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Black Cats and Broken Mirrors
edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers
DAW Books, 316 pages

Black Cats and Broken Mirrors
Martin H. Greenberg
Martin H. Greenberg is the most prolific anthologist in publishing history. He has won the Milford Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction Editing and was Editor Guest of Honor at the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention. He lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

ISFDB Bibliography
Martin H. Greenberg anthologies - 1st of 4 pages

John Helfers
John Helfers' short fiction includes "Blood Ghost", "Ghost in the Machine" and "In the Forest of Sorrows".

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

Don't let James Brown fool you. Martin H. Greenberg is the hardest working man in show business.

His first anthology was Political Science Fiction in 1974, with Patricia Warrick. It's a safe bet that one way or another it was a rewarding experience, since in the intervening twenty-four years he's followed up with over two hundred more -- most of them collaborations, and virtually all of them genre-related. Greenberg was born in 1941... assuming he lives to the ripe Asimovian age of 72, and assuming he clings to his word processor until the bitter end, at 9.2 volumes per year that gives us another... I dunno how many volumes. A lot.

Greenberg's been published by virtually every major publisher in the field, but at the moment none suits him more than DAW. DAW has shown a greater commitment to original short fiction than any other publisher in the genre, presenting a new volume of (mostly) original SF and fantasy in a themed anthology virtually every month -- and in the last year Greenberg and his talented collaborators have provided eight, including such titles as Return of the Dinosaurs (with Mike Resnick), First Contact (with Larry Segriff), and The UFO Files (with Ed Gorman). On his vacation months folks like Orson Scott Card, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jennifer Roberson have filled in with original anthologies of their own.

For the latest in this nearly unbroken string, Greenberg teams up with newcomer John Helfers for a look at superstitions, both modern and ancient. Black Cats and Broken Mirrors collects seventeen original stories from "some of today's best fantasy writers, both seasoned professionals and bold newcomers," including Nancy Springer, Charles de Lint, Jane M. Lindskold, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman. The authors seem to have been given a free rein, so long as they kept to the broad topic of superstitions. Or, as in some cases, arguably close to the topic.

Each story is introduced with a brief author bio, and followed by a few words from the author. I like this sort of information, particularly in a collection featuring multiple writers. But if you don't care for it, you'll be happy to know the bulk of the space between the covers is filled with fiction. Even Helfers' introduction is mercifully brief.

The stories cover a wide range of superstitions, and there's a mix of eras, moods and styles, although most fall clearly in the category of contemporary fantasy. One exception is Esther M. Friesner's contribution, "How It All Began," which opens the collection on a humorous note with a tongue-in-cheek look at the origin of superstitions, back in the days when Joseph was interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh. This fun little tale starts the reader off on the right foot, but from there on we're left more or less without direction.

Some of the stories deal with common superstitions:
If you die in your dream will you wake up dead?
Who's listening when you make a wish at the wishing well?
Can a photograph really capture your soul?
while others deal with less well-known superstitions:
How can a mirror be used as a scrying device?
Why is it bad luck to step on a sidewalk tile marked with a cross?
How do you use a frog to win your fairy princess?
But sometimes the line between superstition and tradition grows rather fuzzy. And at least once we move right out of the realm of superstition and into the territory of cliché:
don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

There are a few stories about superstitions backfiring, the most successful of which is "The Cat Who Wasn't Black" by Josepha Sherman, which has a clever twist at the end that's telegraphed at the outset, if you can only figure it out. (You might, if you know horses.) Peter Crowther's "Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told" is another tale on a similar theme. Poor old Front-Page follows every superstition in the book, and has a hell of a time shaking loose from the grip of all his artificially created luck.

"The Pennymen" by Charles de Lint is only peripherally about lucky pennies, and is more concerned with the nature of reality and what goes on when we're not looking. Just because we talk to people who aren't there, does that make us crazy? Depends on your perspective, I suppose. And taking the nature of reality one step further is Michelle Sagara West's "Step on the Crack," which shows us a world in which children can believe something into existence. Yikes! No wonder they keep most of the adults safely out of reach. And no wonder they took away all the nursery rhymes and fairy tales. And comic books. And religion.

"Auspicious Stars" by Jane M. Lindskold is my personal favourite. It's something of a supernatural murder-mystery in which the heroine of the story receives very personal advice from the local paper's daily horoscope -- something she never really believed in before. Or so she claims.

Probably the best-written story in the collection, "To the Edge of the World" by Zane Stillings, is a quiet, introspective exploration of how we sometimes inherit superstitions from our parents, whether we want to or not, and whether we think we believe in them or not. If there are any award-winners hiding in this book (and I'm afraid there aren't many), Stillings' should top the list.

I think the concept behind this book is a good one, but there's something lacking. For one thing, I didn't walk away with the strong sense of thematic focus found in some of Greenberg's more successful anthologies, such as Elf Fantastic and The UFO Files. It's a little disappointing that there isn't a stronger thread pulling the stories together, or a clearer organization of the theme or, well... anything, really. Maybe if the editors had more clearly defined the criteria for inclusion it would have felt less disjointed. The stories themselves are, with a few exceptions, disappointingly mediocre and some feel like they just don't belong. In truth, it's more like reading several unrelated stories than a themed collection.

And, I have to say it, the typos! I'm willing to forgive two or three mistakes in a book of this length, but it's closer to two or three per story. That strikes me as rather careless, especially for a journeyman with Greenberg's reputation. Maybe he needs to bring a third editor on board to keep up the pace. Or perhaps the whole project was too rushed to have made a good job of it. Better luck next time (knock on wood).

Table of Contents
How It All Began Esther M. Friesner
Thirteen Ways to Water Bruce Holland Rogers
Whirlwinds Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Dead Tired R. Davis
Shards of Glass Kristin Schwengel
The Cat Who Wasn't Black Josepha Sherman
Something Blue Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Crossroads Genevieve Gorman
The Song of a Gift Horse Dean Wesley Smith
Caretaking Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Soul Cages Carol Rondou
Auspicious Stars Jane M. Lindskold
Frogged Nancy Springer
Step on the Crack Michelle Sagara West
Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never ToldPeter Crowther
To the Edge of the World Zane Stillings
The Pennymen Charles de Lint

Copyright © 1998 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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