Wizards edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Berkley Publishing Group, 2007, Hardcover, 400 pp, $25.00
(Please be aware that IGMS's publisher Orson Scott Card has a new novella in
this collection -- a bit of a conflict of interest on my end, so I'm going to be
pretending it doesn't exist for the purposes of my review.)
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fan of themed story collections.
I suppose it's horribly elitist and snobby of me, but whenever a friend shoves the
latest anthology of Generic Dragon Stories at me, I just kind of cringe. (Inwardly,
of course, so that they don't toss me out of the club for putting on such high-falutin' airs. But still.)
It's just ... these collections are always so one-note. Completely counter to one of
the big reasons I'm drawn to Fantasy and Science Fiction; namely, the possibility
of true strangeness, the possibility of looking at things in a new and wholly unique
way in every story. (To be clear, this is different than a Taste for Cheap Novelty
in a way that is both totally profound and conveniently impossible for me to quite
The point is, I was more than a little hesitant when I saw this anthology at Borders.
Wizards? Honestly, if I wanted more Gandalf, I'd rather reread The Fellowship
than slog through another new batch of stories involving the same pale witless
imitations that've plagued the genre for so long.
Still, it's Dann and Dozois. Trustworthy folk. They'd never dream of abusing
their powers for the cheap thrill of serving substandard work to the wide-eyed
innocents who look to them for guidance in the dark alleyways of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy ghetto, would they?
Nah. Silly of me to lose the faith. The sheer number of first-rate, powerhouse
authors alone should convince more than a few cynics that Dann and Dozois are
playing for keeps with this one.
For one thing, even the yarns that are set in a tradition that isn't usually my cup of
Aquafina are really, really good.
We get some very fine stories turned in by Garth Nix, Peter S. Beagle, Jeffrey
Ford, Tanith Lee, and others -- they're not All-New-All-Different, but they're
solid pieces of work. Let the artsies and the flashies redefine the genre -- these
guys are content to use the Grand Old Motifs for their own purposes, twisting
them into interesting shapes and managing to tell powerful tales with refreshing,
um, freshness. I'm particularly fond of Beagle's entry, a dark and enigmatic work
of love and lust and dance, and Ford's haunting story of a wizard's apprentice
searching for eternity.
Still, perhaps because of my thirst for weirdness, I'm nevertheless drawn most
powerfully to those stories that don't bother trying to fit themselves into the usual
school of thought of What Wizards Should Be Like:
"Winter's Wife" by Elizabeth Hand, for instance, is truly remarkable. In this
chilling tale of ancient power colliding with the present, I was utterly captivated
by the sheer persuasiveness of Hand's deft narration, the sheer reality of it, the
unobtrusive details that made me believe that magic might really exist in the
woods of a tiny community in the Northeast. She made me breathe the same air as
the characters, and it was cold as winter.
"A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil's Ninth Question" by Andy
Duncan is another decidedly unusual look at one girl's wizardry. Duncan takes
magic out of the middle ages and puts it in the post-civil-war South in a story that
manages to be hilarious and folksy and dangerous all at once. Pearl, the young
protagonist, runs away from her freak-show of a life, pushing through a diorama
and into a house full of ghosts; there are more memorable and eccentric characters
in this short little work than a good many novels, and I loved every one of them,
even the baddies. Heck, even the Devil's representative was a charming old
rapscallion. But then, he would be, right?
And this is just a sampling, a taste, something to whet the appetite. There are far
too many good stories in this collection for you to be without it; I haven't even
gone over the stories of many of the big names, since you can't really go wrong
with Gaiman, Yolen, Wolfe, et al. Enough for me to say that this collection is a
complete success -- I know because I wasn't predisposed for it to be, and the
sheer variety of commendably high quality stories still managed to change my
Sounds of Your Name by Nate Powell
Microcosm Publishing, 2007 edition, Softcover, 328 pp, $18.00
This hefty collection of moody indy comics is probably not going to be found in
overflowing abundance in your local bookstore.
Also, a fair portion of the short stories contained within aren't even, strictly
Still, I urge you to seek a copy out. (Look online for the February 2007 edition,
it's not hard to find at www.microcosmpublishing.com -- it's the corrected reprint
of the original run, which was tragically fraught with printing glitches.)
The first thing you'll notice about this book is the fact that, unlike the teensy,
flimsy, "mainstream" comics in the magazine section at Barnes and Noble, this
one is a freaking tome. It's nice and thick and will take longer than ten minutes to
read, so you won't feel like you've wasted your money on stories with so
relatively few words.
This is because Powell has been publishing in the alternative comics scene for
well over a decade, and this collection is the definitive volume of record. What we
have here is a selection of vignettes, melancholy meditations on smalltown ennui,
and the magic that is inherent to the tiniest of relationships. Plus talking animals
and fairies. A personal apocalypse or two. Y'know.
"Invisibilities," one of my favorite stories of the collection, shows how two friends
maintain the glorious myths that are believed in by so many in their small town.
Dressing up as a monster and a ghost, they provide a continuation of the tradition
started by strangers they never met. An exploration of the human universal of
storytelling, this is a lyrical gem of a story. It sings.
In "Satellite," a man is resurrected from his television-induced zombiefication by a
mischievous squirrel who forces him to look at the stars. There's a hilarious bit
where two (previously wild) housecats (one sporting an eyepatch) become
annoyed with their owner's rock 'n' roll friends and plot a sneak attack.
In "Autopilot," an absolutely gorgeous story, a young girl escapes from her
troubles at home by drawing an entire world populated by punk fairies living in
cacti, looking out at the wreckage of a crashed ship, observing the survivors who
are divided with miscommunications between the travelers speaking different
languages. In another, ghosts of dead friends haunt young adults trying to make
sense of the world, in what is an amazingly true-to-life portrait of the malaise that
so many adolescents seem to fall into. Pet birds question the motivations of their
owners, and anthropomorphic animals met by a man in a snowstorm discuss
And the art, oh the art: the black and white is very ably-designed, punching us in
the gut with the sheer expressive force of characterization. People morph from
cartoons to detailed portraits, the portraits exaggerated and misproportioned at
times and yet perfectly appropriate. You feel like you've met these people.
Powell's line varies from manic expressionism to coolly-composed realism in the
space of a single panel. There are moments of wordless storytelling that are simply
stunning in their power.
Alas, like many a disgruntled 'zine-er, Powell has a pretty blatant political agenda
in a couple of the shorts -- but they are short enough to get past with only mild
grimacing. Yes, the narrative is more than a little choppy in places as we watch
him learn his craft, and because of this, the action can at times be muddied and
unclear. He goes for the "edgy" shots a little too often for my liking, and some of
his experimentation just plain doesn't work, especially when his manic scribbling
overtakes the actual sense of the picture.
Doesn't matter. Powell is a brilliantly original voice in the comics industry,
precisely because his artwork and writing are so inextricably entwined. His work
epitomizes the unique power of an individual combining words and pictures in
amazingly well-observed and lyrical pieces. Even the stories that aren't explicitly
fantasy are imbued with a quiet magic, a sort of acknowledgment that the mundane
details of washing dishes and trying to learn to communicate with a loved one are
still important, still worthy of being explicated in art and story:
"It's always been the 'us'es making the magic. Was there any real magic to begin
with? Myth is myth. Never to be confused with lies. And as we all know, there are
no true stories."
Endless Things by John Crowley
Small Beer Press, 2007, Hardcover, 341 pp, $24.00
John Crowley has made a career out of memory.
My first exposure to his work was the short story "Snow" (in our esteemed host's
own "Future on Ice" anthology, no less). A haunting vision of loss and entropy,
Crowley proved he was a master of evoking a bittersweet nostalgia that made the
past as real and important as the present. His Aegypt series (consisting of the
previous novels Aegypt, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania, all of which are
coming back into print in the coming months if the rumors are to be believed)
continues in a similar vein, in a re-imagined history exploring through a story the
nature of storytelling itself.
Plot synopses of Crowley's books are never worth much, inevitably leaving out
much of what is valuable about the actual experience of reading them. Enough to
say that this book was at one point going to be titled "A Y," referring to the book's
central idea that history is shaped by innumerable branching choices, the decisions
we make every second to walk down one path or the other.
Pierce Moffet is back for a final round of rediscovering alternate histories in his
books, along with friends and family old and new (I especially liked the scenes
with him and his reunited father, as well as his struggles with learning how to be a
regular citizen working as a factory laborer rather than an angsty novelist).
However, Endless Things is more a denouement than anything else, a capstone,
and while it does stand alone fairly decently, readers unfamiliar with the rest of the
series should probably pick up the other three books as well and read them as a
piece. Like The Lord of the Rings, this is meant to be one long adventure; plots
that are left unfinished in other books are either dropped or reach fruition, ironies
in this volume are not complete without their set-up in earlier volumes, new
characters interact with old ones in surprising ways that won't make sense unless
you've seen what comes before. So, a demure coda, rather than an overblown ending...for of course everything is endless.
The contradiction of all of Crowley's work is present as well: like a memory itself,
the sense of place, of intimate moments and gestures, can sometimes overshadow
the movement of the story, so that I'm left confused at times as to how the scenes
link up. The narrative is constantly dissolving and reforming, recontextualizing
into moments of crystal-clear beauty, resolving in climaxes that subside as quickly
as they came, until we find the thread of plot again and continue on. You realize
that the little thing that was bothering you because it didn't make any sense
actually made perfect sense all along if you looked at it from this angle.
The intricate histories of Giordano Bruno and the Talking Ass with a cross on his
back and many others unravel and unwind, until we can barely see where the
strands of history and myth diverge from one another. All choices are highlighted,
all possibilities known, time splits into endless Ys. Crowley's amplifications and
distortions of the Mythical Egypt believed in by the old Hermeticists seems so
obscenely wrong, and yet so perfect because of it, as the characters have
conversations about ideas that matter.
For this is ultimately a novel about the power of ideas -- a love song to stories
themselves, as we use them for our own purposes, shaping the world through our
belief in them, things that are not true until we make them so. A love song to
ourselves as well, we communities of people gathered around the stories we
believe in without even knowing how or why we believe, enacting our rituals and
magics that we don't call by their true names in order to bring some form to chaos
and impose some boundaries on the nonsense in order to draw the hesitant
conclusions that the frame of a story can provide.
Yes, Crowley's prose is delicious as always, but all the pretty words in the world
wouldn't amount to much if they weren't describing things that are true and
important: Crowley's words are describing some of the most interesting and wise
truths we can know.
For history isn't science, it's the art of telling true-seeming stories. This obvious
idea is explored until it's made new again, and you can feel it, the power and
possibility of it. And the responsibility, too, as you realize that you're a part of the
world along with everyone else, and can shape things for the better (but also
possibly for the worse) with something as simple as an idea, spreading like
wildfire through us all.