Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
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Editors-at-Large

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Publicity

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Publisher: Bluejack

January, 2009 : Review:

Short Fiction, January 2009

It sure seems like there were a lot of zines to read this month, even with one of the usual ones gone missing.

I give the fiction prize for December to Fantasy Magazine.

Zines Reviewed

FnSF

F&SF, Feb, 2009

F&SF, February 2009

About half of the fiction space is devoted to this month's classic reprint: "The Night We Buried Road Dog."

Shadow of the Valley by Fred Chappell

Dark fantasy. The shadow hunter Falco has traveled to the wilds of Arcadia in search of the rare plants said to grow in a Dark Vale where people who enter lose their shadows and die. Falco's rival Mutano is also in search of this valley, but Falco has planned ahead to engage the services of a band of brigands. The Dark Vale proves as perilous as it has been reported.

Commercing with shadows, as I had done now for so many seasons, I had experienced darknesses of every shade, texture, and smell, but this night in the Dark Vale brought forth a voluminous atmosphere aggressive in blackness. Here might be one of the world's origins of darkness, I thought, and there was writing to the effect that great earth-mouths in the Vale opened to a world below and visible darkness poured forth from these orifices like streams gathering themselves to rivers from woodland springs.

I quite enjoyed the previous story in this series, in which the characters were dealing in human shadows, not strange plants that cast strange shadows. That one was more intrinsically interesting, as well as darker in tone; there is something a bit light-hearted here in Falco's interactions with his brigands and his rival, and the affected tone of his narrative voice. The ending arrives without a conclusive punch. But I must give the author points for beginning with Pausanias.

The Texas Bake Sale by Charles Coleman Finlay

Post-apocalypse SF. Long after the United States has broken up and died, the Recon battalion still patrols the roads crossing the desolate landscape.

In the Texas Panhandle the heat made everything shimmer. Still, the blur on the horizon was definitely a convoy of trucks. They rolled over the old broken highway, kicking up spumes of dust that the wind bowled north, as if even the dirt were eager to escape such a desolate stretch of land.

Captain Mungus is glad to see the convoy approach; he figures they're due some luck. But some of the men don't believe in luck, with good reason.

This is a story of desperate choices and ethical doubts, in a setting that will remind a lot of readers of Mad Max. The action scenes are convincing and the characters gritty and colorful. But there's a bit of bait and switch going on. That the Recon battalion isn't what it first appears to be, that's OK. But it's not what the author tells us it is, and I'm not sure that's OK at all.

Winding Broomcorn by Mario Milosevic

A witch story. The narrator used to be a pastor, used to be married. His wife died, but he has been in a state of denial about it. Until he gets a visitor who wants him to make her a broom.

I thought about Belle. She used to love my brooms. Loved to be in the shed with me. Loved the smell of the broomcorn. Liked to hold it in her hands. Laughing at the feel of it. Used to say how much she admired me for making brooms. For making witches feel at home in the world. I'd never thought about it before. Figured it was one of Belle's jokes.

A warmhearted story of love and loss, and a witchy miracle.

RECOMMENDED

Catalog by Eugene Mirabelli

John Mousse has slipped into an alternate, derivative universe. He doesn't know where he is, but everything seems flat, two-dimensional, yet somehow familiar. He meets a relatively unclothed woman.

The bed upon which she waited was covered with thick rumpled folds of crushed amber velvet and as she unfolded herself in the rosy half-light the silver jewelry in her navel gleamed and winked, catching his eye. "Hey," he said. "That's a staple! You've got a silver staple in your navel. And—Yes!—Now I remember. You're Miss November! In the magazine! Yes, yes, yes!"

Then he meets a group of people in a rock band who are characters from an Edgar Allen Poe story, who befriend him. He begins to think he likes this universe better than the one he came from.

An odd fantasy, but a friendly one.

The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady

I don't know about this. I mean, I've liked the other classic reprints for this anniversary year, but they were stories I hadn't already read, stories from several decades ago. But this—Road Dog was only published fifteen years ago. I remember when it first appeared in the magazine. And when it won all the genre awards and was reprinted everywhere. Who hasn't heard of it? What could possibly be said about it now? But I guess that's why IROSF pays me the Big Bucks–to give it a shot.

This story is a lot of things. A ghost story. A mystery. A story of cars and the road, particularly Highway 2 crossing north Montana, with its crosses marking the places where cars and their drivers died. A story that says people need something else to love besides cars.

On most nights, ghosts do not show up beside the metal crosses, and they sure don't show up in owl light. Ghosts stand out on the darkest, moonless nights, and only then when bars are closed and the only thing open is the road.

Road Dog is a legend on the highway, never seen, sometimes heard, but known everywhere from the graffiti he leaves to mark his passage.

Road Dog
Run and run as fast as he can,
He can't find who is the Gingerbread Man

The story begins when Jesse Still opens his graveyard for cars, burying his '47 Hudson, Miss Molly. But Molly isn't quite ready to give up the road. Her ghost is still out there taking care of Jesse. And Jesse out there chasing the Road Dog, who may also be a ghost. The mystery is more than just Road Dog, the mystery is also Jesse.

There's a lot here, but especially there is the prose, that sings the love of the road.

Still, there are some howlers left out there, and some guys are still howling. I lie in bed of nights and listen to the scorch of engines along Highway 2. I hear them claw the darkness, stretching lonesome at the sky, scatting across the eternal land; younger guys running as young guys must; chasing each other, or chasing the land of dreams, or chasing into ghostland while hoping it ain't true—guys running into darkness chasing each other, or chasing something—chasing road.

If you've read it before, it's worth reading again. If you haven't, here's your chance.

RECOMMENDED

Asimovs

Asimov's, Feb 2009

Asimov's, February 2009

Much of the fiction space this month is taken up by a novel excerpt from Judith Berman.

Pelago by Judith Berman

We come in on this story after Ari's family has been assassinated by enemies of her mother. Knowing that they would be after her if they knew she was alive, Ari escapes by signing on to the first ship out–which happens to belong to the assassins. She and her family are targets because they are members of a race whose genes are enhanced and engineered to control shipbrains and other advanced systems. The pirates whose ship she is on seem to be typical of most other humans–degenerate, debased, illiterate, incapable of understanding the technology they depend on.

The pirate ship's door [seems to mean wormhole] system is malfunctioning, and Nuna, the captain, is obsessed with getting the services of the repairman kept prisoner on Pelago, the space station run by his criminal boss. But when they arrive there, the station has been deserted by humans, and the repairman is missing. Nuna, while distrusting Ari, uses her to access and control Pelago's control systems, and she discovers that the repairman [his mind] is hiding in the body of one of the giant squid-like creatures that inhabit the station's interior sea–whence its name. Nuna decides to pursue him into the depths. Ari is conflicted; she sympathizes with the repairman's desire for freedom, but she needs Nuna if she is ever to escape Pelago and find her mother's enemies.

Sometimes these things stand alone successfully as novellas, sometimes not so well. In this case, although there's a bit of a jargon hump [stars appear to be called Angels], it's not too hard to catch up with Ari's backstory, and the conclusion comes to a sufficiently conclusive end. The technological aspects of the setting are worth the reader's time, and Pelago itself even more so.

No, the problem I have with this one does not derive from its excerpted status, but from the author's decision to employ a pidgin dialect as a way of indicating the debased condition of the pirate crew. This, along with their repulsive sexual implants, seem to be intended to make it hard for readers to identify with them as human beings, perhaps so they can be conveniently killed off. But the effect is to make it hard for readers to read it.

"Chiyela," he said, as soft as she had ever heard him, "chiyela, I know you play tricky, tell I just bitty-bit of all you know. Go tell I now how repairman cut Boss link out of he brain, and what he turn heself into this time. Show I, do you have some use beyond you pure lovey meat. Most-most time, no own I no use for plain meat. Hajo-aa carry too much already, and it just drop shit and breathe up air, and make too much moss grow on I wall. Do I just as happy go toss you into tank-water for bighead snackies. I know they go eat you quick. Longtime I do soldier-captain and many time I see even purest Skeenhay meat die, as easy as any mongrel."

I don't enjoy reading stuff like this, and especially not forty pages worth of stuff like this. If I wasn't reading this professionally, I doubt if I would have gotten as far as Pelago, where things got interesting enough to hold me there.

Colliding Branes by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

Satire. The end of the universe as reported by bloggers. Angelo and Rabbiteen meet non-virtually to mingle their atoms at the last moment of the world.

She slid a glance over at Angelo, who was steering with one hand while trying to type with the other. She considered cozying up to him and working her wiles, but just then, with another clank, here came a mass-mailing to Hintika Kuusk's extensive buddy list: "OMG OMG OMG! Rabbiteen-Karmic-Reality is hooking up with Angelo-Aint-It-Awful!" Within seconds, a follow-up fusillade tumbled onto Rabbiteen's phone display and laptop screen—from handhelds, from Twitterstreams, from MySpace pages—gossipy whoops and snarks, cheerful shout-outs and me-toos, messages from half the women Rabbiteen knew.

Until the electromagnetic pulse kills it all. Fun Stuff.

RECOMMENDED

The Bird Painter in Time of War by Carol Emshwiller

Fantasy. The narrator used to be a war photographer, but one day he looked up and saw the snow geese flying, and ever since has painted birds instead, going across the border to find them, because that's where they are. His own side believes he is a spy, but people on the other side appreciate his paintings.

The moral oversimplicity here is outright chain-yanking. One side murders birds for sport and destroys the narrator's paintings–because we are supposed to hate them.

Every little group of soldiers has a campfire with a spit and something cooking. The battle was long over, but that evening they had nothing else to shoot so they shot the snow geese as they came down low, looking for a resting place.

This renders the concluding miracle less than credible.

The Coldest War by Matthew Johnson

A survival story. With a Northwest Passage opened up in the Arctic, Canada and Denmark dispute possession. Thus Canadians Stan and Gord are stationed on Hans Island, a rock half-way between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, as a way of establishing possession by proving that Canadians are inhabiting it. Every day, as a satellite passes overhead, they fire off a flare to show their presence. But because Denmark may send agents to the island to kill them, the Canadians take extreme precautions to avoid being located. This, unfortunately, makes it hard for them to locate each other, in case something happens. And something has now happened. Gord has failed to return from the flare tower, and Stan has gone out in search of him, and to fire the flare himself.

He was halfway up the slope when he saw something, or thought he did: whatever it was didn't throw off any heat, and even with the contrast at maximum it was hard to tell a rounded gray shape from the sloping rocks. It might have been Gord, or a Dane, or nothing; before Stan could get a second look his foot caught in one of the island's deeper folds. He pitched forward, striking the hard ground with a crack before rolling down the slope.

This is near-future science fiction, with the SFnal element minimal, consisting in improved heat-control technology. Mostly, it is an extreme survival adventure story. Johnson effectively evokes the Arctic winter, a place where waging war involves more danger from the elements than the enemy. So far, so good. My problem is not with these details, which the author has clearly Thought Through, but with the story logic that makes it so critical that a flare must be fired every single day, and where the Canadians take such extreme precautions not to be spotted, when the hypothetical Danish commandos would know exactly where and when they would be every day, setting off a very visible light–which could easily be fired automatically, thus proving nothing, while their extreme precautions conceal the very evidence of their presence that they are supposed to be trying to establish. I can not think that this makes good sense.

The Certainty Principle by Colin P. Davies

The vat-born have achieved legal emancipation, but there is still prejudice from the mother-born who do not regard them as human. John Hale is one of these. He was in command of an expedition on Mars carrying a vat-born documentary team when their vessel crashed, causing an air leak. Calculation showed that there was not enough air to sustain both passengers and crew until rescue arrived. John did what he believed necessary to save the lives of the real humans, but the publicity ended his career and made him a target. Now he is the target of a Lesson.

Unsubtle and clumsily didactic.

The Point by Steven Utley

Rival scientists try to work out their differences on an expedition together into the past, where carnivorous monsters lurk in the forest.

The stock of the heavy elephant gun is slippery in my hands, the muzzle in tempting proximity to the back of the madman's head. Who would be able to say that I had not simply slipped in the mud and reflexively squeezed the trigger—having, of course, already inadvertently thumbed off the safety?

Entertaining malice.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy, Feb, '09

Realms of Fantasy, February 2009

Again, the stories in this issue are all set in the mundane world, or some variation on it, rather than any in an invented secondary world. It is one of the weaker issues of this zine that I've read, with flaws marring several stories that had seemed at first to be more promising.

The Radio Magician by James Van Pelt

Polio has crippled Clarence, and now his lifeline is the radio–particularly Professor Gilded's magic show. Clarence has mastered many coin tricks, but they are only tricks. He desperately wants to believe in the professor's words:

The coin's disappearance is an illusion, a trick of perception only, but our perceptions make reality for us all. If you perceive you are cowardly, then illusion becomes the world. If you perceive you are ill, then illness becomes you.

This is less a tale of wishful thinking than of the power of the will to overcome self-doubt. But it is easier to believe in the miracle of Clarence's magic trick than his ability to walk as far as the trolley after his legs had been immobilized so long in the casts.

The Happiest Place by Carrie Vaughn

Maddie plays a character in a theme park that the author does not say is a Disney production, although we read it as one.

The worst part of my job is the terminally ill kids. The ones without hope, who get a wish from some charity or other, and they and their families come here. Sometimes, it's a little girl who wants more than anything to spend her special day with her favorite princess. That's way too much pressure to put on a twenty-one-year-old aspiring actress in a hoop skirt.

Maddie is oversensitive, and it becomes too much for her when she becomes the recipient of a magic gift that makes her actually able to fulfill wishes.

The conclusion here strikes me as wrong, and when I consider why this is so, I realize that Maddie does not actually seem to be an aspiring actress; by the time she receives the gift/curse, she is already aspiring to nothing at all. It is not the wishing that has eroded her life, for there was nothing there by the time it began.

Joy is the Serious Business of Heaven by David D. Levine

If there is really a heaven, it is highly unlikely to be a place where angels work long hours in cubicles filling out ISO 999 reports. Which is of course the point of this piece. The moral is appropriately heavenly, but the initial premise is too improbable to be credible.

The River of Three Crossings by Richard Parks

Another tale of the ghost-hunting Lord Yamada in Imperial Japan. It seems that ghosts like to haunt river crossings and bridges, and this is what the ghost of the bandit Tadeshi the Red is up to, haunting the crossing where he was killed. Yamada and the priest Kenji have been engaged to exorcize him, but the ghost is difficult for them to summon, because they possess nothing that actually belonged to him. Until they discover that Tadeshi has left behind a daughter. But Momiji has plans of her own and no intention of cooperating with Yamada in banishing her father's unruly ghost to the other side of a different river.

"[The Sanzu] is the river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead," I said, because I did know that much. "In order to be judged by the King of Hell and pass into the afterlife, a soul must cross it. That is what Momiji is referring to." "Yes, but the river is called "san zu" because it is the river of three crossings: a bridge, a shallow ford, and a deep, serpent-infested passage. Where you cross depends on the weight of your sins."

Like many of the other stories in this series, the core of the tale is in the nature of the ghost-world and the ways of human interaction with it. And the defiantly logical Momiji.

RECOMMENDED

Fossil Fuels by Alan Smale

Rosalind, an eternally reincarnated archetype, descends into a coal mine to once again search out and kill her eternal adversary; she is order and he is chaos, she is future and he is past. Her ability to see the future tells her that she will find and kill him there, but it does not tell her everything. The narrative is framed as discussion between Rosalind and Peter, the pit boy who guides her through the mine. It gradually becomes clear that she is following old patterns for no real reason, as well as allowing herself to be used by forces perhaps more truly sinister than her supposed enemy. In the end, it is Peter, the uneducated boy from the dark and filthy mine, who sees more clearly.

"Why? Why?" she mimicked. "Lots of reasons. Because he's just evil, and wrong, and… sly. And, beyond that… because he killed a friend of mine. Someone I'd known for… ever such a long time." Peter had inadvertently asked her just the wrong question, and now the words tumbled out of her.

I am reminded a bit of Holdstock's Mythago Wood series, with its eternally recurring figures, except that Rosalind and Jack are quite a bit more human. But the strongest part of this piece is the setting of the mine–the darkness, the oppressive sense of weight overhead.

[she] became convinced she had been buried in the smoky intestines of the earth and was fated to prowl the hacked-out burrows of the deep forever, like a hapless Greek demigod consigned to eternal torment for some long-forgotten sin. The stooping walk, the endless tripping, the haunting memories of past and future sorrows.…

However, as much as I appreciate these scenes, I am not quite sure why Jack is down in the mine in the first place, what he is doing there. And I don't think Rosalind knows, either.

Interzone

Interzone, Dec, 2008

Interzone 219, December 2008

A vengeful issue.

I note that a number of the stories here are not as strong as they might have been because the author has chosen to tell of the important stuff in flashbacks, depriving them of immediacy and urgency.

Everything that Matters by Jeff Spock

Pete Russo is a professional deep-sea diver, currently working for a shady character named Abunay in search of the valuable alien spacecraft known to have crashed into the seas of Orrin. Unfortunately, the seas of Orrin also host the Kotanchek's Shark.

The beast chewed methodically, working its way through my hipbones and the bottom of my spine.

Not my cock, not my cock, I thought as I felt the nails-on-chalkboard sensation of my own bones being ground by cartilaginous teeth. I felt internal organs rupture; balloons of heat filled with nausea.

Pete's advanced diving gear keeps the remainder of him alive, and Orrin's doctors reconstitute his body; he decides to go for the gill modification. He is eager to get back into the water because he has become convinced that Abunay, not wanting to share the wealth, somehow arranged to lure the shark out of its territory to attack him.

A vivid tale of adventure, treachery and revenge, only slowed somewhat by Pete's extreme concern for the functioning of one smallish organ out of so many–this must be a Guy Thing.

RECOMMENDED

When Thorns are the Tips of Trees by Jason Sanford

A really strange phage has infected humanity, and the people afflicted by it turn into thorn trees after they die. The trees hold their memories, and others can communicate with them by pricking their fingers with the thorns. Before they die, the infected victims roam around in the night like zombies, attempting to infect others. The phage is spread by touch, so everyone wears gloves constantly and avoids all human contact–which makes for a lot of unrequited love. Some people plant the trees of their loved ones in memorial groves, others destroy them. Teenaged Miles is caught in the tangle of conflicting interests. He loves Seanna, whom he can not touch, but he is most closely connected to the tree of his dead friend Elleen.

The theme here is connection, but also the relationship between memory and self. I am not sure, however, that it is entirely consistent. Some trees can't seem to recall anything new.

To Mom, I'd never grow up because she couldn't change, the memories and soul burned hard and static and unbending into the tree's crystal structure. Non matter what I did in life, Mom would forever be the same person as when she died.

But Miles' friend Brad is aware that it has been months since he last visited his tree, and he remembers the stories Miles brings him from their friend Elleen, while Elleen continually makes up new stories, just as she did in life; there is no explanation for this difference in Elleen. The roving bands of zombies distract from this primary aspect of the problem and gives a tacky, cheap horror feel to a scenario that is already improbable enough.

The Shenu by Alexander Marsh Reed

One character in this story remarks wisely,

Does it matter if the magic's real? As long as it works?

Everyone seems to have some kind of magic here. It seems to be a new thing in the world. Markos is having trouble with his magic. Or may Markos is just increasingly obsessive-compulsive. He thinks that something is reaching for him through the magic, trying to trap him. But this may just be his friend Isabel, who invokes his magic to augment her own. He decides, for unclear reasons, to transfer his magic into a shenu, a lump of jade, and throw it away.

IZ doesn't offer a lot of fantasy, and this one is ambiguous; the magic could all be a product of the characters' shared delusions. For this reason, attempting to follow Markos' unclear reasoning may lead readers astray, into a foggy place.

The Fifth Zhi by Mercurio D. Rivera

A clone story. An alien Stalk has pierced the Earth, like a toothpick through an olive. Even though the Stalk has had no apparent effects on the Earth, the authorities are determined to destroy it. After many failed attempts, a scientist named Zhi Zhang has come up with a retrovirus that should do the trick, and a small army of his clones have been grown and prepped to penetrate the force field, climb the stalk, and release the virus. But only Zhi 5 has managed to reach the Stalk; the rest of the clones have been killed by the force field.

This is a story about how individuals want to believe that their lives matter. While the details of Zhi's climb to the top of the Stalk are kind of fascinating, the conclusion is a bit predictable.

The Country of the Young by Gord Sellar

Ji Ah is a medical scientist in a future Korea controlled, like all developed nations, by the "methuselahs," whose artificially extended lives have allowed them to accumulate vast power. Nations try to restrict the rejuv treatment. Ji Ah has had the treatment herself, but her Indian husband Prabhir can not obtain it in Korea, and if he is treated in India, he will never be allowed to enter Korea again; nor will she be allowed into India. Prabhir makes a desperate choice in order to remain with Ji Ah, and now she is planning revenge on the methuselahs.

The author begins this narrative at the end of the story, shifting back and forth away from the part that really matters, which is the strong tie of marriage between Ji Ah and Prabhir, and the sacrifices they make to try to remain with each other. I am not sure this was the best choice; old, remembered pain is not so sharp or compelling as live and immediate pain.

Butterfly Falling at Dawn by Aliette de Bodard

Alternate history/mystery. When Civil War broke out in Mexico, many refugees fled across the border to the Chinese state of Xuyan. Hue Ma, as she now calls herself, has so completely assimilated that she is now the only Mexica-born magistrate in the Xuyan administration. She is assigned to investigate a death in the Mexica district, the murder of a hologram designer named Papalotl–"butterfly" in Nahuatl. The investigation brings out Hue Ma's suppressed memories of the Civil War and the family that she has been estranged from since she fled.

As a mystery, this is a rather lackluster one. There are plenty of likely suspects, all of them lying to her, but the story never really becomes engaged with them, or with the victim who connects them. Though the murder was a crime of passion, there is relatively little passion to be directly seen. The subject that is really at the heart of the story, the trauma of the Civil War and its effects on the central character, appears only in flashbacks, remote and second-hand.

Weird Tales

Weird Tales, Sept/Oct 2008

Weird Tales, Sept/Oct 2008

An international fiction special issue, with stories from mostly from European authors, some in translation. The overall tone is surreal and the furthest yet from the "old" WT that I have seen. This issue also contains a novel excerpt from Ekaterina Sedia, not reviewed.

First Photograph by Zoran Živković

A relatively straightforward tale from this often-enigmatic author. The narrator looks at a photo of himself on his mother's lap at two months of age, and recalls his twin brother, who decided to remain behind in her womb.

Of course he wouldn't keep on growing. How could he spoil he own mother's appearance? He wouldn't even stay in his current tiny proportions that would certainly cause her no inconvenience. He would go to the opposite extreme. Become smaller.

The highly unlikely is related in a matter-of-fact tone through Živković's characteristic Old World voice, which seems to come through consistently in translation.

The Gong by Sara Genge

This one appears at first to be a conventional tale of fantasy battle, but it is a bit more strange than that. The Farong are a sort of reptilian creature whose females must prove themselves in battle in order to mate. Their approach to the citadel is at first met with panic, but the nobles and male warriors choose to hold back, even after the Gong is sounded.

The sound vibrated through the metal fittings on the city's walls and onto the warriors [sic] armour, making nobling spears and peasant hoes quiver alike.

The city's defense is thus left to the eunuchs and the citadel's real fighters, the Sworn Maidens. The eunuchs are weak and effeminate; the Sworn Maidens muscular and powerful, owing to the magic drug that they make from the bodies of the slain enemy. The commander of the eunuchs covets the drug and sends Telora, the narrator, to insinuate himself into the confidence of the Maidens and steal it.

At the literal level, there seem to be serious inconsistencies here. The Gong of the title, apparently meant to activate the spirit of war, seems to have no real role in the story. There is a caste of warriors, but they refuse to go to war; the law forbids the eunuchs to fight, yet they were all trained for battle as boys. Some readers may also object that eunuchs are not actually so helpless and passive as they are portrayed. But such concerns with consistency do not really seem important in this piece, which is primarily a tale of sexual politics and gender roles.

The Dream of the Blue Man by Nir Yaniv

A far-future world where the inhabitants can dream reality, and don't seem to do much else. It was the first dreamer who created this state of affairs by saying, "And you shall all be as dreamers." Now the blue man is looking for a very powerful dreamer [the first dreamer himself?] who can dream him into becoming the first dreamer who can dream himself, because a dreamer can't change his own dreams. He believes that the creator of a dream Empire State Building on the shore of Tel Aviv might be the man he's looking for. Or maybe it's all just a dream.

A very weird and [of course] dream-like tale.

The Wordeaters by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

A dysfunctional marriage story. He was a writer, slowly failing. She wanted his attention, and a baby. Wordeaters came in the lonely night, crawled into her belly, and asked her to eat words for them. She did, and gave birth to a child of words.

And he told her a story of dragons at sunset, of winds that brought news of secret wars. His words were filled with the dreams of a thousand warriors; they were heavy with the pathos of years, and dripping with the anguish of fallen nations.

Most of this piece features images, composed of words. But I must protest that words are not in themselves stories, nor are they sufficient to them, or else a dictionary would be a poet.

Out of Sacred Water by Juraj Červeňák

In the 9th century, Moravia is forcibly Christianized and its sovereign, Moymir, decides to build a great new fortress to celebrate his power. But the woodcutters sent to cut the trees for it fall victim to the rusalkas whose lives are tied to the forest. Moymir sends a military expedition to deal with the problem, including the improbable combination of an Evil Priest and Rogan the sorcerer, with his companion wolf Goryvlad. Rogan's sympathies are with the rusalkas.

"You mustn't confront the tempest, Queen. You must withdraw before it; remove yourselves deeper into the woods. There are places there untouched by the hand of humans and will remain so for a long time. Find yourselves another home, otherwise you are threatened with ruin."

Fairly standard Sword and Sorcery tale, more typical of material of the "old" WT, with the interest in this case being in the use of Slavic myth and folklore. The author has made the rusalkas a bit more like dryads, their lives tied to the trees, than the usual lore suggests. Rogan and wolf are series characters. The inevitable doom of the rusalkas is tragic and some of the imagery here is nice, but the "Temple of Blood-Red Fire" is an unfortunate phrase, and the Evil Priest is a tiresome cliché.

Time and the Orpheus by Chiles Samaniego

John Bastion plays the trumpet. It is all he does, all he knows. When John plays, his audience is entranced. Barney, owner of the Orpheus bar, found John playing on the street and gave him a place in the Orpheus, and now everyone is happy. As Barney says,

"Your music keeps them, toys with their imaginings of time, I reckon, and while you play, they stay and drink and flirt as though all the time in the world was theirs for the takin'."

Until the lawyer from the City comes one night and tells Barney that his title to the Orpheus is invalid and the place is going to be torn down to make a new highway.

Here is magic that charms, with a character who is more than a little divine, although unaware of it.

RECOMMENDED

Bleak Warrior Meets the Sons of Brawl by Alistair Rennie

Lord Brawl, whose habitual pastime is torture, sends his fifty sons out to bring him another Meta-warrior to practice his hobby on. Out in the multiverse, they encounter the nameless BleakWarrior, a character wallowing in his angst:

Ghosts and denizens populate his vision with terrors and splendours; celestial figures dance naked over the glowing heaths: and, for all his sense of fear and wonder, BleakWarrior cannot conceive of them without going mad.

Mayhem ensues.

I believe this scenario may be intended to evoke Moorcock's Multiverse, but it is a crude version, without elegance or grace, and BleakWarrior's self-pity does not evoke sympathy; it is pretty much a matter of indifference to the reader which warriors are killed by which, who is dragged off to unspeakable tortures and who is not.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, December 2008

The proportion of SF to fantasy in this month's fiction is the inverse of what it has typically been at SH.

The Same Old Story by Naomi Bloch

The shortage of resources in this future has resulted in severe population restrictions, and a limited number of couples receive a permit to have a child. As a substitute child for the rest of the population, scientists have developed celludroids, engineered from a combination of plant and human genes. This is not without social complications. Sarah has become defensive of her celludroid son Zach, determined that he will not be treated as a second-class person, as the comments of some of her friends suggest.

"I look at all of you with your little green children . . ."

This story plays out as one of social dynamics and character, not biology, although Sarah is a researcher in gene manipulation. There are times when Sarah seems oversensitive, but then events seem to justify her. There are also moments when a reader might think she protests a tad bit too much that she does not regret she never had the opportunity for a fully human child.

How to Hold Your Breath by Meredith Schwartz

A teenaged girl is turning into a mermaid, not just suffering the usual afflictions of female puberty. Too short to be a story.

Engines of Survival by Larissa Kelly

Time travel. The technology only works one-way, into the future. The narrator isn't doing much with her life at the moment, so she is persuaded by her friend Dan Ramirez to enter a partnership, bringing stuff from the past into the future, where it may be more valuable. Almost three hundred years later, she is still going forward, meeting one generation after another of Daniel Ramirez as she arrives. There is much that the narrator loses, and much that she gains, but she is never wholly alone, whenever she is. Some things change a lot, some don't.

I know to record the everyday things. Make one trip and the holos will become mementos. Four or five will make them curiosities. And if you go far enough ahead, recordings of once-ordinary activities become documents of the unutterably strange. I hand Danny an album with holos of the young man and raccoon strolling in the sun-dappled park, and of the children giggling as they rubbed the animal's furry belly.

As one of the Daniels says, "We all send ourselves into the future, one way or another." We are all time travelers, only at a slower rate. The author's note states that the title is taken from Leonard Cohen's song, "The Future." The engine of survival is love.

RECOMMENDED

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, December 2008

This issue has a lot of strongly-imagined fiction, unusual stuff.

Geddarien by Rose Lemberg

As the Nazis increase their persecution of Jews in pre-war Europe, young Zelig learns to play the violin from his grandfather, who tells him of the wondrous musical festival called Geddarien.

"The houses in this city, they do not meet. They are fixed in their places. But once in a hundred years they come all together, the living houses, and they dance." He put the bow back into the case and took up the violin; his fingers shook. "And they need music then, so they call us, the musicians. My father played at Geddarien once, and I was there as well, you see, with my quarter-fiddle, and my big sister Bronya with her trombone."

Grandfather has a trusting, naive faith that everything will be well, even after the Nazis have killed his wife and rounded up his family into the ghetto. Zelig isn't sure whether he should believe Grandfather or his gloomy uncle Yankel. But the time for Geddarien comes, after all.

This is an ambiguous fantasy in which it is not quite clear whether the houses have really come alive or Zelig has only hallucinated them. The festival of Geddarien and the living houses seem to be an invention of the author—at least I am not otherwise familiar with them. The extensive use of Yiddish dialect and the character of Grandfather, who sees only good wherever he looks, make the charm of this piece melancholy, given the historical reality. It is a story that says, no matter how bad things get, there is always the possibility of a miracle.

A Trail of Demure Virgins by Sara Saab

As a young woman, Glory passively resisted the arranged marriage her parents were pressing on her. She closed off her voice.

It was easy to say stop in her head and simply cease to reply, and loose her muscles, making herself viscous gelatine when they grabbed her arms to compel her to see the suitor. For a year she taught herself the art of playing dumb, draining retorts from her mind, then replacing them with automatic unvoiced prayers that rolled faster than speech. This technique swaddled and kept her, and the storm winds battered useless.

Then she ran away, and passing by a shop window, she saw a statue of the Virgin Mary that seemed to bless her escape. For the last twenty-two years, wrapped in her silence, she has planted small statuettes along the margins of the roads in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, as an act of worship. But she can not endure that sometimes she finds one of the statues missing.

There are [or were] nuns who take a vow of silence, who symbolically marry Christ. Glory's silence is a symbol of her virginity, and while some people might regard her as a holy person, Glory wonders in her heart if it is only a pretense, if she is truly serving the Virgin. This is a story about the authenticity of religious experience and commitment, and if there were a miracle or so thrown in, it would be a fantasy story as well.

The Queen of Hearts by Daniel Moran

Asriael, a malevolent wizard, owns and rules the slum known as The Slants, having won it from its original master in a card game. An evil shade now haunts the streets, enforcing his rule. The narrator, known by the false name Renue, has been chosen and trained to enter Asriael's manor and win back the deed to The Slants, the first step in liberating the people. But once inside, he is distracted by the compulsion to learn what became of his parents, who were lost there when he was only a child.

The setting of this one is intriguing, dark and decadent. Gentlemen at the card table wear white gloves to conceal their hands, which Asriael's magic turn red, for liars, or black, for murderers.

III
The Great Game
This is the night is the night is the night
That white gloves grasp royalty, peasants, all.
His mother, used like a coin.
Red hands lie, black hands die,
Did his father once set foot in the manor?

The plot is inverted, beginning with Renue cast onto the streets without name or memory, his hands blackened. Most of the rest is flashback, with the annoying consequence that almost the entire text is set in italics*, even those portions that would seem, by the numbering system, to be in the story's present. The key to the story lies in Renue's past, in the fate of his parents, which suggests that the wizard who sent him to the manor was incompetent, in not preparing him to cope with the revelation of this secret.

*Unless this happens to be a HMTL coding error.

RECOMMENDED

Merry Christmas by Stephen Leacock

Leacock was one of the last century's best-known humorists, but this piece is full of unhappiness as the author mourns the violence of war and its effect on the world's children. The author is visited by a sad and shell-shocked Father Christmas, to whom he is able to give a little cheer.

Old Christmas seated himself beside the fire, his hands outstretched towards the flames. Something of his old-time cheeriness seemed to flicker across his features as he warmed himself at the blaze.

"That's better," he murmured. "I was cold, sir, cold, chilled to the bone. Of old I never felt it so; no matter what the wind, the world seemed warm about me. Why is it not so now?"

The editorial blurb states that this story was first published in 1914, which is incorrect. It came out near the end of World War I, at the end of the three years of conflict that have broken Father Christmas in the story. Leacock grieves for the loss of children's innocence; today's readers, looking back like Father Time over a century of war, may wonder if they can share the author's hope that innocence and peace will ever be restored to the world.

RECOMMENDED

Keepity Keep by Carole Lanham

Two young brothers, Gage and Alban, meet a fairy, unfortunately called a Wingwee, who lives in their garden. They fall sort of in love with her, which leads to jealousy. But mortal boys, as their magic, immortal companions always learn, grow up and their interest in fairies makes way for other things. But the jealousy may still remain.

The frame of this one is the more interesting part, being a leather-bound book marked KEEPSAKES on the front cover. Given the items the author says are pasted inside, it must be pretty lumpy. But there are more subtle reminders on its pages.

If you take a magnifying glass to Page Ten, you might be able to pick out the faintly purplish, lightly lemon-scented tear of a Wingwee splashed across a receipt for a ruby button.

In the end, this one is a tragedy, which rather compensates for the moments of twee.

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld, Dec, 2008

Clarkesworld, December 2008

This month's issue turns to the alternate history of TV shows, with some of the stories crossing the line into silly. The weakest issue I can recall this zine ever putting out.

A Woman's Best Friend by Robert Reed

In this version, George Bailey is snatched from the river and sent to an alternate world much different from anything he knows, except that there is another Mary, much like his own. It seems there are an infinite number of alternate worlds, and in this one, people have learned to cross between them.

Mary sighed, and then she nodded. Pulling her empty hand out of the gun pocket, she smiled at the mysterious visitor, asking, "By any chance, George...is there an angel in this story of yours?"

Alternatively, George has died and gone to heaven.

A neat story idea, and it is interesting to see George Bailey from a different author's point of view, but in the end, this one is really anticlimax. The dilemmas that drove George to suicide are all forgotten and ignored, replaced by quantum infodumpfery.

Episode 72 by Don Webb

In a US where McCarthyism is triumphant, a Senator defends her anti-Communist position.

"Some were even proud of their anti-American political views. We have chased them from film. We have chased them from television. We have chased them from the public schools. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It has been questioned in this body if we are right to use their labor to further that vigilance. It has been asked if the Communist should be working in our defense plants especially now as missiles build up in Cuba. I say yes. I say that we should turn the forces of Communism against itself at all odds."

But this Senator is known to us as a different character, and her alternate identity soon becomes clear.

This one is an uneven graft of the serious and the farcical. The political aspects of McCarthyism are too serious to take lightly, but the more the Senator falls into the identity with which we are familiar, it becomes impossible to take anything here seriously. The graft isn't viable.

The Completely Rechargeable Man by Karen Heuler

They call him Johnny Volts because he generates his own electricity with a rechargeable pacemaker. So far, he has only used it as a parlor trick, like a hired clown, but he has plans to upgrade his capacity.

"I don't run out," he said. "I recharge. And I'm getting an upgrade to photovoltaic cells next week. I have to decide where to implant them; do you mind if I run it past you?" He rubbed his hand over his head as they took the elevator down. "The obvious thing is to replace my hair—it's a bit of a jolt, though. I can lose it all and get a kind of mirror thing on top—a shiny bald pate, all right. Or fiber optic hair. But it will stick out. Like one of those weird lamps with all the wires with lights at the end? What do you think?"

But Johnny's abilities have attracted the attention of sinister forces, including the electric company, which claims he must be stealing current.

Actually, this ought really to be the story of the mad scientist who keeps augmenting Johnny's power output, but we never actually see him. Pretty silly stuff.

Jim Baen's Universe

Jim Baen's Universe, Dec, 2008

Jim Baen's Universe 16, December 2008

Reading the unserialized short fiction, which is mostly SF, and finding a lot of tyops. This is a pretty typical issue with some entertaining fiction and some not so much.

Moon Race by Ben Bova

A bunch of working vehicles, never intended for racing, are running a race on the moon, and the narrator, Taylor Reed, is operating the prototype of a six-legged vehicle developed by his mentor. His race strategy is to go overland across the hills where the tracked and wheeled vehicles can't go, but in an obvious ploy to create artificial tension, the author disqualifies him for leaving the laid-out course.

As an adventure, this is a particularly dull one, and as a plot, the race is a particularly dumb one, as the value of the legged vehicle obviously does not rest on its speed.

Pumpkin by Bud Sparhawk

Mining the storms in Jupiter's atmosphere. Jake is an independent operator defying the big meteorite mining corporation in his ship Pumpkin and hoping for the Big Strike while struggling to keep up with his debts. The more danger, the greater possibility of profits. Also, he loves the challenge.

Yet here he was, he and Pumpkin, fighting the wind, fighting the storm, drawing on its strength to survive. Instead of controlling them, it was they who controlled the forces of the storm. The feeling of power, of winning was overwhelming. It made him feel so alive!

In fact, his girlfriend suspects he loves the challenge and his old ship more than he loves her. She has finally convinced him to take a safe contract with the company, when along comes one last big storm that, like an addict, he can't resist.

The storyline here is pretty standard stuff. Jake is an incorrigible gambler, an idiot risk-taker, Marie is an idiot for putting up with him. The real excitement is in the adventure, the details of sailing into the alien storms. This is not Sparhawk's first sailing story to be published in this magazine, and his command of this material raises his work to a higher level.

RECOMMENDED

Loki's Net by Marissa Lingen

Nora Larson is a storyteller, a star, and totally dedicated to her art. She has hired Reese to invent an improved memory drug to help her get into character for her performances, but Reese created it using his own memories, then realized he didn't want to have his privacy so violated. He destroyed his work, but Nora is determined to find him and recreate it.

Reese was developing a nanodrug that would let me really have someone else's memories as they experienced them."

"Whereas the pills—"

"The pills help me to remember the same events, but as me. As a woman, in her late thirties, an actress, from a quiet family, all of that. I can't get rid of any of it. I can't say what it's like to be you, Ted. I can't say it in the most basic physical sense, what it's like when you get an erection, when your balls itch, any of it."

This is a character study of a person ruthless and powerful enough to carry through with an obsession, regardless of the cost to others. The secondary question is whether experiencing the memories of another person, in effect becoming that person, will alter an individual's personality. It seems a bit of a stretch to connect nano memory bugs with the work of an artist, but I think it doesn't really matter what Nora wanted or whom she wanted it from. This is what evil is made from in the real world.

Some Events at the Templar Radiant by Fred Saberhagen

A berserker story. The wars are over, the berserkers long ago defeated when Sabel, a Templar and a cosmophysicist, reanimates a berserker brain in order to interrogate it for information. Not only is this forbidden, but an unexpected visitation of the Order's Potentate complicates matters at this crucial time in Sabel's research. He hurries to hide incriminating evidence, but he is already under surveillance, by more than one party.

It is impossible that a reader could grasp the impact of an active berserker without prior familiarity with at least some of the works in this series. It is improbable that many such readers exist among the subscribers to this zine. Saberhagen, at any rate, appears to be operating on this reasonable assumption. It is obvious from the beginning that No Good Will Come of Sabel's experiments, and it is obvious that he is No Good when he takes sexual advantage of a naive young girl. The question remaining is how the events will play out, among the many possibilities that the author suggests. There is more at stake than Sabel's fate alone.

The Gossamer Mage: Intended Words by Julie Czerneda

Fantasy. The Goddess's language is magic, and when a mage scribe masters his art, he can write magic. But there is a cost for each word, a toll taken from the life of the mage. Maleonarial the hermit is the oldest of the mage scribes, in terms of magic used, and the magic he is working on would spare the magician that cost.

To write with intent was, for those with Her Gift, an expenditure of life. A mage scribe used ink and pen, needed a surface on which to write, would study years to master stroke and technique, would above all else learn as many words of the Goddess's unspoken language as possible, since those words were the means by which magic could be summoned.

Meanwhile, in the village of Riverhill, something evil has been brought to life, creatures of magic and malice. Who could have created such things? The hermit mage is suspected, the scribemaster is sent to investigate, and even the Goddess Herself sends her eyes.

There is a lot of Neat Fantasy Stuff here. The mage scribes are a rich invention, Maleonarial an intriguing character, and the Goddess powerful in the way of immortals that do not hesitate to spend human lives to accomplish their own aims. There is a real malevolence that the characters are faced with–a definite touch of horror. So there is much here to satisfy the fantasy reader–but there is enough and there is more than enough, and that is the problem. Redundancies create reader impatience and extraneous passages with little connection to the ongoing story diminish interest, which makes this tale less satisfying than it might have been.

A Very Formal Affair: A Harry the Book Story by Mike Resnick

Fantasy farce. Harry being, it seems, the bookie to the undead and assorted other wights, who go by names such as Big-Hearted Milton and Short Odds McDougal, the latter having just wagered the sum of ten thousand dollars on Clubfoot Clarence to win the Christmas Eve Dance Contest to benefit the Upper West Side Retirement Home for Warlocks and Witches of Advancing Age. The odds in this case being 50 to 1, and Short Odds being known only to put down money on a sure thing, Harry is disconcerted and heads to the dance to investigate, because of course the hex is in.

This is really silly stuff, with the main amusement coming from the silly names made up by the author. It's framed as a mystery, which could have been entertaining, but the author just waves his wand and solves it, so that's that.

In the Light of the Hunger Moon by Kevin J. Cheek

Lorgash the troll has contracted smallpox and is on his way to the mountains to die where he will not infect any other trolls. He wouldn't mind infecting humans, but the family he encounters on the way is of mixed blood, and also infected with the pox. He discovers that they are trapped between trolls and humans, both sides wanting their death for different reasons. Lorgash is bound by hospitality to aid them, even though it is the Hunger Moon.

"The Hunger Moon is the bad time. There is much sickness and little food. Fathers have killed their families rather than see them starve. Much is excused, so long as there's some cause."

The author does a nice job of integrating Norse folkways into a fantasy tale. Usually, the mention of trolls means a D&D scenario or Tolkien pastiche, but this is closer to the region's own lore.

RECOMMENDED

Johnny Plays 'Round Saturn's Rings by Jason K. Chapman

Johnny's Dad is dying. They're planning to make him into a mandroid instead, but people hate mandroids. Events occur to make everything all right.

Predictable and sentimental kidstuff.

Talebones

Talebones, Winter 2008

Talebones 37, Winter 2008

A satisfying issue of this small press printzine, as full of fiction as any of the "big" ones.

Floaters by James Van Pelt

A scientist named Martin has learned how to look into the future and discovered that the end of the Earth will come in seven years. Martin is seeking a way to prevent this event, but he first needs to evade paradox.

"If our knowledge of the future remains with us. If we don't allow the information to leak, then the future is unaffected by us. But that means we can't interact with the world at all. We have to remain in the closed loop."

Rye is recruited into the project as a VR specialist by the promise of free medical treatment–he is dying of what seems to be AIDS. But one day he learns that his sister will be on a plane that crashes in the near future with the loss of all lives. He wants to stop her from getting on that plane.

This one really isn't about the end of the world, or time paradoxes, or AIDS. It's about human action and human connections, and making a difference. And not always following the rules.

To Be with Amy by William F. Nolan

All her life, Ellen-Marie has wanted to be a mother. She even knows what she will name her daughter–Amy. But no matter how she tries, she can't conceive, until she is abducted by Gray aliens. The ending comes as no surprise, and without much interest.

What We Love by Mark Rich

Robert has always wanted to own Venus, or at least control it, but the authorities have twice thwarted his plans. His wife/partner Margaret resents his obsession. Now Robert has a new project designed to terraform the atmosphere of his favorite planet, and he is ready to release it, leaving a special surprise for his wife–and she for him.

They opened their mouths and shot into the thick atmosphere, spreading wings and beating them with the majestic, slow, graceful movements of the high-flying bird, the albatross of the second planet. There, in the air, aloft, they found their ambrosia.

For the air itself the pterosaurs opened their hungry maws. They were the devourers of clouds.

The terraforming pterosaurs are a seriously Neat Skiffy Idea, and Rich's descriptions are poetic. The malice between husband and wife sharpens the conflict. I only wish that at the very end of the text, he hadn't felt it necessary to repeat the moral. Again.

The Serpent Who Sleeps Beneath the Shards by M.K. Hobson

The Empire of Reason has conquered the world of the Shards and replaced the rule of the priestesses of the Celestials with a Ratiocinator, who is systematically debunking all of the wonder of the deposed religion and its rites. He has forcibly married the Cloud Sister Iyrthyne, and their daughter has been brought up according to Reason instead of trained to succeed her as Cloud Sister. But Iyrthyne knows more secrets than the Empire has discovered.

The Bad Guys are so crudely portrayed as to make it hard to find much appeal in this one.

Firelight by Eric Del Carlo

The hellfire is breaking out everywhere, and the firefighters are recruiting the forces they need to combat it.

A short piece with a strong punch and evocative prose.

Brighter light rolled up the house fronts lining the street. The truck was slowing. The light was alive, and it issued heat, reaching into the truck and beneath McGhee's fire-retardant uniform, squeezing sweat from his flesh before they had even come to a full stop.

RECOMMENDED

The Corsair and the Lady by Edd Vick

Musad el-Allali ibn Harun is the captain of a pirate ship sunk in pursuit of a slaver. Musad finds himself saved from drowning on a raft carrying one of the female slaves, still chained to a plank. But he quickly realizes she is not what she appears to be; she is much more.

A nice magical fantasy in a Moorish mode.

A Road Like This, at Night by Lon Prater

The narrator's daughter has recently died and he has gone to her college to drive back her car. On the road, the ghosts of her past encounters in that car appear to her father, giving him new knowledge of his dead daughter's life. A poignant expression of grief and love.

Persephone Eats Winter by Julie McGalliard

It was never Persephone's idea to marry Hades, but she's grown used to the situation. He has been a considerate husband–every autumn when she arrives in the underworld, he presents her with a pomegranate, split so they can share it. She never expected he would ever want a divorce.

This short work offers some intriguing insights into the nature of marriage, gods and death.

"Where do gods go when they die?" I asked Hades, once.
He looked puzzled for a moment, as if he had never considered this before. But when he answered, his voice was confident.
"Into mystery," he said. "We return to the chaos out of which the universe was born."

I have never seen a version of this tale in which Hades was the father of Zagreus, but that's another complication in a lot of marriages, particularly marriage á la mode des dieux.

A Turquoise Morning by Rebecca Tester

At the assassin academy, promising student Cocytus is preparing for graduation by gathering the resolve to kill his lover and only friend, Sanguine. One of them must kill the other by morning, or both will die as failed assassins.

Glancing over the dirty expanse of mushroom groves and tire earth that made the realm of Eternal Night, Cocytus was almost tempted to flee the test. But where would he go? Nowhere. The doors to the overworld were millions of miles away for all he knew, and the races of light believed everything dark was evil.

In this very short piece, the author has created an intriguing setting—a realm of darkness where the hours are measured in colors—a neat little plot, a love story, and a pair of well-sketched characters.

RECOMMENDED

All the Glitters by William Mingin

No one knows where the Glitterflies have come from, but for a lot of people, they seem to be a distraction from the increasing number of terrorist attacks and social deterioration. Or just fun.

A huge pack of them, moving together like an army, swarmed a party of young people in the street like a multicolored wave of sequins, forming elaborate gowns or costumes over the clothes they already wore, so that they looked like they were headed to a fancy dress ball. It made them laugh.

Karl doesn't like them, and he particularly doesn't like their effect on his girlfriend Rosie, once an aspiring opera singer.

Kind of creepy, although it isn't clear whether the Glitterflies create weakness or only exploit it.

Lonestar

Lone Star Stories 30, December 2008

Two conventional tales and one that is not.

Dream Seed by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

The narrator is a teenaged girl whose nasty older brother does everything he can to ruin her happiness and prevent her from keeping her friends. Her only champion is her Aunt Eileen, who seems to be something of a witch, because she always sends just the right present just when it is needed. This Christmas, her gift is a single seed.

"Plant this in dirt, water with tears or milk, wait a night, and see what grows."

I snuck downstairs and got a teacup full of dirt from the garden, and one of milk from the fridge. Back in my room, I planted the silver seed in the dirt and watered it with milk. I sat cradling the seed cup and thought about Scott, the way he sabotaged me and made me scared. I managed one tear that dropped into the milk-wet dirt.

This is a short tale of small miracles, not large ones. The Dream Seed will not turn Scott into a toad or dissolve him, but it will make it easier for the narrator to bear her troubles for a while.

The Andrassii Agreement by Stephanie Burgis

As part of her job in the Prime Minister's office, Helen is in charge of a high-level reception for the Andrassii Ambassador, where an important announcement is to be made. This is painful for Helen, as her mother is having a torrid affair with the Ambassador, who is currently female.

She slid a glance across the room to where her mother was feeding the Ambassador a strawberry with her fingers, while at least a dozen cameras clicked. Helen restrained herself from wincing, with an effort. "I am delighted that she and the Ambassador have found so much in common."

In the meantime, her mother's ex-husband is threatening mayhem against the Ambassador, the male Andrassii is working himself up to assault Helen's mother, and her cousin Bella, the journalist, is circling like a shark.

An amusing story of the social complications of alien diplomacy.

Veronica by Josh Rountree

Peter Morningstar arrives to escort Veronica to the far side of whenever wearing the magic coat they nicked from Lady Jenna's pirate lover when they were both still children. Peter hasn't lost a day of his youth and he tells Veronica he forgot to grow up. How neat is that?

Peter is a Peter Pan figure, part of the adventures that Veronica and a dead child who loved her shared when they were children together, until the other child drowned. But Veronica has long since put Peter away and resists his constant attempts to lure her into the world where dead children pursue eternal games, despite the tragedies that have blighted her life. Now she is dying, and Peter's attentions become more desperate.

The second-person narrative structure of this piece is odd and may confuse some readers —an unidentified narrator is addressing the child-ghost who has witnessed all the passages of Veronica's life and wishes more than anything not to lose her forever when she goes to a different place than the place where dead children go. This story is in part a repudiation of the Peter Pan impulse to retreat to childhood and evade the harsh realities of life and its responsibilities. It is also a tale of devotion that endures beyond death.

RECOMMENDED

Subterranean

Subterranean, Fall 2008

A fairly unusual combination of alternate history and horror in this collection of stories.

Spring Training: A Lucifer Jones Story by Mike Resnick

Resnick's incompetent con man goes to Argentina and runs into an even more incompetent trio from the pre-war Third Reich, there for the purpose of conquering Uruguay or one of those places.

"Fool!" snapped the one what hadn't spoke up yet. "We are the Master Race!"

Well, I could tell right off that these here officers had been drinking all night and were pretty far gone, because they weren't running the Master Race until Saturday over at Argentine Downs, and besides, to the best of my knowledge it was limited to horses.

Resnick seems to be producing quite a few of these series lately, with different unheroes, that seem mostly to be along the lines of farce or silliness. This is one of them.

Tanglefoot (A Story of the Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest

Edwin is the orphaned son of one of the sanitarium's inmates, now serving as the assistant to the mentally-deteriorating inventor Doctor Smeeks. He likes the work, but being lonely, he has invented his own companion, a mechanical boy. Ted soon begins to misbehave in ways that are inexplicable, except to Madeline, one of the inmates.

He pressed the switch and the clockwork boy marched in place, and then staggered forward, catching itself with every step and clattering with every bend of its knees. Ted moved forward until it knocked its forehead on the leg of a counter, then stopped, and turned to the left to continue soldiering onward.

The subtitle suggests that this is part of a series, although I am unaware of any other installments yet published. While it has been called Steampunk, only the steam part seems to fit, not the punk. In fact, despite the clockwork, this is not strictly science fiction or alternate history, as claimed, but dark fantasy, with mysterious malevolent forces capable of possessing machinery. The tone, however, is too light for horror, with Edwin's inventions including the "Picky Boy Plate with a secret chamber to hide unwanted and uneaten food until it was safe to discreetly dispose of it." The heart of the story lies in the relationship of Edwin and Doctor Smeeks, two characters who should win the sympathy of readers as they support each other to the best of their respective abilities.

Waiting for Rain by Mary Robinette Kowal

In a future world where the weather is controlled, vineyard owner Bharat Mundari is unable to pay his weather bill after spending too much on his daughter's wedding. The grapes are suffering in the resulting drought, and he is afraid to tell his wife about the trouble they are in; she knows, however, that he is keeping a secret from her and imagines the worse.

Although it gets a bit sappy towards the end, this one is enhanced by the viniculture neep, and the wine-review epigraphs opening each section are a nice touch:

Mundari Vineyard 2045, Nashik (India), Shiraz
Black cherry, plum, and currant flavors mingle with aromas of sweet tobacco and sage in this dependable offering from India.

Apotropaics by Norman Partridge

An apt title, as "apotropaic" refers to practices meant to avert evil. In this case, the evil is a vampire who was dating Todd's sister Janet until her father caught him in flagrante sanguine, beat him to death with an iron cross, and buried him in the cornfield. But vampires, as is well-known, can rise again from their graves, and Todd's friends are left to conduct the appropriate apotropaic rites.

This one is true, classic horror, particularly at the conclusion. I am very glad to see that some authors are still maintaining the standards of the genre, writing vampires as creatures of evil rather than cloying adolescent sex toys.

RECOMMENDED

Mirror of Fiery Brightness by Chris Roberson

An alternate history spy thriller in Roberson's Celestial Empire series. Saito Ren is a covert agent of the Celestial Empire in the South American Republic of Fusang, allied with the Mexican enemies of the Chinese. When agents of the Mexica suddenly assassinate all his agents, Saito is forced to flee, but as he escapes, he becomes increasingly aware that this Mexican move is related to some project called "Tlatlauhquitezcatl," the Mirror of Fiery Brightness, and he is determined to discover what it means.

Roberson's Celestial Empire series has by now become one of the most extensive alternate histories ever. I have read quite a number of the stories set in this rich ongoing milieu and found them uneven; the best are quite good indeed, focusing on individuals caught up in the movement of history and the clash of empires. This novella, however, suffers severely from Seriesitis, as the author has overloaded it with way too much backstory–the backstory of the Celestial Empire, the backstory of the various South American polities, the backstory of the Nipponese in Fusang, and the personal backstory of Saito Ren and the ignoble deed that has haunted him all his life. Buried under all this information, Saito fails to come fully alive as a character, and his immediate problems with people trying to kill him seem almost an afterthought to the history. The author has also overused coincidence and improbability as plot devices to push Saito through his paces in the pursuit of the Fiery Mirror.

Elsewhere, Roberson has stated that this installment in the series is meant to present the Mexica from more of a neutral perspective as opposed to the villains that they appear from the Celestial point of view. It is in the person of the most unlikely possible character, the assassin priest of the Flayed God, that he succeeds, making the very end of the story the most interesting part–and without any intrusive backstory at all.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December 2008

I guess I'm never satisfied. I complained when this fantasy ezine serialized the longer stories in its first two months of operation. This month there are no longer stories and thus no serials, but the shorter stories just aren't quite as good as the serialized ones.

The God-Death of Halla by Tina Connolly

Halla is a thief, but she was once the daughter of a high-ranking member of the holy rich class, before her father was condemned in a power struggle by the priest who is now the Mouth of God, through whom the city's God speaks. The God touches the minds of those it chooses to serve it, and it also marks those guilty of crimes by inducing in them an irresistible bloodlust.

The short priest held the dove just out of reach as the man frothed. The torment would not cease till he succumbed to the God's compulsion and killed the bird—and the priests would not let him have the bird until he confessed. No one could resist the will of the God for long.

Now Halla learns that the Mouth has perverted the process and plans to pervert it further; she is the only one who can prevent this, if she can save herself.

The tone of this one reminds me a bit of PC Hodgell's Godstalk series, but it falls short in the complexity and sophistication of its cruelty. The God-Death isn't very credible as a system of justice, and the God doesn't seem to do much of anything else with its power. There is potential in this scenario, but I think more could have been done with it than curing Halla of her self-centeredness.

Precious Meat by Catherine S. Perdue

The life-cycle of imaginary creatures, from birth through metamorphosis. Boon, the narrator, is a very effective male pack-leader who is devastated to find himself morphing into a female, which means an entirely different way of life.

Winning the race meant nothing without the female's consent. Each time I caught her, held her, her breath hot on my face, there was a moment of danger while she decided if she would have me or not. She would gut me with her amber spurs if she decided ‘no.' Life or death, it did not matter to me in those moments which fate she chose. Only she must decide. I could not live with such hunger, and if I died, so I died. Twice she let me live; or two females did, once each. I never was certain.

The characters here are an intriguing creation, their life cycle well thought through, but the story is excessively didactic, a Lesson.

Dunasby, Fire and Ice by Rebecca Lyn Shelley

Humans can die; elves can't. Which is to say that they are cursed to be reborn with the memories of their previous lives' pain, and of the world beyond, where they are not allowed to remain as humans do. Deathfire has suffered so much in life that he is trying to send everyone to the world beyond, human or elf, whether they wish it or not.

"I know because I've seen it. A hundred times, for the briefest moment before being flung back into this world, born once more to suffer over and over again. If only I had more time. If I could just get a better view, I might be able to find some way to stay there."

A transplanted twist on the notion of karma and the Wheel of Life. Oddly, with such a negative viewpoint character, this one ends on a hopeful note, canceling out most of the built-up despair.

The Dragon's Child by J. Kathleen Cheney

An evil wizard with the power to control dragons and their fire once kidnapped a princess with the power to heal, in order to breed a child who would inherit both sets of abilities. With the death of the princess, it is now up to her sister Kseniya to care for the girl and try to protect her.

It would have to be soon, Kseniya decided as she watched Jia-li disappear within those walls. Now that the girl was old enough to make the trek through the mountains, Kseniya had to find a way to steal her away before the wizard broke the girl's spirit and corrupted her soul.

The wizard has some interesting sadistic tricks, confirming him as evil indeed. Too many authors don't make their villains work for the honor.


Copyright © 2009, 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.

COMMENTS!

Jan 7, 06:59 by IROSF
Have something to say about this month's stories?

Short fiction review is here.
Jan 7, 19:52 by Constance Ash
Thanks, Lois, for your thorough delving and assessments.

Would you say there's an average word count to what you read, over all?

Love, C.
Jan 7, 20:28 by Lois Tilton
Gad, I haven't the slightest!

I suppose ... if each digest issue is like maybe 60K ...

I doubt if it's much over 300K or so for a typical month. Or so.

Jan 10, 01:54 by Constance Ash
How long would the average story be?

Love, C.
Jan 10, 02:09 by Lois Tilton
I think around 7K [she says, with no data to back up this guess]

Most online venues restrict the length of the stuff they publish, often to 5K or less, which lowers the average length.

I prefer longer stories, generally. One thing about the Baen's Universe site is that they regularly publish longer stories than most other online zines.
Jan 13, 00:39 by Constance Ash
6-8 thousand words is an excellent length for a short story, imho. Under six often things are forced into the glib and facile. Not always, but muchly.

Love, C.
Jan 14, 19:03 by Bluejack
Different stories demand different lengths.

Many of the greatest gems of our genre are under 5K.

It's not necessarily harder to write a shorter story, but it's a different kind of story.

(That said, it's quite hard indeed to write any story in the most effective, concise language possible. Always easier to add a few more words to try to clarify something that's not quite right than to actually subtract the words needed to make it right in the first place.)
Jan 15, 13:46 by Chris Butler
In assessing story lengths I think the median value would be more interesting than the average. If I read 3 stories of length 1K, 4K and 25K, the "average" story length is 10K but the median is 4K.

If you look at the stories published across all the genre markets I would expect the median to be quite low, certainly much lower than the 7K guesstimate given by Lois above. But I suppose the top professional markets tend to have a higher preference for novelettes and novellas.
Jan 15, 14:05 by Lois Tilton
I wouldn't say they have a preference for them. My own experience and that of others I know is that a novella is a harder sale. The editor really really has to like it.

But relatively few markets will even look at them.

And a novella is indeed kind of a risk. If an editor commits half the zine's available pages to a single work and people don't like it, that whole issue is pretty much a bust.
Jan 15, 14:22 by Chris Butler
Yes, I agree. I meant that if you're going to get a longer story published anywhere it is likely to be in the top pro markets. But the chances of doing that are still vanishingly small. The rarity of longer stories is exactly why I think the 7K figure is much too high.
Jan 15, 15:01 by Lois Tilton
Outside the "big 3" digests, other pro markets for novellas include Baen's Universe and Black Gate.


While I did make the disclaimer that my figure is pulled totally out of my hat, I do need to add that this is the fiction I'm reading, which skews it to the higher end, as opposed to all the fiction that's out there, which I agree is probably shorter.
Jan 23, 23:17 by Dotan Dimet
The author of "The Dream of the Blue Man" (Weird Tales) is called Nir Yaniv, not Taniv. I haven't seen an issue of Weird Tales since the early 90s, so perhaps they're using a confusing typeface...
Jan 24, 19:27 by Lois Tilton
Or maybe Lois hit the wrong key on the keyboard.

Thanks for the correction.

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