There's nothing like curling up in front of the fireplace with a holiday-themed book this time of year - particularly when that book involves holidays and shapeshifters, witches, and other things that growl in the night. This holiday collection features stories by popular urban fantasy/paranormal authors, but the only one I was familiar with before reading was Kim Harrison, whose Hollows series is one I enjoy.
The opening story is "Two Ghosts for Sister Rachel" by Kim Harrison, and it details events that are referred to in the series novels, so I found myself wishing I'd read this story first. The story is set when Rachel Morgan was a teenager, and she is still recovering from the illness that nearly killed her as a child. She is weak and easily tired, but she is determined to be an IS agent. So she has been working out and running - but even if she does manage to pass the physical, she still needs the signature of a parent or guardian to apply for the job. Her mother, she knows, will never sign - after all, Rachel's father had died in the line of duty, working for IS himself. But her brother Robbie is home for the holidays. If only she can convince him to sign. But her brother stubbornly refuses. Finally, when Rachel insists that her father would have given his blessing, Robbie challenges her to perform an extremely difficult spell that will call her father's ghost so she can ask him herself - and if he says yes, Robbie will sign the papers. Rachel's spell, however, has some unforeseen consequences...
I enjoyed this story, with its glimpse into Rachel's past and her relationships with her brother and mother, which gives additional insight into her motivations as an adult. The Hollows is always a fascinating place to visit, paricularly during the Solstice. Reading this story made me doubly anxious to get to the forthcoming book in the Hollows series, Black Magic Sanction, which is due to be published in the U. S. this coming February.
"Run, Run, Rudolph" by Lynsay Sands is about a young woman named Jill who is zapped by a device in her brother's basement that effectively turns her into a shapeshifter - she thinks it's an accident, but it's not. Her brother's former colleague, a monomaniacal scientist, has plans for Jill. Jill, however, has committed to riding in the town parade dressed as Santa's wife - something she's very excited about because she has a massive crush on Nick the man who's going to be Santa. With the maniac hot on her heels, though, Jill finds herself using her new shapeshifter skills to be a different person, a stand-in for Mrs. Claus - so instead of getting to laugh and talk as they always do together, Jill finds herself standing awkwardly next to Nick on the parade float, ostensibly a perfect stranger. Then she realizes that this might be the golden opportunity to ask Nick some questions about how he really feels about her. Unfortunately, when she spies the maniac among the parade attendees, she forgets all about holding onto her disguise. That's when things really get interesting.
This was a fun story, but it did seem a bit contrived. The villain was barely a person - completely two dimensional, and Jill was a bit too scatterbrained for my taste. I mean, if you can shift into any sort of form at will, avoiding a dimwitted psychopath shouldn't be so hard. I did enjoy the developing relationship between Jill and Nick, and Nick is a very good sport about the whole thing. Maybe it would have worked better for me had the humor been heightened a bit, but this one was not my favorite. It was cute, though.
Marjorie M. Liu's story, "Six," was a compelling tale from beginning to end. Set in China, the story opens with a government spy working under cover at a massage parlor. Her current client is a man they want to question for important information on escalating terrorist activity. Then another man comes in, and there is a fight in which her client becomes something else, something withered and deadly and cruel. Six, a small but incredibly talented fighter, finds herself slung over the man's shoulder, inexplicably unable to move - and soon she finds herself having to trust a stranger, something that goes against everything she's ever been taught, and having to take a leap of faith - even as they're being pursued by more of the nasty creatures.
I enjoyed this story very much. The setting was unusual and interesting, and the back story that is skillfully woven into the narrative adds depth to Six's character. I don't know if Six and Joseph are part of a series by this same author, but I certainly hope so. Either way, I'll definitely be checking out more of this Marjorie Liu's work.
The final story in the anthology is "The Harvest" by Vicki Pettersson. It concerns Zoe, a woman who's given up supernatural strength and power in order to save her daughter, who's recently been raped, and her baby granddaughter. But when the adoption she's so carefully set up turns out to have been a trap, and Zoe's granddaughter disappears, she realizes that somehow her adversaries have managed to snatch the baby right out from under Zoe's nose. Now she must fight them, somehow, despite the fact that she is weak and human, and in order to get help she desperately needs, she needs to confront her old team, and convince them to help her without revealing the secret prophecy.
I couldn't help but wonder as I read this story if I was supposed to be as confused as I was. I think these characters are part of a series, so fans of the series may have been on board from the start, but it took me a while to understand what was going on. The backstory was a bit too much for me, for such a short story, which left me being told too many things, rather than seeing them as they actually happen. Also, when in the end Zoe insists on confronting the Big Bad all by herself, and spurning the help of her former team, it made the scenes concerning them seem tacked on in order to add some romance and tension to the plot. I liked Zoe's character, though, and the fact that she is very strong and willing to make enormous sacrifices for her loved ones.
If you are in a mood for a holiday read, this is a fun anthology - particularly if you'd like to try out some new authors, or revisit an old favorite. Happy holidays!
Holidays Are Hell by Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands, Marjorie M. Liu, and Vicki Pettersson (Harper, 2007)