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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Strange Horizons, October 7, 2013

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Strange Horizons, October 7, 2013

“The Witches of Athens” by Laura Elena Donnelly

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

This week’s Strange Horizons gives us “The Witches of Athens” by Laura Elena Donnelly. It’s an entertaining story, though not especially deep or challenging. I doubt I’ll find myself referring to it years from now, but I didn’t begrudge the author the time it took to read it, and, while that may not sound like high praise, it’s more than I can say for Umberto Eco, and he probably gets invited to more dinner parties.

Donnelly’s story describes the resident witches in an American college town: Athens, Georgia, presumably. There are two witches, each one of whom frequents a different local diner. Like their respective diners, the witches are categorized – loosely – by their “flash-to-substance ratio.” One of them is attractive, stylish. The other is quiet and serious. The witches are never given names, which is a bit of a pain for a reviewer, but not otherwise a problem for the reader.

Each witch is currently working with a client who, on the surface, seems particularly suited to the specific strengths of that witch. Each of these customers is looking for help in love and, not surprisingly, each is in love with the other. But neither finds exactly what he wants with his witch-of-choice, and so the witches agree to swap clients. There’s a sense of friendly rivalry about the witches: each is keen to impress the other, as if a different magical tradition stands to win or lose prestige based on their performances.

And just as flamboyant Eli and stolid Jeremiah are secretly in love, despite their mismatched personalities, so are the witches. While this story posits a difference between flash and substance, it doesn’t rank them. Neither witch is any more or less sympathetic than the other and neither is more or less effective. They are simply different. And, like Eli and Jeremiah, their differences both accentuate and problematize the attraction between them.

While on the surface this tale also seems to be saying, rather simplistically, “opposites attract,” there’s more to it than that. What’s interesting is that both of the relationships described in “The Witches of Athens” are same-sex ones. Nothing is made of these orientations by the writer, nor should it have been. The fact that Eli and Jeremiah, both men, and the witches, both women, are attracted to each other is a simple negation of the too-obvious conclusion about opposites attracting. There are, in the end, no real differences here: only convergences.