Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early June

Good issues of Interzone and RoF, but I think the Good Story award goes to “Semiramis” by Genevieve Valentine, in Clarkesworld.


Publications Reviewed


Realms of Fantasy, June 2011

Seven stories in this issue – a larger number than usual, with none of them being notably short. There is a botanical theme. The quality of this issue makes me confident about the zine with its current new publisher.

“The Ground Whereon She Stands” by Leah Bobet

Alice has plant magic. In fact, she might be called a witch, although the term people use is “herbwoman.” Her gardens are unnaturally abundant. But Alice silently loves Lisabet, and when she sends her flowers, they get out of hand.

There were flowers in my mattress, curling around the springs. Ivy had strangled my alarm clock sometime before 8:45 a.m., and all around me, opening, were roses, roses.

But the fairy tales know that roses are not always benevolent. Even Alice can not always control her own magic.

The images here are wonderful. Essentially, though, this one is about the characters, about Alice, too diffident to speak her love. A reminder that love can be dangerous, especially if thwarted.


“Escaping Salvation” by Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson

Post apocalypse. Lizzie and her partner Roe are out in the desert, outside the fortified towns, hunting dirt angels, when they run out of gas just as a sandstorm approaches. It seems like a piece of luck when they spot the tent town, just before it hits.

…then the storm was on us and the only sounds left in the world were the rush of wind overhead, the shudder of the cloth as it struggled against the grips of all those holding it down, and the plaintive whines of potential dirt angels, spectral voices in search of bodies. I’d heard those voices plenty of times, but mostly from a distance. Hunting dirt angels, it was best to stay back while they formed, to make sure there were only one or two. You do that, you got a chance of taking them. But hearing those voices while in the teeth of the storm ran my blood cold.

But Lizzie quickly learns that the people of Salvation are crazy; they believe in stuff like electricity generated by windmills, in water angels.

This dark fantasy has some good images. I liked it better before we got to the explanation of how the sad state of affairs came to pass.

“The Economy of Powerful Emotion” by Sharon Mock

When the Princess is born, a witch bestows on her a gift, but whether it is blessing or curse is not clear. When she cries, she weeps diamonds. The sharp-faceted gems hurt her tear ducts, but the King, unaware of the law of supply and demand, is greedy for more, to support his wars. In a neighboring kingdom, three princes wonder about the Princess who weeps jewels, and naturally the third son goes to rescue her – assuming that she needs rescuing, which is probably true.

She’s never sure what does it: the Prince’s words, the tone of his voice, or the bright sliver of sun cresting the horizon. She knows what she’s supposed to do. Laugh, and undo what has defined every moment of her life for as long as she can remember. Laugh, and set herself free.

A pretty neat twist on the fairy tale, following the classic form, and I like the title. The author, clearly, is not unaware of the law of supply and demand. I’m not quite sure why the text has to be divided into numbered sections.

“The Good Husband” by Thea Hutcheson

A more traditional take on the witch and the land. Keeler has been part of Creekside for several hundred generations. They flourish and fail together, but for the land to flourish, there must be a man on it, and on her. It’s the last year of the US Civil War, and men are scarce. Keeler’s neighbors, seeing this young man on the road, have sent him on to her, and he is everything she needs.

He looked at her sideways, calculating, measuring. He was so young, so handsome, so confident as he began to understand what she offered. He was also very powerful at this moment because he realized he held her fortunes in his hands.

“You yearn for my hand on you?”

She couldn’t whisper anything but “Yes,” as she remembered what that hand could do.

This one recalls the older meaning of the term “husband”, and there are also a number of words for what Keeler is: “land spirit” is one, and there is also “goddess”, as the author is named. The atmosphere is sensual, fertile, with seed quickening on every page. Well done.

“The Equation” by Patrick Samphire

Cameron comes back to his hometown, where he meets up, not by chance, with Rachel Clay, the girl who sparked his magic with a kiss. From that moment, he has traveled the world, trying to collect and conserve the native magics before the enemy can destroy it.

“Magic used to be everywhere,” I say. “In the streams and the woods and the villages. Everyone was full of it. Everything was full of it. Gods cracked the sky with thunder. Wild spirits hid in the bark of trees. When someone spoke, magic flowed.”

But Rachel, and all the rest of his high school science class, are working for the enemy in the person of their old teacher, whose project is to kill magic by reducing it to cold logic.

This confrontation is not too believable.

“Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy” by Euan Harvey

This title seems like it should belong to the Bobet story above, but in fact the author is only using the vines to drape a tomb in this dark historical fantasy of revenge and undeath in Han dynasty China. It is in the “ancient manuscript” mode, the text redacted in places for good reasons the reader will discover by the end, and the narrative is triple-nested. Its core is a tale told by an old, old man.

The ancient’s beard reached down past his chest. His face was shrunken, cheeks fallen in, skin deeply wrinkled. His eyes had sunk deep into his head, and now they peered out from caves under thick eyebrows of bushy white.

In his youth, he had set out for the imperial examinations and in one village encountered a demonic sorcerer who predicted that he would meet death in three days. The young man suspected extortion and refused to pay the fee for warding off this fate. And death did come to him, sent by the sorcerer, but he managed to defeat it three times. It will not come again.

This is a horror story, and an effective one. The author connects his narratives well, including redactions and notes by both author and a later editor, which all combine to complete and enhance the tale. The story does not require specific knowledge of the historical figures mentioned in the text, which I find just as well, given the variations in translation and transliteration that can snare the uninformed. Yet the author writes with sufficient authority about this setting that I hesitate to point out that the imperial examinations would not have been established by the time of Yu’s youth, if I have understood the author correctly.

“The Tides of the Heart” by David D Levine

Lou is an unusual sort of plumber. She sees things that plumbers outside the Guild miss, like the undine in the bathtub of a house about to be demolished.

The undine lay on her back in the tub, a human female figure made all of water, with sea foam forming the hair on her head and elsewhere. But the foam swirled sluggishly, and the water of her body was still and murky. Her breasts lay flat and shriveled on her chest; her cheeks were sunken. She smelled like a stagnant pond.

There are problems. The undine is trapped in the house by a powerful spell. If she goes free, the entire maritime economy of Portland might collapse. The river is acting up. And Lou has fallen in love with the undine.

The setup is a bit contrived, but the author ties it up neatly in the end.


Clarkesworld, 57 June 2011

A couple of good stories this month, featuring unusual crimes and nameless narrators.

“Semiramis” by Genevieve Valentine

Global climate change. The narrator is a member of a secret organization, whose goal is not clear to the reader. As an agent of this organization, he is working at the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard. While his ultimate intention is to smuggle out some of the seeds, he has come to take a real interest in the project of seed conservation.

(The day I was really waiting for was the day I could tell someone, “This one’s drying up. We’ll be looking for some decent soil, to grow it for re-harvest,” and have their eyes light up, too.)

But as the oceans rise and the world runs out of land, the Global Coalition of the rich and powerful have decided to take over the vault and the coal mine that powers it.

An ominous story, realistically projecting its future.

It’s surprising how high the water has risen. My first year, passing ships had been so low I could look down onto their decks; now they’re nearly eye level.

It’s perplexing, though, not to know about the nature of the narrator’s organization, her mission [this is not her first]. In many ways, there seems to be ideology behind it; she speaks of her partner as “not a believer”, but in fact she is a believer in birds, just not seeds. And its slogan seems to be: “We plan in years”. Yet they are apparently planning to sell the stolen seeds to the highest bidder [before the Global Coalition can get around to it], and the narrator frankly admits they are thieves. I recently reviewed an anthology on the subject of global warming; this one would have made a good addition.


“Trickster” by Mari Ness

A world with thirteen gods and two moons apparently installed by the gods, who keep secrets inside them. These are not the beneficent sort of gods, who prefer quarreling among themselves to being worshiped. Thirteen is an odd, unbalanced, unlucky number.

But they cannot die, and they cannot birth another, and so they remain: Forever out of balance; forever out of symmetry. Forever doomed with bad luck.

I have watched my child die in my arms.

I do not think the gods understand bad luck.

One day the Trickster shows up and proposes to the narrator that she help him kill one of the other gods to adjust the balance. The narrator is a follower of one of the more benevolent gods, one who eased her son’s pain when he was dying, while not saving him; nor has she healed the narrator’s paraplegia. The Trickster suggests that the god he plans to eliminate is the one responsible for her son’s death. So she agrees, despite knowing quite well that this god is a liar.

A very nice premise in the gods, but the story presents at least two unanswered questions: first, why did the god choose the narrator, who might seem to be an unsuitable assassin, given her need for a wheelchair. Second, why did she agree to go along with his plan when she knew he was probably lying. At the end we get a partial answer to the first question, given that his scheme was more complicated and underhanded than it at first appeared. But we knew he was the Trickster, all along. It’s not clear that the other gods had quite figured that out.


Interzone #234, May-June 2011

An assortment of new futures.

“Sleepers” by Jon Ingold

It seems that humans once colonized Centauri, traveling through a lightgate. Things went wrong, and the surviving colonists returned/escaped. Now the lightgate is being rebuilt. Jean-Luc, an old man who claims to be one hundred-eleven says his grandmother was one of the colonists; he claims to have her notes on the indigenous Centaurons, who are only waiting as sleepers, he claims, for humans to return.

“They lived in the crystals. They’re made of light. She saw them watching her. Following her around.”

The story holds sleepers of its own. If Jean-Luc is correct, the new expedition to Centauri is heading into danger – a danger that might affect the population of the homeworld. Or perhaps it already has, and the sleepers are already on Earth. But there is much evidence that Jean-Luc is a habitual liar. The narrator – a monk who visits the old age home – clearly does not understand Jean-Luc as well as he claims to; it’s possible that Jean-Luc understands him better than he does himself. The author makes good use of scriptural quotations, but the key to the story may be at the end, when the narrator says, “Ideas choose us. They spread and breed, surviving age and change. They live strange lives all of their own.”


“In the Season of the Mango Rains” by Lavie Tidhar

From the author’s season in Laos. The narrator is happy with his lover there.

We gathered our love to us like a fragile, precious thing that was about to run out. It was the season of green mango… sour and new, and quick to end.

But his lover has dreams of space, of Exodus, of eternity. All the narrator has now are memories of him.

A melancholy mood piece. There are links and hints of a larger story, fragments from some of the author’s other works.

“The Ceiling is Sky” by Suzanne Palmer

In a dystopia too sharply reminding us of where we may be headed, Phill is one of the masses of permanent contract workers, trapped in cubbyhomes waiting to be called for a job. For most, the only alternative is the euthanasia button waiting in every cubby. But Phill has been given a chance, not just a temp job but the possibility of permanent employment. It’s a competition; only one member of the engineering team will have the opportunity. The project is designing stripmining platforms to operate on an ocean world, now only occupied by an order of contemplative monks. But someone seems to be sabotaging Phill’s chances. Instead of the training video, he’s been given a lesson in meditation.

The interesting aspect of this is the setting, capitalism red in tooth and claw, and the way it sets the temp employees at each other’s throats. The moral, however, is altruism; Phill is the kind of guy who will bring back a piece of fruit from the company buffet to his elderly neighbor who has no hope himself for employment. Unfortunately, the competitive aspect is the more realistic. While it would be nice if the plot and its conclusion were more believable, the dystopia is probably the way to bet.

“Her Scientifiction, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy” by Jason Sanford

Krisja is a princess. Her father is the king of a medievaloid pocket universe, set up so expers can virtually share the medievaloid experience. Kris would rather be on the mission to Epsilon Eridani, which she experiences virtually although she isn’t supposed to know about it [the expers wouldn’t like it]. Everything falls apart when invaders kill her father and try to take over the kingdom, which means eliminating the rightful heir. Kris feels that she owes it to her father to keep his kingdom alive, but there are limits to her sense of duty, especially when the AI mind of the kingdom, fed by the hostility of the expers, turns against her.

She saw the kingdom’s life – century after century of playing host to men and women pretending to be other than what they were. Of having its very consciousness tied so intimately to expers who only wanted to experience life through others.

The VR universe isn’t a novel concept, although there’s some irony in the notion of a person trapped in someone else’s fantasy wanting to live fantasies of her own. The real center of the story, however, seems to rest with the AI – with whom I can’t greatly sympathize.

“Incompatible” by Will McIntosh

The only fantasy here not explicitly set in some future. Leia has been tormented all her life by an odd, terrifying vision of black dots: “blacker than the background on which they hunched, or floated, or whatever it was that they did.” In some places, that she thinks of as power places, the dots seem to fade; Leia tries to spend as much time as possible in such places. She accepts the phenomenon as a mental illness that she can’t do anything to cure. Then, at a pumpkin sale, she meets a guy who has the same visions.

An unusual weird scenario with an unexpected explanation. The heart of the story is the way people will face what terrifies them for the sake of another person when they would not willingly face it for themselves. When someone will do that for you, it’s a sign that he’s a keeper.


GigaNotoSaurus, June 2011

“After October” by Ben Burgis

Historical fantasy. October in this case is the Red one, the month of the Bolshevik revolution. Fyodor has devoted his life to the revolutionary struggle. He has been imprisoned for it, he has fought for it, he has even been shot for it. This is all a great disappointment to his Uncle Grigor, who would have preferred that Fyodor master the magical studies that he has abandoned for the sake of politics. He also rebukes him for neglecting his terminally ill father. But Grigor has a solution for this. He plans to learn to raise the dead.

I suspect that most readers are sufficiently familiar with the events of the Russian Revolution that they will have a general idea of the way this thing is going to go – particularly when Fyodor begins to ride around on the train with Trotsky. There will be no surprises in this respect. As the story approaches its inevitable end, Fyodor is visited from time to time by his uncle, who once manages to resurrect a cockroach. So that when the inevitable end does come at last, there is one surprise with it. Still, 95% of this one is spent covering rather well-worn ground – covering it well, but still a story we already know.


Apex #25, June 2011

Two horror stories that try to pretend they aren’t.

“Your Cities” by Anaea Lay

When cities wake. The narrator’s [lover, friend?] loves cities more than anything, and predicted it all.

New Orleans was the first city to wake up, but it took them years to figure that out. It was so much smaller than the others, its skyline so much less impressive. But you’d always said that buildings were the side effects of cities, that their souls didn’t need skyscrapers to grow and dream and whisper their passions to you.

Of course millions of people died when the cities stomped their suburbs and threw down their bridges, but this means so little compared to the romance of it all.

Very short meditation on cities. A good example of the fact that a second person narrative is really the first person addressing someone else.

“The Doves of Hartleigh Garden” by Kathryn Weaver

A self-centered young girl inherits the family’s decaying country home and marries the lawyer who handles the estate, for the sake of renovations. Their daughter Marjorie loves his son, her half-brother, who loves the doves that have always been part of the estate. His stepmother hates the doves and hates Owen, resents that his father spends money on his education instead of the rotting house.

This is a horror story, but a mundane one, with no fantastic element. The horror is all in the character of Sophie Hartleigh, a monster of selfishness.


Redstone Science Fiction, 13 June 2011

“An Infallible System of Roulette” by Christopher Miller

As a child, in some realities, the narrator is killed in a farm accident. In other, later realities, his own son is killed by a bus. The narrator overthinks about all this a whole lot and decides that there will always be some reality in which he wins.

Have you ever wondered why people who play Russian roulette find it therapeutic? I’m not talking about the deranged or despondent. I’m talking about well-balanced, productive individuals with strong family and community ties, happy people for whom surviving a one in six or seven shot enforces a more appreciative outlook on life.

The narrator overtalks about all this, which is not, after all, a novel notion in SF.

“Love and Anarchy and Science Fiction” by Angela Ambroz

Fiction from this author’s Drop universe have been appearing lately in random venues, which doesn’t make it really easy for random readers to pick up on this eccentric setting. In this one, the story is more conventional. Shanti Narayan once worked in immigration where she sorted out native Earthers who came through the Drop into the Hindustani Empire. One of these was Salvatore Gennarino, then a political refugee.

I knew him when he was new to this universe. When he didn’t know a gas giant from a nebula. When he was still a Drop virgin, as we called them, reeking of that old Earth poverty.

Now she is his bodyguard as he accumulates power and enemies.

The zine’s editor suggests that this is a political story, which it isn’t really. The politics of the setting are only sketched in for background. It is a story of the human victims of politics, but most of this is sketched, as well. We have to infer a lot from a few clear moments.

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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