Short story anthologies are a hit-and-miss affair -- and most of the time, you get a lot more misses than you get hits. Fortunately "Strange Brew" is more of a hit anthology than a miss one, bringing together a solid collection of urban fantasy short stories -- they're all about spells, creepy goings-on and witches and wizards who either cook up the magic or try to defuse it.
It starts off strong with a pair of stories by urban fantasy heavyweights Patricia Briggs and Jim Butcher, who typically set their stories in their popular imaginary worlds. "Seeing Eye" introduces us to embittered witch Moira Kelly, who is asked by a werewolf to help rescue his brother from the brutal pseudo-coven Samhain. Unfortunately, she has some nasty history with the evil leader Kouros, and a budding connection to her new werewolf client.
And "Last Call" has Harry Dresden discovering that a mass berserker brawl broke out at Mac's... and Mac's home-brewed beer may be at fault. The spell is a pretty intricate and delicate one, which could only be done by a major player in magic -- leading Harry and Murphy on an elaborate hunt for the person who bespelled the beer. Did someone want Mac's out of business, or is something even weirder -- and more ancient and inhuman -- going on?
Some other good stories: Rachel Caine's resurrecting witch Holly takes on a tragic personal case for the police, only to discover a horrendous scheme using zombies. Karen Chance's "war witch" trainer Lia suddenly finds herself being attacked by a sorcerous assassin with a very long-term grudge. Faith Hunter's magical mommy Molly helps out her husband with a horrendous vampire crime, and must team up with were buddy Faith Yellowrock to stop them.
Also, bestseller Charlaine Harris provides a story about the newly-widowed vampire Dahlia Lynley-Chivers, who wants a grimoire from a chattery flaky Circe (not THE Circe!). And editor PN Elrod contributes a solid piece of work from her bestselling Vampire Files series: Charles Escott and his vampire partner Jack Fleming are asked to recover a cursed diamond, the Hecate's Eye.
But it ends with a whimper rather than a bang: Jenna MacLaine's cheesily named "Dark Sins" has a vampire/witch Righteous (she's uniquely special!) and her lover run afoul of some evilly evil wizards who want to kill her for whatever reason. And Caitlin Kittredge's story is about Anita-Blakesque werewolf whiner Luna's wussier cousin Sunny, who is inexplicably in danger.
"Strange Brew" has a lot of the better urban fantasy authors in it -- some are really popular, some are incredibly funny and spooky, and one that was one of the urban fantasy pioneers. Briggs, Elrod and Butcher are the standouts here, since they craft solid little self-contained stories with a quirky sense of humor (an armored waistcoat from Elrod) and snappy dialogue ("Intimidatus dorkus maximus!"). Butcher even comes up with the hilarious idea of a Hot Topic for the "trendy, self-appointed Death Eater wannabes."
Harris' has a slightly rushed ending, though the story itself is deeply intriguing. And again, the last two are limp noodles -- Chance's cheesiness ("Oh, you'll fear me before this is over. I promise you, you'll die screaming for my mercy") and annoying heroine, and Kittredge's misogyny and oppressively "tuff girl" attitude. Sunny is supposed to be a wuss, but she sounds just like her annoying cousin.
Which brings me around to the characters, who are an interesting mix -- we've got werewolves, witches, and wizards of every stripe, from warriors to detectives to stay-at-home mommies. Briggs particularly scores when she features a maimed and disabled witch as her lead, and Harris introduces a brittle, rather snobby vampire protagonist who nevertheless gets some sympathy. And Caine's likable resurrectionist is a bit brutal at the finale, but you can definitely understand why.
"Strange Brew" is indeed a strange brew -- lots of spells and danger intertwined together, and a mostly-good collection of stories that definitely deserve reading. Just skip the last two.