Phil Brucato’s Ravens in the Library: Magic in the Bard’s Name

6369392Most anthologies are notable for their contents; the authors, the concepts, the theme, the prose, the artwork. This one is all of that, and more: proof that magic can and does happen. Magic, as editor Brucato notes, that “flows from grim necessity.”

In this case, the desperate need of noted singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker, who was diagnosed with a serious illness in 2008. And had no health insurance. And had to be in the hospital rather a lot for a while.

As Brucato says: “You do the math. And if you’re not sweating afterward, you’re not doing it right.”

A funny thing happened then: Tucker’s friends made magic by way of a benefit anthology. They asked names ranging from Nathan Bellingrud to Erzebet YellowBoy. Along the way they contacted Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Catherynne M. Valente, to name but a few. The result is this nicely heavy paperback volume of twenty eight stories and songs, leading off with the lyrics from S.J. Tucker’s song “Ravens in the Library” — the song that got me on the path to writing this review in the first place, but I won’t get into that story here.

The artwork, outside and inside, is lovely: the cover, by artist James A. Owen, shows several ravens playing in a library–or perhaps they’re arguing, or wrecking the place, or studying, or all of the above and more. (Listen to the song, if you haven’t already, and you’ll see what I mean.) The inside artwork, which is by a number of quite talented artists (credits and copyright information is at the very back of the book), runs the gamut from rough sketches to lithographic-style prints to intricately detailed drawings. I love how each drawing complements the story it faces, and I’m delighted by the variety of styles.

As for the stories … do I need to say out loud that Gaiman’s work is fabulous? Do I need to praise Valente? I didn’t think so. But there are other authors in this anthology whose work may not be as well known (by which I mean that I’d only vaguely, if at all, heard of them before this), so settle in while I talk about those folks.

I’ll start, as a random example, with the short story \”Out of the Box\”, by Ben Dobyns. Within three sentences, I knew I’d found another name for my short list (which I confess is on the way to a rechristening to the Ever Increasingly Longer List). The prose in this short, amusing story is tight and vivid, taking us into a bizarre surreality via the determination of an eleven year old girl to be a Proper English Lady and be married. It reminded me, in truth, of both Neil Gaiman and Ben Loory–a neat trick, that, and managed quite nicely.

Flipping to another random story, we come to “1977” by Carrie Vaughn. This delightfully goofy story walks us through the disco craze of the day, spins sideways into science fiction, and noodles right back into disco days without missing a step. Another author for me to pay attention to in the future.

“Of Mouse, and Music” by Kris Millering is a fantastical, abstract, layered story of a House that may not be entirely pleased with something its inhabitants are doing, an Empress who may or may not be in charge (compared to the Judge, at any rate), and a girl who may have been a mouse at one point. It’s rather like spinning around in the teacup ride at Disneyworld, only a great deal more fun; again, Millering displays a deft enough hand with the tale that this name lands on that Increasingly Long List of mine.

I tend to deliberately not look at the name at the front of a short story, the better to read it without bias. Imagine my squeal of delight when I discovered that a story I enjoyed very much indeed, a grisly inversion of the usual sweet take on unicorns and fairies, was written by none other than our very own Mia Nutick. Her tale, “The Substance of Things Hoped For”, strips away the modern Disney coating and gives us real, raw, and not at all nice fairy tales come to life.

One notable thing about this collection: several stories are written in present tense and cast in an abstract overview mode. I’m on record multiple times over as saying I hate this style–and yet–and yet–the stories in this collection all flow so beautifully that I scarcely noticed. Ballingrud, de Lint, Elford, and Millering, among others, do a masterful job of showing how to write in present tense while keeping the story compelling.

There are always a handful of recycled stories in any anthology; I’ve given up hoping otherwise. In truth it bothered me less than usual this time around: in part because I’d never read a single one of these tales before, and in part because for once, it didn’t feel as though the Big Name authors had handed in their bottom-drawer crap.

There are a number of excellent originals from authors Dobyns, Vaughn, Berk, Lipkin, Millering, and Nutick, among others. The prose throughout is evocative and well-paced, with a number of creative twists on old themes. In fact, I think this might be the anthology that breaks my standard: every tale in this tome was not only worth reading, but worth multiple re-reads.\r\n\r\nWell done, and magic indeed. I’m honored to have gotten my hands on this book–and truly sorry that I can’t direct folks to a bookseller to pick up a copy. It’s a limited edition. There are, at this time, a handful of copies on Amazon.com (at a high price, naturally), and of course there\’s always used bookstores–but somehow, I suspect folks who bought this collection aren\’t letting go of it easily.

I know I won’t be doing so.

(Quiet Thunder, 2009)

About Leona Wisoker

Leona R. Wisoker writes a variety of speculative fiction, from experimental to horror, from fantasy to science fiction. She also loves to teach, edit, read (mostly non fiction these days), and drinks mass quantities of coffee. In her less-than abundant spare time, she is a wild garden warrior, an adventurous cook, and a champion catnapper, especially if sunbeams are available. Now and again, when those things get boring, or when a startlingly good item comes along, she reviews books.