Magic City: Recent Spells - Patricia Briggs

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 "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.  ~~




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Some of the less exhilarating stories include Simon R Green’s “Street WIzard,” which provides a plot-less glimpse of a world that will lack novelty to anyone who has read either Green’s Nightside or Butcher’s Dresden Files. Cute, but neither surprising nor new, and the utter absence of plot was rather a letdown. "A Voice Like a Hole" was also a bit of a disappointment; I've heard great things about Catherynne M Valente and was eager to try a sample of her writing. However, I tend to be rather impatient with unrealistic runaway stories and open-ended tales, and unfortunately, "Voice" is both. “Paranormal Romance” by Christopher Barzak was an enjoyable, if unmemorable, piece of fluff, a short and simple story of a love-potion witch whose interfering mother signs her up on a blind date. "Snake Charmer" by Amanda Downum utilizes Voudou in its magical construction, which definitely adds an interesting dimension.  Otherwise, though, I'm not sure it really captured much of my attention;  think it was simply too short to fully develop the characters or plot.


A few of the stories went further, passing into the territory "irritating" or even "unpleasant." Jim Butcher's "Curses" is a baseball story that involves a creature mentioned in TDF#10, but as it is Murph-less, Mouse-deprived, and Butters-free, my patience was severely limited.  A brand new female admirer, an utterly inept exchange of double-entendres, and a depressing absence of flying purple monkeys did not improve my mood. Plus, Mr Butcher's understanding of Welsh mythology is about as accurate as his belief that "Sidhe" is pronounced "Sith." Unless you're a hardcore fan of both baseball and Butcher, I'd advise giving this one a miss. 

"Dog Boys" by Charles de Lint displays the author's unusual take on urban fantasy, as it combines Southwestern Native American legend with gang violence.  Whilst I enjoyed it, I did find myself rather irritated at the premise: a white boy steps in gallantly to save a Pima girl (as far as I can tell, although we never actually get her tribal affiliation; she's just called "Indian"), putting his own life at risk from the oh-so-evil Mexican bandas. Whilst I understand that de Lint is at least acknowledging other cultures, it had too strong of a Kiplingesqe flavour for me to be comfortable with it.

And then, of course, the white boy becomes "blood brother" to the Indians after saving the lives of some members of the tribe. Ye gods.

(show spoiler)

"The Land of Heart's Desire" by Holly Black again doesn't do much for me; it's a very short, relatively straightforward fairy-based urban fantasy with more than a touch of romance, which puts it rather outside of my genre of interest. "Words" by Angela Slatter is a sort of new take on the Pied Piper, but sadly, it did absolutely nothing for me.“Spellcaster 2.0” by Jonathan Mayberry was one of the few stories in the collection that attempted to drive a message across; unfortunately, I thought it came across as gratingly pompous and preachy, as well as (ironically enough) rather judgemental and uninformed. “Stone Man” by Nancy Kress was more of a superhero or Saturday-morning-TV-style good/bad setup, complete with evil people who do evil things to get evil money in extremely impractical (but definitely evil) ways, a variety of plot that I tend to find rather cringingly embarrassing as well as illogical. 

"Pearlywhite" by Mar Laidlaw and John Shirley went even farther: I thought the ideas were tired, the characters cliche, and the writing less than brilliant, but it was impressive in one respect: even in the confines of a short story, it managed to contain some blatant internal inconsistencies. 

My favourite massive inconsistency:

"Clyde had never told him what object Koil was homebased in.  You didn't usually see them go in and out of their homebases, and most of the kids were secretive about it."

And then, of course, we discover that all the Invisibles are not only named after their homebases, but the kids routinely bring them out and show them. About one page later. The narration acts as though this is a standard event, and for the rest of the narrative, the homebases of the invisibles are casually mentioned. One of them even is made visible by animating his homebase. Ye gods.


And how, and why, did the kid shove the dead people in the freezer? I mean, even leaving alone the big freaking "why," how did he manage it logistically? That is one big freezer. And can you imagine rearranging all the other foods?

(show spoiler)

Saving the worst for last, my least favourite short story was definitely Caitlin R Kiernan’s “30”, in which she oh-so-poetically expresses the travails of the author and the lengths that they are willing to go for inspiration to serve the ignorant and ungrateful reader.  I found the story self-important, insipid, and distasteful--she very literally compares the tribulations of the author to several atrocities, including rape-- while still remaining utterly without the storytelling spark. Personally, I found the most amusing aspect of the story its utter absence of inspiration.



Overall, I'm quite glad that I read the collection, as much for the new authors I found as the unknown authors I now plan on avoiding.  While that's perhaps not the optimal result, it still is valuable.  One of the greatest aspects of an anthology, to my mind, is that it's almost impossible to read one without finding at least one story to love. In my case, I found quite a few, and if I had to wade through some less memorable tales, the effort was worth it.