Saturday, March 14, 2015

Book Review: Hecate's Cauldron

Book Review: 'Hecate's Cauldron' edited by Susan M. Schwartz

3 / 5 Stars

‘Hecate’s Cauldron’ (256 pp) was published by DAW (book No. 469) in February, 1982; the cover artwork is by Michael Whelan.

In her Introduction, Editor Susan Schwartz describes the role of the witch, or sorceress, in world literature, indicating that in assembling stories for this anthology, she elected entries that avoided the traditional treatment of the witch as a figure necessarily limited to medieval European legend and history. 

Accordingly, the majority of the stories in ‘Cauldron’ are not tales of warty old crones casting spells and riding brooms, but rather, are fantasy stories that prominently feature female characters.

All of the stories in this volume were specially commissioned or solicited for this book.

My short summaries of the entries:

Boris Chernevsky’s Hands, by Jane Yolen: in the far future, a young man of Russian descent encounters Baba Yaga.

Mirage and Magic, by Tanith Lee: at this period of her career, Lee routinely over-wrote her fantasy short stories; this tale, however encrusted with self-consciously ornate prose, deals with a sorceress who is converting a city’s young men into shambling simpletons.

Willow, by C. J. Cherryh: Cherryh, also intent on using a prose style heavily modeled on the prose of Ye Olde Mythes and Legendes, offers a dark, brooding tale of a battle-weary knight and his encounter with manifestations of the Goddess.

Moon Mirror, by Andre Norton: a Witch World tale; the young woman protagonist has an encounter with a magical pond. A rather unremarkable tale from Norton.

The Sage of Theare, by Diana Wynne Jones: the weakest entry in the anthology. This story uses a humorous approach to the adventures of the mortal son of the God Apollo, who finds his earthly destiny with the aid of the mage Chrestomanci, a character from Jones’s previous fiction. Devoid of any witches, sorceresses, or other lead female characters, this story undoubtedly showed editor Schwartz what happens sometimes with these invited anthologies: you’re stuck with what your contributors give you............

The Harmonious Battle, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson: derived from Japanese myth and legend, this story deals with a female samurai and her adventures in the spirit world.

Science is Magic Spelled Backwards, by Jacqueline Lichtenberg: a contemporary setting is used for this humorous tale of a young woman, an engineer at a nuclear power plant, who gets timely advice from her mother and her mother’s coven.

An Act of Faith, by Galad Elflandson: this is really the only entry in the book that is set in medieval Europe, in this instance, Norway. It’s a grim, violent story about the village seeress and herbalist who confronts the depredations of Christians seeking to convert the heathens. Its treatment of Christianity is unabashedly scathing.

Witch Fulfillment, by Jean Lorrah: another contemporary setting, and another humorous tale; Mary Sue Clyatt consults occult wisdom and makes a bargain with a demon for earthly fame, riches, and romance.

Ishigbi, by Charles Saunders: Saunders, the author of the 'Imaro' stories, offers a downbeat and bloody tale about an African witch who takes vengeance on a fellow sorcerer. One of the better stories in the anthology.

Bethane, by Katherine Kurtz: a Deryni story. The title character, and elderly healer and herbalist, confronts old hatreds when asked to render aid to the children of the nobility.

The Riddle of Hekaite, by Diana L. Paxson: the Queen of a besieged kingdom makes a fateful bargain with the Goddess, who demands her due. Another of the better entries in the collection.

Reunion, by Jayge Carr: retelling of the myth of Persephone, with a modern, slightly sardonic tenor.

Summing up ? ‘Hecate’s Cauldron’, while inevitably containing its share of underwhelming entries, is a reasonably successful anthology overall. It’s an indication that by the early 80s, fiction by women was coming into its own in the world of fantasy publishing, and that DAW was at the forefront…. And thus, ‘Cauldron’ is a premonition of the fact that women would come to constitute the major audience for fantasy literature.

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