Dark Alchemy (book, eds Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois 2007)

A book review from Death Ray 03.


Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (editors)/ Bloomsbury/ £16.99 (Hardback)/ Out Now

Impressive collection of short stories on the theme of wizards, from some of fantasy’s most celebrated authors.

Short story collections are among the best of books, each a chest full of who knows what treasures. Mostly these are gathered from all over the place, heaps of literary spoils of various provenance. It’s not so often that you get one like this, where each story has been specifically crafted for the collection, like the contents of a cabinet of curiosities…

The 18 authors in the book were asked to write a story about wizards. Perhaps it is the subject matter, but the result is a set of curiously similar tales. Most involve children, with the discovery of magic in the mundane a favoured topic. (Though Neil Gaiman reverses this in his “The Witch’s Headstone”, having his juvenile protagonist venture from a magical world into a prosaic one). Even Gene Wolfe’s “The Magic Animal” casts Merlin and his paramour Viviane as kids. This gives a strangely one-sided experience, as if unconsciously all these authors feel that magic can only be experienced by children. Or perhaps that adult wizards are by inclination evil, as Peter S Beagle’s Carcharos, Kage Barker’s The Master of the Mountain and Tad William’s Elizar the Devourer. Even when grown-up magic-users do feature – good or evil – they are nearly always seen through the eyes of children. The discovery of magical or other powers has been used as a metaphor for growing up for so long that it is deeply ingrained in our culture, but its overuse as such here does make you wish for a couple of tales about adults along the lines of Clark Ashton Smith’s seminal Eibon stories.

There are a couple of tales in here that feel like dry runs for multi-part epics. Among these is “Holly and Iron” by Garth Nix, which takes us to an alternative past  where Norman Iron mages battle Saxon Holly wizards (one small point about this tale – the name Robin, as used for a girl, is of relatively recent, American provenance). The ending positively shouts out “more to come”. Likewise Orson Scott Card’s “The Stonefather”, which is flagged as a preview to his Mithermages series, due in 2008. Still, although these seem cynically placed, they add to a rich mix of varied fiction (children in common aside) that takes in dark, contemporary, and heroic fantasy.

This is a very good collection, and if the stories appear a little unfocused, probably a consequence of asking authors to write about a particular subject, they are all well told, and more than a few beautifully written. Well worth the cash.

The Stories

Because Death Ray does not do things by halves, here are all the stories reviewed and rated.

The Witch’s Headstone by Neil Gaiman (24pp)

Small boy being raised in a graveyard by a fantastical cast of undead characters ventures into the mundane world to find a memorial for a dead witch. Atmospheric, but a little hollow. FOUR STARS

Holly and Ironby Garth Nix (33pp)

Estranged, half-Saxon daughter of the Duke of Normandy abandons her struggle against her father’s people and embraces her dual magical nature. Derivative, historically false, girl has a boy’s name. Never read Garth Nix before, and from this I can’t see what the fuss is about. THREE STARS

Color Vision by Mary Rosenblum (25pp)

Kid with synaesthesia gets drawn into magical struggle with Highlander-like uber-wiz sucking out other’s wizards souls. Nothing new here. THREE STARS

The Ruby Incomparable by Kage Barker (16pp)

Daughter of the world’s most evil overlord and its most wholesome saint struggles with what she will do with her own life. Nicely humorous, pacy fable about our wishes for our children. FOUR STARS

A Fowl Tale Eoin Colfer (6pp)

Silly story about a compulsively lying parrot. Fun stuff from the author of Artemis Fowl. THREE AND A HALF STARS

Slipping Sideways Through Eternity by Jane Yolen (14pp)

A young jewish girl is transported through time by the prophet Elijah, who here is cast as a chronology-bending wizard. Serious, though optimistic, tale about the Jewish diaspora and holocaust. THREE AND A HALF STARS

The Stranger’s Hands by Tad Williams (20pp)

Mysterious stranger turns up in backward village and begins granting all and sundry their heart’s desire, to no ill effect. But is he as good as he seems? All things need opposition, magic is no different. Nice sketch on that subject. FOUR STARS

 Naming Day by Patricia A Mckillip (14pp)

Wizards at school await their magical names, but typical teenager Averil gets sidetracked. Or does she? Perhaps we all take our parents for granted, and foolishly deny them their own power in our youthful arrogance… THREE AND A HALF STARS

Winter’s Wife by Elizabeth Hand (34pp)

Nice local hippy gets a strange wife from Iceland whom he meets over the internet. She’s lovely, but she’s far more than she seems, as young Justin discovers. The best of the “children see magic” stories in this book. FOUR STARS

A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question by Andy Duncan (32pp)

Whimsical story about a young girl in the 19th century coming into her power. Lovely imagery, nice beat. FIVE STARS

Barrens Dance by Peter S Beagle (15pp)

Beautifully written story about the evil, dancing wizard Carcharos pursuing another man’s wife. All smooth phrases and languid imagery, sadly it goes a bit Animal Magic at the end. FOUR AND A HALF STARS

Stone Man by Nancy Kress (20pp)

Yet another “kid discovers power”, and a precursor to a longer saga to boot, it would appear. Teenage protagonist nicely drawn, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. THREE STARThe Manticore Spell by Jeffrey Ford (19pp)

Wonderfully technicolor story complete with deliciously over the top description of the titular mythical beastie. The only story here that really deals with the magical fantasy staple of Thinning, which is odd if you think about it. FIVE STARS

Zinder by Tanith Lee (14pp)

A great little story about a village idiot who has a nocturnal life as the world’s most powerful wizard. Beautiful, moving and magical. FIVE STARS

Billy and the Wizard by Terry Bisson (7pp)

Boy with talking doll saves the day and foils the devil’s plan. Sharp dialogue, a little cracker.  FOUR AND A HALF STARS

The Magikkers by Terry Dowling (15pp)

A bit of a different take on wizard school. “Magikkers” only have one act of magic in them. Which will Samuel choose? THREE AND A HALF STARS

The Magic Animal by Gene Wolfe (27pp)

Viviane the American teenager must work hard to make sure Merlin the Wizard is in the right place at the right time to save the past, present, and future. An unusually straightforward story from the master of literary ambiguity that does not require years of cogitation to grasp. FOUR AND A HALF STARS

Stonefather by Orson Scott Card (74pp)

Ender’s Game author sets up his new fantasy world with this novella about a boy who discovers his power over stone (the second such elemental mage in the book). Excellent if formulaic heroic fantasy. FOUR STARS

  1. […] Kuo: Son of Heaven (book, David Wingrove, 2011)Contract (book, Simon Spurrier, 2007)Dark Alchemy (book, eds Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois 2007)Dr Grordbort’s Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory (book, Greg Broadmore, 2008Dragon Forge […]

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