of the same conclusions (it's by Bradbury or Silverberg or one of those guys, and I think it was published in the 70s). In other words, nothing new, not enjoyably told, the central conceit is weak, and the author also misses an opportunity to reference climate change skepticism. In fact, because climate change skepticism exists, I found the idea that the population at large would believe that the end was coming to be unconvincing.

Tony Ballantyne's "Dream London Hospital" is distinctly horror, and there's not much in the way of magic except in its surrealism. Not a favourite.

As I expected, I enjoyed the K.J. Parker story, "Safe House". It's told in the humourous, world-weary style that Parker does so well, it's a clever idea well worked out, and this was enough for me not to mind the dark and tragic aspects to it.

I also enjoyed Ellen Klages' "Hey, Presto!", an adventure story (a schoolgirl adventure story, no less, though set in the holidays) with no actual magic and not much fearsomeness, but a strong young female protagonist.

James Bradley's "The Changeling" is one of those stories that walks a fine line, so you're never sure whether the magical explanation is the true one, or if the "changeling" is just what we would these days call autistic. It's well done, but darker than I personally prefer.

Karin Tidbeck's "Migration", like other Tidbeck stories I've read, never resolves into anything that makes straightforward sense; it's strange and surreal throughout. I don't have a problem with that, though, and she does it well. However, it didn't give me much to hold onto.

Justina Robson's "On Skybolt Mountain" gave me the feeling that the author was pantsing her way through without knowing what came next, and changed her mind several times about what kind of story it was and what was happening. The names at the beginning, and a few other details, give a nineteenth-century American frontier feel, but then we're in some kind of a sword-and-sorcery setting, and at the very end the witch becomes something else entirely with no foreshadowing that I could see.

I usually enjoy Nina Kiriki Hoffman's lyrical fantastica, and "Where Our Edges Lie" is no exception. It's similar, in many ways, to "The Dun Letter" earlier in the collection, and plays again with the "changeling" idea. Both stories make a similar point about holding onto relationships being the most important thing.

The same point is present in Frances Hardinge's "Devil's Bridge", an original idea well executed, again with a strong young female protagonist (I like those).

Kaaron Warren's "The Nursery Corner" is one of several stories by Australian authors in the volume (the editor is also Australian), but the only one with an Australian setting. I'd call it light horror. Well done, but not really to my personal taste.

I didn't read all of the last two stories in the volume, since they took a horror or dark direction so early on and it seemed clear that they wouldn't be ones I'd enjoy. They are "Aberration" by Genevieve Valentine and "Ice in the Bedroom" by Robert Shearman.

So, out of the 14 stories in this volume, there were five that I straightforwardly enjoyed. There was one that I somewhat enjoyed but felt wasn't taking a fresh direction with the characters (the Nix), one that I quite liked but didn't love because the surrealism didn't give me enough to identify with (the Tidbeck), three that I considered well done but that were darker than I like, two that I thought weren't very well done, and two that lost my interest or willingness to follow along relatively early.

This collection confirms for me what I thought about the earlier Strahan anthology I reviewed: it's by an editor whose taste doesn't have a lot of overlap with mine, and I probably shouldn't pick up other anthologies which he edits. I'll miss out on a few good stories that way, but too few to make it worth wading through the others.

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