Fantastic Companions edited by Julie E. Czerneda

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"House of Cats" by Catharine Dybiec Holm
"Mountain Challenge" by John Mierau
"Just Hanah" by Doranna Durgin
Image"The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake" by Matt Walker
"Eggs for Dinner" by Jay Lake
"Dances with Coyotes" by John C. Bunnell
"Riverkin" by K. D. Wentworth
"Wings to Fly" by Fran LaPlaca
"Last of her Kind" by Janny Wurts
"Blood Ties" by Sarah Jane Elliott
"Dragon Time" by Ruth Nestvold
"Robes and Wands" by Janet Elizabeth Chase
"Uncle Ernie was a Goat" by Kent Pollard
"A Sirius Situation" by Daniel Archambault
"Once Upon a Toad" by Wen Spencer
"The Power of Eight" by Jane Carol Petrovich
"Darkbeast" by Mindy L. Klasky
"Kitemaster" by Jim C. Hines
"Singing Down the Sun" by Devon Monk
"House of Cats" by Catharine Dybiec Holm is a story of bitterness and forgiveness.  The story’s focus is on Kali Ma, a female cat whose bitterness towards her young owner, Brady, for the loss of her leg, has resulted in the loss of her sixth sense, the special way cats sense and maintain magic.  But the magic is damaged; dozens of cats are dying, and only Kali Ma and Brady can do anything about it.  First, though, Kali Ma must forgive Brady for what he’s done to her. 
If a story’s power is measured in how many times a day images from the story keep popping into your head unbidden and how long a story stays with you, then "House of Cats" is a powerful story, indeed.  But if how good a story is, is measured by how often we return to reread it, then House of Cats fails miserably.  While the central theme of the story—overcoming bitterness and fear to forgive for the sake of others—is masterfully drawn, the senseless, sadistic torture of cats portrayed in the story was a definite turnoff.  People who love cats deeply should avoid this story; the wordsmithing is excellent, and the images will stay with you much, much longer than you want them to.  
While "Mountain Challenge" by John Mierau begins with a melancholic overtone—the wolf Aleyku has lost his mate and his place as leader of the pack, and now seeks only to make his way to the top of the mountain to die—it doesn’t keep it for long.  Aleyku’s path up the mountain is blocked by a dragon, and their heated, often witty sparring shows us that Aleyku doesn’t really desire death as much as he thinks he does.  For the most part, the story is a lighthearted celebration of life and companionship.  We know what the ending will be before it comes, but that in no way lessens our delight in getting there.  "Mountain Challenge" is the story to read when you’re feeling slightly down and looking for something to pick you up again.  
If you cried at the end of the children’s classic My Friend Flicka, you’ll probably cry at the end of "Just Hanah" by Doranna Durgin.  It’s a story of growing up and coming to understand your world, your companions, and yourself. 
"Just Hanah" takes place in a world regularly disrupted by something called Flash; while the author isn’t clear on what Flash may be, she is clear that it’s dangerous, it’s deadly, and you never know where the next Flash burst is going to be.  Hanah, orphaned by Flash ten years before the beginning of the story, wants nothing more than to become one of the Brace Teams, made up of a human and a specially bred "caydog," that protect the city and the surrounding area from Flash.  The team is telepathically bonded, able to speak to each other through their thoughts.  However, Hanah and her caydog, Sharlie, haven’t bonded yet.  While Hanah blames Sharlie for this, we repeatedly get hints that it may not be as much Sharlie’s fault as Hanah would like to believe. 
The story is strong emotionally, and the theme—maturing through circumstances—is solid without being didactic.  And while the ending is realistic, it’s still close enough to happy to satisfy even my fairytale-loving mind.  
In "The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake" by Matt Walker, when Michael buys copies of some of his favorite books from childhood, reading them awakens the magic within.  The animals from the books bring Michael back into the stories as they journey to help the books’ former owner. 
While the idea behind this story is one I happen to love (the idea that the magic we loved as children is still there when we grow up, if we could just stop being adult long enough to see it), the story didn’t work for me.  Figuring out what was happening when the characters switched between the world of the books and the real world was confusing and took more effort than I wanted to spend on a short story, especially since I had trouble caring about the characters.  It may be that the story would mean more to someone who had actually read and loved Haywood’s books as a child, if they were real books, but I had never heard of them before.  I knew nothing about the characters except what the author told me—and that wasn’t enough to sustain my interest in the story.  
Like "Just Hanah," "Eggs for Dinner" by Jay Lake is a story of growing up, of self-discovery and self-realization.  Courtney is a young girl struggling to come to grips with her father’s absence and her mother’s return from extensive counseling.  It takes the appearance of a mysterious giant salmon to teach her how to see the world around her. 
While the story’s message is noble, it is poorly drawn.  "Eggs for Dinner" reads like a morality lesson, and while we sympathize with the main character, the sympathy isn’t deep enough to make the story enjoyable. 
The thing I liked best about reading "Dances with Coyotes" by John C. Bunnell was the skillful way Native American legend was woven together with modern life.  Aaron and Elena meet when Koyoda Speelyi, Aaron’s guardian spirit, assigns him a spirit quest: to attend his high school prom.  Aaron and Elena’s growing relationship is both helped and harmed by the giant coyote’s regular repeated appearances (and his atrocious sense of timing), but in the end, it’s Aaron and Elena who work out their relationship with each other and Aaron’s place in the white man’s world.  The characters are likeable—including Koyoda himself—and while there are no grand life lessons in the prose, this heartwarming story of affection and belonging is well worth reading more than once.  
In "Riverkin" by K. D. Wentworth, Luke and his father have come to the small town of Liberty hunting for gold, but when a tent fire kills Luke’s father, he is left on his own to find a way to survive.  With winter closing in and bushwhackers intent on taking from him the little he has left, his chances of survival seem very small, indeed.  He receives aid from an unexpected source; the otters who live along the river.
While this story is well-written, I found the ending unsatisfactory.  Other than that, the story was fine; the author does a good job of making us care about what happens to the character—even when we may not agree with what actually does happen.  And the story is clear and easy to follow throughout; we’re never lost or left behind when the story changes from the man-world to the world of the Riverkin.  
"Wings to Fly" by Fran LaPlaca begins gloomily enough, with the death of Eda, the main character’s mother figure and closest friend.  Rezzi, the main character, finds herself adopted by Eda’s precocious crow, Sanchez.  While setting Eda’s house in order, Rezzi finds a dozen books.  With Sanchez’s help, Rezzi learns how to use the knowledge within them. 
"Wings to Fly" is confusing the first time around, but the beautiful story is well worth the trouble to read.  The crow’s attitude towards Rezzi can only be described as loving concern—blended with a hearty helping of disgust at times when Rezzi is just a bit more frustrating than he can bear.  Of the two main characters, the crow, Sanchez, is the most fun to read, but the story is undeniably about Rezzi as she struggles to learn the use of the wings that will allow her to know the last book of all.  
"Last of her Kind" by Janny Wurts tells the story of Katlynne, a mute girl from the northern kingdom who is the last of the Guardian-Seers, wise ones able to bond with the great maned cats of the realm and to tell truth and dispense justice instantly.  According to ancient treaties, Katlynne is fostered at the king’s palace, where she will stay for five years.  Her arrival is a godsend for the realm, on the verge of being torn apart by intrigue, but the treaty demands that after five years, Katlynne choose where she will live for the rest of her life, and as the five years draws to an end, there’s little doubt about what Katlynne’s choice will be.   
The story’s end is as satisfying as could be desired.  The writing is fresh and vigorous, and the story is a delight to read.  Again, well worth taking the time to read. 

In "Blood Ties" by Sarah Jane Elliott, Kayla, the youngest princess of the t’Meladon house, is hiding a dark secret.  Her father’s prize, a captured griffin, is dead, and Kayla has blood on her hands.  As Kayla struggles with her lack of courage, as well as the dreams that haunt her continually, her father captures a second griffin, and Kayla has to ask herself just how much courage she actually has. 
While the story was well written for the most part, there were places that just seemed altogether too loose for a short story.  The ancient sword of Kayla’s ancestors, for example, is mentioned many, many times; we expect it to have at least some part to play in the final outcome of the plot, but it doesn’t.  And since one of the focal points of the story is the fact that Kayla wishes she had enough courage to lift the sword, we expect that by the end of the story, she’ll at least have picked the silly thing up—which she doesn’t.  
In "Dragon Time" by Ruth Nestvold, time has stopped in Unterdrachenberg.  The dragon queen is dead, and the dragon king is mad with grief.  It will take a human, a human woman, to enter the dragon’s lair and fix time again, but the art and magic of fixing time is forbidden to women.  Katja has watched her grandfather work with time for many, many years now, but can she fix it on her own?  And is she brave enough to even try? 
"Dragon Time" is a beautifully told tale.  It’s easy to feel empathy for Katja; she has just enough flaws that we can love her, and not so many that we lose respect for her.  The play of plot and emotion was especially lovely; the ending satisfies completely, and the love in the story positively shines.  While the story has ancient treaties, magician-clockmakers, and, of course, dragons—everything needed for a good fantasy story—it’s the love that stands out the most.  It’s a story I’ll go back to time and time again—pun intended.  

In "Robes and Wands" by Janet Elizabeth Chase, when Purvis’s mage master is killed, Purvis is left alone in the world.  Unless he can find the person who murdered his master and retrieve the robe and wands that were taken from him, he will have nothing to call his own.  It seems hopeless, until he meets up with an unexpected companion who just may be his only hope; a talking rat named Folderol. 
Purvis may be the main character, but it’s Folderol who steals the show with his droll mannerisms and his dry sense of humor.  The story has no deep moral themes behind it, but even so, it’s a fun, lighthearted read.   
As the title promises, "Uncle Ernie was a Goat" by Kent Pollard is written in a witty, tongue-in-cheek voice that makes reading it a pleasure.  Be that as it may, there’s nothing light or fluffy about the story. 
Ben comes from a long line of panthers.  Shape-changers, he and his family live as humans now, herding goats and mingling with their human neighbors.  They still change back to panthers, in secret, when they feel like it—all except for Uncle Ernie.  He stays in the form of a goat, and hasn’t taken human or panther form since before Ben was born.  Ben struggles with the stigma of herding the goats and his classmates’ jokes.  But jokes about the goats are the last of his worries when raiders kidnap one of the boys from the village. 
We feel along with Ben throughout the story, and the emotions, characters, and action keep us firmly engrossed to the end.  More than that, though, we learn with Ben; that peace is better than power, and content is better with control.  And that maybe, just maybe, having a goat in the family isn’t as bad as it seems.  
"A Sirius Situation" by Daniel Archambault is a fun, lighthearted story, but not one of my overall favorites.  When the constellations Canis Major and Ursa Minor chase each other out of the sky one night, it’s up to Walter and his wife, Jill, with the help of a bevy of other familiar constellations,  to get them back up where they belong.  While the idea is good, the story doesn’t work for me.  It seems to be one long monologue as the author shows off his knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology.  Anyone who’s familiar with the myths will feel patronized; anyone who isn’t will just feel lost.   
"Once Upon a Toad" by Wen Spencer is one of those stories where we know the end—or most of it, anyway—from the beginning.  However, it doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable.  The fun is in the journey, not the ending. 
Blight has been spreading over the land.  Legend says that the only way to destroy the Blight is for someone to travel to the Dragon Cave and wake the Hero.  Norrie is nothing more than a laundry maid to the ancient wizard Dyndentin, but when no one else sets out to find the Hero, she does, along with her faithful frog, Phred.  The story’s delight is its heroine; Norrie’s no-nonsense attitude and her willingness to do what has to be done are truly refreshing, and the story’s ending is fun and uplifting.  An all-around good read.  
In "The Power of Eight" by Jane Carol Petrovich, the Guardians have been gone from the earth since the time of the great cataclysm.  Most people have stopped believing in them; however, Mikhail isn’t so sure.  His leg has been lame most of his life; his family and village must struggle to survive, and the other boys at school bully him unmercifully.  He can’t help but believe that there must be more than this.  Nor does his belief go unrewarded, as the Guardians answer a desperate call and Mikhail learns how to change his world for the better.  
In the world of "Darkbeast" by Mindy L. Klasky, tradition demands that on their sixteenth birthday, all girls must kill their Darkbeast, a rat, toad, or some other animal bound to them by magic at birth.  The Darkbeast’s task is to take away fear, jealousy, anger, and any other dark emotions as the girls grow up; killing it symbolizes leaving behind their childhood as they enter womanhood.  But Ariane loves her Darkbeast, a jet-black raven named Caw.  Can she find the courage to kill him and take her place as a woman in the village?  
This story is well written and thoroughly enjoyable.  It’s also the best use of flashback I’ve ever seen in a short story.  The author switches skillfully between Ariane’s present and her memories, using flashbacks to their best advantage, each time showing one more emotion Caw has taken and giving us one more piece to the story, until we reach the emotion he couldn’t take—and see what the results are for the story.  It’s a beautiful story of growing up and all the challenges inherent in it.  
In "Kitemaster" by Jim C. Hines, Niel’s brother Lin is a prisoner of the rebels.  But he’s safe—as long as Niel uses her abilities as a Kitemaster to help the rebel leader guard his camp from the scout kites the Emperor’s army sends out.  Unfortunately, things aren’t always what they seem, and Niel realizes that soon, not even helping the rebels will guarantee her brother’s life—or her own.  She must act quickly to save them, but she isn’t powerful enough to carry them both to safety—is she?  
I spent far too much time in this story trying to figure out if the kites were the frame-and-fabric kind or the raptor-birds of the same name.  (They’re the frame-and-fabric kind.)  That aside, however, it’s a good story; Niel’s devotion to her brother is heartwarming, and her tiny kite-companion, Osa, keeps the story from being too dreary with her smart-aleck comments and dry humor.  
The last tale in this anthology, "Singing Down the Sun" by Devon Monk, is a story of the power of a child.  Sun’s dreams are held in the music of a magic lyre; jealous Moon and cruel Wind and Shadow want them, but only a child can play the lyre, and even then not for long.  The lyre can’t be broken by mortals, but until it is broken, Moon, Wind, and Shadow will continue to take one child after another, draining the life from them as they drain the music from the lyre.  Jai has seen many such children come and go; each time she tries to keep them safe, each time she tries to protect them, but the result is always the same.  Now a new child has appeared on her doorstep; will this one be strong enough to break the lyre and release Sun’s dreams forever? 
"Singing Down the Sun" is a strong, well-written story with a good premise and vivid imagery, but in the end it fell flat for me.  I had difficulty empathizing with the characters, and the ending felt forced.   While the story did have promise, it wasn’t quite as good as I think it could have been.  
Fantastic Companions is overall an enchanting read, interspersed with stories to make you laugh, cry, or think deeper about things you may never have thought of before.  This is one of those books to be read with a flashlight under the covers at midnight. 

Publisher: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005
Price: $16.95
Trade Paperback: 406 pages
ISBN: 1550418637