This book is a must-read, but probably not for the reason you think. Okay, so it’s a Laurell K. Hamilton book—everybody who buys everything she writes will already be headed for the bookstore, and won’t need to read a review. This is for the rest of you.
Strange Candy offers a rare glimpse into the writing life. In her acknowledgements, main introduction, and individual story introductions, Hamilton shares a great many of the trials and triumphs of her career as a writer. So don’t skip the nonfiction bits; they tell you a lot about the author’s thoughts as she was writing or marketing each of these stories. Many of the short stories predate her big success with the “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” series. Hamliton was not an instant celebrity; her skills grew and she climbed her way up the market mountain over time. It’s an interesting progression to follow. From the perspective of a writer, you can see what a path to success actually looks like. And from the perspective of an editor, you can see the glimmers of real promise in those earlier stories, and trace the evolution through later ones.
For those of you not familiar with Hamilton’s work, Anita Blake is an animator who raises zombies, and also a legal vampire executioner. Her series began with Guilty Pleasures (1993) and recently reached its fourteenth book, Danse Macabre (2006). The novels combine elements of horror, crime drama, romance, and erotica in varying proportions; and their popularity may have helped broaden the audience for speculative fiction. Hamilton’s first book, Nightseer (1992), was not horror but fantasy. Both worlds serve as settings for several stories in this collection. Some of these stories were previously published elsewhere, as noted; others are making their first appearance here.
The first story in the book, “Those Who Seek Forgiveness,” is the original Anita Blake story, the first time this character appeared to the author. In this story, Anita raises the dead for a living; Hamilton explains that the vampire hunter motif didn’t emerge until later. Many times, the first appearance of an epic character is only the tip of an iceberg—but you can tell it’s an iceberg, no matter how little of it is sticking above water. I was a little disappointed by how straightforward the plot was: only one real twist, and from there the ending is obvious and rather pointless. But the character, ah, you wonder about the grey-hearted lady who raises the dead for a living. I’m glad we get to see more of her later.
Continuing through the collection, “A Lust of Cupids” is like cotton candy: not much to it, sweet enough to rot your teeth, but cute enough to be worth the time it takes to consume. The introduction calls this a “depth chamber” of light reading between the two very dark stories bracketing it. I like the title; it’s a terrific group-name. (Hamilton has a knack for those, and I wish she’d do more of them.) Here Rachel Carrdigan and Tom Hagan try to avoid true love, and fail—shot down by cupids, whom Rachel’s and Tom’s mothers had bribed with candy. I’m not fond of stories where the protagonists get cheated of their agency, but the portrayal of these weird little cupids is original and amusing.
“The Edge of the Sea” reverses the traditional siren story, with a merman charming women to their deaths. After seeing him kill her roommate, however, Adria takes to keeping a gun handy and so manages to dispatch the merman when he lures her onto the beach. This works better as a mood piece than anything else; the sea itself becomes the most memorable character. The rest of the action is morbid and predictable.
“A Scarcity of Lake Monsters” showcases a motif that Hamilton is justifiably famous for: preternatural biology. I love stories that take a scientific approach to fantasy, and handle it well. This one follows the efforts of biologists to preserve lake monsters, which are mysterious in the way that rare elusive animals always are, and then some. Environmentally sensitive readers will recognize many of the events and ideas in the story from different real-world situations involving endangered or protected species; for instance, the ghastly fate of Irving the lake monster matches that of manatees mauled by boat propellers. These motifs are all woven together into a unique, cohesive tale.
“Selling Houses” explores Anita’s world through the eyes of an ordinary person, a real-estate agent. The whole point was to find out how that world would change when vampires became legal. What results is a delightful story of people helping people—the unsalable house where a mass murder happened, the vampire clients that nobody wants to deal with, and the agent who persists in turning liabilities into assets. It’s a social puzzle, of a sort, and my favorite of the stories that were new to me in this collection.
“A Token for Celandine” (1989) takes place in the same world as Hamilton’s first novel, Nightseer. It’s straight-up fantasy about healers and warriors: mercenary Bevhinn Ailir guarding Celandine the Healer on her quest for redemption. I was particularly engrossed by the clash between the paths of white healing and black healing, and by the power dynamics between the sexes as Bevhinn and and Celandine venture into Loltun territory. Hamilton’s portrayal of demons in this world is much more complex and interesting than that of their brief appearance in Anita’s world, and the story is heady, disturbing stuff.
“A Clean Sweep” (1995) grew out of a request for a superhero story, and it was written while Hamilton’s daughter was a baby. Consequently the harried mother in this story enjoys a visit from Captain Housework. The hero is outraged to be summoned with no supervillain about, but gets his revenge in the end. This would probably have been funnier if I had kids of my own, but I can still sympathize.
At this point, by my lights, the collection takes a serious turn for the better. I found several stories that I first read in other venues: “The Curse-Maker,” “Geese,” “House of Wizards,” “Winterkill,” and “Stealing Souls.” I had forgotten who had written them, and was surprised to find them here—but I remembered the stories, and I’m thrilled to have them in hardback format.
“The Curse-Maker” (1991) features a small band of mercenaries, including the warrior Sidra Ironfist and her direly enchanted sword Leech. I love Leech, who is not at all like the usual run of magical artifacts. How often does a baneful weapon giggle? Here Sidra and Leech must save Milon Songsmith from a death curse, with the help of Gannon the Sorceror. It makes for a memorable and dramatic adventure, including an unexpected bit of family angst in the climax, when Sidra confronts the curse-maker Bardolf Lordson in front of his noble father.
“Geese” (1991) is at heart a love story, one of the most intense romances I’ve ever read. Because it is about geese, you see, and geese tend to be monogamous. Their loyalties are not easily swayed, which gives just the right sweet touch to an otherwise very bitter tale, like fine dark chocolate. So here is the tale of Alatir Geas-breaker and her true love Gyldan, who belong to a flock of geese—until Alatir is forced back into human shape, and must hunt down the wizard who murdered her family. (Note: part of the tension arises from child molestation; sensitive readers should approach with caution.)
“House of Wizards” (1989) struck me as the funniest of the humorous stories in this collection; I share Hamilton’s bemused admiration of people whose greatest gifts lie in practicality rather than creativity. Trevelyn Herb-mage decides to marry a woman with no magic whatsoever, and bring her into a family of magical folks. And unlike most hapless mundanes outnumbered by mages, Rudelle doesn’t buckle under the stress—she rises to the challenge and puts the house in order. Wow. The shenanigans of Rudelle’s new in-laws are colorful, too. Be glad your family life is not quite this colorful.
“Here Be Dragons” is what I call “dark science fiction,” a story based on science but with a horrific tone. Hamilton notes that one editor rejected this, saying it made her feel “unclean.” I’ve had similar experiences with some of my nastier writing; so have many other writers I know. Of course, I have to sympathize with the editor, too—this is a spectacularly ugly story. Dr. Jasmine Cooper, dream therapist and empath, gets called in to a special school after a powerful dreamer has killed one person and driven another to attempt suicide. What do you do with an evil little girl whose psychic talents make her a dire threat? Hand her over to someone who used to be an evil little threat herself. (Warning: the child molestation thread in this story is worse than “Geese.”)
“Winterkill” (1990), like the Sidra stories, hails from the same world as Nightseer. Jessamine Swordwitch is both a warrior and an earthwitch, an interesting combination of abilities. This story explains why she specializes in assassinating wizards. Years ago, a wizard killed Jessamine’s family; now that wizard’s mother is ravaging the land in attempt to find and kill Jessamine. There’s another demon bargain in this story, and a creative use of curses—an entertaining fantasy adventure.
“Stealing Souls” (1989) is an old favourite that features Sidra and Leech again—or rather, first. Hamilton notes this story as her first sale. You can see the promise in it: a punchy opening, vivid characters, and a fresh voice. The plot is a little straightforward. With the help of Milon Songsmith, warrior-thief Sidra sets out to retrieve the bound souls of her twin sisters from the wizard who murdered them. The climax is more unusual. Once they’ve fought their way to the wizard’s chamber, Sidra and Milon find that demolishing the wizard takes very little additional effort—because he’s preoccupied with a summoning that he dares not interrupt, hoist on his own petard. I rarely enjoy climaxes where the characters don’t have to exert maximum effort to succeed, but this one was well rendered and direly amusing.
The last story in the collection, “The Girl Who Was Infatuated With Death” (2005), returns to Anita and Jean-Claude, just before the events of Narcissus in Chains (2001). It starts out looking like a standard zombie raising, then veers into vampire politics as a mother seeks to prevent her 17-year-old daughter from becoming a vampire (and it’s not like the poor girl has no motive for wanting to be a vampire immediately). This story furthers Anita’s struggle with the rights that vampires have, and do not have, in her world’s legal system. Unfortunately the intense drama of the family dynamics got shortchanged at the end of the story by an erotic detour courtesy of Anita and Jean-Claude. This flaw appears repeatedly in Hamilton’s later works, as romance obscures the rest of the plot action. (The author once said, in a presentation I attended, that she spent the first several books trying to get her characters to undress, and now they refuse to stay dressed!) Despite the imperfect ending, on balance the story stands up well.
On the whole, Strange Candy is a collection worth acquiring. For fans of fantasy and horror, it offers a tour of several interesting worlds. The good stories are gems that you’ll remember forever, and the marginal ones have some charm too. For writers and editors, the collection reveals the progression of a writing career in rare and valuable detail. It would make a great book to analyze in a college writing class. Highly recommended.
Elizabeth Barrette writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her fields include speculative fiction, alternative spirituality, and gender studies. She often does panels at cons. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief, bungee-jumping, and spelunking in other people’s reality tunnels.
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