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What Ho, Magic!
by Tanya Huff
Recent urban fantasy, particularly in the short form, seems to be permeated with all the earnest goodwill of a grade school Christmas pageant. Tanya Huff provides a welcome alternative in her first short story collection, What Ho, Magic!. Her stories are, for the most part, crisp, quickly paced fantasies that are refreshingly free of social conscience.
Huff fans are most likely to be interested in the four stories, collectively labelled the "Blood Quartet," which tie into her popular "Victory" Nelson vampire novels. "The Vengeful Spirit of Lake Nepeakea" was written for this collection, and is the only original story collected here. It's set after the conclusion of Blood Debt, the final book in the series. In her introduction, Huff states unequivocally that there will be no more novels in the series, so this may be the last new Vicki story we see for quite a while. Vicki Nelson is hired to investigate a lake monster that's hampering efforts to build a luxury resort in backwoods Ontario. The interaction between Vicki and her partner Mike Cellucci is a great deal of fun, and Huff evokes a few moments of eerie mystery, but the plot bears a nagging similarity to a Scooby Doo mystery, particularly in the too-convenient conclusion.
"This Town Ain't Big Enough" and "The Cards Also Say" are sharp, witty stories that also feature Vicki and Mike. They're set prior to the events in Blood Debt, which refers to them in passing. "What Manner of Man" features vampire Henry Fitzroy at his most coy in Regency England. Fans of the "Blood" series will enjoy these stories, and unfamiliar readers shouldn't be too handicapped by their lack of background.
The stories in What Ho, Magic! are arranged in the order in which they were written, which unfortunately puts "The Chase Is On" first. Kelly Chase is a smuggler who has the misfortune to have the heir to an interstellar empire stow away on her starship. It's an enjoyable but forgettable pulp adventure that's considerably more amateurish than the rest of the collection.
Surprisingly, most of the better stories here were originally written for theme anthologies, which are notoriously uneven in quality. In "February Thaw", which originally appeared in the anthology Olympus, the Greek gods are still around and still bickering in the twentieth century. Demeter, enjoying a nice peaceful winter in frumpy solitude, is dismayed when her daughter Persephone shows up on her doorstep two months early after a domestic sqabble with Hades. Huff's deadpan manner of mixing the fantastic with the mundane is at its best here.
"Symbols are a Percussion Instrument" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream Team" are both gimmick stories. In the former, a businesswoman is harassed by tarot symbols come to life; in the latter, a team from Faerie insists on participating in the Olympic basketball finals. These stories, which were written for the theme anthologies Tarot Fantastic and Elf Fantastic, rise above rather forced premises with a tongue-in-cheek tone and viewpoint characters who have a proper appreciation for ludicrous situations.
"I'll Be Home For Christmas," which first appeared in The Christmas Bestiary, is best described as a feelgood story, as Christmas stories tend to be. When Elaine Montgomery moves into the rural farmhouse she inherited from a maiden aunt, things immediately start going wrong. The house is cold and drafty; the freezer is full of butchered pet pig; and impossible, lecherous music drifts up from the basement at unexpected moments. Elaine's efforts to spend a merry Christmas with her young daughter and old cat are clever and funny and likely to make you think twice about your next holiday turkey.
"The Harder They Fall" is about a man who follows a tiny dragon through a tunnel in his backyard into a Lilliputian medieval world. Chivalry and shining turrets aren't all they're cracked up to be, however. I wouldn't have thought a story about disillusionment could manage to be overly cute, but despite a few amusing moments, "The Harder They Fall" is a bit too saccharine for my taste. It's a pity, because Huff generally has a much defter touch. The title of the collection, What Ho, Magic!, comes from this story, and it's no less dippy a phrase in context.
In "First Love, Last Love," a husband and father is seduced by an old decaying car in the woods behind his house. No matter how happy you are with your life, there's a horror inherent in the realization that you're no longer young. Huff effectively lures you into a nice safe haze of nostalgia, then hits you between the eyes with that horror, which has less to do with fear of mortality than with the dreams and potential that are gone forever.
"A Debt Unpaid" is about a mine safety officer haunted by the unrecovered dead of a mine collapse he could have prevented. The introduction mentions that it was inspired by a real incident, and the story is suffused with outrage and despair, but somehow it never musters the proper emotional punch. That punch is also missing in "Underground," a less ambitious story about a young man who lands his ideal job with a subway maintenance crew, but turns out to love being underground too much. It's an early effort, and not a memorable one.
"Shing Li-ung" is a very earnest story about a young Chinese-Canadian woman who inherits a guardian dragon from her grandmother. The strong characterization makes it absorbing, but it never quite achieves the profundity that Huff is striving for. The tone is a bit too earnest again in "Word of Honor," about a young woman is hired to carry a relic of the Knights Templar to the grave of its last rightful owner. The story is redeemed by its vivid glimpses into Templar history.
What Ho, Magic! is a strong collection of stories with a great deal of wit and little social agenda; even the lesser efforts are smoothly written and imaginative. If you can get past the cutesy title, it's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
-- Christina Schulman.
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