Strange Candy, by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley, 2006)

When you think of Laurell K. Hamilton, you probably think first of her Anita Blake series of books, and of highly-sensualized vampires and werewolves. Or perhaps you think of her Meredith Gentry series of even more sexualized faeries and related creatures. Given how much space the two series take up on the shelves, it’s little wonder. And, as my above words have likely suggested, it’s easy to generalize her works these days. However, she’s actually produced a fair number of short stories that range a wider gamut than one normally realizes. Here, in Strange Candy, her short fiction is gathered at last, with all-new introductions by Hamilton herself. Follow the development of her career in fourteen stories spanning nearly twenty years, with brief commentary elaborating on the whys and wheres of each story.

“Those Who Seek Forgiveness” is actually the first Anita Blake story, and as such, we see many of the elements that are present in the novels, though at this stage, it’s clear Hamilton was still figuring out what, exactly, makes the character tick. As such, she’s only a raiser of the dead, and there’s nary a vampire to be seen. Just a widow who wants a moment with her deceased husband, and a zombie to be raised. It’s actually a tight piece, and a good example of Hamilton’s bent towards dark fantasy and horror.

“A Lust of Cupids” is a strange tale where roving packs of cupids terrorize innocent victims, causing them to fall in lust or love with random targets. Short but sweet, it’s got something of a wicked core to it.

“The Edge of the Sea” is much more of a horror story, one in which you’ll never look at the ocean, or think of mer-creatures, the same way again.

“A Scarcity of Lake Monsters” might possibly be my favorite in this collection. It’s set in a world where lake monsters and other mythological creatures, such as satyrs and leprechauns, are real. But in a distinct departure from the norm, this story focuses upon conservation and scholarly efforts to understand these creatures. How do lake monsters breed and continue on? Therein lies the mystery and the whimsy of this story. I’d happily read more stories in this setting.

“Selling Houses” is a ghost story set in the Anita Blake universe, though Anita herself is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we meet a new protagonist, a real estate agent whose latest property, which comes complete with tragic history, may be a very tough sell.

Set in the same world as her novel Nightseer, “A Token For Celandinem” is a dark tale about a healer corrupted by evil powers, and the elven bodyguard sworn to see her through a dangerous quest.

“A Clean Sweep” is another of my favorites, a bizarre story about an underappreciated superhero named Captain Housework, who’s found himself short of villains, but still possessed of the need to help. As with many of Hamilton’s stories, it has a somewhat dark twist to it.

“The Curse-Maker” and “Stealing Souls” both feature the same characters, a woman warrior with an intelligent, magical sword, and her bard companion. They make for an interesting pair, though the sword seems rather inspired by old-school Dungeons and Dragons at times . . . though ironically, it may be the most intriguing of the group. In one story, our heroine goes on a quest to save the life of her bard friend from the man who placed a death curse on him. In the other, they storm a wizard’s keep to fulfill a childhood vow. All in all, I enjoyed this pair of stories, and I wouldn’t have minded to see more of the characters and their backstory. Something tells me a longer work set in their world would almost feel like retro fantasy, these days.

“Geese” also sees a young woman fulfilling an old obligation. In this instance, a girl has spent much of her life as a goose in order to avoid falling victim to an enemy’s geas. Now that she’s grown, will she seek vengeance, or succumb to the geas’ power?

“House of Wizards” is about a young woman, entirely non-magical, who marries into a family where magic is a rule, not an exception. A classic fish out of water story ensues, and naturally, she makes quite an impact on her in-laws.

“Here Be Dragons,” the sole story with science fiction elements, is rather strong, and rather disturbing. An empathic dream therapist who spends her days dealing with the worst people society has to offer, is called back to a place she hates and fears, to deal with a child sociopath in the making. In the battle of wills to follow, who will emerge victorious, and who will prove to be the greater monster?

Also from the world of Nightseer comes “Winterkill,” about an assassin who only targets wizards. Not as gripping as some of the stories, but it still shows an early strength to Hamilton’s work.

Finally comes “The Girl Who Was Infatuated With Death,” which is the newest of the lot, an Anita Blake story which falls relatively lately in the series. In it, Anita is tasked to find a seventeen-year-old girl who’s on the verge of illegally being brought over as a vampire. Should this happen, it’ll be trouble for the vampire who does the deed, and heartbreak for the distraught mother who’d lose her daughter. This one is the closest to Hamilton’s best-known style of writing.

Overall, I have to admit that Hamilton’s a really good writer. I think she really brings out a certain strength when she’s writing short fiction; with only so much space to work with, she stays on track and sheds a lot of excess baggage that makes her novels seem to drag on. This, of course, is just my opinion, but looking at how she’s evolved and matured as an author, it seems as though these earlier works really were ripe with promise. It’s almost a shame she’s gotten locked into the Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series; a few more standalones that branch out might just be what she needs for variety. Clearly, she’s got an old-fashioned affinity for sword and sorcery (sorceress?) fantasy (two of the stories in this volume actually did appear in the Sword & Sorceress anthology series, and two more appeared in projects edited by S&S editor Marion Zimmer Bradley) and I may just have to find a copy of Nightseer to see how it stacks up in comparison to the short fiction set in that world. In the introduction, Hamilton speaks with some regret about how the bottom fell out of the heroic fantasy market, and she was forced to find something the publishers would pick up, which obviously led to the projects she’s best known for. I wonder if now that the heroic fantasy market seems to have made a comeback, she’ll once again venture into it.

That digression aside, I’ll conclude, somewhat to my surprise, that Strange Candy is actually quite entertaining, and a rather nice sampler of Hamilton’s work. Fans of her stuff are sure to enjoy it, and those who might have avoided Hamilton’s books “because of all the sex” will find these stories almost entirely free of that determent. So go ahead, check this one out.

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