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The Radio Magician is a bit of a rare bird -- a collection of short stories that don't share a genre or a common theme, and yet clearly belong together. Each story tells a vastly different tale, with concepts that range from the terraforming of Venus to the loss of a child, but Van Pelt ties them all together by creating a strong bond between the reader and the character. No matter how large the stage, each situation puts his audience inside the protagonist's head, making emotions motivations and desires crystal clear.
I had actually read two of the stories included in this collection before, and since both had appeared in "Best of the Year" anthologies (and I'd selected one of them as the most enjoyable of that particular Year's Best), I assumed that they would be the strongest of the lot. I was wrong. The entire collection maintains the high quality that has established Van Pelt as a master of the short form in the SF / F genre.
If I had to choose favorites, I would probably go with the title story, "The Radio Magician", "How Music Begins" and "The Small Astral Object Genius". Each of these focuses closely on the experience of one individual as enormously important things go on around them.
"The Radio Magician" is a variation on the theme of severely ill children, and as such it hits you in the gut as opposed to the head. But Van Pelt's delicacy in dealing with the situation and his use of unexplained phenomena turn what could have been a typical cliché story into something magical. It takes a lot to overcome my resistance to urban fantasy, but this story succeeds.
"How Music Begins" is much more aligned with my usual taste, and is also one of the best stories I've read over the last couple of years (I chose this one as my favorite in Hartwell's Year's Best 13). It tells the story of a high-school band abducted by aliens for reasons of their own. Their growth and the poignant ending are masterfully executed. The third favorite story, "The Small Astral Object Genius", is another story about a youngster with problems that are beyond his control. This story focuses very tightly on a high-school boy whose method for dealing with the fact that his parent's marriage is falling apart affects many more lives than his own.
As in every antho, there are stories I didn't enjoy as much, but they were truly limited in number, and might be a question of taste -- of the three which I found less enjoyable, two were fantasy while the third was a pretty straightforward love story. Other readers might enjoy them more than I did. Also, those readers who are looking for space battles and questions resolved on a cosmic scale should look elsewhere.
The last nit isn't really a nit at all -- it's a compliment to the talent of Mr. Van Pelt: this is a reprint collection, and the stories, for the most part, appeared in major publications. It is quite possible that people who read widely in the genre will have encountered many of them before.
In conclusion, I believe there is something here for everyone who enjoys science fiction or urban fantasy, and who appreciates emotional depth as well as thought-provoking concepts.
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