Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May

Tackling the latest massive issue of Black Gate, which almost takes up a whole column. The Good Story award goes to Michael Flynn’s alternate history, posted at Tor.com.


Publications Reviewed


Tor.com, May 2011

Good to see more original fiction posted on this site again.

“The Iron Shirts” by Michael F Flynn

Alternate history in 13th century Ireland, where chiefs and petty kings wage war on each other and the English have commenced to divide and conquer. David ó Flynn knows that The ó Flaherty wants him to help overthrow the current king of Connaught, but David doesn’t believe he has the strength to succeed. The ó Flaherty, however, has an secret new ally – warriors from the west overseas, warriors with metal armor like the English. But something about the newcomers makes David suspicious.

He studied these new Foreigners with great care, for he knew that ó Flaherty planned some devious trick involving them and he did not yet know what that trick would be. Nor, by all appearances, did the Foreigners, for they cast sidelong glances at their host, and all but one, despite their outward arrogance, displayed signs of wariness.

This is what I like. Many inferior practitioners of AH concentrate excessively on the point of departure from our own timeline. Flynn tells us enough that we know the Icelandic settlements in the Western Hemisphere, and possibly some others, were conquered and absorbed by the tribes we see now in Ireland, but it is not his purpose to suggest that this may or may not have been how they began to work metal, build ships and ride horses. There is sly humor here, as well, with the Irishmen at first mistaking the name of the Foreigners’ tribe as ó Gonklin. Flynn has worked this history out thoroughly and throws out a lot of hints, but the real story here is not about how things have come to pass but about the canny chieftain ó Flynn deciding if he ought to throw in with their side.


“Crazy Me” by James Patrick Kelly

An ambiguous fantasy. Ken Takumi either has an alter ego or a dissociative disorder in which he thinks he does. The alter ego is more fun than he is, and better at picking stocks, but he tends to paranoid fantasies about raccoons.

This is how it’s been recently. Crazy Me sketches some doomsday scenario in the middle of the night and then retreats to the garage. Me, I lose another night’s sleep.

Sometimes the alter ego slips out and pretends to be Ken – or maybe not. In the meantime, Ken sees patients in his eye practice and has an affair with his nurse – unless that’s the other one.

Is this interesting? No. Do I care? I don’t.

“Time Considered as a Series of Thermite Burns in No Particular Order” by Damien Broderick

Bobby is a time traveler, visiting the pre-catastrophe years to incinerate various causes of various future catastrophes. He gets arrested a lot. His mission is more or less futile, as one change leads to other catastrophes. Which is not, you know, an original insight. Just it’s a living. Apparently. Too bad, as I had pretty high hopes for this, given that it’s Broderick and obviously meant to be some sort of homage to the Delany classic.


Black Gate #15, Spring 2011

This thick [384 pp] semiannual adventure fantasyzine is billed as a special Warrior Woman issue. I will review the Warrior Women stories as a separate section, as they are presented in the ToC, but it’s not quite clear what criteria the editors used to place a story within this group or outside it; it seems actually to be a female protagonist section.

There are a total of 21 pieces of short fiction, almost all of it S&S or heroic fantasy. None of the stories approach novella length, which this zine used to feature. Also the usual columns and reviews, and an excerpt from the managing editor’s new novel, plus promotional material for it.

I found much to praise in the last issue, and particularly the absence of the usual series stories. Possibly just to vex me, this time the zine has at least four new series and more sequels. There are some good reads here, but the overall quality doesn’t reach the level of the previous issue. In only one case, however, can I blame this on the series factor.

“A River Through Darkness and Light” by John C Hocking

A series story, the previous installments of which were printed in a different magazine. The narrator is known as the Archivist, and he is on an expedition led by the swordswoman Lucella, hoping to locate a cache of ancient scrolls. The way is hazardous; the party is trailed by bandits seeking revenge for the death of their leader at Lucella’s hands; a demon lurks outside the path, waiting for someone to stray.

Moonlight glistened faintly on something that ran on all fours but was bigger than a horse. It was translucent, a blur of palely shifting light that bore a crest of frigid air before it. I glimpsed a pallid, striated flank, a fore limb like a white arm ending in short, hooked talons, and a terrible head, vaned like a jay’s but almost as long as I was tall.

This is well-done classic S&S. The author doesn’t bother much with the backstory, leaving readers aware of the fact that something is going on between the Archivist and Lucella, but vague on most of the other details, which turn out not to be necessary to enjoy the adventure at hand. I note that Lucella is definitely a woman warrior, although this story is not listed in the warrior woman section, which makes me wonder.

“The Oracle of Gog” by Vaughn Heppner

Seems to be another series featuring the character of Lod, a young quasi-supernatural currently enslaved and used as floating bait for giant canal rats “the size of a rutting ram”. [Hunting the rats appears to be a significant business in the corrupt city of Shamgar, but it is not clear how the hunters can profit from it.] The local god Gog, son of Magog, has had an ominous vision concerning Lod and has sent his monster-son Kron to eliminate the potential threat. In fulfillment of the vision, Lod proves not susceptible to Kron’s power.

In this fantasy world based on Biblical myth and overblown prose, Lod seems to be meant as a Conanesque hero, essentially muscle and bad attitude, although he may develop other powers in sequels.

His muscles rippled like some jungle beast. His face contorted and changed into grimaces and passionate sneers. The evil of this city, it deserved destruction, obliteration! He wished to gut it and free all the rat bait, each branded slave bending his back for these vile taskmasters.

I will point out that the term “Nephilim” is a plural form.

“The Gifts of Li Tzu-Ch’eng” by Derek Künsken

Historical fantasy. Li is a warlord attempting to overthrow the Ming dynasty when he is approached by a woman, Nü Wa, who claims to be a messenger of Heaven, offering him four gifts. But of the four, he may only use three, and the fourth will be used against him; one of the gifts is love. Li makes good use of the gifts but finds himself wanting Nü Wa perhaps more than he wants to overthrow the Ming.

“But love, I understand neither how to strike with it, nor how to defend against it.” He raised a single pepper-gray eyebrow at Nü Wa, waiting for the answer she never offered. “What can Heaven do to me with love? Withhold it? Deny me sons to carry on a dynasty?”

The author makes good use of the historical account, but anyone who reads beyond it will discover that after his eventual defeat, Li disappeared. This story could have suggested one possible fate. The first page is awkward because of difficulties with punctuation that were not corrected in the text.

“Groob’s Stupid Grubs” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Humorous fantasy. Groob is a goblin living below the Devouring City [a Neat Idea, this] where he is trying to raise a brood of grubs that will prove smarter than the usual line of goblins. Groob himself is clever enough to make goggles so that he can scavenge Topside during the day. But during a hunt for meat, he is captured by a sentient furnace who eats books and calls himself a “coalem.” Oy! Very silly.

“Into the Gathering Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer

The final tale of Thomas the Rhymer.

That when his mortal life was done – for it was given to him to know the exact number of his days – True Thomas of Ercildoune, called the Rhymer, the poet who was a prophet, whose tongue could not lie, received word that there waited for him in the street outside his house a white hart and a white hind, miraculous beats, which feared not mankind, and which no hunter’s weapon might touch, though some hunters had tried, thinking to take such splendid prizes themselves.

No one more fitting than Schweitzer to tell this tale. Some who retell and revisit the old stories will cast them into different settings or seek to make them more relevant to contemporary scenes. Not this author. He remains as close as possible to the original tale, retaining its spirit whole and unaltered.


“An Uprising of One” by Jamie McEwan

Tanek is the heir to the small, weak kingdom of Luria, which is threatened by the evil torturer King Erskine of Malpass. Tanek conceives an ingenious plan to discourage him from carrying out his intention, using tricks taught him by the kingdom’s wizard, whose magic appears to be ancient technology.

Tanek is a character whose plans have an unlikely aptitude for surviving contact with the enemy. He also reminds me of one of those guys wearing white hats in ancient cowboy films, who only shoot the guns out of the hands of the bad guys instead of plugging them through the head. Tanek is both too nice and too lucky to be credible.

“Eating Venom” by Harry Connolly

Altane has taken the place as servant to the middle son of the Holder, hoping to be eventually rewarded well for his service. He is jealous of the youngest brother’s servant, who already seems to have prospered. The two noble brothers have undertaken a dangerous expedition to eliminate a basilisk that has poisoned the surrounding countryside. But there are plots and conspiracies afoot, and Altane realizes that the outcome may depend on him.

He felt nothing but contempt for his master now, but he couldn’t bring himself to stand up and walk out of the house. For the life of him, he didn’t understand why.

Altane is an interesting and realistic character, and the story is full of nice details, such as the basilisk, who can only be killed with weapons of gold [the incorruptible element]. The plot and counterplot of the contending heirs are also intriguing. A good read.

“Dellith’s Child” by Nye Joell Hardy

Set in a world where sea-going families never set foot on land and the women inherit the powers that make them captains of the ships. Grady is visiting his sister’s ship after several years’ distance, and he is happy to learn she has a young son. Until he sees the sea monster she calls by her son’s name. He immediately realizes that she is under a malign spell, but the entire crew, led by the first mate, is complicit in her delusion.

Its hands grabbed at her hair, pulling out misty clumps of light and touching them to its frail blue snout. Its tiny mouth widening. The light evaporated like fog. I turned the knife nervously in my hand; I didn’t know what it meant, but given my sister’s delusions, it couldn’t be good.

A well-worked-out setting and supernatural menace, a strong protagonist in Grady, and a neat twist at the end. Except that the twist, as is often the case, is incompatible with a first-person narration.

“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge

Three brothers from Ipu set off to walk across the shallow Commotionless Sea to the factory where they will purchase a new god for the city. Their journey is long and not uneventful. One brother is lost, along with the payment for the god. One finds a goddess in the shallows, who takes him to the factory. The last one tours the factory and doesn’t like what he finds there.

“I take people who are alone and I kill them and revive them seven ties, and I feed t hem on nectar and I bury them alive, and it all crinkles up inside them and gives them so much power. And all the time they’re alone, and they only want to love.”

A very odd story, with a moral that may or may not make sense, except that it makes no sense to create gods in a factory.

“The Vintages of Dream” by Jon R Fultz

Dark humor. A thief learns of a sorcerer whom he might rob, who has ordered a large number of expensive glass bottles. His skills are equal to breaking through the sorcerer’s wards, and he makes away with the bottled treasure, not aware of what he has taken. This is rarely a good idea in S&S land.

“Purging Cocytus” by Michael Livingston

Horror, in a setting that is more SF than fantasy. Danny’s grandfather has been in cryonic suspension but is now revived and has been returned to the family. On the day of the revival, Danny began to have horrific nightmares about crossing the landscape of Dante’s Inferno, guided by an old man. Readers know this is not simply the child’s imagination, as the old man quotes Dante in both Italian and Latin and the scenes are directly from the epic as well.

What he’d once thought was a windmill in the fog, he now saw for what it was – a hairy beast of proportions he could hardly fathom. What had been the turning blades of the mill, he now saw to be its great leathery wings, whose steady beat drove the fierce cold that ripped across the wasted and barren landscape.

This is strong stuff, as is the conclusion, all in support of the author’s theme that death is not to be denied.

“The Lions of Karthagar” by Chris Willrich

In the East and in the West there are conquering rulers whose paths have come to an end at the Red Waste. But they learn from travelers of the city at the edge of the waste, Karthagar, City of Peace, rich with treasure. Both armies advance on Karthagar from either direction, unaware of each other. Ahead of the armies go the weatherworkers, who call down water for the armies. Blim the Damp and Miy Who Sings Storms meet at the outskirts of Karthagar and are invited into the city, where they discuss the meaning of war.

Blim’s insides were wrenched in two directions. So far from the sea, he’d floundered upon a place of comfort, a haven where men and women seemed truly at peace.

Yet he’d already betrayed this place.

The city, however, is not exactly what it seems.

I always expect the unusual and wondrous strange from this author, and this one does not disappoint. Blim may have a silly name, but the fate of the armies is not silly. One warrior ruler is a woman, one weatherworker is, but this one doesn’t make it into the warrior woman section, either.

“A Pound of Dead Flesh” by Fraser Ronald

Brude and his companion Drust are former legionaries in a world based on classical Rome. They are offered a commission: to deliver a locked box to a necromancer from whom it has been stolen. But they have been set up.

These are the sort of heroes who prevail by raw force, not subtlety of thought. The plot is nicely complex, but I don’t care for the jarring narrative voice that uses contemporary terms like “guys” and “okay” in a world decorated to look ancient.

Warrior Woman Section

“The Shuttered Temple” by Jonathan L Howard

In the roll of S&S archetypes, Kyth the Taker would be listed not as a warrior but a thief; in fact she is an expert in entering, ideally without breaking. Now she has taken a commission from the priesthood of Prytha to enter the Shuttered Temple, originally built years ago by an emperor whose power was being eroded by the Prythians. No one has yet survived the attempt.

“You are brave,” said the priest.
“I am skint,” said Kyth.

What Kyth is, besides broke, is apt at recognizing a trap when she sees it.

This one features the protagonist from one of the most enjoyable tales I’ve read in this zine, and the current story shares the same qualities of cleverness and ingenuity, with a light, engaging narrative. The author also adds some insights into the nature of religious faith, as a bonus.


“The War of the Wheat Berry Year” by Sarah Avery

Stisele was originally sent to Miaaro to rule the place, but she is now leading the peasants in a war of liberation, in which she must sacrifice much. Here we have two very brief scenes from this story.

At the edge of a field within sigh of the granary towers of Joaarsiell, a Beltresin herald rode far ahead of the cavalry to meet her under flag of parley and flag of nation. The red manner whipped in the east wind, the leaping dolphin crowned in gold, rippling over golden waves. I will never see home again.

This is why I get cranky. The author apparently has a great deal of material on hand featuring this character, and I suspect her story may indeed be worth reading. But this is not a story. It is a couple of fragments from the story. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that Stisele is a woman warrior.

“Roundelay” by Paula R Stiles

Oler’s husband has been taken alive by the Queen of Hell after he unwisely went there after their dead son. Oler has taken a ship to the Mouth of Hell in order to confront the Queen and demand him back. Her sorcery is strong, but first she has to overcome the natural objections of the ship’s crew.

Holding her sides, the Captain threw back her head and laughed. “‘Ransom’ him?! Woman, don’t you know better than to call a man back once you’ve rid yourself of him?”

Here is a dark fantasy set in an interesting gynocentric society, a pantheon roughly along the lines of Greek myth, in which the redemption of souls from hell was a recurring theme. Oler is definitely a sorceress, not a warrior, although she is not averse to sticking a blade into an inconvenience. No one here is a nice person, with the exception of Oler’s son and husband, which is probably why she wants him back.

“The River People” by Emily Mah

Sora and her mother are exiles among the River People, tolerated but not accepted. Because of her mother’s blindness, they can not leave. Sora wants to be adopted into one of the River People’s clans, but this involves property, and she owns nothing. Then a malicious girl in the village has thrown a shadow on her reputation. Sora’s only remaining option: to become one of the warriors.

The rather peculiar social customs of the River People add a bit of interest to this typical woman-takes-warrior-test story.

“Cursing the Weather” by Maria V Snyder

Nysa fears wizards. Her mother was impoverished and cursed by a wizard, and now Nysa has to work as a debt slave to the nasty innkeeper in order to pay for the potion that keeps her mother alive. So she spills her serving tray when the new weather wizard comes into the inn. But this wizard is not what she had expected.

Nysa certainly isn’t a warrior and not really a wizard, although she may call herself one. “Meteorologist” is probably not on the list of heroic types. What Nysa is, is sharp-witted. Although apparently not sharp enough to pilfer a bit of food from the inn’s kitchen when she works there.

“The Laws of Chaos Left Us All in Disarray” by S Hutson Blount

Hautbee is a woman warrior, one of the escorts for a rich woman making a pilgrimage to a feminist Temple, but their group is being pursued by the deadly creations of sorcery.

The Skinless were coming over the horizon, and I could not see the landscape beneath them. The plains were, more accurately, red with them. Lopers, slingers, worse things. Skinless carnivorous horses. Snakelike constructs built out of a dozen human bodies knit together. They were coming our way like a tide.

Among the escorts is a hired sorceress, but she hasn’t been very effective. Now, nothing else but sorcery can save them.

Nasty stuff in this dark dark fantasy, which leaves its background to the reader’s imagination, dropping us right into the action. Like the protagonists, we have no time to wonder about the how or why or who of the situation, only escaping it. The cost, we’ll have to worry about that later.

“Word’s End” by Frederic S Durbin

Legends. Two heroines come to World’s End at the behest of their respective gods. One is a warrior, serving a god of war; one is a postulant Queen on a mission to win her crown. It is ordained that only one of them will survive. Unless some other god gets involved, a trickster or a tempter.

“What will it accomplish to have come so far, and to perish here? The path of wisdom leads away from some conflicts. Power belongs to those who remain alive. Even your exacting gods will acknowledge this. Surely it is the lesson they would teach.”

Two warrior women here. The language of this narrative is portentous and grave – overly so. The author seems to balance the two threads of his story, but morally there is no balance in this situation. One character has a purpose greater than herself, the other serves only killing for killing’s sake; even her god seems to disapprove of his follower. But with gods like any of these, I think we can do well without. Except maybe the monkey.

“What Chains Bind Us” by Brian Dolton

A ghost story. Yi Qin is a conjurer, used to commanding ghosts. She has been sent to help an old man, Liang Zho, who is being haunted every night be whispering spirits. No matter how much of her blood she takes, she can not at first exorcize these spirits. But Yi Qin has a sister, her twin who died at birth, who knows secrets that she does not. Someone has opened a door in the Silent Mountain, the abode of the dead, and these spirits have crossed into the living world. Yi Qin must close this door, but first she must learn why it has been opened. She discovers that behind the ghosts lies a tale of treachery and murder.

A nicely complicated mystery and a bleak and hopeless vision of the afterlife. I can understand why spirits might want to escape from the Silent Mountain. Yi Qin, too, seems like she could use an escape. There’s not much hope anywhere in this world. The only blood Yi Qin spills is her own, for therein her power lies.

Alt Hist #2, 2011

The second issue of this irregularly-published printzine devoted to historical fiction, historical fantasy and alternate history. The overall tone of the stories this time is horror, both supernatural and mundane.

“Long Nights in Languedoc” by Andrew Knighton

Hundred Years War. Tobias is the personal chronicler of Sir Richard de Motley, part of the English army raiding the south of France in 1355. Although the raid is going well, some kind of wild beast is attacking the sentries. Sir Richard declares it to be wolves and resolves to destroy them, which is not as simple as he supposed.

The creature, which a moment ago had lain as though dead, twitched and moaned. It tilted its head and panted like laughter. Its chest heaved with the noise, fur and flesh rippling around the wound. Raw strands of muscle writhed and there was a scraping cry of steel over bone as Tobias’s sword fell from the wolf’s body onto the blood-soaked grass. Tobias watched in horror as flesh filled the gap where the blade had been.

A mix of farce and horror, apparently part of a series featuring these characters and reflecting something of the spirit of this brutal and credulous age.

“The Apollo Mission” by David X Wiggin

The first Roman astronaut.

The legionnaire studied the rounded arrow-shaped obelisk at the centre of the camp for the thousandth time. Its size was such that he could make out the details—painted prayers to the gods, frescos of griffins, pegasi, and flying chariots—along its shaft. He had smiled the first time he had seen it and joked:

‘This is to be my coffin?’

Now he set his jaw tight. This is to be my coffin.

This brief account is entirely the unnamed legionary’s reflections during his short historic flight. The author has apparently done research to support the idea that Roman spaceflight might have been possible, though I can’t bring my self to think that stone and mortar would be the best materials for a spacecraft. But the humanity of the pioneer/victim is well-realized.

“Son of Flanders” by William Knight

WWI – the trenches. Captain Gurner has been sent to the front at Ypres, slogging on a fool’s errand through mud and carnage, risking his life and watching others die, all to investigate a young officer’s death, seemingly a suicide. He knows that he will probably never learn the truth for sure, because there won’t be any witnesses left alive.

This lad here happens to be the son of a financial counsellor to Winston Churchill, the Minister of Munitions. A high-ranking and powerful counsellor if I understood the brigadier correctly. And he doesn’t want to send the man a telegram saying his son committed suicide at the front.

Harrowing visit to a hell of human creation. The author captures the reality that faced the men in the mud of the trenches. It’s telling that every soldier gives Gurner a look of contempt when he sees the red tabs of the General Staff on his uniform. They know who their real enemy is.


“In Cappadocia” by AshleyRose Sullivan

The imagination of soldiers marching through a haunting landscape generates a fearsome enemy.

Formations of rock, shaped like cloaked figures, tower above us. Their shadows are lined with moonlight as they stand sentinel to what lies below. Carved into the ground beneath us is a vast hidden honeycomb of cities. We have been told that the earth below hides a subterranean civilization of armed men, their teeth and swords gleaming and sharp.

More image than story, almost a prose poem, and more landscape than history. But Cappadocia is no ordinary landscape. From a single reference, we can infer that this is the early Christian era, and thus that the soldiers are Roman. Otherwise, they might have been Xenophon’s troops.

“The Orchid Hunters” by Priya Sharma

Two Englishmen in Africa searching for the rare Elephant Orchid in 1892. Philip is an Etonian twit obsessed with class distinctions, there only for the sake of the woman he means to marry.

I have always found orchids faintly indecent. That Lord Huntley pursues them with such passion disconcerts me. My own father was for the manly occupations of hunting and fishing. To be embroiled in Huntley’s scheme for botanical glory is too ridiculous.

But everything changes when they fall into the heart of darkness.

A tale in the classic mode, revealing the corruption that lies within the human heart and also the possibility of redemption.

“Death in Theatre” by Jessica Wilson

The final thoughts of John Wilkes Booth. Mostly repeating the historical account.

“The Scarab of Thutmose” by Anna Sykora

The young pharaoh Seti [not one of the real kings of this name] doesn’t want to rule Egypt, he wants to be a dancing girl instead. This one is totally ahistorical, told in anachronistic clichés, and silly. I did not smile.

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by N K Pulley

Thaniel Steepleton works for the Home Office as a telegrapher in 1884, when there is a conspiracy of Irish terrorists afoot, threatening explosions.

Thaniel hated them. Firstly, he had to spell all their consonantally overburdened words in Morse code, and after a week of it he felt sure that if the Gaelic spelling system were to be abandoned, a great deal of the hostilities in Ireland would cease: everybody would be much less annoyed once they stopped trying to say Siobhan.

He has also just taken new lodgings, and his Japanese watchmaker landlord seems to know more than he ought about the future. Thaniel imagines more conspiracies than there already are.

A wry narrative voice and a bit of the arcane makes this one unusually interesting.


Lightspeed, May 17, 2011

As I mentioned in the last column, a posting glitch apparently kept me from seeing this story in time to review it.

“Eliot Wrote” by Nancy Kress

Eliot has been effectively orphaned after his mathematician father saw the face of Zeus in a strawberry toaster factory and was subsequently hospitalized. Eliot is desperate to have him cured, but as he is underage, he isn’t allowed to authorize the experimental operation the hospital suggests. His aunt refuses to authorize it, insisting that Carl will come out of it by himself. While he waits, Eliot tries to deal with his feelings using an English assignment on metaphor.

Picture your brain as a room. The major functions are like furniture. Each in its own place, and you can move from sofa to chair to ottoman, or even lie across more than one piece of furniture at the same time. Memory is like air in the room, dispersed everywhere. Musical ability is a specific accessory, like a vase on the mantle. Anger is a Doberman pinscher halfway out of the door from the kitchen. Algebra just fell down the heat duct.

I rather like that one. I like the story, too – an effective study of fear, impatience, frustration, and the drawbacks of thinking that something must be done.

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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