Esoteric: ‘Of philosophical doctrines, treatises, modes of speech, etc.: Designed for, or appropriate to, an inner circle of advanced or privileged disciples’. Arcane: ‘Hidden, concealed, secret’ (both OED, 2012). In other words, the preserved secrets of the purveyors of magic. Welcome to the world of Magic.
Edited by Jonathan Oliver, author of the Twilight of Kerberos books and editor of The End of the Line and House of Fear, Magic is a collection of short stories by some of the leading fantasy authors on the subject of, well, magic. The 15 authors collected here provide dark and unsettling tales that suggest a knowing and an understanding of the dark arts. Oliver has gathered new stories, all written in 2012, from such diverse authors as Audrey Niffenegger, Dan Abnett, Sarah Lotz, Liz Williams, Christopher Fowler, Storm Constantine, Lou Morgan and more. The over-arching theme is the cliché, twisted.
Thus we have stories about fairies, the circus, the antique shop, the scorned witch, the magic candle, the ghost in the machine, the spooky governess, the love potion, the card shark, the stage magician, the magical creatures from a fantasy world, and even Faustian politics. The trick that Oliver and the authors have attempted to pull off is that expectations have been subverted [spoiler alerts]. So in Abnett’s Party Tricks, the Faustian-like deal isn’t all it seems to be – at least the apparent winner doesn’t win. In Niveau’s First and Last and Always, the obsessive, love-struck girl casts the spell that you know isn’t going to end well, but not quite with the horrific consequences that are unveiled.
There is an attempt to bring magic to the mundane world too, especially in Lotz’s If I die, kill my cat (best title in the collection): the magic turns out to be for controlling traffic congestion. Not all the stories work, however. Liz William’s tale is set in another, more ethereal, universe and jars slightly against the rest of the collection because of that (even though it is beautifully written). Will Hill’s story of a card shark, called Shuffle, is set in several time-frames, which he has shuffled around to enhance the impact of the narrative. It plays a game with the reader which doesn’t quite work. The repayment wasn’t strong enough.
As with almost every collection of short stories, there is a range of quality, in both writing and pay-off. And each reader will have their favourites. Of the 15 stories, I’d only previous read work by Christopher Fowler. I really enjoyed his tale, The Baby. It is well-written and nicely paced, and has one of the most disturbing outcomes. I also enjoyed the aforementioned Niveau, and Sophia McDougall’s Mailerdaemon – both will similar themes; the power of love. The latter I think could be developed into something longer. The weakest in the anthology for me are Lou Morgan’s Bottom Line, which I simply didn’t get, not warming to the characters or the plot, and Gemma Files’ Nanny Grey which left me a somewhat indifferent.
The idea of the collection is that the characters in these stories wield magic knowingly, while the rest of us are oblivious to their secrets. The idea is that magic does exist but we’re too caught up in the reality of life that we don’t see it. For the magician, magic really works. Fairies do exist. Love spells really do affect the object of desire, with dire consequences. The daemon will give you nightmares and the witch will have her revenge.