Magic City: Recent Spells
Anthology, edited by Paula Guran
I suspect that I wasn't the only reader who was attracted to Magic City by the popular authors displayed prominently on the cover. In retrospect, I think the collection provides precisely what it advertises: pleasant short stories from some of the biggest names in the genre. At the same time, I simply didn't expect the striking difference from my usual variety of short-story read. I generally stick to "Year's Best" variety of anthology, which tend to go for the most bizarre, imaginative, and memorable stories of the year or decade. In contrast, most of the stories in Magic City are pleasantly ordinary examples of urban fantasy; enjoyable to read, but, to a large extent, rather unmemorable.
My sense of letdown was first triggered by the introduction, which I found to be a peculiar combination of pomposity and simplicity. Guran puts tremendous emphasis on the physical location and the type of magic, to the point that she actually starts each story with a bizarre infobox-style description of "The City" and "The Magic." Personally, I found these to be intrusive and condescending, and they gave me the impression of someone trying too hard to be cute. This also put tremendous emphasis on magic and location, almost suggesting that they are the key elements of each story. Personally, I believe that a story's plot, characters, and underlying message are the important aspects, and perhaps this intrinsic disagreement explains much of my dissatisfaction with the collection.
At the same time, there were quite a few stories that utterly captured my imagination and interest. My list of outstanding stories:
"The Thief of Precious Things" by A.C. Wise, was, for me, the most outstanding story in the collection. Full of lyrical writing and vibrant imagery, it has that dreamy watercolour texture of a fairy-story while exploring a fascinating world that binds Japanese mythology to a technological dystopia. I will definitely look out for more works by the author.
"Kabu Kabu" by Nnedi Okarafor was another brilliant one: Ngozi, a successful Chicago lawyer, is running late for her flight to Nigeria for her sister's wedding, so she jumps into the first cab she sees. But this cab happens to be run by a fellow Igbo who has a rather interesting clientele. Charming and humorous, the story achieves the greatest feat of urban fantasy, effortlessly binding Igbo mythos to urban life in a thoroughly enjoyable, accessible manner.
"In the Stacks" by Scott Lynch was another of my favourites. The story starts with a group of students who are about to take their fifth year magic exam, which consists of making their way through the library to return one book apiece. The Library itself is rather reminescient of Pratchett's creation (ook), filled to the brim with self-aware texts and creative monsters. The Librarians' motto? "RETRIEVE. RETURN. SURVIVE." In fact, whilst the group doesn't run into a stampeding thesaurus or angry orang-utan, the entire story reminds me quite a lot of a Pratchett yarn, as it involves characters with names like "Inappropriate Levity Bronzeclaw", various "Sword-Librarians" who carry swords, spells, and shields when they venture into the stacks, and hilarious critters such as vocabuvores and other bibliofauna.
"The Woman who Walked with Dogs" by Mary Rosenblum, was, to my mind, another gem. It tells the story of Mari June, a girl just reaching womanhood, who has a penchant for wandering her neighborhood at night. In the flickering shadows of a summer night, she finds herself in a oddly alien, unpredictable world in which an ordinary daylight scene is imbued with magic. I simply loved the writing style; for example, take the moment in which Mari June decides to cross the road into the park:
"She stared at the wide dark snouts of the cars, teeth hidden between painted bumper lips. They stared back at her, eyes dull and smug."
The story is heartwarming and sweet, but also truly captures the way in which the veil of night can cast the world into a threatening, uneasy strangeness.
"Alchemy" by Lucy Sussex was also memorable; I was fascinated by its attention to detail and use of ancient history; it tells the story of a perfumer in Ancient Babylon who draws the interest of a lamassu-- A beautiful blend of fantasy, mythology, and history.
Many other stories were quite enjoyable. "Patricia Briggs' "Seeing Eye" was as engaging and readable as the rest of her stories, with a solid plot and a rather sweet romance that never quite overpowers the story. “Wallamellon” by Nisi Shawl was a bittersweet little vignette of growing up, while “Grand Central Park” by Delia Sherman was a lighter story of leaving childhood, a first-person and heavily dialectic story from an outsider/unpopular girl who discovers that invisible friends aren’t necessarily imaginary. "The Slaughtered Lamb" by Elizabeth Bear featured an interesting protagonist, a transsexual whose choices have caused her to lose the support of her community. The ending felt a little too pat to me, but I would have loved to learn more about the world. "De La Tierra" by Emma Bull skips the overused Celtic vibe in favour of the folklore of Mexican Indios. While I do get tired of the back-to-the-earth messages common to such stories, I liked how the story tied magic very directly to environmentalism and to the soulless feeling of LA. I also got a kick out of "Stray Magic" by Diana Peterfreund, mainly because it takes place in an animal shelter, features a protagonist who volunteers so that she can get her "dog fix", and involves a talking dog. The story is likely to appeal to anyone who wastes significant time on dogshaming.com. "The Arcane Art of Misdirection" by Carrie Vaughn was equally light and fluffy, telling the story of a blackjack dealer who decides to investigate after one too many unlikely coincidences at her table.
Unfortunately, I found most of the stories from major authors rather uninspired, even though many were still quite readable. I'm going to go on and discuss every single story in the collection, but as always with short stories, I've listed them in approximate inverse order of enjoyment, so unless you actually enjoy reading my rants and "damn-with-faint-praise"s, you may as well consider this review complete.
Overall, I think the collection favours author fame over story brilliance, so while you'll get plenty of examples from some of the biggest names in the genre, the stories themselves may be less exciting than one might wish.
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Prime Books, in exchange for my honest review. ~~