Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron

Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron by Jonathan Strahan (Editor)

Hardback, 432 pages

Published 4th October 2013 by Hot Key Books

Shelves: arc-or-review, books-i-own, death, fairy-tales, fantasy, ghosts, let-down, magic, magical-realism, not-for-me, read, read-in-2013, shapeshifters, short-stories, supernatural
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Description via Goodreads:

A stellar cast of acclaimed fantasy writers weave spellbinding tales that bring the world of witches to life. Boasting over 70 awards between them, including a Newbery Medal, five Hugo Awards and a Carnegie Medal, authors including Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix and Holly Black delve into the realms of magic to explore all things witchy... From familiars that talk, to covens that offer dark secrets to explore, these are tales to tickle the hair on the back of your neck and send shivers down your spine.

I love a good seasonal read and Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron was my choice of read for Halloween this year. The book is a collection of short stories by several well known and talented authors, with all of the stories relating in some way, to the iconic witch hat, witchery or in general, magic. 

I don't often read short stories, but with a choice of eighteen tales, I thought this would be a fun choice and I was guaranteed to enjoy at least a few of the stories! I haven't reviewed many short stories, but I thought it'd be easier to give you an idea of each of the tales, and what I thought of them. After an introduction by the editor, I started to take some short notes.

The first tale was 'Stray Magic' by Diana Peterfreund. Our protagonist, Malou, is working in a dog shelter when a magical dog called arrives. The dog has lost its owner/master. Malou is only one who can see the magic behind the dog and can  communicate with it. Malou and the dog attempt to find the owner as the dog becomes ill without him. Though the short story is resolved, this could have definitely lead to longer story. I thought that it was a well written piece, but personally I didn't find it interesting enough to hold my attention well.

The second tale was 'Payment Due' by Frances Hardinge. Immediately, this story felt modern, the contemporary writing style was very enjoyable.The story starts with our main character's gran having some of her goods reposessed by bailiffs. Our main character then seeks revenge as she trades her body with a cat, invades the bailiffs home and tricking him. The story did leave me a little confused by the end, but it was a fun read.

'A Handful of Ashes' by Garth Nix gave us a new  firm setting and a more complex story with a lot of structure. It's clear that we're only getting a sneak peek of a much bigger surrounding and story. The story consists of old magic bylaws, magic class systems and laws. It was quite dense in information and detail for a short story and I think that this will really appeal to people who like having a firmly established setting and history in their stories.

I really enjoyed the next story, 'Little Gods' by Holly Black. It had a contemporary and almost coming of age style to it. We follow a girl, Ellery, who is going on a trip to participate in a ritual with her coven. The ritual is one of passion and is actually very similar to many high school parties! The story appears to be about ghosts, witchery and magic, but really it focuses on friends, lessons and life. It focuses on the little things, and that's what I loved about this one. 

'Barrio Girls' by Charles de Lint turns the book in a little more creepy directions as we are introduced to two teenage girls who are on a walk, followed by their friend, Pepé, who usually watches over them. The friends find a Witch as they're walking in the wash and she kills Pepé. The girls look for revenge, finding out how to kill the Witch, and find out that the way is to kill her with kindness. There is a message about being yourself weaved within this story, which I appreciate, but once again, I wasn't all that interested in this story - there was no real excitement for me.

In 'Felidis' by Tanith Lee, there was a romance with a which who is a cross between a human woman and a feline. At first, I found it slightly confusing and the story was certainly peculiar. I can see the intrigue of the feline character, but this one was just too 'out there' for me.

'Witch Work' by Neil Gaiman is the shortest contribution to this book, in the form of a poem. The work was short but effective, with the very vivid scenes that you'd hope for from Gaiman. This piece may have had a small word count, but it still had one of the biggest impacts. 

'The Education of a Witch' by Ellen Klages came next, and this was one of my favourite stories in the book. It follows Lizzy, a young child who goes to see Sleeping Beauty but rather than love the 'good' princess as expected, she loves the 'evil' witch character and as her baby sister is is born, Lizzy begins to become even closer to her favourite character. This was a really fantastic story which felt quite like a psychological thriller. I loved the writing style, the slight tension and the good pace. I would have loved to have read more.

'The Threefold World' by Ellen Kushner is next and it is a story of knowledge, faith, legend and magic. It has a lot of substance and it works well. I imagine that it will appeal to many people who enjoy fantasy, journeys and folklore. I am not quite sure why, but I personally couldn't get into this story, it bored me.

Next was another slightly stranger tale, 'The Witch in the Wood' by Delia Sherman. This tale tells of a witch who finds true love -- in the shape of a stag that she shoots! The deer is a shapeshifter, and though I've never particularly enjoyed reading about shapeshifters, I thought that this was a really captivating story. I quite enjoyed the twist of the ending and I would like to know what happened in the end.

My favourite story in this book had to be 'The Carved Forest' by Tim Pratt. This is another story that read like a psychological thriller. The story told is of a witch who has a forest of trees carved into the shape of everyone in her town, and two special carvings of her late husband and daughter. When the main character, Carlos, starts worrying about his sister forming a friendship with the witch, he intervenes. This is a haunting and very intriguing read which really stood out and I loved it.

'Burning Castles' by M. Rickert had a sense of ambiguity about it - we don't know exactly what is going on between the witch and who appears to be her child. The realism with hints of a haunted spirit world was effective. The story was drark and powerful despite being so short and it was good in the way that you could use your own imagination to fill ing the blanks.

Isobelle Carmody's 'The Stone Witch' was next, following a woman on an airplane flight, disappointed to be sat next to a child. The plane starts to crash and the woman starts to dream. The child and a witch both appear in her dream, the witch threatening their lives. The woman and child both go on a quest in hope of saving their lives. Both characters have flashbacks which were effective and which added another good, strong dimension to this story. I did enjoy this story though to be honest, I think I would have preferred it without the magical/fantasy aspect!

The next tale, 'Andersen's Witch' by Jane Yolen was a very brave move by the author! This is a tale of both Hans Christian Andersen and an ice witch. I think and hope that fans of Andersen will enjoy the fairytale like quality of this story.

'B is for Bigfoot' by Jim Butcher was next. This story starts with a professional wizard being called upon by a bigfoot who needs help as his scion (half human, half supernatural) son, Irwin, is getting bullied at school. The wizard gets into the school and attempts to help the problem but ends up getting caught up in it whilst Irwin and the other kids manage to sort the problem out themselves. 

The penultimate tale in the book was 'Great Grandmother in the Cellar' by Peter Beagle. It is a story of family, present and past, and focuses on relationships, with a very spooky skeletal great grandmother at the centre of it all! Unfortunately this was another story that just didn't do anything for me, and I had to stop myself skimming through the pages.

The last tale, 'Crow and Caper, Caper and Crow' by Margo Lanagan was about a character meeting her magical grandchild. The story was a nice ending to the book as this story had very high quality writing and I wanted to read more of this tale.

Overall, this book had both high and lows, and I can't deny that at points, I really struggled keeping with it as I did feel bored or I just wanted to get onto something more exciting. However, there were also some stories that really stood out in a positive way, namely The Education of a Witch and The Carved Forest, and I appreciate the book for allowing me to sample some fantastic authors. Though this wasn't one of my favourite books, it is something that I would recommend to anybody who likes young adult fiction, especially of the fantasy genre, as there should be something for everyone in this book.

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