Aug 4, 2007

Dark Alchemy edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

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.

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


  1. This is wonderful, Nymeth! Your book review, I mean. And the book sounds great too. I really enjoy stories about witches and wizards. I will definitely be adding this one to my wishlist.

  2. A new Card series?!!!! You just made my day! He hasn't mentioned that on his website and it hasn't even come up on the forums. And of course I have Wizards sitting on my shelf and I haven't read it yet!

    I really need to read this one! It sounds really good. I like the cover of yours so much better than the cover of Wizards. The Neil story sounds wonderful and I can't wait for The Graveyard Book. If you're interested in the Garth Nix stories, he published a book of short stories called Across the Wall. I have's a cool book. I recommend that you pick it up if you're interested. It has a couple of Old Kingdom stories and his retelling of a couple of fairy tales, plus some original short stories.

  3. This is definately going on my list of books to get and read asap, thanks so much for the review! I really like a lot of the authors in this anthology so it will be good to read something new by them all as well as be introduced to some new ones.

    Oh I read a really good manga camoic today I will write a review of when I am home (at my mum's in Liverpool this weekend) called My Dead Girlfriend by Eric Wight. It's something you might be interested in.

  4. Literary Feline: Thank you! It is a very enjoyable book.

    Chris: According to the little intro, the first book will be published by Del Rey in early 2008. It really sounds like a great series. You need to read this book! And yes, I quite like the UK cover, but the US title suits it better. And thanks - I'll definitely look for that Garth Nix book!

    Rhinoa: I think you'll like it. Most of the stories are really, really good. I hadn't heard of that comic before. I look forward to your review.

  5. *deep sigh*.. I don't really like short stories but when you wrote the names of the authors I see another book coming on my wish list! Geeeez..

  6. Deslily, I know what you mean - my wishlist also keeps growing and growing. But this one's really worth it!

  7. it's added on my wish list on amazon!.. I will order it later this month, once my check clears my charge account lol..*shaking head* I already have 9 books still waiting to be read here! (reading HP)

  8. I love the cover for your version of the book. I like the US one as well, but I probably would have bought your version had they been side by side on the bookshelf.

  9. Deslily, I look forward to reading your thoughts on it! (and on Harry Potter too)

    Beetlejuice: Thanks. It's a very enjoyable book and writing about it was fun.

    Carl: I do love this cover as well.

  10. ooh..! very cool!

    its nice that you discovered a new author - its so nice when we discover new authors via these anthologies!

    the whole books sounds very good too.

    and the gaiman story...!! i cannot wait to read that book of his! i've been looking forward to it ever since he first mentioned it on his blog! i just love the idea. :)

  11. I have this one on my shelf, the edition titled "Wizards" that is, with the Palencar cover art. I do like the look of this cover though. Very dark.

    I have yet to read it, although I was tempted to bump it up to the top of the pile...Glad to hear it is so good. Great review - I'm really looking forward to getting to this one now!

    Winter's Wife sounds like a very interesting story. I also look forward to reading the Peter S. Beagle story - I love his writing.

    I have yet to read any Garth Nix, although I am often tempted to pick up the Abhorsen trilogy...Will be interested to read his story.

    I will also be interested to read the Orson Scott Card story. I feel like it is time to give him another go, so this will be the perfect opportunity.

  12. Jean Pierre: It is indeed a wonderful feeling to discover a new author in this way. I've added her novels to my wishlist and I really look forward to reading them. I can't wait to read "The Graveyard Book" either. The premise is great, and, judging by this first chapter, he is handling it very well.

    Quixotic: I think you'll love this book! The Abhorsen trilogy is great - do pick it up when you have the chance. And I think I've definitely surrendered to Orson Scott Card after my initial reluctance.

  13. I'm so glad you enjoyed this antholgy. I purchased it when it came out and devoured the Gaiman story which I loved but I hadn't read any further yet. Looks as if I need to consider finishing it for the RIP challenge next month.

  14. Jeff, that is exactly what I did too. I read Neil Gaiman's story right away, and then it took me a while to read the rest. It would be a great selection for RIP!


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