Book Review Saturday – ‘Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron’

I’ve written a lot of book reviews at this stage. I’ve read SF, fantasy, children’s and YA books, general literature, classical literature, high-concept literary fiction, lots of stuff. I’ve reviewed loads of different types of book, some good and some bad, but all interesting.

One thing I’ve never done is written a review of a collection of short stories – to my knowledge, at least. So, today’s book review will be just that. Today, I’m looking at ‘Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron,’ which was published in 2012 by Hot Key Books, and edited by Jonathan Strahan.

Image: andysmithillustrator.blogspot.com

Image: andysmithillustrator.blogspot.com

This fantastic collection of witchy tales was a Christmas gift from my husband (who is, clearly, a very clever man). It includes offerings from luminaries such as Holly Black, Frances Hardinge, Neil Gaiman (who, sadly, wrote the shortest entry), Garth Nix, Jim Butcher, Margo Lanagan and many others. There were a few names I’d never heard of among the contributors, and a fair few more whose names I’d heard, but whose work I’d never read. So, needless to say, I dived in with gusto.

All the tales have a common thread, which is witches – of course.

All this, and more! Image: enchantmentschool.blogspot.com

All this, and more!
Image: enchantmentschool.blogspot.com

We meet people who are just beginning their magical journey, and those who are so steeped in the Craft that is as natural to them as breathing. We meet male and female witches, old and young witches, good and bad witches. We meet familiars of all sorts, and people with the power to swap their bodies with animals, and shapeshifters. We meet love and passion and sensuality as well as cruel savagery and selfishness. There are different cultures, languages and traditions here. In short, it’s far more than it appears.

Some of the most gripping and memorable tales, for me, came from Delia Sherman (‘The Witch in the Wood’), Frances Hardinge (‘Payment Due’), Jim Butcher (‘B is for Bigfoot’), Peter S. Beagle (‘Great-Grandmother in the Cellar’) and Holly Black (‘Little Gods’). Only one story – Tanith Lee’s ‘Felidis’ – was left unfinished; I just couldn’t get into it at all. In every other story, I found something to like and admire, even if I wouldn’t have finished things quite like that, or I would have changed this detail… but then, that’s the beauty of a collection of short stories. One has barely faded before you’re on to the next, and – as a cohesive collection – this book is wonderful (with the exception of the Tanith Lee story, but who knows. I may come back to it in the future and wonder why on earth I couldn’t finish it the first time).

I’ll take a closer look at some of my favourite tales, which will hopefully give a flavour of the book overall. Firstly, then, let’s talk about Delia Sherman’s ‘The Witch in the Wood’, which is a wonderfully written story. It has lyrical, poetic language and a marvellous protagonist, Mildryth – a woman who lives alone in the forest and doesn’t even realise she is a witch until she is told so by a shapeshifting man she mistakenly shoots with an arrow on a hunting trip. She falls in love with this wounded deer-man, and nurses him back to health, only to discover there is a deep and powerful reason why he is a shapeshifter, and that there are dangerous forces on his tail. One of the reasons I loved this story so much is that, unlike a lot of the others in this collection, it has a fantastic ending. It concludes perfectly, with punch and style and suspense, leaving the reader knowing that the characters’ story doesn’t end where the text does, but giving us enough confidence in Mildryth to know that whatever happens, she will handle it.

Frances Hardinge – who, let’s face it, I love anyway – has written a most amazing story for this collection. ‘Payment Due’ is a tale of a fifteen-year-old girl whose grandmother’s house is targeted by bailiffs, who turn up one day to demand payment of a debt. They settle it by reclaiming most of the old lady’s belongings, much to her distress and that of her granddaughter. As I read the beginning of the story, I thought perhaps the older woman would turn out to be the witch – she is portrayed as being gentle, inoffensive, completely innocent of the world, and so I thought she would exhibit a turnaround in character and reveal herself to be a powerful figure instead of a powerless one – but Hardinge took those expectations and turned them inside-out. This story also features a magnificent central character, one completely at home with her magical power and utterly in control of it, and her use of her abilities is masterful – much like Hardinge herself.

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

‘B is for Bigfoot’ is classic Jim Butcher. Wonderfully, the story is told in the voice of Butcher’s famous character Harry Dresden, the protagonist of his ‘Dresden Files’ series, which I love. Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only practising wizard, which means he gets called upon to take care of all manner of weird and wonderful things, risking his life in the process a lot of the time. This story sees him summoned by a creature named Strength of a River in His Shoulders, who is – you’ve guessed it – a Bigfoot. River Shoulders, as Dresden instantly renames him, has a half-human son in a local high school who needs help; the boy is being victimised by bullies, and for obvious reasons his father can’t come to his aid. So, Dresden is seconded in his place. As we’re dealing with Dresden, though, things are never as straightforward as they seem. This story is full of typical Harry Dresden humour, and Jim Butcher’s witty and naturalistic style, with great snappy dialogue and wonderful characterisation.

Though the collection does have its ups and downs – namely, several stories seemed unfinished, or badly concluded, and Neil Gaiman’s contribution is a poem instead of a story, which irritated me a little – this is a book I will treasure and come back to time and time again. It holds many gems, not necessarily limited to the stories I’ve mentioned above, and – like all good collections – every reader will take something unique away from it. I enjoyed the different viewpoints, writing styles, cultural ideas about ‘the witch’ – not all the witches are the typical ‘warts on the nose, pointy hat’ type that a European reader might be most familiar with – and, most particularly, the flights of imagination contained within this book. It’s a definite recommendation.

Here’s to loads more reading in 2014! Did you get any books for Christmas? Do tell…

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