Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late April 2010

In my last review I mentioned that I was seeing rather more science fiction than usual. This time, it’s a vast flood of fantasy, due in large part to the appearance of the 384 page issue of Black Gate, as well as the June Realms of Fantasy. I begin to yearn for ray guns and rocket ships.

Zines Reviewed



F&SF, May/June 2010

The prevailing tone of this issue is horror, featuring various monsters, human and otherwise.

“Why that Crazy Old Lady Goes up the Mountain” by Michael Libling

There isn’t a crazy old lady, there’s teenaged Kevin Akers, whose grandfather saw the corpse of God fall to Earth and buried him on top of the mountain. Ever since, the dead have nowhere else to go, so they come to the mountain, too, not quietly.

A busted siren of a wail, it is, overdubbed in no less than six-part harmony. Twenty miles offshore one instant, filling your head cheek to cheek and chin to scalp the next. Oscillating like late-night radio from Fort Wayne or Corpus Christi or Onlygodknowswhere, as it scores the chalkboard of your brain.

There is also Sara Marie Sands, who isn’t a crazy old lady, although she may one day become one. For the moment, she is living with relatives since her parents have effectively done away with themselves. Sara is the only person that Kevin has trusted with the secret, and when her mother finally dies, she asks Kevin to take her to God.

A strange and provocative dark fantasy. I do have a problem with the police going on a manhunt with guns and dogs just because a couple of young adults have driven off together, with no sign of foul play, and they certainly don’t hand guns to hotheaded teenagers.

“Thief of Shadows” by Fred Chappell

An installment in this author’s series featuring Astolfo, dealer in shadows. The narrator, Falco, has convinced the master to take him on as apprentice. Astolfo is commissioned to authenticate a shadow claimed to be that of the pirate Morbruzzo.

He gestured slowly, turning his hands over as if warming them by a brazier. “This is excellent material,” he said. He put his face near and inhaled gently. “A complex aroma, but with pronounced salt. This is the shade of a quondam seaman, perhaps of someone who no longer follows the sail.” He closed his eyes and considered. “If he be such, he has fought many a battle and sent many a poor tar to swirl in the deepest currents.” He put his tongue out briefly, tasting the air like a serpent. “I should not like to have the owner of this shadow as my enemy.”

Mannered fantasy, mingling dark tones with an amusing narrative voice. It is also a detective story, as Astolfo is a master of observation and deduction as well as shadow dealing. The shadow trade is one of the more original and well-crafted premises I have seen recently, and with the character of Astolfo and the author’s sure narrative voice, one of the few series I actually look forward to.


“Dr Death vs the Vampire” by Aaron Schutz

Dr Death is an almost-superhero. He can feel the sensations of other people and tell when they need to be killed, mostly to put them out of their misery.

I mean, ordinary life basically sucks for most people, I’ve discovered. And people are pretty capable of killing themselves without any help if they really want to. They aren’t my problem.

He is on a bus trip when he encounters the vampire, feeding off the pain of an old woman. But the vampire regards Dr Death as a very special kind of prey.

In many ways, as the vampire points out, the protagonist here is a serial killer, and his detailed, clinic account of his methods may make readers uneasy, as we know that a psychopathic narrator can sound quite reasonable. It then becomes a question of deciding who is worse, the killer or the vampire, and which of these monsters will prevail – an outcome that would be more seriously in doubt if not for the first-person narration. Still a tense and harrowing thriller.

“The Crocodiles” by Steven Popkes

Zombies. Or, as the narrator is German, tote Männer, which means “dead men.” In WWII, Max is an engineer who is drafted by the Gestapo to work on a secret weapon, a corps of dead, flesh-eating soldiers. As with poison gas and other too-clever lethal ideas, there is blowback.

“There are tote Männer all over Germany. There are tote Männer in London from the V2 Todesluft attack. Von Braun even managed to extend the range of the V2 with a V1 attachment. There are tote Männer in Moscow. Tell me, Weber. How many tote Männer must there be to become self-sustaining?”

Weber peered at him owlishly. “They cannot be self-sustaining. Eventually all of the raw material would be used up.”

The title refers to the tote Männer, who seem to have reptilian aspects to their metabolism, but the author doesn’t do much more with the comparison. Where the story is effective is in demonstrating the single-minded problem-solving mentality of the engineers, while they avoid considering the moral implications of their project.

“A History of Cadmium” by Elizabeth Bourne

Cadmium was named after a painting named after a toxic pigment. Her mother was a notable artist whose life was her work, but she put more of herself into Cadmium than any other.

It showed a beach laced by a strip of water with waves that seemed to roll. You could practically feel the sun crisp your skin. A little yellow boat had been dragged up on shore and footsteps dug into the sand until they disappeared behind dune grass. The images were razor sharp; real life wasn’t as clear.

But as Cadmium grows older and changes, so does Cadmium.

While readers will probably think of Dorian Gray, Cadmium is not a portrait. The prose here is nicely descriptive, illustrating the way that mother-daughter relationships can often be fraught, yet alter even after the mother’s death as the daughter acquires the perspective of growing age and new revelations.


“The Real Martian Chronicles” by John Sladek

The Broxbums have moved to Mars, where much of Monty Python era suburban England seems to have been transplanted, garden gnomes and all. The kids keep falling into the canal.

This is a recently discovered work. The editorial blurb calls it “high silliness.” Perhaps, if this is something like High Tea in fusty Victorian parlours.

“Remotest Mansions of the Blood” by Alex Irvine

Arthur Lindsay, after a failed life and marriage, has retired to a remote Latin American town named Caracol where he falls in love with a young woman named Maria Rios. He is one of many prospective lovers of Maria, and after an earthquake kills several of the young men, she dreams that they are fighting over her in the mansions of the blood, hidden somewhere in the jungle. Arthur hears stories about the mansions of the blood and becomes obsessed with finding them.

Nobody would admit to having been there. Nobody could give him directions. Nobody knew what function they served, who had built them, or what importance they still held outside of stories told to get another drink. Everyone took their existence for granted. This was an investigation Arthur Lindsay could get behind.

This is an ambiguous fantasy, in which we are not sure whether the mansions exist or whether they are part of Arthur’s dream or hallucination. The narrative itself is the focus here, with a sort of magic realist tone, the narrator telling us much about Arthur’s inner life, which may or may not matter. None of the lives of the characters here seem to matter, even to themselves; they seem to be somnambulating towards their deaths, when they will be finally realized.

“Silence” by Dale Bailey

The narrator, pursued by bullies in high school, encounters something alien hidden in the woods, something in pain that he doesn’t know how to help.

I cradled it there as I ran my hands the length of its body, moving methodically, searching for some kind of wound or something, anything I could try to treat. Once, when I touched a knob on its leg — the creature seemed to be shaped more or less like a human being, but its body felt jointed all wrong under my hands, and in too many places — the pitch of that keening shifted.

This story effectively evokes others, of true events, in which people in desperate circumstances have hidden in silence from the peril that peruses them.

“Forever” by Rachel Pollack

The Lady of Dark Forever loses a bet with her sisters, and the forfeit is to inhabit a mortal body for a day. But Forever forgets when the time comes to return to her own domain, and eventually she falls in love.

Over the next few weeks she found herself too busy to think of much besides the next appointment. Except, every day, at 3:12, a queasiness came over her, like a cyclic fever, so strong that she began to make sure she was always somewhere she could sit down and not say anything for a minute or so.

This is a poignant story of mortality and death, which eventually overcomes even the strongest love. It is strongly mythic, evoking in particular the sad and loveless gray kingdom of Haides in the Greek mythos, although the costumes have been updated.

“The Atchitson, Topeka, & Santa Fe” by Robert Onopa

Matt gets a really cool train set for Christmas.

And there it was, under the tree, silver track winding through the gifts, the headlight of the streamliner punching out from behind the mountainous tree skirt, its dome car catching red and orange and green lights in frosted windows.

Even the little guy in the engineer’s seat waves to him. The set is run by an AI, and it’s very realistic. Perhaps too realistic.

This one falls under the subgenre of horror toys. The train set is so updated that it almost convinces me model railroads might one day actually make a comeback.

“The Gypsy’s Boy” by Lokiko Hall

Bireli was sold as a child to the gypsies, after which he went blind. After the old woman he served dies, a passing wind spirit befriends him; soon they are in love. But Bireli becomes discontented because he can not see his lover.

With its familiar moral, this one feels like a fairy tale or fable, although the narrative is not in that style.

“Seven Sins for Seven Dwarves” by Hilary Goldstein

Fairy tale mashup. When Snow comes to the cottage of the seven dwarves, only the youngest welcomes her. The others are concerned that she will interfere with their charge, which is keeping the seven deadly sins under lock and key until they can dig deep enough to bury them. This one mixes the dwarves with Pandora and a bit of Bluebeard – a dark fairy tale.


Strange Horizons, April 2010

Seems like an all-fantasy month, a month of good stories.

“Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” by Vanada Singh

Somadeva was originally the 11th century author of a famous collection of Indian tales dedicated to a queen S?ryavati. He seems to have been reincarnated in the far future by a woman named Isha, to pass the time in transit between the stars by telling her stories. Or perhaps this is S?ryavati’s dream of the future, driven by her need to know what will happen in the war between her husband and son.

My fear is that if events unfurl as history records, I will lose my S?ryavati. Will I then be with Isha, wandering the stars in search of stories? Or will I die here on this earth, under the shadow of the palace walls, with the night sky nothing but a dream? Who will survive, the real Somadeva or the fictional one? And which is which?

This is a metastory, a story about storytelling and a warning about searching too hard for meaning in stories, which should be about people, not abstract ideas. It is notable that the stories in which Isha finds so much meaning are not very storylike or memorable, unlike the immortal tales of Somadeva.


“The Duke of Vertumn’s Fingerling” by Elizabeth Carroll

I was created out of blood, spit, and a lock of hair, they said. I am a homunculus, a fingerling. I was small because my maker Anton made me so, and because the ingredients are necessarily of small quantities. A small, great magic. I could go where he could not, hear what he could not, and do what he could not.

Viola was made to be an assassin for Anton’s master the Duke, but she was also made out of Anton’s lost love.

Nicely-done magic, interesting characters, a love story. The author does not dwell on the lack of free will in Viola, but the story provides material for readers to ponder.

“Middle Aged Weirdo in a Cadillac” by George R Galuschak

Creepy guy picks up trampy teenage girl, says he wants directions to the Interstate. Yeah. Right. But things are really not what they seem.

Surprising twist, unusual point of view.

“Birds” by Benjamin Parzybok

A love story, aborted. Told in alternating voices, the doomed relationship between a homeless man who lives on the rooftops with the gargoyles and a young student of architecture. He both attracts [mentally] and repels her [physically]. He both welcomes her company and resents it. She wants to rescue, to change him. It would never work.

I live in a world that I create. In my world—you’ve noticed, don’t say you haven’t—a passing crow might stop and have a conversation about a change in schedule at the city trash pickup, or, for example, the pigeons. It’s a world I want to live in, all the rules are mine. Don’t argue yet.

The fantasy element is a coda to the rest of the tale; the story could have been told without it, from another point of view. The strength is in the primary character, his vision of the world, the world he has created and the one he has rejected.


“The Freedom” by K M Lawrence

Everyone now wakes up every day in a new body. Today, Stephanie is a man.

I felt a deep tired ache in my bones. My hands were sore, my shins ached, my side felt as though I had been hit by a car, and my testicles felt swollen and broken, a horrible pain I have come to understand and fear since the freedom.

People have learned to cope with the situation, to organize so that essential work gets done. There are wasters who would try to sabotage eveything, and the worry about how children will grow up and what will happen when the current adult bodies die. But mostly people just try to get through the day.

While some readers might consider this SF, given the future date of the setting, it is actually fantasy, with no attempt at any pseudo-scientific explanation for the phenomenon people call the Freedom. Which is, in itself, something to contemplate. A thought-provoking speculation on individual identity and the relationship between body and mind.


Fantasy Magazine, April 2010

No science fiction here, although there is a teaser.

“Hi Bugan ya Hi Kinggawan” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

Coming of age story, based on tribal myth from the Philippines. The narrator is named Bugan, after the moon goddess who loved a human warrior named Kinggawan. As she grows up, she is embarrassed by the attentions of boys, but the time comes when she is ready for the love that has been waiting for her.

Despite the first line, there is no real fantasy content here. The focus is the contrast between traditional tribal values and Westernizing influences. The narrator’s story is flat and perfunctory, and I can’t help thinking that the real story belongs to her lover – how she first saw her, how she knew she wanted her.

“Whisper’s Voice” by Elena Gleason

The whisper is an entity that listens to whispers, collecting human secrets that the whispers plan to assemble into a coherent whole. But one whisper has become intrigued with the imaginative stories told by a troubled young boy; it wants to keep these whispers, not share them with the rest. It becomes the boy’s secret friend.

The whispers are a nice, original creation, so absorbed in their futile, endless project, with the words that they lose if they speak them aloud. I only wish the author had been able to convince me that the boy’s story of ninjas and apatosauri was as interesting as the whisper finds them.

“Exile” by Karen Heuler

Janet is driving home to claim her stepfather Artie, who married another woman after her mother’s death instead of waiting for her to grow up for him, when she hits something in the foggy road. She stops, tries to find whatever she hit, but immediately becomes lost in the fog and remains lost once the sun rises. None of Artie’s good advice applies; she has obviously entered some other world populated by little fairytale men and others to whom she is invisible.

I can’t make coherent sense out of this one. Janet is given a handful of finger bones that point the way she should go [a neat idea], but the story itself has no such clear guide. Janet’s adventures away from the road are either an excursion into fairyland or a hallucination; it is also possible that Janet herself may have been killed on the road. If not, then the concluding revelation is a coincidence that I can’t accept; if so, the conclusion, clearly mean to provide closure and wrapup, does not.

“Lighter than Air” by Norman Spinrad

A luxurious fantasy airship voyage. At first, as the ship takes off, it might seem to be SF.

As the wings turn on their propellers and slowly drop down to sixty-degree angles to the hull of the ship to form a V-shaped double keel, the three “smokestacks” expand upward, revealing themselves as masts. The foremost unfurls a great silvery balloon spinnaker, the rear mast sprouts spars that spawn two levels of triangular sails, the middle mast, twice as tall as the others, puts out old-time clipper ship square rigging.

But it turns out instead to be a wish-fulfillment erotic dream fantasy, in which the second-person narrative is quite appropriate.


Realms of Fantasy, June 2010

Twin themes in this issue: fallen angels and cannibalism.

“Desaparecidos” by Aliette de Bodard

Patricia has returned to this Latin American country to fulfill the promise she made with her lover Tomás to meet after ten years at the Caldera de los Angeles. She has no real hope of finding him there; Tomás was Disappeared years ago by the junta. The caldera is a magical place, formed, according to legend, when the rebellious angels fell from Heaven. And Patricia finds one of the stones that the locals call “plumas de los angeles.”

Up close, the surface wasn’t completely smooth, but instead made of hundreds of layers that seemed to have folded on themselves, over and over, pressing hard on each other to form an intricate pattern that looked hauntingly familiar –

What happens can only be described as a miracle, bringing together a number of different threads of power in the same place. I am not sure I can believe in it; if this miracle were so easily done, why had it not been before? The setting has the flavor of authenticity, and I particularly like the excerpts from the travel guide that serve as section headers.

“Sultana Lena’s Gift” by Shweta Narayan

Clockwork fantasy – this being a subgenre budded off steampunk but now deserving a name of its own, as it is rarely steamy or punkish. Here we have two stories nested one into the other, with a single theme. In the outer, the young Shah consults his clockwork Artificer bird when he becomes unsure of the loyalty of a victorious general, his foster brother, who may or may not be planning to use the clockwork soldiers of the defeated enemy against him. The Artificer tells him the story of the Sultana Lena, who was betrayed by the husband she had chosen. But where is the loyalty of the Artificer herself?

Some readers might wish that the author had been a bit more explicit about the nature of the betrayal that the Shah suspects. Otherwise, the setting is doubly exotic, evoking the sort of fairytale world where fantastic creatures perch on every tree, all made of gold and jewels – and gears.

“The Well of Forgetting” by Meredith Simmons

People come to the Well to lose the memories that trouble them, but the mind of the child named Hepta is so full of evil that the Acolytes kill themselves in despair after purging the corruption. She is a Living Well, who absorbs the sinful memories of those around her. A procurer, aware of her gifts, purchases her, but as she becomes older, Hepta begins to see how some of her memories might be put to other use.

The premise is an interesting one – or rather, two: the original Well and Hepta’s mind as a Living Well. The first establishes the credibility of the second. Hepta’s plan is a daring one, but well thought-out, giving a dark fantasy a satisfactory conclusion.

“The Hearts of Men” by T L Morganfield

The Mexica god Huitzilopochtli [Méxtli] finds himself reincarnated after the passage of centuries, essentially unchanged. He is still hungry for human hearts, and his sister/rival has stolen the moon, allowing demons of darkness to run loose. He knows that he is supposed to kill his sister and throw her head up into the sky to become the moon again, but in this incarnation he has a guide and companion who shows him a different way.

I also remembered how, when the blood tribute ceased, I’d withered slowly away to nothing more than a curiosity, almost completely forgotten. Just like I was withering away now.

This one is best appreciated by readers with a basic understanding of the Mexica myth. But the best touches are those in which the author has updated things; Méxtli comes to life with a pair of six-shooters, not an obsidian-studded club. Unfortunately, the updated god is a bit moralistic as a narrator.

“Fallen” by Bruce Holland Rogers

Angels are falling all over the place. They set things on fire. Their presence brings bad luck, although no one can explain why. This makes the job of the smoke jumpers even more hazardous. But there is an antidote to the bad luck, and more and more people are becoming aware of the secret, including the smoke jumper who narrates.

I’m not really sure this makes sense.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, April 2010

I am pleased to see here a number of stories not written in the first-person voice, of which I have been growing weary.

“Knowing Neither Kin nor Foe” by Nancy Fulda

At birth, Kitjaya was recognized as the prophesied savior who would save the kin from their ancient enemy, so she was left to devour her siblings when they hatched. This act condemned her to a life alone, “knowing no kin,” for the sibling bond is the strongest among them. She comes to resent her difference, the burden of destiny. But, just as foretold, the Destroyer begins to break free and attack her people.

Kitjaya felt like a dust mote lost in a sea of expectation, a stone ground to powder with the weight of others’ desires. Their fear pressed in upon her. She could not breathe.

This begins well, but it soon falls into the rut of the well-worn hero formula and ends in moralism. The deadly effects of the Destroyer’s power don’t seem to mesh with the secret vulnerability of the kin, to which Kitjaya alone is immune.

“Waiting for Number Five” by Tom Crosshill

Isadora Four is a miniature dancer, the product of her developer’s drive for perfection. Her three predecessors lie asleep, unwanted, and Four knows that if she is not perfect in her performance, she, too, will be replaced.

He’d called her excellent! Four’s heart soared, and she sped up to keep pace with the music’s racing beat. Oh, let them watch. Let them ooh and aah, them with their foul stinking breath. Even when sweat rolled down their noses and fell to her platform in large blobs, splashing so she had to jump out of the way, she never flinched. Let Master see how strong she was.

Unusual touches give interest to a familiar subject, such as the teakettle where the Isadoras live. Unlike the similar tale in this month’s SH, I would have to put this one on the SF side of the line rather than fantasy, unusual for this venue.

“The Circus of King Minos’ Masque” by Michael J DeLuca

Another installment in a series I really don’t want to read. The premise is that sadistic, man-eating centaurs are running beast-fighting games on the model of Nero. It is not the cruelty and violence per se that I object to, but the gratuitous nature of it. Added to which, this one is essentially unintelligible without all the backstory, and even with it.

“Pawn’s Gambit” by Adam Heine

Bancroft is a former merc who breaks out of prison when he learns that a hit has been taken out on his estranged daughter, whom he still wants to protect. He hooks up with the hitman as an assistant, which is a really stupid idea for both of them, as Bancroft has a netter on his trail, and his constant queries about Tarc’s next mark only makes the hitman suspicious.

The prose features an invented criminal slang:

He was bleeding chatty. I reck he’d told me enough that, if I said no, he’d pack me right there. “What about the netter?”

The story could just as easily be science fantasy as fantasy adventure, but then, there is little real difference between them.


Apex Magazine, April 2010

An Urban Legends issue, with aliens, companion to the anthology Close Encounters of the Urban Kind and guest-edited by the anthology’s editor. I hope the quality of the anthology is better.

“Dying with her Cheer Pants On” by Seanan McGuire

Based on a rather obscure campfire tale about summoning an evil ghost. The aliens have attacked during the Homecoming Game, and now it’s up to the surviving members of the cheerleading squad.

The entire football team showed up for the game—naturally—and so did enough of the opposing team for the coaches to decide they should go ahead and play. “We’ll show those aliens what it means to be American!” said Coach Ackley, and everyone applauded.

This one doesn’t take itself seriously as horror and is more silly than satirical with its Fighting Pumpkins and their orange-and-green uniforms.

“Seafoam” by Mark Henry

Jeremy, aka the Licker, is now on probation and undergoing therapy for his obsession with licking women’s feet. But after he relapses, he encounters more than he had planned for. This one makes the best use of the Urban Legends concept and is the only piece in the issue that actually represents what an Urban Legend is supposed to be. The author gives us a close look at the obsessive mind at work.

“Snipe Hunting” by Jennifer Brozek

Campfire story, short-short. An ill-advised inclusion of a story by the editor.


Black Gate, #14, Winter 2010

This semiannual printzine has never been slender, but the editor explains the massiveness of the latest incarnation as making up for the fact that he only put out a single issue during 2009. BG 14 has nineteen works of prose fiction; three of these are novellas, which are printed in a smaller font. I was expecting to be irritable about this, but in fact the format is perfectly readable. One of the strong points of this zine has always been its interest in works at the greater lengths.

As usual, dark fantasy predominates, shading into sword & sorcery. This raises the prospect that readers might find themselves numbed by a surfeit of all-too-similar tales. While numbness occasionally threatens, happily, there are some stories here that should make readers sit up and take notice.

“Dark of the Year” by Diana Sherman

Matai is left with his nameless infant granddaughter. He knows that at the dark of the year, “The Shadows and their darklings will come creeping through towns and cities, calling for children to come.” Those who don’t know their own true names will be doomed. The local herbalist can see the child’s name but can not read it, so she tells Matai to take the child to the war, to find someone with “no fear of blood and pain” who can read the name.

Matai’s desperation is well portrayed in what is otherwise a fairly typical fantasy quest, made more interesting by the description of the darklings, lips blackened when their souls were pulled from them.

“The Hangman’s Daughter” by Chris Braak

Cresy works hard to live up to the unreasonable expectations of her father, who has given her his heavy old military sabre instead of a more suitable stiletto. When nightmares invade her bedroom, she doesn’t want him to know she is afraid.

It was dark, and she couldn’t see it, but it was thick and hot and sticky like tar, and it filled her mouth so wide she couldn’t scream, and it filled her throat and tried to crawl into her lungs, even as it sat on her chest and squeezed the life out of her pressing her ribs so much they hurt . . .

This is not sword and sorcery but a coming of age tale about confronting one’s fears. Cresy’s nightmares are genuinely frightening, the reality behind them less so. At one point, Cresy seems not to know about bogeymen, but later the narrator inconsistently declares that everyone, even Cresy, knows about the Loogaroo, the King of the Bogeymen.

“The Bonestealer’s Mirror” by John C Hocking

Sword and sorcery. Brand the viking and his companions stop to investigate a signal fire on an island where they discover that a demon has slain most of the warriors and torn their bones from their flesh. The Norsemen determine to hunt it down and kill it, which is easier said than done.

A series installment. The characters and setting have an authentic Norse tone, but the demon is standard S&S.

“The Word of Azrael” by Matthew David Surridge

The mercenary Isrohim Vey is dying after the battle of Aruvhossin when Azrael the Angel of Death smiles upon him and says a Word, upon which he knows he will live until he sees the angel and its smile again. Which, for most persons, would be merely a tautology, but Isrohim Vey is driven to seek out Azrael and understand the secret of his smile. Upon which quest he meets with enough adventures to fill many books.

Here might well be the ultimate sword and sorcery, in that it both epitomizes and deconstructs the form with a subtle irony. The list of Isrohim Vey’s adventures might begin at first to seem excessive and perfunctory, but what the author is doing is compressing all possible adventures into one, and eventually the threads begin to come together. The tale illustrates how much of what we recognize as S&S lies in certain tropes and themes, and in particular the tone of its prose:

Eventually Isrohim Vey went to the land of Marás, where, in the nave of the Obsidian Cathedral, he slew the Black Bishop called Nimsza; and, taking up Nimsza’s ring, spoke with the demon Gorias that Nimsza had commanded in life.


“The Mist Beyond the Circle” by Martin Owton

Bandits have raided a small settlement on the edge of the wilderness, driving off livestock and slaves. One of the survivors proves to have experience as a soldier, and he leads them after the raiders.

Here the realistic aspects of the adventure tale predominate over the fantasy elements. Yet I can not credit that the bandits would not have heard the screams as one of the settlers trips over the guardian demon of a barrow only three hundred paces distant from the bandit camp.

“Freedling” by Mike Shultz

Naia is a craftsman working on the sorcerer’s tower when its roof collapses, trapping her inside with him. The sorcerer, crushed beneath the fallen stone, orders Naia to kill him, but Naia wisely suspects his motives.

There is something unusual in the sorcery here, which seems to be invested in tattoos.

She looked at his exposed left shoulder, thinking she knew which glyph he meant. At first it had the shape of a two-headed spider with fiery eyes and luminous jewels adorning its hairy legs, be as she stared, it transformed into a string of arcane letters. Then it became a scorpion with a flicking tail.

“The Renunciation of the Crimes of Gharad the Undying” by Alex Kreis

S&S humor – clever and sly. After the revolution, with the New Regime in power, the deposed Evil Overlord does self-criticism. But is he sincere?

I am particularly embarrassed that I ordered the foul murder of Giles Sunbearer, who entered Castle Ironbound in a perfectly reasonable attempt to put an stop to my illegitimate reign.

“Devil on the Wind” by Michael Jasper and Jay Lake

Sorcerer vs sorcerer. When the mortal Prince Falloe of Ironkeep, emboldened by his priest-engineers, defies the Witches of Killaster, Lena is sent to chastise him, along with a subordinate she intends to kill during the process. But Falloe is stronger than she had supposed.

There is no hero here, no virtue to strive against evil, no sympathetic characters, only one malevolent force pitted against another. It’s all fireworks, as the authors have pulled out their purpurean pyrotechnics in depiction of Lena and her sorcerous battles.

A storm erupted from me faster than ever before, sucking air from my lungs. My eyes bulged, vision separating into a dozen parallax windows under the strain, the bright sunlight piercing each split eye, filling me with a necessary, familiar pain. My hair whipped straight forward to form a long gray dagger pointed at the creature’s heart.


“The Price of Two Blades” by Pete Butler

When the bard Nicolai notices the cemetery at the small farming village of Willowfeld, he can tell that some momentous event had taken place there twenty years ago, an event that would probably make a good story. But it takes him a while to get the villagers to reveal what happened, until he takes an oath that he will tell it as they want it to be told:

Twenty years ago, during a year of poor harvests, the village faced starvation at the hands of a rapacious bandit lord. A wizard among them offered to help but warned that the price would be high. The aid he summoned came in the form of a warrior who called himself Two Blades, but Nicolai recognizes that name as a figure of legend, five hundred years old, whose gift for killing had become a curse.

This dark fantasy is about the mortal cost of war as well as the cost of evoking the gods. Everyone has a price to pay, a curse or burden to bear, and those who refuse to pay, pay regardless. Nicolai, too, discovers too late what this story has cost him, making the frame an integral part of the work. It is definitely a moral-based story, yet the author lets consequences make the point, rather than lectures. Unlike many of the tales in this issue, the prose is self-effacing and flashless; it effectively creates some emotionally harrowing scenes.

“The Girl Who Feared Lightning” by Dan Brodribb

Light dark fantasy, one of the few pieces here with a contemporary setting. Cara is working as a security guard for a corporate village that is all-too-perfect by day, but at night, “The town took on a cheap, tawdry look, like the set of a low-budget Hollywood western.” This might have something to do with the mummy of the Nameless pharaoh that the corporation keeps on the grounds. The corpse stuffed into a culvert definitely does.

There is a bit of social commentary mixed with the dark humor here. The title rather awkwardly suggests that while Cara might fear lightning, she fears little else, including the things that cut out hearts in the night.

“Destroyer” by James Enge

Part of a dark fantasy series which has by now accumulated a massive weight of backstory. Fortunately, most of it has been left behind as the wizard Morlock and his companions continue their journey across a range of mountains infested with spiderfolk, dragons and the insectile warrior Khroi. It is the Khroi who capture the party, with the intention of laying their eggs in the human bodies. But their primary purpose has been the elimination of Morlock, whom they call the Destroyer; their seers have foretold that he will be the destruction of their horde, despite Morlock insisting that he has no such intention. Intention, however, isn’t everything.

The author begins with an epigraph from Hesiod’s Theogony: And Night was mother to hateful Doom and the Dark Destroyer. The passage nagged at me all the time I was reading the story. It is clear that Morlock is the Destroyer, but what bothered me is the translation; “Destroyer” is not really the best translation of the Greek Ker, which can be variously rendered as Death or Fate, possibly a twin sister of Doom. It is Fate that is at this story’s heart, the foretold doom of the Khroi horde. Morlock and the Khroi leader have an interesting debate on the subject of foretelling the future and the limits of predestination, and of course students of the Greek classics know how the attempts of mortals to evade their destined fates will come to grief. But the Khroi do not heed Morlock’s warning.

Aside from these interesting matters, the episode continues Morlock’s journey without revealing much more of him, other than a few tantalizing hints such as his native language being the language of dragons. He is an opaque character, seen only from the outside. Of his companions, none are of any interest except young Thend, from whose point of view much of the story is told. Thend also seems to be a budding seer, and we see more of his character than we do of Morlock’s; it shows promise.

“The Natural History of Calamity” by Robert J Howe

Another contemporary setting for a dark fantasy, and by far the longest work in the issue. Debbie is a karma detective. That is, not only is she capable of seeing whether the events in her clients’ lives are due to karmic imbalance, she can nudge it back in the right direction. A new client comes to her, a nice guy concerned that his girlfriend has left him for a slimeball. Investigation yields the unpleasant surprise that the slimeball is a guy from Debbie’s own past. But what she can’t understand is how, after every confrontation with him, her own karmic balance declines drastically. Is he a kind of karmic vampire? Things aren’t adding up, and there’s a whole lot of lying going on.

The premise of the karma detective is unusual, although Debbie’s business model seems to have her heading rapidly towards insolvency. More troublesome to me, Debbie claims that a person’s karma is balanced during the current lifetime, where my own understanding of the matter is that karma is accumulated throughout a number of lives. Essentially, the story is a mystery, with the detective becoming the object of her own investigation. The prose is lively and entertaining.

Feeling slightly virtuous, I take my food to one of the stainless steel tables that line the wall and proceed to inhale my greasy, heavily salted meal. If sex were this satisfying, I’d probably have it more often.

“Red Hell” by Renee Stern

Readers may suppose at first that the setting here is SF, but it is in fact a secondary fantasy world that seems to be at about a 19th century level of technology, not counting magic. There is a punitive system in place, in which petty criminals are subject to indenture; Kellen has a mark on his forehead that marks his indentured status, which he is desperately trying to save enough to pay off.

Red Hell, they called it in the yards and out at the mines. His first day in the mine’s dark warren of galleries and ramps taught him the shape of Hell: dead air, bitter coal dust, gritty sweat, eternal dark. He wouldn’t return there willingly, despite the uncertainty of day labor.

He is happy to get a dirty job from a Niscalese, some sort of alien mistrusted by the human Crown. But too many people in this place will stab people in the back.

Here is an interesting, appalling social setting and a sympathetic, well-done character in Kellen.

“The Lady’s Apprentice” by Jan Stirling

Nyla lives alone in a hut where she serves the Lady by helping others, for which purpose the Lady lends her significant magical power. Nyla knows something is wrong when she is sent to find a young woman on the road who has just given birth. The baby is missing, and Nyla supposes correctly that it was stolen for some dark sacrifice.

The plot of this dark fantasy runs the usual course. It was interesting to see how Nyla uses power and guile to deal with the sorcerer. I then thought the story was over, but turning the page, I found another scene in which the Lady appears and moralizes at Nyla – an addition I could have done without.

“The Wine-Dark Sea” by Isabel Pelech

Very dark fantasy. Newyn was disfigured as a child by the local magic called lohan; now she is a masked assassin. She is hired by an old woman to rescue her son from a lohan-filled submerged city, fallen long ago to some malevolent magic. The lohan haunting the place makes it possible to breathe the water, but persons who venture there rarely return.

The plot here is the usual sort of quest, but there is nothing commonplace about the setting. The submerged city is filled with wondrous horrors:

There was a terrestrial tree, long dead and wrapped with more chains. There was a skeleton chained there, welded to its restraints by rust. The skull was human on one side, but the other side stretched on and on, a series of bent eye sockets growing smaller and smaller like reflections in a mirror.


“On a Pale Horse” by Sylvia Volk

Arabic fantasy. Salsabil’s father gave the same name to both his daughter and his mare, and Salsabil calls the horse her sister. One day she tells her father that while taking the mare to graze she has seen a stallion following them, a stallion perfect except for having a horn on his forehead. Salsabil’s parents grieve that their daughter is insane. But soon there are more urgent matters to concern them, for this is a drought year and raiders are headed in the direction of their tribe.

One of the few stories in this issue I would not call dark fantasy of some sort. Although the warfare has its horrors, it is not a consequence of the fantasy element, which is a positive one. Some readers may think that the author has idealized and romanticized the Bedouin, but this is, after all, fantasy and not historical fiction; it does not promise reality.

“La Señora de Oro” by R L Roth

Epistolary historical fantasy set in Gold Rush California. Tom writes to his wife, relating the details of his life in the gold fields and his hopes to return soon with enough to pay the bank for the farm. The work is hard and his claim is not very productive until he and his partners meet a dying old man who wears a figurine around his neck: La Señora de Oro. The miners take the figurine for themselves and it tells them where to find the richest deposits of gold, but there is a price.

I pricked my finger on one of her little teeth & squeezed out a drop of Blood. She got very warm in my hand & even thought it was pitch black I knew where every bit of Gold was in the Camp.

The horror here builds inexorably. The Gold Lady is a manifestation of greed and the lust for gold that can drive men mad – yet not inevitably; Tom freely chooses his fate. The historical setting is well-realized, the character’s written voice convincing.

“Building Character” by Tom Sneem

Humor. A fictional character suffers from the ineptness of his author.

“Folie and Null” by Douglas Empringham

Unfortunately-named Rhing is on his travels when he encounters the first of a series of murders, this one a wizard. He soon falls in with the wizard’s apprentice, who calls himself Folie, a name more suited to the fool he seems to be. But together they manage to gather the evidence of who is doing the killing.

A standard wizardly adventure. The worldbuilding here is thin, an assembly of random fantasy tropes. Having a character call out, “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” does not contribute to the atmosphere, it works against it. And convenient magical devices appearing just when needed do not lend credibility to the plot.


Tor.com, April 2010

One story posted, a short one.

“Four Horsemen, at their Leisure” by Richard Parks

After the Apocalypse, Death and his brothers have nothing more to do, but the Consensus plans to leave them alone on Earth instead of reincorporating them into itself. Death decides that he’ll be damned, as it were, if he is going to let the Consensus get away with excluding them. And One Other.

“Four sparks left on earth. Four little pieces. Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death . . . do you not feel our absence?”

Thought-provoking theological speculation about the relationship between creation and destruction, and Allness. This is actually a story, rather than just a bunch of personifications standing around, talking. Death and War, in particular, come across as characters, while the Consensus doesn’t come off as very admirable at all. Which is undoubtedly the point.



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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