Martin H. Greenberg
& Russel Davis, editors,
Apprentice Fantastic
(DAW, 2002)

Russel Davis's introduction serves a noble purpose; it mentions the scene from Fantasia that haunts all tales of apprenticeship. Then it politely gets out of the way to allow a parade of wizards, fighters and artists to show off their blossoming skills. Apprentice Fantastic is a more varied collection of stories than previous volumes. While knights or pharaohs may be tied to certain times and locales, an apprenticeship may be entered into in any world.

Without that diversity, Apprentice Fantastic would be deprived of stories like Charles de Lint's purely dialogue "Sign Here." Unusual story forms can often feel hollow, but de Lint successfully conveys setting and atmosphere with his deceptively plain dialogue in this tale of soul searching. Tim Waggoner and Dean Wesley Smith both send their unprepared students into the afterworld, in "Till Voices Drown Us" and "The Last Garden In Time's Window." Smith's "Garden" explores the simple, living grief of those left behind; Waggoner's "Voices" gives a glimpse of the inhuman realms waiting after death in an eerie and triumphant story of psychic powers. Jan Lindskold's "Final Exam" tells of a wizard's final graduation in an unusual modern college program. Tanya Huff enters an unfortunate woman named Isabel into a strange apprenticeship "When The Student Is Ready." Isabel's exposure to magic takes her out of high school and through dumpsters in a story that swings between peril and humor.

Of course there's plenty of room for the traditional fantasy world of apprenticeship, too. Esther Friesner knows that villains have to bring up the next generation, and of course a good evil master assigns "Homework." It's hard to tell if Mickey Zucker Reichert means her "Flanking Maneuver" to be so humorous. The adventures of two children from opposing tribes wandering through an undescribed and constantly battling land has the purposely dense innocence of Voltaire's Candide, and the quick resolution of an entire war feels like an excerpt from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "The Augustine Painters" is fittingly rich in detail, with textured characters and a world so confidently realized it doesn't need any heavy explanation to justify the magic that drives it. Camille's journey from charcoals to pigments rises above the usual tales of struggling artists, and her friendship with fellow student Felix is left comfortably undefined.

The feudal society that nurtures the Painters has enough space for a novel to sprawl through. David D. Levine also has an uncomfortably real world in "Zauberschrift," with its very strange weather patterns and only a modicum of respect of the wizards scattered among its villages. But the perpetual apprentice Ulrich still has a better position than the unwilling apprentice among "Blood and Scales." John Helfer's unsuspecting student is introduced to his master in the most unpleasant way avaliable, and their first bloody meeting colored the story too much for me to accept his change of loyalties.

Apprentice Fantastic keeps the magic feel of earlier books in the series, while taking full advantage of the more open nature of its subject. Knitting magic together with realism, moving between idealistic beginnings and dark pasts, these stories are told by writers who are clearly past their own apprenticeship, but haven't lost their freshness. More than just saving the day, the heroes in these stories may inspire you to find a new adventure for yourself. But the ones in this book will be a good diversion until then.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 May 2003

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