In this collection of original short stories and novellas, four authors weave worlds of magic, mystery, adventure, and romance. In Nalini Singh’s “Secrets at Midnight,” leopard shifter Bastien Smith hunts for his elusive mate. When he finally locates her, though, she is not at all what he expects: a tiny, feisty kindergarten teacher completely unaware of the fact that she, too, is a shifter …. In Lisa Shearin’s “Lucky Charms,” brand new SPI agent Makenna Fraser is paired with a very reluctant, very handsome partner for her first case: a leprechaun bachelor party is on the loose in New York City. While any leprechaun may grant a wish, those granted by royalty have the power to change the world. Makenna and the rest of the SPI must find the leprechauns, prevent the rest of the mundane world from discovering the existence of supernaturals, and keep the prince out of the hands of anyone with less then, um, noble intentions …. In Ilona Andrews’ “Magic Steals,” curseworker/tiger shifter Dali is called upon when a friend’s grandmother disappears. Accompanied by her maybe-boyfriend Jim, jaguar shifter and leader of Clan Cat, Dali discovers that a powerful curse has been set in motion — and, if they can’t find the dark wizard who cast it, that curse will manifest the victims’ worst fears and kill them …. Finally, Milla Vane’s* epic fantasy follows warrior-priestss Mala into a benighted land, where she must tame “The Beast of Blackmoor.” What she finds, though, is not a beast, but a man lost to grief and anger, desperate to free his people from the immortal tyrant who sits on his throne ….
The first story in Night Shift is, unfortunately, the weakest. Singh sets “Secrets at Midnight” in her larger Psy/Changeling universe. I have not read any of those books, and spent most of the story just a bit disoriented. Is the tale set in the future or an alternate present? Are the Psy human, or a completely different species? Are they called Psy because they have psychic abilities? Are Changelings magical in origin? If so, does that mean there are magic users running around, too? None of that is ever explained.
On the plus side, Bastien and Kirby are well-developed characters, and I like the fact that Kirby is not a push-over; she may be emotionally wounded and reticent, but she won’t be cowed by anyone. There is a lot of emotional depth to this story, and I really like the wilderness home of Bastien’s pack; now I want to live in a treehouse. That being said, this is the least relevant of the collection to a polytheist, and will probably really only appeal to those already familiar with Singh’s work.
While I have read a few of Andrews’ novels, I have not read any set in the Kate Daniels alternate future/urban fantasy universe. Fortunately, “Magic Steals” is constructed in such a way that no previous knowledge is necessary to enjoy it; Andrews alludes to earlier events and other characters, but the focus stays firmly on Dali and Jim; I did not feel the least bit lost. And Dali and Jim are great characters: he’s big and tough, but not domineering; he respects Dali and her abilities, and allows her to lead the way when it is her skill set which will solve the problem. Dali herself acknowledges her own abilities as a curseworker and as the White Tiger, but she is less certain of her right to a man like Jim; she’s a near-sighted vegan who is nearly useless in a physical confrontation.
What really surprised me about “Magic Steals” was its use of different mythological systems. I had expected standard, generic “European” lore. Instead, the magical system is Indonesian. Dali’s family originally hails from Bali, and she is the White Tiger, servant of the spirit king Barong Bali; it is her job to maintain the natural balance between good and evil, order and chaos. She accepts no compensation for her work, instead helping people and banishing malevolent magic as a service to her community, her ancestors, and her God. If “Magic Steals” is an example of just how diverse and polytheist-friendly the Kate Daniels series is, I may just have to pick it up.
I admit it: I picked up Night Shift for Lisa Shearin’s story. I read and thoroughly enjoyed her first urban fantasy novel, The Grendel Affair. My only complaint was that it seemed to skip some important parts — like how Makenna came to work for the SPI and with hottie badass Ian. Here, we get that story … and it’s freaking hilarious, and exciting, and just a bit sensual. Makenna proves her worth as an SPI agent to herself and her colleagues that night, and uncovers a hint of the conspiracy which will play out in much greater detail in The Grendel Affair. While not particularly Pagan-friendly, this is an excellent, straight-up urban fantasy; start here, and then read the novel.
The last installment is also the most explicitly polytheistic. Milla Vane’s “The Beast of Blackmoor” opens with teenage Kavik entering a temple of Vela and demanding that the Goddess help him free his land from the tyrant Barin; when he does not get the answer he wants, he pisses in her offering bowl. In righteous anger, the Goddess places a curse on him: his end will come with the woman in the red cloak. Years later, Mala rides into his life, Chosen of Vela on a sworn quest to “tame the Beast of Blackmoor.” She is distraught and confused when she discovers that the “beast” is Kavik, a fallen prince trying to help his people, and not the vile Barin or the demon which stalks Blackmoor, slaughtering innocents and fouling the rivers. She has faith in the Goddess — but at what cost?
Vane’s story is filled with Gods and Goddesses; the landscape is rich with spirits. Vela is a fierce Goddess of compassion, beauty, and justice; it is said that she carved the maze of canyons on the border of Blackmoor with her fingers while birthing Justice and Law. In the early days of creation, the lusty Hanan not only “speared his cock into humans, but had also fucked every animal he encountered, no matter how big or small.” As a result, the world is filled with marvelous creatures, such as the sentient equine Shim who accompanies Mala on her quest. Enam is the Sun, but he is not an entirely benevolent Deity; his light may bring life, but he is caged in the heavens so that he does not burn the world. Nemek is the God of healing, and potions blessed by him will heal any pain, any wound; sadly, few of his devotees venture into Blackmoor, these days.
I loved “The Beast of Blackmoor.” Though the story is self-contained, there is enough material here for Vane to produce many, many more. I sincerely hope she does. Fair warning, though: this is an erotic fantasy. There are a number of graphic sex scenes, and, at one point, Kavik ties up Mala in a desperate attempt to rein in his own anger and self-loathing. Additionally, sex is used by the villains as a weapon; rape is alluded to, though never graphically depicted. These scenes may be uncomfortable for some readers.
Overall, Night Shift is a terrific anthology. The stories are well-constructed, filled with appealing characters, lots of action, and fascinating worlds that I want to visit again. Recommended to fans of all of these authors, as well as fans of Zoe Archer, Joey W Hill, Annie Bellet, Devon Monk, and Seanan McGuire.
*Vane is a pseudonym for Meljean Brook, author of several series, including the awesome steampunk, The Iron Seas.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of EHS.]