Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late November

The usual end-of-the-month roundup of the usual ezines.


Publications Reviewed


Fantasy Magazine, November 2010

The overall tint of this month’s stories is dark.

“Mademoiselle and the Chevalier” by Mari Ness

Fantasy of manners. The B___ family is an odd one that doesn’t quite fit into society, even though they are quite attractive, especially the youngest sister, here called Mademoiselle. Returning after a lengthy absence, she is seen to have adopted some eccentric mannerisms and acquired a large amount of wealth. This attracts some unsavory suitors, among them the Chevalier.

A mysterious fairy tale confided to us by the narrator, who leaves many matters tantalizingly unexplained.

The gardens were, he had to admit, a bit overladen with gargoyles — one seemed to appear every two to three feet or so. Small gargoyles, large gargoyles, grinning gargoyles, sobbing gargoyles — it was all a bit much for the Chevalier, who, although romantic, preferred things in moderation.

Pretty nicely done, though the narration is not note-perfect, which this sort of thing really must be.

“Liminal” by E Catherine Tobler

The three sisters have a strong affinity for metals, and other powers they don’t quite understand.

[Sombra] could smell the metal even if it were buried a hundred feet down. Gemma could hear the metal, like someone had struck a tuning fork. I could taste it, even now as it rested in Sombra’s palm that felt like my own and yet was not. Was not… Could taste the dirt that clung to it, and the sweet silver beyond.

This makes them the target of unscrupulous men, and although Honna is killed attempting to escape from them, she can not be divided from her sisters.

A dark aura hangs over this scene from the beginning, when the sisters stow away on a circus train that seems to be a bit sentient. This isn’t quite enough in itself to convince me that the circusmaster knows what they are and how they can be controlled, and it’s not really clear what happens. But the background of the tale suggests another, convincing secret at work.

“Mortis Persona” by Barbara A Barnett

In a fantasy version of Rome, the actors hired to wear the ancestral death masks at a funeral actually take on the spirits of the dead. But Caldus has been chosen by the funeral director to wear the mask of his dead lover, Aulus Vedius Aper, despite the well-known danger of their spirits merging. His fears proved well-founded. Even after he removes the mask, Aper’s spirit haunts him, and people begin to think he is mad.

He wondered if part of his soul had been left behind in the death mask with Aper, leaving him hollow within, too numb to respond to any passion but madness. Even now, free from the spell of dreams, the urge to put on the mask and be whole again was like a constant whisper in his ear.

This is both a love story and a ghost story, and not a happy one. The neat thing is how closely it is based on the actual Roman custom of wearing ancestral death at funerals. But I wonder about the Latin title, which means “mask of death,” while a death mask was generally known as an imago.

“From the Countries of Her Dreams” by Jay Lake and Shannon Page

In a city where someone is killing goddesses, Laris is now serving at the altar of the lowliest goddess of all, Mother Iron, whose prayer is: Hear the plea of all women, that the fist of men shall not strike me down. The Priestess business doesn’t seem to pay, so she also works as a prostitute in her off-hours. But her dreams are haunted by her dead sister, and this is Laris’s fault, since she refused to allow Solis’s lover attend her funeral. Now she realizes she must let them say good-bye to each other.

Set in Lake’s city of Copper Downs, although I don’t recognize the city as we see it here – a squalid and misogynistic place, where women cling to their own establishments – but it seems to be a sequel to some other events. There’s a nice resolution but nothing really special going on.


Lightspeed, November 2010

The science fiction in this ezine is tending more to the metaphorical than the literal, stories rather similar to those in Strange Horizons.

“Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu

The narrator lives other people’s pain for twelve dollars an hour. Of course the fees the clients pay to the agency are much higher; the narrator is on salary. There is a girl in a nearby cubicle, and the narrator dreams of having a life with her. The life that he has isn’t worth much, which is why he’s doing this job. But he tries, and we have to give him credit; he makes the effort when a lot of people won’t, including his almost-girlfriend.

The story begins by quoting the corporation’s rates for items like a migraine, but in fact this outfit isn’t set up to handle something like a migraine that can’t be scheduled in advance. The company primarily deals in psychic discomfort, and the narrator is a sort of funeral specialist; he feels the grief so the clients are spared it, but actually he seems to rather like funerals.

Essentially, it’s one of those stories where a character’s SFnal problem is supposed to inform his personal problems. In this case, the connection is somewhat weak. We sympathize with the narrator, who seems to have enough pain of his own, but his job really doesn’t have much to do with his real problem, which is that he’s a loser in a society that sets up some people to be losers. How much different would the story be if he worked on a garbage truck, instead? It’s mostly a standard loneliness story with a SFnal twist at the end.

“Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim

It seems there was a mistake with an experimental time machine, and now, after Hwang goes to sleep, he wakes up later in time. Sometimes centuries later. Somehow, whenever he does, he encounters some of his daughters, which is to say, his female descendants. Hwang has learned not to like change. Sometimes he tries to stay awake as long as possible, to keep it from happening. But “Hwang tries to look at it this way: time jumps forward when you sleep no matter who you are.” And Hwang is fortunate – his daughters love him.

This is one of those pieces written as a series of aphorisms from which the reader is supposed to assemble the story in the manner of doing a jigsaw puzzle, except that there is more than one possible pattern. Intriguing fantasy.


Strange Horizons, November 2010

Mostly science fiction this month, if not the Hard Stuff.

“Hokkaido Green” by Aidan Doyle

“After his brother died, Hitoshi Watanabe quit his job and decided to walk to the hot spring waterfall at the end of the world.” It is a pilgrimage to a place his father had loved but Hitoshi had never taken the time to visit. At the spring, he has a supernatural encounter that enables him to change his life as his father might have wished it.

There is a low-key deadpan humor here that makes this one charming and keeps a heartwarming story from falling into sentimentality. Almost a fairy tale.


“Household Spirits” by C S E Cooney

Humans have come to settle a world where a sentient native species already lives. Kilquut ethics insist that it is better to die than to kill, so their population gathered together and called down lightning on themselves. They left only their youngest children alive, each one occupying its former home as a sort of genius loci. Many of the human settlers have killed and abused their “ghosts.”

One old widow woman tried to gather all the unwanted to her house, but they kept running back to their set households. Like they had to be there, on that land, and whoever wants the land has to live with them.

Hal Fletcher and his son Jess have come to the frontier and settled in a house where the resident Kilquut is a boy named Mimo. Jess and Mimo bond, but rather than Mimo taking on human ways, it is Jess who becomes more alien. Although not in every way.

Such stories as this often adopt a simplistic “aliens good/humans bad” moral outlook, and while this one does not entirely fall into the pattern, it colors it deeply, first because we must always be remembering that the human presence on this world is in itself a wrongness, from which all other wrongs have sprung. Jess, who adopts Kilquut ways, is admirable. The brutish Gladstone family, which seems to stand in for the generality of humanity, threatens [and presumably rapes] their resident ghost. We don’t know how many exceptions like the kind widow woman exist, as we never see them.

The author strikes a false note by making her spacefaring human settlers speak in a hokey frontier dialect, with “reckons” and “tuckers” and “narys,” as if to suggest that they are a backwards, ignorant and debased lot, in contrast with the inherently ethical natives. There is a real ethical issue to be raised in a scenario like this one, but the author has trivialized it with stereotypes rather than facing it directly.

“Blood, Blood” by Abbey Mei Otis

Alien tourists show up on Earth. They are voyeurs, and teenaged Damia and her friend George discover there is money to be made from aliens who like to watch them fight, to watch them have sex. To let them touch. Damia knows it is a form of porn, of prostitution.

Vessels hand over not just actions but the medium of flesh. It’s what all the aliens want. It gives them bragging rights shipside. They tell horror stories of their close encounters with bodies. Their friends listen raptly, the ones who would never be brave enough to come down here. They think, shuddering, of their own bodies, wherever they have left them.

But the aliens also share their technique of separating from their bodies with a few selected humans, and Damia doesn’t care for her own body at all. Her ambition to join them causes conflict between her and George, who hates what the aliens have done to humanity, who hates how he has pandered to them.

Damia is an interestingly complex character, as is George, although this story is from Damia’s point of view. The heart of the story is their inner conflicts and uncertainties concerning body and self, gender identity and dysphoria. Insightful stuff here, though not actually much to do with aliens.

“No Return Address” by Sigrid Ellis

Rose’s daughter Amanda has gone off to Europe to fight the Unseelie Court. She is probably following in the footsteps of her grandmother, who is now suffering from dementia, so that Rose doesn’t credit her stories. Rose is stuck at home caring for her own mother while frantic with worry about Amanda, who sends postcards home from her travels, but with no postmarks.

The story belongs to Rose, trapped in the generation sandwich, writing letters to her daughter that she can’t mail because she doesn’t have an address to reach her. While the fantasy element is unambiguous, it’s still peripheral to her story, which would be much the same if Amanda had run off with a rock band.

I have a daughter who has run away to Europe, a mother who is crazy, and no one in my life to help me. No partner, no lover. I don’t even know who your father was, Amanda. This is not the life I meant to have.

The epistolary format works well at exposing Rose’s pain, but it all too apparent when the writer becomes the author, addressing the reader, instead of Rose addressing either her daughter or herself.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, November 2010

In which I am prompted to think about the effectiveness of the first-person narrative voice.

“Bread and Circuses” by Genevieve Valentine

In a town that has known nothing but war and the resulting hunger, the arrival of a traveling circus changes the life of Tom the smith, who suddenly realizes he is imprisoned by the town walls that he’s spent his life defending, that there is a world and a life outside. But the circus itself can be a prison, as the woman called Valeria understands when she leaves to take the job as the town baker. The people are happy to have bread, but Tom, assigned as her keeper, knows that when the flour runs out, the town’s strongman will need a new scapegoat.

This is a political story along the lines of 1984, in which we see the lies that tyrants will tell to keep themselves in power and the way the hope of freedom can sprout wherever a seed falls. But it also illustrates the problematic nature of the first-person narrative which, in this case, ends literally in midair. I’m also not sure why the author insists the bread oven has to reach a temperature that instantly singes off all the baker’s hair; such an oven would produce only cinders, not bread.

“The Popinjay’s Daughter” by Anne Cross

The Popinjay Society is a guild of magicians that keeps its headquarters in the House of the Mad Russian, where spells control the doors.

You may pass through as many of them as you like and not arrive where you think you ought to, because you cannot leave the House except through the door you entered in by, and you cannot exit the House unless it be in the same state you came in. But the truth of those words is as mutable as the doors, and the magic of doors is both blatant and subtle, depending upon the expectations of the opener.

Seven years ago as a young boy, Ghost was imprisoned in the house for insulting one of the members. The Society made this legal by naming him an apprentice, but since he can not read, he has learned very little until the day a young pregnant woman is immured in the house by one of the Masters who plans to take control of her family’s inherited magic power. And in exchange for Ghost acting as her servant, Magdalena Selworth teaches him to read.

A neat tricky story of magic and its workings. A bit of awkwardness in the prose, as above. The mis-speakings might have been intended to characterize the illiterate narrator, Ghost, but the use of such terms as “mutable” contradicts this notion. One thing a first-person voice ought to do is characterize the narrator, but here it only leads to questions.

“Fleurs du Mal” by J Kathleen Cheney

Bertrand has come to 1920s Paris to rescue his younger brother from the clutches of a vampirish seductress. He is too late. But Anne Dubourg has a particular interest in Bertrand, a botanist who specializes in hybridizing plants; she is breeding a strange line of plants herself:

The ivory-fleshed bulb had the smooth, elongated shape of the Resurrection Lily (or Naked Lady, as they are sometimes called), but the leaf habit was wrong, more like the delicate fronds of the asparagus fern. The color of the leaf was peculiar as well, almost the tone of human flesh. At first I wondered if it might be a sculpture, intended to mock life, but then I saw the fronds move as if a wind reached them inside that glass.

Cheney has successfully literalized the title of Baudelaire’s poems in this dark fantasy of seduction, addiction and decadence, and the setting is also effectively done. Here, the first-person narrative works well. Bertrand’s voice carries the story down the path of his perdition.


“As Below, So Above” by Ferrett Steinmetz

A mad scientist has built a tower on an island, surrounded it by a painwall, and created a pair of krakens to defend him against the shiploads of enemies that continue to assault his fortress with more formidable weapons every time. The krakens regard him as their god; their loyalty is absolute. But they have a son, and the son sometimes questions things, such as why their god allows his father to suffer, why he doesn’t heal his wounds.

A tale of lost faith. The author is trying to evoke our sympathy for a tentacled monster. This is quite a stretch. I find that I can sympathize with the son’s skepticism, but the father’s deluded faith is so obviously hopeless, he’s a lost cause. It isn’t only the first-person voice that sometimes fails to work.


Tor.com, November 2010

I’m beginning to think the site isn’t quite sure what it wants to be: an outlet for superior fiction or a showcase for upcoming works from the publisher. Which is definitely not the same thing.

“Sacrifice of the First Sheason” by Peter Orullian

A case in point: Palamon is a Sheason, this awkward term identifying a sort of servant to a bunch of benevolent creators. He is working on a new world when he discovers that EVIL has entered it; corruption has crept into the souls of one of the creators and his servant [stop me if you’ve heard this before]. The other creators decide to cut their losses and abandon the tainted world, but Palamon objects for the sake of the inhabitants and remains behind to fight the evil.

What we have here is an introduction to a new epic from Tor. It comes complete with a great steaming load of hype and a notice of more such stories to come, which convinces me that the editors at Tor have clearly chosen the lower path. This stuff is just gawdawful. Embarrassingly bad. Generic, clichéd, derivative, clumsy, the prose overloaded with italics. Who can read something like this with a straight face:

The dark Sheason then brayed a few words of his own, the sound fouling the air and driving the breath from Palamon’s lungs. All his senses leapt, sending stabbing pain into his mind, and all leading to a white roaring rush.

“Ponies” by Kij Johnson

Every girl gets her own pastel talking pony with wings and a horn. But before the other girls will let her join the group, she has to take a knife and cut these off. The ending stings, but it’s still Highly Unsubtle.


Subterranean Online, Fall 2010

Continuing the Fall issue with the most recent stories posted. There is also a novel excerpt from Howard Waldrop that will probably be of interest to readers – Waldrop always is.

“The Unorthodox Dr Draper” by William Browning Spencer

The doctor being a psychotherapist whose newest patient, a young woman named Rachel Phelps, is puzzling. It’s as if she’s trying to tell him something but her words are inadequate.

It was as though whenever Rachel attempted to delineate the nuances of her thoughts and emotions, the circumstances of her life, her spiritual condition – she believed in God, but it was not that simple – and her reflections on free will, the bounty of her internal landscape easily trumped her ability to describe it.

He learns belatedly that his patient has a horribly traumatic history, beginning in infancy when her father killed her mother, twin sister and almost her. It’ seems as if menace is constantly stalking her. A previous therapist reveals that she was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, but it takes Dr Draper to realize exactly what form Rachel’s dissociation has taken.

An eccentric story with an eccentric protagonist. At first, it seems that this might be farce, as the narrator confides that Dr D sometimes sleeps with his female patients – only the unattractive ones – for therapeutic purposes. He turns out, however, despite being rather clumsy and oblivious, to have the best interests of his patient at heart. There are elements here of a horror story, but also more lighthearted and positive moments, which prevail in the end.


“Fossils” by Al Sarrantonio

A mad paleontologist, Roberts, has conceived an improbable theory: that the human species is now evolving into a female-dominant form, marked by a protuberance on the back of the skulls of certain women, such as the narrator, Vanessa. Roberts is convinced that the evidence will be found at the bottom of a lake bed/crater, where she expects to find fossils of an earlier human form that coexisted with the dinosaurs. She forces Vanessa and another woman, Anne, to guide her there by means of visions – produced in the part of the brain where the protuberance is found.

Roberts’ theory is so absurd that it’s impossible to take this seriously as science fiction. It works better as the character portrait of an obsessed sociopathic personality, alternately bullying and manipulating others for her own ends.

“It’s enough!” she shouts, throwing my hands away from her, standing up angrily. “Why don’t all of you see that! The dating is beyond question, and the structure is completely different from Homo Erectus.” Again she kneels before me, looks earnestly into my eyes. I almost feel sorry for her.

“Weekdays: A Lucifer Jones Story” by Mike Resnick

Another installment in the history of this sinful incompetent. The ship carrying Our Hero passes a tropical island where half-naked women can be seen. Jones, leaning out too far to stare, falls overboard and swims to the island, where he discovers it already inhabited by a bearded coot who calls himself “Caruso.” Or something close to that. Caruso suspects Jones’ intentions, but the four young women turn out to have their own intentions.

Quite a bit less complex and criminal than Jones’ usual adventures, in which his downfall is usually due to his own idiocy and greed.


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.

2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late November

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *