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Stacey Janssen

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Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2008 : Review:

Short Fiction, December 2008

Catching up on some of the Missing Magazines.

Zines Reviewed


F&SF, Dec, 2008

F&SF, December 2008

Belated review of this issue. F&SF is adding some new authors to the usual regulars. It seems also that in honor of the zine's sixtieth year, the editors are reprinting a piece from the archives in each issue.

A Foreign Country by Wayne Wightman

Quentin A. Demore is our narrator, a reporter so low in the pecking order he is assigned to cover the independent candidate for US President, Roger Allen Faber, whose entire campaign consists in promising "happy times" to the few people who show up at his rallies. Until he wins by a landslide, and takes Quentin with him to Washington.

I must say that, by this time, my "This Is Weird" nerves had been totally fried. Flying saucers could have landed on the White House lawn and I'd think, "So? Is there an issue here? Are they littering?" I mean, six months ago I was two moves away from the farm section in the Bakersfield HomeTown News, and here I was, access to the President, living in the White House. I didn't feel lucky. I felt troubled.

Then the people begin to disappear. Blip. And a lot of the people remaining can't remember that the missing people ever existed.

A highly suitable choice for the late election season. I am not particularly fond of the narrative voice, but the story is good humorous entertainment, with a topical sting.

Falling Angel by Eugene Mirabelli

One day, an angel falls through Brendan's open skylight. She is not a sexless angel. She and Brendan have a lot of sex.

Her feathers had begun to show color and in November she announced that she was pregnant. Now Brendan noticed that whenever they made love the points at the trailing edge of her wings glowed translucent pink and each successive time they joined the color reached deeper into the feathers, like dye soaking into fabric, until the wings themselves took on a pale rose cast, a shade which deepened each day and, in fact, the hue at the tip of each feather began to alter from red to maculate gold in the way of a spotted trout, and from that to a grassy emerald to an iridescent sapphire such as you see in peacock feathers, thence to a purple so luminous it tinted the room.

There is very little here in the way of a plot, and the mystery that is Jill the angel remains unexplained. This piece is essentially a wondrous visitation, with a few images like glowing stained glass, beautifully done, but not much in the way of plot resolution.

Leave by Robert Reed

Yet another installment from the Reed of the Month Club, as the editorial blurb puts it. About forty years ago, an alien race began to recruit young human men to fight in their endless wars. The narrator has no children, but he has a friend with a very promising son, and the boy is the center of his father's life. Now the boy has disappeared, and the family fear he has been recruited by the aliens. The narrator has to witness the desperation of his friend, knowing there is not really anything he can do to help, even when he actually sees the boy.

I decided to lay things out as clearly and brutally as I could. "Your folks are sick with worry. They've spent their savings and every emotional resource, and after tonight, they will be ruined. They'll be old and beaten down, and for the rest of their lives, they won't enjoy one good happy day."

This is a story about human relationships, about the ties of friendship, of parents to children, of siblings; about the pain of loss, desperation and denial. Like most of Reed's works, it is very humanist science fiction, although in this case the SFnal element is minimal.


The Alarming Letters from Scottsdale by Warner Law

An epistolary exchange between Henry Hesketh, an aging mystery author, and his publishers, who have been concerned about his missing the deadline for his latest book. Hesketh explains that he has taken in a stray dog, who reminds him inexplicably of his own friend Dashiell Hammett, and he now has decided to write Dash's adventures as a dog detective, instead of his own bestselling series. His publishers are alarmed.

This classic reprint is from 1973, a warmly humorous tale.

A Skeptical Spirit by Albert E. Cowdrey

A ghost story, lite. Albion Merkle, having removed to the hamlet of Bonaparte, MS, after the devastation of Katrina, wishes to renew his activity of psychic research. This should not be a problem.

Bonaparte was richly supplied with ghosts. Spirits clumped about invisibly on wooden galleries, or whistled "Lorena" on winter evenings, or passed through walls where doors had once stood, or wept for lost lovers on moonlit nights, or frightened fornicators in the Confederate cemetery.

Unfortunately, his present dwelling seems inimical to the spirits of the departed, as it was formerly occupied by the very skeptical Doctor Welch, whose own ghost haunts the place while insisting he is still alive. How can Albion exorcise a ghost who refuses to believe he is dead?

The story is enlivened by Cowdrey's narrative voice, which evokes the Gulf coast region with a humorous touch, and a colorful cast of characters.

How the Day Runs Down by John Langan

Zombies. The mode is that of a stage play, in which the narrator is called the Stage Manager. This device helps makes the subject matter seem new when it is not. But the Stage Manager is not who he appears to be, and neither is the audience.

After all that's been done, and overdone, on the theme of the flesh-eating dead, it's a surprise to see someone returning to this subject matter, even more so, doing it straight, as horror. In this case, the horror is less of the gross-out variety, although there certainly is plenty of that, but of the effect that such events have on ordinary people.

A situation like this, though, like this poor woman and her children—those children—I know what she saw when she ran into that living room. I know what that is on her shirt, and how it got there. I can't—I don't have the faintest idea what I'm supposed to do with that knowledge. I could tell you, I suppose, but to what end? You know what those things—those eaters, that's not a bad word, is it?—you know what they did to that little girl and that little boy. There's no need for the specifics.

The logistics, the demographics, of the stereotypical zombie invasions have never convinced me. I can't credit that this sort of event could bring about the end of the human species, as claimed. But that is not what this story is really about. The question that it raises at the end, of the fate of the souls of those who become zombified, is an intriguing one, that I wish the author had dealt with in more depth. But I give him props for the audacity in tackling such a subject when most of us would have considered there could be nothing more to say about it, and showing that we were mistaken.



F&SF, Jan, 2009

F&SF, January 2009

A very large number of stories in this issue, many of them perforce quite short and none, for a change, by Robert Reed, although enough other regular contributors are represented that it feels like a special issue, with the quality of the fiction being particularly high.

An Elvish Sword of Great Antiquity by Jim Aikin

The narrator observes the sword while dining at the stately home of an acquaintance who brags about finding it when he cleared out the warren of elves down by the river, swords being no match for firearms. The narrator recognizes the runes on the sword's blade, and takes the warning of the elvish servants to leave the place.

I saw the rune for "king's hand," the one for "unerring flight," and the one for "violence turned," which is often mistranslated "vengeance." Some of the others were unfamiliar to me, but while I would not have attempted a faithful translation, the purport was appallingly clear.

The subsequent events are not likely to come as any surprise to fantasy readers [or gamers], but Aikin's sure narrative voice carries this piece effectively.

The Minutemen's Witch by Charles Coleman Finlay

Historical fantasy, the American Revolution in a world where witchcraft works. Young Proctor Brown is rushing to muster with the Minutemen to repel the British redcoats now marching on Lexington and Concord, but his mother insists they must first scry the future. Proctor is assured by his vision that the redcoats will retreat and there will be no war. But his vision hasn't revealed everything, and the British, too, have witches among them.

But Pitcairn chased after Captain Parker, circling his horse and shouting. "Order them to lay down their arms, or by God every man on this field will end the day dead! Surrender, or you will die!" He pulled his pistol, as if sixty or more armed men at point blank range were nothing to fear, and aimed it at the Lexington militia captain. The golden coin of light at his throat was blindingly bright. Proctor squinted, realizing that he was the only one who saw it.

We know better than Proctor, of course, how this day will turn out. This is not alternate history. Finlay shows us the events from a close-up point of view, through Proctor's eyes, in a convincing voice. It is clear that this story is only the introduction to what the editorial blurb informs us is a trilogy of novels.


Seafarer's Blood by Albert E. Cowdrey

Eric Mumford has had visions all his life, visions more vivid and compelling to him than his waking life with a crappy job and bitching wife. But something changes when his visions take him to a Viking castle under siege.

The first time they met, the Viking—ice-blue eyes, tangled red beard, arms like hairy cables—strode out of a wintry dusk and right through Eric Mumford, shattering the globe of silence that enclosed him. For an instant Eric felt penetrating cold, inhaled a smell like an elephant house, heard the ka-thump of a single heartbeat and the crunch of a heavy footfall in a pile of dirty snow. Then the Viking was gone, his broad leather-clad back vanishing down a battlemented wall, across a wooden footbridge, and through a narrow doorway into a massive stone tower.

Eric eventually discovers that Hrothgar is his ancestor and has passed on his shamanistic gift, and that the Viking has been visiting him in his visions just as he has been visiting the castle. But this contact produces unexpected complications.

Cowdrey pulls out the stops on the vivid physical description here, saturating the atmosphere of the story with unwashed sheets and body odors, with farts and sweaty copulation. For the most part, however, it is the story of saving Eric's marriage, in which the sweaty copulation plays a significant role.

The Perfect Infestation by Carol Emshwiller

Aliens attempt to invade Earth by taking over the bodies of domestic dogs, with results not what they had in mind.

An unusually sentimental piece for Emshwiller. Sort of . . . sweet?

Rising Waters by Patricia Ferrara

This issue's sixtieth anniversary classic reprint. A lazy, hot dry summer, and the river is low when the boy sees something exposed by the receding water. He realizes it might be his family's old farmhouse, which they had to abandon after the river changed its course and flooded it. He decides to swim out to the house, but this is not a wise decision.

The sun threw one great, slanting shaft of light through the biggest hole in the roof, and he could just see a kind of gray mass standing out from the dark wall behind him. But he had no time to explore. He turned to his task again, sliding his feet forward. The gray thing scraped on the planking as the floor tipped under him.

This story is horror, in more than one way. It is clear that the nameless boy has made a possibly fatal mistake, and the author slowly adds to the details: how far the house is from shore, how rotten the timbers are, how close it is to collapsing under his weight and trapping him. His situation is frightening enough as it is. But there are hints of something unnatural, as well, in the clay-colored water that surrounds the house. The author knows how to let the reader's imagination create the possibilities, tapping our deep-seated fears.


The Monopoly Man by Barry B. Longyear

Cheri has hit bottom. The muggers got away with the stash she had in her purse.

She was out.


That trumped it all: The punch in the face, the money gone, the purse gone, the blood on her tube top, the pain in her face and ribs, the indifferent smear of faces rushing past in the night fusing into the jumble of lights on West Forty-second. Next to being in pain, sick, and out, nothing's important. Death a distant second. Getting close to ultimate options.

Now she is looking in Central Park for a john as desperate as she is, just enough money to get herself fixed. There on the park bench is the old gentleman who looks like the man on the Monopoly box, who gives her his overcoat to keep her warm. And Cheri wakes up in rehab, where she eventually learns the identity of her benefactor—who died two years ago.

This is a warmhearted, hopeful story, with edges tough enough to keep it from falling into sentimentality.

Changeling by Dean Whitlock

Gavin is a graduate student newly come to Portsmouth, NH, to study myth and folklore. Stopping for dinner, he encounters a waitress with a strangely deformed appearance, and they befriend each other. She calls herself Amanita and claims to believe she is a fairy changeling whose true home is on the magical islands offshore; one day, she plans to make her way back home. But her fantasy world threatens to shatter when a perfectly human woman claims to be her birth mother.

The relationship between these two characters is well-realized, and Whitlock successfully evokes an aura of the fantastic that hovers over the setting.

Look at her: eyes wild, shining, cold and sharp and filled with longing. Longing so deep it could drown islands itself. Look at her hands on the wheel, turning into the waves, then back on course. She knows where she's going; she's going where she believes. A belief so fierce nothing can stand before it. Surely not fog. Nor dark. Not even the tide and a million miles of open sea.

I do have to think, however, that a boat might have been a more practical choice as a vessel than a VW bug.


The Boy Who Sang for Others by Michael Meddor

The narrator, Alice, is twelve years old when her brother Bobby is kicked in the head by a horse and almost dies. Their father sends for Granny to take care of him, even though Granny is a mean old woman who doesn't go to church. Alice wants more than anything to cure her brother, but when she takes him to church, he starts to sing in the voices of other people, who are dead. Bobby is possessed by ghosts, and one of them is evil.

The man came back for his guitar. Bobby wouldn't give it to him. The man reached out to take it. Bobby raised the guitar up high and threatened by his gestures to bash it to pieces on the picnic table. His eyes went black and his face went white. It was like his flesh had been pulled away leaving only the skull behind. He roared out a challenge to everyone in the park, and glared at the closest ones with his skull face. No one dared go near him. The man who owned the guitar ran away, and I guessed he were going after a shotgun. Bobby settled back into himself then, and took to playing and singing some more, only it were rough singing, angry singing. Whenever anyone took a step to get near him he rose up a little and showed that skull face.

This one is told in a kind of mountain dialect that consists mostly of using the word "were" for other forms of the verb "to be." It resembles a Tall Tale, except that it isn't funny, yet the narrative voice keeps it from being really tragic or taken entirely seriously.

All in Fun by Jerry Oltion

Toby always makes a wish for Christmas. It almost always comes true. The only time it doesn't is when he wishes for too much, and even then he always gets at least a part of it.

Toby's wishes aren't of the commonplace variety. He doesn't ask for a pony or a sportscar. In fact, there is a malicious streak to his wishes sometimes. But this year, he can't make up his mind what to wish for, so he finally settles for "some fun."

Definitely a Cautionary Tale of the variety Be Careful What You Wish For.


Asimov's, Jan 2009

Asimov's, January 2009

Starting out on a strong note with a long mystery novelette from Mary Rosenblum. This issue features dead people, living or otherwise, in most of the fiction.

Lion Walk by Mary Rosenblum

A murder mystery. Tahira is the manager of a wildlife reserve in which the fauna are being reverse engineered into their Pleistocene ancestors, recreating the era before the great die-off. Trouble arrives when two young women enter the reserve undetected, where they are killed by lions. Tahira suspects that a crime syndicate is dropping them into the reserve to be killed and selling the recordings of their deaths as snuff porn. But politics stands in the way of justice.

Rosenblum's worldbuilding is thorough and well-informed, and vividly described. Tahira's tracking skill, her intimate knowledge of her reserve and its creatures make her a superior detective.

A strand of auburn hair caught her eye, tangled among grass stems. Long. A woman? Like the other one. Caucasian this time. She read the diary of last night in the scuffed ground where the lions had killed, the tracks leading to it, faint on the dry grass, human prints overlaid with lion. She squatted, the stunner in one hand, her dun suncloth coverall hot against her thighs. Laid her fingertips lightly on the double imprint; woman, lion. Brought her hand to her mouth and touched her tongue to her fingertips, tasting dust, dead leaves, and lion.

Perhaps Tahira's competence is a bit too much to be credible, as at the end of the story she comes up with a few revelations seemingly out of nowhere. Nonetheless, this one is


Uncle Bones by Damien Broderick

Military scientists have discovered how to reanimate the recently dead, but there are significant drawbacks, most notably that the process of decay is not entirely halted: the revitalized people stink. Jimmy's dead uncle Bonaparte says it's better than being six feet under—"but only just." The revitalized are not accepted by society, which calls them Zombies and Stinkies. Jimmy gets beat up just because his uncle lives with him. And scammers prey on them, promising new procedures that can eliminate the stink and return them to normal live. Uncle Bones is attempting to catch the scammers, but in the course of his activities, Jimmy is accidentally killed—and revived as a Stinky.

This could have been a serious story about prejudice and acceptance, or about death and survival. It could have been an action thriller. But I'm not sure what it meant to be. Jimmy seems to be ten or twelve years old, but he is later revealed to be in high school. He is revived despite the law prohibiting the procedure, and no one comments on this, even when the author sends him back to his old seat in the high school. And the facile conclusion comes out of the author's hat.

Passing Perry Crater Base, Time Uncertain by Larry Niven

A short commentary on human will, from an alien race so dense they are looking for water on the moon instead of snagging themselves a comet.

Bridesicle by Will McIntosh

Nobody wants to die. When Mira's mother was dying, she guilted her daughter into hosting her in her mind, and nagged her there until Mira finally committed suicide to get rid of her. Now Mira wakes up [without her mother] as a corpsicle in a facility described as a dating service. Because revival is expensive, people who can't find a living mate can select from the frozen dead, if they can pay the revival costs. But dating is never a simple proposition.

Lycan heaved a big sigh. "Maybe meeting women at a bridesicle place is pathetic, but it's not as pathetic as showing up at every company party alone, with your hands in your pockets instead of holding someone else's, or else coming with a woman who not only has a loud laugh and a lousy sense of humor, but is ten years older than you and not very attractive. That's pathetic. Let people suspect my beautiful young wife was revived. They'll still be jealous, and I'll still be walking tall, holding her hand as everybody checks her out."

Mira is a sympathetic protagonist in an interesting situation. However, I find it hard to credit that the bridesicle operation would have lasted unchanged for centuries, as the story describes.

Five Thousand Light Years from Birdland by Robert R. Chase

An alien ship appears near earth, with a single passenger requesting human help to return to its own world. While Screet studies humanity, with particular but unexplained interest in poker and jazz, teams of scientists attempt to learn everything possible about the aliens. The narrator is fascinated by an ancient historical tome about the age-old conflict between the aliens and enemy tribes they call Doubles, but he presses his inquiries further than his superiors approve. The narrator is therefore surprised when he learns that he is the one human picked to return with Screet to his homeworld. But his survival rests on his ability to discover the reason he was chosen, to prove that humanity is not a race of Doubles.

There is material of interest and potential here, particularly the historical tales of the People of the Air. But the author spends too much time detailing the different oxygen requirements of the two species and not enough on the primary cultural problem at the story's heart.

Messiah Excelsa by E. Salih

The narrator is a time traveler to eighteenth century Cremona, there to obtain, by means fair or foul, the Stradivarius violin called the Messiah, if he can evade the guardians of temporal continuity.

This is the sort of work where it is clear that the author has done a great deal of research, which he has then layered onto the text in a thick impasto of verbiage, through which the story can be but faintly discerned.

He wore a rather fetching porcelain-blue silken three-piece, the French-style waistcoat and breeches embroidered with due care, though I did catch a compromising glimpse of the brocaded coat's fustian lining. Not so dissimilar to my own apparel, after a fashion, and after due deference, unspoken, in the matters of materials, maiden hours and expense, for I favored a Royal blue silk (Eastern silk, naturally) velvet ensemble with gold and silver gilt threads, that surely out-stitched even the finest luxury silks of the Italian peninsula entire. After all, I was purportedly a blueblooded, born-to-the-purple, emerald-landed personage with deep pockets to boast, leisure time to fill and extravagant whims to satisfy, and a 1704 first edition of Giorgio Grevio's Thesaurus Antiquitatum et Historiarum Italiae as my shopper's guide.

The effect of which is to give the impression that the narrator is a self-indulgent twit and to make the reader wonder how Carl Cozinski Jr, of New York, financed his expedition. According to the editorial blurb, this is the author's first story, and this excess in prose is skillfully done; one might wish in the future, however, for a tad bit of self-restraint.

Unintended Behavior by Nancy Kress

Annie has finally had enough of her domineering husband Don, and she attempts to lock him out of the apartment. But Don has networked the entire apartment under his control, even taking over the artificial voice of Wulf, the dog.

"Annie!" Don's yell—so loud!—from the living room. Annie froze. She had unplugged the TV, had unplugged anything that could . . .Wulf raced into the bedroom. "Annie, what the fuck do you think you're doing?"

The conclusion does not come as a great surprise in this sort of piece, but it does come with a bit of malicious satisfaction.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy, Dec, '08

Realms of Fantasy, December 2008

This issue has an unusually large proportion of fantasy that is nominal, metaphorical or contemporary, all of it set in our own world or some version of it.

Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey

The narrator, like the author, lives in Thailand with his wife and three sons. He plays a game with his youngest son about an imaginary [as he believes] monkey that only Harry can see. At the same time, he is concerned about reports that a black van is abducting children near his own neighborhood.

There are urban myths in Thailand, though—just not the ones we have in the West. And like all urban myths, they've got a very nasty little core to them, a little splinter of horror embedded in the story, something that festers in your mind so that you absolutely must tell someone else.

The narrator repeatedly makes the point that this is a true story, and certainly many elements of it are likely to be true incidents that happened to the author. Maybe. But readers should recall that the universal disclaimer of the urban legend is: "This is a true story." It is also, more importantly, a story about being a parent, a subject that the narrator addresses with appealing candor: "In short, we're right at that stage familiar to every parent, that point just before you crack and start doing all the things that parenting books tell you not to." The author's ease and familiarity with his setting, which will probably be exotic to most readers, adds to the story's appeal.


Achilles, Sulking in His Buick by Jay Lake

Translating the epic to the mean streets near Ilium High, where the gangs in their hot rods are ready to drag race, Achilles reprises the role of James Dean, with "the finest wheels in the Achaeans" and a vanity plate reading TIMÉ.

Now I am totally a sucker for the Iliad, and this is one of those inspired notions that seem to be a direct gift from the Muse, but I don't think the translation really holds up under execution. The situations are not parallel, the stakes are not the same, and this version of Achilles seems to be more afflicted with Dean's existential ennui than the original's Rage. Other times, other heroes.

The Milagroso Trail by Clinton Lawrence

Two couples set off on a backpacking expedition to find a mysterious village deep in the Northern California redwoods. They do not really know what they are looking for, or why, so it is not surprising that they do not recognize it when they find it.

This is at most an ambiguous fantasy, and the miracle, if there is one, is in terms of an epiphany that makes some of the characters reevaluate their relationships and the nature of friendship. Yet there is little in the story that suggests how these relationships change. The story is enigmatic, about an enigmatic quest, and so it remains at the end.

Late in the Day by Gregory Frost

A very old man is in the hospital, dying, and in his wakeful moments he can not even remember his name. In his hand, he clutches a list that he knows he has written, a list of reminders to himself. But the list does not explain why fairies seem to be coming into his room, or why he is the only person who can see them. For that, he must recover his memories, his true identity.

He could almost sense a long progression of days opening in the same manner, receding into an even dimmer history. The list had advised him yesterday and the day before and the day before . . . all the way back to when some simian ancestor had come down out of the trees and drawn with a stick in the dirt. Every morning he was newly formed beginning each day fresh if ancient.

This story is more than just a metaphor of old age, dying, and the problem of identity and memory. It is also a fresh look at a very old and tragic legend, which does not become any less tragic here. Unfortunately, the identity that the author chooses for this character makes me less rather than more moved by his situation; because of this, it is not a story I can take seriously, and I wish it were otherwise.

Fragments of a Fantasy Mind by Josh Rountree and Mikal Trimm

We find Julia in a dream forest, picking up the scattered body parts of her murdered husband and son, hoping to be able to reassemble them. She is followed by a mocking, demonic creature she calls Bandy Tam, whom she believes to be an evil double of her son, or perhaps a changeling. It is Bandy Tam whom she blames for everything that has gone wrong in her life since her son was born.

Rather than a fantasy, this one is a fantasization of a woman's mental illness, in which Bandy Tam appears to be the personification of postpartum depression. Usually in stories of this sort, the conclusion comes as a sort of catharsis which signals the character's eventual healing, but this does not appear to be the case here, as Julia's only salvation seems to lie in self-delusion and denial. A depressing vision.

Pumpkin Jumper by William H. Wandless

Pumpkinjumper is a sort of chaotic sprite infesting the town of Poplar Hollow. Such a creature is rule-bound, and Pumpkinjumper, while malevolent, adheres to the old covenant; as long as a household gives him his due offering, he does them no harm. But the Andersons are new to the neighborhood and the neighbors are too busy to warn them, so that when Pumpkinjumper leaves a gift, their daughter Mandy Mae cites her own rule: "Finders keepers." This is a mistake.

A true fantasy, a new variation based on deep roots in legend. The problem is one of tone. This ought to be horror, but it is not. A sense of true menace is lacking. The difference is like being carried off to hell on Halloween when you are expecting your outhouse to be tipped over. If it were the latter, the neighbors could be excused, but they cannot.

Olverung by Stephen Woodworth

In Restoration England, a master thief and magician accepts a commission to steal one of King Charles' greatest treasures, the Olverung, a bird whose irresistible song can only be generated by pain.

Inside the case, two rows of silver thimbles nestled in contoured crevices of velvet. A long thin spine of metal extended from the head of each thimble, and the point of each spine ended in some form of hook, needle, or razor. Signor Salveri held up his hands, and servants placed the implements on the tips of his fingers and thumbs.

In order to carry out his mission, the thief must first return to the cruel master who taught him his trade.

The notion of art created through torture is not entirely new, but the images here are striking, if painful, and the setting is unusual for such a piece.

Clarkesworld 26

Clarkesworld #26

Clarkesworld 26, November 2008

Things are back to normal at this zine, with fiction more obscure than in last month's rather aberrantly conventional issue.

Idle Roomer by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn

Maria is the maid at a cheerless rooming house that mostly caters to transients, but Mr. Valapoli has lived there for sixteen months and Maria is worried for him, although she has never actually seen him. But his room is so sterile, almost as if no one lived there. The only personal item is an odd piece of mutable statuary. Maria convinces herself, without any real evidence, that Mr. Valapoli suffers from a lack of human contact, and she leaves him a friendly note to raise his spirits. In return, he leaves her a book with an inscription in a language that no one can read.

There is nothing really obscure in this story, and readers will undoubtedly know what Mr. Valapoli is. Maria is too apt to jump to unwarranted conclusions, but she is a likely character and well-rounded with an active curiosity, who cares about others.

Batch 39 and the Deadman's Switch by Simon DeDeo

Mysteries in the lab. The narrator was part of a project secretly funded by a Sinister Government Agency for sinister purposes. No one ever expected what she discovered there.

Which is, in the end, how I found it in batch thirty-nine. The thirty-nine steps. Two more than the most random number between one and a hundred. Terms two and three in a geometric series based on the Trinity. Not the bomb site. That came a little later.

Found what? The anima. That is, the narrator calls it that, after an obscure passage in Plotinus. It seems to be sort of sentient. It unravels things. It seems to be unraveling the world, ever since it escaped from her lab. It seems that it was designed to do this, should the sinister projects get out of hand, which they definitely have.

This is a short piece, in which more of the text is taken up by alluding to mysteries and less to the explanation of them. It is likely that readers will not completely grasp all these allusions, but this is not necessary to understand the essential point of the plot, that the narrator has discovered and employed a tool for sabotage. But as the subject of this piece is secrets hidden in code, I do wonder if all the tyops strewn about the text have any profound significance. They seem too numerous and too egregious to be simply the result of carelessness or chance, even in these benighted days when copyeditors are no more. Perhaps, like the number thirty-nine, they are part of a code, in which Ted Kaczynski's name is spelled correctly in one paragraph, and "Kazinsky" in the next, in which we find "Abu Gharib" and "Sparticus." I leave this suggestion to the curiosity of the reader who might be interested in that sort of thing.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, November 2008

Return by Eric Vogt

It is necessary to infer the backstory here. It seems that a harsh world named Gorgon once developed a technique called Overtraining to produce supersoldiers, known as Grays from the color of their uniforms. They invaded and conquered a world called Trinity, which eventually defeated them and in turn conquered Gorgon. The Gray POWs were tortured in an unsuccessful effort to reverse-engineer the Overtraining before they were eventually repatriated, broken, to a broken homeworld that blames them for the retribution exacted by the conquerors. Tima was repatriated early because his wife had died, leaving their young daughter parentless. Now he is struggling to be a father to a child he has never really known, and struggling to hold himself together for her sake.

As soon as Tima was out of the stranger's sight, he ducked into a filthy alleyway and dropped to his knees, collapsing from there into a twisted parody of a fetal ball. His calf tied itself into a knot again. His conscious mind hovered, slightly askew from a true awareness of his body, while his diaphragm kicked upwards, forcing the air out of his lungs in hard, breathy jerks, choking on phlegm and saliva when a tiny bit of air managed to sneak back in. The part of him that was aware winced at every aborted inhalation, at the dry heaves when the thick slime in his mouth tripped his gag reflex, until he finally passed out from insufficient oxygen to maintain the isotonic tension in his muscles. He lay there, light snow melting as it touched his hot cheeks and sweaty hair, but accumulating on the near perfect insulation of his overcoat.

There are some emotionally devastating scenes here, and there are some moments when the scales seem so unreasonably stacked against the Grays that the setup is manipulative; it would seem a lot easier for the Trins, if they so badly wanted the secrets of the Overtraining, to look for them on Gorgon where they were originally developed. But in Tima we are able to see the veterans from all our wars, and to understand a little of the price they have paid, and the hard path to which they sometimes have to return, which makes it worthwhile.

Until Forgiveness Comes by K. Tempest Bradford

Alternate history—maybe. In a world ruled by a sort of RomanoEgyptian empire, maybe, a Gaelic terrorist organization once committed a mass bombing in which a large number of train passengers were killed. Every year since, the scene is recreated, allowing the family members of the victims to witness the last moments of their loved ones, whose ghosts briefly appear at the scene of the original atrocity. The annual ritual is controversial. A reporter presents several of the different points of view in her coverage of the event.

Others who died have also faded from the ritual over the years—most notably the bombers themselves, who were often the target of fruitless attacks by grieving survivors. All but one are gone from the square now. Only bomber number two remains. His widow, Deirdre, stands in front of the place where he appears each year, flanked by three Mawt-Kom City police officers. She never speaks and has never taken part in reading the names or ringing the bells.

If you want to posit a distinction between a fiction and a story, this one is a fiction. The events of the story, or the several stories, that lie in the background of this scene must be inferred by the reader. Nor is it clear even to the participants just how the ghosts are invoked, or what sort of presence they have there. None of this really matters in this piece, where the point is the presence of the observers and the different reason that each of them have for coming to confront their ghosts, or not.

Up in the Air by Richard Larson

The narrator's lover has turned into a zombie and dumped him. The narrator is crushed by this rejection; he decides to fly to New York and become a zombie himself, or to find a new lover and start life over. He finds a new lover in the airport restroom. The narrator is full of contradictions, also alcohol and pills, so it is possible he isn't thinking things through quite rationally.

Zombies are not reckless about love. This isn't a romantic comedy. No big speeches, impromptu proposals at fancy restaurants, spontaneous passionate outbursts. Zombies operate with a plodding, almost resigned indifference. Life itself is cursory and unnecessary to zombies.

This is only nominal fantasy, with the zombies a metaphor for change.

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, November 2008

The Nest Building Habits of Children Inclined to Ornithomancy and Other Such Auguries by Berrien C. Henderson

The narrator is taught by his father the secret language of crows, to which the family may be related, and at first the crows befriend and help him. But as his father succumbs to cancer, the crows reveal their nature as figures of death, who exact a high price for their support.

My father had said that there was an owl come to roost in the open ceiling of the shed that housed the lawnmower and miscellany of gardening tools. It had come until one morning the crows, in a murder with murder on their minds, found him and swarmed him more like some hive-mind thing than the dark, eldritch, intelligent corvids they were.

This piece is heavy with symbolism, with which crows are heavily endowed by myth, although most of it belongs more properly to ravens, which are a different species, conflated here in this moody piece.

Scatter and Return, the Eyes of the Princess by Willow Fagan

A story buried in fairytale metaphor. In mundane reality, so far as readers can tell, a brutal father nightly rapes his daughter while the damaged mother disintegrates in a dreamworld of her own. The daughter escapes into fantasy, so that her own story becomes one of a vampire king and a princess who locks herself into a tower filled with books and constructs a golem to protect her, at which it is ineffective.

Night after night, the golem sculpted off pieces of the princess, fragments of her heart and soul, which inevitably fled the scene of torment. There was a unicorn, essence of innocence wearing a wicked sharp horn. There was a graceful singer, cloaked in a dress of shadows, with a voice that could have shaken the foundations of the tower. There were rabbits with bat wings and spiders that could weave thin air into the shiny, solid facets of jewels. There were dozens of birds, a blue cat, and a pleasantly plump monkey whose antics were wise and foolish at the same time.

This is not a fairytale where everyone lives happily ever after. While the story of the princess is imaginative, if sometimes obscure, the story of the daughter is one that we have seen often before.

The Black-Iron Drum by Von Carr

A sorceress has experienced such grief from the ravages of war that she removes her heart and turns it to black iron, so that she can no longer feel the pain. She buries the heart at a crossroads, then attempts to make a new, heartless life for herself. But when a wrongly-executed boy is buried at the crossroads, he takes the heart and becomes a vampire. Now the sorceress must attempt to retrieve the heart, calling to her with a drumlike beat.

She remembered it now, how it had felt to carry her heart through the ash-stained river where the children drowned and bodies spun up to the surface in illogical pieces. A hand, a bloated leg. No way to tell who the limbs had belonged to, no way to know if they were still attached to anything at all or whether they floated along as she had, broken and disengaged from the wholeness that she had once been.

The removable heart is a common trope in folklore and fantasy, as is the heart that turns to stone. The heart of iron is a harder, blacker stone. This piece is the literalization of the metaphor, with the woman incapable of feeling the horror she sees—the severed limbs are "illogical." The vampire—a properly revenant vampire, fresh from the grave—adds interest to an otherwise rather standard, though well-told tale.

When I was a Witch by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A "classic reprint" from the end of the nineteenth century. The narrator perceives cruelty and injustice in the world and wishes she had the power to eliminate it, as well as other annoyances. As she wishes, so it comes to pass.

My anger rose. "If there was any way of getting at them!" I cried. "The law don't touch 'em. They need to be cursed somehow! I'd like to do it! I wish the whole crowd that profit by this vicious business might taste their bad meat, their old fish, their stale milk—whatever they ate. Yes, and feel the prices as we do!"

This wishful trope has by now become a standard one, but Gilman's version is worth reading for its historical value, its influence both on the genre and on feminist thought. It is notable that the narrator, calling herself a witch, acknowledges that her wishes were not entirely benign, motivated by anger and not love, from which comes their power.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, November 2008

The second month of this new fantasy ezine, and again a longer story is split into two parts, which I find particularly and unnecessarily annoying.

Kingspeaker by Marie Brennan

In a foolish tradition, the king's voice is considered too sacred to be heard by his subjects, so a kingspeaker, a woman consecrated for the task, serves as his voice and speaks only his words.

They took my voice away in Anahata. Standing in the High Temple, I prayed to each face of the God and Goddess, speaking one final time in their praise. Then the priests took my voice away. They bound my mouth; they feigned cutting out my tongue. They gave my voice as a gift to heaven.

The current king, Idri, is a young man inexperienced in war, yet the augers declare that only his presence on the battlefield will allow the army to defeat the bandit leader. But the sight of widespread death renders him speechless, incapable of giving the necessary orders to his generals.

Brennan's prose is a bit on the portentous side, which is suitable for the subject matter, filled with augers and prophecies. I doubt if readers will be surprised by the kingspeaker's eventual decision.

The Last Devil by Sarah L. Edwards

This is a world infested by devils, who are malevolent shapeshifters disguised in human form. Kem is the servant of a renowned slayer of devils. Kem reveres his master, and he is displeased that a disagreeable man named Candrin is following them on their current quest.

He'd whispered fiercely against the devil-slayer, Saman of the Dales—my master. A fool's hero, he'd called him, just a man with a sword who knew more of devils than any right man should. But he'd whispered only, for if my master were a fool's hero than the land held a great quantity of fools.

The devils in this piece are an interesting creation, and Saman's story an intriguing one, the more so because much of it remains a mystery at the end.

The Crystal Stair by Charles Coleman Finlay and Rae Carson Finlay

Khatire is one of many concubines of the exiled god-emperor Damijan, condemned to remain on earth until he can produce a son whose magic is sufficiently powerful that he can climb the Crystal Stair,

spiraling steps wrought by magic that burned with their own inner light. The stair led to the emperor's spire. Even the strongest vaimen grew ill after climbing the first few levels; no one but the Paha Vaim could ascend to the highest chamber. On the day that happened, the emperor's exile would end and he would take vengeance on his fellow gods.

Khatire has a son who might one day become the Paha Vaim, but the murderous jealousy among the concubines threatens both of them.

There is a whole lot of Neat Fantasy Stuff here, particularly in the story's first half. The emperor's blood [and semen] is poison; his offspring the vaimen are quasi-immortal, but as they age, they continue to decay. I enjoyed these scenes greatly, and when I reached the point at which the text had been cut off, I was positively eager for the concluding installment, while annoyed at having to wait for it. Unfortunately, there is less of the Neat Stuff in this second half, which consists mainly in escaping the monster that guards the emperor's palace. And I found this particularly irritating after the wait and anticipation: a definite let-down.

Being irritated, I began to pay more notice to the inconsistencies in the plot. For one, that Damijan's children are supposed to be so sacrosanct that a concubine's pregnancy confers absolute immunity from assassination, yet the head concubine apparently plans to murder Khatire's very promising young son, a possible Paha Vaim. For another, that Khatire apparently gives no thought to the fact that she might be able to rescue her son from the palace, but she has no way to rescue him from the inherited taint in his blood that she is in fact removing him from the only possible cure: the Crystal Stair. Now it is true that I might still have noticed these things if I had read the text as a whole instead of cut into installments, but the lacuna increased the sense that the second half of this tale was a definite change from the first. And I had been anticipating more of the first.

Copyright © 2008, Lois Tilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Lois Tilton

In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. She is now reviewing the fiction of others.


Dec 3, 03:56 by IROSF
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