Fearsome Magics - K.J. Parker, Scott Lynch, Christopher Priest, Jonathan Strahan

Fearsome Magics 

edited by Jonathan Strahan


**Note: All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof. While they may not precisely reflect the final versions, I feel that they give an accurate portrait of the spirit and styles of the different stories.**


In his introduction, Strahan notes that,

"Magic is about rules. [...] Magic without limitations, without consequences, unbinds the story, lets events run amok, and undermines dramatic power."

In general, I agree wholeheartedly. As a reader, I don't necessarily need to understand the underlying logic, but I have to have a sense that it is actually there. If actions do not have consequences, the story devolves into that sense of trite unreality that we denigrate as the "fairy tale effect." There are, of course, exceptions. Dreamlike fantasies often have ever-changing and unreliable rules that merely enhance their unsettled, often almost hallucinogenic effect. However, given this introduction, I was a little surprised by how much of the collection seemed to consist of the dreamlike and rule-less variety. I've read several of Strahan's other anthologies, and I'm usually a little taken aback by how broadly he defines fantasy and speculative fiction. This collection is no different; many of the stories probably fit more neatly into "horror," and at least one contains no magic at all. I enjoy this aspect of these collections as it allows me to widen my reading horizons, but it is worth noting for fans of purer fantasy.


As always, I found K J Parker's contribution to be utterly enjoyable. I really need to get around to reading xir series. In "Safe House," the narrator finds himself about to be hanged as a sorcerer. Again. Even though he tries to explain the pointlessness of hanging a sorcerer capable of dematerializing into a cloud of smoke, his hangman is intractable. Which is why our narrator finds himself rematerializing somewhere out in the boondocks of BocFlemen, cold, shaky, utterly lacking in garb, and still needing to rescue an unknown novice sorcerer somewhere in hostile country. As always, one of my favourite aspects of the story is the almost Woosterish voice that Parker bestows upon xir first person narrator. One of the many enjoyable quotes:

"It’s a sort of assumption you make; that the enemy is never scared. The enemy, as we imagine him, is a sort of ice-cool, nerves-of-steel super-predator, every fibre of whose being is concentrated with absolute intensity on killing you. So, you tell yourself, if the voice sounds petrified with fear, it can’t be the enemy.

Bullshit, of course. I’ve been the enemy loads of times, and I’m permanently terrified."

Yet for all the humour, the story manages to shoehorn in a few trenchant yet amusing observations about war and conflict:

"Victory almost always goes to the side that keeps its nerve longest and is prepared to tolerate the most damage. Which probably explains why we tend to fight our wars in other people's countries. It's so much easier to keep one's nerve when the villages and fields getting burnt into glass belong to some stranger.

[...] Our wars never end. We tell them to, but they rarely listen."

Even if I'm not sure I really grasped what was going on, "Safe House" was definitely one of my favourite stories in the collection.


"The Dun Letter" by Christopher Rowe is a nice little take on the half-fae child tale. In the midst of a collection of last notices and unpaid bills, Tansie receives a letter that proclaims her a child of the fey. I loved how the story played with the trope of the unknown parent. I found it an enjoyable melding of contemporary life and faerie incursion, a brief but solid urban fantasy with a satisfying little kick at the end. My favourite quote:

"For some reason, this reminded Tansie of the stories she had heard about foster care from some of the kids on the at-risk track. It was always advertised as going someplace better by the people taking you away from your home. Gothwiddion the Primrose Knight sounded like he worked for Child Protective Services."

I've been a fan of Garth Nix for years, and I admire both his imagination and his ability to tell a story. "Home is the Haunter" is no exception. Sir Hereward and his companion, an ancient being that apparently uses a puppet as his avatar, find themselves on the edge of a sweetwater sea whose legendary inhabitant apparently dines annually upon the spirits of any men who are crossing at the time. As one might expect, Sir Hereward has arrived on the eve of the spirit's night out, so they seek refuge at the local house of The Sacred Order of the Sisters of Mercantile Fairness of the Goddess Lanith-Eremot. Unfortunately, things aren't precisely as they seem with the sisters, and it's definitely turning out to be an interesting evening. The story is humorous and imaginative and utterly enjoyable. My favourite quote comes from the puppet's complaints about the portrayal of Lanith-Eremot within the abbey:

"The goddess is never depicted as a dark cloud with tentacular arms. Or even as a human female figure. She is normally portrayed as a sort of friendly money-lending monkey atop a pile of coins.”

"Devil's Bridge" by Francis Hardinge contains one of the most tantalizing magical constructs in the collection. Petra is Bridgekin, able to construct a bridge to any place in any world. However, the bridge magic exacts a toll upon the wisher. The price can be anything: a memory, one's singing voice, the colour from one's skin or hair. But the price will always be steep. And yet desperate men keep coming, keep forcing Petra by gunpoint to use her gift. I found the story sweet and evocative, even if the end was just a little too pat. Favourite quote:

"We all make choices like that, and mostly we don't even notice. Picking which dreams we give up."

"Dream London Hospital" by Tony Ballantyne is reminiscent of those peculiarly vivid dreams that seem frighteningly reasonable until one tries to explain them the next day. The first person narrator is trying to find an unnamed woman who is somewhere in the bowels of the Dream London Hospital. As he travels deeper into the hospital's mazelike corridors, he passes footless men (don't try the fish pedicures, especially when performed by pirhanas), signs with cheery announcements such as, "Abandon all bodily fluids, all those who enter here," soul scanners, carrionmen, and more. The story is hallucinogenic and strange and memorable, as illogical and nonsensical as a dream.


Overall, while I don't think the collection contains as many gems as Strahan's "Year's Best" collections, it does contain a variety of solid stories. I also think that that although the stories often stretch the traditional boundaries of fantasy, most fit neatly into the horror-fantasy theme suggested by the title. For me, the sheer enjoyment of fantasy adventures such as Parker's "Safe House" and Hardinge's "Devil's Bridge" made the collection a worthwhile read.


 ~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Solaris, in exchange for my honest review.  ~~


As usual, I am going to review every single story in the collection, in approximate order of descending enjoyment. Since we've already made it through my favourites, the remaining comments will be increasingly lacking in politeness. Consider yourself warned.


'Aberration" by Genevieve Valentine is haunting and obscure, a story told by a woman who has lost her soul to eternity. She travels again and again, always to a new place, a new cruelty, an unending tragedy. Sometimes, he is there: the other traveller, the one who has somehow managed to construct a home and a life within the ever-changing landscape. The prose is vivid and lyrical:

"Her heart is a thousand stairs with nothing at the top, and she's afraid all the way up."

While I loved the atmosphere and the writing, I think it was a bit too obscure and ill-defined for me to really grasp. In fact, I couldn't help but think of it as the story of another Time Lord's envious and uncomprehending obsession with the Doctor, always observing yet never able to grasp his unending enthusiasm and sense of purpose. I find the idea of eternity horrifying, and I think the story captures the same fascinating, terrifying loneliness that I see in the idea of the Time Lords. 


"Where Our Edges Lie" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is another interesting twist on the changeling theme as well as a bittersweet tale of growing up and growing apart. Cosima has always been so close to her twin that they sometimes seem to be two bodies with one soul. But as they grow older, Cosima begins to find herself breaking apart from her twin, no matter how hard she tries to hold them together.


"The Nursery Corner" by Kaaron Warren reminded me a bit of a Stephen King story, balancing precariously on the border between spooky and absurd. When Mario creates the Nursery Corner for the nursing home's residents, everyone is thrilled. The residents may go in screaming, but they all emerge docile and calm. But Jessie can't help but see a new vacancy in their eyes. I found the story a satisfying mix of commonplace and creepiness.


"Ice in the Bedroom" by Robert Shearman is yet another story in which dreams intersect with reality. Simon Painter hasn't slept much since his wife's suicide. When he finally drops off, he finds himself on his bed in the middle of an endless frozen lake that reflects a starry sky. The ice is so cold that it burns like the flames of Hell. But the Wolf seems to be able to cross it nonetheless. Simon's life on the ice lake becomes a metaphor for his life outside, his grief, his attempts to come to terms with his wife's suicide. It is a deceptively simple story, an aching exploration of loss in the midst of the commonplace banalities of life. Favourite quote:

"He understood suddenly that to kill himself would be the work of a moment, how quick it would be,a single decision taken in an instant. And that no one should be defined by a moment, not even a terminal one."


"The Changeling" by James Bradley is an interesting take on the old tale of a faery child substituted for a human one. Hannah married an outsider and now finds herself isolated in a hostile village, with a child who seems alien and wild and inhuman. When she meets an engineer from outside the village, he seems to hold the key to an escape into a new world. I really liked the way that Bradley weaved in the clash between the old and new ways, and the way he used the changeling child as a metaphor, and the ending twist is satisfying, if predictable.


"Migration" by Karin Tidbeck is another odd little dream-story. Edith wakes up to discover that all of her friends and family are gone, migrated to some new unknown place. In her escape from her building, she travels down endless stairs and into a series of worlds that contain that illusively reasonable illogic of dreams. The story is bizarre and creepy and nonsensical, and its ending packs a punch.


In Justina Robson's "On Skybold Mountain," the hedgewitch Lettice finds herself an unwilling member of a quest for dragon gold. For me, the story wasn't particularly stirring; I found the prose rather jerky, the plot a bit too pointed, and the story somewhat lacking in logic.


For example, given her powers and the fact that she actually escapes, it's not clear why she doesn't just flee in the beginning rather than join the quest.

Altogether, I can think of more effective jabs at monotheism.

(show spoiler)



"Hey, Presto!" by Ellen Klages is a rather odd addition to a collection of fantasy stories. It's a sweet little story about a girl getting to know her magician father, but all magic-- other than the magician's variety of illusons and trickery-- is lacking.


"Grigori's Solution" by Isobelle Carmody wins the prize as my least favourite story of the collection. Basically, the plot is this: a young child manages to solve a sum called the Doomsday Formula, and as one might expect, this appears to be bringing about the end of the world. That is actually close to the entire plot, and it's a trite, tired, and overused trope that has been done much better in many other places. There isn't much to the story, but what there was managed to piss me off mightily, proving yet again that I have absolutely no sense of humour about serious business like mathematics.

In his introduction, Strahan focuses on the necessity of rules to govern magical systems. In my opinion, this is especially important when one's magical system is in fact a science. Carmody clearly did absolutely no research into her subject. Her technobabble consists entirely of the terms "math," "numbers," "sum," and "formula" smashed together in meaningless phrases such as "the math of the sum and its solution were simply too advanced for him" or "they saw what he did with his numbers" or "the boy's math was so original that it might involve a new number." All of this, is, of course, utter nonsense, especially the idea that a "new number" would be novel. Not only are our number systems infinite, but there are provably uncountably infinite cardinalities of infinities. Only someone with not even an elementary grasp of mathematics could write the statements above.

Throughout, Carmody refers to the solved problem as a "sum." What does it mean to "solve" a "sum?" Does "solving a sum" mean solving an equation? A an inequality? Is it proving a theorem? Constructing an analytical solution? Pure summation, even of infinite terms, isn't a particularly complex operation. It doesn't get bad until you mix in other terms that stop the formula from being considered a "sum." Sums aren't "solved", they are performed. Anyone who had even the slightest knowledge of the subject they decided to write about would have known that. 

Even if one ignores the math, I didn't find anything redeeming about the plot. The story is too unimaginative and ill-informed to even explain why the solving of a mathematical problem can bring about the end of the world; in fact, Carmody's treatment of math is as handwavy as the fantasy writers she denigrates for using magic as "a literary device for writers too lazy to grasp the nettle of reality." The story tries to grapple with how the impending apocalypse might affect humanity, but I found The Last Policeman to be a much more satisfying and thoughtful exploration of the theme.


However, considering that this was the worst story of the bunch, I think the collection's quality overall was quite high. As always with anthologies, I am grateful for the opportunity to experience the writings of new authors. Without fail, I end up with some new books on my to-read list--I really need to read K J Parker's Engineer trilogy-- as well as some authors on my to-avoid list. In my opinion, both are useful, as they simultaneously open my horizons and refine my tastes.