Title: Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Random House
Contributing Authors Include: Diana Peterfreund, Margo Lanagan, Holly Black, Garth Nix
Other Reviews for this Editor: None
In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd review an anthology that sticks with the Halloween spirit by taking on the subject of witches. I've always been a fan of the witch/wizard character, whether we're talking Howl from Howl's Moving Castle, the witches in Cate Tiernan's Sweep series, or the witches and wizards in Hogwarts - or, perhaps my favorites, the witches and wizards found within the worlds of Terry Pratchett and Diane Duane. Needless to say, witches - and their male counterparts - have been bookmarks for some of my favorite books, ever. Strahan's introduction to this anthology even mentions the witch Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service, a character that, to this day, makes me cry and is a major influence on my creative self. Said introduction does a fabulous job of opening the anthology and describing what it is: an interesting fantasy compilation of stories that take the simple concept of 'witch' and view it in different lights. As for the individual stories....
Stray Magic by Diana Peterfreund
Summary: A girl working at an animal shelter gets more than what she bargained for when she talks to a dog and realizes that it can understand her and talk back, leading her to discover that animals can be more than just pets - they can be familiars, too.
Opinion: Having just read Peterfreund's masterful For Darkness Shows the Stars prior to this piece, I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by it. It's sentimental and interesting, yes, but its exploration of the familiar over the actual magic aspect of the story leads it to rely on the emotional pull of the animal that wants to find its owner. The magical twist is fun, but ultimately makes the story more of a lead-in to a potentially larger story for the protagonist than a story that feels functional on its own. I know to expect a variety of styles from Peterfreund - her story in Zombies Vs. Unicorns was fabulous and unlike For Darkness Shows the Stars - but this one just didn't impress me the way her other work has.
Payment Due by Francis Hardinge
Summary: A girl's attempts at reclaiming the possessions re-possessed from her home lead to magical antics that suggest just how powerful revenge can be.
Opinion: Hardinge's tone is more 'traditional fantasy' than Peterfreund's, although the story is, like Peterfreund's, more of a fun diversion than anything effecting. Hardinge uses witchery in a unique way and shows a large amount of insight in her writing. The little things make a big impact in this story, and Hardinge's magical manipulations even have a hint of creepiness to them, though it's not necessarily because they're dark. It's the type of story that has you interested in the author's other works, but it misses the mark of being memorable.
A Handful of Ashes by Garth Nix
Summary: Serving the rich, wealthy students at a magic academy is not a walk in the park, especially the servant is also a student with them. A magical scholarship student shows her true power and intellect as she takes on a nefarious plot that drudges up old magic and threatens the magical balance of her school.
Opinion: Here's where things start to get good with the anthology. Like Peterfreund, I've read one of Nix's novels (A Confusion of Princes) that really gave me a good impression of what his strengths as a writer were. I've also read one of his short stories before. 'A Handful of Ashes' hits on Nix's strengths - a strong world that is unique and built well enough to handle a plot that is hard to stop reading about. This story was charming and has shades of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books (though with less humor) and Rowling's Hermione Granger. It features a plucky, smart witch that rises above her social caste and proves that she can do anything. Gotta love that plotline, and Nix pulls it off well with this story. One of my favorites.
Little Gods by Holly Black
Summary: Wiccans are often misrepresented, and what better way to explore a new religion than to attend a gathering of covens that could provide a religious experience? One night, several Wiccans, and an entirely new look on magic.
Opinion: Holly Black knows how to write. We all know this. White Cat. Tithe. The Spiderwick Books. Ms. Black knows. This story has her trademark style, dark undertones, narrative questions, and ease of prose. Needless to say, the reading experience is enjoyable. The problem? It's more informative and quiet than I would expect from Ms. Black, and I don't think the quietness, in this case, helps the story. Too much of it is forgettable, although it brings some much needed realism and diversity to the collection so it doesn't ignore the real witches among us.
Barrio Girls by Charles De Lint
Summary: Two girls - best friends - are obsessed with vampires. Two girls go to a local river in the dead of night for their own pseudo-vampire needs and meet a local river witch that is not happy about their trespassing. When the witch kills someone that is close to them, they seek revenge, which involves another kind of magic entirely.
Opinion: I have never read a story or novel by Charles De Lint before, but obviously I have to after something like this. 'Barrio Girls' has its flaws - it's a little too simple, a little too much of a fairy tale to be haunting - but those are also its strengths. This story reads like a modern interpretation of a classic Grimm tale, complete with the magic of questionable origin and moral execution. Readers will find this story a gritty, surreal tale that will satisfy those looking for a tale that is both ethereal and edgy.
Felidis by Tanith Lee
Summary: Journeying, a man comes upon a town that almost worships a local healer, who is a girl that more-than-vaguely resembles a cat. Her constant companion, a cat, is oddly considered with a similar amount of reverence. As the hero finds himself injured and healed at this girl's hands, she begins to fall in love with her, only to later find out the truth behind her magical abilities.
Opinion: Tanith Lee's writing was great, but the story was just...odd. Creative, inventive, yet still recognizable in its tropes and twists. The magic Lee deals with is the magic of animals and the magic of knowledge, and it's uncanny just how creepy she manages to make the mystery within this story. I remember it more so for the plot than for any emotional resonance, but it's not a bad story to add to the collection - just not something I think many readers will connect with from an emotional standpoint.
Witch Work by Neil Gaiman
Summary: A several-page poem about the workings of a witch.
Opinion: We'll go for the obvious reaction: it's Neil Gaiman writing poetry. How can it not be wonderful? And it is. This is the kind of poem you read several times, savoring the words and the way their syllables create a cadence in your mind, on your tongue, across the page. It leaves you breathless. Gaiman should write more poetry, as I would certainly read it. The subject matter, too, is dealt with well, and is highly emotional - which wins major points with me.
The Education of a Witch by Ellen Klages
Summary: From the time she's young, a little girl has a strong fascination with witches. Her first viewing of Sleeping Beauty has her rooting for Maleficent, not Aurora, and from then on she is hooked. Witches are misunderstood creatures to her, and she can't help but identify with them as her life goes on and she learns to stand up for herself with some interesting - and vaguely witchy - tactics.
Opinion: Gosh, this was probably my favorite story in the anthology. There's something about the influence of Maleficent that I highly connect with. Sleeping Beauty is a favorite Disney movie of mine for good reason. Maleficent is one of the best Disney villains, and it's so fascinating how Klages takes this young character and accurately shows how her connection to Maleficent leads her to becoming a witch in her own right, and how the mean parts of her don't come from the witchcraft she wants to create, but of her need for attention and her parent's lack of attention to her. It's creative, it's fun, it's intelligent, and it stuck with me. I still think about this story sometimes, and it's honestly just that resonating with me on an emotional level. Your mileage may vary on this one, but I have to give props to Klages for taking one of my favorite movies - and villains - and using them creatively in a story about becoming a witch.
The Threefold World by Ellen Kushner
Summary: A man journeys to discover what magic really is, and how magic is, like other cultures, powerful in its individuality and origins, not superior.
Opinion: This story was hard to get into at first, but Kushner has a way with magic that's undeniably special. The Threefold World, I think, makes mistakes in how it starts off, providing more confusion and eyebrow raising than direct interest, but it makes up for it by providing a profound theme on magic. Worth reading, but not one of the favorite/memorable stories of the collection. It has me eager to read her novel Swordspoint, though.
The Witch in the Wood by Delia Sherman
Summary: She has grown up as a part of the woods. Her blood spills on its ground, mixing with the dirt, making it hers. When she hunts a stag trespassing in her wood, she discovers that it is a man under a grave enchantment - the first man that she's ever seen - the man she falls in love with.
Opinion: Sherman's story was just lovely. Romantic, feral, and intense, it captures the way magic comes from the earth and nature in an unusual way. The tale isn't unfamiliar, but Sherman's take on it is special, one-of-a-kind. She captures the romance and the passion, the longing and the wariness that come from first, isolated love. This story is highly worth a read in my opinion, taking the magic and the nature and blending it together beautifully.
Which Witch by Patricia A. McKilip
Summary: A band (quite literally a band) of witches and their familiars play a concert and battle dark demons that threaten their lives.
Opinion: McKilip's prose is a blend of the literary and the direct in this tale - and, from what I understand, it's usually more literary/mellifluous in her straight fantasy works. As it is, this tale is an urban fantasy story that makes the subject of witches and their familiars fun. Readers will find it an easy read that satisfies the reading craving, but the take on witches isn't particularly original or inventive in today's urban fantasy market. McKilip's prose has me eager to read more from her in a more fairy-tale-esque setting, but this short story doesn't leave much to the memory beyond a feeling of contentment - which isn't bad, but doesn't help when compared to some of the better stories of the collection.
The Carved Forest by Tim Pratt
Summary: A boy and his sister have dealings with a local woman - possibly a witch - with a garden of stone statues behind her house. When the boy's sister is courted to be an apprentice to the witch, things go very wrong. The girl risks giving up her life forever, and only her brother can talk her out of it.
Opinion: Eh. This story didn't hold a lot of emotion for me either way. On one hand, the theme is haunting and the premise is good. On the other hand, the writing doesn't hold any particular impressiveness about it. The characters don't stay much past the end of the story. The ending is expected, nice in its happiness, but not a 'wow' moment. Overall, it's a very ho-hum addition to the collection.
Burning Castles by M. Rickertt
Summary: A girl is haunted by her past and by her mother's lies to her as she tries to consolidate magic and its connection to the horrors of her past. Is her mother really a witch, or are her claims to magic really just illusion?
Opinion: This piece is the least-fantastic of the bunch, and, as a result, it feels thematically...skewed? Off-kilter? Something about 'Burning Castles' just leaves that impression. It's a short piece that deals more with a girl's viewpoint of her mother - how she believed the world of her and her 'magic', but how that belief went away as she grew up and realized that her mother lived in a world of delusion, a world where bad things either disappear or do not exist. It's haunting, disturbing, but not as understandable as it would like to be, I think. A great story overall, but disappointing in the context of the collection.
The Stone Witch by Isobelle Carmody
Summary: Crash. A falling star. Trapped on a falling plane, a young woman has an out-of-body experience that bonds her with a young girl, leading her to a strange place where she learns that children are complex creatures, too.
Opinion: This story was cute but didn't strike me after finishing it. The beginning starts out strong, but it's ultimately a quest story with a twist. Carmody *does* do the twist well and provides a great character relationship between the young girl and the young woman, but I couldn't help but think that the witchery and the magic could have been more pronounced, more described. I've heard her novels are fabulous, so I may try one of those, but this story probably won't turn any heads.
Andersen's Witch by Jane Yolen
Summary: Hans Christian Andersen, the father of many classic fairy tales, had help getting to where he was. An enchantment from an icy witch - his witch - leads him to a successful career as a writer and storyteller, until it takes his life.
Opinion: Jane Yolen knows her stuff. This story is a tribute to Hans Christian Andersen and is undeniably fine. Yolen's storytelling captures that fairy-tale feeling perfectly. It's delightful, childish, but still dark. That mixture just works so well for Yolen's narrative, and it's a creative twist on the idea of where Andersen came up with the ideas for some of his stories. With a particular nod towards The Snow Queen, 'Andersen's Witch' was one of my favorites and will be a delight for readers who enjoy their fairy tales - beautifully evil witches included.
B is for Bigfoot by Jim Butcher
Summary: Warlock-and-detective Harry Dresden takes on an assignment from a local bigfoot and his former lover: protect their son from a group of bullies that are messing with him in school. Dresden goes undercover to solve the case and teach a half-bigfoot kid the importance of standing up for himself.
Opinion: Butcher represents the warlocks with Harry Dresden, and this wasn't a bad introduction to the Dresden Files. I haven't read the novels, so I have to say that any character depth, development, and attachment was lost on me because of the nature of this story. It's better for people that have read the series, although it's fun and stands well enough on its own. The bullying theme is appreciated but not groundbreaking, and the hard-boiled detective thing just isn't for me. Fans of the Dresden Files will find something to appreciate, but readers who haven't read it won't enjoy it nearly as much.
Great-Grandmother in the Cellar by Peter S. Beagle
Summary: A girl in a coma, her suitor waiting to pull her out of it. A price, a price to pay, in order to save her. Her family's distress leads to the awakening of a witch's bones in order to save her from the dark magic ensnaring her. The danger, the cost, could plague their family forever in the form of old bones.
Opinion: This story was gorgeous. Magic hummed throughout every sentence, and the subject matter and themes were complicated, detailed, real. Also, this story is pretty darn creepy. Scary, even. I would go so far as to say that this story and the final story could make it in any Halloween anthology of understated horror. This story in particular just shows a mastery of the fantasy genre and world-building. No wonder Beagle is famous in the fantasy world. Now, to catch up on his backlist...Needless to say, this story was one of the best in the collection.
Crow and Caper, Caper and Crow by Margo Lanagan
Summary: Mother. Witch. Hermit. Grandmother. She is all of these things, especially a grandmother, most importantly a witch, as she travels to meet the son that long left her, the daughter-in-law that long feared her, and the grandchild that is about to enter the world and inherit everything that her family has bestowed to her, intentionally or otherwise.
Opinion: Lanagan ends it with a bang. Tender Morsels, the one novel of Lanagan's that I've read, was oddly satisfying and memorable, though I felt it rambled on at times and was more disturbing than necessary - but, as I've come to discover, that is Margo Lanagan. Her prose in this story is, as always, lush and fantastical, yet there's ever that underscoring of simple magic that makes it all the more complicated and real. This story is vibrant and reads like a great finale. The reader won't suspect such a subtle story towards the end, but it says a lot about the meaning of witchery in Lanagan's world, and the interpretation is excellent. Another collection favorite.
Under My Hat is a strong short story collection that takes a little bit of inspiration from each speculative fiction writer as they explore what, to them, could constitute as a witch. The stories could have had a higher level of variety amongst how they tackled magic - most of it was subtle, several of the stories took routes that were fairly cliched or a bit off-topic - but many were quality stories that asked questions and gave the mind something to think about. Several writers impressed me here, and have me interested in expanding my fantasy reading because of it. Others were par-for-the-course awesome, and others still disappointed or were 'meh' in their execution. Most of this collection was solid, however, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a dosage of fantasy that takes a page from some of the best witches in fiction.
Cover: It fits the theme and isn't a usual YA cover, so points there. It also has an air of whimsy about it, which I appreciate.
Rating: 4.0 Stars (Overall Grade)
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Random House!!)