One might think that an anthology of stories all about the same thing might turn out a bit samey. However, witches and wizards come in many shapes and forms, and so do the stories in this book. Some are more traditional, others are more adventurous, but all approach this same theme from different angles, ensuring that the result is not at all repetitive.
The result is, in fact, great – there wasn’t a single story in this book I didn’t like, and there were many I absolutely loved. The book, subtitled “Magic Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy”, includes short stories and novellas by authors like Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Jane Yolen, Peter S. Beagle, Orson Scott Card, Patricia A. Mckillip, Tanith Lee and Gene Wolfe – quite an impressive list of names.
Not surprisingly, my favourite story in the book was Neil Gaiman’s “The Witch’s Headstone”, which is also the first chapter of his upcoming novel The Graveyard Book. According to Neil, the novel's title is a tribute to Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In both cases, we have young orphans, but unlike Mowgli, Bod (short for Nobody) wasn’t raised by animals, but by dead people. In this story, we accompany him as he leaves the graveyard he grew up in for the very first time. The story is absolutely beautifully written, and is, for me, an example of Neil Gaiman at his very best. I cannot wait for the rest of The Graveyard Book.
What was surprising was that my second favourite story was “Winter’s Wife” by Elizabeth Hand, an author I wasn’t previously familiar with. The title refers to Vala, an Icelandic woman who marries a man named Winter. Although set in Moines, the story gives us a glimpse of Iceland, and of the power of old, old magic – magic as old as rocks.
In “Slipping Sideways Through Eternity”, Jane Yolen returns to the theme of World War II, which she handled so beautifully in Briar Rose. This is the story of a young Jewish girl of our time who meets the Biblical Elijah, and ends up visiting a concentration camp and playing a role that is more important than she could imagine.
Peter S. Beagle’s “Barrens Dance” reminded me of just how much I love his writing, and that I urgently need to read more of his work. The story is written as a conversation, of which we only see one side – the storyteller is addressing an unseen interlocutor, and this immediately creates a great sense of warmth and proximity. “Barrens Dance” is the story of Carcharos, a terrible wizard, and of how he met his end. The story itself is quite enthralling, but more than anything I was impressed with how very beautiful the writing is.
Garth Nix's “Holly and Iron” is a very original retelling of the Arthurian legend of the Sword in the Stone. Here, we discover that the true ruler of England (in the story, Ingland) is he or she who conciliates the Inglish magic of Holly with the Normand magic of Iron. On a side note, in the small introduction about the author I discovered that he has revisited the world of his Old Kingdom trilogy in two short stories. I was unaware of this, and I must read them as soon as possible.
“Naming Day” by Patricia A. Mckillip tells of a very important day in the life of a young witch in training, but what it is, at its very core, is a warm tale about love and family.
Finally, “Stonefather” by Orson Scott Card is, at over 80 pages, the longest story in this anthology. In this novella, we are introduced to Runnel. Runnel is the ninth son in a family with fifteen children, and by far his father’s least favourite, and the one that has to suffer his wrath. He has no friends in the village where he was born, and one day, “when he reached the age that might have been twelve, if anybody bothered counting”, he leaves his native village and makes for the city of Mitherhome, where he discovers a great injustice that he will be instrumental in solving. According to the introduction to this novella, the story is set in the same world as Card’s Mithermages series, the first book of which will be published in 2008. I quite liked what I saw of this world, so I will be interested in reading the series.
There are quite a few other stories I could write about, but I will instead urge you to discover them for yourselves. Dark Alchemy is, without doubt, one of the finest fantasy anthologies I have ever read.
Other Blog Reviews:
Here, There and Everywhere
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Aug 4, 2007
Dark Alchemy is an anthology of fantasy stories that is known as Wizards in the US. The American title seems more appropriate, because wizards and witches are at the core of all the stories. From the preface: Wizards have stalked through the human imagination for thousands of years, perhaps even from a time before we were fully human.