Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early December

One short original anthology, plus miscellaneous e-publications, with Clarkesworld, as usual, standing out above the rest in quality.


Publications Reviewed


A Fantasy Medley 2, ed. Yanni Kuznia

From Subterranean Press, a short [160 pp] anthology of four novellas from established series authors. The overall tone is shadowy and haunted; two of the pieces are historical fantasy. I’m not sure if it is meant for adult or YA readers, but most of the stories can readily be enjoyed by those not already familiar with these series.

“Quartered” by Tanya Huff

The title not only announces the story’s place in the author’s novel series of that name, it suggests dismemberment, which proves relevant. This is a world where bards travel the kingdom, both spreading and collecting news. Evicka, a talented young bard, is sent on an arduous winter journey to report on the activities of some characters who may be up to some unspecified no good. “You can be objective”, the Bardic Captain tells her. She is flattered by the trust and the responsibility.

This is my least favorite of the stories in the collection, being too dependent on the previous works in the series; it by no means stands alone. There is also irritating overuse of capitalized terms such as Sing and Walk. The strength is in the slow piling-up of suspicious circumstances and the way Evicka’s preconceptions and fears color the way she sees them.

“Bone Garden” by Amanda Downum

Kostya, fleeing the demands of his refugee family, has taken to the stage under the name Gentian, when a cousin appears from his past with dire news. It seems that the Rosians have been burying their dead in a graveyard long-unused for a very good reason, waking a nest of vampiric demons that seek to possess them.

Her voice was a whispered hiss, like wind through dry grass, rat’s feet over bones; all the color drained from her face. “Cleave to him and you’ll end in blood and pain and darkness. Come with us, and we’ll make you strong.” Blood pooled in her eyes, glittering like garnets on her lashes, stark against her chalky pallor.

What I like about this one is the depiction of the faux-Russians, refugees clinging to their old ways, refusing change, which proves their downfall. I do have to agree with their opinion of Gentian, who seems selfish and feckless. The story belongs to Sonya, a much stronger character.

“The Sergeant and the General” by Jasper Kent

Historical ghost story based on the Napoleonic army’s long retreat from Russia. The narrator is a student who rents a room from a retired veteran, a strange, secretive man obviously haunted by the war. He learns that the sergeant is also haunted by a ghostly horse that gallops at night on the staircase. Then, oddly, at the midpoint of the story, the narrative switches abruptly to Sergeant Mellé’s own voice, as he recounts his meeting with the noble warhorse he names General Kutuzov. The horse saves his life.

Suddenly I felt a lurch and Kutuzov rose into the air, taking me with him. A tree had been lying across the path in front of us, covered in snow. I might not have seen it even if I’d been looking, but the horse had taken it easily in his stride.

An effective portrait of a man eroded by betrayal and guilt, a reminder of the high cost that war exacts from its survivors.

“Rat-Catcher” by Seanan McGuire

Back at the theater again, this time in 1666 London, where Tybalt the theater cat roams the backstage and enjoys the plays. He also roams the shadow city Londinium, linked to the mortal one, where his vicious father is King of the Cats. Tybalt appears as feckless and irresponsible as Gentian in the Downum story, except that he is actually attempting to evade the deadly attention of his father. Everything changes when he learns of a prophecy, an urgent message of impending doom:

“The fires will come, and though many will run, few will survive the burning. In their wake will come sickness such has never been seen before nor will be seen again, and it will be a second burning, one that kills without concern for fae or mortal bloodlines.”

Now there are some dates that come loaded with Significance and one of these is 1666, the year of London’s Great Fire, the obvious reference of this prophecy. So it would be a neat idea: the fire kills the city’s cats, allowing the rats to proliferate and thus spread the plague. Problem is, the facts don’t allow it. The plague had already struck London the year before, causing people to kill the cats and dogs in the belief that they spread the disease. It was the fire, wiping out much of the rat population, that halted the spread of the epidemic. Did the author simply get this wrong?

Note: the term “Cait Sidhe” looks neat, but it doesn’t seem to be supported by the etymology. I suspect, however, that this is another one of those memes against which I contend in vain.


Clarkesworld, December 2012

Stories of change. In which is illustrated the distinction between literary SF and well-written genre SF – something tricky to define but easy to spot when you see it.

“Your Final Apocalypse” by Sandra McDonald

The narrator claims, “This is not a story about the end of the world,” but actually, it is, in a limited sense. Primarily, though, it’s a story about point of view, how different perspectives determine the way events are perceived by individuals. The narrator, omniscient in the cosmic or theological sense as well as the literary, is addressing, apparently at random, a young law student who is making plans that he believes will change the course of his life, all unaware of what is about to take place.

Some readers might suppose it’s the 2nd-person voice that makes me call this one literary, but not so. It’s a gimmick, no more or less, that happens to be suitable to the narrative at hand. What matters is the way the piece reveals the human condition, the condition of all beings who can feel. One of the most poignant moments here is the death scene of the family dog.

He crawls under your parents’ bed with one of your father’s old socks and heaves a final, sad sigh for walks untaken.

A dog can’t create or enjoy disaster movies, as the human characters have, imagining such events, but it feels their consequences as acutely. The artificial intelligence who witnesses the events is not able to feel, the narrator informs us, but we are left to wonder about the narrator itself – what it is, not who. Is its dispassionate point of view evidence of its own unfeeling nature, or simply the fact that it has witnessed the death of so many worlds before this one?


“The Wisdom of Ants” by Thoraiya Dyer

Catastrophic changes have overtaken the world, in which it might be said that ants have become the dominant lifeforms. Different species seek out different metals, with consequences disastrous to different human societies, given their level of distance from the natural human condition. The humans, like the ants, war among themselves for control of the remaining resources. Pesticides, that have failed to control the ants, have made surviving creatures toxic. Quiet-One’s clan lives closely with nature; they trade the metal they steal from ant nests for bacteria that enable them to digest the meat of the animals on their territory. This way of life is harsh and requires hard choices.

“Do you think I should trade with them?” I asked him at once. If I could get more vials, the mothers wouldn’t have to die. I could save them. They’re dead, but I’m Rivers-of-Milk, now. I could give life back to them! Just this once, I could deliver something better than my mother delivered. Life, instead of death.

You can’t beat Mother Nature. A strong sense of ecology informs this piece, the interdependence of humans and their natural environment, and the perils of attempting to alter or ignore it. The metal ants are a fascinating notion, well worked-out for the most part. But my suspension of disbelief took a serious stumble in the very first scene, where the narrator claims she can hold her breath longer than the ants can. I really don’t think so; ants can indeed be drowned, but not so readily; I suspect it would be harder with species that live in a mangrove swamp. I also note that while the author doesn’t state that local plant species are toxic, the clan members apparently don’t use them in their diet; I wonder about this as well. That’s what happens when a crack opens for doubt.

“Sweet Subtleties” by Lisa M Hannet

After Una dies, her confectioner husband captures her soul to animate a series of edible models for the banquet trade, effectively her pimp.

My striptease was an enormous success. Fresh and unmarked, clad in edible cellophane, my marzipan dusted with peach velvet. Even the stuffiest top-hat couldn’t resist. Javier had contrived a device to drop sugared cherries onto every tongue that probed between my legs. Dozens of gentlemen laughed and slurped, delighted I was a virgin for each of them.

A reversal of the Pygmalion story, a portrait of obsessive . . . I can’t really say “love”. Rather, perhaps, enthrallment. Javier compares Una to Helen, his passion to that of the possessive Menelaus, not the enamored Paris. The descriptions will give readers a sugar overload, but there is nothing sweet about this sickly relationship. I like the way Una’s true feelings are slowly revealed, in contrast to her earlier professions of joy in her new situation.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, December 2012

The stories in recent issues haven’t offered much to readers, but this is happily changed with the piece by Rahul Kanakia. Unfortunately, there’s not much else, with a bunch of short-shorts and half of a story to be continued in a subsequent issue.

“Inside the Mind of the Bear” by Rahul Kanakia

It seems there was recently a monstrous bear that caused great destruction, while immune to human attempts to destroy it. Besides being powerful, the bear also developed great intelligence and made several statements to the press. The authors of this report are teratologists, which we should take as meaning the study of monsters, although they say, “creatures”. Clearly there seem in this world to be sufficient monsters to support a field of study – not only a single bear. The report’s purpose is to refute the revisionists and apologists for the bear by citing its own words of its final interview to support the thesis that conflict between bear and humanity was always inevitable.

I have discovered that before the physical defeat there was always something else: a spiritual defeat. Except, it was not precisely that. It was not a loss of confidence or strength . . . it was a loss of identity. These creatures were only defeated once they began to think of themselves as just another sort of human being.

I really like the way this is done as a pseudo-academic screed, rather than a conventional account of the bear’s history. There is no attempt to discover the means by which the bear came into its nature, but references are made to previous monsters, particularly the ape – which seems to have been the inspiration for this piece. The result is an ethical debate that has implications for any kind of conflict between humans and other species that might be seen as a challenge to their supremacy.


“The Probability Flatline” by K G Jewell

In a world where organic humans are an endangered species, Aftan is an unemployed nurserybot, reduced to panhandling on the streets for power. She is co-opted by a robot with an illegal scheme to save robotkind from itself by setting the humans free.

“From the probability flatline. Humans are the fundamental source of all chaos, quantum and macro. When the last human passes, we pass.” The wave collapsed. “In a deterministic universe, consciousness is a farce.”

There’s an idea here, but its incorporation into the story is weak.

“The Flittiest Catch” by Robert Lowell Russell

Fishing for fairy dust and netting a bunch of jokes.

“Always Here” by Ken Liu

The narrator has heard a girl’s voice in his head since he was a boy. It wants him to be an astronaut and come to meet her in space.

“The Postman” by Ken Liu

A generation ship is met by an artificial intelligence sent by the civilization that has overtaken the one from which they set out long ago.

The message I carry will inform the crew of the Mayflower that all their actions will have turned out to be meaningless, without purpose. They cannot match us in intelligence, in strength, in our capacity to dominate the forces of nature. They will have to live as our wards, like all the other humans.

This pair of stories by Liu takes different glimpses at humanity and its encounters with other intelligences in space. The first is simple and hopeful, the second more complex yet more sentimental when it ought to be tragic.


Apex Magazine, December 2012

The editor tells us the issue’s two original stories are “dark tales of sacrifice”. In different senses of the term “sacrifice”.

“Blood From Stone” by Alethea Kontis

A tale of sorcery. The narrator is Henriette, a scullery maid whose mother was a witch. She has ambitions above her station, in the form of her master the baron, who is busy attempting to summon demons. These activities result in his requiring her services and expertise with lye soap for the purpose suggested by the title.

Prelati’s gaze slipped to the spot where he’d been scrubbing, and my eyes followed. No doubt they had finally discovered the lengths to which their artistic talent did not go, and chosen to erase the chalk and charcoal and start afresh. True, the lines had been erased, but beneath remained a large, pale pink stain on the perfect white marble.

A potentially disturbing dark fantasy, ruined by the author’s use of anachronistic language. We have an explicit setting in 15th century France, and the story is clearly based on the history of Gilles de Rais, which is definitely the matter of horror, of overt evil and depravity. But in those times there was no chocolate pudding, and people did not say “yeah” or “cut it out already”. Readers can’t take the evil in such a text seriously. The author needs to make up her mind; is she writing horror, or a mockery of it?

“Labyrinth” by Mari Ness

The narrator is a practitioner of a sacred rite: trained in the use of weapons, she fights and kills the sacrifices who are sent into the labyrinth to meet her. She is the leader of the dancers, as they are called, and has raised seven children to follow her, if they prove skilled enough.

It is her first time, and I am pleased; not always do children get to dance with their mothers at this moment. More often, they dance alone, or with someone they have trained with. It is a singular honor, and I nod my head toward the narrow window where the priests watch, to show I am aware of this.

The setting here is interesting, a plausible variation on the old maze. The story, however, is emotionally flat, as the characters have not been brought to life.


Strange Horizons, October 2012

Belatedly, the bonus stories from October’s fundraising drive.

“Good Hunting” by Ken Liu

Liang is the son and apprentice of a demon hunter, who loves a fox demon. But the traditional magic of the land is fading as foreigners move into the country, bringing a new iron magic. Abandoning the old ways, Liang becomes an engineer; Yan becomes a prostitute who can no longer transform into her true fox form. But she finds that there is more than one way of transformation.

She stood up and removed the rest of her dress and her evening gloves. I took in her chrome torso, slatted around the waist to allow articulation and movement; her sinuous arms, constructed from curved plates sliding over each other like obscene armor; her hands, shaped from delicate metal mesh, with dark steel fingers tipped with jewels where the fingernails would be.

If you can’t beat them, join them. A novel meld of traditional legend with steampunk tropes. I found the transition a bit of a wide gap to leap.

“Household Management” by Ellen Klages

The vexations of a landlady with a troublesome lodger, whom readers will readily recognize. Mrs Hudson! Who would have thought it!


Stupefying Stories, December 2012

A theme issue: eleven stories about the end of the world, broadly conceived. I’m not as pleased with this one as I was the last. There are too many pieces with an idea that the author doesn’t know how to turn into a successful story.

“We Talk Like Gods” by Jon David

A man buys the old house; he fixes it up and brings in a cat to deal with the mice. The mice deal with them.

There was no magic in that house. A glorified hut in an overgrown field. It wasn’t ashamed though. For that house had ears. The house had those mice. And those mice, well, they had stories.

A nicely done bit of fabulism.

“Tiny, Tiny Hungers” by Mark Wolf

An alien on an Afghan battlefield needed a host for her kids, and Talbot was selected. Turns out, he doesn’t really mind gestating baby aliens in his belly. Ferrn protects him from enemies, but the remains bring him to the attention of the usual sort of thuggish secret security outfit. The story then devolves into cliché.

“Moonbubble” by Eric Cline

Selling off the moon, specifically Tycho Station. A distressed property. Very distressed.

The nitrogen–oxygen environment had been restored only just before they had landed. The bodies, and the backed–up sewage elsewhere on the base, had been in dead vacuum for 10 years. Already, the odors were blossoming anew.

The narrative is disjointed, comprised of two different points of view, each flashing back and forth. Of the various bidders on the property, I believe Amanda is meant to be the protagonist, as the author attempts to elicit sympathy with repeated references to her father’s idealist notions of space exploration. It doesn’t work; Amanda is a cold fish and not interesting. Rollie, on the other hand, was once one of the scumbags who came to the station to take advantage of its lawlessness and make a fast billion. It’s his story that presents a vivid picture of existence on the station after it was taken over by the rule of anarchy, full of pirates and hustlers who rushed there to taken advantage of the opportunity and be taken advantage of. An interesting scenario; a discouraging look at human nature.

“The Relic” by Lou Antonelli

The relic is a wheel rim from a 1965 Ford Mustang, in which grandpa once had a spectacular wreck. “The insurance adjuster said it was the only thing not broken, dented or burned. I want it as a trophy.” Ever since, it’s been in the garage, long past the time when people understood what it was. A slight piece, scanting its idea.

“Mr Non-Existent” by Paul Malone

Kyle has officially been declared non-existent. Which means that any manifestation of his existence will be erased with extreme prejudice.

Not that the transmit is so direct. It states: the paradoxical manifestation of non–existent entities will be immediately, and with the full force of the law, rectified.

A brief glimpse at a dystopia, but the story is stillborn, cut off before it has time to live.

“Blue Stripped” by Gary Huntman

Jack has been an asteroid miner, but now he’s been blue-stripped as a non-conformist, fired, and scheduled to be shipped back to Earth.

Unemployable; a risk. Blue– stripped meant destitution, depression, worthlessness. Jack would never be able to return to space, let alone mining. It was a slow, ugly death sentence.

Then he is confronted by a Messenger From Beyond in the form of Jack’s dead non-conformist father. Pretty hackneyed stuff.

“HoPE” by A A Leil

Habitable Planet Explorer. First contact. Systems logs.

Planet Kepler 22b habitability confirmed.
commsSystem initiated…
encodeMessageMode = binaryToACSII
encodeMessageToEarthSurvivors =
“Yay! Kepler 22b rocks, but it ain’t just a rock!”

Amusing short piece in status log format.

“Avocado Rutabaga Aubergine” by M Bennardo

Back in the days when Studebakers roamed the Earth and Sputniks the skies, there are strange lights up there. The phone company has issued all the local operators with new earpieces, but they’re not comfortable, and Helen isn’t wearing hers when Marge calls with a strange message. Now none of the other operators are responding, and Helen is worried.

There was only one phone company, after all—just one single point of control for a huge and complex communications network that spanned the forty–eight states. If somebody wanted to invade, wouldn’t they want to get control of that network?

Neat retro sci-fi alien invasion stuff.

“In the Shadows of the Empire of Coal” by Shaun Duke

A smoke-filled fantasy embodying the notion of “dark Satanic mills.” The world [or this part of it] is covered in soot from the coal factories, shadows lurk in the streets and Watchers in airships overhead. Humans originally accepted the factories because they brought electricity, but now they are enslaved to it. Archer is dying from a lung disease that breeds squirming globs in his sputum, but he is determined to find the only hope of escape, the rumored path to the stars. In a journey much like Frodo into Mordor, he descends into the dark.

The furnace was a bulge of metal gears, chains, beltways, and mechanical arms, all working as slaves to a master unit—the furnace itself. He was reminded of an enormous, round–bellied fellow who had managed to cling to his wealth long enough to endow his stomach with the fruits of his “labor.”

There’s interest to the setting, though we’ve seen the like before, but the story isn’t really coherent. It reads like something pulled out of a larger work.

“Measure of Intelligence” by Torah Cottrill

The aquarium after the apocalypse.

They’d agonized for weeks about the beluga whale. The winches and harnesses they needed to lift her free of the tank were gone, sunk under twenty feet of sea water when a storm surge took the equipment shed. Finally, Greg had come in with his handgun and a box of priceless ammunition.

That’s about it. There isn’t really a story, just a note of irony as suggested by the title.

“The Gods of Sand and Stone” by Joel V Kela

A world with sentient sand.

As David walked south, he trailed the stick in the sand and whispered his will. Behind him the beach flared to life, hissing upward to form the pinnacles and sweeps he shaped with his thoughts. Mountains rose and valleys fell.

The setting, the sand, is quite a Neat Idea. The story, however, is the shopworn tale of humans ruining alien worlds for profit.

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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