Dark Alchemy is a collection of short stories suited to those who love fantasy, wizard/mage stories in particular. Some stories are traditional and some are modern. I think that if you come to this book having a fondness for one style, you’ll come away from it with a taste for the other too.
I usually like my fantasy to be dark or comic, or both (think Discworld or Dunsany). But I found myself really enjoying some of the higher fantasy stories and even some of the urban tales, which I often struggle to get on with. I mean, ooookay, I totally found myself, like, enjoying being in the world of the teenagers in Mary Rosenblum’s Color Vision (ok, I’ll stop that now). Melanie is friends with a mysterious boy named Cris who spends his time sitting in a wheelchair in an overgrown garden. Together with another friend, Jeremy, they embark on a dangerous adventure involving magical trees and a form of synesthesia which is even harder to explain than the real thing. There’s even a tree fort to really get you wrapped up in adolescent reminiscence.
The stories which really stood out for me were Orson Scott Card’s Stonefather, Neil Gaiman’s The Witch’s Headstone, Garth Nix’s Holly and Iron and Peter S. Beagle’s Barrens Dance. Stonefather was the last story in the book and I read it in the bath, resulting in one of those I’ll just try a quick short story… I’m engrossed… that was great… argh it’s cold scenarios. It’s probably the most traditional story in the book and perhaps unnecessarily rambling at times, but it’s got some great imagery and a believable folk-lore feel to it.
The Witch’s Headstone was the first story in the book (good editing there Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois) and is a proper, feel-good, typically Gaiman tale. It’s full of likeable characters and fuzzy feelings without seeming like it’s only written for kids. Holly and Iron showed some great writing by Garth Nix.
Barrens Dance has made me want to check out more of Peter S. Beagle’s work, an author I’m not familiar with. It was an intriguing story with an intelligent writing style. It’s told directly to the reader by the narrator and it’s easy to imagine sitting around a fire, listening to this storyteller.
It’s also worth mentioning Tad Williams’ The Stranger’s Hands, Patricia A. McKillip’s Naming Day, Terry Dowling’s The Magikkers and Gene Wolfe’s The Magic Animal. All of these were solid stories, good enough to make me want to read more by each author.
I’d love to read a novel-length version of The Stranger’s Hands. A mystery man who says nothing but grants people’s wishes by clutching their hands is a great premise. Naming Day was a little too Harry Potter-ish for me (sorry, I’m not a fan), but it was certainly great fun to read and a sweet tale of adolescent friendship. The Magikkers and The Magic Animal are both wonderful stories and more traditional in style than many in the book.