Posted on February 25, 2009 by Billzilla
Tracy Benton reviews Wolfsbane and Mistletoe
Because, after all, nothing goes with Christmas like werewolves, right?
As a follow-up to Many Bloody Returns (vampires and birthdays), editors Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner bring us Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (2008), an anthology of stories starring werewolves and set at Chrismastime. (To give them credit, the editors state in the introduction that they rejected the zombies-and-Arbor Day combination.) I was sufficiently intrigued by this concept to read the book, and I was also attracted by the array of authors, which, oddly enough, are mainly mystery writers.
I expect some unevenness with any anthology, and this set of short stories breaks apart about half and half. Harris’s own entry, “Gift Wrap,” is a bit of a let down. While she brings in her main character from the Southern Vampire novels, Sookie Stackhouse, the plot is rather thin and the story feels like a throwaway. With a full roster of werewolves in her books, I was surprised she didn’t take the opportunity to further develop one of her minor characters; but oh well. A more entertaining tale is Donna Andrews’s “Haire of the Beast,” in which an experiment involving an ancient spellbook, some “magic brownies,” and a rancorous ex goes horribly wrong… depending on your point of view. This story is extremely short but still a fun read.
Another of the highlights is Dana Cameron’s “The Night Things Changed.” This story features some very complex world-building, introducing the reader to the Fangborn, vampires and werewolves who fight evil throughout the world. This one really is a mystery, with vampire Claudia and her werewolf brother Gerry (yeah, really) tracking down a psychopathic killer. It was interesting enough that I went looking for her other stories set in this world… but there don’t appear to be any. Kind of a surprise that so much ee-imagining of old monster tropes was done for one short story.
The selections in this anthology I found the weakest were those that actually featured Santa Claus. In “The Werewolf Before Christmas” by Kat Richardson, a poor choice of meals causes a werewolf to end up filling in for Rudolph by pulling Kris Kringle’s sleigh. While this idea had possibilities, the story becomes a tale of personal redemption, and I didn’t particularly care about the character in question. Nancy Pickard’s “You Better Not Pyout” takes quite an opposite tack: Santa is a vampire. So is Rudolph. Mix in some Romanov vampires, some African wild dogs… and the reader is pretty much left in the dust. At least, I was. I gave up on that one.
Patricia Briggs and Alan Gordon both present situations in which a werewolf makes the best possible use of his talents while living beneath the radar in the human world — Briggs gives us David, who runs a team of mercenaries, and Gordon offers us Sam, who trains dogs very, very well indeed. Both of these stories are only barely related to Christmas, but are interesting twists on how weres might exist unnoticed. Carrie Vaughn’s “Il Est Ne” approaches the supernatural existence from a different angle: a werewolf who can barely control his wolfy urges meets another, a woman driven from her pack. They form an alliance to find a monster terrorizing a small town on Christmas Eve, and the framing device of a chance meeting at the local Waffle House works extremely well.
I must admit, however, that the story I most enjoyed in this anthology was one that made me laugh out loud several times: J. A. Konrath’s “SA.” S.A. in this case refers to Shapeshifters Anonymous. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but suffice to say that this is a meeting of S.A. that is quite unforgettable, and which will certainly cause you to utter the phrase, “a were-WHAT?” By the time the red-suited hordes attack, only the most jaded fantasy reader will be able to keep a straight face.
There are enough enjoyable tales in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe to make it worth a read, particularly if you enjoy supernatural critters mixed in with your mystery or thriller stories. There’s little here that’s actively scary, though a few stories have a good bit of gore involved.
Prepare for a mixed bag, and you won’t be disappointed.
Review by Tracy Benton