Another short story round-up: Stories 259 - 267 for the year.
259. AAAA Wizardry by Jim Butcher, from The Dresden Files Role-Playing Game: Our World volume. Harry Dresden instructs a group of fresh new young Wardens of the White Council in the art of being a detective of the supernatural. He illustrates each of the "A"s in turn by relating a case involving a single mother and her "sensitive" children. Tension builds nicely, and there really aren't any spoilers for the series overall aside from mention of the on-going War with the Red Court of Vampires, which is a background note to most of the books to date anyway. The story is a really nice glimpse into what makes Harry a good detective, but also what makes him a good character: the fact that he makes mistakes.
The rest are from the anthology Dark And Stormy Knights, edited by P.N. Elrod:
260. A Questionable Client by Ilona Andrews Even without the author's note at the end of the story, I could tell this adventure of mercenary Kate Daniels takes place within a larger fictional world. Too many small things are mentioned off-handedly: The Mercenary Guild, the fact that magic and technology seem to alternate in unpredictable waves, Kate's interactions with her boss and fellow mercs. Still, the story itself, about Kate taking on bodyguard duty with extra hazard pay for a client no one else seems to want to touch, flows well and feels complete. I can't say it made me want to run out and buy the Kate Daniels novels, but I am curious about how her world works and how this adventure, involving a very questionable client and the people after him, fits into the overall scheme of things.
261. The Beacon by Shannon K. Butcher Yes, Shannon is Jim Butcher's wife. But her story is not, so far as I can tell, at all related to his Dresden Files world. This also seems to be an introduction to a character who I think could hold his own series well. Ryder Ward is the latest in a line of Terraphage hunters -- he inherited the job from his father, and the implication is that it's a family heritage. Ryder tracks down "The Beacons" whose dreams summon the phages into the real world, and he kills them before the phages can be summoned. The problem is, Ryder's latest Beacon is not an easy kill. The question quickly becomes: how far can a man be pushed to do something that he knows is for the good of the society no matter what it does to him emotionally? I liked the way Shannon Butcher built the main and supporting characters and gave the story several possible directions to go in, with a satisfactory (almost, dare I say it, fun) final moment.
262. Even a Rabbit Will Bite by Rachel Caine This was a really fun story. Like Shannon Butcher's, I did not get the sense it was part of an already-existing fictional world and I think I enjoyed the story more for that. Caine asks the question: what happens when the last near-immortal dragon hunter, living in our modern world, gets a letter from the Pope telling her it's time to train her own replacement? How do you train someone to fight dragons when the last remaining dragon is as old as you and hides in a dessert half a world away? I loved the exasperation and crotchetiness of Lisel Martin and how she handles being made obsolete. I also loved the way the story goes from snarky to serious in a heart-beat. Naturally, all is not what it seems to be at the story's start, and Caine uses the story to make a bigger point than just "be constantly vigilant."
263. Dark Lady by P.N. Elrod This is the second Jack Fleming story I've read. The Fleming stories take place in 1930s Chicago and feature a vampire private eye who runs a bar. In this story, Fleming is called on to aide one damsel-in-distress and finds himself needing help as well. The Dark Lady of the title turns out to be an interesting secondary character. I've never read any of Elrod's Fleming novels, but the two stories I've read have been reasonably fun.
264. Beknighted by Deidre Knight Another story that doesn't seem to take place in an previously-existing world. Each of the stories in this collection plays with the concept of what it means to be a "knight," male or female, and most of the main characters can easily be described as "dark," or "stormy" or both. Knight's story puts a bit of a twist on the theme. The main character is an artist who, thanks to intense dreams, has set herself the task of creating a mystic puzzle that will set an imprisoned knight free. Her main problem is that none of the materials she has to hand are really up to the task - until a mysterious patron shows up with a small cache of "templar gold," living gold that can be mixed with the paint to provide the painting/puzzle with the oomph it needs to free the nameless knight. The question, of course, is what the mysterious patron is really up to, and can he be trusted at all? Knight's story flows well, although there are a few details I'd like to have seen explained (such as how our main character knows painting the knight and then creating a puzzle of the painting will free him -- there's an implication that this sort of thing is done, although highly regulated, in her world, but I'd have liked a more explicit explanation.) Still, I recommend this as one of the better stories in the volume.
265. Shifting Star by Vicki Pettersson Another story that takes place in an already-established world with which I am unfamiliar. I think that this story contains a few more spoilers for Pettersson's "Signs of the Zodiac" series than the Dresden, Daniels or Fleming stories do, judging from the focus of the story. It took me a few paragraphs to understand that the main character is a magical construct given a name, autonomy, and a life -- to which she is mostly not adapting well at all. The mystery she becomes embroiled in seems to be connected to something of a major series point. And the main character's growth, through her interaction with a mortal man she meets, also seems like it should have a large affect on this character's role in the book series. The Zodiac books have been recommended to me, but I haven't added them to my TBR list just yet. I would say, of all the stories in this volume, approach this one with the most caution if you're reading the Zodiac books but are not up to the current volume yet, just in case the spoilers are as big as they seemed to me to be. That said, I did enjoy Pettersson's take on "what it is that makes us human."
266. Rookwood & Mrs. King by Lilith Saintcrow I got the impression that this story was part of an already-established world, but nothing in the author's notes at the end confirms that suspicion. So this might be one of those rare anthology stories that feels like it belongs to something already extant even though it is in fact it's own new thing. The Rookwood of the title is a cop-turned-private investigator with a problem: he's not quite human, not quite vampire. He's been surviving, taking on cases, but waiting for the one case that will enable him to come face-to-face with the creatures that created him, and it seems that case has finally fallen in his lap. There are a series of double-crosses, often telegraphed with phrases like "if only he'd told her the truth at the beginning..." Those phrases cause the story to stumble a bit and feel clunky in spots. It's not a bad story, and in fact I like the concept of half-turned victims of vampires who need to find a way to survive (reminiscent of The Fellowship of St. Giles in the Harry Dresden books, but Saintcrow handles the concept differently, which I appreciated).
267. God's Creatures by Carrie Vaughn This story of Cormac, Monster Hunter, feels a bit similar to Shannon Butcher's story above -- the monsters are more your traditional sort (in this case, a werewolf) but like Ryder Ward, Cormac carries the weight of a family tradition handed to him before he was really ready to take it on. Ward and Cormac are essentially loners, and loners who hold to a certain code that doesn't allow them to believe what is right in front of their eyes. I found the identity of the werewolf to be a bit easy to figure out -- the "red herrings" weren't really much of a distraction -- but that didn't really detract from the overall flow of the story. The question is a bit less "who" and a bit more "how is Cormac going to finish this?" Which again, makes it bookend nicely with the Butcher story. Cormac is apparently a supporting player in Vaughn's ongoing werewolf series, but this felt nicely stand-alone. Only the author's note at the end clued me in to the fact that Cormac had appeared before.
And since I reviewed Jim Butcher's Even Hand, his Johnny Marcone story in this anthology, a month or so back ... that means I'm done with the book!