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Stealing Magic, Tanya Huff, Tesseract, 1999, 202 pp.

This volume collects Tanya Huff's short stories about two female characters, Magdelene and Terazin, and includes Huff's first sale in 1986 right up to a story written especially for this collection. Stealing Magic is charming, funny, and once again proves that Huff has no regard for the conventions and boundaries of genre. Take for example the standard dictum about powerful characters: heroes or heroines have to have some kind of personality flaw, or if they have magic power, that power has to have some limitation or handicap. The first six stories of Stealing Magic feature Magdelene, the most powerful wizard in the world. She can raise the dead, defeat demon princes, teleport, turn the swords of angry soldiers into fish, and so forth, all without even raising a sweat. Where does the conflict come from if there are no worthy rivals? How can the protagonist prove his virility if there is no one to vanquish? Here, the protagonist is female, and she is most often dealing with pesky men bent on the aforementioned proof -- the genre is turned on its head, and to hilarious effect. The Magdelene stories in Stealing Magic are certainly some of the few "high fantasy" short works that I have enjoyed recently.

"The Last Lesson" tells about Magdelene's first experience with magic, and Huff went back to write this story of origin after having established Magdelene as a character. Adar is the king's wizard and he has a nefarious plan, of which Magdelene is unaware, to steal her power. All of his malevolence and cunning are no match for Magdelene's innocent fascination with magic and her raw power. The humour of the story, as with much of Huff's writing, comes from the masterful use of understatement. Adar's scheming comes to naught at a critical moment: "The last Magdelene saw of Adar, he was definitely not happy as he disappeared within the flames" (9).

"Be It Ever So Humble" takes place later in Magdelene's life (as the most powerful wizard in the world, she has a long lifespan, which leads to some huge gaps in the chronology that beg for more stories). She is looking for a place to settle down and enjoy the pleasures of life, and finds a quiet fishing village. Bandits come along, expecting easy marks. By the end, Death herself shows up for the final showdown.

"Third Time Lucky" was Huff's first sale, as she explains in the Author's Afterword. All of Magdelene's shining qualities are here already; her treatment of pesky men trying to prove themselves, her eye for men who are good-looking, her laziness, and her status as the wizard without equal. Unlike some of the stories about Magdelene written later, this Magdelene still has a character flaw which drives the story. For a debut story, it's still quite a feat of writing.

"And Who is Joah?" tells about the relationship between Magdelene and a young girl named Joah. Joah has more magical power than anyone Magdelene has met in a long time, and the sparks fly. But Joah is still young and naive, and wanders a little too carelessly through the rooms of Magdelene's house (which don't stay in the same place or dimension for too long) and ends up in the underworld. Rescue proceeds with much hilarity.

"Nothing Up Her Sleeve" is one of the funniest stories in the collection because of its deadly-accurate satirical jabs. All of the fuddy-duddy wizards that have overrun fantasy take the lion's share of the pain, and Magdelene outwits them without much effort. The story comes to a different end than the one Magdelene was intending, but that's due to the stupidity of the Council of Wizards.

In "Mirror, Mirror, On the Lam," Magdelene's house is burgled. The enchanted mirror from "The Last Lesson" is stolen and Magdelene sets out to track it down before someone gets hurt by the demon trapped inside the mirror. The story has one of the better setpieces of the collection: Magdelene teleports into a city that has changed since the last time she visited it. She arrives at the shrine of Hersota, a goddess whose return has been long been foretold. She asks the thief of the mirror (who she tracked down very easily) about Hersota and the thief replies:

"According to her believers, she was a stern and unforgiving demiurge who preached that hard work and chastity were the only ways to enlightenment."

Magdelene stared at him in astonishment. "And they want her to come back?" (111).

The story ends with the promise of more adventures.

Stealing Magic has three more stories, these about a thief character by the name of Terazin. These concluding stories are well-written but more conventional. Terazin has typical character flaws, she does the standard thief antics, and the narratives are less uniquely shaped. I liked them, but they didn't have the same immediate charm of the stories about Magdelene.

Last modified: March 14, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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