Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early January

First stories of the 2014 review year. Some inauspicious notes.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Subterranean, Winter 2014

This issue guest-edited by Jonathan Strahan has a larger than usual number of stories, complete with forwards from both editor and author.

“The Scrivener” by Eleanor Arnason

“There was a scrivener who had three daughters.” Which opening line suggests either a fairy tale or King Lear, or perhaps a combination of both. As the scrivener had always wanted to be a storyteller, he named his daughters “Imagination, Ornamentation, and Plot” in hopes that they would follow the path he had not. Though they have neither talent nor interest in this profession, the girls love their father and want to please him, so they agree to go into the forest to find the witch, who might help them. Because, of course, in fairy tales the three offspring [usually sons] are supposed to perform such quests.

As the daughters’ stories aren’t exactly stories, neither is this one, quite, but an argument in fictional form. Yet one well worth reading, because of Arnason’s acerbic wit.

“Good enough,” the critic said. “There are too many writers in the world already. I try to cut them down, but they spring back up. On the other hand, there are too few good witches. Always remember, no matter what you end up doing, stay away from stories about heroes and dragons. They have been done to death.”

“Bit Players” by Greg Egan

Segreda wakes to discover that while she was unconscious, gravity has turned sideways. Arguments about physics ensue, until the natives admit that they are AI constructs, NPGs in a commercial virtual world. Arguments about virtual reality ensue. Finally, more than half-way through the text, Segreda leads a sort of revolution.

Here’s another not-quite-story, although it eventually turns into one. The concept is potentially interesting, but the extended arguments are not. Once we find the story’s heart, it is about the humanity of such virtual constructs, based originally on the scans of real individuals’ brains; Segreda seems to have been built from an engineer. The question is, given the impossibility of escape, what is the best these people can hope for? It seems to be deletion, although I’m not sure that would be the author’s answer, given the tone of the last line. So this would be a tragic story if the characters were more real and less arguing heads.

“The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford

Talejui, a young artist’s apprentice whose work on the cathedral dome has impressed the Prelate, is given a commission he can’t refuse: to create a portrait of the devil.

“He is a great trickster with infinite guises. Men and women are defenseless against him. They need to be able to identify the demon, so that they know when he comes for them. I want his true portrait executed with all the art God gave you.”

The devil lives in an abandoned palace on an island in a mountain lake. Although Talejui doesn’t really believe in this quest, he actually finds the place and meets its resident, who declares himself agreeable to the commission. But he sets a price, and the Prelate has made it clear that whatever it takes, Talejui must comply.

Now this one is a real story, cast in a fable mode. The devil here convincingly epitomizes evil, and as predicted, we know him when he comes to claim his due. The last line has particularly chilling implications. But just as strong are the portraits of men of faith, most notably the elderly artist who is Talejui’s master, consumed with his project of sculpting the Holy Ghost.

–RECOMMENDED

“Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story” by Karen Joy Fowler

An unsettling tale of changelings and doppelgangers – or imposters. Fiona’s parents have gone to a conference and left her and her twin sister with Nanny Anne, who begins to act strangely, taking and wearing their mother’s clothes. She tells the girls a story, purportedly about events that happened in their own house, a child who was taken and returned, along with a twin changeling. Fiona begins to wonder whether she or her sister was the original child.

Nanny Anne turned the light off so Fiona couldn’t see her face. “The real child was the one her mother has always loved best, of course.” She moved in the dark like a shadow, back to Dacey’s bed where she kissed her, too.

Creepy stuff. The author closes out the story on an ambiguous note, leaving readers to guess the answer to the question. It is not, despite the title and setting, a Christmas story; it could have taken place at any time. Yet as the author’s note suggests, Christmas and All Hallows are very close indeed, times when uncanny spirits may come into our world.

“Hayfever” by Frances Hardinge

Pyne of Mabar, Tyrant King of a hundred planes, Destroyer of the Tree of Peace and Artisan of Torment, a being something on the order of Lucifer and Morgoth, has been captured and sentenced to death, but the rules allow him a last meal, “within reason, and certain ethical constraints. Nothing that will result in the demolition of ecosystems or direct harm to members of a sentient species.” Stephen, the chef, is relieved when the menu actually appears to be possible, a stew based on the meat of the mimblebat. Of course there are complications; the bats are a migratory species that cross a great desert nectaring along the way on the Great Throat Orchids that only flower twice a year. Also, the bats turn out to be an object of worship for the natives of their world. But Stephen and his assistance persevere in their hunt for the creatures. Until.

Fantastic humor, carried quite a bit to the extreme, and incorporating a mystery.

“Caligo Lane” by Ellen Klages

A story of San Francisco, maps and origami. The lane in question is one of those shifty places that don’t always appear correctly on maps, undoubtedly owing to the presence of Franny, the cartographic witch residing in number 67. Now despite the present-tense narrative, it is soon apparently that the story is set in the past, during WWII. And when the witch embarks upon an urgent task involving a remote village in Poland, readers will instantly recognize the place and guess the nature of the task, but probably not the means, as Franny is an adept in an arcane art that might be called map-folding.

The secret of ori-kami is that a single sheet of paper can be folded in a nearly infinite variety of patterns, each resulting in a different transformation of the available space. Given any two points, it is possible to fold a line that connects them. A map is a menu of possible paths. When Franny folds one of her own making, instead of plain paper, she creates a new alignment of the world, opening improbable passages from one place to another.

Here is a neat working of magic, meticulously described. The name is a bit of a puzzle. Readers will be aware that “origami” means paper-folding, and wonder about the distinction between the two suffixes; many may also be aware that the term “kami” refers to spirits. Is this difference in spelling significant here? The ending of the story comes on a strangely incomplete note. The figures who vanish into the fog – an ambiguously haunting phrase – where do they go? What happens to them there? We can only wonder.

“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There” by K J Parker

The narrator engages a teacher to instruct him in magic.

“Apparently,” I said, “you can teach me how to walk through walls, stop the flow of time and kill people with a single stare.” I waited. He didn’t say anything. “Is that right?”

The instructor proves reluctant. He has misgivings. As does the skeptical prospective student. But the magic seems to work. Except that things aren’t as they seem. And the way things seem aren’t as they seem. Twists and turns double and redouble back.

Readers may be familiar with the author’s series about the Studium school of magic; this is another milieu in which magic is illegal. In a way, the piece is a study of character, the character of a rogue, but a reluctant one. Or so it seems. Or so the narrator tells us.

“Pilgrims of the Round World” by Bruce Sterling.

Crusaderpunk, or so the author’s note alleges. Not, however, the medieval crusades we are most familiar with, but the opportunistic 15th century wars against the conquering Ottoman Turks. It is in Turin that our tale is set, at the clearance sale at the pilgrim Inn of St Cleopha, as its owners Ugo and Agnes prepare to take up a pilgrimage of their own to new positions as envoys to the Crusader court of Cyprus and Jerusalem. This elevation is owing in part to past connections with the members of the court, but primarily because the actual kingdoms have dwindled away to a small outpost on Cyprus, now being seized by the nominal queen’s bastard half-brother. All these political complications, and more, are the subject of much discussion and dispute amongst the remaining denizens of the inn.

“Never! Never! I have never forgotten Jerusalem! No Cypriot ever can!” Ugo drew a silver chain from around his neck. “King Janus gave my father this holy medal with his own hands! ‘Protect my daughter,’ King Janus commanded him, ‘sing your bold songs of Crusade, and rouse the martial Savoyards!’”

There is much more along these lines – a lot, as this is a fairly long story with much more talking than happening. The innkeepers are fools, and tedious ones. The interest is in the numerous allusions and the background, in figuring out just who these historical and some fictional characters are, and how far their tales march with the reality of 1463. Is the “battle-scarred Serbian Ottoman” someone we might recognize? Where did the Spanish sea captain get an Aztec rubber game ball? Who is the English Halbardier at the city gates? Failing interest in such matters, however, this one isn’t likely to engage many readers.

 

Clarkesworld, January 2014

I like the tale translated by Ken Liu better than his own story.

“Wine” by Yoon Ha Lee

Military SF. The reclusive world Nasteng is under attack from forces apparently intent on obtaining its valuable secret: the wine of blossoms, which conveys immortality [although they seem more likely to destroy its only source]. To repel them, the Councilors of Nasteng call in the assistance of mercenaries, whose methods carry a high cost. One Nasteng general, on discovering the cost, becomes determined to defy his superiors.

So far, Ruharn observed that the mercenaries relied on sheer numbers, wave after wave of suffocation rather than strategy. To be sure, the method was working, yet he couldn’t help feeling the councilors could have spent their coin more wisely.

Readers will discover quickly that Nasteng is hardly an idyllic world, that an overthrow of its existing government might be no bad thing at all. But the attackers are not in the business of regime change but wholesale destruction. Revolution, repudiating the mercenary contract, would do no good. Ruharn’s only open path is the least bad option.

Taken in itself, this is a satisfactory work centering on the character Ruharn – both as a person who attempts to maintain the integrity of his military profession and one who pursues a path of personal redemption, making up for his complicity in the crimes of the regime. But in comparison with this author’s other, superior, work, I find it lacking in nuance and complexity. The Nasteng regime and its guilty secret are rather too decadent, too overtly evil; the story leans so hard on this as to be moralistic. She’s done better.

“The Clockwork Soldier” by Ken Liu

One of those stories that begin at the end, then go back to tell how we got there. Alex is a bounty hunter commissioned to capture and return the runaway teenaged son of a planetary ruler. During the voyage back, Ryder passes the time writing a crude interactive text adventure story about a clockwork robot and the quest for self-determination for automatons; he claims this is for his own amusement but in fact he is attempting to convince Alex to sympathize with him. In between sections of the story, Alex and Ryder debate at length the ethics of laws governing automatons, as if no one knows what they’re really talking about.

In some stories, Ryder’s secret would be something that readers were meant to discover at a concluding aha! moment. Here, however, it’s blindingly obvious from the very start. In some stories, having uncovered the secret, readers would be meant to wonder what the bounty hunter was going to do about her newly-discovered knowledge. Here, however, the author tells us in the opening section. So what else is going on? What does the author have hidden behind all this obviousness, other than a moral lesson? Sadly, I have to conclude: nothing. What’s obvious is all there is.

“Grave of the Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo, trans by Ken Liu

The stars are going out. Refugees pour through a stargate to the promise of salvation in the Weightless City, while on the road, Rosamund is born to their queen, with a clear recollection of the event. When they reach their destination, the queen disappears into the castle of the Weightless City’s creator, and Rosamund follows her there, where eventually she discovers the secret of the dying stars.

Highly fantastic with fairytale overtones. There’s more than a bit of surrealism, as we see people traveling to a stargate by oxcart [if, in fact, these are real oxcarts pulled by real bovine oxen], which gives the narrative license not to make literal sense. At its heart, this is a tragic love story, but the strangeness of the characters renders their emotions distant. I find the fate of the lovers less moving than that of the innocent Snow-No-More birds:

Alarmed, the flock wound through the sky like a giant electric eel, each individual bird a scale. They hovered near each other, their wingtips brushing from time to time with light snaps. Quickly, the snaps grew louder and denser—the birds drew closer together to resist the unknown force that threatened to divert them, and electric sparks generated by the friction of the wings hopped from wingtip to wingtip. A great, invisible hand wrapped its fingers around the throat of the flock, and the ash-white electric eel in the sky began to tremble, its entire body enshrouded by a blue flame.

This is nicely done imagery, what I like best about this imaginative piece.

 

Mythic Delirium, January-March 2014

A winter issue of this poetryzine – appropriate for the day I’m reading it, with the storm blowing outside. As usual, I will only be looking at the prose selections, which range from dark to darker.

“Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Apocalypse in the form of a zombie infection:

Then another sound comes from midway up the stairs, a sound like maybe someone gargling mouthwash, only it sounds thicker than mouthwash, and it’s like they’re trying to talk through it, except that it keeps sloshing out when they try.

So Gabriela takes off with her toddler son Jack and a backpack full of diapers that leaves less room for real essentials.

Here we have an ethical conundrum in extremis as Gabriela tries to figure a way to save her son when everything is past saving. Pure horror.

“Levels of Observation” by Kenneth Schneyer

A series of assessment tests for telepaths in the service of the police state, which unfolds slowly in front of the reader as the tests apply to more advanced cases. Aside from the telepathic aspect, this all seems quite familiar. Horror of a more likely sort.

“India Pale Angel” by Robert Davies

It seems that [some] people have [invisible?] angels fastened to their heads, and sometimes the angels die. Elizabeth’s has died and is starting to rot. It’s heavy and inconvenient. Going out for a beer is an effort, particularly when a tree takes root in the angelic corpse.

Dragged behind her, it got stuck in elevator doors and subway turnstiles and made dogs tug at their leashes and piss in uncertain fear. Escalator teeth bit harshly at the feathers until the wings resembled plucked chicken skin. The angel’s samite robes dragged on the floor, mud stained and torn.

This might be light dark surrealism, even on the comic side, except for the demonic psychopath who is stalking Elizabeth for some purpose undoubtedly malign but undisclosed. The story, despite some neat touches, is too weird to make a coherent whole.

 

Apex Magazine, January 2014

First issue under new editorship, with an announced theme of the connection between past and present, which I see as the way deeds come back to haunt either the doers or their heirs. There are only two new original stories, one good and one so bad I have misgivings about the future of the zine.

“Pale Skin, Gray Eyes” by Gene O’Neill

Really stilted dialogue here. Nobody talks like this:

“No, Tem, you and L’Voli may not watch your father this afternoon at the village square when he petitions the Consul of Clerics,” First Mother said in her rarely heard stern voice. “This will not be a gay social event. The arguments may become heated, some in the attending crowd growing angry and upset.”

The cause of the dispute: It seems, according to the infodump, that in previous generations war was waged among the tribes of Whiteskins, Brownskins, and Blueskins, the giant Whiteskins [I will herewith discard the text’s italics] having since disappeared. Now an oversized, pale-skinned stranger has been captured near this Blueskin village, inside the protective wall, and consensus has him as a returned Whiteskin, likely up to no good; L’Voli, however, argues that he may been a crash-landed alien. Since the elders laugh at this, readers will know at once that this is the correct explanation.

Everything here is dreadfully bad. The dialogue. The infodumpfery. The undeveloped characters. The hackneyed racial clichés. The plot that comes to no resolution and asks readers to believe the absurdity that a person who is captured, manhandled, hauled some distance and manacled to a stake, whose skin and eye color have been clearly seen and identified, would not also have been noticed to be (a) unmasked, (b) female, and (c) winged. I also suppose that the conclusion is going to offend and enrage some disability advocates. That Apex has published this piece gives me no confidence in the editor’s judgment.

“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon

An “animal wife” story. Out on the desert, the jackalope wives come to dance under the moon.

They were beautiful creatures, with their long brown legs and their bodies splashed orange by the firelight. They had faces like no mortal woman and they moved like quicksilver and they played music that got down into your bones and thrummed like a sickness.

Naturally, there are lustful young men who yearn to catch themselves a jackalope wife, but few are actually foolish enough to try. One boy, however, succeeds, with tragic consequences that Grandma Harken has to try to make right, because he is her kin.

This is much better. Fine prose imagery and dialogue, strong characters, a neat invented folklore, and a surprising twist near the end. Some readers may question the use of the term “wife”, given that there are no male jackalopes and “their lovers were jackrabbits and antelope bucks”. Granny Harken says the wives are the daughters of the rain. The term, however, originally meant “woman”.

–RECOMMENDED

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

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