Tuesday 4 December 2012

Book Review | Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, edited by Jonathan Oliver

They gather in darkness, sharing ancient and arcane knowledge as they manipulate the very matter of reality itself. Spells and conjuration; legerdemain and prestidigitation – these are the mistresses and masters of the esoteric arts. Magic comes alive in their hands.

British Fantasy Award nominee Jonathan Oliver gathers together sixteen stories of magic, featuring some of today’s finest practitioners, including Audrey Niffenegger, Christopher Fowler, Gemma Files, Thana Niveau, Robert Shearman, Will Hill, Sarah Lotz, Storm Constantine, Dan Abnett, Sophia McDougall, Alison Littlewood, Lou Morgan, Gail Z. Martin and others.


"Genre fiction has had a long and complex relationship with magic," begins anthologist Jonathan Oliver in his introduction to this excellent collection of short stories.
"Horror fiction has often featured diabolists and their dealings with devils, cults pervade the works of pulp pioneers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and magic is an integral part of fantasy fiction as a whole. What I am seeking to do with Magic, however, is not to fulfil your expectations but exceed and confound them. This is a collection of unusual fiction; indeed an anthology of the esoteric and arcane."
Indeed. Yet it is no simple thing to tell whether Oliver's last is a statement of fact or an assertion of intent, because to understand what is unusual we must first quantify what is not - what is normal - and this is an inescapably subjective judgement. Definitive though Magic's editor is, it falls to each and every reader to determine whether the fifteen tall tales arranged in this All Hallow's anthology are truly extraordinary.

As of the first short story to follow Oliver's introduction, I thought not... but the best was yet to come.

There is no name more prominent on the cover of this collection than Audrey Niffenegger's. The author of The Time-Traveler's Wife is certainly the big hitter of the bunch - she has the most crossover appeal, at least - so whilst one grasps the rationale behind beginning the book with her curious contribution, to do so could equally be to start the show with the show-stopper. But no. If 'The Wrong Fairy' is anything, it's underwhelming: a narrative non-event, though commandingly composed and academically diverting.

In that regard, the Magic's second story, by Sarah Lotz - one half of the spooky South African sensation known as S. L. Grey - is substantially more satisfying. 'If I Die, Kill My Cat' is a playfully profane tale concerned with a crime scene cleaner who imperils herself by ignoring the instructions of a druid's suicide note. Instead, our narrator Rachel keeps the kitty, but cute as Muti is, he proves a harbinger of horrors. Recalling The Ward, 'If I Die, Kill My Cat' features some sharp satire - including "the irony of SARA bankrolling bizarre [...] rituals in the heart of so much poverty" - yet its success is in suggesting a sense of impending dread.

The next cut of the cards comes up trumps too: 'Shuffle' is a structurally sublime short about a street magician come con artist wherein Department 19's Will Hill applies sleight of hand to the narrative arts. I dare describe no more of it for fear of giving the game away, but suffice it to say I've never known the boy's own genre author to be better.

'Domestic Magic' is a similarly tricky tale. Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem's quietly crafted co-contribution tells of the testing of a boy touched by his mother's sympathetic powers, and it is the first fiction to foreground what we could consider Magic's overarching imperative, namely the idea that "Real magic was a sham — hard to access, hard to control, crazy and arbitrary and unfair. It promised everything but never gave you what you really needed."

This theme emerges from several other stories in quick succession. In 'Party Tricks' by Black Library graduate Dan Abnett, wherein a man charms his way into government's upper echelons; in the love spell Thana Niveau's 'First and Last and Always' revolves around; in Storm Constantine's 'Do As Thou Wilt,' which has a lapsed Wicca practitioner bake a certain something into a cake for her former lover's present partner; and in the unconventional abortion of Christopher Fowler's especially grotesque tale, tellingly entitled 'The Baby'.

Individually, these shorts have their strengths, including horrific images, gripping twists and affecting character arcs. Taken together, however, as the elaboration of an argument against the easy out that supernatural intervention tends to represent, they gain greater power. And there's still more to Oliver's anthology — in fact several of Magic's most potent concoctions are yet ahead.

When an ex-con is dragged back into his old life in 'Bottom Line,' Lou Morgan - who recently impressed with her darkly fantastic debut Blood and Feathers - imagines a mafioso of magic masterfully, meanwhile 'Cad Coddeu' by Liz Williams features some awesome elemental monsters, such as "Holly men, straight as their spears, sharp toothed; alder men, with need-fire flickering around their wet skins; rowan men, whose hair was tipped with blood." The Changing, however - an insidious shapeshifter - steals every scene.

A Cold Season's Alison Littlewood interrogates the aftereffects of possession to truly tremendous effect in 'The Art of Escapology,' as the restless spirit of a famous historical figure overpowers a young boy's father. The author's subtle touch in on exemplary form in this stark siren song. Sophia McDougall's short is lighter than Littlewood's, but no less effective. Its interweaving of technology and the tropes of a ghost story reminded this reader of Alif the Unseen — one of this year's best books in my estimation, much as 'MailerDemon' numbers amongst 2012's strongest shorts. Entirely terrifying yet wholly adorable, Mr Levanter-Sleet is an amazing creation.

Furthermore, Magic finishes on a high, with a trio of tales which represent this anthology's unprecedented diversity. Gail Z. Martin's 'Buttons' is so thoroughly realised it could be the beginning of a fine urban fantasy series, along the lines of Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds. Gemma Files makes the most of a familiar premise in the immortal erotica of 'Nanny Grey,' and last but not least, Robert Shearman's 'Dumb Lucy' - which chronicles the downfall of a magical double-act in a bleak world where angels and demons make war - is haunting and astonishingly evocative.

Not all of the selected shorts are extraordinary in themselves, but brought together and arranged as they are in this exemplary anthology - according to Jonathan Oliver's editorial intent - the fifteen tales tall and true that make up Magic succeed indeed when it comes to confounding one's expectations. On the whole, then, this is a spellbinding collection, and ideal reading for a season that lives and dies by its surprises.


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on Tor.com.


Magic: An Anthology of
the Esoteric and Arcane
edited by Jonathan Oliver

UK Publication: October 2012, Solaris
US Publication: November 2012, Solaris

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading

1 comment:

  1. Well said. 'Buttons' and 'Nanny Grey' were the strongest elements of the collection for me, although I quite liked 'If I Die, Kill My Cat' and 'First and Last and Always' as well. The authors I expected to wow me (Niffenegger, Constantine, and Abnett), though, all fell kinda flat.