Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late January

It would almost seem to be February, Valentine’s month, for all the stories about love. I give the award to the ones in Fantasy Magazine.


Publications Reviewed


Fantasy Magazine, January 2011

This ezine still seems to be giving us original fiction every week. The stories all deal with love, in one way or another.

“As We Report to Gabriel” by Tina Connolly

“Good people do not let fairies live with them.” Not if they want to be accepted in society. People are keeping magnets around the house to repel the fairies. So Aileen has locked Gabriel into an iron box in the attic and now tries to pretend the children are fully human. But the children know better, and some of Gabriel’s motes have escaped to form sub-personalities and scheme with the kids to get into the forbidden attic.

An interesting take on fairies, that they are actually clouds of motes capable of taking different forms. The narrative is amusing as it switches points of view among the various fragments of Gabriel. But it’s hard to understand how Gabriel can still love Aileen, who doesn’t seem to be a nice person, besides being a crooked politician. Hard also to understand how she got him into the iron box in the first place.

“Ghost Girl” by Lauren Beukes

Sweta is an architecture student who is followed home one day by a teenaged ghost.

“Wow, your room is really messy.” She says it with admiration, excavating a book from the landfill of papers and sketches and a take-away pizza box. It’s the one on Frank Gehry. Now 37 days overdue. I know because the university library sends regular curt reminders to my inbox.

She may have come to save him from his drunken bitch of a girlfriend, or from himself, or maybe just because she’s lonely, being dead.

The narrative voice is engaging and makes us hope that Sweta does get his act together, because he really does seem to have a talent for creating spaces.


“Lebkuchen” by Priya Sharma

The villagers believe that Lebkuchen has cast a spell to keep winter from departing, and they may be right. Her mother was a witch, and Lebkuchen won’t let her rest in her grave, despite the distress it gives her father to see the dead woman always there when he comes home.

Winter is happiness. It’s Mother making Lebkuchen and sewing by the fire. It’s her, jumping up and clapping her hands when Father comes home. It’s her bedtime tales of changelings, lost travelers and the Erlking’s adventures.

There is a definite sense of ambiguity in this fantasy. We are not sure at first how much Lebkuchen’s imagination is capable of transforming the world. She seems likely, either literally or figuratively, to fall into the grasp of the Erlking, to convert her father into a troll. In the end, however, we see that she is caught in a struggle between the powers of grief and love.


“News Right Fresh From Heaven” by Darby Harn

Kate is alone at age thirty-five, clinging to a job in a library where cutbacks are being made, her only friend a brother whose wife she despises, her only solace her garden.

A baby grew from the apple tree in the backyard last spring. Not quite a baby; a little shrunken fetus that was maybe only two or three months along. It had sort of a potato shape to it, but a potato with itty-bitty arms — more like fins — a head that bloomed away from the rest of the body, and little nubby legs.

This year one of the apple babies lives and grows rapidly through the summer into a woman. Kate falls in love with her, doesn’t want to let her leave the room refrigerated to keep her from going bad. It is a doomed relationship, like loving a snowman in winter, knowing spring will come. A sad love, not because Lily is unworthy of it, but because it’s the only love Kate has been able to find.

Given the handicap of the absurd scenario, the author manages pretty well to make it credible, to bring the characters’ emotions to life. Lily the apple woman is convincingly unhuman, with sensibilities that Kate can’t quite understand. Bad copyediting problems in the text.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2011

Not a strong month at this ezine.

“Two Pretenders” by Marie Brennan

Historical fantasy: a novel twist on the story of the two princes in the Tower. Not a happy one. Even the promise of a miracle turns out to be false. The historical background should be familiar to most readers; the real interest is in the recognition between the characters. But if this is supposed to be a surprise, it’s not, and the fantasy element isn’t developed enough to be convincing.

He swore never to speak of it, not to anyone, but his tongue betrays him in an instant. Staring blindly into the dark corner of his cell, he murmurs, “Sometimes I think I’ve been here before. In my dreams… I have the strangest dreams.”

“Over a Narrow Sea” by Camille Alexa

The neighboring islands of Toth and Mekk have been at war for generations. Now there is finally going to be peace — until both rulers are betrayed while they celebrate. But the daughters of both families had met each other for a secret assignation, and they manage to escape, although not unscathed.

In our plans, Katte and I were both well and whole. We knew our escape route dangerous, but it seemed more an adventure then, on paper and in daydreams. She sags now against the boulder, her head lolling and her knuckles white, her gown splotched wetly red against the distinctive Mekklan gold velvet and brocade.

But Sigra’s past is not what she had believed it to be, and now she must face the devastating truth.

Sigra is the narrator and almost the only character we actually encounter, aside from the witch [I like the witch]. Katte is mostly an inert lump, which works against the love story, and Sigra’s self-pity works against our sympathy. Almost every other paragraph, she complains about being born with hooves instead of feet and the torturous boots she has to wear to conceal them. Although the fact turns out in the end to be significant, Sigra just can’t shut up about it. Only at the end does an interesting character show up, making us realize that we’ve missed the real story, which belongs to someone besides Sigra.

“Recapitulation in Steam” by Margaret Ronald

Izzy was working on the repair of a thaumic vapor leak in a steam processing plant when the thing exploded and he got caught in the blast. Now Izzy is in quarantine, because thaumic contamination makes a person dangerous to themselves and others.

Izzy spun to see a man in shirtsleeves stumble back from the cots, holding what looked like flares in either hand. But when he turned, there were no flares — his hands were glowing, burning with an eerie brilliance that consumed nothing. The man scraped at his fingers, trying to peel off the thaumic fire, red shadows flickering over his terrified face, and screamed again.

He can’t stand the idleness and besides, he has tickets to the opera.

Another in this author’s fantasy steampunk series — one of the few in that subgenre to go beyond the perfunctory mention of zeppelins and gears to a serious consideration of the engineering. Izzy is a nicely-done character, the compulsive engineer fretting in the tedium of enforced unemployment. Unfortunately, this proves another instance of the maxim that lengthy scenes of tedium are tedious for the reader, as Izzy and his fellow internees discuss ancient history and the latest opera at length. [The ancient history sounds awfully interesting if there were a story about it, but there isn’t one here.] All of this stuff is revealed to be relevant with the conclusion, of course, but this isn’t the way to go about it, despite the fact that so many authors do.

“Mamafield” by Cory Ralston

Plant family dysfunction. Except for the fact that these plants can travel, a metaphor of evolution as well as the mother/daughter relationship. Mama regards it as betrayal when any of her sprouts leave her field or consider that they themselves might flower.

My own bud. My first alive seed! She’s spilling anger and hurt like a new bud. You betray Mama.

Cloying as well as obvious. I will also quibble that if this species of plant is dioecious, with nonflowering brothers as well as sisters, then Mama has no pollenizer, so where do her fertile seeds come from? I don’t think the author has thought this premise through.


Tor.com, January 2011

Individuals looking to find their own way in a couple of differently unpleasant futures. A pretty strong pair of stories.

“Making My Entrance Again with My Usual Flair” by Ken Scholes

Merton D Kamal is a clown who has unfortunately lost his position with Rufus P. Stowell’s Traveling Big Top. Reluctantly, he takes a job driving a money across country to a destination in New Mexico. The job description is pretty fishy to begin with, but Merton eventually realizes something is up when the monkey asks him for a cigarette.

Clever narration and dialogue make this one entertaining, and the ending wraps it up nicely. A fun read.

“Where are we supposed to be going?”

“Roswell, New Mexico.”

“And what does that tell you?”

I shrugged. “You got me.”

“Let’s just say I’m not from around here.”

“Beauty Belongs to the Flowers” by Matthew Sanborn Smith

A future Nagasaki where the young people yearn for superficial, artificial beauty, for plastic skin and robotic perfection. Miho is obsessed with the loss of her childhood boyfriend Ichiro, who has left her for a robot lover. As she scorns the imperfect natural for the artificial, so has he.

Miho hated the thunder and the lightning and hated the winds ruffling her short black hair. They groaned and screamed, ancient and horrible powers as restless as the earth itself. In this age, man should have been able to stave them off with his machine cities. Nature, always filthy, returned Miho’s hatred with a light rain blown in her face like spittle.

I think this piece is mostly about today. There is a love story here, but it is between Miho’s parents, the devotion of the wife to her dying husband, victim of an industrial accident. The conflict at the story’s heart is between the shallow younger generation and the older, still clinging to traditional values, the authentic and real. Miho may finally learn to value what is important, but if she ends up with Ichiro, it may be the curse of getting what you’ve wished for. He sure doesn’t seem like much of a prize; one hopes he grows up.


Subterranean, Winter 2011

The cover story.

“The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn” by Robert Silverberg

A Majipoor story. From his youth, Simmilgord had a special ambition: to uncover the true history of the first Pontifex, Dvorn, known only as a figure of myth and poetry.

What Dvorn had accomplished held a special fascination for him. It was Simmilgord’s great hope to plunge into all of that and make out of Majipoor’s unthinkable complexity a single coherent narrative, just as Dvorn, long ago, had made one world out of hundreds of independent city-states.

He is happy when he is appointed curator of a new museum to be constructed in the town where Dvorn was reputed to be born and buried. He and his fellow scholar Lutiel begin their excavations into tomb and archives, caught between skepticism and hope that their finds will prove genuine.

The story gets off to a slow start as the author sketches in the background of Majipoor with a lot of made-up names, but Simmilgord’s enthusiasm eventually inspires reader involvement as he comes to life as a character, and of course everyone loves a tomb excavation. The story took on special interest for me when the young scholars arrived at the site and began their research, because the heart of this story is the nature of historical truth and our duty to it. Simmilgord is initially armed with scientific rigor, but his subsequent conflicts with colleagues, overbearing superiors, and jealous local amateurs sound an authentic tone, and the name of the Superintendent of Antiquities, Hawid Zakayil, seems oddly familiar.


Abyss & Apex, 1Q 1st Quarter 2011

This ezine has moved to a new address and a new platform, which is the sort of thing that always seems unnecessary to me, ever since people had to go and give up on ASCII. I don’t think they’ve got the bugs worked out yet.

But what really matters is the stories. There is more science fiction than fantasy, a mix of action and psychological fiction; I preferred the action stories. Also a haunting short-short fantasy reprint from C J Cherryh.

“Of Ambergis, Blood, and Brandy” by J Kathleen Cheney

Here is a very complicated story, full of plots, conspiracies, betrayals, and murders. The Golden City sits on the ocean and previously had good relations with the sea peoples who sometimes lived among them, but recently the Prince has proscribed them. Oriana is a sort of mer-siren sent to spy on the city to discover if their plans will harm her people. She discovers that an underwater copy of the city is being created, which poses a danger to the sea folk. But her presence is discovered by a sinister advisor to the Prince, the Seer, who threatens to expose her. At the same time, she is recruited by the Seer’s nephew, who believes his uncle to be a serial murderer.

The setting is a highly mannered one with a rather fin de siècle ambience; although elements of the opening scene might seem at first to evoke a steampunk sensibility, that is not what’s going on here. Aside from the sea people and a little prescience, there are no real fantastic or science-fictional elements. While the plot is primarily that of a murder mystery/thriller, the real interest comes from the well-detailed society and the hints of interspecies romance between Oriana and Duilio. Oriana makes a credible heroine, caught between her own nature and the constricted role she is forced to play. It’s an engaging story, but there is really too much going on here, too many complications, and it doesn’t help when we are sent off on the trail of persons who don’t actually appear in the story, even if this isn’t their own fault, having been killed. The main problem is that the villain is excessively evil and has gotten away with so many crimes it’s hard to credit.

“Twice Given” by Lindsey Duncan

Taras and Liteyi are sisters. Because Taras is a priestess they are bound together by an unequal tie; Liteyi feels what Taras feels and has to serve her needs. Because Taras’s body is sacred, they share a husband, but it is Liteyi who will have to bear the child that Taras wants and she does not. Liteyi is trapped and wants out.

Although the solution at the end is apt, the situation is contrived and unconvincing. While I can clearly feel Liteyi’s reluctance, what she doesn’t want, I’m not at all sure what she does — and I rather doubt that she knows, either.

“A New Bridge Across the Lethe” by Howard V Hendrix

The diary of a man whose memory was destroyed decades ago and only now restored by surgery. He is now an old man and most of his life has been lost to him, and the world he finds himself in is a very different place. Only who he is has not changed.

Of all the changes I’ve learned about — of moonshots and Mars missions, of civil and equal rights — the one change I most wish for would be, not so much that I might call back the lost days themselves, but that I might call back all those yesterdays’ dreams, of all the tomorrows I never saw dawn.

But this world contains the internet and its unlimited access to information, and the narrator, who annoyingly gives us no name, overdoses on information. His mind explodes in activity, then collapses.

The question is, do we need another rewrite of Flowers for Algernon? There is a great deal here that is fresh and new: the narrator’s unique point of view, the pain of loss that he suffers, not once but twice. And there is the lovely and poignant prose. But I admit to disappointment when I saw that this one was heading down the exact same path instead of taking a variant route. That would have made it quite worthwhile. It so easily could have been.

“Mind-Diver” by Vylar Kaftan

Faisal Rashid is a mind-diver, a kind of psychotherapist, who takes an emergency case: an executive in an important corporation has OD’d, and his life is in danger. There is also a lost corporate secret. When Rashid accesses the patient’s mind, the damage he finds is greater than an overdose of the drug should have caused. He consults with the patient’s young wife, but her story seems shaky. To save his patient, Rashid must solve the mystery.

It’s not quite clear to me how the neurological damage caused by a drug overdose can be cured through repairing the patient’s emotional landscape, but the symbol-loaded landscape is interesting and accounted for by the mystery.

He knelt in a barren wasteland of black rock. Pointed formations scattered across the plain to the horizon. A natural rock archway stood to the left, serving as a landmark for his entry point. Far beyond the archway stood a mountain range — or perhaps a series of volcanoes, he thought, since the landscape resembled a burnt meringue pie.

There is rather too much about God’s will and redemption for my taste, however.

“The Halo Wave” by Lael Salaets

Space opera. Yarii is wanted for drug possession and data theft, but he gets a break from a recruiter for the smugglers guild who needs a navigator in an emergency. She has an offer he can’t refuse: a possible cure for the Interface Dysfunction Syndrome that got him kicked out of the Fleet and addicted. So Yarii is off to save the Halo Wave from the pirates who have captured it.

A broken spatial map appeared with elliptical contour lines, multicolored points and spheres depicting celestial and manmade objects. A blinking yellow dot indicated the last known position of the Halo Wave, in the pixilated mash of the ring’s core. And there were empty gaps of data to deal with. Probes had a tendency to vanish out there.

While there are bits of story logic I find questionable, this is overall a satisfying, action-filled space adventure, the sort of thing we don’t see much anymore these days.


Interzone #232, Jan-Feb 2011

The scent of the future comes on opening a new issue of IZ.

“Noam Chomsky and the Time Box” by Douglas Lain

Illustrating why the Time Box 3.0 has failed to meet initial sales projections: the thing is boring. Jeff Morris is a blogger who reviews new technology projects. The first thing he notices when he opens the Time Box is the disclaimer: TIME BOX IS PARADOX FREE.

The theory is that history is fixed, that you can’t kill Hitler, save Jesus, or stop Larry Summers from getting a job with the Clinton Administration, but once I had the thing plugged in and humming I figured maybe everyone else was just going about it in the wrong way.

For some reason, he decides that Noam Chomsky can find the seams in spacetime that are capable of being opened. Next, he decides to pair up Chomsky with Terence McKenna to work on the problem. As he makes one futile attempt after another, the page views on his blog continue to decline.

This one is funny, clever, and at the same time another illustration of the maxim that a portrayal of boring events is going to be boring. Morris spends days describing how he hangs around the airport with his subjects, doing essentially nothing, accomplishing exactly nothing. Indeed, he can’t even articulate exactly what he is trying to do, and his subjects certainly can’t register what he was saying. It’s clear to a reader that the Time Box can only replicate historical events. Where this is interesting is in the details of the replication; I was there at this time and recognize the scene clearly.

[The stewardess] was uncomfortable in her pink and orange polyester uniform, and attempted to straighten it by pulling down on the uniform’s short skirt. She stepped back from the counter and adjusted her pillbox hat.

But if I had a Time Box, I certainly would have picked a more interesting destination than a boring polyester airport in 1971. Even with its limitations, the thing sounds pretty cool to my history-geek self.

“Intellectual Property” by Michael R Fletcher

One narrator is a deep cover agent investigating a research facility of the Pensiero Corporation in Dhaka, where it is suspected of purchasing kidnapped children for organic computer research. Another voice belongs to a research scientist working at the facility, where everyone is required to use a Memory Plug; every memory of what goes on inside is captured in the plug, removed on leaving the building as part of security procedures.

Pensiero was careful to let us out one at a time. They didn’t want us meeting up after work and having Unplugged contact. I don’t know why — put it down to corporate paranoia — but isn’t like we could talk about what went on at the office.

No, because what went on at the office stays at the office, inside the plug. Under these circumstances, life is unsatisfying dull, until it gets too interesting.

Cracking cyber-action in the usual teeming future-third-world milieu where mobs are storming the zoo for the meat. The central SFnal element, and the thing that differentiates this one from similar scenarios, is the Memory Plug. While the narrative doesn’t dwell at much length on the problems of personal identity that this implies, there are sufficient hints.

“By Plucking Her Petals” by Sarah L Edwards

Fantasy. Monticello Dabney uses interesting alchemical equipment to drain the beauty from some things and infuse it into others, either clients who come to him or the artists with wealthier clients of their own. He is surprised to find a very beautiful girl coming into his shop, wanting to sell, not buy. Dabney is intrigued by her, and follows her to discover what she intends.

There are a lot of things a reader can find here: The question of whether beauty lies in appearance or character. Or a tale of redemption by love. But as the author sets it up, it’s also a moralistic story of good against evil, in which Dabney finds himself taking part. But for all her attempts to paint the villain in the blackest dyes, I am not convinced that he deserves the fate meted out to him in the vigilante fashion of the story. The victim was willing, even if she later regretted her decision. I don’t approve of these events, and I don’t find the vengeful Gwen attractive. As I read it, it’s the story of a lonely man seduced into ruin by the superficial allure of beauty, but I rather don’t think this is at all what the author had in mind. I wish it were.

“Healthy, Wealthy and Wise” by Sue Burke

A rather complicated setup. Brianna is an American teen in Spain on an overseas study program that pairs her with a Spanish guide — in this case a bitter older woman with cancer. Letitia has to show her the cultural wonders of Madrid, and in exchange Brianna will nurse her though the effects of cancer treatment. Letitia resents this arrangement that she feels was forced on her, and she is hostile to Brianna. The situation gravely concerns Brianna’s AI helper, the story’s narrator, but it’s frustrated because Brianna wants to get through the experience on her own.

The sort of warm and positive piece where everyone learns a lesson and becomes a better person with the aid of personal AIs. The scenario is a bit hard to grasp and harder to credit. I would have liked it with a little more vengeance.

“Flock, Shoal, Herd” by James Bloomer

There has been a war with devastating consequences, in the course of which the minds of combatants were transferred into animal collectives, such as a school of sharks. Both Rocco and his lover Elaine were so transformed, but most of Rocco has returned to a human state, while Elaine has gone much further in the other direction.

“I am the grass surrounding your feet,” said Elaine. “I am the animals that eat the grass. I am everything that you can see. I am the savannah.”

Rocco wants Elaine to return to human form to be with him, but a sinister Ministry is using him to learn her secret for reasons that are probably not benign.

The winner of the James White Award sponsored by the magazine for new writers, a promising debut. The prose is competent, and the author has eschewed the usual new-author impulse to explain too much. In fact, while I am not in general a fan of background explanations, I found myself at times wishing there had been a bit of it here. But this was probably weak of me.


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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