Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April

A lot of reading this time.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, June 2012

Most of the stories this time involve aliens of some kind, in some way.

“Missionaries” by Mercurio D Rivera

Cassandra, with her family lost and stricken by cancer, has embraced her mother’s extreme religion of suffering and embarked on a missionary pilgrimage, an attempt to communicate with the aliens called Sagittarians and bring them to God.

“There are Savior conclaves visiting human colonies across the cosmos,” Bhodi says, “trying to make them remember what it is that makes us human. What they’ve lost amidst all the so-called advancements. The sense of the sacred. Of being part of something. Something greater than ourselves. God teaches us that suffering shared is suffering assuaged.”

Things work out rather differently.

The narrative is fragmented, going back and forth between flashbacks and the present, and quite unfocused. I see little signs of genuine religious faith in Cassandra, rather her attachment to the mentor who substitutes for her family. A great deal of the text is expended on a conflict between the missionaries and a scientific group that holds them in contempt for their beliefs. This plot thread goes nowhere in particular, from nowhere in particular; it’s quite unclear why the missionaries have come to the outpost at all. The potentially interesting story of how they made contact with the Sagittarian, on the other hand, is slighted. The ending is literally a God emerging from a machine: “Epiphany. Transcendence.” Which could have come without most of what went before.

“Possible Monsters” by Will McIntosh

Failing at a baseball career, Cooper returns home to discover his house inhabited by a very strange monster.

It was a tangle of barbs and bubbles and edges, leaned up against his fireplace, which was on the other side of the glass divide. The thing’s eyes locked on him. It had eight or nine of them, and they looked like they were a million years old.

Having nothing better to do but drink, Cooper moves in with the monster and drinks a lot. His future looks like more of the same. Then the monster decides to give him a gift, which Cooper takes at first as a curse.

A nice contemporary fantasy with a protagonist realistically balanced on the edge of becoming a total loser.

“Final Exam” by Megan Arkenberg

The test-writer’s marriage collapses just about the time devouring monsters emerge from the sea. The exam is her way of comprehending it all, afterwards. The best questions are those in which we see these life-altering events merge and illuminate each other.

7. The worst part was . . .
(a) when the first shambling thing ate the pink-suited reporter, and the camera man didn’t turn away, and you sat there petrified in the marriage counselor’s office, watching the flesh blossom and drip over the creature’s scaly lips. Jesus Christ, you said, reaching for Donald’s hand. He was gripping a magazine cover too tightly to notice.

“Waiting at the Altar” by Jack McDevitt

In an uncharted region of transdimensional space, the crew of the Copperhead detects a faint and distant radio distress call. Despite the fact that the signal is so old there could be no survivors of whatever catastrophe had struck, they decide to investigate. They discover the answer to a years-old mystery, the loss of a well-known exploration ship. And the log reveals a far greater wonder: earlier, the explorers had made contact with an alien ship. An unprecedented opportunity – lost.

A moving scenario, although the author’s narrative is the opposite of overemotional, with more focus on the deductive processes of the Copperhead’s crew than the tragedy of the Forscher’s loss and the loss of the chance of further alien contact. In consequence, I find myself noticing a number of quibbly bits that I might otherwise have overlooked. Why do we need to be told the details of some device that allows the crews to do without spacesuits? And isn’t it a bad idea for both members of a crew to leave their ship unmanned during possibly hazardous EVA? I don’t think I should be thinking about this sort of thing as I read this story – I should be too anxious about the fate of the explorers. But this narrative is so flat, it doesn’t generate anxiety, or much else in the way of emotions that the situation should call for.

“The Flowering Ape” by Alan DeNiro

A coming-of-age story. The nameless narrator is a student in a school for telepaths where they are trained to bond with aliens called shepherds; together they propel spacecraft. The narrator’s not-really-lover Kathy introduces the narrator to a group of senior students who are already bonded; the narrator feels like a fifth wheel in this company. They decide to hijack a spacecraft and go joyriding, which of course has Consequences.

On the surface, this story would seem to be largely about sex, but this is a deliberate diversion by the author, who adds a subplot about the students demeaningly calling their shepherds Girl and Boy, as if they were animals. The narrator is intersex, and extremely confident in her* sexuality; her insecurity stems from her failure, so far, to attract a shepherd bond. Her friend Kathy is a male who wears a dress and jewels in his beard, which is all perfectly normal; his insecurity is social.

It was easy to notice that Kathy craved the pack. He wasn’t quite a full member; apparently, he would have to ignore me a lot more to get there. They were assessing him, and so he acted louder, laughed at mild jokes a half-second too quickly and a half-second too long. But in some secret part of himself that he wouldn’t let anyone see, he was shriveling, a wilting boy in a beautiful dress.

DeNiro does a good job of capturing, within this milieu, the eternal struggles for status and acceptance among adolescents, and the behavior of the bullies who prey on the weak.

*The author isn’t very helpful here, but the cues from the narrator suggest an identification with the female pronoun. Or so I infer.

“The Widdershins Clock” by Kali Wallace

It’s 1953, not a good time for a young woman with academic ambitions. Marta was named for her grandmother, who encouraged her interest in mathematics and physics. But the 1950 spirit did its best to kill them.

Before we married, when I had been taking classes at the university and Stanley had been tutoring for extra money, I had daydreamed of the cramped, overheated office we would share, sharp with the smell of chalk dust and old books, surrounded by blackboards scribbled edge to edge with equations and proofs.

Now Marta keeps the house and does the laundry and the dishes and discourages every attempt her grandmother makes to bring her back to what she had wanted to be. Until the morning that her grandmother disappears.

A heartwarming and positive story, despite a depressing note. I suspect that readers will realize the secret of grandmother’s clock long before Marta does.

“Free Range” by Bruce McAllister

It seems that giant owls from another planet are invading Earth, starting with China. Fortunately, the black chickens have come to offer protection. Michael, at first, believes none of this until he sees the size of the hole in his girlfriend’s roof. And the clawmarks in the attic. His venerable friend Pham confirms what must be done. Chickens. A lot of them.

This isn’t really the gonzo humor that it might appear, owing to the well done characters. Johanna is the last hippie chick of Santa Ana. Michael can never seem to get it right.

I had no trouble with one relic of the sixties—weed—but she has this natural ability to keep everything about the sixties alive. And everything Millennially New Age, too. I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t take it all seriously. I laughed when I shouldn’t—which wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t love her, which I did.

And Pham must be the incarnation of someone way high up.

“Scout” by Bud Sparhawk

Military SF. In a war against a ruthless alien enemy, Falcon is a turtle-shaped cybernetic scout housing the remains of a marine with devastating injuries. As his reports are transmitted from the ground, his commander overhead feels defensive and guilty for using him.

“Don’t refer to Falcon as a damned ‘unit,’ kid. There’s a marine down there; a damn fine one at that. I know Falcon will finish the mission. A marine that tough isn’t built to fail.”

An “ends justify the means” scenario, the sections with the commander pretty heavy-handedly done.


Analog, June 2012

An assorted cast of stories, in which I prefer the shorter.

“Crooks” by Paul Carlson

Another in the author’s trucker series. Claude rides the highways, trying to make a living in spite of pervasive government regulations in the service of political correctness and corruption. His robot partner serves as a foil for these observations.

Mek commented about the yard sales. “There are numerous product safety and national zoning and tax violations here. I seldom pass yard sales in the city, except in certain neighborhoods. These people do not conceal their illicit activity.”

But the big criminals are protected by clout, and they are subverting robots in their illicit activity.

This is a political work, in which the loosely-plotted events are the stage on which the author’s spokesman can have his say. The division into black and white is stark, and the good characters are all on Claude’s side against the “baddies.” No room for nuance here. The narrative assumes that readers are familiar with this series, in particular an event where Claude and his robotic co-conspirators subvert a corrupt politician’s campaign; that politician shows up again here, so that we know who the baddies are.

“Food Chained” by Carl Frederick

A surveying expedition in search of extraterrestrial life suffers a breakdown that prevents them from returning to Earth. Despite the strictures against contaminating the idyllic world, two of the surveyors insist on descending to wait for rescue. Only Elliott remains on the ship, in remote control of the survey’s rovers, while Mark and Boris exhibit little concern for the local ecosphere and mock vegetarian Elliott as a tree-hugger.

“I want meat!” Boris went on to request that Elliott send out the rovers to track down a Bunny-ears.

Elliott was aghast. “You just can’t just go off and hunt something,” he radioed back. “You have no idea what that might do to the local ecology.”

“I not care.”

Now, we know that no good will come of this.

The general scenario is hardly original, and it’s made much worse by the clichéd villain Boris, whose Russian accent makes him seem like a deranged idiot, and the sneering Mark. By the end, Elliott has turned into a passably interesting character instead of a stock tree-hugger [the author makes this tag into a good morbid joke], but it doesn’t really make up for Boris.

“Titanium Soul” by Catherine Shaffer

Connie has anti-social personality disorder, which is to say she’s a sociopath. Being broke and recently fired from her latest job, the offer of a thousand dollars to participate in a clinical trial of a prosthetic conscience is attractive. Even more so is the offer to waive a warrant for her arrest. But a conscience isn’t at all what she had expected.

Connie burst into tears. It seemed like she was always crying. Not those pretty tears she’d learned to cry for her mother, or to get strangers to feel sorry for her, but awful, gut wrenching sobs, so heavy she could hardly breathe between them.

This is an effective portrayal of a pathological personality, both before and after transformation, and especially as Connie tries to cope with emotions new to her. There are moments of real tension when she discovers herself in the presence of vulnerable people that she could harm – but will she?


“A Murmuration of Starlings” by Joel Pitkin

Evelyn Cole had been relegated by life to teaching Biology 101 in a backwater school when the pandemic hit, spread to humans by starlings.

Evelyn was at first surprised to find herself designated vital personnel. She had at best an undergraduate biology major’s knowledge of public health or immunology. But only about a dozen people in America, if that, knew as much as she did about starling ecology, starling life history, and by extension, about how one might begin eradicating this ubiquitous bird.

But she is astonished to find that the birds have suddenly adopted a different mode of behavior; instead of aggregating in vast numbers, they are spreading out evasively, as if it were a tactical decision. Then Evelyn herself comes down with the disease.

The turn the story takes is quite unexpected, even with the hint dropped by the author in the early pages. But the hint contributes credibility; the answer makes sense, within the story’s assumptions.

“An Ounce of Prevention” by Jerry Oltion

Tina’s grandpa comes to visit them on the moon, and her mother takes special precautions to keep the apartment sterilized against the presence of Earth-origin pathogens.

She’d had it drilled into her for as long as she could remember: Don’t waste resources. Do your share of the work. Think about your impact on others. Don’t endanger yourself or the colony. And apparently, don’t spread disease.

Grandpa, however, hasn’t had the drill.

I usually expect something interestingly clever from Oltion, but this disappoints with its characterization of the grandfather as totally without redeeming virtues. I’m also reminded that excluding pathogens leaves people without immunities, and I wonder whether Tina’s mother is protecting her or leaving her weaker.

“The Fine Print” by Michael Alexander

Sophie does mass spectrometry, and a friend wants her to look at some odd meteorites he picked up on an expedition to Antarctica. The results are impossible.

“But this stuff is one hundred percent carbon-13 and hydrogen-2.” I tapped the sheet. “It’s a way to tell anyone that the material couldn’t possibly be natural, even if the original chemical structures were destroyed.”

Which is to say, the meteorites are part of an extremely ancient message from some other intelligence.

A whole lot of chemistry neep in this short piece, which the author’s title suggests is an application of Feynman’s principles of nanoscience, in reducing an encyclopedia to fit on the head of a pin. Otherwise, it wraps up quickly after the revelation, with the story interest in the reaction of the characters to their discovery.

“Darwin’s Gambit” by Emily Mah

Thirteen-year-old Amber was born in a Mars base and has never been outside, seen the surface or the stars; this is apparently unprecedented. In consequence, she is agoraphobic, which threatens to keep her from the mission to Ganymede that her family has been accepted for. The mission’s psychologist insists she isn’t fit for it and must return to Earth, but Amber is stubborn and manages to pass the basic qualifying test. The entire voyage becomes a battle of wills between her and the psychologist.

“I passed, and I’m going.” Amber shook out her suit and hung it up in her locker.

“I wasn’t talking to you—”

“You were talking about me—”

Then the shuttle crashes on the approach to landing, and no one can reach the children, supposedly sequestered in safety, in time for them to escape the doomed craft.

This is a polemic, with the ostensible issue the competence of children in a space habitat, with the author clearly suggesting that this makes them more fit than children from a less forgiving environment. It’s a very adversarial story, and although the psychologist is sometimes actually right, I get the feeling that the author doesn’t want readers to like her any better for it. Dr Vickers is the enemy [she calls Elliana “Ellie”], and Amber, while sometimes wrong, the heroine.

“A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy” by N M Cedeño

Private investigator Pete Lincoln wakes up from a coma and discovers that fifteen years have brought profound changes to the world. Privacy is now antisocial.

The hardest thing to adjust to in my second life was using a public restroom. Walking by one and seeing someone going about his business through a clear wall is disconcerting enough. Being the person using the facilities and watching strangers pass is nearly impossible.

A client comes to him with an old-fashioned desire for privacy like his own, who covers her window with curtains. She is concerned that someone is stalking her, but Lincoln has barely begun to investigate when the police tell him that she has been murdered.

The changes in privacy expectations are awfully profound to have taken place in only fifteen years. But I can accept this more easily than I can Lincoln’s ability to function in this altered world well enough to work as a P I. I also wonder where were the police while he was on the scene of the crime, solving it.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, March 2012

I’m wondering about this ezine. While it’s supposed to be bimonthly, the March issue didn’t show up on the site until April. The editorial interest seems focused on the zine’s sponsored award, the Hydra Competition for Brazilian SF. There are five stories, including a contest runner-up, of which most end on a didactic moral tone. It makes me wonder if this is how the editors — or the authors — interpret the PG-13 submission guidelines.

“A Memory of Freedom” by D B Jackson

Historical fantasy. Ethan Kaille is a witch who was transported for participating in a mutiny, now free at last and back in Boston, where he works at a menial job and tries to hide the powers that could get him hanged. But he comes to realize that he is still not really free.

A standard sort of tale, rather moralistic. I have to take issue with the author’s word choices for this historical setting. The cook in a dockside tavern would not be called a chef, and the term “toughs” for the bodyguards is ahead of itself by a century.

“Our Vast and Inevitable Death” by S Boyd Taylor

Evocative title to this vignette, a single scene from a war, when a single battalion attempting to hold a pass against the enemy realizes that they will not survive the battle. Which makes me wonder if the narrator is relating this account from his grave, and how. The warlord’s cry despair is moving, but the narrator’s account of the end is overblown.

“The Salt Man” by Melissa Mead

A spectral figure that feeds on the tears of grief. When her husband dies, Giesela traps the Salt Man to force him to give back the dead, though he protests he has not that power.

“Oh no? You stand by deathbeds and open graves, shrouded in black. I’ve seen you. I’ve seen people cross the road to avoid you, even though they say they don’t know why they do it. What can you be but Death by another name?”

But confining the Salt Man in flesh has unintended consequences.

I’m not aware of any such figure as the Salzmann in folklore, but now I think there ought to be. Nicely imagined twist on a very old story.


“In the Fading Light of Sundown” by Nancy Fulda

It seems that there are Builders, who control the livewood and make it grow into structures, and Caretakers, who make the wood die and decay. Tobis, on an island where there are only Caretakers, found himself with the powers of a Builder and crossed the poison sea to the mainland to learn. But he always regretted leaving his childhood love. Now, in old age, with the mainland depleted from livewood overgrowth, he has returned to the island to find her.

The boat collapsed into a jumble of planks, creaking and groaning, desperate for sustenance. Roots coiled piteously, grew thicker, and clawed into the dirt like the grasping fingers of a mortally wounded soldier.

Simplistic dichotomy with the characters preaching at each other..

“By a Thread” by Flávio Medeiros Jr.

Alternate history. A steampunk war between the British and French empires, with the Brits deploying depth charges from dirigibles [naturally] against the French submersibles. The admiral and his crew are now hiding on the bottom after sinking a British ship, while his nemesis lurks above in his flying fortress. But the sub is damaged and running short of air, while the admiral and his second discuss the ethics of honorable warfare.

“The true enemy, that feeds the boilers and fires the cannons, was in those lifeboats. They were the ones who killed dozens of our soldiers who now lie on the bottom of those waters, and they just rowed over the carcasses on their way to the safety of the coast because we let them escape.”

Alas, the author has fallen into the AH trap of going back to the beginning of time to explain exactly how the current scenario has come to pass, and persons out of fiction have become real. Adding to which, he has inserted more backstory from the admiral’s life. With the inevitable result that the current action takes second place, what there is of it, for the narrative is primarily talk about the situation rather than actual action, which is left to the conclusion, when anticlimax happens. A remarkably dull story and yet another in the issue leading to a moral.


Strange Horizons, April 2012

An all science fiction month.

“Area 54” by Hunter Liguore

There are things to which a reader may have an aversion. In my case, it is a strong aversion to stories in which the narrator repeatedly refers to her parents as “Mommykins” and “Daddykins.” Repeatedly. I had to force myself to get through this two-parter for review, as I would otherwise never have gotten past the first “kins” without hitting the DELETE key to keep from splattering my computer screen with urp.

So, the question is, is the story worth it? Van’s father is obsessed with the space aliens he believes to be flying around and abducting people; when her mother disappears, he tells Van that the Skylings took her. To evade the alien menace, they go on the road under various aliases, intercepting Skyling signals on the shortwave, but the aliens always seem to know where to find them.

[D] told me daily that if anything ever happened to him I was to go back home to find Bobcat, he’d know what to do. [D] kept a metal suitcase, locked and hidden under the passenger seat of the truck. I wore the key around my neck. The box contained our most important possessions, like our IDs, most of them aliases, reserve cash, the deed to the old house, bullets for the gun, and instructions of what to do if [D] was taken.

It’s ambiguous SF, where we’re supposed to wonder whether the aliens are real or Van’s father is just batshit crazy. Not uninteresting, but not really enough to overcome the urp factor.

“Beneath Impossible Circumstances” by Andrea Kneeland

Things have gone wrong with the Earth, like an increase in UV radiation, and governments have decided that the only solution is artificially creating animal species to replace the natural versions. “Harboring an unlicensed naturally bred species” is a felony. But the artificially bred creatures tend to die in large numbers; the narrator’s job is picking up the dead birds. Her wife seems to be a naturally bred human; she wants a naturally bred baby. This rejection hurts the narrator, who is not natural or even human.

When I tell her these things, she turns on the faucet or runs the vacuum or opens the refrigerator door wide and sticks her head in like she’s looking for something so she can pretend not to hear me and I can pretend not to see how damp and salted her reddening cheeks are, and on days like these, when I tell her things like these, the bed sheets between us stay cool and dry . . .

Now that is nice writing. There’s more of it that’s quite pretty: “The sky is tender as a fitted leather glove lined with silk; firm but soft. Safe.” But what does it mean? Unless perhaps it’s a suggestion that the narrator doesn’t think as naturally bred humans do. At any rate, the sky is far from safe in this world; it’s apparently deadly. Of course the scenario makes no sense. Even the narrator admits that it costs too much to be making all the artificial birds, especially if they’re all dropping dead. But this is SH, so it’s not about making sciencefictional sense, but the relationship. Which is moving, although the bit with the kitten is going too far.


Lightspeed, April 2012

The quality this month is mixed, but more good stories than misses.

“The Sympathy” by Eric Gregory

Lauren leaves her husband and drives away. She picks up a hitchhiker to whom she finds herself unable to say No. Madison is a fugitive from something she calls the Sympathy, and now it is after Lauren, too.

She wanted to stuff the bills in her pocket. She wanted to kick apart the little line of iron filings, throw open the door, and race down the hall and stairwell. She wanted to call her mom and apologize for the short notice. But her head felt heavy, and the thought of running twisted her stomach. She closed her fist around the money, lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.

In essence, this is the story about the human thief who steals a treasure from the Queen of the Fairies. But the author has altered it in strange and unusual ways, bringing in a protagonist champion from outside. More interesting this way. I still wonder what “sympathy” is really supposed to mean.

“Forget You” by Marc Laidlaw

“She came into his life the way his cats crept into his lap.” Nice opening, seemingly warm, like cats, but leading to something faintly troubling. Because he can’t remember how he first met her. He can’t remember the time she wasn’t always there. And he knows that she hasn’t always been there.

It was a self-portrait he had taken, just a solitary photo of himself alone in the kitchen looking out the window as if at the emptiness of his life, which had been very empty then. This image had always seemed to him to capture the essence of his loneliness, and looking at it now made him wistful and sad, even nostalgic.

A very brief piece, a complete story sketched in with strokes so deft that it seems much more full than it is long.


“Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh

Humans have invaded a marvelous alien world, and the aliens have long ago fled through the probability actualizer, probably to a universe absent of humans. Later, Birha first identified the actualizer as what it was.

Streams of adventurers, dreamers, and would-be suicides, people dissatisfied with their lives, went through the actualizer to find the universe that suited them better. The actualizer became a wish-fulfillment machine, opening a path to a universe just like this one, but with your personal parameters adjusted ever so slightly, the complexity matrices shifted just so.

Birha, almost alone among them, has remained to grow old among the ruins of the human civilization, in part because she is waiting for Rudrak to return from his own universe, where he is constantly searching for his own lover Ubbiri, forever lost.

A lot of stuff here, with loops and loops, tangled past sorting, and a world full of wonders. The text is divided into a number of different sections, all from Birha’s point of view, some in her own voice, mostly reminiscing about her younger days spent recreating what she can of the aliens, their language, their music, their mathematics, but also of her lovers, past and probably-future. The author seems to be focusing on the lovers, but I can’t help thinking more of a culture eradicated by humans taking a place where they don’t belong.

“Nomad” by Karin Lowachee

The first paragraph hits readers with an off-putingly heavy load of jargon, some Capitalized, some not. Radical, nomad, integrated, uni, Streak, Fuse. What we have is sentient robotic armor fused with a human for the purpose of war. Mad’s human has been killed but Mad somehow survived. Now she [or so it seems] refuses to integrate with another, probationary human; she wants revenge. But the probationer claims to know how Tommy was betrayed.

Since they’d killed Tommy, the Gear Hearts had not crossed into Tora territory. In fact they gave us a lot of room to do our deals and transport our goods: guns, drugs, medical supplies to outlying paramilitaries. And we did not cross into theirs. It was an uneasy truce and now this probie made me wonder if it was one born from the blood of my Fuse.

The story is betrayal and revenge, driven by the nature of the bond between the integrated pair. This is the aspect that takes an amount of effort to accept, and for all the info-dumped background, it’s not quite clear how the fusion works, or why. I can’t help thinking it might have been contrived to fit the theme of the anthology in which it also appears. The jargon doesn’t help make it more readable.

“Mother Ship” by Caroline M Yoachim

Speaking of contrived: the narrator is a pregnant colony ship whose baby is deformed because of the ineptitude of her human designers. She can heal human babies, but they can’t heal hers. A very short and tearjerky piece.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #92-93, April 2012

Issue 92 is concerned with combat and heroism. 93 is a dark issue of repression and rebellion.

“Bearslayer and the Black Knight” by Tom Crosshill

A reworking of Latvian legend based on historical events, the invasion of the Baltic by the Livonian/Teutonic Knights. In the traditional account, Bearslayer, national hero of the Lats, fights the evil Black Knight. Here, the powers of the combatants are even more exaggerated:

Bearslayer runs with no weapons, no shield. Now his legs ripple and bulge. Now his chest sprouts fur hard as stone. With each step, his head nears the sun: three yards, four yards, five yards high. From his ribs burst a dozen limbs on each side, their paws moving in concert.

But beneath, there are two men of ordinary flesh and bone, who have discovered something in common. Both have been sacrificed to the service of their people.

This does lots of interesting things. It evokes both the legend and the brutal history behind it. It shows us the way such legends develop, reflecting the national consciousness of a people, and how a people may not allow its heroes to be human and vulnerable, with personal needs of their own. By inflating their powers to a superhuman level, Crosshill illustrates the contrast between the image of the heroes and their humanity. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this author.


“Sinking Among the Lilies” by Cory Skerry

A world where monsters collectively called anathema prey on the population. The church has the knowledge to defeat them, but Imuri Bane believes it should disseminate this information to the people instead of using it to maintain its own power. Bane has been expelled and now travels to the towns and villages, distributing the knowledge that she has summarized in a book and cleaning out anathema for a price.

“If you’d prefer to wait for a Disciple, I won’t argue. If the weather holds, they might even get across the mountains before the passes close. Whatever you decide,” I said, turning to address the pinch-faced woman and her wet-faced husband, “please decide soon. If you don’t require my services, I’m going back to my warm bed.”

But she soon finds herself sinking in a morass of evil worse than the anathema, and her own responsibility for it.

A dark twist on the aphorism that knowledge is power, for good or ill. A nicely-woven web of betrayal.

“The Ivy-Smothered Palisade” by Mike Allen

Dark dark fantasy. Daeliya escapes from imprisonment in an orphanage, hoping to find refuge behind the wall she has seen from behind the bars of her window. Instead, she finds herself in a far worse prison, the haunt of evil sorcerers and their deadly offspring.

“Let it be known then, Earl of Syburgh,” said Lord Audrind, “On your behalf I will send my children out into the world where I cannot go, and each night they will seek anew and never tire of the search until every sire and babe and servant and soldier of House Ayfel breathes no more.”

Daeliya injures herself in falling from the palisade, and she is found by an apparently young, fragile boy who heals her but will not let her leave, wanting her companionship. But she is constantly at risk of discovery.

Reading this one strikes me with the distinction between the story and its telling. The story here is a very dark one with a strong atmosphere of evil hanging over it. But the telling – We begin reading a letter to a person named Eyan, a person we know not whom, obviously involved with Daeliya in some armed conflict, we know not what or why. It is a farewell letter and a warning of great danger. This opening sets up certain reader expectations, that we will learn who Eyan is and why he matters, and what they are involved in, and why. But the narrative drops these questions and never raises most of them again, as the letter proceeds to relate the events of Daeliya’s life, beginning with the death of her parents in some conflict that may or may not be related to the one in which she is now engaged, and finally climbing the palisade and wishing that she hadn’t. All the while I am distracted by wondering about the story’s opening and how it will be eventually connected to these events, and thinking that the author might have found a better way to tell this tale.

“Pridecraft” by Christian K Martinez

Humanity has been overthrown by strange races who keep some of them alive as slaves, for their craft, which is empowered by a kind of magic just as the master races rule by it. Twin is a particularly valuable human, the Chief Engineer of the train line. Because they fear him, his hands and arms are confined in painful braces. But Twin has always had pride in his work and in his people.

They’d trusted me, everyone in the caverns trusted me. I’d stopped the deaths, when I took over. Bow deep, I said. Service and honor, I said. Bow deep, walk with quiet steps. Obey. Live. It worked, worked well enough that we’d forgotten how bad it could be. How bad they could be.

A strangely interesting scenario, well-imagined and well-written. The alien [?] races are fascinating; I’d like to know more of them.


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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