The collection The Book of Magic, edited by Gardner Dozois, is a very nicely-curated collection of short stories all having to do with (you guessed it) Magic.
Of the 17 of short stories included in this collection, I gave five of them four or five stars, three of them three or fewer stars, and DNFed the remaining five. Clearly, much of this collection simply wasn’t for me. However, I cannot deny that most (if not all) of the included works are superb examples of their genre.
The most interesting thing about The Book of Magic is its editor, Dozios. While this review will be neither a love letter nor a eulogy for the accomplished and well-loved editor (who died a just a few months before the collection’s publication), I want to encourage you, yes you, to take a look at his history. It’s astounding.
As a collection, The Book of Magic is great. Its works do not share any narrative, notable themes, or characters. Each is simply a story about magic, and together they represent just about the full breadth of what we as non-magical people can envision about magic. The collection is noteworthy for its variety – and yet the whole of it feels complete, cohesive.
Each author is introduced in the pages before their story. These author introductions do not seem to share a cohesive voice, and it’s my assumption that each author provided their own copy. This is definitely (to my mind) the collection’s weakest point.
Of all the collection’s stories, three have stayed with me in the months since I read this book:
This story by Robin Hobb (Megan Lindholm) is the second in the collection. I was struck immediately by how inviting her voice is, and how easily I was able to match her stride and get into the story. Particularly with a story this short, that’s a real asset and something I look out for. Her voice is dynamic, descriptive, and immediately personal. The story’s setting is not in my wheelhouse, and I was amazed once it had concluded that I had been entirely swept up in it – but swept up I was.
When I turned the last page, I made one note: “Excellent all the way through.”
Song of Fire
Billed as “one of the most unusual and intricate [magical systems] employed in modern fantasy today…”, I did not know what to expect heading into this story by Rachel Pollack. I went ahead and looked her up before peeling into this story, and feel I had a good sense of what material she typically wrote. It was also helpful to know going into this story that it is a short story belonging to a larger narrative universe she’s been (and is still) writing.
My most lasting impression of this story? This woman has read too much Jim Butcher for anyone’s good.
Much like with Butcher, I enjoyed myself despite myself. There wasn’t anything particularly … anything in Song of Fire, but it was ok and I enjoyed it well enough.
Pollack gets a few really nice turns of phrase here, I will admit. I liked the following:
“Jack remembered a story of a sculptor who sought the perfect inspiration. He was said to have found it and never touched stone again. Jack had never understood that story. Now he was sure the poor man had seen, maybe heard, a Kallistocha. And yet, he thought, Carolien still paints.”
Overall, it was too simple a story for my tastes, and that simplicity was all the more apparent given how rich and complete the narratives around it were. It was, however, full of very nice imagery. And that’s not nothing.
The Friends of Masquelayne the Incomparable
I’m always intrigued by fiction authors who started out by mastering nonfiction writing, and Matthew Hughes has my full attention. Hughes pulls off something incredible in this character Masquelayne – a masterful portrayal of a bad guy as a protagonist.
Were the author a woman, I’d suspect the protagonist’s name to be a play on “masculinity”. As it is, I’ve considered @ing Hughes to ask him directly.
The rest of it (everything aside from the name) is brilliant. I mean – if this isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read it’s at least in my top 5. The narrative, the world building, the supporting cast, the foreshadowing, the turns, the descriptions … it’s all good. My only complaint against this short story is that it isn’t 10 times longer.
“He was instantly submerged, as if he were a clod of earth fallen from a cutaway bank into a storm-fed river in full flood. And then like a clod, he dissolved.”
This really might be the best short story I’ve ever read, and I can’t quite shake the feeling I’m not done reading it yet.