It is a truth universally acknowledged that anthologies tend to be a mixed bag of excellent stories, bad stories and everything in between. Under My Hat: Tales From the Cauldron, a YA anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan and featuring 17 short stories and one poem by an spectacular line-up of writers, is exactly that: a mixed bag of delights. The theme of the anthology is “witchery” and thankfully, each author approached the theme differently, avoiding repetitiveness. Under My Hat is a well-balanced collection of dark and light, funny and sad, contemporary and historical, realistic and fantastical.
One of the lightest stories of the bunch is the anthology's opener, Diana Peterfreund’s "Stray Magic.” An abandoned, and potentially magical, dog shows up at a shelter, desperate to find its master. "Stray Magic" is an overly emotive story which fails to address the more thought-provoking aspect of its own plot: the relationship between master and owner. The piece reads more like an opening chapter than a self-contained story.
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Next up was Frances Hardinge's brilliant "Payment Due.” If you have been reading The Book Smugglers, it should come as no surprise that I bought the anthology because of this story. Hardinge’s sinister tale of revenge features a teenage witch with an elderly grandmother who has lost most of her possessions (including the only photograph of her daughter) to a jerk of a bailiff. As with every Hardinge story, "Payment Due" is a mixture of the fantastically absurd (as when all of the bailiff’s enchanted furniture walks away from his house) and the poignant (in just a few lines, the author manages to convey the powerful love this girl feels for her nan). This is quite possibly my favorite story in the anthology.
Tanith Lee's "Felidis" and Neil Gaiman's "Witch Work," on the other hand, are rather unremarkable. The former is a fairytale-like story about a wizard and his familiar (although probably not in the way you're used to thinking of either), and the boy who pines after one of them. Gaiman contributed a poem to the anthology. As a Gaiman fan, I was disappointed to see a poem—I am not a huge poetry fan, and cannot say anything about its quality.
"Education of a Witch" by Ellen Klages, however, took me completely by surprise. At first glance, this is the story of a young girl who feels neglected while her parents expect a new child, so she becomes obsessed with Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. In truth, this is a fun and dark exploration of sexism, the roles that girls and boys are allowed to play in society, growing up, choice and empathy. It is an awesome story, and one of the most striking, memorable ones I have ever read. My only question is: Where can I find more of this author’s work?
Ellen Kushner's "The Threefold World" follows a snobby scholar back in time to when Finland was still ruled by Sweden, and relates how he came to appreciate his own people’s history. This tale nicely complements Jane Yolen's "Andersen's Witch," which features a fictionalized account of Hans Christian Andersen. Both stories are explorations of writers whose work is inspired by folklore.
Isobelle Carmody's "Stone Witch" evoked an extremely negative response from me. It opens with a strong, bold statement by its protagonist, a woman sitting next to a kid on an airplane: “Here’s the thing. I hate kids. Always have.” The story then proceeds to browbeat the character into becoming maternal by placing her into an impossible situation of having to save the kid’s life. Whilst doing so, the story provides emotional reasons for her not wanting to have kids in the first place. Just once, I want to read a story in which not wanting to have kids is a completely legitimate choice that does not questioning. Just once.
Another downer was Jim Butcher's "B is for Bigfoot," a Harry Dresden story that seems completely self-aware that it is being included in a YA anthology. The result is an unfortunate choice of simplistic pandering, and a well-intentioned story comes across as extremely heavy-handed in its anti-bullying message.
The antidote to these two less-remarkable entries comes from heavyweights Peter S. Beagle and Margo Lanagan, whose stories close the anthology. "Great-Grandmother in the Cellar" is Beagle’s macabre tale of familial love and devotion, mixing fairytale motifs and Poe-inspired horror. Lanagan's "Crow and Caper, Caper and Crow" is an amazingly deep story masquerading behind the deceptively simple premise of a grandmother’s love for her newborn grandchild. It speaks of traditions, magic and powerful women. The relationship between grandmother and daughter-in-law is fantastic, and develops from tense and edgy to a strong bond of mutual reliance. Both are excellent stories and a fitting conclusion to a generally solid anthology.
I was very pleased to see the balance in terms of author gender representation, as well as how most of the stories featured strong (read: well-written) female protagonists. I did wish the stories were more diverse in terms of LGBT and racial representation, though.
In Book Smugglerish, a conservative 7 out of 10.