Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane Edited by Jonathan Oliver
|Book Name:||Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane|
|Author:||Edited by Jonathan Oliver / Stories by Audrey Niffenegger, Christopher Fowler, Gail Z. Martin, Gemma Files, Thana Niveau, Robert Shearman, Will Hill, Sarah Lotz, Storm Constantine, Dan Abnett, Sophia McDougall, Alison Littlewood, and Lou Morgan|
|Release Date:||November 6, 2012|
Magic can take so many forms and shapes that the possibilities for stories on the subject are seemingly endless. Everyone has different ideas of magic; from rabbit toting magicians and scholarly wizards, to all powerful sorcerers, comical blue genies and lightning bolt-wielding gods. In every imagined world magic has its own rules and capabilities, but it also has its own shocking consequences.
This year Solaris have brought together fifteen shiny new stories, under the theme of the Esoteric and Arcane, that explore the nature of magic and its secrets in a wide variety of imaginings from some of today’s best word wizards.
The anthology begins with the best-selling author of The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger. She provides a magical explanation for Arthur Conan Doyle’s father’s obsession with painting and drawing fairies in the final years of his life in her tale, The Wrong Fairy. The book then continues swiftly on with mysterious and uncanny contributions from Dan Abnett, Alison Littlewood, Will Hill, Storm Constantine, Robert Shearman, Christopher Fowler and many more.
I can’t go into huge detail on every story without taking up far too much of your precious time, but a few tales in particular stood out for me.
MailerDaemon by Sophia McDougall
Grace is unemployed, depressed and plagued by horrific nightmares that are fracturing her already unstable life. Willing to try anything to make existence more bearable, Grace turns to a cyber friend for support and is bewildered when the friend claims that she can send over a nine-foot skeleton-demon to protect her from the bad dreams. Disbelieving but not wanting to hurt her friend’s feelings Grace tells her to send him over and promptly receives an email saying he’s on his way. Of course there’s a catch. The demon likes to help vulnerable girls but he is not a fan of boys, which has rather a serious effect on Grace’s hopes for the future.
I loved this story. The characters are introduced to us fully formed and I really cared about what happened to them from the very beginning. The premise is interesting but the progression of the story is just fantastic in its simplicity and the amount of narrative that is packed in. I also enjoyed the fact that even if the demon sent by her friend isn’t an actual invisible creature, the story would progress in the same way because of the changes Grace makes for herself. It’s the most positive story in the book and an excellent contribution.
Shuffle by Will Hill
Shuffle is a strange little tale of card tricks and the price of certain gifts. Told across a jumping time frame that switches between the unnamed protagonist’s dalliance with the blackjack table, his card trick performances on the streets of London, and the chaotic aftermath of something horrific and unnatural, Will Hill utilises the classic magician’s trick of misdirection as he reveals each piece of the story.
This tale has an element of The Prestige about it, giving the reader the mystery of a conventional illusion that we allow to trick us because we believe we could figure out the secret if we really wanted to. However, like The Prestige, there is some darker truth lurking beneath the surface. The disjointed narrative greatly adds to the secrecy and suspense and although the payoff isn’t as big as you might expect it’s a really enjoyable journey.
Dumb Lucy by Robert Shearman
Oliver definitely saved the best for last. The final contribution to Magic is the tale of a more traditional magician and his assistant Lucy, a dumb girl who appeared from nowhere to join him in his act. The pair are on the run from darkness, a war of angels and demons that threatens to consume everything, dragging their cart full of magic tricks behind them. But like all things we try to run away from, the darkness will catch up with them eventually. They can only hope that, when it does, their magic will be strong enough to save them.
I can’t quite define what it is about Dumb Lucy that has me so enthused. It might be the excellent quality of writing or the hints at a larger story behind it, the endearing characters or the thin line between stage magic and real. I just found it to be a perfectly formed story and based on reading it I’m really keen to get my hands on more of Shearman’s work.
Short stories are the perfect medium for fictional experimentation. The imagination seems to run a little freer when you don’t have to carry a weird idea too far and this anthology is the perfect example of imaginations gone wild.
There are some stories that I didn’t quite get, such as Gemma Files’ Nanny Grey in which the protagonist has a horrendously creepy, yet for me indefinable, time when he goes home with a girl after a night of clubbing and meets her governess. Another was Cad Coddeu by Liz Williams, which involves chase and trickery between different kinds of shape-shifters. Although Williams sets an atmospheric and beautiful scene, the plot didn’t have much to offer and, as the only story set in a fantasy world (where magic already seems a bit less esoteric) it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the anthology.
Some, on the other hand, really freaked me out. After I had finished Christopher Fowler’s The Baby late one night I had to carry on and read the next story before I went to sleep in case it gave me dark and twisty dreams.
I found it interesting that, although each contribution is wildly different from the next, with varying levels of magic that take many different forms, every one of them demonstrates the negative consequences of such power and the way it affects the nature of the person who is using it – or used by it. But more than that, the stories all encompass an exploration of basic human nature and the handling of commonplace situations, emphasising the beauty and horror of the everyday by exaggerating it through arcane knowledge and power. Rape, corrupt politics, unquenchable desire, loss of identity, neglectful parenting, abandonment and traffic congestion are all themes that can be recognised across any genre, but in this collection of the esoteric and arcane we can see, highlighted by the eerie supernatural glow, the real price of secrets that have little to do with enchantment. It offers up an interesting debate about magic systems and their purpose, as they draw stark attention to the darker side of civilisation and the consequences of just being human.
Magic is a powerful little collection that has a lot to offer, whether you’re looking for quick commuter entertainment, an in-depth study of fictional explorations of the arcane, or something in between. Anthologies aren’t usually my go-to reading choice but it’s refreshing to be able to explore an idea in a short space of time and there are some incredible ones in here.
(As a side note for any writers of short stories looking for a little inspiration, I find it helpful to try to develop an idea that would fit into an already published anthology. Limiting the endless void of potential ideas to a specific subject, such as the esoteric and arcane, can be a good starting point, and think of the fun you can have exploring the dark and mysterious realms of Magic.)