I’ve always thought wizards are cool. If you walk up to me on the street and utter the word, “Fantasy” to me, the first thing I’ll do is give you a bizarre look and, if I don’t know who you are, probably say something along the lines of, “What?” But the second thing I would do is conjure an image of a slightly stooped old man with a white beard, flowing robes, and yes, an impressive, gnarled staff. From Gandalf to Belgarath to the Order and Chaos mages of Recluce and Candar, wizards have been around for a good amount of my epic fantasy reading. And when it comes to urban fantasy, my favourite such series, the Dresden Files, is all about a wizard. These figures, people who live and breathe magic, capture our imaginations because they embody the quirks and dangers of confronting and using magic on a daily basis. No matter how hard they try, it always changes them.
Not every wizard has to be a greybearded old man, though. The Way of the Wizard is a celebration of the diversity of wizardry in storytelling. John Joseph Adams has curated an impressive number of tales from an equally impressive pantheon of writers, and each of them brings their own concerns, styles, and bailiwicks to the table. George R.R. Martin’s “In the Lost Lands”, with its medieval characters trying to get the better of one another, reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire. Simon R. Green’s “Street Wizard” is reminiscent of his down-to-earth, “street” style. And then you have very non-traditional approaches to wizards, such as Jeremiah Tolbert’s “One-Click Banishment” (which I really enjoyed). This anthology is definitely not a run-of-the-mill sword-and-sorcery book. Combined with the quantity of stories, the names attached to them, and the breadth of themes and subjects they address, this makes The Way of the Wizard a potent anthology.
With any anthology of this size, however, there is wheat and there is chaff. It’s really a numbers game; unless your tastes are remarkably broad, you’ll love a few of the stories here, like many of them, dislike almost as many, and outright hate one or two. Adams has elected to be inclusive, which means there are stories here that just won’t appeal. I’ll highlight a few of my favourites—some of them were easy to love, and others won me over.
I quite enjoyed “How to Sell the Ponti Bridge,” by Neil Gaiman. To call myself a Gaiman fanboy might be a little too accurate, so I shan’t, but this is one of the best stories in the entire book. Reading it reminded me of Mr. Wednesday’s con games in American Gods. Though not strictly involving wizards per se, this story is about what wizards leave behind, and how people can make a profit off it. This is a case where I’m glad Adams was so broad in his selection criteria.
I had previously read “Endgame” when it was nominated for a Hugo. It is, to date, the most enjoyable part of Lev Grossman’s Magicians universe. His two novels have been rather lacklustre, with the second a slight improvement over the first. Grossman seems comfortable writing shorter fiction; or, maybe it’s just that he doesn’t have time to transform all of his characters into whiny, self-entitled prats. Whatever the case, “Endgame” is the perfect combination of clever characterization and action-adventure.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Word of Unbinding”, by Ursula K. Le Guin, because … it’s Le Guin.
“Love is the Spell That Casts Out Fear”, by Desirina Boskovich, is one of those stories that grew on me. At first, I wasn’t a fan: Boskovich’s style of alternating seamlessly between our world and the other world was a little confusing. But her integration of Hannah’s issues between the two worlds was awesome. In the end, Hanna the wizard gives up everything she has and lets go of the world of magic, and it’s tragedy tinged with redemption.
Once in a while I meet a short story in an anthology that really sticks with me. More often, I dredge up the spectre of a short story many years later, when I’m reminded of it by an event or another story. (“Oh yeah, I read a short story about that once….”) All of the stories in The Way of the Wizard are well-written and, in their own way, fascinating. None, in my opinion, are all that memorable (though a few, like “The Word of Binding”, have obviously demonstrated long-lasting appeal). I haven’t read other things by all of these authors, but those I have read have produced better work.
This is a mixed bag of stories. It’s worth reading if you have the time and, like me, are slightly wizard-crazy. That connecting topic is a good idea—why aren’t there more anthologies devoted to wizards‽ And hopefully, among the vast offering in The Way of the Wizard, you’ll find a gem or two that reminds you of those days curled up in a chair, just you and your wizard of choice, working magic to win the day.