Vivian Vande Velde,
Curses Inc. & Other Stories
(1997; Harcourt, 2007)

Expect the unexpected, and you still won't be able to guess the ends of most of these stories by young-adult fantasist Vivian Vande Velde. From a well-intentioned boy who tries to use his mother's spellbook, to a young peasant enraptured by a water spirit, to a Southern belle who trades a year of her life for a love spell, the 10 fantasy stories can't be pinned down to a single theme, tone or setting, but all exhibit Vande Velde's abundant imagination and laconic wit.

The anthology opens with one of its cleverest and most tidily plotted entries, the titular "Curses, Inc." in which Bill Essler stumbles across an intriguing website selling curses and tries to avenge himself on the girl who humiliated him in front of the entire 8th grade. The curses don't work as planned, but Bill can't begin to suspect why.

"Curses, Inc." is the only story with a contemporary setting, but it establishes a formula the others more or less follow: sharp, edgy writing, idea-driven plots and surprise endings that buck tradition and expectation. "Lost Soul" is one of the most sophisticated pieces, a lyrical and disturbing story about a kelpie who, in the author's own words, is "very pleased with what she is." Also set in a generic fantasy world, "Skin Deep" is a lighter tale about a plain young woman who learns (and teaches) a lesson about judging by appearances. "Remember Me" is a spare, somber piece with an amnesiac narrator who has been cursed to lose his memory, but why and by whom?

The stories with historical settings don't work as historical fiction -- Vande Velde's clipped writing style is distinctively modern, and the history is rarely more than wallpaper for her ideas -- but "Witch's Son" is nonetheless an interesting exploration of a fantasy moral dilemma: is it justifiable in the name of self-defense to kill the man who murdered you 14 years ago?

A few of the shorter idea-based stories like "To Converse with Dumb Beasts" and the dystopic "Witch-Hunt" suffer from a distinct lack of plot, and "Cypress Swamp Granny" simply goes on too long to be spine-tingling. As a whole, however, the collection is smart, sarcastic and unorthodox. There's nary a happily-ever-after in sight -- though characters, including a number of very unsympathetic protagonists -- tend to get exactly what they deserve.

The book ends with Vande Velde's brief notes on how she came to write each of the stories. Despite a few weaker entries, Curses Inc. is a clever and very readable collection that would make an excellent introduction to the author's full-length fantasy novels.

review by
Jennifer Mo

15 December 2007

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