Denise Little, editor,
The Sorcerer's Academy
(DAW, 2003)

"Gee, this sounds just like Harry Potter." That was my first thought when I picked up The Sorcerer's Academy, a collection of short stories edited by Denise Little. Indeed, in the introduction, Little brings up that very point, though she mentions that there was a long line of "learning to be a wizard" books before our bespectacled friend came along. Little acknowledges that Potter is popular and decided she wanted to see what an American wizardry school would be like. Thus, she came up with the concept of an academy in the desert of Arizona, near Sedona. She also brought a bunch of friends along for the ride. The result is a series of stories that are hit or miss (as many anthologies are). Thankfully, there are more near misses than there are stories wide of the mark.

Little has gathered an impressive array of mid-list fantasy and science fiction authors to contribute stories. The book starts with a story by Josepha Sherman, introducing the concept of the school and the three main students of the Academy for Advanced Study (or, as the students call it, Sorcerer's U): Barry Silverhorse, Janice Redding and Matt Johnson. They have a small adventure as they are trying to get to the academy for the first time, but it's pretty inconsequential. It does set up a plot thread that sounds like it's supposed to run through (or at least in the background of) the rest of the stories, but it never really comes up again until the "final exam" piece by Sherman that ends the book. It does a good job of introducing us to the three students, though, as Sherman does an impressive piece of characterization.

While the beginning isn't the most impressive, the last story (Sherman's "Final Exam" is only one page, so I'm not including it in the count) is a standout story. Written by Von Jocks, "Parenthetical References" starts out with an English class all receiving very low marks on a research paper (not exactly the most exciting idea for a story). It turns into a wonderful character piece starring Cassi, a girl who doesn't talk (it's unclear until the ending whether or not she can but won't talk, or if she is incapable). She feels ostracized by the other students and she is having trouble fitting in, but she's included in a study group to help improve their papers. She finds out the true meaning of friendship and magic during their studies. She's initially unsure if they are just accepting her as a burden to their study group or if they are truly interested in being her friend, and snide remarks from other girls in the class don't help. It's a wondrous revelation when she truly does become part of the group, as well as when we find out exactly what the secret is behind her silence. It's a perfect capstone for the book and should have ended it rather than "Final Exam."

Other good stories include P.N. Elrod's "Dream Date," where a student discovers that the subject of her wildest fantasies (both love and musical) is secretly staying at the academy for some mysterious reason, but is he as squeaky-clean as his image? "License to Steal" by Mel Odom is an excellent story of an outsider (a young thief in Sedona) who gets coerced into trying to steal something from the academy and finds out that he may just have a home there. The characterization of the boy is wonderful, though the villains are a bit cliched. There are no particularly bad stories in the book, though a few are just forgettable. In fact, looking through the book to write this review, I didn't even remember reading "Sleepwork," though I did remember bits and pieces of it so I know I did read it.

There are two main problems with The Sorcerer's Academy. First, and least, there are some continuity issues between the stories, mainly having to do with rules. Students spend some time in the first few stories traipsing around Sedona, but then in "Freshmen Mixer," we're told that students cannot leave the academy grounds unaccompanied their first semester. That rule is mentioned in another story, but subsequent stories also have them leaving campus occasionally. Another continuity issue is that one story establishes that computers are housed in a special building that's protected because magic can have a bad side effect on them. Later, there's a reference to Janice having a laptop in her room. Little details like this added up and marred my enjoyment of the book.

Secondly, The Sorcerer's Academy doesn't do enough to shy away from the whole Harry Potter idea. The fact that the main three characters are two boys and a girl, and the girl is the most studious of the bunch, gets too close for comfort. That in itself would not have been a problem, except that these three are obviously the main characters, even when the stories don't always concern them. Even the stories that have a different protagonist include at least one of these three as a "friend" (something that Robert Sheckly thankfully avoids with "A Salty Situation"). There are far too many stories that are just about them, as well. It also didn't help that at least two stories made direct Harry Potter references (one had a student say "I don't want to be Harry Potter!" and another mentions the increase of movies showing magic in a good light recently).

All in all, this was an enjoyable anthology that doesn't do enough to distance itself from its forebears. The stories are quick reads and I am glad I read them, but most of them fall just short of being great. The attempt to tie the stories into some overarching story and theme doesn't really work, but if you can ignore that, you can enjoy the stories for what they are.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 20 March 2004

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