Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman
and Donald G. Keller, editors
The Horns of Elfland
(Roc, 1997)

Magic and music seem to be inextricably interwined in folklore and fiction, and who better than Ellen Kushner, host of the national radio program Sound and Spirit, to edit a collection of short stories in which they combine? Fifteen stories by noted fantasy and science fiction authors offer distinctly different views of music and magic in this entirely satisfying collection.

Jennifer Stevenson starts off the collection with "Solstice," a story about a rock guitarist who finds herself invited to play at a very unusual party. The story is alive with vivid images presented in a flowing narrative. "The New Tiresias" by Jane Emerson shifts the focus from rock to opera in this tale about a 15-year-old girl and the price she pays for having heard the voice of a god. Emerson's style is more mannered, capturing the flavor of the Victorian era.

Gus Smith tells a rousing good old fashioned tale of the Fair Folk and the bargain they strike with a natural born melodeon player in "Josh and the Fairy Melodeon Player," and a man visits a museum wherein sounds from a time long ago and a place far away are kept in "Audience" by Jack Womack. Elizabeth E. Wein's "The Bellcaster's Apprentice" is a luminous, carefully wrought fairy tale that is also about courage and about craft.

The director of a shape-note singing group discovers the true power of the music she helps create in "Sacred Harp" by Delia Sherman, while Ray Davis' "Done by the Force of Nature" is a dark and smoky fusion of the Fay (fey) with pre-gangsta rap music. Michael Kandel offers an unusual piano recital in "Acolytes" and a player piano rearranges a man's life in "Flash Company" by Gene Wolfe. Meanwhile, Lucy Sussex's "Merlusine" sends a geneticist from Australia halfway around the work to track down the source of a woman with a strange, well, genetic problem.

Before his death, John Brunner contributed "The Drummer and the Skins," about a traditional band faced with a contemporary problem -- an attack from the local gang of skinheads -- but who get help from an ancient and unlikely source. Susan Palwick follows with "Aida in the Park," a bittersweet story about what people love and what is important which reminds us that none of us have that much time. Roz Kaveney's "Brandy for the Damned" is a cool and clever story about a rising violinist who finds that not only can she face temptation, she can turn it to her own purposes.

Terri Windling's "Color of Angels" concerns an artist adjusting to multiple sclerosis and working through a block which is keeping her from painting. Windling adds color to the magic; for Tat, music has colors, and colors seem to sing to her as well, until -- through a meeting with a neighbor -- her senses become enlivened and enriched. Windling depicts Tat's struggle not only with her elusive muse but with her new physical limitations with poetic poignancy, and Tat's quiet triumph when she achieves a new perspective resonates with the reader. There are no miracles here, unless you are talking about the small, everyday, ordinary miracle that accompanies being alive and aware in the world. Windling conveys this in original vivid language, as if she herself has witnessed the color -- and music -- of angels.

Kushner wraps up the collection with "The Death of Raven," about a minstrel who experiences difficulty when faced with the end of his music. The story is brief but eloquent.

Kushner also provides the insightful story introductions, and it's a little like getting an extra story with each tale. Brief biographies of the writer further enhance the collection.

The overall quality is consistently high. Whether you're a musician or love to listen, whether you'd rather hear opera or country western, there's something here for nigh about everyone.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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