John Joseph Adams is a talented editor whose anthologies I generally enjoy. Prime Books released his The Way of the Wizard, a collection of stories about magic and power, in November. It features several familiar names: Peter S. Beagle, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, et cetera, as well as several newer stories. Way of the Wizard has a healthy mix of reprints and new fiction, as well as writers seasoned and fresh.
This isn’t my favorite of Adams’s anthologies, as it had a few stories I didn’t much like, but a middling Adams anthology is still a great one. I am a fan of wizards, sorcery and magical universes as a whole, any incarnation they happen to appear in, so I was looking forward to reading this book. I did enjoy it, though it isn’t all perfect.
While I found several of the stories in this anthology predictable or unremarkable, there were also others that stood out for one reason or another. These stories were the saving grace of the anthology as a whole, keeping my attention through the so-so patches.
Susanna Clarke’s “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” is a whimsical story told like a fairytale: it’s light on description but colored instead with broad, authoritative strokes. The magic is simply True, and no character thinks it’s remarkably odd for the charcoal burner to be demanding magic of particular saints, or for them to behave like normal living people. This is a magical world. The tale itself is quick and light, a fun read.
Though I first encountered it in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Troll’s Eye View, Delia Sherman’s story “Wizard’s Apprentice” is a satisfying exploration of what it means to be family and how families not of blood come together. It is drawn in many of the same broad strokes as Clarke’s story, like a fairy-tale or a story literally told to the audience, with language suitable for a child but still evocative and telling for an adult reader. (All of the stories in Troll’s Eye View were like that; it was an interesting collection.) The story is heartwarming and a lovely twist on the “evil wizard” stereotype.
“Card Sharp” by Rajan Khanna has a unique take on sorcery that ups the stakes considerably for the characters who practice magic—and it takes place on a riverboat, with Hamlet-esque familial intrigue. All of that contributed to making the story a fast, engaging read. It seems to be over almost as quickly as it begins because of the pacing, leaving the reader with just a taste of the world and characters (but enough to be satisfying).
Kelly Link’s “The Wizards of Perfil” is one of my favorites in this anthology: it is both dark and light at the same time, a story of cruelty and impoverishment but also love and hope. The world is built carefully, brick by brick, detail by detail, and as it develops alongside the characters of Halsa and Onion the reader becomes ever more enmeshed. I adored the slow build and marvelous character development. Halsa is a girl full of contradictions and meanness, even to herself, as Onion observes—but that doesn’t mean she’s a bad person, far from it. Link is a master of the short story and this tale is no exception.
I’d like to give a mention to Lev Grossman’s “Endgame,” mostly because I was dreading it. I did not enjoy The Magicians, for many reasons, and expected another tedious and wandering story without much plot. “Endgame” pleasantly surprised me: it takes a much more fast-paced, engaging view of the universe of The Magicians and moves at a constant quick clip. The wargaming scenes are excellent and vividly described. If a reader was considering skipping this story, don’t. It’s reasonably fun.
“One-Click Banishment” by Jeremiah Tolbert is my other favorite. It has flair and tech, both of which I am a sucker for, with its magic. It is one of the most unique stories in the collection with an irreverently humorous take on the Elder Gods (and hackers), magic, and the wisdom of one’s predecessors. The story is written as a series of message board posts but manages to keep both an informal tone and a highly descriptive narrative; that’s not an easy task. The voice is catchy and believable. Tolbert does a great job with this story.
Jonathan Howard’s “The Ereshkigal Working” is one of the few zombie stories I’ve encountered in recent months that wasn’t tiresome. His lead character, Johannes Cabal, is a glib and entertainingly strange necromancer—which provides most of the story’s value. He’s got a hand at dialogue and off-beat humor that makes me curious about the Johannes Cabal novels that follow this tale.
The ending story, “The Secret of the Blue Star” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, has a twist with gender that is rather heartbreaking—the line “If only she could have loved me,” and then the revelation of Lythande’s Secret, creates a strong sense of loss. That she is a lover of women but due to her Secret must live and act as a man, but physically cannot act as a man and must use a doppelganger instead, is pretty wrenching. I like the treatment of gender identity and sexual identity in this story, and the fluidity of it, the secret and Secret spaces of Lythande’s self. The writing can be overwrought but I still enjoyed this closing story.
Overall, The Way of the Wizard was an enjoyable anthology, though not as stellar as some of John Joseph Adams’s other work as an editor. There were a few stories which I actively disliked or found otherwise bland and uninspiring, but the majority were good. I’d recommend picking up this book because it has a variety of authors, topics, and views on wizardry—you’re bound to enjoy at least a few of the tales in its 450+ pages. (Final grade: B+.)