"Wolfsbane and Mistletoe" is short story collection from well-known authors who have been asked to write stories with two elements to them: Werewolves and Christmas, an unusual combination that is meant to provoke some even more unusual tales.
This is a re-read for me, to get me into the Christmas mood. This time I'm trying the audiobook version.
The collection opens with "Gift Wrap" by Charlaine Harris, a Sookie Stackhouse story. This was a fun piece where Sookie has a surprise encounter on Christmas Eve. The essentials of Sookie's character are all there and the plot elements reflect the structure of the books. Then Charlaine Harris adds a twist at the end that sets the story in a different light and explains the title. Good fun. My only stumbling block was with the way the narrator pronounced Sookie's name. I've never heard it read aloud before, but in my head she's always been SUE KEY. The narrator called her SUCK EE. That just sounds like an entirely different person to me.
"The Haire of the Beast" by Donna Andrews is a tale of magic a Christmas that you can imagine being written with a truly wicked smile on the author's face. The idea is novel and the story is told with a lightness of touch that fans the dark humour without getting bogged down in unnecessary distractions like ethics and the nature of wickedness. It's rare to find an author who handles humour well so I've decided to check out her Meg Langslow series, starting with "Murder With Peacocks" which won the Barry Award for debut novel in 2006.
"Lucy At Christmas" by Simon R Green just passed me by. He has many fans and is in most of the anthologies I buy but what he's good at and what I want just don't seem to intersect.
"Night Things Changed" by Dana Cameron is a story of two Fangborn siblings, a vampire psychologist and an ex-cop now PI werewolf, fighting an unexpected evil in present day Salem in the days before Christmas. The Fangborn concept is a trope twisting one which I won't spoil by revealing here but which I greatly enjoyed. The werewolf seemed more human than most of the characters I read in Urban Fantasy and I found myself hoping he'd get exactly what he wanted for Christmas.
I read the first Fangborn book "Seven Kinds Of Hell" back in 2014 and it didn't gel with me, mostly because I couldn't get behind the plight of the main character. I'm thinking that I should give the second book a try, in case I missed something.
"Werewolf Before Christmas" by Kat Richardson starts with a wayward werewolf, lost in the North Pole on Christmas Eve, eating a reindeer with a very red nose and then having to take his place. Over the course of Christmas night, Kat Richardson draws out the German Santa myths, together with his evil companion, Black Peter, punisher of children on the naughty list. It's a playful tale, that occaisionally descends into Christmas Carol style rhymes and rhythms and ends with a dark twist.
"Fresh Meat" by Alan Gordon is an original, tense, tightly written tale of an attack-dog trainer with a unique bond with the animals he trains. I'd never read Alan Gordon before but, after sampling this tale, I'll be seeking him out. He knows how to structure a plot and how to reveal it for maximum tension. His characters, including the dogs, are strongly written and not a word is wasted.
"Il Est Ne" by Carrie Vaughn is a Kitty Norville Christmas story. It takes place after book three in the Kitty Norville series, when Kitty has been exiled from her pack and her home city of Denver and finds herself so alone at Christmas that she eats a Pancake House just to have some company. Just when "It's A Wonderful Life" starts to play, she finds something completely unexpected.
I enjoyed this story tremendously. It's well told and well plotted. It shows Kitty in a good light without making her the centre of attention. It looks again at what is monstrous and what is human and how we become the choices we make. Most of all it interweaves all the traditional things you expect to find in a good Christmas story: kindness to those facing adversity Christmas spirit reaching past isolation, the importance of family and, as the title suggests, a miraculous birth.
"Perfect Gift" is an edgy and slightly devious werewolf story from Dana Stabenow. If you can guess the nature of the gift before the last couple of pages of the story, then you're more astute than I am.
"Christmas Past" by Keri Arthur is an urban fantasy rom com that was witty enough but a little too heavy on the romantic clichés for my taste.
"SA" by J.A. Konrath is a comedy on such a completely over the top scale that it makes "The Rocky Horror Show" seem like a Hallmark movie. I found it too loud and too long but that's just me.
"Star Of David" by Patricia Briggs is remarkable. She's crammed a whole novel's worth of entertainment and imagination into this short story. It feels complete and fully conceived, not just a Christmas idea wrapped in verbal tinsel. I'd like to read more about the werewolf at the centre of the this story but I feel like I've already been given a chance to get to know him and his family. I've had Patricia Briggs' "Moon Called" in my TBR pile for a while now.This story made me want to get to it soon
"You'd Better Not Pyout" by Nancy Pickard is a globe-spanning piece of humorous fantasy that pitches vampires against werewolves and gives us a Santa you really wouldn't want to leave cookies out for. The dialogue between the two Russian vampires is fun and the ideas are original but the werewolf is very loosely drawn. Still, the story made me smile and the ideas were interesting.
"Rogue Elements" by Karen Chance. There's a whole world in this story of treachery amongst the Weres in Las Vegas. The plot is satisfyingly twisty, the action scenes work well, the world is clearly drawn without massive info dumps and the main character is someone I want to cheer for. Karen Chance is a new author for me so I was delighted to see that there are a couple of series of books for me to explore. I'm going to start with "Touch The Dark", the first book in the Cassandra Palmer series.
"Milk And Cookies" by Rob Thurman caught me by surprise. It's a high school tale that is well-grounded in an unromantic understanding of what life in school is like. This makes the supernatural parts of the story even more effective. It also wraps itself around the idea of a family Christmas in interesting ways. This is a clever story that is also an engaging read.
"Keeping Watch Over His Flock" by Toni L. P. Kelner. This was the perfect ending to the anthology: a story of a teen werewolf having his first, angst-filled Christmas with his adopted pack. The story feels real, from the anger and frustration of the teen werewolf, through to the dynamics of the werewolf pack. The plot unwound at a pace that kept me wanting to know more and the tale itself was one that brought out a feel-good-Christmas spirit, despite the dark setting. Very nicely done, especially by someone who normally writes mysteries rather than fantasy.