Magic City: Recent Spells: A solid urban fantasy anthology

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMagic City: Recent Spells edited by Paula GuranMagic City: Recent Spells edited by Paula Guran

Things you should know:
1. This is a reprint anthology. If you read a lot of anthologies in the field, you will probably have read some of these before. I had read three, though two of them were among the best ones, and I enjoyed reading them again.
2. It still has some worthwhile stuff in it, especially if you’re a fan of the big names in urban fantasy (Jim Butcher, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs) and haven’t read these stories before.
3. It isn’t just “urban fantasy” by the usual definition (our contemporary world plus the supernatural). There’s a sword-and-sorcery story from Scott Lynch, and a story set in ancient Babylon. Mostly, though, it’s what is usually meant by urban fantasy.
4. The best stories are not at the beginning. In fact, in my opinion, the worst stories are at the beginning. Push through; from “Seeing Eye” onwards, it starts getting much better (though there are one or two stories earlier than that that are worth reading, and one or two after that that I didn’t care for much). I would advise skipping “-30-,” which I despised.
5. Your taste may well differ from mine.
6. A lot of the characters in these stories — at least 9, by my count — are LGBTQ, so if you’re bothered by that (I’m not), this may not be the book for you.

Here’s a rundown, story by story.

“Street Wizard” by Simon R. Green: not so much a story as a slice of life. It’s hard to make a civil servant, even a heroic one, interesting, and I should know. Well done for what it is. Soft ending.

“Paranormal Romance” by Christopher Barzak: again, not much of an ending. LGBTQ character count: 4. Loser main character doesn’t really protagonise; makes some progress towards happiness, perhaps, but doesn’t really change.

“Grand Central Park” by Delia Sherman: finally, a protagonist (a smart one, too) and a story with an arc and an ending. Knowing a bit of fairy lore will help you appreciate it.

“Spellcaster 2.0” by Jonathan Maberry: nasty main character, not a protagonist, railroaded into an obvious decision and seems to escape the consequences of his earlier mistakes unscathed (though, at least, not unchanged). Preachy. LGBT character count: 1. Has two errors of fact that I spotted: there are no Nobel Prizes for social sciences, and 200GB of text documents is a ridiculously large number (about two Project Gutenbergs, if my quick online research is accurate). Uses “council” where it should be “counsel,” and “close-minded” instead of “closed-minded.”

“Wallamelon” by Nisi Shawl: interesting window into the lives of poor urban black families. Maybe could have been shorter. Has a protagonist and an ending.

“-30-“ by Caitlín R. Kiernan: all sorts of problems with this one. Poorly copy-edited (even down to “it’s” for “its”, not just once, but three times), about a writer with writer’s block (worst story idea ever), told in second person for no good reason; main character is hopeless and alienated. A street changes its name from Benevolent Street to Benefit Street and back. A woman is described as blue, then referred to as “the green woman,” then she’s back to blue again. “Bogarts” for “boggarts.” So dark and depressing, and so negative about the life of a writer, that when I read it after a good day’s writing which I’d enjoyed I found myself questioning downheartedly whether I’d wasted my time. It’s about an author who deals with the Fae to get an ending for her story, but by the time the ending of this story came round I didn’t care, plus it really just stopped rather than ending. When I read it I thought, “I’m surprised this sold once, let alone twice,” but in fact the first publication was in the author’s own zine, so it only sold once. I’m still surprised. LGBT character count: 1.

“Seeing Eye” by Patricia Briggs: I always enjoy Patricia Briggs, and this is no exception. Has a protagonist and an ending. A few copy editing issues, though: Glenda the good witch (it’s Glinda), “moral principals,” “peaked” for “peeked,” a few missing minor words like “a” and “is.”

“Stone Man” by Nancy Kress: reads more like a first chapter than a self-contained short story. More exposition than a story as such, but a bit of protagonism. I’d read it before.

“In the Stacks” by Scott Lynch: I’d read this before too, but enjoyed it enough that I read it again. It stands up to a re-read: both humourous tale and action-packed sword-and-sorcery story at once, well-written, with a bit of moral depth to it. In other words, it’s a Scott Lynch story.

“A Voice Like a Hole” by Catherynne M. Valente: I think I read this in the Bordertown anthology it originally appeared in. I’m not fond of the Bordertown shared world; too dark and self-consciously anarcho-punk for me, and this is an example of that, albeit not the worst example in that collection. Soft ending. LGBTQ character count: probably at least one.

“The Arcane Art of Misdirection” by Carrie Vaughn: I’m a big Carrie Vaughn fan, and I liked this one, though the (mundane) viewpoint character’s protagonism suffers a bit from being partnered with a (magical) established, if minor, character from her Kitty Norville series.

“The Thief of Precious Things” by A.C. Wise: I didn’t expect to enjoy this, based on the premise and what I know of the author, but it surprised me in a positive way. It’s techno-pessimist, which I don’t personally like, but it worked as a story, making a point about how connecting with other people can change you.

“The Land of Heart’s Desire” by Holly Black: I’d already forgotten what this story was about when I came to review it, and had to remind myself from another review. I think that’s all I need to say about it. LGBTQ character count: 2 (though the second is only really there to be the first’s partner).

“Snake Charmer” by Amanda Downum: I’d forgotten this one, too. It’s pretty much standard urban fantasy on the dark and gritty streets, so not my favourite thing.

“The Slaughtered Lamb” by Elizabeth Bear: I liked this one a lot, and would read a novel or series in the world (which it feels like there might be). It was exciting, while keeping a strong focus on character issues. LGBTQ character count: 1, a sassy drag-queen werewolf, really strong.

“The Woman who Walked with Dogs” by Mary Rosenblum: plenty of tension in this one, and a strong ending. Protagonist possibly lesbian or asexual, or maybe just too young to be interested in boys yet, but it’s not clear enough to count.

“Words” by Angela Slatter: a more fanciful, fairy-tale-style story, a kind of parable (or wish-fulfilment fantasy?) about the power of words and the people who (unsuccessfully) fight that power.

“Dog Boys” by Charles de Lint: potentially a bit problematic, as the white male protagonist not only saves the Native American damsel in distress but is adopted into her tribe in a ceremony which seems to have come straight out of Tom Sawyer, so that he can save the day. Typos: “star” for “scar,” “heat” for “feet” (apparently), and “girl’s team” for “girls’ team.”

“Alchemy” by Lucy Sussex: it was difficult to decide who was the protagonist, the spirit being or the woman he attempts to influence. Given that he fails, maybe it was her. Set in Ancient Babylon, which is different. “Two millennium” for “two millennia.”

“Curses” by Jim Butcher: I am a truly enormous Jim Butcher fan (I was reading him before it was cool), and this story, while reasonably self-contained, has a lot of callouts to his series which anyone who has only read this story will miss. Not least is the fact that he’s being polite, which is very different from his usual snark. I’ve read it before, of course (twice, in his single-author collection), but enjoyed it again.

“De la Tierra” by Emma Bull: Emma Bull is wonderful, and I really wish she’d written more books like War for the Oaks and Territory. This story of an assassin who discovers his bosses have been lying to him implies a deep, broad world, and I’d read more stories in it. It’s dark and violent, but with a purpose and a point, not just as set-dressing.

“Stray Magic” by Diana Peterfreund: I’m a sucker for a cute animal, and I loved this story about a wizard’s familiar who turns up lost at an animal shelter. The city plays very little role in this story, so it’s only tenuously connected to the theme of the anthology. Typo: “hoses” for “noses.”

“Kabu Kabu” by Nnedi Okorafor (with Alan Dean Foster): also a bit of a thin connection to the theme, apart from starting out in Chicago, but I liked it. A crazy ride in a magical cab gives occasion for a daughter of Nigerian immigrants to reflect on issues of identity and culture as she tries to get to her sister’s wedding in Nigeria. “Heavy-based” for “heavy-bassed.”

“Pearlywhite” by Marc Laidlaw & John Shirley: another one I didn’t expect to enjoy, because I don’t usually like horror, but I liked it. Plenty of protagonism. There’s a bit of telling (about the kids being secretive about their spirit guardians’ “homebases”) that’s later contradicted in showing, but otherwise a good story.

Overall, with some exceptions, particularly towards the start, I enjoyed this collection. There are enough good stories in it that it’s worth picking up for urban fantasy fans.


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MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

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