Powers of Detection, edited by Dana Stabenow (Ace, 2004)

Murder, magic, mystery, and mayhem all collide in this sharp-edged collection of stories blending fantasy (or science fiction, in one case) and mystery (mostly murder), edited by Dana Stabenow. This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last time we see the two genres overlap, as there’s a long and respectable history of such things. Stabenow’s managed to bring together a nice, varied group of authors, some best known for their SF/Fantasy work, others better known for their mystery fiction.

Donna Andrews, who’s written two books thus far about a computer-bound Artificial Intelligence who solves mysteries, turns in “Cold Spell,” in which a wizard’s apprentice must aid her master in investigating a bizarre death up at the Duke’s castle. When a recently-captured prisoner up and dies from a wound to the chest, and there’s no way anyone in the room could have done it, it’s up to Gwynn to figure out how it happened. Clever and possessing a nice twist, “Cold Spell” lays the groundwork for what I hope to be more stories featuring these characters.

Simon R. Green returns to one of his most popular settings in “The Nightside, Needless To Say.” However, this story is a departure from the Nightside’s usual point-of-view protagonist, John Taylor. Instead, we’re introduced to Larry Oblivion, private investigator who’s come down with a sudden and severe case of death-with-temporary-amnesia, a condition which doesn’t stop him from investigating his own murder. In the Nightside, death isn’t always an absolute. But who killed Larry Oblivion, and why didn’t they let him stay dead? The answer may be much closer at hand than he thought.

Also returning to one of her more popular characters, Charlaine Harris supplies us with an all-new story of Sookie Stackhouse, telepathic barmaid and off-and-on girlfriend to a vampire. However, it’s not vampires she needs to worry about today. It’s fairies, who need her to help puzzle out how and why one of their own was killed. Was it revenge, or motivated by love, or greed, or something else? Sookie, now used to such bizarre goings-on, may be a reluctant investigator, but she’s still good at getting the job done.

Sharon Shinn looks at a school for mages, where the current Headmistress has to deal with a rash of bizarre, magical killings among the senior staff. Everyone, it seems, have a motive, even Camalyn herself, though the raw power and skill needed to pull off such attacks limits the suspects. The big question is, will Camalyn solve this mystery before she becomes the next victim? In “The Sorcerer’s Assassin,” Shinn has created a great setting, one only faintly reminiscent of what has become the quintessential school for magic-users, and I hope she’ll come back to it again soon.

Laura Anne Gilman bucks the trend by focusing on a mystery that doesn’t revolve around murder, in “Palimpsest,” a story starring magical thief Wren and her partner Sergei (who are also the main characters in Gilman’s first original novel, Staying Dead). When Wren is hired to steal (or rather “retrieve”) a painting, she finds herself caught in the middle of conflicting agendas and a dangerous conspiracy. Luckily, her quick wits and her partner’s keen instincts are more than enough to handle the job… right? With Wren and Sergei, Gilman has a near-perfect team, genuinely likeable characters who carry the story in part due to their charisma together. Think Thomas Crown Affair with a little Nick and Nora Charles, and you’re on the right track.

Mike Doogan’s “The Death of Clickclickwhistle” is the solitary science fiction offering, but it’s by no means any less enjoyable than the other stories. On a special mission delivering a number of alien diplomats to a long-awaited get-together, it’s up to a minor functionary to figure out just who – or what – just got killed, by whom – or what -, how and why. With thirteen alien species involved, some much more alien than the others, there’s a lot to work with. However, the true answers are as unexpected as they are intriguing. In space, diplomats play for keeps.

Stories by John Straley, Anne Perry, Michael Armstrong, Jay Caselberg, Anne Bishop, and Dana Stabenow herself round out this entertaining collection. There’s very little disappointment here, and some rather satisfying tales. Powers of Detection is definitely worth getting if you like mystery mixed with fantasy, or vice-versa.

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