Jonathan Oliver (ed.) – Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane

They gather in darkness, sharing ancient and arcane knowledge as they manipulate the very matter of reality itself. Spells and conjuration; legerdemain and prestidigitation – these are the mistresses and masters of the esoteric arts.

As a hardcore fantasy reader magic is part and parcel of my reading and I consider a well-thought-out and realised magic system as a thing of beauty. So an anthology based around the concept of magic had to be something I enjoyed. So, you’ll probably be unsurprised to discover that I did enjoy Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane quite a lot. What surprised me was that, while magic is the common denominator in all of these stories, no two forms of magic are the same and in some of them it’s more pervasive than in others. There is also a rather amazing diversity of settings and not all of these are fantasy, some are horror! Most, if not all, are set in the ‘real’ world, even if that world is pervaded by the magical or supernatural.

I first learned of this anthology when Solaris announced they had snagged Audrey Niffenegger to be one of its contributors. Her name drew my attention, not because I’d read any of her work before, but because she’s one of those rare genre beasts, an author who is embraced by the mainstream. So much so, that I hadn’t even realized that she was a genre writer. I do hope her inclusion here will prompt some non-genre readers to pick up this anthology and discover that speculative fiction isn’t as scary a ghetto as they might think. Niffenegger’s story The Wrong Fairy was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s father and, while enjoyable and well-written, it isn’t my favourite out of the bunch. Another author with an outside-genre draw is Christopher Fowler. His story The Baby – about a teen girl that gets in over her head and her struggle with her unwanted pregnancy after being raped – was eerily timely given some of the utter bile that was spilled during the US Presidential campaign recently. Liz Williams’ Cad Coddeu was a lovely fantasy, with mythical overtones, which I enjoyed very much. All three of these were solid, enjoyable stories, but they kind of stuck around in the middle for me.

Every anthology has hits and misses. Often these differ from reader to reader. The misses in this one for me were Will Hill’s Shuffle, Thana Niveau’s First and Last and Always, Gemma Files’ Nanny Grey, and Robert Shearman’s Dumb Lucy. Hill’s Shuffle just confused me and while I liked the cards angle and the prose, I didn’t get drawn in enough to try and make sense of the story. Robert Shearman’s Dumb Lucy had a similar effect, though this time I liked the atmosphere and the characters, but was completely confused by the setting – was it Earth or second-world? Past or future? – and the ending. Thana Niveau’s story had an interesting concept with its idea of love charms gone wrong, but it just didn’t ring my bell; for some reason neither Tamsin nor Nicky made me care and thus the story’s ending lacked impact for me. The one story that just didn’t do it at all for me was Gemma Files’ Nanny Grey. It just left me cold, the characters were unsympathetic and the twist in the story just turned into a knot for me.

Then there were several stories I connected to but where the ending just let them down, either because I wanted more from that final scene, I didn’t want to leave the characters or the ending just confused me. Steve and Melanie Tem’s Domestic Magic rather broke my heart and Felix got under my skin immediately, with his quite crackpot mum and his handful of a little sister, who he feels is very much his responsibility. I really loved this story and I just didn’t want to leave Felix and Margaret. I wanted to follow along and find out that they were safe and they would have a happy ending. So Domestic Magic wasn’t a bad story at all. On the contrary it did its job too well and didn’t let me go. The ending to Alison Littlewood’s Art of Escapology similarly left me wanting. I really enjoyed the premise and the haunting, but the final scene ended rather on a fizzle than a bang for me and I kind of felt deflated by it. Dan Abnett’s Party Tricks played off its prestige too well. I thoroughly enjoyed the politicking and the rather old-fashioned feel of the writing, though that might be due more to the fact that our narrator is one of the upper class old-boys network and this is reflected in his manner of speech, than to the fact that Abnett meant it to feel old-fashioned. I was really drawn into the story and while I understood the twist end, it just left me going uh what? How did he do that? And this feeling of confusion stayed with me rather than the enjoyment I got from the rest of the story.

For me, the hits of Magic were the stories written by Sarah Lotz, Storm Constantine, Lou Morgan, Sophia McDougall and Gail Z. Martin. Lotz’ South African crime scene cleaners were awesome and the story was many-layered, from the straight-up mystery itself, to the underlying themes of rejecting one’s own heritage for another, to the wish to protect the innocent, in this case the cat. I think If I Die, Kill My Cat is a story that will lend itself to rereading beautifully, revealing more with repetition. Storm Constantine’s Do as Thou Wilt is a gorgeous story of traditional witchery, a lover’s revenge and a philanderer’s just deserts. I really enjoyed Leah’s cynical outlook on love and her way of making Carol’s wish come true. From what I’ve read from Lou Morgan, I loved her novel Blood and Feathers, but her short story in Stories of the Apocalypse lost me with its ending, so I was curious to see how I would enjoy Bottom Line. This story of addiction, redemption and self-sacrifice was amazing and this time I followed Morgan all the way to a hallelujah. From the same Pandemonium anthology previously mentioned, came my only previous encountering of Sophia McDougall’s writing. I fell in love with her story there and I loved her MailerDaemon here. McDougall reinforces her first impression of being a superb writer with a distinctive turn of phrase. Lastly I was taken by surprise by Gail Z. Martin’s Buttons. What an absolutely charming story, that I couldn’t help but love. I was pleased to read an interview with Martin on the Solaris’ blog where she reveals having written numerous short stories in her Deadly Curiosities universe, which means there’s more to discover with these characters and I can hold out hope for a Deadly Curiosities collection or even novel!

Overall the hits outnumbered the misses and I really enjoyed the time I spent with Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane. Jonathan Oliver delivers a great collection of stories, that forms a great introduction to these writers and I know there are several whose other works I’ll seek out given half a chance! For a diverse take on the idea of magic in all its incarnations, Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane is as far as you need to look. It ranges far and wide on the thaumaturgical scale, but it has magic in spades.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • Robert Shearman

    Thanks for reviewing the book. I think it’s rather gorgeous, so it’s lovely to see it getting some attention!

    • You’re quite welcome :-)