by Fritz Leiber
Cover Artist: Chris Mcgrath
Review by Judy Newton
Orb Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765324061
Date: 29 September 2009 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Conjure Wife is a reprint of a novel originally published in 1943. It feels like it: the reader must accept the thesis that women run the world in secret, with men oblivious to the web of spells all around them. Further, if men knew that magic really works, one of them could (overnight!) systematize the hit-or-miss corpus of spells used by the women to defeat the best of them at her own game.
One must set aside the inherent sexism of the premise to enjoy the story of competition among a small college's faculty and the scheming of their wives for their husbands' advancement. The picture of a placid town with emotions roiling underneath the surface takes on a sinister aspect when Professor Saylor realizes that his wife and others are dabbling in witchcraft serious enough to steal souls and transfer them to other bodies.
When he finds a suspicious collection of oddments in his wife's dresser drawer, she confesses that she and all women practice a folklore-like brand of magic designed to protect their loved ones and bring misfortune to others. He forces her to destroy her trove of ingredients and promise to give up the practice. Unfortunately for him, this includes all the protective charms she had planted on and about his person.
He begins to suspect all is not well when he notices a stone gargoyle on a neighboring building's roof moving gradually closer to his own office's window. Other signs point to the malevolent influence of rival faculty wives scheming to harm the now-vulnerable professor. Then his wife disappears, but manages to leave a trail of clues he must follow to find her and wrest her soul back from the jealous rival witch who had stolen it.
Read in the nineteen-forties, fifties or even sixties, this book would have provided an enjoyable read without the nagging spectre of sexism stalking the subtext. Fritz Leiber, an old master of the genre perhaps best known for the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser heroic fantasy series, expertly controls the tone of the tale as it veers from mildly satiric comedy to chilling nastiness. Billing it, as the publisher does, as "the classic of urban fantasy" is pushing that term a little too far for comfort. Still, it's an amusing visit to an older age of society and fiction, one that has been (one hopes) safely relegated to the past.