As a reviewer, I often find myself frustrated by most very short pieces of fiction. Many times, the entire story turns on the conclusion, so that there is little that one can say about it without revealing the ending—which seems to annoy some people. In the time it takes to read the review, readers might as well have read the story itself. Sometimes I think that maybe I ought to just recommend such fiction—or not—with no further commentary.
Asimov's, April/May 2006
According to the editor, this double issue has a coming-of-age theme, anchored by the two novellas that open and close the fiction selections. The theme does not really appear in most of the other stories, but I find there is a broader one that does: people finding themselves, regardless of their age. There is a lot of reading here, most of it quite good, with two novellas, two novelettes, and eight shorter pieces. A superior issue, the best of this month.
Inclination by William Shunn
On Netherview Station, the cult of Machinists lives out on the rim in self-imposed isolation from the rest of the station with its sinfully modified population. There, Jude is an unhappy young man; he misses his dead mother and has doubts about his sexuality, but he is firm in his faith. Then his father suddenly announces that he is sending Jude to work at the station's hub; the Machinists are deeply in debt and need the credits that his work will earn them. The transition to this different world is difficult, but Jude adapts—too easily, too well. Eventually he learns that the faith which has always been the center of his life is based on a lie, and he must decide whether to go forward or back.
The station is a well-realized setting, and the faith of the Machinists is a fascinating creation; Jude's theological-geometrical disputations with his new friend Derek are particularly interesting. However, I simply can not accept that Jude's father would have sent a boy so young, so vulnerable, alone into such a nexus of sin and temptation as he believed the hub to be. And on this point, the entire story is built—or falls.
The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko
Actually, there are an infinite number of universes, and John Rayburn has a device that allows him to travel between them. There is only one device, but there are many Johns. John Prime has traveled through the universes and met himself over and over. As he tells Johnny Farmboy:
"Well, there are a couple types of us. There's the farm boy us, like you and me. Then there's the dirt bag us."
"Yeah. We smoke and hang out under the bleachers."
"What the hell happened there?""And sometimes we've knocked up Casey Nicholson and we live in the low income houses on Stuart. Then there's the places where we've died."
But John Prime is lying. John is a dirt bag. In his travels, he has collected a number of get-rich schemes that work in other universes; he plans to take Johnny's place on the farm and make his fortune. Now it will be Johnny's turn to navigate the differences between the worlds. How well will he cope?
While his premise is not an original one in science fiction, Melko immediately engages the reader with the divergent nature of his characters and their response to their common predicament. This one may well join the classics of the many-worlds canon.
Except the Music by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Max is a classical pianist, the guest star at a music festival arranged by his old mentor, Otto. Max is dissatisfied with his life and his career, and falls into a one-night stand with a strange woman whom he finds attractive and repellent at once. She seems almost to be stalking him. Then Otto dies in the middle of the festival, and Max is forced to confront what music has meant to the old man, when it comes from the heart.
What sets this piece apart from the many that follow the same plot template is the genuine feeling the author shows for the music. As Max listens to Mozart's Requiem,
The words faded, but the music did not. It rose, the soprano's voice soaring like a prayer, the bass, tenor, and contralto joining, adding balance and strength.
In the past, Max had felt his soul rise for only a few performers—Otto had been one of them—but on this night, with this piece, the orchestra, chorus, and soloists seemed to be speaking as one, their power raising goosebumps on his flesh, and transforming the auditorium into a place sublime.
Home Movies by Mary Rosenblum
Kayla's well-paying job is to experience events for her others. Nano-ware injected into her bloodstream absorbs her sensations; but when the nano is filtered out for the clients, her memory of the events is taken with them. She is hired by a very rich, powerful old woman to experience a family wedding, but things take an unexpected turn, and Kayla finds herself with experiences she does not wish to lose.
Rosenblum's story is vividly told, and her character's emotions come through strongly. I can sympathize with the decision she makes. However, the SFnal premise does not seem consistent with the nature of memory. I find it hard to accept that nano-ware filtered out of the blood could remove memories imprinted on the brain. It seems too much like the situation is a set-up by the author, and in consequence, the problem Kayla faces does not seem quite real.
Heisenberg Elementary by Wil McCarthy
McCarthy turns his gonzoid attention on the school system, imagining the results of computerized education gone wild. The more things change, the more reason kids will always have to hate school.
Literacy block is a hundred hours long. Fortunately, it takes place in a virtual universe, with minimal leakage. Boy, I feel sorry for that me! Our time, our real time, is spent taking standardized tests, like always.
"Real education costs real money," Miss Solarbad says cryptically. "But by measuring the outcome we can change it at the elementary level. When every chair contains a thousand children, the statistics are universal."
Quantum satire, crazy and absurd.
The Final Flight of the Blue Bee by James Maxey
Stinger was a real superhero as boy sidekick to the Blue Bee, but the judge didn't quite see it that way when he killed the diabolical Mr. Mental. He got forty years in the pen, and now that he's finally out, he wants revenge on his former mentor, who betrayed him. Fun stuff, but with a bitter sting.
Datacide by Steve Bein
Richard Sakabe has been sent to assassinate the computer intelligence named Arthur-1, now running autonomously as a professor at the University of Chicago. The government has decided Arthur is too powerful; people pay too much attention to its opinions. But Arthur has predicted this development and protected itself. Caught in a temporary stalemate, human and AI debate whether wiping the computer memory ought to be considered murder.
"Forced organ donation. That is how I see it. You will end my consciousness one way or the other. My only choice is whether or not I will donate my hardware to another consciousness. So I suppose I have two last questions. First, who is the dictator now, Agent Sakabe? And second, if it were you in my situation, what would you do?"
Bein is a philosopher, and this story combines an interesting philosophical meditation on the theory and ethics of artificial minds with the intrigue of a cyberthriller.
Hanosz Prime Goes to Old Earth by Robert Silverberg
Hanosz Prime understands that fully, now, for he is here with Kaivilda of Old Earth, and even if the universe were to end tomorrow, that makes no difference to him today. Let the future look after itself, he tells himself. We all live in the present, do we not, and isn't the present a glorious place?
So Silverberg tells us of the unthinkably far future, when change is very very plus indeed, though some things are still the same. The characters are so different that the author sometimes turns away from them and addresses the readers directly. This piece is really a almost a meta-fiction, not a plotted story or a vignette.
The Age of Ice by Liz Williams
The story is set at some future time of the author's novel Banner of Souls. Mars appears to be on the brink of war, following a great catastrophe. The warrior Hestia has been sent to the Matriarchy of Caud on a mission to search the city's ruined library for remnants of information, some weapon her own government of Winterstrike might use to pressure Caud into a truce. There, she finds herself haunted by the silent ghost of a flayed warrior, which seems to be trying to help her avoid arrest.
Williams drops the reader right into the action of this dark and action-filled tale of war and espionage in an exotic world.
The knock on the door came in the early hours of the morning. I sat up in bed, heart pounding. No one good ever knocks at that time of night. The window led nowhere, and in any case was bolted shut behind a grate. I switched on the antiscribe and broadcast the emergency code, just as there was a flash of ire-palm from the door lock and the door fell forward, blasted off its hinges. The room filled with acrid smoke. I held little hope of fighting my way out, but I swept one of the scissor-women off her feet and tackled the next. But the razor-edged scissors were at my throat within a second and I knew she would not hesitate to kill me. Wounds flickered across her face in a hideous display of silent communication.
The suspense is relentless, the imagery is vivid, and the resolution not altogether reassuring. Readers of Williams' previous work will want to get this issue of the magazine for this piece alone, and readers of Asimov's may well find themselves seeking out more from this author.
The Osteomancer's Son by Greg van Eekhout
There is power in bones, particularly in the bones of powerful beings like the kraken, the dragon, the unicorn. Osteomancers consume the bones and concentrate the power in themselves; most powerful of all is the Hierarch. Daniel's father was an osteomancer working for the Hierarch, but he was caught up in a plot against him. Now his bones are in the Hierarch's Ossuary. Daniel wants nothing to do with his father's business, but the old co-conspirators have found a way to compel him: a piece of his own daughter's bone, cut from her living finger.
Van Eekhout has created a wonderful, original concept, and uses it to conjure up a fine tale. The details of the osteomancy are fascinating, and the plot is full of peril and tension, with a persuasive atmosphere of modern sorcery.
Not Worth A Cent by R. Neube
Rejuvenation technology has overloaded the country with centenarians, whom the overloaded health services have cut off from government aid. The cost of drugs to treat the new mutant diseases is beyond their reach, but the cents do what they can to survive, even if it isn't legal. Neube mixes in a strong dose of social commentary into this Cautionary Tale, along with a taste of humor—the laughter of the ultimately doomed, who don't intend to go down without a struggle.
The King's Tail by Constance Cooper
The warlord of the Hunters boasts:
"Twenty-six warriors came with me to this fat land. We met an enemy who at first seemed fearsome, with huge heavy bodies and long fangs. They numbered in the hundreds. Yet my twenty-six loyal warriors yet live—live and rule!"
The invaders hold the king of the Cthara captive, feasting on his regenerated tail to celebrate their victory. The king knows that the Cthara could easily defeat the Hunters, but he will not break the law: "People shall not sink fang into other speaking people." Yet he knows there are other ways to fight back.
Cooper's tale is a bit hard to take seriously, but it ends with a clever twist, just when the reader might be getting impatient with pacifism taken to such an extreme as the Cthara practice.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2006
This issue presents a variety of both science fiction and fantasy. No real standout, but pretty good stuff across the board.
Gardening at Night by Daryl Gregory
The editorial blurb suggests that this piece might be called an example of "lab opera," but from here, it looks like science fiction—science fiction with a particularly interesting premise. Reg and his mentor Eli have developed a kind of self-programming micro-robot; the mytes evolve, the code that determines their behavior altering with each generation to become more efficient. The mytes perform flawlessly in the lab, but under field conditions they exhibit an aberration that makes them useless. This is a problem Reg now has to solve by himself, as Eli is dying from a strain of TB evolved to be drug-resistant; the mytes are the only children the old man has.
Gregory balances the metaphor of evolution with the myth of the Garden of Eden: as creators of the mytes, Eli and Reg have control of the direction in which they evolve, but the mytes seem to possess an amount of free will, and this of course leads to sin. There seem to be new varieties of scientists evolving, as well, much as predator and prey evolve in nature to keep each other's numbers in balance. A thought-provoking work, though the scenes of domesticity outside the lab sometimes seem gratuitous.
iKlawa by Donald Mead
The defeat of the British expeditionary force at Isandlwana was perhaps the last and greatest triumph of the Zulu before the tide of colonialism washed over their nation. Mead's account of these events centers around its king, Cetshwayo, head of the fratricidal dynasty founded by the great and monstrous Shaka Zulu. Cetshwayo is not a strong king; his nation is divided by rival factions and weakened by the influence of European ways. And he has prophetic dreams of an ocean of blood, portending disaster. Attempting to forestall defeat when war seems inevitable, he accepts the aid of a sorcerer who practices a cruel sort of magic.
The story begins slowly, as Mead has a tendency to explain too much, making redundantly sure the reader is filled in on the political situation of the Zulus and the treacherous history of their ruling family: "As you know, Cetshwayo . . ."
“Before I became king, my men and I slaughtered my brother’s faction—twenty thousand dead. A battlefield of slit bellies.”
“But if you hadn’t. . . .” Ngqumbazi seemed to realize his burden, the weight of his memories. “If you hadn’t, your brother would’ve killed you. It’s only a shame that Mbulazi got away.”
But with the arrival of the sorcerer Umpisana, the pace picks up and the tension rises rapidly. The scenes of magic are intense and credible; some may be too much for particularly sensitive readers. Yet history does not turn aside out of respect for our sensibilities, and the history behind this tale is quite real.
The Moment of Joy Before by Claudia O'Keefe
Felice has fled her home with her mother and daughter for a remote mountain in West Virginia, but her mysterious stalker has followed her. She can never remember his face or what he says to her, but she knows there is no escaping him. Then with the winter, plague comes, a deadly virus burning its way around the world. Felice would do anything to keep her daughter safe, to save her mother, but there seems to be no safety anywhere, not even in the most isolated corner of the mountains, until she has no choice but to remember her secret.
O'Keefe is working with a very old myth here, one well-known to fantasy readers, for it has been reworked at least a dozen dozen times—the triune goddess: mother, maiden, crone. But O'Keefe has given her a new persona, showing that there is always room for an original telling of the oldest tales.
Starbuck by Robert Reed
An SF baseball story. In a world where bodies can be rebuilt from the ground up, ball players must keep their bodies in their original condition—no enhancements allowed. But of course, some players will always try to cheat.
Reed's baseball universe has robot umpires and surgically rebuilt managers, but the essential story could have taken place during any season of any year people have played the game. Some things don't change.
Cold War by Bruce McAllister
One night in the middle of the Cold War, the narrator's father, who works for a top-secret military establishment, takes him to a remote lab to witness an unexplained phenomenon. The lab's task is to monitor transmissions from the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which is fascinating enough to the ten-year-old narrator. But following Sputnik come signals from another, stronger source—a reply, perhaps. A reply that goes unanswered.
This tale of a missed opportunity, a message ignored, recalls some of McAllister's other recent work—"Stu" from last November's SciFiction, for one—in which the narrow preoccupation of governments with their secretive games of military power preclude them from seeing the real wonders of the universe.
Interzone #202, February 2006
Again this 'zine has an all science-fiction lineup, although overall I did not find these stories as fresh or compelling as those in some previous issues. IZ 202 has four SF stories, plus the middle installment of a serial.
Sundowner Sheila by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre
"You boof-head, I've told yer before." Dicko puts down the heavy donk he's carrying. "Give a listen this time. Here's the drum: we're on the second planet orbiting a star called Delta Pavonis. The planet's been divvied up, y'see, into zones to be colonised by different Earth nations. The Yanks took a slice of this planet, the Pommies took a slice, and such. This here crust of the planet is at the arse-end of nowhere, so of course they gave it to the Australians."
The author has engineered Bodger with a short-term memory loss to allow these excursions into infodump. Both Bodger and Dicko have been designed in the lab and sent out into the desert to install irrigation systems for the human colonists to come. From time to time, they are visited there by human supervisors who deliver supplies of curried mutton and download new instructions into their composite brains. The latest visitor turns out to be a human female, and Bodger falls in love.
Readers may be more familiar with MacIntyre for his humorous verse, and this long, more serious story does delivers its share of humor in the narrator's Strine-accented voice. Unfortunately, the situation here doesn't quite make sense. Why, with all the technological resources behind this project, would Bodger be digging his irrigation trenches by hand, with a shovel? And after his memory has been rebooted to wipe out traces of recent unfortunate events, how can he be telling this story?
Typesetting note: The layout here is too creative for the story's good: the placement of the scene breaks makes the text hard to follow.
The Macrobe Conservation Project by Carlos Hernandez
Randy thought it would be more like space camp, spending the summer with his father on the space station where he runs the macrobe project. The macrobes were part of the original ecosystem on New Hope before the human colonists came and cut down the brain trees they lived in as symbiotes. Now Randy's father is growing macrobes in human corpses; he spends most of his time in the lab and Randy resents this. But Randy's dad is keeping a secret from him, and Randy is really upset when he finds out.
The depiction of a child's resentment and hostility towards his parent is effective here, particularly in the scene where Randy shoots his robot brother with a nailgun. A more probable SFnal premise would have made this story more powerful.
The Unsolvable Deathtrap by Jack Mangan
A cab driver tries to survive in a dystopian future, wondering each day if it will be his last. Rawling's city is a nightmare of vehicular congestion: "multiplying its major avenues' lane capacities by rolling the streets up into long winding, tubular pipes, then stacking those tubes on top of each other." Wrecks and pileups are a hazard every moment; the cab driver feels his life constantly at risk, particularly when his latest passenger pulls a gun.
Rawling's overloaded highway system, where the cars on the highest tracks have to travel upside-down, manages to evoke both claustrophobia and acrophobia at once. This is a gritty, fast-paced story, a wild car chase through a world that doesn't offer much reason for hope.
The Last Reef by Gareth Lyn Powell
The Reefs started life as simple communication nodes in the interplanetary radio network. When that network somehow managed to upgrade itself to sentience, it downloaded a compressed copy of its source code into every node capable of handling the data.
But the resulting AIs multiplied their processing power so rapidly that they disappeared into their own reality, where humanity could not follow. One last functioning reef has been discovered at a remote location on Mars, radically transforming the first few humans who contacted it—one of them being Kenji's former lover, Jaclyn. Kenji is a security agent working for the ruthless Tanguy corporation. Now that the authorities plan to destroy the reef, Tanguy plots to get there before it is too late and strip it of anything valuable—including the transformed Jaclyn.
The action in this cyberpunk-derived story is adequate, but neither the situation nor the plot offer any originality.
Realms of Fantasy, April 2006
Legends of one sort or another form the basis for most of this issue's tales.
Lady of Ashuelot by Karen L. Abrahamson
The characters from the Arthurian cycle have moved to the New World to start new lives and escape the mistakes of their previous ones. Gwen has taken to blacksmithing and the Lady of the Lake has a dwindling practice of earth magic. It all changes when Lance shows up in town, looking to bring back all the greatness of the past.
The piece is a feminist tract, and Abrahamson takes pains to be sure the reader can not miss her Message of female empowerment and the folly of women whose self-esteem depends on the regard of a man.
Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge by Richard Parks
The Imperial Japanese Court of the Heian era is the scene of this latest tale by Parks, the second featuring his detective Yamada. This time, the ghosts and demons hover in the background of an intricate mystery plot where the clues are enigmatic tanka poems:
The crane flies above
The lake's clear shining surface.
White feathers glisten,
Made pure by sacred water,
As the poet's book was cleansed.
The Princess Teiko, mother of the prospective heir to the Imperial Throne, has been suspected of infidelity. She calls upon Yamada to find a stolen letter that could clear her name. But the plot is not so simple—the letter is a trap, one that is very carefully set.
Parks leads his readers through the streets of eleventh century Kyoto and the halls of the Imperial Court with perfect familiarity. The twists and turns of his plot follow the history of the Imperial succession and the poetry which the courtiers of the age used for their most intimate communications. It is a fascinating world, and Parks makes the most of it in this mystery that is also a tale of tragic love.
Anywhere There's Game by Greg van Eekhout
Many are the fantasy baseball stories; enough to form their own sub-genre. Far more rare is fantasy basketball. Here, van Eekhout has assembled a starting five of tales told by a veteran of the game, from the beginning to the end of his long career: the teammates he'll never forget, and for good reason. Maybe this piece will start a new legend—or sub-genre.
Ducks in a Row by Devon Monk
Another recent setting for fantasy legends is the carnival, where Monk sets his story at a crooked shooting gallery on the midway. A twelve year old boy with dark powers is determined to get the most out of the three shots he buys with his nickel. In the course of his encounter with the carny, we learn what else he has done, and what he might do the next time he takes a gun into his hands. This piece of quiet horror might have been even more subtly effective if the author had trusted his powers of understatement and not kept repeating the hint.
Jane. A Story of Manners, Magic, and Romance by Sarah Prineas
Because of her guardian's close association with the Thameside College of Magic and Technology, Miss Jane Bigg-Wither frequently finds herself subject to the unwelcome advances of eligible young warlocks. But when she meets the radical Aubrey Day, her determination to embrace spinsterhood falters.
The choice of character names is clearly intended to evoke the spirit of Jane Austen. However this story is not, as the legendary authoress would say, very like. The plot suffers, as romances do, from predictability; the characters are comic stereotypes; and the humor is laid on with too heavy a hand. The reader must also wonder why, if Wither Castle is so particularly subject to elemental storms, this circumstance was never addressed on previous visits of warlocks to the place.
Heart of Ice by Jena Snyder
The narrator finds himself instantly infatuated with a lovely stranger whose "skin was so pale, it seemed there was a translucent gauze stretched over the fine bones of her face. . . . Taking her slim fingers in mine was like grasping a handful of icicles." Ignoring all warnings, he follows her into the dark forest.
Snyder has based her tale on the Native American legend of the wendigo, here spelled wittigo, but her monster more resembles the vampire of early Romantic legend: the temptress torn between hunger and passion—perhaps even love.
Strange Horizons, February 2006
In honor of Valentine's Day, SH seems to have designated February as Dysfunctional Marriage Month.
Wrack by Amanda Downum
Jess is trawling for fish when he makes an unusual catch:
[S]he slipped out of the net, landing on her hands and knees amid flopping cod. No mermaid tail, just lean-muscled legs and wide webbed feet. Her hair clung like sea wrack, scales glittering amid its tangled dark length.
But Jess is the one who is truly caught, despite the mermaid's warning that she can not live with him, nor he with her.
Downum's version does not add much new to this oft-told tale, though the telling is pleasingly done. The reader may wish that Jess were made from a sterner moral fiber.
The Desires of Houses by Haddayr Copley-Woods
As a woman goes about her household chores, the house yearns for her touch.
If she was mine, thinks the fan, oh how I would waltz with her. Around and around and around.
And my red pen itches to replace that "was" with a "were." Despite a few such glitches, this short work is highly sensual and erotic, and it offers a valuable lesson about wanting and being wanted.
Ignis Fatuus by Eliani Torres
The ignis fatuus is a will-of-the-wisp, an illusory vision that lures people off into the wilderness, where they are lost. Its meaning in Latin is "the fool's light." The fool here is Laurence, whose first wife has followed her own vision off to the stars and whose second wife constantly recedes from his emotional grasp, while he pursues.
This work is nominally science fiction, but the expedition into space could be replaced by any manner of mundane journey to separate husband and wife, leaving the rest entirely untouched by the change. The author has overloaded her prose with descriptors, trying too hard, perhaps, to compensate for the fact that nothing really happens in this story.
Historians and Degenerates by Joey Comeau
Taking the Dysfunctional Marriage of the Month Prize, Comeau's narrator misses his wife, who walked out on him to lead an existence off the grid as an outlaw historian. In her absence, he has programmed the household appliances to speak in her voice, "to make this empty house ours again." Then her book comes out: the details of his sexual habits and kinks. In the book's introduction, she writes:
"I know that he'll be mortified when he reads this, and I never meant to hurt him. But we can't all lead our lives in secret from one another any more."
The question is: shouldn't there be some things about us all that ought to be kept secret? But would there not be a compelling fascination to seeing your most intimate moments through the eyes of another?
This story is quite short, and it takes a sharp left turn about a third of a way in, as if the author had started to write one story and was shunted by inspiration onto a different track. The shift is jarring, and I am left wondering in some frustration about the story-track abandoned—the one where revolutionary historians are rappelling down the side of the bank in tight camouflage pants, living off the grid.
Lone Star Stories #13
Three short works of fantasy in this issue, though I am pleased to see one piece longer than usual.
10 Archetypes in 2000 Words by Cherie Priest
Some of the most commonly known fairy tales, subverted in vignettes not much longer than a paragraph apiece. Readers should be entertained by trying to spot how the author has twisted the originals in transplanting them into a contemporary setting.
Evergreen by Angela Boord
At age seventeen, Nick has run away from home, where his daydreaming has made him a misfit, and somewhere in Oregon's Coastal forest, he encounters a strange figure of a girl—a sort of dryad—in the trees. Her name is Evergreen, and Nick is instantly transformed by her touch:
A wind sweeps through him. For a moment, it blows all the fog away and leaves him crystal-clear, bright and dry as a summer day. For a moment, he feels like one of these big trees, roots stretching for the heart of the earth, crown puncturing the sky, free to grow as he pleases, no matter how high or deep.
Refusing to leave Evergreen, he finds shelter in the forest cabin of DeAnn [aka Dea] and her son [the text is not consistent on the question of whether Wolf is really DeAnn's son], where Evergreen comes to his bedroom window at night and tries to lure him away with her into a world of dreams.
Nick strains hard to give birth to his epiphany, but readers may grow impatient with his angst and immaturity. Moreover, Nick's dreams seem misplaced in Evergreen's world. This version of the fairy lover tale comes to no definite conclusion, either romantic or tragic.
Can't Buy Me Faded Love by Josh Rountree
An alternate musical history, wherein John Lennon hooks up with bandleader Bob Wills to transform the history of country music. Somewhat improbable, but country fans may enjoy it.
Shimmer #2, Winter 2006
This new small press print 'zine's second issue packs nine pieces of fantasy fiction into five dozen pages—not a thing I generally like to see, as pieces so short tend to be sketches or vignettes rather than fully-formed stories. In many cases, there is too little to take critical hold of.
Action Team-Ups Number Thirty-Seven by Ken Scholes
Unwillingly retired action heroes in the geriatric ward refuse to surrender to the system. Amusing, if not original.
Sell Your Soul to the Devil Blues by Tom Pendergrass
Jimmy is hot and tired from working in the cotton fields, so he decides to go to the crossroads and sell his soul to the Devil. Only the Devil already has more souls than Hell can hold, and he isn't buying. Jimmy needs to make a better offer, and his solution is clever.
Route Nine by Samantha Henderson
There's something Wrong out along Route Nine, and it's not a good idea for the truckers to take that shortcut anymore, though it's not clear what exactly is going on.
The Goldsmith by Ian Creasey
To bind her lover to her forever, Corrine orders a pair of rings from the goldsmith, with the usual sort of unwanted consequences.
Music in D Minor by Erynn Miles
The narrator, a nurse, constantly hears the inner music of other people around her. She hears the music of her dying husband and her patients in the cancer ward where she works.
I used to yearn for all of the music in the world to stop, to allow me to think without feeling, have a sensible conversation without the interruption of an opera or bagpipes. But now I miss it. I hear too many of my own thoughts.
Miles' metaphor expresses her narrator's feeling of loss without plunging too deep into sentimentality, especially given her subject matter.
Neighbor by Jason A.D. MacDonald
Adam Connelly's upstairs neighbor keeps harassing him, constantly making noise to drive him crazy. The problem is, the apartment upstairs is empty. But Connelly won't let that minor detail stop him from confronting his tormentor. MacDonald deftly follows the trail of rationalization through the distorted maze of his narrator's mind.
The Persian Box by Gerald Costlow
An ancient philosopher once discovered the secret of what lies behind death and locked it into a Persian box, now possessed by the narrator. This tale is not an original one, and Costlow's version offers nothing new. Moreover, the attractive illustration seems to be about two millennia out of date to represent the Persia of the story.
One-Leaf-Two by Edo Mor
Leaves blowing on the wind: leaves tragically in love.
And North Wind suddenly roared, hot and filled with motes of dust, pushing up between them, throwing them apart. Hand-bond broken, her one way and him the other. He caught her momentarily, spinning in the air, his clawed foot grasping her hand.
But North Wind! Terrible despised North Wind! The next wailing gust broke his hold. She whirled away on a different current.
Terrible North Wind. It hates love.
It took everything he had away.
An imaginative, poignant tale.
The Black Back-Lands by Jay Lake
In a strange world, which may lie on the other side of our own, the bones of the Old Dead whisper, importuning the passerby to open the gate to the Black Back-Lands:
The place no one ever went. The country behind the eyes, beneath the heart, the hills ever in shadow. Where life maybe had gone on without fire and plague and the breaking of the stoneways.
The final image evokes a shudder and leaves the reader wondering about the story the author has left untold on the other side of the gate.
Weird Tales #338, January-February 2006
There are six dark fantasy stories in this issue of The Unique Magazine, none of which have any connection to the classic, tentacled BEM on the cover, ravaging the classic scantily-clothed female. There is also the conclusion of a serial by William F. Nolan, not reviewed.
My Sister's House by Parke Godwin
The spirit of a bitter, self-centered woman haunts the home where she made her family miserable during her life. There is little else in this lengthy piece, which is less a ghost story than a psychological portrait of an unpleasant person.
Kitty and the Moshpit of the Damned by Carrie Vaughn
Lycanthropic radio talk-show host Kitty wants to interview the band Devil's Kitchen. Their shows often end in violence, and she suspects one of the members may be a vampire, feeding off the bad vibe. The reality turns out to be something even worse.
I admit that the recent proliferation of kewell, sexy vampire rock stars makes me cranky. In the case of this piece, however, I am mollified by Vaughn's conclusion, in which she abstains from doing the Expected Thing and lets the devil take the hindmost. A fun read.
Seven Hours from Termini by William Alexander
The god Apollo, retired, meets a girl on the train, and they have a conversation about old times. An interesting slant on the old myths and the business of being a god, back in the day.
Family Business by Maurice Broaddus
Nathan's mother was born in Jamaica, and he returns to the island for the funeral of his grandfather, a famous obeah man. Now Uncle Edward, a corrupt policeman, lets Nathan know he wants him to stay out of the family business.
Readers may enjoy the Jamaican setting with the usual cast of duppies, obeah men, and Rastafarians, but Nathan is short on protagonistic virtues and floats on the tide of events instead of digging his oar into the plot.
This piece also suffers from the inattention of the copyeditor, providing an excellent illustration of the need for scene breaks in a narrative, and the confusion produced when they are omitted by, I assume, mistake.
To Grandmother's House by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
The kids think that Grandma doesn't really like them, and they are right. Nonetheless, they have to spend Christmas Eve at Grandma's house. An original, disturbing little nightmare.
Set by Charles L. Harness
In the year 1922, followers of Benito Mussolini steal from the newly-discovered tomb of Tutanhkamun the image of Set, the Egyptian god of destruction. Mussolini invokes the aid of the god to raise himself to power. There are, as always, consequences.
The idea here is a promising one, but Harness has chosen to tell it via a series of papers purportedly written by an Egyptologist, with commentary added by a contemporary editor. Unfortunately, the notes, particularly the last, do not read convincingly as what they are intended to be. Another form of narrative would have worked more effectively to tell this tale.
Zahir #9, Spring 2006
Zahir, a 'zine previously unknown to me, is subtitled "Unforgettable Tales—A Journal of Speculative Fiction." But only about half the stories have any sort of fantastic content, the rest being quite mundane. It would seem that what we have here is what might be called a slipstream 'zine if that term is still in use, but one approaching SF from the literary side of the aisle.
The Original Word for Rain by Peter Higgins
Saul Traherne has "resolved to devote himself to the one real passion of his life, the study of the magical arts, and in particular to the pursuit of his great ambition, recovering the lost original Edenic language of Adam and Eve." In this pursuit, he achieves success, but he also discovers a new passion: for Julia, the curator in charge of the collection of materials he has been studying.
This story is fantasy in every respect, based on material that should be familiar to the genre reader, and Higgins succeeds in evoking the magic, the power, the immediate presence of it:
He shouted rain. The true original word for rain. He called the rain and rain came, warm fat rain, rain-buds splashing open, soft and dark on the hard, dusty ground. A few drops at first, and then many, many; rain came thundering down on the gorse, filling the wet air with sweet earth smells.
Pieces of Scheherazade by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Scheherezade escapes from the harem and immures herself in a cave, where she covers her body with tattooed commentary on the nature of story:
Behind every thwarted hero, you'll find a story crouching in his shadow. On the tongue of every dead man are tales aching to be told. King and scapegrace prove themselves alike in this respect: what haunt us in death's waiting room are all the things we've left unsaid.
Though it hovers on the edge of fantasy, this is not a traditional genre tale but a meta-narrative about story and the telling of stories. The enigmatic narrative is fractured, and it is left to the reader to try to assemble the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole. For the sake of some of the pieces:
Hieroglyphics by Margarita Engle
Lovers with no spoken language in common express their love in the language of pictures. Not a fantasy, this vignette about communication.
Fixed Points by Craig Delancy
The only fantasy here is by association, as the teenaged protagonist plays D&D and tells ghost stories to his friends, and learns in the process about the pitfalls of love. The opening of this story portends a bit more than it delivers in the end, though it is still a satisfying read in mundane coming-of-age terms.
The Dancer by Abigail Padgett
The story of the destruction of a mother's dream, there is no fantastic content in this piece, which is too emotionally manipulative to be quite as devastating as the author meant it to be.
In the Picture by Michael Humfrey
An artist with a mysterious past is afraid to leave the studio where he paints scenes of an exotic island that seems to exist only in his mind, until he is threatened by the world outside. While the ending should not come as any surprise, particularly to the fantasy reader, the final image is striking and memorable.
The Concentrator by Aaron de Long
I suspect that the author of this piece was inspired by the phrase: concentrates the mind wonderfully. The device of the title concentrates the mind of its user, and Chester Hunter, as a salesman of concentrators, does not always like the ways the device is put to use. One day as he is on the road, a beggar comes to his motel room, only to be driven off by the manager. Chester is unaccountably moved by the old woman's plight and annoyed at the manager's lack of sympathy, and he decides to do something about it.
This science fiction story is told in a straightforward manner, but the ending is a bit of a puzzle. It is also somewhat annoying when the old woman is referred to as an "Indian," which is not clarified until we are told that the manager's name is Rajiv.
The Bee Trove by Matt Demo
In 1919, auto engineer Enselm Bock has a vision in which he is a robot, part of a robot civilization that will take over Detroit in the future, at which time they will call the city the Bee Trove. The combination of robots and bees makes for a strange and surreal fantasy that seems to derive from a distorted pronunciation of the city's name—or maybe not.