If you had unlimited power – magical power as a wizard, or even unlimited built-in power like Superman – what would you do with it? Would you act responsibly and protect us regular folks? Or would you become greedy and try to take over the world, like a super-villain?
Pop culture takes those two extremes as the only options, and also dictates that anyone who is all-powerful has a flaw or limitation, again like Superman, with Kryptonite. It just doesn’t seem possible to tell a story any other way. What would the conflict be if there were no obstacles in the heroine’s way?
In Tanya Huff’s Stealing Magic, the all-powerful wizard Magdelene likes nothing better than to laze around in the sun and ogle hot young men. And more than ogle them, as we find out in each of the seven stories featuring her exploits. Magdelene is cheerfully lecherous and unabashedly lazy (as Huff puts it in the Afterword) which means that she’s not going to hustle around saving people like a superhero – especially when her demon housekeeper makes such good breakfasts – and that she definitely has more sex than typically happens in a fantasy narrative. The stereotype of the genre is that it’s from an adolescent’s point of view… that couldn’t be further from the truth here.
Fortunately there is a plot to each story; while the outcome is never in doubt because of the limitless magic at Magdelene’s disposal, it’s precisely Magdelene’s laziness that causes the conflict. She doesn’t feel much responsibility, so when people pester her for help, as they inevitably do, it’s an internal struggle. She really does just want to have a good time, as Huff shows in a scene where Magdelene’s magical arrival in a nearby town has been mistaken for the return of the goddess Hersota. Who is this goddess?
“According to her believers, she was a stern and unforgiving demiurge who preached that hard work and chastity were the only ways to enlightenment.”
Magdelene stared at him in astonishment. “And they want her to come back?” (47)
Like in many of her other books, Huff throws away the typical ways of constructing a story and does her own thing. And as she often does, this is with humour, like in her Keeper series (see my review of The Second Summoning for another example). However, it is true that not every book could replicate what Huff does here. Conventional storytelling structures are around for a reason, i.e. they are capable of supporting a larger scale narrative. There are only seven short stories here, and I would be hard pressed to see a complete novel (although some of Huff’s other books come close to anarchically laughing at everything).
I could much more easily see a full length story about Terazin. The book is called Stealing Magic – Magdelene represents the magic half of the equation; you’ll find the stealing part in the form of four stories about the smart, masterful thief Terazin. An enjoyable gloss on the standard fantasy thief, if not as iconoclastic as the other stories. I would read more adventures in the life of either character.
Stealing Magic was originally published by Tesseracts, and is now reprinted with one extra Magdelene story by Edge Books (which acquired Tesseracts recently). The two lines couldn’t be more different – Tesseracts always felt a bit stuffy, as if we should read the books because they were good for us (sometimes they were but not always). Edge has a notably more pulpy feel to their titles. They even go for the retro two-books-in-one thing. Magdelene is on one front cover and if you flip the book over, Terazin is on the other. Edge’s website has both covers here – it doesn’t quite convey the strange feeling of having no back cover.
Did I say pulpy? In fact, I would call the two Stealing Magic covers gloriously low-brow. It’s been a while since I’ve been embarassed to read a book on the bus, so kudos for that. I suppose the flip-book approach also lets the cover artist do a portrait of each character without trying to mash their storylines together somehow.
Stealing Magic includes Tanya Huff’s very first story, “Third Time Lucky,” which was published in 1986. Since then she has written over 20 novels, most fantasy, as well as the popular Blood series, which is set in a modern-day Toronto with vampires. She has continued writing her Keeper series and has written a few spin-offs to the Blood series that take place in Vancouver.%
James–Oh man! What is it with SF book covers? They can be super bad. It’s like everyone uses the same artist, and he REALLY spent too much time painting those little D&D figures as a kid.
Hey Emily, thanks for the comment! Yeah, mysterious, about those covers. On one hand, it’s a happy lack of false advertising… you really know what you’re getting. Unfortunately, I think that also means a lack of reaching out to new audiences. The Huff stories are quite funny, and they would probably appeal to many people outside the subset of epic fantasy readers who also don’t mind being made fun of.
(Of course there’s no formula for grabbing new readers, or else someone smart would be making a ton of money! So probably the D&D-figure art that you mention is a fallback.)
All SF cover artists were all brought up by elderly, fundamentalist grandmothers who drummed into them the notion that masturbation is wicked. As a displacement activity they fiddled with airbrushes while thinking about women. This cover is a fairly representative result.
I think the cover art for “Stealing Magic” is a lot of fun. While some people are calling it “low brow” and others are making elitest caustic comments, there are many others on the net that are calling the flipbook cover concept “brilliant” – so it is kind of interesting to see how doing something a little bit different can have such a significant effect on people and cause them to have such strong opinions. The book is definitely excellent, all Tanya Huff fans should have a copy of it in their collections – especially since it is an expanded collection since the original work. I am really glad it came out.
I don’t think I dissed the flipbook, but just to clarify, I did like the forward/backward thing a lot. It was a bit odd at first, since most publishers don’t use that format anymore, but it definitely suited the material at hand. I also agree that Huff fans should have this collection, as it’s one of her best. But what interests me about the cover art is the intersection between appealing to Huff fans and trying to create a wider appeal. I’m not sure if the covers will widen the audience for the book… I tend to take the so-called elitist comments as ammunition for my point, but I could be convinced otherwise.