Magic by Jonathan Oliver – Book Review [Shadowhawk]


Shadowhawk reviews the Halloween special anthology Magic, published by Solaris Books. This review is part of Shadowhawk’s Advent Calendar, which can be found here.

“Quite a fun anthology with some really fun contributions from some of the most talented authors.” ~The Founding Fields

Solaris released this anthology to coincide with Halloween, which, given the inner content, ably reflects on the horror holiday. As the subtext proclaims, this is an anthology where magic isn’t the grand sweeping stuff found in your typical high or low fantasy novels, or in some of the tie-in fiction franchises such as Forgotten Realms and Warhammer. No. Magic is an anthology about weird magic, where the portrayal is one to shock and awe the reader, in a good way, and also to present some really interesting interpretations of what exactly is magic. Some of these stories are urban fantasy tales involving druids, others are horror stories involving “interrupted” pregnancies and Chucky’s Bride-style newborn babes. Some are about magics in high-level governmental politics, while others are of the true, good-old sleight of hand variety. In short, the diversity is simply astounding, and is a major strength of the anthology, even though some of the stories contained therein did not necessarily work for me, and I found those to be dull and boring.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Wrong Fairy and Sarah Lotz’s If I Die, Kill My Cat kick off the anthology. While one is set in a lunatic asylum in London and features a supposedly demented old man, the other is set in Cape Town, South Africa and features a pair of official crime scene cleaners, and a cat. The contrast could not be any more different. Editor Jonathan Oliver set out to present this kind of diversity in writing styles and content, and I’d say that he succeeded in his objective. I found The Wrong Fairy to be a bit of slog to get through, but If I Die, Kill My Cat was highly entertaining. I’ve never laughed so much at a short story, even though the ending is quite grim.

Will Hill’s Shuffle is all about the sleight of hand with a bit of mystery to it, one that requires a careful eye on the narrative. I think I got the twist of the story but even if I’m wrong, this is easily one of the best short stories on display, given how well it is written, and how entertaining it is. Domestic Magic by Steve Rasnic Tem/Melanie Tem however was as much of a slog as Niffenegger’s contribution, mostly because it seemed to be a story that is dragged out unnecessarily. I had to reread several sections of the story just to be sure I understood what was happening since the twists are sudden and often disorienting.

Lis Williams’ Cad Coddeu is all about ancient magics and it has a very deep sense of mystical mystery to it, combined with a riveting narrative that absolutely demands attention. The short story has a very poetic feel to it, enhanced by some of the dialogue (“I am a man,” I said. “Not much of one, it’s true.“) and the sense of imagery (“the storm brought the warriors, and perhaps the girl as well“) that Williams conjures up. Dan Abnett’s Party Tricks is another fantastic contribution, and is not about weekend parties or social occasions, but about the scheming and deal-breaking at the heart of the British (governmental) politics. Just as with Shuffle, Party Tricks has quite the ending, one to make the reader grin.

There are other great short stories in the anthology, such as Thana Niveau’s First and Last and Always which mixes obsessive love and witchery, Christopher Fowler’s extremely grim The Baby which is the aforementioned Chucky’s Bride-style story and involves a dangerous pregnancy, and Sophia McDougall’s MailerDaemon which is a fantastic tale that mixes computer viruses with ghosts, of a sort. Lou Morgan’s Bottom Line, which pits gangsters using magic against each other, was also highly enjoyable, especially because of its denouement. Jonathan Oliver was right to call this a poignant and chilly story.

Some such as Storm Constantine’s Do As Thou Wilt, which is about “vampiric obsession”, and Gemma Files’ Nanny Grey about eroticism and old family secrets, failed to impress with the subject matter, largely because they were so predictable from the first few pages. There was a distinct lack of excitement to both of them.

All in all, Magic is a very good anthology that has something for everyone, just as an anthology should. All the different interpretations of the theme are interesting, although some fail in the execution, but I still had fun reading the novel. Definitely a recommended purchase!

Rating: 8/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.