Illuminating the Blurred Characters: Shadowed Souls edited by Butcher & Hughes

Jim Butcher is one of the biggest names in urban fantasy (maybe the biggest, considering his novels tend to debut at the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list), and Kerrie Hughes is one of the most accomplished anthologists in SFF. The two combine their estimable skills for Shadowed Souls, an anthology of urban fantasy stories whose theme focuses on the line dividing black from white, good from evil, and what lies in the shadows. The anthology is a good mix of stories, mixing contemporary settings, superheroes, and low-tech pre-industrial settings. Past the cut are my thoughts on each story.

Enter into the shadows…

The anthology is off to an excellent start with Butcher’s “Cold Case”, which features Harry Dresden’s one-time apprentice Molly Carpenter and current Winter Lady as she receives her first assignment from Mab, the Winter Queen. Like the main Dresden Files, Butcher utilizes the first person narrative, and he does enough to differentiate Molly’s voice from Harry’s voice to make her a character I want to read more. Molly learns the hard way that her role as Winter Lady offers her far less freedom than she hoped in a bittersweet conclusion. This is the second short I’ve read featuring Molly, which makes me hopeful that the rumors of a Molly and Mouse offshoot of the Dresden Files are true.

Next up is “Sleepover”, set in Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid milieu. The story opens with Elsie Harrington attending a roller derby and soon kidnapped by a handful of twelve-year old boys, who think she’s a demon. Technically she’s a half-succubus and one of the boys want her to procure his little sister who was abducted by boogeymen. McGuire’s easy going, engaging, and fun voice make the story that much more potent and tantalizing. Again, like Butcher’s story, I really need to read more about Elsie and her crew of monster-hunters.

“Baggage” by Erik Scott de Bie plays with demons and superheroes in one of the more satisfying tales in the anthology. His story exudes a great deal of pathos as a supervillain turned superheroine, Vivienne Cane, a.k.a. Lady Vengeance, tries to make sense of her life after the death of the Superteam of which she was a member until they all were killed. She’s the only survivor and can’t remember much about the death of her friends. Not only that, demons are constantly pursue her. de Bie infused a great deal of potent emotions into his characters and has me intrigued to read more about Val, his protagonist.

“Solus” by Anton Strout introduces readers to Simon Canderous, the protagonist of Strout’s Dead… series. Strout’s story is the perfect type of story for an anthology of this nature. It is effectively a prequel to the four novels featuring Canderous so the story serves as an introduction to new readers while giving the character background readers of the series would appreciate. Overall, a fun story.

Jim C. Hines steps away from the three fantasy worlds he’s created for “Hunter, Healer”, which tells of a young woman, the daughter of a bad man, who tries to find redemption for herself by healing the wounded instead of being the one inflicting the wounds. The scenes when father and daughter confront each other are quite potent, and makes this the story that, to me, incorporates the theme of the anthology to best effect.

Lucy A. Snyder’s “What Dwells Within” features her signature character sorceress Jessie Shimmer. In this story, Jessie tries to save her friend’s girlfriend who was kidnapped by a devil. Good pacing and character interaction made this a fun, enjoyable story and the protagonist’s inner struggles gave the story ample emotional weight.

In “Eye of Newt”, Kevin J. Anderson’s Dan Shamble, Zombie Detective, the title is quite literal as Dan helps a Newt named Gecko try to retrieve his eye from an over-ambitious chef. Some witty dialogue (albeit uneven humor) and fantastical creatures helped to carry this story.

Set in the world of her popular Vicki Peterson / Blood Ties world, Tanya Huff’s “If Wishes Were Fishes” by Tanya Huff was a solid, quick thriller mystery focusing on the risks of becoming entangled with genies.

Kristine Katheryn Rusch’s “Sales. Force.” is an inventive take on love for sale, as the title might imply. The “economics” of potions make for a fun story.

“Peacock in Hell” by Kat Richardson does exactly what it says on the tin, the Peacock in question is the protagonist. She and a bloke named Lennie get to know each other as they try to escape Hell. Richardson’s vision of Hell is suitably unpleasant, though I wouldn’t mind learning more about it.

“Impossible Monsters” by Rob Thurman follows her tortured protagonist Cal Leandros, whose nature as half man and half monster symbolically and literally embodies the theme of the anthology. The story follows Cal as he struggles with a decision in the present day and five years later. If this story is representative of the main series, its success is deserved.

Every anthology will feature stories that work better for a one particular reader, than other stories would.. In this case, I found the Butcher, McGuire, and de Bie stories the most effective and enjoyable. On the whole, the only issue I had was that whereas themed anthologies like this one often feature short introductions to each story, this one didn’t. Such beginnings help provide context to the characters, especially if the stories are set in a pre-existing milieu featured in an extended book series. As a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (and the fact that it is such a well-known series), an introduction may not be necessary there. However, for lesser known writers like Erik Scott de Bie, or writers like Jim Hines and Seanan McGuire who have multiple series, such an introduction would have been extremely helpful.

On the whole this was a fun anthology where the stories did a good job of sticking with the fairly vague theme of the blurred lines between light and dark. The anthology also succeeded in the goal of what many such anthologies, I think, set out to do: snare new readers for the authors included in the anthology.

Shadowed Souls is available from Roc.

Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and wrote for the sadly closed SF Signal as well as here at Tor.com. If you want to read random thoughts about books, beer, TV, or his dog you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.

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