A mixed bag of publications this time, including a medium-sized anthology. Interzone gets my highest recommendation, with the Good Story award to Alastair Reynolds.
Interzone, March/April 2015
An enjoyable issue. The Reynolds story in particular makes me glad I keep reading this British zine.
“A Murmuration” by Alastair Reynolds
Dark hard science fiction. The narrator is studying the patterns exhibited by large groups of birds flying together, in this case a murmuration of starlings. The research, the science, is exhilarating, generating an excitement that readers will readily pick up. Writing the paper, though, is tedious and frustrating, especially coping with the comments of the nitpicking peer referee at the journal. At the same time, the narrator is refereeing the paper of another scientist, engaging in the same critical scrutiny. But how more interesting it would be to conduct additional experiments, gather new data, run it through the computer. Or to try influencing the reaction of the birds.
In the meantime, though, I write up the sparrowhawk results in as dry and unexciting manner as I can manage, downplaying any of the intellectual thrill I feel. Passive voice all the way. The sparrowhawk was prepared for remote control. Standard reduction methods were used in the data analysis. The murmuration was observed from twenty spatially separated viewing positions – see Fig. 3.
It can get tedious sometimes, going through story after barely-distinguishable story, largely registering a resounding “meh” on the wunder scale. Then, finally, comes a piece that makes it worthwhile, that sends a galvanic tingle through my story receptors and makes me sit up straight in front of the screen. This one is very much science fiction because it’s about how science is done, both the intellectual thrill and the stultifying slog. The subject matter of the narrator’s research, while fascinating, is largely of today, or at least it is in the beginning. But there’s a wrongness here, beginning slow and subtle, so that readers enthralled by the analysis of the murmuration’s movements may not at first notice. It’s the sort of piece that compels rereading, to pick up on hints we might have missed first time around.
“Songbird” by Fadzlishah Johanabas
A dystopian future world of the usual sort, the rich and powerful exploiting the poor and weak—or those they believe to be weak. Here we have the exploiting sort discover a mutation that makes certain females capable of controlling the emotions of others through song. Even more, and less likely, these emotions can be distilled and bottled, which is why Arya is being subjected to torturous procedures.
The song is still there, but it is not a memory. It is not a dream. Large cylinders filled with blue liquid, with bubbles flowing in an upward stream, surround me. I am strapped on a metal chair, and it’s cold. In front of me is a…microphone?
Not much impressed by this one. Too much is unoriginal, and what’s original isn’t much credible.
“Brainwhales Are Stoners, Too” by Rich Larson
As the title suggests, Bea is a stoner, currently putting out for rich-and-handsome Theo, who would normally not associate with the proletarian likes of her. But Theo has his virtues, which include an interest in the exploited whales imprisoned in computation facilities, and Bea’s mother works in security at one such facility.
“They’ve got the biggest brains in the animal kingdom. Five times ours.” He deepens his voice for voice-over. “First we harpooned them for our oil light bulbs, now we enslave their gray matter for our data processing. Where does the extortion end?”
Given that she’s under the influence of hormonal derangement as well as drugs, Bea agrees to break into the compfac, where she makes some expected and unexpected discoveries.
The brainwhale makes for a genuinely science-fictional and creepy premise.
“The Worshipful Company of Milliners” by Tendai Huchu
A charming and imaginative fantastic premise, literalizing the metaphor that every writer wears a unique hat and addressing the question: who makes them? Once this was the province of the immortal muses, but most of them have now moved on to new media, leaving only one remaining at her loom in the factory.
Beside it sat the most beautiful woman in the room, fully human in her form. She had smooth black skin, dark as polished gabbro. Sweat glistened on her face like diamonds caught in sunlight. She wore a loose silk dress and jeweled choker around her neck and sat with her back straight. A basket of Panama straw lay at her feet, waiting to be woven.
The milliners [part humanoid, part feline, with prehensile tails] are something else—neither mortal nor immortal but ephemeral creatures who “pop into being” fully formed, under a compulsion to create. But those who fail in their task are disappeared, sometimes without even leaving behind their names. As the muse tells Kitsi, with pity, it’s almost as if they are recycled, not reincarnated.
The scenario is rich with suggestive details. The milliners work in a derelict factory in a district of Harare once active with industry. But their enterprise is fully global, making the point that writers everywhere suffer from the same insecurities and angsts. From time to time, the author lets us hear their despairing voices, as inspiration fails them. It’s altogether a neat idea and an engaging story, but there’s a sinister aspect to the scenario as well. The factory is in many ways like a sweatshop, and from time to time the Boss Lady appears on the floor, reminding the milliners that they labor under the threat of oblivion, although this mostly applies to the novices like Kitsi. Even when she succeeds, instead of joy, she feels “the full awareness of the terrors that lay ahead, the hats to be made,” just as some authors gifted with inspiration can’t fully accept their success when it comes.
“Blossoms Falling Down” by Aliyah Whitely
The scenario is nominally science fiction, a kind of generation ship with the passenger population semi-segregated on different decks by national culture, retaining the inequalities they brought with them. But there is tourism among the decks, and the possibility of migration. Thus Rosa is now Katsumi, working in the Haiku Room of Daiki’s Floating Pagoda, wearing traditional kimono and entertaining her guests by quoting classic poems translated into Common Speech—not allowed words of her own.
This is the price she will pay from now on, and she had never suspected such a cost might be necessary. Her own emotions no longer exist. The men who come here, the men with money – that is her everything. Although she will speak to them through the long nights ahead, she will never once express what is inside her. Another person’s words will not do.
A melancholy story. As Katsumi’s Nordic customer mentions, she’s not a geisha, although she might try to look like one; she doesn’t have that ancient profession’s deep training, only a book of memorized poems. He doesn’t see through her costume, takes her for an authentic member of the culture that he admires, but in fact only the room’s supervisor is a “genetic Japanese”. It’s not clear if other Japanese passengers remain on the ship, but the Pagoda is clearly for tourists only. It’s all artifice and façade, thwarting genuine feeling and expression.
Tor.com, March 2015
Some good original stories this month, and some that could have been better. There’s an overall tone of darkness.
“The Shape of My Name” by Nino Cipri
Familial dysfunction exacerbated by time travel. The narrator is nameless throughout most of the text, and this fact lies at the story’s center. He comes from a family whose special heritage is a time machine and a book kept by one member that records their individual histories. Because the book didn’t list him by name, his mother was convinced he wouldn’t be born alive, which undoubtedly contributed to their alienation; the reason for the discrepancy drives the narrative, which is addressed to his mother, who deserted the family, rejecting him and incidentally destroying his beloved father’s life.
It’s ostensibly the narrator’s story, but his is secondary to hers, which largely remains a mystery. In large part, addressing it to her, the story is his attempt to penetrate it.
You were exiled when you married Dad in 1947, in that feverish period just after the war. It must have been so romantic at first: I’ve seen the letters he wrote during the years he courted you. And you’d grown up seeing his name written next to yours, and the date that you’d marry him. When did you start feeling trapped, I wonder? You were caught in a weird net of fate and love and the future and the past.
Readers will share his frustration, his drive to learn what she has walled away from him, even to the point of risking paradox by confronting her directly.
The time travel is constantly in the background, informing and directing events, not always for the best—although we can’t say how often this was the case. But foreknowledge here isn’t predestination or predetermination. Individuals are free to choose their fates, regardless of what is written in the book of their history. It’s noteworthy that the keeper of the book knows better than to write in ink. But freedom entails moral responsibility. This is the void at the story’s heart, our missing knowledge of her heart, her motivations, her regrets.
“The Thyme Fiend” by Jeffrey Ford
A ghost story in the classic mode, also involving a mystery. Early in the last century, Emmett has suffered from night terrors since he was a young boy—flames and demons of hell. These were kept at bay with an infusion of thyme and remained a secret within his family until he was fourteen and discovered a body at the bottom of an abandoned well. From that time, an apparition of the skeleton began to follow him everywhere, until Emmett had robbed every kitchen garden in town of every sprig of thyme and earned a reputation as a crazed person. At last he realized that the ghost was trying to tell him something.
They moved on a few more yards across the adamantine surface before the skeleton announced, “And lookee here. I got a well.” A stone well like the one at the Addisons’ appeared before them where there’d been none a second before. “Maybe someday I’ll find myself at the bottom of it,” he said. His jaw opened wide and laughter, like a trumpet, issued forth.
The story is disturbing, but I find this less because of the ghosts than the reaction of the townspeople to Emmett’s distress. Emmett is a good boy who’s never been in trouble, but even after he is proved right about the body in the well, people refuse to believe him, and an innocent person is killed as a result. In the meantime, they pay less heed to the town’s preacher, who has started to wear a black veil over his face—a suspicious habit that no one seems to recognize from Hawthorne’s story, not even Emmett, a voracious reader.
The real strength here is in the highly detailed setting, an Ohio town of 1915 brought fully to life from the rust on Emmett’s Hercules bike to the wax in his hair. Even the weather is authentic.
“The Museum and the Music Box” by Noah Keller
The narrator wanders the wonders of a decaying museum, looking for the key to a music box that his beloved showed him there in their youth.
A faded label reads: “Music Box: Perthominthian Dynasty, circa 600.” It is made of azurite, a lustrous blue which fades to green where plumes of malachite erupt from its surface like tentacles of algae. It is carved with mermaids, ocean waves which become jaguars, and forests of bipedal fungi which seem frozen in the midst of a dance.
There’s more like that, there’s nothing else than more like that, although we finally learn the secret of the narrator’s beloved, which makes no literal sense and isn’t supposed to. It’s very likely that nothing there is real or ever has been. It’s all overdone setting and overwrought prose.
“Dog” by Bruce McAllister
Horror, based on Mesoamerican myth of the death-dog or Colima dog. David and Jennifer, when young people unacquainted with evil, traveled to Mexico
We did not yet know that to romanticize a country, to sentimentalize its people and places and the creatures of it, not only is an affront to them—to the struggle between darkness and light which gives any human beings their meaning on this earth—but can end very badly.
With this sort of opening, it’s clear from the outset that this will be horror, and in case readers manage to miss this point, an older/wiser mentor person warns David to beware of the dogs and not to be stupid. So in Mexico they have ominous encounters with dogs and buy a clay Colima dog as a souvenir for the mentor. But when David shows a pottery dog bowl to a local anthropologist, this older/wiser warns him to leave the object in Mexico. Naturally, he stupidly doesn’t take this advice. But just to muddle the issue, the narrator makes a last-minute addition to the text, relating a secret of Jennifer’s ancestry, explaining that it wasn’t the bowl, after all. This is quite clumsily done and unconvincing.
Shimmer, March 2015
The editor’s note tells us that this issue represents a search for more hopeful tales after the zine had been excessively bleak. This is clearly irony.
“The Scavenger’s Nursery” by Maria Dahvana Headley
It’s the end of the world as we know it . . . Which means change. The garbage has attained critical mass and given birth to new and hungry forms of life.
There’s a kind of weird beauty in the reinvention of an ocean. It’s not as though things have never changed before. It isn’t as though what she floats on wasn’t once ice. And the land she walks on, when she’s at home? That land was covered with ocean, the sand full of bones of the sea.
Hopeful only if we take the author’s point that “it’s not apocalyptic for the monsters” just as it wasn’t for our therapsid ancestors. But it’s truth of a sort. The garbage mountains, the floating plastic, us—it’s mainly the same stuff, hydrocarbon dust from which we come, to which we all return. I’d say, however, that the text goes on beyond the point where we get the point.
“The Cult of Death” by KL Pereira
The 2nd-person “You” is afflicted with a dreadful curse: every time she speaks, or even sighs, she calls Death. The phenomenon first manifested when she killed her beloved father; now she lives as a pariah, fearful of uttering a sound.
You cried into the orange carpet beneath your bed because you loved cats and had hoped you were not such a bad girl, that the first time, the time with your father, was just an accident. You started to breathe long and even and slept with your hands around your neck so no sounds would come out while you were dreaming.
This premise holds the promise for a horrific dark story, but unfortunately the author has decided to focus on the bright side of Death and grafted onto this one an unrelated tale of a different woman, which makes little sense in itself and less in the context of the first. I also consider this a poor use of the usually-questionable 2nd-person narrative.
“You Can Do It Again” by Michael Ian Bell
An urban dystopian near-future which has been taken over by a new drug, Redo, which allows people to revisit moments in their past. Marco is hooked on it, obsessed with the last time he saw his beloved brother.
The scene freezes like a photograph. The car’s leather interior, forgotten soda cans on vinyl floor mats. The sun igniting every surface inside and out. A total absence of sound, and far off the smell of something on fire. The look on Cisco’s face, the way his eyes shone. The message contained therein. I file away the details, even though I’ll be back. I’ll stand here again and grip the doorframe and fight and thrash and scream inside. I’ll muster every ounce of energy just to open my mouth and tell him I love him. Tell him to wait, that he doesn’t have to leave, at least to take me with him.
Marco doesn’t just want to revisit the moment, he wants to change it, to change the course of his life and avoid becoming the loser that he now is.
Thus the premise becomes highly questionable, if indeed the author is suggesting that the drug can indeed re-do past events. It’s within reason to suppose that a drug might work on memories, dredging up certain moments from the consciousness to allow users to revisit them, mentally: to re-remember. But to suggest that a drug could function as a pharmacological time machine is a very different matter, going well beyond the boundaries of willing belief-suspension. The text is sufficiently ambiguous on this point, allowing the possibility of a middle alternative: that it’s possible to change, not the past but the memory of the past. In which case, Marco is courting false delusion, but this, alas, is quite credible.
“Come My Love, and I’ll Tell You a Tale” by Sunny Moraine
Another 2nd-person narrative, this time one where the strategy makes sense, as the narrator is addressing the beloved in a world gone apocalyptic. “Tell me a story” goes the refrain, a term I use as the line is repeated in some variation in every paragraph, making the piece resemble a song perhaps more than a prose narrative. It’s not a nice song or a pretty story, and with each refrain we realize the extent of this apocalypse: “Tell me a story about when there were still things I wouldn’t do.” Until at the end we meet the singer’s beloved and see the extreme to which things have come, and may even come to be worse.
I do have to say that the text, like its refrain, might be overly repetitive, which reduces its effectiveness.
Operation Arcana, edited by John Joseph Adams
Anthology of military fantasy, a subgenre not often seen these days.
The topic is broadly conceived, according to the brief editorial introduction, and the sixteen stories offer a great deal of variety within the subject matter, as well as quality. I do discern a common theme in many of them, however—that of heroism.
“Rule of Enchantment” by David Klecha & Tobias S Buckell
Readers of this subgenre should recognize the title as a play on “rules of engagement”, where the contemporary military meets the monsters from standard movie/comics/gaming fiction, giving us orcs and trolls vs the US Marines. It seems that rifts have opened up and let things through.
We’re all nerds of some stripe or another and most of us rolled those dice before taking the chances we do now. But reality’s not as simple as those worlds we conceived. All of those guys
Did tap into something real, as it turns out, some ancient memories of the world when those rifts opened and the weird and scary and monstrous poured out, populating our nightmares and fairytales for millennia.
So besides SAMs and Kevlar, our Marines have the assistance of tactical battle spells.
I don’t consider this one a promising opening to the book, being unenthused about Yet Another piece full of fantasy clichés and a conventional military-fiction plot. There is at least a sufficient amount of tension to give the action interest, and a narrative twist, as our narrator/squadleader is addressing a rookie member of the unit. “You” is making a debut on this mission. I’m not sure of the reason; we never learn much about who You is. Readers may be expecting, given the conventions, that You will come at the end to perform some act of heroism or self-sacrifice. Instead, You takes a place in the squad, not standing out as a hero but fitting in as a Marine.
“The Damned One Hundred” by Jonathan Mayberry
With the enemy two days march from their gates, Kellur, the Champion of the Faithful, comes with his son in desperation to the Red Sisters, promising to renounce his faith if they will make common cause with him.
Readers will readily identify the nature of the Red Sisters, who aren’t exactly witches, but the point is the sacrifice that Kellur is determined to make. Secondarily, the story is about the relationship between him and his son, who at first doubts him.
He knew that his son was unable to meet his father’s eyes. The boy was embarrassed, and for good reason. His words were weak. They were a house of straw built in the wind. They must
was a many weary miles from They will.
But the reason is that Kellur hasn’t confided his plans. He means to sacrifice his son along with himself, but he hasn’t asked if Kan is willing. And such a sacrifice as damnation should be willing; heroes shouldn’t be drafted into the role. So while we have every reason to consider Kellur’s own sacrifice as heroic, I can’t admire him for deceiving his subordinates.
“Blood, Ash, Braids” by Genevieve Valentine
Based on the history of the celebrated Soviet 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, female pilots fighting against the Germans on the Eastern Front and known by them as the “night witches”. The narrator happens to be the only actual witch among them, and she does her magic to protect her fellow pilots in her squadron.
There are only three kinds of magic: water, ash, and air. For ash to work, you give blood. For water, you spill tears. For air, you give your breath. They all run out; our gifts are designed to be spent.
The woods will never be a gathering of witches. We don’t live long enough.
A fatalistic story, almost ignoring the fact that the Soviets won, concentrating instead on the appallingly high cost of that victory. The point of view raises more questions than answers, but I’d say our witch has earned the right not to answer.
“Mercenary’s Honor” by Elizabeth Moon
The relationship between mercenary companies and their civilian employers has historically been fraught with suspicion and betrayal; both parties need each other, neither can fully trust each other. Vonja is a government known for its falsity, and also a poor overlord. Ilanz is an aging mercenary commander looking for a place to retire; he makes an agreement with Margay, not a cat but a town near Vonja’s border, to become its lord and defend it from its enemies, including its former overlords. But Vonja, instead of sending its own militia, has hired another mercenary company to take Margay back. Ilanz would prefer to make a deal than fight, if he can get his opposite number to agree.
“But there is more than one kind of honor. If, as I suspect, Vonja has lied to him, has broken faith with him, I think—I hope—he will see that keeping faith with the faithless is foolish, and merely teaches our employers that they can break their word to us with impunity.”
Despite throwaway references to mages and elves, there’s no fantastic here; this is secondary-world historical fiction in a setting resembling Renaissance Italy. In that milieu, honor tended to be a matter more of reputation than reality; mercenary companies were well aware that they had more in common with each other than with their employers. Deals such as Ilanz wants to make were far from unusual. The author, however, has created a simplistic moral dichotomy in which the mercenaries are noble and honorable while their civilian employers are false and treacherous. There are no surprises here for readers, or even tension, as battle plans thrive in the presence of the nominal enemy. Nor is there heroism. This is instead a story of leadership.
“The Guns of the Wastes” by Django Wexler
Pahlu is a freshly-spawned second lieutenant in a land navy that mixes its terminology in a rather confusing way. It seems that humanity is engaged in war against the mechanical sraa, and his first posting is to babysit a civilian researcher. As soon as he arrives, his ship is swarmed by sraa.
The thing moved in quick bursts, stopping as though getting its bearings, then dashing forward with startling speed. It was about the size of a dog, with a central oval body ringed by brass-mounted glass lenses and eight segmented legs. Even from a distance, the fluidity of its motion was disturbing. It moved as though it were truly alive.
Here’s action in plenty, and unequivocal heroism. The sraa are interesting opponents, incomprehensibly menacing. We can see that it’s certainly a good idea to learn more about them, if humans are to defeat them or hold them back. There are some distracting bits of backstory here and there, but they have little impact on the events at hand.
“The Graphology of Hemorrhage” by Yoon Ha Lee
Word magic, war magic. Kodai, a skilled adept in the calligraphy at the heart of the world’s magic, was sentenced to the army for the crime of being too inventive for the sclerotic Imperial authorities. The Empire is currently invading the lands of a [human] people they call Spiders.
One final quirk of the cartographers’ art was that borders were not drawn with simple lines (if any line, following the twist-weave of political entanglements, river boundaries and the habitations of different ethnic groups, was ever simple). They were inked, carefully, with the same character repeated over and over, like textual bricks: lio, for Imperial jade. In other words, the Empire was being carved out of the substance of other nations, which existed for this purpose.
Kodai has been tasked with discovering a spell that will ensure the Spiders’ destruction, even if it means her own.
This is the strongest work here on the use of magic in war, evoking the author’s fine novella “Iseult’s Lexicon’, which shares its use of written words as instruments of magical destruction. Kodai’s detailed analysis of calligraphic styles, the instruments of her craft, is fascinating. Some readers, despite this, may object that her work doesn’t seem to have much to do with the military. It has a great deal, however, to do with war. Kodai is the equivalent of the scientists who work on weapons of mass destruction: poison gas, atomic bombs, and other such wunderwaffen. Her goal is to be able to destroy an entire nation with a single word—mass destruction indeed.
There is then the vexed question whether Kodai can be considered a hero. If self-sacrifice is an important part of heroism, not all self-sacrifice can be considered heroic. Kodai’s motives can’t be considered patriotic; she knows her Empire is evil and corrupt. While she recognizes that its opponents can also be brutal, she regrets the destruction of so many cultures, particularly their languages. When her aide suggests they desert, the best reason she can offer for continuing her service is not to disgrace her family. This, I don’t consider heroic. But I think her real reason is the challenge of crafting an entirely new class of spell. It’s unfortunate that she may never know how it worked.
“American Golem” by Weston Ochse
The narrator is American because he was made from American clay, into which the ashes of a dead man, an American soldier, were mixed. But his maker is Israeli, who made golems for the IDF until his own grandson was killed in Afghanistan; the golem’s name and purpose are vengeance, written in Hebrew, and his target is the terrorist leader who caused his soldier/brother’s death. In Afghanistan, searching out his target, he knows he should be single-minded in his purpose, but the degree of treachery he encounters makes him doubt.
This is a darkly cynical story, where apparent good turns out to be a mask for villainy, where no one can be trusted and no one acts for good. It’s not that the golem abandons his purpose, but that he acquires others. This makes him a moral entity and probably a genuine hero, but not a good golem. In fact, he’s a supergolem, a model improved over the original, traditional variety, not especially noted for independent-mindedness or quickness, either physical or intellectual. But the very idea of a self-actualized golem defeats the purpose of its creation. A golem isn’t supposed to question its purpose or judge its creator. Our narrator hasn’t quite gotten to the point of questioning whether his brother, from whose ashes he was made, was actually worthy of avenging, but he may yet come to that, in time.
Whether he comes to anything else is doubtful, because I don’t think the effect of rain is going to be what he assumes it will. It’s within the bounds of credibility that modern IDF golem-makers might have developed supergolem capacities, but I could have done without the fantasy-history deriving the creation of golems from the Chinese Terracotta Army, and I can’t see where the Navaho come into this at all. The story would have been better off without these elements.
“Weapons in the Earth” by Myke Cole
The small band of goblins, weak and inoffensive, have been captured, along with their cattle, by a band of brutal monsters whose sorcerer’s magic is far stronger than their own. Their captors intend for them to herd the cattle to the main body of their army, where all will be slaughtered. In the oncoming winter, hope fades.
Their family, their herds, their legacy, all lost. Blackfly sprawled in the snow, slowly succumbing to fever. Stump’s wounded hands festered and froze beneath their filthy wrappings. The kine circled and starved, eaten alive by the bloodsuckers burrowing deeper into their flesh, no strength left to fight them off. The calf shivered and starved with them. Young and weak, it would not last another night.
This is a lengthy, prolonged account of misery that should make readers shiver in sympathy. While we suspect that Twig will, in the end, come to summon his own magic, this amounts in the end to desperation as much as heroism. Though certain other characters prove predictable, it increasingly seems that the outcome is likely to be dire, so that plot tension is maintained. I do wonder, however, how the goblins and their herd were ever captured in the first place.
“Heavy Sulfur” by Ari Marmell
Alchemancy on the Western Front, 1916. It seems that the Germans have managed to summon a demon, and Corporal Cleary is dispatched to dispatch it. I’m pretty dubious about this one. I find it highly unlikely that British soldiers in the trenches would respond, “Sir, yes sir!” to the orders of their corporal, and overall the interaction between the ranks here has an off-putting wrongness to it, with no merit to counter it.
“Steel Ships” by Tanya Huff
Fantasy naval war in a secondary world with both sides employing shapeshifters, mages, and other arcane forces, as well as conventional. The Royal Navy [quasi-British] has learned that the enemy now possesses a pair of steelclad battleships, true dreadnaughts at the contemporary level of technology. It’s crucial to destroy them before they can make it into the open sea. The mages have developed a spell that promises to degrade the metal.
Shifting his grip, he hit the bowl with the hammer, the bowl shattered, the rock shuddered, and gray liquid ran from the rock, down the side of the dory, to puddle on the floor. “That there, that’s the iron’s final state. It can’t be heated or worked or turned into weapons. It’s pretty much useless.”
But for the spell to work, it has to be deployed, attached to the ships like a magnetic mine, and this becomes the job of the Special Forces of selkie shapeshifters, whose mission is to swim up the icy, heavily defended river to the enemy dockyard.
This is a mission which takes genuine heroism to undertake. Here is grim and arduous action, the nonfantastic elements particularly realistic. And, as Kytlin says, “bugger all glory in dying.”
“Sealskin” by Carrie Vaughn
[Richard] was one of those masochistic clowns who loved SEAL school. They trained underwater—escape and survival. One time, their hands were tied behind their backs; they were blindfolded, weighted and dumped into the pool. They had to free themselves and get to their scuba gear. Terrifying, a test of calm under pressure as much as skill. Richard had loved it. He’d gotten loose and just sat there on the bottom of the pool for a long minute, listening to the ambient noise of everyone else thrashing, taking in the weight and slowness of being submerged.
This has something to do with his webbed hands and feet. But now, after years in the service, he’s wearing out and burning out. He takes a trip to Ireland to learn if his mother’s stories of his origin are true.
More fantasy than military, and not original fantasy.
“Pathfinder” by T C McCarthy
Korean War. Hae Jung is a North Korean nurse tending the wounded Chinese soldiers gathered in a cave for safety during American bombing raids, but she considers it her true calling to guide the dying to meet their ancestors. Now, though, there is an evil spirit among the wounded, waiting to devour their souls. It’s been sent by the Americans, and the Chinese will try to conjure a counter-demon to oppose it, but until or unless this happens, it’s up to Hae Jung to fight the battle against it; the more souls it takes, the stronger it will grow.
Then the soldier on the table opens his eyes and mutters something to the doctor who adjusts his lantern to get more light, his hands so fast they almost blur. She wants to tell him not to bother. The look on the dying soldier’s face is one they should all recognize and although she can’t see the demon, she knows it’s wrapping itself around him, waiting for the moment of death. A second later Hae Jung thinks she hears the thing speak with the voice of a little boy: “So many of them.”
This one is stark horror, and the demon only takes second place to the mundane horrors of the war, the men dying without help, far from home, as enemy bombs shake the earth around them. Hae Jung must be considered a hero for facing the demon, yet the dead still pile up around her. As her mentor said, “Without war, we wouldn’t be needed.” But this is poor consolation.
“Bone Eaters: The Black Company on the Long Run” by Glen Cook
This must be one of the longest-running genre series by a single author. It’s a depressing run as the reprehensible band shambles from one disaster to another on its eternal retreat from the evil that currently has them in its crosshairs. From time to time, they pick up new members; now it’s a young sorceress, part of a band of teenage bandits who had the bad judgment to attack the Company’s vanguard. Croaker, the eternal Annalist, is dubious, even while he puts a start to her training; the Company can always use another sorcerer.
Wild talents seldom prosper. They scare the mud out of people. Evil sorcerers begin as local nuisances who grow to become regional afflictions. The worst then begin raising wicked armies and putting up dark towers. So why not burn them before they set the earth to shaking?
Then they come within the reach of the Village of Hungry Ghosts.
The series is almost invariably dismal, hopeless, following the Company on its endless hellward trek. The situations they encounter are ingenious, the core of the unit manages to survive from setback to setback, but readers have come to know that nothing will ever really get better. There is too much cynicism here to allow room for heroism.
“Bomber’s Moon” by Simon R Green
A WWII in which the Nazis have invoked Hell on their side, and Heaven aids the British. Tonight is the bombing run on Dresden.
The old leather and canvas exterior was gone, of course—replaced by pages from the Bible. Stitched together by a local order of nuns, the holy sisters praying over every stitch. The holy words wrapping the plane in sanctity.
In addition to which, every plane carries a priest, who invokes the angel who possesses the bomber, taking the place of engines. Those crewmembers who express doubt about causing civilian deaths are told by the angel that they are actually saving these people, whom the Nazis have condemned to mass sacrifice.
There are two possibilities here: that the author really intends readers to take this fiendish dichotomy seriously, or that entire scenario is a diabolical plot in which agents of evil control both sides. This would be stark horror, a metaphor for the mass insanity of war, but unfortunately, I suspect that the author intends the first interpretation, with a pacifist the real villain of the piece, although I note that the character who suggests that so-called angels can lie is summarily obliterated, accompanied by unconvincing angelic casuistry. Me, I think the second alternative is the true one, either way.
“In Skeleton Leaves” by Seanan McGuire
Neverland gone bad, the current Pan being too enamored of the beautiful game of war, where now the children die. In a way. Death changes the equation, and yet it doesn’t. This one is really only for Neverland fans, although it does solve one interesting problem about the demographics and population of the place.
“The Way Home” by Linda Nagata
Demons again, our squad of soldiers having been transported elsewhere, quite possibly to hell.
Their combat training had neglected to cover a situation in which they were alone in an unmapped desert with no GPS, no air traffic, no vehicles, no goats, no sheep; where the radios
worked, but there was no one to talk to; where the enemy emerged from churning dust wielding glittering, lethal swords—but they were learning.
The scenario is intriguing. The demons attack, and if the soldiers manage to kill one, a gate opens through which one, only one, human can return “home”. Or so it appears to be. But they can also carry a dead soldier through with them.
This is primarily a story of character, of both heroism and explicit cowardice. But these characters are soldiers with a chain of command, which guides their actions. The weight of decision falls on the lieutenant*, who selects which soldier will go through the gate at which time; his own place will be to go last, if possible, which means there will be no one else left to carry him through, if necessary.
Unfortunately, while interesting, the scenario too much resembles a game, which I see as trivializing the consequences. It’s noteworthy that, despite the intense heat of this desert, none of the soldiers seem to become thirsty, suggesting that, at some fundamental level, the situation isn’t real and thus doesn’t really matter.
[*] This seems to be a squad led by a lieutenant, about which I’m not inclined to make an issue.