Anthologies are a bit of a box of assorted chocolates. This one is no different: you go hunting for the delicious coffee cream ones, but the box seems to contain only weird crusty chocolates with bits of dried pineapple in it. And this is doubly frustrating because the box promised you to be full of chocolatey coffee goodness!
Ok, I’ll stop with this weird analogy because it’s making me crave chocolate. My point is, it’s really difficult to rate anthologies because most times there’s such a range of quality across stories.
I got the ARC of Magic City on NetGalley because I saw it had a story by Scott Lynch, and I found that there were enough good stories to make it worth my while, but if I rated this book strictly by the numbers it would be a different story. Out of 24 stories, I thought 10 were good, or at least worth reading. As for the others, 7 were bad or disappointing, and 7 so boring that I didn’t even finish reading them. There’s also a problem of editing: it starts with a bunch of bad stories, then the middle is actually quite good, and the last few stories are bad so I mostly skipped them. (It could be that if I stuck with them my opinion would have been different, but I have less patience for the stories at the end of an anthology, and after two bad stories in a row I’m less inclined to be lenient.)
The theme was urban fantasy and magic, but I’m not sure all of the stories followed that theme. Scott Lynch’s story was more like straight-up fantasy, Christopher Barzak’s talked about witches and werewolves but it could have been about plumbers and schoolteachers for all the magic it showed. Overall there was a disjointed feeling, and it shows that all those stories are reprints. It was fine for me, because I don’t read much urban fantasy and I didn’t know many of those authors, but if you are familiar with the genre than you might have already read some of the stories.
About the stories… Seeing Eye by Patricia Briggs was a delightful find. The characters were fleshed out, there was a proper story and hints of a bigger world, and lots of magic happening onscreen. It definitely made me want to check out Briggs’ novels. In The Stacks by Scott Lynch did not disappoint — loved the battle librarians, loved the creatures that fed on words, loved Lynch’s signature humour. A Voice Like a Hole by Catherynne M. Valente was also surprisingly good. I’ve had mixed feelings about Valente’s writing in the past, but I really got the urban part of urban fantasy from this story, even though it felt like the introduction to a novel more than a complete story in itself.
The Arcane Art of Misdirection by Carrie Vaughn was also fun, loved the casino setting. Apparently one of the characters is from one of Vaughn’s series, but the story stood alone and made me want to read more about this world. The Slaughtered Lamb by Elizabeth Bear would have been rather generic if it wasn’t for the fact that the protagonist is a werewolf drag queen, but the protagonist is indeed a werewolf drag queen, so that was memorable. Solid writing and good atmosphere. Alchemy by Lucy Sussex is possibly the best of the bunch, and wholly unlike the other stories. The setting is ancient Babylonia, the main character was a widow with small kids, the demon is not your typical demon… I really enjoyed the interactions between the characters, and also the resolution; very satisfying.
As for the bad, those are the highlights. Spellcaster 2.0 by Jonathan Maberry was interesting at first but ended up pissing me off so much with the misogyny and the moralism. Hey, can we have one atheist character in fiction whose story doesn’t end with the realization that ~you need to have faith~ or some shit like that? Thanks. -30- by Caitlín R. Kiernan — you turn the page and see something written in 2nd person POV. You try to read it anyway. The painful prose makes you want to cry. You skip to the next story. Dog Boys by Charles de Lint is apparently awesome and people looove this author, but the protagonist was annoying and pretentious and a complete Gary Stu: he always does what’s right and risks his life to save a stranger from bullies because he’s a Nice Guy, and the only reward he needs is taking the girl out for coffee… ew, no thanks.
To be honest, if it wasn’t for the Scott Lynch story I might have given up on this book entirely, because the first six stories are all terrible. But I had a long commute to while away, and I can’t skip ahead as easily on a kindle as I would with a paperback, so I stuck with it until it started to get good. But that’s literally the opposite of how you should pace an anthology, you should put the good bits first to reel people in, then put the boring stuff in the middle, and then end with more good stories so there’s an overall good impression. It’s possible that the editor thought that the stories at the beginning were good, to which I say… nope. Just, nope. It’s worth it if you like a couple of the authors, or if you want an introduction to the genre, but otherwise, eh.