Pros: Some intense, delightful stories in here!
Cons: Not all of them stand up
Rating: 4 out of 5
Hidden Magic (Magic Underground Anthologies Book 1) is the first in a “trilogy” of anthologies, with each author writing three linked stories, one for each volume. It’s a really neat format. Some of these stories take place in pre-existing worlds, but they’re made to stand alone from that. I had no trouble making sense of all of them.
The only authors in here I was already familiar with were Lee French and Erik Kort, who wrote a story that fits into their Greatest Sin world (although it doesn’t involve the main characters of those books). That series happens to be one of my favorites, and The Greatest Sin: A Sacrifice of Blood lived up to my high expectations. Teenaged Algie and his Grandma Katona are practicing magic and playing chess when murderous thieves break into their mansion. Algie has been taught his whole life that killing is the greatest sin, but in order to keep his grandmother alive, he’s going to have to do more than run away. This was a riveting story, and I was able to really empathize with Algie’s despair at the idea of having to kill. The authors managed to get it across so well. (In most stories where a character is reluctant to kill when it seems the only way out, it’s hard to imagine how they struggle against it for so long. Here, I could get it.)
“Hello, my name is Jannil. My men and I will be robbing your house tonight.”
Anela Deen’s A Veil is Parted is another excellent story. Jessa stumbles across the existence of a whole other world of beings, and nearly dies when she gets in the way of a battle. There are some unexpected twists to what’s going on, and events get quite tense.
H.B. Lyne’s The Hunter was an engrossing tale of veteran Felix Jones. He’s going to a support group for veterans when his sister, who was supposed to go for emotional support, never shows up–and her phone number is out of order, and he can no longer remember where she lived. He’s neither the first nor the last person to suffer a bizarre loss of memory regarding part of the city, which seems to have disappeared. As he struggles to figure out what’s going on, he comes across a group of shapeshifters who are looking into the same thing. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Will he be able to get into the missing part of the city? Can he save his sister? Felix is not wholly a likable character, but he’s understandably damaged and willing to do whatever it takes to get his sister back. I’m curious to see where this one goes in the next two volumes.
The Catch, by Gwendolyn Woodschild, is an intriguing story of Viking Brandur and his Jarl wife, Torhild. When Brandur, who prefers the life of a simple fisherman, returns to find his village under attack by invisible forces, he ends up setting out to find his grandmother. She lives in the woods, and has a reputation of having supernatural abilities. Brandur finds out that these abilities have been passed down to him, and he gets a crash course in interacting with the souls of the dead. But will he be in time to save his village? I like the characters in here. Brandur and Torhild in particular are layered and interesting. I’d like to find out what happens to them next.
The Druid’s Heir is Tiffany Shand’s story of Rhiannon (Ann) Valeran, the archdruid’s heir. She has a guard and friend named Edward who wishes he could be more than that to her, two half-brothers (their father seems well-known for his many affairs–some with very ill-considered partners–and this is treated with odd glibness), and a doting, if perhaps stifling, father. Her father is working to put together a treaty that would bring peace to the various lands, but of course not everyone wants that. A mysterious seer tells Ann her house will fall, and she rushes to figure out what might threaten her family. Edward and Ann are very good characters, and I look forward to finding out what happens to them next. This tale was a little rough around the edges, but it was still gripping to read.
Leah W. Van Dinther’s The Amethyst Window introduces us to Carol Conley, who can see spirits associated with objects. When she visits her supplier to look for new items to buy, she meets Mr. Fred Archegon. The spirits are terrified of him, but he seems so elegant, friendly, and nice! The characters in this one are really interesting; Freddie is genuinely charming and a little bit forbidding, while Carol is a sweet lady who isn’t sure who to trust, or what to do about Archegon. I’m very curious to see where this one goes!
The Mark of the Red God, by Majanka Verstraete, is another favorite from this collection. Saleyna had the mark of the Red God branded into her forehead as a child in order to subdue her outlawed magic. The priests of the Red God still persecute magic-users, looking for reasons to kill them. If they knew that some of Saleyna’s empathy abilities remained, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her. Saleyna doesn’t want to join in the quiet resistance against the priests, but her brother is in over his head and in order to save him, she agrees to infiltrate the priesthood as a new acolyte. I found this world intriguing and gripping, and I very much want to see where it goes next.
Amaskan, by Raven Oak, is a story about brother-and-sister pair Bredych and Shendra. The Order of Amaska is an order of trained killers, but they serve at the behest of the king and carry out “Justice.” Shendra thinks that murder is murder and thus wrong, but the Order picked her up out of the gutter and she feels she has no other choice than to finish her final trial and move on to the next stage of her training. Her trial, however, involves killing the madam of a brothel who’s believed to be involved in human trafficking. The woman has seemed fairly untouchable so far, and Shendra really doesn’t want to kill anyone, so naturally things go terribly wrong. I’m very curious to see how things continue from where this left off.
The Mail-Order Witch, by Joynell Schultz, was a sweet, cosy, and fun story. Ettie is a witch and a mail-order bride. Arranged marriages like hers and Roman’s aren’t unusual in their magical community, as pairing off with normal humans dilutes the magic in their bloodlines, and Roman’s a warlock. I like how they’re falling in love with each other, and how Roman sticks with Ettie even when people start to believe she’s cursed the children of the town into growing foxes’ tails. This is a fun little mystery that wraps up enough to stand on its own, while leaving plenty of questions for the further stories.
There are some negatives in this anthology. One story that seems set in a fantasy-land uses terms like “kamikaze” and “sword of Damocles,” which are cultural references from the real world, and thus jarringly out of place. Some of the stories have bizarre pacing, cartoonish action sequences, or stilted dialogue. One names its comic-book villain “Count Repugnian,” which is far too on-the-nose. One character we’re supposed to like muses on how much he wants his sons back, and then seems to indicate that one is trans, so suddenly he seemed much less likable since apparently he wants to reverse that. One story is apparently based on a philosophy piece, and unfortunately it shows–the philosophical parts of things make the story unbelievable as a fantasy story.
One princess pretty much spends her entire story doing nothing, having amorphous things happen around her, with no agency on her part. Some authors spend too much time trying to tell us what everyone feels, when they should just let us see it for ourselves. Other authors spend too much time on irrelevant details to the story, working in too much background information and taking away from the urgency. One witchy main character we’re supposed to identify with comes across more as the mean popular girl from high school, and she just isn’t very likable, even when she’s the wronged party. (Also, I’m not fond of the “I’m not good at social stuff but somehow I’m dating the most popular guy in the school” trope.) Another story has way too many weirdly hostile characters for no apparent reason. It doesn’t feel natural at all.
Some of the stories I haven’t called out by name do have some excellent action sequences, however. Overall I really enjoyed this anthology, and I look forward to reading the next two.
Content note for “Ariana’s Hope” by H.M. Jones: it involves body-policing of and lechery toward a thirteen-year-old girl. General content note: there are some mild sexual situations and some blood and death.