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Magic for Beginners

Magic for Beginners - Shelley Jackson, Kelly Link I want it to be about good and evil and true love, and it should also be funny. No talking animals. Not too much fooling around with the narrative structure. The ending should be happy but still be realistic, believable, you know, and there shouldn’t be a moral although we should be able to think back later and have some sort of revelation. No and suddenly they woke up and discovered that it was all a dream. Got that?These are the instructions given to sex-line operator Starlight in “Lull,” a frame-in-a-frame-in-a-frame story in Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. Link, like Starlight, follows some of these rules–the stories are about good and evil and true love, and often incredibly funny, and while not moralistic there is a sense of revelation in many of them; but there are talking animals, much fooling around with narrative structure, and dreams galore.I read my first Link story in the most recent Best American Short Stories — “Stone Animals” — and it was so different from any of the other stories in the anthology, so Kafka-meets-Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer, that I had to read more. And for the most part, I’m not at all disappointed in this collection, Link’s second. The stories are inventive and touching and haunting, like a half-remembered dream. And in the best stories — “The Faery Handbag”, “Stone Animals”, “Magic for Beginners”, “Lull” — they echo back to old fairy tales without being twee, and update their magic for the postmodern world.My only complaints are that Link is sometimes too clever by half, and that a few of the stories could have been developed into so much more. “The Great Divorce”, for example, is an interesting idea–a world in which the living marry the dead through the services of a spirit medium–that somehow doesn’t develop beyond an interesting idea. And “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” hovers on the edge of unsettling without quite moving into the country of disturbing.Of all the stories, the title story could have been developed into even more. The story ended when it was just getting good; I wish that this one had been developed into a novella, perhaps, or a novel, or maybe one of those sprawling multi-volume collections of tomes that fantasy fiction so often spawns. There was a lot of material, a lot of great ideas, a lot of wonderful characters that I had to leave far too early. And that’s not necessarily a criticism; I will gladly go back into Link’s worlds again.