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Strange Candy, by Laurell K. Hamilton Book Review | SFReader.com
Strange Candy, by Laurell K. Hamilton Genre: Fantasy Anthology Publisher: Penguin Published: 2006 Review Posted: 6/16/2007 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 5 out of 10
Strange Candy, by Laurell K. Hamilton
Book Review by Mike Swope
Have you read this book?
I honestly do not know much about Laurell K. Hamilton's books. I read a
couple in the Anita Blake series a few years ago. I forget where I got
them. They're hardback, which I don't normally buy due to cost. So I may
have gotten them from the Book of the Month club or as Christmas or
birthday gifts. At any rate, I enjoyed and remembered them.
So when I stumbled across Laurell's Strange Candy, a collection of short
stories, my curiosity was piqued just by the author's name and the fact
that they were short stories. The couple of novels noted above left an
impression in my mind. So I picked up Strange Candy, read through its
pages a few minutes, put it back, came back to it again, looked at the
table of contents, noticed the introductions, read a few more pages,
then took it home. I paid for it, of course.
I am not disappointed.
I have an MFA in creative writing in short fiction. So I have a love for
short fiction. What made me decide to purchase this book? Not the
stories! Instead, I found that the short introductions to each story
interested me as a writer. So I bought Strange Candy for a strange
reason: its short single paragraph intros to each story as commentary.
Nothing particularly life-altering here, just interesting personally. It
is probably good that I'm not too familiar with Laurell's highly
successful Anita Blake novels. My ignorance allows me to approach these
bits of Strange Candy like, well, a stranger.
The stories themselves are indeed Strange Candy. They're short, sweet,
and eclectic. Like a small bowl of hard candy. In here are two stories
featuring Anita Blake, "Those Who Seek Forgiveness" and "The Girl Who
Was Infatuated with Death." The first opens the book; the latter closes
the book. The first is Anita Blake at her meekest, simply a raiser of
the dead; the latter the dark, torn, lusty, vamp hunter Anita Blake the
reading audience loves. With good reason. The latter story is the second
most engaging in this collection. It is also the newest story, perhaps,
since it was commissioned by Laurell's publisher for a collection of
short stories. Alone, however, both stories are good reads, set in an
unusual world with an interesting problem: a woman who seeks forgiveness
from her recently-deceased husband so badly it kills her; and an
underage teen girl about to lose her leg to disease wishes to become an
undead vampire to save it. Incidentally, in the brief introduction to
the story, Laurell tells us that "Those Who Seek Forgiveness" is the
first time that Anita "ever walked on paper."
Sandwiched between these two Anita Blake stories are twelve other
stories set in no less interesting worlds with no less interesting
situations. The lightest of the stories, "A Lust of Cupids," is second
in the collection. In this story, the cute, lovable, blond cherubs of
our world are twisted into feared, mind-clouding mercenaries of an
alternate universe, sometimes hunting in a lust (a group like a gaggle!)
if the price is right. In this case, hunting for love in all the wrong
places, as far as the unmarried, thirty-plus year old protagonist of
this tale is concerned. This time, though, she can't escape the cunning
cupids, and goes down hard, along with her new friend. This story,
though light in comparison, is signature Hamilton fiction with a pinch
Laurell herself admits that she doesn't like science fiction much.
"Hardware-oriented science doesn't interest the writer in me," she notes
in the introduction to "Here Be Dragons." Though Laurell defines this
story as science fiction, it is a loose definition. In "Here Be
Dragons," a masterpiece IMHO, instead of hard science and technology,
there is the ability to enter the dreams of others, usually for
nefarious purpose. This haunting story is built around this dark,
misunderstood natural ability. "Some people are just born evil,"
Hamilton writes in the opening sentence, then it's a slow, torturous,
juicy thrill ride to the end. Jasmine, the protagonist, is a powerful
dream therapist, rehabilitating the most vile, disturbed people, i.e.
serial killers. She loves her work. Perhaps too much. In this story,
Jasmine encounters an evil little girl perhaps more powerful than she.
This little girl, Lisbeth, goes to work torturing people in their
dreams, something like a serial killer. Perhaps this little girl is
worse than a serial killer because her victims awaken every morning, and
she can torture them night after night after night until her darkest
heart's content! Jasmine, rather than allow authorities to kill Lisbeth,
shows Lisbeth how to satiate her desire and lust for terror in the guise
of therapy. At story's end, I feel that Jasmine understands Lisbeth's
needs perhaps too well. It is the interesting interplay of characters
and the revelation about Jasmine's character in particular that make
this story the best in the collection. Most readers may not understand
the revelation about Jasmine's character at first, but the best readers
will shudder when they understand what has been revealed. I guarantee it!
Besides the two stories featuring Anita Blake, a third story in this
collection is set in that same world without the familiar signature
characters. "Selling Houses" is an extrapolation of Laurell asking the
question: "What are people with less dangerous jobs doing in Anita's
world now that vampires are legally alive? How has it changed other
jobs? For instance, real estate...." In this story, Abbie is the goto
psychic real estate agent, if your house is hard to sell because
murderers had lived in it, or its occupants have been slaughtered in it,
for example. The house she has to sell is an example of the latter,
still haunted by a little boy named Brian. This house, it turns out,
might be just the perfect home for a small family of vampires. By law,
they're people, too, just like Abbie or any of her friends. And they
seem nice enough, and even have reflections.
One of Laurell's strengths is a habit "of taking the fantastic and
dropping it into the middle of the real," as she confesses in the
introduction to "A Scarcity of Lake Monsters." This story comes from
wondering about fabled monsters and how we might deal with them if they
were indeed real like any other animal. Uncharacteristically cliched,
however, "A Scarcity of Lake Monsters" is structured like a trite plot
from a children's movie: the misunderstood monster is friendly, killed
by hunters despite the caregivers' best intentions, and a baby monster
is happily discovered amidst the tragedy. I am surprised that this story
is included in this collection, a stray Sonic peppermint mixed into the
candy dish. This story is perhaps the weakest in this collection.
"The Edge of the Sea" is another example of the fantastic in a
recognizably real world. In this story, Adria awakes in her small house
by the sea to find her roommate missing, and in her search, witnesses
the impossible: the final moments of her roommate's murder. Of course,
no one believes Adria that her roommate was murdered by a merman-like
creature with a song like the mythic sirens who coax sailors to their
deaths, not even Adria. He returns to seduce Adria, too, but Adria is
prepared and shoots him to death. Police find blood on the beach, but no
body. Not a particularly surprising plot, but better than "A Scarcity of
The theme of dropping the fantastic into the middle of the real world is
better expressed in other stories in this collection. The better stories
I've already mentioned, of course. "A Clean Sweep," is another example
of this recurring theme. This story turns Captain Housework, a superhero
without dirty supervillains to battle any more, into a bitter murderer
who leaves 19 perfectly cleaned and polished skeletons in a house that
has never been so clean. Though the shortest story in the book, it is a
clever, entertaining gem with a sinister end. It reminds me of some of
the stories of my friend, C. Dennis Moore (www.cdennismoore.com).
The remaining 6 stories in this collection clearly belong to the fantasy
genre. They feature wizards, devils, dragons, swords, magic and the
like. Though I'm no fan of stories of the fantasy genre, these stories
yet engaged me once I had begun to read them. Not only are Laurell's
best stories about interesting characters in interesting circumstances
in interesting worlds, they also have complex relationships and
surprises throughout. These elements alone keep most readers engaged.
Even those readers like me with predisposition to dislike them.
"Geese" and "House of Wizards" open with interesting situations that
Laurell deftly develops into interesting stories. "Geese" came to
Laurell by pure inspiration one evening while watching geese settle down
for the night at sunset in Missouri, an experience that has not happened
since. "It was amazing," Laurell writes in the introduction to the
story, "this rush of ideas, character, a whole story from beginning to
end." In "Geese," Alatir has shape-shifted and hidden herself among the
geese for several years, to combat a geas spell placed upon her by a
powerful sorcerer to amuse himself. Now, soldiers bearing that same
sorcerer's livery, have come to the lake where she now lives and now
attack the children of the nearby mill, to steal them for the sorcerer's
desires. Alatir, no longer a child but a young woman, shape-shifts back
into human form to save the children, and faces the sorcerer for the
last time, even if it means her death.
In "House of Wizards," Rudelle, a practical woman, a Calthuian farmer's
daughter who knows nothing about magic, has married Trevelyn Herbmage
and into his family, an extended family of wizards, and has just come to
Astrantha, a land of wizards. She is about to be introduced to
Trevelyn's parents, two sisters, and brother. Hence the title, "House of
Wizards." In Astrantha, were she not married, she would be a peasant, a
non-person, and could not even vote because she has no magic. Is Rudelle
turned into a frog, or worse, by Trevelyn's parents? Killed by his
ten-year-old brother? You'll have to read the story to discover the
powerful magic Rudelle wields in this house of wizards.
The last four stories are set in a world which may be familiar to
Laurell Hamilton's readers, that of her first novel, Nightseer. Marion
Zimmer Bradley (surely you recognize that name!) rejected "A Token for
Celandine" as a "pastiche of Tolkien, and elves should really be left to
him," Laurell tells us. Laurell of course disagreed and sold the story
the next time out. In "A Token for Celandine," Celandine, a white healer
and daughter of the King of Celosia, and Bevhinn, a Varellian
earth-witch paid by her father to protect her, quest for a mysterious
token that would cleanse Celandine's soul of the stain of black healing.
Prophecies have said that the token will be found inside a demon. On
their quest, Celandine and Bevhinn find themselves facing off against a
powerful black healer who possesses the token. They have only one chance
to kill this black healer and steal away with the token. Can you guess
the twist of fate that awaits them at story's end? I bet not.
"Winterkill" introduces us to more characters in the world of Nightseer.
In this story, Jessamine Swordwitch, an earth-witch like Bevhinn in "A
Token for Celandine" who only kills wizards, and her swordmate and
lover, Gregoor, have been given the mission to kill Cytherea of
Cheladon, aka Cytherea the Mad, the mother of the young wizard who
destroyed Jessamine's village many years before. As fate would have it,
Jessamine in return killed the young wizard who had killed everyone in
her village -- he was the first wizard she ever killed -- and Cytherea,
his mother, now seeks his killer. So the two are destined to meet. A
pair of cheap, simple curses help decide the battle for the heroes. At
Cytherea's death, the magic she has stolen from the earth and
earth-witches is released and returned. One finds some parallels between
Jessamine, who kills only wizards, and Anita Blake, who only kills vampires.
The remaining two stories also take place in the magical realm of
Nightseer. "Stealing Souls" is the first story Laurell ever sold, and
marks the first appearance of Sidra Ironfist, mercenary thief, and
Leech, her enchanted, humming, blood-feeding short sword, both
interesting, enduring characters. In "Stealing Souls," Sidra and her
bard, Milon Songsmith, are on a quest to steal back the souls of Sidra's
two younger sisters, who were rumored to have been stolen and imprisoned
by a wizard to make him more powerful. With each battle, Sidra must make
a blood contract with Leech for his aid. Sometimes this means feeding
him herself; other times his price is higher, the blood of others.
Demons frequently figure in the stories set in the Nightseer world;
"Stealing Souls" is no different. Sidra and Milon track the wizard to a
demon-enchanted, demon-protected, booby trapped tower. In the end,
Sidra, Leech and Milon rescue the souls of her sisters.
Sidra and Leech also appear in "The Curse-Maker." In this story, we find
Milon Songsmith succumbing to a death curse; it is only a matter of
hours before he is dead. So Sidra, armed with her blood-feeding short
sword Leech, sets out to find the curse-maker who cast this illegal,
uncivilized spell on her friend and force him to undo what he has done.
In this story, Laurell gives Leech a greater depth of character,
embodying him with personality. When Leech is first unsheathed, he pouts
that Gannon, the sorcerer accompanying Sidra on this quest, does not
fear him. "Not afraid...No fun," he says, and immediately looks and
calls almost playfully for Milon, who does fear him, and even hums one
of Milon's own tunes to himself, bawdy version of course. We also learn
that Leech is a blood blade, an evil sword, who has eventually turned on
everyone who has wielded it. Leech is the standout character in "The
Curse-Maker." Of course, it goes without saying that Milon is saved by
his friends. With a little help from Leech.
Together, these fourteen stories span Laurell's first sale to her most
recent. Bravely, Laurell has also included perhaps her weakest published
story. Boldly, she has also provided brief commentary on each and every
story in the collection. This commentary does not enhance the stories,
but it offers readers the unique opportunity to glance into the writer's
mind and method. This experience, like the stories, is unusual enough to
be called Strange Candy. If you're an aspiring writer, you'll find these
stories and their commentary perhaps even sweeter and more satisfying
than the average reader.
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