Wizards is an anthology, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, that collects the very cream of the crop in fantasy authors. Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card, Tad Williams, and Jane Yolen all make a contribution. And there are others. In all, eighteen stories are spread as a feast for our eyes. Even though this is a themed anthology, the tales here vary across the range of fantasy subgenres, from urban to heroic, from a sword and sorcery laced with humor, to a creative literary tale. These are, undoubtedly, some of the bet works of short fiction in one collection. Dann and Dozois are masters of the editing craft, and their collection truly shows the potency of the wizardly archetype.
The anthology begins with a story from Neil Gaiman about a witch, a boy, and the Potter’s Field called “The Witch’s Headstone”. Part The Sixth Sense, part The Crucible, and part ancient legend, Gaiman’s contribution exhibits his unique approach to writing, and the creative settings and characters he is able to envision. He has a gift for putting the reader inside the character’s mind, in this case a young boy, and make it all seem vividly real. This one also won the 2008 Locus Award for best Novellette.
Second in line is a tale by Garth Nix entitled “Holly and Iron”. It is a Robin Hood story set in an alternate reality, where magic is real, and the William the Conqueror has no heirs. Technology and nature are at odds to one another, and Robin must somehow bring peace to the unsettled land of Ingland. This is a Robin Hood story like no other. Nix weaves action and magic together into an exciting blend.
Mary Rosenblum’s contribution, entitled “Color Vision” turns a rare and strange condition called synesthesia into a valuable asset for the primary character. This is a story of children in danger, a plot line that always gets adult hearts beating in anger and fear, and Rosenblum maxes it out. It story is about how being tainted or different doesn’t make you less of a person, but somehow makes you more human than ever.
“The Ruby Incomparable” by Kage Baker is a humorous tale of a wizardess who learns that knowledge and power are not everything that is valuable in a woman’s life. It is a sweet tale with a happy moral, and Kage shows a wit and charm in her writing style and her ability to take a modern dilemma and place it into a fantasy setting.
Although short in length, Eoin Colfer’s contribution, “The Fowl’s Tale” tells a funny tale of lies and greed. The fowl of the title must sing for his supper, but being brash, is not too careful about what he sings, and his end may just be on the very table where he now sits. Colfer will bring a smile to the reader’s face with each new dilemma the fowl finds himself embroiled in.
Jane Yolen turns the tenor of the anthology more serious with her look at Jewish Heritage. The wizard of “Slipping Sideways Through Eternity” is Elijah, but not an Elijah we are quite familiar with, be we Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Heritage is very important to The People of the Book and Yolen relates a tail in which a young girl learns of her heritage and the unfortunate history of her people, albeit in a wizardly way. Yolen evokes sadness and hope, and gives Elijah an impish quality not normally ascribed to him by most.
“The Stranger’s Hands” by Tad Williams is a warning about being careful what others may wish for, if given the chance. Not everyone seeks the basics of happiness (food, shelter, and clothing) especially when they are already the best in their field of work. This is doubly true for wizards. A traditional high fantasy tale, something Tad Williams has always done well, this story perhaps wondering “Why�” by its end.
Patricia A. McKillip’s “Naming Day” is both about the power of names and the need to sometimes sacrifice for others. Its protagonist, a teenage girl, learns a valuable life lesson when she accidentally opens the wrong door, and values the things most teens despise by story’s end. I would hand this tale to any teen as a caution and warning that perhaps they are not as smart as they think they are.
Elizabeth Hand celebrates the nature found in her home state of Maine in “Winter’s Wife”. In it, nature and the modern world do not mix well. This leads to unfortunate occurrences for its high and mighty villain. And a young boy learns that there a powers deep within nature that will do anything to protect it. This tale is set in the modern day, but its roots stretch deep into legend. Hand has made the two times as one in this chilling tale.
“A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question” by Andy Duncan is a story of the Devil, how wizards become such, and a slice of time in a U.S. South recently ravaged by internal war. As a reader and Southerner, I always appreciate a writer writing about the uniqueness that is the South. Duncan knows the South and his story reminds me somewhat of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige in its setting. Duncan’s protagonist is clever and witty, and outfoxes even the Devil himself.
Peter S. Beagle tells a high fantasy tale full of love and lust and good an evil in “Barrens Dance”. In this tale, the wizard is the villain and his desire is all consuming and unpredictable. Told from the perspective of someone who saw it (an identity that is part of the riddle of the story) we find a love triangle in which one party will do anything to gain a woman who had promised her heart to another. It is strange to thin that something as joyous as dance could wreak such evil. Beagle’s originality is shining through in such a perspective, and the reader won’t be disappointed by this story at all.
“Stone Man” is an urban fantasy story by Nancy Kress that seems more a beginning to a larger novel than a story in and of itself. But in it, a boy wizard discovers his power all by accident and must soon choose between normalcy and saving the life of a friend. It’s a well-written story, even if it seems more of a first chapter in a much larger narrative. That is not to belittle the quality of the story, as it ends up being written with eloquent pacing.
Jeffrey Ford’s “The Manticore Spell” is strange tale of a wizard seeking lost love and eternal happiness. Its narrator is all unaware of what is going on, and seems doomed to repeat the very fate his master falls prey to. The Manticore weaves a potent spell over those who encounter it, it seems. It is decidedly an “unconventional” story.
Ugly Ducklings can be much more than what they seem and “Zinder” by Tanith Lee shows just how different those ugly ducklings can be. This wizard has come to a different conclusion about the privileges and responsibilities of magical power which is quite unique, even among heroic wizards. Lee brings the mundane and the extraordinary together in character.
Young Billy of “Billy and the Wizard” seems to be playing a game of make-believe in this story by Terry Bisson. But a surprise is in store in this short but cute tale of a young boy, the Devil, and a wizard.
Terry Dowling’s “The Magikkers” is another tale about youth and making the right choices. When power is invested in the young, or when the young are allowed to make choices, they very often do so selfishly and with no rhyme or reason. Will Sam make the right choice, especially when it seems that his mentor Lucius is hungry for his power?
“The Magic Animal” of Gene Wolfe�s tale is not the one you think. This strangely written and sometimes hard to read tale is a creative spin on the Merlin story. Wolfe has the gift of making a reader feel smarter for having been able to read and understand his tale as it is written is in such a way that rapid fire dialogue and sparse description make it hard to always understand what is going on. Read this one slowly and carefully, as it is very good, and quite unusual.
Orson Scott Card closes out the anthology with a high fantasy tale called “Stonefather”. More novella than short story length, “Stonefather” is in fact an introduction to a new series Card will be writing about the Mithermages. Magic is elemental in this story, and its wizards tied to river, stone, fire, or animal. The hero Runnel comes to learn about magic all unwittingly, and in that way Card builds his world by having a country bumpkin view it for the first time. The Mithermage world looks to be fascinating, and this story/legend is a great way to learn its magic system.
Wizards is one of those rare anthologies in which not a story is bad, not a single page wasted with poor writing. Dann and Dozois have collected an outstanding themed anthology, and if you haven’t read it yet, you simply must do so as quickly as you can.