Shadowed Souls is an invitational anthology edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes. Butcher is the author of three fantasy series: THE DRESDEN FILES, THE CODEX ALERA, and THE CINDER SPIRES. Hughes is an established short fiction writer who has edited several anthologies including Chicks Kick Butt, Westward Weird, and Maiden Matron Crone.
The theme of Shadowed Souls is, “good isn’t always light and evil isn’t always dark,” and the eleven stories here showcase main characters — often from the writer’s series — who struggle not to give in to the monster within… or to keep it contained. While the stories are conventional, with conventional magic systems for the most part, this is a nice collection for urban fantasy fans to browse through on a trip, on a vacation, or while you’re stuck in a waiting room somewhere.
The Table of Contents follows. Where I can, I’ve included the series the characters are from.
“Cold Case” (THE DRESDEN FILES) by Jim Butcher
“Sleepover” (INCRYPTID) by Seanan McGuire
“If Wishes Were” (BLOOD BOOKS) by Tanya Huff
“Solus” (SIMON CANDEROUS) by Anton Strout
“Peacock in Hell” by Kat Richardson
“Eye of Newt” (DAN SHAMBLE, ZOMBIE PI) Kevin J. Anderson
“What Dwells Within” (the JESSIE SHIMMER series) Lucy A. Snyder
“Hunter, Healer” by Jim C. Hines
“Baggage” by Erik Scot de Bie
“Sales. Force.” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Impossible Monsters” by Rob Thurman
Two stories that nailed the theme for me were “Cold Case” by Jim Butcher and “Sales. Force.” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
In “Cold Case,” Molly Carpenter, who used to be Harry Dresden’s apprentice but is now the Winter Lady, is sent by Queen Mab on an assignment in Unalaska, Alaska. Molly, like her mentor, chafes under her obligation, but she is beginning to enjoy the power her new role gives her. Mab sends her to collect tribute from a group of magical beings who have not paid in several years. In short order, Molly encounters a sexy White Wizard and the two of them uncover — and battle — Lovecraftian nastiness. I like the flavor of Molly’s magic, as when she distracts the cultists with the disco hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Butcher lulls us into thinking this is a Dresden-style caper, but Molly is confronted by the reality of her new nature in the coldest, cruelest way possible. Is Molly becoming a monster? The story doesn’t tell us. Is Mab evil? Maybe, or maybe she is merely ruthlessly dedicated to her mission to protect life in this realm.
“Sales. Force.” introduces us to Kaylee, who has magical strength and works for an agency that polices magical practitioners. Kaylee’s fiancé Dex was just killed in a car accident and she is emotionally devastated. The loss may be devastating on several levels for Kaylee, for reasons we discover. She returns to work early against her boss’s advice, but her boss sends her on an “investigation” of a new love potion. Kaylee, whose work is usually much more physical and final, hates investigations, but she is the “perfect person” for this one. The potion doesn’t make someone fall in love with her; it will mend her heart and allow her to love again. All seems to be in order, but Kaylee is still suspicious. The twist at the end is a nice one, as is Kaylee’s description of herself as a person with “a little less soul” than others. After a technically proficient grabber of an opening paragraph, the story dithers a bit while telling us how lost Kaylee feels without her love, but then it settles down. I enjoyed the growing friendship between Kaylee and her boss Nia.
The Pacific Northwest has been the home of dark fantasy and nonhuman characters since long before NBC’s show Grimm, but I have to say Grimm makes Portland seem like a town where the magical others could live with no only minor municipal problems, and Seanan McGuire’s story “Sleepover” benefits from that. (McGuire has been writing urban fantasy long before Grimm premiered, and my comment is directed at the setting.) “Sleepover” stars Ellie Harrington, whose mother is from the former-monster-hunter Price family, and whose father Ted Harrington is an incubus. This makes Ellie a succubus, or at least half one. Even though she just wants to watch her cousin at Roller Derby, Ellie is lured away from the match and grabbed by a quartet of human youths, who want her to rescue a little girl who followed a bogeyman into a subterranean tunnel. As with most of her INCRYPTID stories, McGuire grand-jetés along the tightrope between humor and fear. The boys “imprison” Ellie in a Solomon’s Seal, which does nothing whatever to a succubus. Ellie isn’t dark, or a monster, at all, but she is on the receiving end of bigotry from both the human boys and the bogeyman community. Yes, they have a community.
Tanya Huff gives us a Vicki Nelson story with “If Wishes Were.” Vicki is a Canadian private detective with a secret, and when her cop lover, Mike, is injured on a strange call, Vicki is soon involved with a magic lamp, a djinn and the dark, secret wishes of her own heart. The plot with the djinn was clever, but the center of this story was the bittersweet love story of Vicki and Mike. “If Wishes Were” did not break any new ground, but it is a solid entry in the series.
Julia, the hero of “Healer, Hunter,” by Jim C. Hines, only wants to be one of those two things. Julia is a magical healer who ministers to the magical beasties in Detroit. She is also double-souled. Then her father shows up to warn her about another double-souled, a hunter who is coming to kill her. Dad raises the level of “untrustworthy” to a stratospheric level, but he is not wrong. There is a hunter coming to kill her, and Julia’s second soul wants a fight. The suspense here is not really in the action sequences, even though they are well-written and inventive. It is whether Julia can hold onto herself when all elements around her seem to conspire to force her to fight and kill. Hob, Julia’s hearth-fairy assistant, provides imaginatively foul-mouthed comic relief. This was one of my favorites in Shadowed Souls.
In “Solus” by Anton Strout, the only “dark” I see in his main character, psychometrist Simon Canderous, is that he used to be a thief. Now Simon works for the New York Department of Extraordinary Affairs, and he and his partner Christos are about to investigate strange goings-on at the full-sized medieval castle that a wealthy eccentric has built on the roof of an eighty-story building. The last heir has died and the place is up for sale, but someone, some thing, or several things are definitely haunting it. Despite the theme of the anthology, the word I would use to describe this story is “sweet.” It has some emotional moments and lots of banter. All that said, I was most taken by the imagery of the castle itself, and a room full of unicorn figurines.
Kat Richardson introduces us to Emily Ann Peacock in “Peacock in Hell,” which is where the character is, literally, when this dark fantasy opens. Peacock, a master thief, has entered Hell to retrieve Redmayne, who is an artificer, for her boss Peter Fiore. Peacock died in an accident running from pursuit and Fiore brought her nearly back. Only the dead or half-dead can get into Hell. As she and Redmayne struggle to escape from Richardson’s original and nightmarish hellscape, they begin to compare notes, and Peacock’s memory of the moments right before her fatal fall begin to trickle back. The dialogue is witty and sparkling, with a nice British snap to it, but the landscape, the props of Hell, and the magical system are the real standouts here.
Kevin J. Anderson has written several books about a zombie private eye in New Orleans. He is named Dan Chambeaux, which most people now pronounce Dan Shamble. In “Eye of Newt” a newt who was mugged and had his eye gouged out has come to hire Dan for protection. This is meant to be fantasy-humor, so the travails of Geck, the newt (not to ever be confused with a gecko) aren’t so awful. An alert reader will figure out who stole Geck’s eye very early on, long before Dan does. The story still provides some fun and novelty, especially with the introduction of the Spider Queen Librarian. This type of story runs in a specific, rather narrow channel, and Kevin J. Anderson seems quite comfortable there.
“What Lies Within” by Lucy A. Snyder was my first encounter with Jessie Shimmer, the main character of Spellbent and Shotgun Sorceress. First of all, she has one of the best character names ever. When I discovered that she named her spell that generates and fires a powerful bolt of electricity “Zap,” she quite won me over. Shimmer works out of Columbus, Ohio, and has apparently alienated the Virtus Regnum, some bad-tempered enforcer spirits who supposedly protect humanity from supernatural evil. They don’t like Jessie at all, but right now she is hoping the human head of the circle of magic, Jordan Riviera, will protect her. In the meantime, Jessie is following a premonition with her shape-shifting ferret familiar named Pal, and it leads her to an old acquaintance, a statue of Santa Muerta, a demon hatching and some very bad magic. Just as Jessie’s magical shoot-out with the demon is wrapping up, she is attacked by one of the Virtus Regnun. These beings seem, to use a Harry Potter metaphor, a little like Cornelius Fudge, arrogant and ignorant, crossed with a dementor. They are powerful and unpleasant, and it is touch and go at the end. This is a case where reading the story sent me to our site to read Kelly’s review of Spellbent, and now it’s on my TBR list.
Shadowed Souls’ afterword discusses Eric Scott de Bie’s current project, which I think includes Vivienne Case, aka Lady Vengeance, but I couldn’t find any works on Amazon that include her. It looks like he has written several gaming-tie-in novels and collaborated with Larry Corriea at least once. “Baggage” introduces the former supervillain/superhero, who worked with a group of caped heroes called Supergroup, and was also the Human Consort of Azazel. Vivienne is now a hard-drinking proto-alcoholic who channels fear and can take down demons, and by the way, she’s been sensing one around lately. When she intervenes and punches out the man who is harassing Nicole, the cute young thing who works at the reception desk at Vivienne’s new gym, the two women bond. Nicole practices Brazilian Jujitsu and offers to show Vivienne some moves. Vivienne’s attraction to Nicole is growing and she doesn’t know if Nicole reciprocates, and this keeps her off balance in more than one sense. The reader will figure out what’s going on long before Vivienne does. I found the pacing of the middle section of this story to be slow and awkward. A long scene where Vivienne and Nicole wrestle, throw each other and straddle each other, while an admiring audience of mostly male gym-rats gathers, made me wonder just who the scene, and the story, was meant for. It is plainly not about Nicole and Vivienne getting to know one another. I liked Vivienne’s magic, though, and some of the visuals were great.
Cal is half human, half Auphe. The Auphe are ancient, torturing, murdering monsters, and they are proud of it. They tried very hard to make Cal one of their weapons. In “Impossible Monsters,” Cal decides it’s time to throw out the “how to be human” list of rules his human brother gave him, and go kill someone he let live twelve years ago, when he was just a kid. “Impossible Monsters” is set in the world of the Cal Leandros novels. I didn’t like this story, mainly because of Cal. Cal is a creature whose instinct is to rend flesh, to torture, to kill, and in this story he does do the torturing and killing. Sadly, along with his victim, he tortures us with endless monologuing. Although he ruminates on the nature of being a predator, even morphing into a red-eyed, needle-toothed killer, Cal’s narrative voice is more like that of a self-involved adolescent. As I re-read that, I think I have been unfair to adolescents. The end of the story is very dark, and the victim probably deserves death (if not necessarily this death) but there is no suspense or surprise in this tale, just killer Cal’s whining. Thurman’s prose is good; I just don’t care for this character, and I’m not the only one. People who enjoy the Cal Leandros novels will probably like seeing Cal go darker, so there is obviously an audience for this story. It just isn’t me.
The Shadowed Souls anthology is a good way to audition the Penguin Random House repertory of Urban Fantasy to see if there’s something you’d like to try. Lucy A. Snyder definitely made it onto my “have to read” list. The majority of the stories are easy entertainment, good for a few hours, and you may discover a new writer to add to your list. Either list.