I’ve already said that I’m not fond of urban fantasy’s trend of publishing anthologies simply because some of the authors contributing write stuff that is important to the series, which means if you don’t read the story, you’re going to end up a little lost.
But I made an exception for this one, because first and foremost, it has my favorite urban fantasy author, Carrie Vaughn, contributing, but there’s also a contribution from Patricia Briggs and Charlaine Harris, and since I’m a fan of werewolves, I figured this one wouldn’t hurt. I was a little put off by the fact it’s in hardcover, but what the hell, let’s give it a shot.
The premise of this anthology is lump werewolves with Christmas, which I think is a wee bit limited in regards to the latter, because many of the stories had a mystery element to them, and often the mystery was undermined because the reader already knew two factors: werewolves and Christmas.
Normally, when I review an anthology, I sit down and I jot down a response to every single story, no matter what I thought of it. I’m not going to do that this time, for reasons I’ll explain later. Instead, I’m going to talk about the stories I liked and/or by the authors of series I’m already familiar with, and then I’ll talk about the anthology as a whole at the end, like I’d do for any other review.
Expect to find spoilers for the stories I do review.
by Charlaine Harris
A warning for people reading this story: it takes place after book eight of Harris’s Southern Vampire mysteries, From Dead to Worse. So if you haven’t read that book, like I haven’t, you’re going to be spoiled on the outcome of a few things. Fortunately for me, I’d read a few spoilers, but I was still feeling rather meh about the timing of the story and how it just HAD to take place after the most recent Sookie Stackhouse hardcover. Because not everyone wants to BUY the hardcovers. Some of us want to wait for the paperbacks.
Anyway. After reading the first seven Sookie Stackhouse novels in a row, I was surprised to find myself a little annoyed at the character while reading this story. Maybe it’s because I knew I’d missed a book, or maybe it’s because it’s knowing that even after EIGHT BOOKS, Sookie is the same girl she always has been: down on her luck, at the mercy of other people’s plans, and always missing Bill. This girl can’t keep a man in her life to SAVE her life, which is just sad in a way that makes a reader wonder if they really want to keep reading about this woman’s misadventures in the paranormal and romance, as well as makes the reader wonder just what the overall POINT of this series is all about anyway. Not saying there has to BE a point, but even without reading the eighth book, I feel like Sookie’s stories are pretty much going the direction of the supernatural/soap opera variety, and that this character won’t receive any closure any time soon.
This story is kind of creepy: Sookie thinks that the naked werewolf she finds behind her house is hiding from a former pack and she hides him from those looking for him. Her plan works, and to thank her, this handsome werewolf gives her a sexy night to remember (not that we got any details). Then the reader learns that the whole thing was a ruse created by Sookie’s great-grandfather (a fairy), so she wouldn’t feel so lonely at Christmas. And that’s just creepy. It also makes me wonder if this Preston guy is going to show up in later books (I have a feeling he might), and that also makes me feel a little blah. I want Sookie to resolve things with the men still pining for her, namely Bill and Eric. These new guys are becoming distractions, because they don’t stick around.
“Il Est Né”
by Carrie Vaughn
So I have to admit a certain bias because Vaughn was the first UF author I’ve ever read, and therefore there’s a special love for her books that’s hard to ignore when it comes to actually being critical. But hey, Vaughn’s story is the whole reason I bought the anthology, so I think I’m allowed to be biased.
On the down side, this is a story set in Kitty’s universe about Kitty herself. However, on the up side, it takes place between books two and three (Kitty Goes to Washington and Kitty Takes a Holiday, which means you don’t have to have read the most recent book to know what’s going on, and frankly, even if you haven’t read books one and two, I think you can enjoy the story regardless. It’s not a tale that’s detrimental to the canon of the fictional universe: it’s just a fun side story.
We get two points of view: a werewolf named David and Kitty herself, though Kitty’s is in third person, which is odd since we’re so used to seeing Kitty’s POV in first. At any rate, she’s spending Christmas in a Waffle House away from home because she’s been exiled by her pack, and in walks in David: another were who nearly panics when he scents her. Turns out, once David was turned, he never had anyone to teach him what it meant to be a werewolf and what it meant to control the wolf. He turns wolf, and on the rare moments he goes back to human, he can’t remember anything, which is problematic since the news reports a sudden rash of killings nearby, apparently done by an animal. Kitty’s suspicious, but part of her wants to help this guy, so they investigate.
It’s a nice little story. There’s no romance, just a nice balance as Kitty starts to learn what it means to be a teacher and an Alpha to someone else. They find the real killer, who turns out just to be a psycho human being, and thanks to Kitty’s guidance, David is able to control his wolf, which gives him hope for the future and allows him to take the step to reconnect with his family. Nice parallel to that too, because Kitty does the exact same thing at the end.
Appropriate title and a nicely contained short story. At least for now. Don’t know if Vaughn plans to bring this character back. Personally, I’m not sure there’s a point in it, but if she does, it’ll be interesting to see how she handles it.
by Keri Arthur
I haven’t read Keri Arthur before, but I’ve seen her name around. What really stood out to me in this story was the strength of voice and the ability to contain the story itself. There were two simple conflicts: the murders and the tension between Hannah and Brodie. The love story is very well played, and the title is more than appropriate to that element of the plot. The murder mystery itself was done well too, and easy to wrap up.
Now, I don’t know if this story takes place in any of Arthur’s existing universes, but it doesn’t matter. The story stands very well on its own, which more than makes it worth the read. The romance is more important than the mystery, and the characterization is very nicely done. If this does feature existing characters from an existing storyline, I wouldn’t mind reading more. If it doesn’t, I have to say that Arthur definitely wrote this one just right.
“The Star of David”
by Patricia Briggs
Here’s a case where we have a story that intellectually I know takes place in Briggs’s Moon Called universe, but I don’t need to know a darn thing about that universe or its characters to enjoy this story. And personally, this is the kind of “spin-off” story that I like to see done in the genre: it takes place in the universe, but it focuses on minor/previously unknown characters and acts as a story in its own right and is icing on the cake for readers familiar with the universe. In this case, I want to say the character of David was once mentioned in the Mercy Thompson books, but merely as a side-note. Either way, I recognized the werewolf culture as well as the vampire culture, and definitely could enjoy the story for what it was.
It starts out a little bumpy, but once Briggs brings David’s POV and introduces the main mystery, the story settles into itself quite nicely. There is some trouble distinguishing between David’s and Stella’s POV at times, especially once he becomes wolf, but I really liked the father/daughter tension as well as the kid they were protecting: a wizard. Though if there’s a real flaw to the story, it’s the idea that when we last saw Stella (before the end), we got the impression, like David, that she was disgusted by his actions when he beheaded the vampire. I know that’s intentional so that the very end is a nice surprise, but it almost felt a little too neat, not necessarily earned. I’m not sure how it could’ve developed instead, though perhaps one more scene in Stella’s head where her brother’s explaining why David was so violent with the dead vampire might’ve worked so that we would have some hope of her forgiving him, rather that it just HAPPENING, you know?
Still, nice little story. And another story that’s got a very appropriate title.
“Milk and Cookies”
by Rob Thurman
This is one of those stories that had me wondering if it existed in Thurman’s Cal Leandros series, mostly because the first person POV voices were so damned alike. And once I learned this was a story that didn’t exist in that universe, I was still uneasy, because again, the POV voices are so damned alike.
There are three central mysteries/plots that weave together for this story: what really happened when Nicky was seven years old and where his cynicism of Christmas began; the bullying by Jed, and Tess’s secret wish for Christmas that Nicky is sure she won’t get.
The problem with this story exists in the two main characters: Nicky and Jed. Thanks to the premise of the anthology, the reader KNOWS that werewolves must be involved in this story somehow. So the real question is, who’s the werewolf, Nicky or Jed? Turns out it’s Nicky, who apparently killed Santa when he was seven and then when Jed wouldn’t take the hint to leave Nicky and his sis alone, Nicky captures him, dresses him up as Santa, and calls for Tessa to come down and have HER first kill at seven. Which is clever, but begs the question: did Nicky’s parents do the same for HIM when he was seven, or did Nicky kill the REAL Santa when he was seven? It could go either way, to be honest.
But I can’t say I liked the coy hand that was used with this story. There were clues, but not enough, and for a family of werewolves (little Tess surely knew what she was, cause she didn’t flip out when she changed), I would’ve thought there would’ve been a little more direct commentary as to what they were. I get that they had to be careful, be suspicious of strangers, to not draw attention to themselves for fear of others finding out what they were (all carefully disguised in the cultural background of having grandparents from Russia), but still, when they were alone at home, I would’ve thought more direct references would’ve been made.
Oh well. Cute story, but it didn’t quite work out for me.
List of All Contributors
Simon R. Green
J. A. Konrath
Toni L.P. Kelner
Wish I’d Borrowed It: I’ll be honest, I lost interest during so many of these stories it wasn’t even funny. Most of them were either too easy to figure out, or they were GOTCHA stories that barely had any skin on the bones, or were frankly just not very well constructed period. Some stories should’ve ended much sooner than they did, and some just didn’t make a lick of sense. This was such a disappointment for me, because I did get this in hardcover, and I was expecting something more entertaining, to say the least. But let’s face it, the premise of the anthology was limited: werewolves and Christmas. Not only does the werewolf factor take the mystery out of some of the stories, but the fact it must take place in Christmas time really limits the stories you can tell. You get the usual “truths” about Santa, or the variations on the Christmas story itself, but very little that was really memorable. I’ll give honorable mentions to Donna Andrews, Alan Gordon, and J. A. Konrath for having cute/interesting premises, but unfortunately, even those stories didn’t stick with me once I was done reading. To be honest, the best ones in the bunch were Carrie Vaughn’s, Keri Arthur’s, and Patricia Briggs’s. Considering the anthology features 15 stories total, those aren’t good numbers. This doesn’t bode well for the pile of UF anthologies I’ve got waiting in the floor.
Then again, maybe I was just in a really, REALLY bad mood during the week it took me to read this.
Blindness by Jose Saramago