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Customer Review

on 18 May 2011
DAW has been putting out these anthologies for decades now, I've read a few, and while they haven't been groundbreaking, they certainly haven't deserved the disdain that they've often gotten. After all, has anybody ever heard of a story from one ever being nominated for an award? It may be that so many of them have a "house anthology" and a "let's settle" feel. The "let's settle" feel comes from the feeling that Greenberg and his associates are just settling for stories that aren't too bad, or too good, not really too banal, but also not really cutting edge, and nothing edgy. Just fiction that's as slickly commercial as it can get, a kind of sf or fantasy lite.

"Crime Spells" is a clear example of this. You would think that mixing crime and fantasy would be a great idea and would lead to a fool proof anthology that would contain all sorts of gold, after all, the whole urban fantasy trend is crime and fantasy based. Never underestimate the resourcefulness of fools.

******Take the first story "Web Ginn House: A Zoë Martinique Investigation" by Phaedra M. Weldon. Clearly Weldon is having more fun writing this story than most will have reading it. It's like, f'r sure, told in a TOTALLY flippant, pseudo-chick lit style. The fact is, I've been interesting in reading Weldon's stories for some time now, but this story has put a dampener on that, as Martinique comes across as an airhead, and the investigation as a joke. While this story is about an investigation of a haunted house, we never really learn WHY gun-for-hire Martinique's client wanted her at the house in the first place. Two stars.

******The second story is "The Hex Is In" by Mike Resnick, and it shows why the novels and stories by Resnick that I've so far read have singularly underwhelmed me. This is a minor league crime story in which somebody is using magic to rip-off bookies. The story is told in a pseudo-pulp style that shows why Resnick has a tin ear for pulp crime fiction storytelling. Resnick is too clever and cute by half as the story reads as nothing more than a five-finger exercise. Clearly a story picked because of Resnick's name value. Two stars.

******Michael A. Stackpole does a better job with "If Vanity Doesn't Kill Me" in which somebody is killing off, in particularly nasty ways the contributors to a charity. A good story that struggles because the story tries to straddle the line between being a gritty and cynical crime story and being inoffensive enough to be published here. It almost succeeds, so . . . three stars.

******A good rule of thumb is that if critics go ga-ga for an author, run, do not walk to an exit to avoid their stuff. Jay Lake is such an author. "Witness To The Fall" starts out with a murder, and then a Truthsayer is called to a trial to determine the innocence of a man. Unfortunately Lake then burdens the story with such prose as " . . . voice as cold as a child's headstone.", " . . . she blushes like the fires of dawn.". Page after page of such drivel makes a ten-page story seem like a hundred, and then all we learn is the victim was a troubled woman, no crime is solved, and the story ends. Zero stars.

******Leave it to a pro like Kristine Kathryn Rusch to be professional enough to AT LEAST try to do a good job on "The Best Defense". A lawyer defends a magician that has used magic to destroy a mansion and has killed a number of people. While not a complete success, it is pure gold compared to what had come before it. This story reads like something that would have appeared in the old "Unknown Worlds" pulpzine. Four stars.

******"Call Of The Second Wolf" by Steven Mohan, Jr. is a decent crime story involving the Russian and Chinese mafia. Unfortunately, Mohan tends to tell the story in a form of pigeon English that becomes annoying after a while. But, this may just be me. The story may have worked better at a longer length, still it was a clever organized crime story of an alternate world. Four stars.

******"The Old Girlfriend Of Doom" by Dean Wesley Smith was enjoyable even though it may have a bit misogyny to it. Smith tries to be satiric with his story of superhero stories as his superhero tries to save an old girlfriend whose in trouble from monsters that want to steal her implants, and drag them out through her anus. Unfortunately, that satire doesn't last until the story's ending, where it becomes a moralistic tub-thumper. This story wouldn't be out of place in "Playboy" or "Penthouse" with its combination of sniggering humor and satire, but it's just not up to Smith's best. Three stars.

******It's not until the eighth story "Second Sight" by Ilsa J. Bick that this anthology starts to take itself seriously. This is the second story starring Jason Saunders, but the first with him teaming up with psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Wylde. The first story was good enough that Joyce Carol Oates picked it as one of the best mystery stories of the year in 2005 for an anthology. "Second Sight" blows every story that came before it right out of the water, then shoots them out of the sky like a master sharpshooter shooting slow moving skeets. Thirteen year old white slave Lily Hopkins seemingly becomes possessed and stabs her pimp to death, gouging out his eyes. Why? It's up to cop Jason Saunders to find out, and while at the hospital he meets Sarah Wylde, who is attacked by a large, fat, drunk with some very telling tattoos. While she is attacked, only Saunders perceive that Wylde has magical powers. Several stories so far make the pretense of being tough thrillers, but this is the real deal. "Second Sight" involves snuff movies, demon possession, white slavery, thrill killing, serial killers, and flirts with Jewish & Thai mysticism. Bick's bio here states she's working on a novel involving Saunders and Wylde, well, I'm selfish, gimme gimme gimme. I want it now, and lets hope those in charge at DAW have enough common sense to publish it when it's ready. This could be the start of a great series. Five stars.

******The trend in "Crime Spells" towards more serious fiction continues as newbie author Joe Edwards gives us "The True Secret Of Magic, Only #1.98, Write Box 47, Portland, ORE." With a title like that you would expect something pretentious, but instead Edwards gives us a serious and melancholy story about fate, as in 1963, poor, but honest and proud mail-order fortune teller Ella Sue Redheart. Nearing the end of her life, she is busted by a postal inspector; he doesn't turn her over to the authorities as he wants to know who a certain person in a picture is. This person has something to do with a series of cryptic postcards from Texas that themselves seem to have something to do with a world changing event that is coming soon. There's no secret as to what this event is, but the story is more of a serious character study of a woman who has more of a talent than most, but not enough to really identify what is going to happen, and is too honest to exploit what she DOES have. Excellent for a first story. Four stars.

******"The Sweet Smell Of Cherries" by Devon Monk immediately follows. This story is deals with series character Allison Beckstom and falls into the popular urban fantasy genre. Coincidently, this is a story that might appeal to fans of Margaret Ronald's simultaneously published character Genevieve "Evie" Scelan. The haunted Allison Beckstom is reluctantly hired to track down a lost daughter/sister. Like Scelan, Beckstom is a "Hound", able to scent magic, the nose knows, but in Beckstom's case, the use of her magic causes pain and physical/mental trauma. Not as tough as Bick's, but a solid and serious story involving magic, white slavery, blood magic, and the price that one pays to do the right thing. Allison "Allie" Beckstrom is the lead character in a series of novels, the first of which is Magic to the Bone. Four stars.

******"Eye Opening" by Jason Schmetzer is about small-time crook Eddie Timmer who has the wild talent of being able to see through solid objects, and who keeps getting thwarted in his attempt to go straight. Here he is roped into doing a job that goes totally awry as his unstable partner looses his grip and ends up dead and almost getting Eddie killed. Eddie escapes and heads back to the man who set up the burglary, only to find out from his employer that he has this time really stepped into the dog poop. A great little action occult thriller that could be ANOTHER start of a series, and reads like a story that could have appeared in an old issue of the pulp magazine "Weird Tales" or a fifties comic book. These are not slights to the story. I liked this story and I think that it should get four stars.

******"Faith's Curse" by Randall N. Bills is a story about how a self-taught magician has attracted the attention of a bunch of real magicians and the consequences of having done so. I'm sorry, I doubt it was either the story's or the author's fault, but the story left me cold. Maybe it was because the lead character was such an unsympathetic one, who was willing in the past to sacrifice his friends and his lover to acquire his powers. Anyway, blame it on me if you want as I give the story only three stars.

******The Wish Of A Wish" by Robert T. Jeschonek is a story whose title will make sense only after you read the story. You can only do so much with the whole three wishes idea, and I think that Jeschonek does a good job at finding a new angle. The story starts off as a bit of light hearted entertainment and whimsy, a tax collector on wishes?, but it quickly gets serious and dark. The whole story revolves around the idea that even a genie deserves to get at least one wish for themselves. The only trouble is that we are told that you only get three wishes, but the antagonist here has clearly got an unending supply of wishes. I liked the story, I liked the story's ending, but this easily correctable flaw about the number of wishes allowed anybody brings it down a star. Three stars.

******Peter Orullian's story "RPG Reunion" was well written with a requisite ironic ending, but, and this is a big but, the lead character is just an insufferable little a-hole. Twenty years ago, a game of Dungeons and Dragons had gone wrong, there was a fight, and our unnamed character stomped off in a snit. He has now spent the last twenty years in the single-minded pursuit of learning real magic for revenge. While the story itself is just a little too cute, it's the lead character that sinks it. He's such a whiney little turd that you think that he probably deserved any smack-down that has received in the past. I guess a story like this in an anthology is mandatory, but I still didn't like the story much. One star.

******"Treasure" by Leslie Claire Walker is a quiet story about an ex-street kid, prostitute and junkie who makes a pact with the fey, and trades a human baby away for a new life, which includes getting straight and offing her pimp. Addie is not a particularly warm or sympathetic character, she's haunted by her pact, and has withdrawn and isolated herself from any real human intimacy and empathy. Now, years after the bargain, the past comes back to pull the rug out from under her comfortable, if emotionally isolated life. This review's title is a quote from this story and is a capsule summary of just how much the years have worn on Addie. There is no action, no clever humor, and no spectacular stylizations; "Treasure" is just a quiet and melancholy little tale that will probably be lost amongst the more flashy stories here. Too bad. Five stars.

******The anthology ends with "She's Not There" by Steve Perry. Short stories by commercial novelist Perry are rare, and this one's a small light crime story that involves Darla, a cat burglar with the ability to have people see the image of any person she has recently touched. It's a short-lived glamour, but it gets the job done. She's an enjoyable, and likable rogue who never goes too far, but finds that she "suddenly" has a run of bad luck. There are no murders, rapes, or violence here; this is just an old-fashioned crime fantasy lark. Normally I want a bit more grit in my fiction, but, dammit, this was a clever and fun story and I give it five stars.

If you look at the contents page you notice that most of the recognizable and big names in science fiction and fantasy are located in the front of the anthology, while the new and less recognizable authors are regulated to the back of the bus. It also seems that the last half has almost all of the best stories, maybe because not beeing easily recognizable and commercial names, these authors try harder. I should give this anthology five stars based on the last half of this book, and I know that this is going to sound like blasphemy to some, but the first half is just too filled with hackwork (Resnick, Weldon), five-fingered exercises (Smith, Stackpole), and mediocrity (Lake), that it just drags the ratings down. Still, stories like Bick's, Walker's Perry's, Edward's and Monk's jack up the ratings again. Trivia fact: six out of the sixteen authors here have written Star Trek fictions.
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