Magic can mean a great many things, and take endless forms; from legerdemain to magic rings, from hidden worlds to hiding in plain sight, a system of magic is a stock tool for many a writer, fantasy or otherwise. In Fearsome Magics, the latest Solaris Book of Fantasy, Jonathan Strahan collects together stories from fourteen authors, each dealing with magic in their own way. Given free reign to incorporate the theme into their stories however they wish, the authors involved here have contributed tales ranging right across the spectrum of styles and settings, showcasing breathtaking variety in the resulting collection.
Fantasy isn’t all about stereotypical swords and sorcery these days, something that this collection demonstrates wonderfully; while it does include the occasional knight in armour and even a questing elf, it also includes a needle-wielding puppet, a cannibalistic crow-man, exploding paint, telepathic twins and a soul-leeching rocking chair. The more traditional fantasy settings of tales by Garth Nix or Justina Robson co-exist happily with the more modern, twisted realities of Tony Ballantyne, Karin Tidbeck or Frances Hardinge. There is even a story of the magic of mathematics, an apocalypse by way of algebra, cleverly playing on the idea of magic as something we can’t understand.
Like all the best fantasy stories, these take the fantastical elements and incorporate them smoothly into the setting and the plot without letting them take over or define them; the magic is there to help tell the story, not to be the point of the story. With the exception of a single tale towards the end of the collection that just tries too hard, they all also maintain both an ease of reading and a beautiful sense of balance and of expert storytelling. Many of these are the kind of short stories that leave you with a longing to read on past their conclusions, such well-crafted worlds or beguiling characters just begging for more stories to be told.
As a collection this is marvelously put together, testament to both the skill of the authors and the judgement of Jonathan Strahan, the editor. There’s whimsy, adventure, fear, anger, heartbreak and even an appalled horror here among these tales, emotional complexity side by side with infectious fun. It would be hard to find a more interesting and enjoyable anthology, or one that makes magic and fantasy so easily accessible to the reader.