Tag Archives: witchcraft

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…

Wednesday Write-In #47

This week’s words were:

charm  ::  inverted  ::  herb garden  ::  mistaken identity  ::  terrorist

Image: ownc.co.nz

Image: ownc.co.nz

The Spell

Alfie was a patch of salt-and-pepper fur amid the wildflowers. She watched from the kitchen window as he stalked a cabbage butterfly with the dedication of a lion hunting a wildebeest, smiling over her cooling cup of chamomile and ginger tea. With a grimace, she made herself swallow the last of it, telling herself it was packed full of health benefits; seconds later, she was standing in her herb garden, her feet planted in Mother Earth, her face turned to the benevolent sky, her arms spread wide in thanksgiving.

Today would be the day, she knew. She felt it.

A sudden feeling of warmth on the backs of her legs made her jump, but it was just the cat, slithering his way around her calves, looking for some appreciation. I’ve worked hard, hunting butterflies for you, she imagined him saying. You’re right, she answered him, on a soul level. You have worked hard. I appreciate you, little lion.

‘Well, you tiny terrorist,’ she murmured, bending to scratch him behind the ears, just as he liked. Thrumming, he flopped onto his back, exposing his tender belly for a rub. She watched him stretch, extending his claws in delight, as her ministrations hit the mark. ‘Putting on a charm offensive, now, are we?’ she said, with a laugh. Alfie could only yawn in response. Grinning, she gave him one final tickle under the chin, before rising to her feet once more. Affronted, Alfie flopped onto his belly and started cleaning his paws, pretending he was the one ignoring her.

‘Today’s a big day, Alfie,’ she told him. He ignored her. ‘Everything’s in place. He’ll be arriving today, I know it.’ Alfie just kept licking, his tiny red tongue sliding up first one paw, and then the other. ‘I can see you’re not interested,’ she said, watching him with affection. ‘But you should be. From today, you won’t be the only man around here. Just you wait!’ With a yowl, the cat leapt up and stalked away, tail held high in what looked like indignation. Stop putting human emotion on your animals, she told herself. Honour them as they are. She blessed Alfie’s retreating figure, and turned back to her garden, where everything was growing as it should.

Everything was perfect.

‘Hello?’ came a voice, out of the blue. A man’s voice. ‘I’m sorry, I… My name’s Joe, and I…’ She spun around to greet him, smiling, only for her words to be stolen right out of her throat. This man was not what she had ordered. Her smile died.

‘Are you… lost?’ She asked, impatient. ‘It’s just, I’m expecting someone, you see?’

‘I – um. I’m Joe, and… where am I?’ He murmured. She watched him, horrified. The look in his eye was right, and the dreamy tone of voice. He’s ensorcelled, she thought, with desperation. Oh, goddess!

She picked up her skirt and ran, the bells on her hem jingling as she hurried toward her Spell. She could have sworn aloud when she saw it, hanging there in a mess of twigs and string, her carefully chosen pattern completely destroyed. The whole thing was inverted, for a start, knocked sideways as though taken by a strong gust of wind. Several of the most important feathers – the ones for height, and hair, and youth, oh no! – lay on the ground, powerless. A hole was ripped right through the centre. Deflated, she fell to her knees, trying to pick up the strewn pieces she’d worked so hard on. Spun in a circle for eternal love, wound with my own hair for neverending passion… It had been her best work, by far, and now it was ruined. Something caught her eye as she searched the ground for lost pieces of Spell, something small and sinuous and covered in fur… Something which was pacing back and forth, watching her with a beady gaze. A knowing gaze.

‘Alfie!’ she hissed, suddenly realising what must have happened. ‘Did you do this?’

The cat yawned at her, his eyes glinting. She knew she wasn’t imagining the grin on his tiny face, but before she could reach out to grab his collar he was gone, like lightning, lost amid the tall grass.

‘Miss?’ came Joe’s voice again, from above her. ‘Can you please help me? I’m… I don’t know why I’m here…’

She straightened up, full of purpose once more. All she needed was one lock of his hair to cast a new Spell, and this poor fool could be on his way, none the wiser. She was pretty sure she had some Lethe-water left inside – just the thing. She fixed the hapless man with a bright, businesslike smile, and he did his best to return it, through a haze of fear and bedazzlement.

‘I’m so sorry, Joe – was it Joe?’ He barely had a chance to nod. ‘This has all been a case of mistaken identity, I’m afraid. Would you care for a cup of chamomile and ginger tea? Yes? Come on inside. This way, good boy.’

As she led the man into her kitchen, she wondered whether she could bring herself to turn Alfie into a frog, just until this new Spell was completed. That’d teach him to meddle… No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than, somewhere out in the garden, a loud feline wail sounded, cutting off rather more quickly than expected. She heaved in a deep breath, her lips fixed in a grim, determined line. Still got it, she thought, with satisfaction.