Strange Candy is a collection of 14 short stories by Laurell K. Hamilton, author of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter and Merry Gentry novels.
The first story in the book, "Those Who Seek Forgiveness" is, as Laurell puts it, "the first time Anita ever walked on paper for me." I hate to say it, but it's not that great a story. This is obviously Anita Blake Mark I. The character traits that would make Anita something special, the wit, the vicious sense of humor, the repressed sexuality, are nowhere in evidence - because they didn't yet exist in the author's mind.
Many readers will be shocked to discover "Those Who Seek Forgiveness" was the template for much of Laurell's short novel Micah. I said good things about Micah upon its release. I would have been less impressed had I known how much of it was a retread. The basic plot of Anita being hired by a murderer to raise the zombie of their victim, the zombie breaking free of Anita's control to attack its killer, Anita flung through the air to crack her head on a gravestone, being knocked unconscious, waking up at the end of the story in a hospital bed after her client's death, all were lifted from "Those Who Seek Forgiveness".
The rest of the stories are mostly forgettable, about half-and-half not-very-fantastic fantasy and not-very-horrible horror. There's a reason Laurell K. Hamilton is not known as a great short story writer: she isn't. Overall her characters are cardboard, she hasn't the gift of sketching a believable, sympathetic personality in the few strokes allowed within a short story's limited word count. There's rarely a sense of real peril involved in the problems her characters face. The stories come across as unsatisfying, by-the-numbers exercises in which "people" you don't care about go through the motions of adventures that don't involve.
One irritating thing about the stories in Strange Candy, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the order in which they're presented. For instance, there are two stories starring Sidra Ironfist set in Laurell's Nightseer universe. But why the hell is Sidra's first-ever appearance presented **after** the follow-on story?
We're almost through the book before we hit a real winner, "Here Be Dragons". And Here Be One Hell of a Story. It's shocking, after wading through so much dreck, to suddenly hit one of the neatest, most vicious little psychological horror pieces I've ever experienced. It's like reading the work of a completely different writer. If every story in Strange Candy was of the quality of "Here Be Dragons" this would be a 5 star collection.
"Winterkill" which is also set in the Nightseer world, is, surprisingly, pretty darn good. Other than "Here Be Dragons" it's the only decent story in the collection, in my opinion. I found myself liking and rooting for main character Jessa - which, considering she's basically a killer-for-hire is a great accomplishment on the writer's part.
Strange Candy is bookended by two Anita Blake tales. It begins with "Those Who Seek Forgiveness" and ends with "The Girl Who Was Infatuated With Death" which takes place within continuity just before the novel Narcissus in Chains. As with so many recent Laurell K. Hamilton tales, "TGWWIWD" has a great set-up. Anita is hired to find a girl who is (a) dying of bone cancer and will in fact have her leg cut off in a few days, (b) about to be "turned" by a vampire, that very night, mostly so she can avoid the mutilation and painful death by cancer awaiting her otherwise. Problem: she's underage to legally make that choice. If the vampire turns her, he'll be up for execution. Does Anita "save" the girl from being turned - which legally is what she should do - knowing that by doing so she's condemning her to mutilation and, in short order, real death, or should she let it happen, knowing she's condemning the vampire? This presents Anita with a no-good-choices serious moral dilemma.
Unfortunately the great set-up soon gives way to zero forward momentum as the focus turns to - you guessed it - Anita's sex life. An over-emphasis on this one facet of Anita's life to the exclusion of plot has ruined every recent Anita Blake story, and it's no exception here. Thus, instead of bending all her efforts to finding the girl and the vampire in the few hours she has left, instead Anita spends the time playing footsy with Jean-Claude in his office at Guilty Pleasures while the police and other vampires do the job for her. Even Jean-Claude comments, "There was a time, ma petite, that you would have insisted on riding to the rescue yourself, questioning the girl's friend, and refusing to bring in the police at all." At which point I could not help but think, "Yeah, and wouldn't that be fun to read? There was a time this story would actually have been good."
Recommended for Anita Blake completists who absolutely need to own every word ever written about the character. Recommended for "Here Be Dragons" and "Winterkill". For myself this is a library rental, nothing more - a collection of mediocre short stories that just happens to contain one absolutely killer piece and one pretty good.