Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" – knockout short story collection

Kelly Link is the best short-fiction writer working in science fiction and fantasy today, and her new collection, Magic for Beginners, proves it. The book came out some months ago, but I've been backlogged — however, once I started this magnificent collection, I couldn't put it down.

Like Kelly's first collection, Stranger Things Happen (now available as a free Creative Commons download), Magic for Beginners is sly, funny, and moving. Kelly's gift is to use plain, spare language to describe mind-crogglingly weird things that revolve around people experiencing heart-wrenching and/or uplifting emotions.

In a collection as full of wonderful work as this one, it's hard to pick a single story as the standout, but for me it was the title story, Magic for Beginners. In Magic for Beginners, we meet Jeremy Mars, the son of a horror writer who compulsively shoplifts books from the local bookstore and reupholsters sofas in his spare time. Jeremy's mother is a librarian who writes checks to the local bookstore to cover the losses from her husband's sticky fingers.

Jeremy is addicted to a guerrilla TV show, a kind of uber-Buffy-cum-Twin-Peaks that appears at irregular intervals, unannounced, on the snowy upper slopes of cable. He and his group of friends (so lovingly well-drawn that I've been pining for my high-school chums since reading it) chase this show, as do sizable numbers of bloggers, fans, and weirdniks.

The fandom is perfect and passionate, and the best thing, the very best thing, is how Kelly describes the show, giving us tantalizing bits and pieces of what sounds like the greatest television show anyone has ever imagined.

It's absurdist magic realism, like Douglas Coupland wandering through a Marquez novel.

The short story collection is an endangered species — hardly the kind of thing you're apt to find at the airport. But Kelly Link is the best argument for working to preserve the species. No writer can match her for sheer Kelly Linkiness — she's utterly original and a pure delight.

This is one of the best things about The Library, the way the cast swaps parts, all except for Faithful Margaret and Prince WIng, who are only ever themselves. Faithful Margaret and Prince Wing are the love interests and the main characters, and therefore, inevitably, the most boring characters, although Amy has a crush on Prince Wing.

Fox and the dashing-but-treacherous pirate-magician Two Devils are never played by the same actor twice, although in the twenty-third episode of The Library, the same woman played them both. Jeremy supposes that the casting could be perpetually confusing, but instead it makes your brain catch on fire. It's magical.

You always know Fox by her costume (the too-small green T-shirt, the long full skirts she wears to hide her tail), by her dramatic hand- gestures and body language, by the soft, breathy-squeaky voice the actors use when they are Fox. Fox is funny, dangerous, bad-tempered, flirtatious, greedy, untidy, accident-prone, graceful, and has a mysterious past. In some episodes, Fox is played by male actors, but she always sounds like Fox. And she's always beautiful. Every episode you think that the Fox, surely, is the most beautiful Fox there could ever be, and yet the Fox of the next episode will be even more heart-breakingly beautiful.

On television, it's night in The Free People's World-Tree Library. All the librarians are asleep, tucked into their coffins, their scabbards, priest-holes, button holes, pockets, hidden cupboards, between the pages of their enchanted novels. Moonlight pours through the high, arched windows of the Library and between the aisles of shelves, into the park. Fox is on her knees, clawing at the muddy ground with her bare hands. The statue of George Washington kneels beside her, helping.


Update: w00t! The title story of this collection is online free in six parts: Page 1 | Page 2
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