Ethnology professor Norman Saylor discovers that his wife has been putting his study of folk-magic to practical use. When he convinces her to stop, things go wrong, and he begins to wonder whether she might have been right to believe in magic after all.
I imagine most people first encounter Fritz Leiber from his Lankhmar series, but many know that he wrote a host of other good books, including Conjure Wife, his first novel. While in key ways a creature of its time in terms of societal attitudes, it’s nonetheless quite good.
It’s true that the premise, that women practice witchcraft to manipulate others, draws on a tired and harmful stereotype. Keep in mind that it was written in 1943, however, and it’s clear that Leiber is aiming to have a bit of satirical fun. Both Norman and his wife Tansy are well-rounded creatures. While somewhat stuck in the gender roles of their time, both are active and intelligent. Allowing for a little room for exaggeration and satire, the description of small-college life is both realistic and funny.
The writing is good throughout. The style is simple but smooth, and Leiber drops in little nuggets like this one: “That most pleasant of all sensations – the tug of work a man likes to do and is able to do well, yet that needn’t be done immediately.”
What makes the story works so well, in addition to smooth writing and engaging characters, is Leiber’s careful management of Norman’s attitude. He’s forced to weigh whether magic really exists, or the events of the story are complex and unconscious psychological constructs. Reason pushes him one way, while the need to save his beloved wife pushes in an another.
All in all, a clever, and very well written, if slightly dated, fantasy novel.