Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (eds.)

Bloomsbury (2007)

ISBN: 9780747590569

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in January 2008)

Anthologies, in my experience, are fraught experiences. Sometimes the theme just works, and completely different stories sit quite comfortably together. Sometimes the theme feels forced, and it’s almost like a bunch of authors thought, “There’s a new anthology being put together … if I tweak this story like that, it will probably work.” And then, of course, there’s the anthologies where all of the stories are simply dreadful.

Dark Alchemy is not dreadful. There are a number of absolutely outstanding stories in it. The theme – the idea of the wizard – generally works. There were, though, some stories that I found a bit on the average side, that I thought let the team down overall. The Wizard, as the editors point out in their introduction, is a motif found in pretty much all cultures across the span of history. Some of the wizards in this collection are instantly recognisable – you’ve read or seen their story before, which is not to say that the story as presented here is boring. Some of the authors have taken a more sideways slant on the topic, with mixed results. And the cover is lovely – silver and grey, with an imposing castle on the front complete with bats, and a cobweb too. Not necessarily representative of all the stories, but attractive anyway.

The honour of first story in the anthology goes to Neil Gaiman, with “The Witch’s Head-stone”. The main character is a young boy, Bod, with a rather unusual home life – which I won’t give away: it took me several pages to cotton on, and everyone else should have the same pleasure. I’m not entirely sure whether Bod or the witch of the title is meant to be the wizard-figure; possibly a little of both. Bod is an entirely believable character, amusing and appealing; the story presented here is simple, but enchanting for that simplicity.

I’m a sucker for cleverly retold King Arthur stories. I also have a soft spot for Norman Conquest-era stories, so combining them should win my heart completely – and Garth Nix did just that with “Holly and Iron”. Robin, a troubled girl with a background that torments her and makes it hard for her to fit in, is faced with a seemingly obvious decision – but of course it turns out a bit differently from how she expects. The characters in this story are skillfully drawn: Robin, in particular, is fascinating, as she figures out her place in the world – who to trust, what she wants to be and do, and how to deal with other people’s expectations. This story was one of my favourites in the whole collection.

Synesthesia seems to crop up periodically as a character’s attribute, in fantasy particularly; sometimes it’s a handicap, sometimes useful. For Melanie, in Mary Rosenblaum’s “Color Vision”, it’s certainly the former, at least at the start of the story. She’s sick of being different and, when the new principal arrives and pays her unwanted attention, it’s a definite problem – which in turn leads her to dealing with issues from her past and helping a friend in need. For me, this story didn’t entirely gel. I think it was Melanie herself; I didn’t believe in her or associate with her. The revelations that occur later in the story also felt a bit forced.

“The Ruby Incomparable”, by Kage Baker, lifted the standard back up for me. Svnae is the unexpected daughter of an unlikely couple – the Master of the Mountain (evil), and the Saint of the World (good). And no, it’s not a rape situation – they’re living together quite happily. The story details Svnae’s growing up – what she wants to do, and learn, and how her parents deal with that. It’s a fairly classic story of dealing with parental expectations (the last line is brilliant), and finding your own way, with great magical ability thrown in for additional complications. My one complaint is that I would have liked to know more about the Master of the Mountain and the Saint of the World, and how their relationship worked – but, since this was meant to be Svnae’s story, maybe I’m just falling into the same trap as many of the people she met: ignoring the daughter (probably to my peril) in favour of the parents.

Eoin Colfer’s “A Fowl Tale” has nothing to do with Artemis Fowl; just wanted to clear that potential misunderstanding up. It’s a bit like those stories of travelling minstrels or similar who turn up at court, and have to perform for the lord. This story, though, shows how carefully you need to pick your story. A cute little tale.

Another of my personal favourites is “Slipping Sideways through Eternity”, by Jane Yolen. It is tradition to set a place for Elijah at the Passover table. Yolen ponders how someone would react should Elijah actually turn up – and have a task for them. Mixing history, art, and religion – I could say mysticism – it’s a poignant tale. It would be interesting to find out what a Jewish person would think of the story – and whether Yolen herself is Jewish. I’m not sure whether it would make a difference to the story; possibly, it would make it resonate even more deeply.

The stranger amongst us is generally responsible for the weird things that happen – almost by definition: you do weird things, you must be an outsider. Tad Williams uses this idea in “The Stranger’s Hands”. It begins with strangers arriving outside a little town, a mis-matched pair, one of whom has an amazing ability. It gradually develops into what for me was a quite unexpected direction. In some ways it feels like two stories put together – but on the other hand, it was nice to discover that I couldn’t guess where the story was going.

There have been stories of magic users growing up forever, the recent phenomenon of Harry Potter notwithstanding. Patricia A McKillip’s “Naming Day” sees Averil attending the Oglesby School of Thaumaturgy, where she is about to choose her secret name. The story, though, has very little to do with school – instead, it centres on her relationship with her friends, mother, and brother. A bit predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless.

“Winter’s Wife”, by Elizabeth Hand, is a delight. An ornery old man, with a hint of magic, gets himself a mysterious wife; his young protege is fascinated by her, as well as wanting to help Winter as much as he can. Greed, family, environmentalism – right here. And some of the detail that Hand includes is exquisite.

“A Diorama of the Infernal Regions” is one of the stories that left me a bit cold. It wasn’t bad, as such; it just didn’t grab my attention like some of the other stories. By Andy Duncan, it relates the story of Pearleen Sunday, who among other things converses with ghosts and sings “a duet with the Devil’s son-in-law”, as she says at the start. She lives and works in what seems like a freak show museum, until one day when she discovers a way out – into a very weird house with some very weird inhabitants. I found the story to be lacking in focus and direction.

Peter Beagle’s offering is quite the opposite, with a definite purpose and an entertaining narrator. “Barrens Dance” is set in a mythical equivalent of the wild moors, and looks at a truly evil wizard – Carcharos. Always getting his way, scaring the wits out of people, until one day … you get the idea. A fun story.

Nancy Kress offers another story of a child learning about magic in “Stone Man”. As often seems to happen, Jared’s power manifests through an accident. This accident also introduces him to both enemies and friends, and a side of the world he knew nothing about. One of the most interesting things about this story was how horrid Jared was – he was a right little pain in the ass. Not your standard wizard-boy hero. His belligerence sometimes sounded weird to me, but that might just come down to language – and that American kids use different language from Aussie kids when they’re being snots.

One of the odder stories in this anthology is “The Manticore Spell”, by Jeffery Ford. The oddness may reflect the fact that one of the main characters seems to be more than a little off-kilter. The story is essentially about a wizard teaching his apprentice, in the course of which he reminisces about his life – and in particular, about his encounters with the Manticore.

A theme running through a number of stories in the collection is not judging by appearances alone. “Zinder”, by Tanith Lee, epitomises this. Quacker is the village idiot, about whom no one cares and of whom everyone makes fun. But, of course, Quacker has a secret… Not necessarily an original idea, Lee executes it superbly. It’s a lovely story, with a poignant sting about “man’s inhumanity to man” – even on the individual level.

“Billy and the Wizard”, by Terry Bisson, reminded me too much of that dreadful film Child’s Play – a doll named Clyde is involved, getting Billy into trouble. It was the one story in this collection that I really got a bit annoyed by; it was boring.

Terry Dowling’s “The Magikkers” wasn’t nearly as creepy as I had initially thought: what looked about to turn into a gothic magic-stealing tale just … didn’t. Sam, another kid at a magic school, is required to think long and hard about his magical ability. It was a disappointing story: the characters didn’t really develop, and I didn’t think the consequences of various actions were played through enough.

I’ve mentioned already how much of a sucker for well-told Arthur stories I am, and Gene Wolfe’s “ The Magic Animal” is another such one. The big highlight for me was the narrator: Viviane, variously the lady of the lake, evil seductress, student or ingenue. Wolfe messes with Arthurian (is it weird that ‘Arthurian’ doesn’t come up with a red squiggly line?) conventions (always a good thing), pulls aspects from different places – Merline aging, turning into animals, fairies – and puts them together into a quite lovely whole. I enjoyed it.

Finally, Orson Scott Card has the honour of finishing off the anthology, with “Stonefather”. It’s more a novelette (or novella; not sure of the length), and is a coming-of-age story. Runnel is the youngest of nine, and unwanted, and as all such lads do he runs away. Having found himself in a weird place where they want “money” for such things as food and water, he has to find a job – and in doing so discovers more about himself, and the town he’s ended up in, than he bargained for. As with a number of stories, obviously not an original premise, but what I liked was Card’s ideas about the elements, and how individuals can be connected to them. No one except Runnel is a particularly developed character, but the story moves along nicely anyway.

There you have it: Dark Alchemy. A lovely-looking anthology, cramming in a wide range of stories that still manage to (mostly) fit together because of the wizardly theme. Recommended as one of the better anthologies of 2007.