Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-January

Marking 100 Locus Online review columns. This time there are a lot of ezines: a couple of 2012 leftovers and more new January issues.


Publications Reviewed


Electric Velocipede #25, Winter 2012

It never fails. Whenever I think I’ve corralled all the last year’s issues, something else turns up. But EV is one zine I wouldn’t want to miss. There are eight short stories, about a dozen pieces of verse, and an author interview. The fiction is mostly fantasy with some science fiction, the quality pretty uniformly fresh.

“The Night We Drank Cold Wine” by Megan Kurashige

Before going to the party, the narrator’s friend Rhodes shares a strange bottle of wine that he claims to have made from an old family recipe.

It tasted like what wine tastes like when you’ve only imagined it, before you’ve ever had a sip. It was sweet, and slightly thick, and slippery enough to go down before my tongue could finish tasting it. My mouth felt like I had licked something sharp.

The door to the party is some kind of transformative portal, and everyone in the place is now impossibly elegant. This may or may not involve the wine. The problem is, remembering the way out in time.

The descriptions make this brief encounter with transitory magic a wondrous thing, as long as it lasts. But such things don’t last.

“Butterfly Effect” by Mishell Baker

The narrator finds herself with an assault rifle on her lap, covered in blood, with a likely concussion – wondering why. Wondering if she’s the only one left alive. Gradually, it begins to come back to her.

The knees of my jeans are stiff and itchy like they’ve been soaked and then dried under the mid-day sun (wolf’s bad knee he stumbles and my wrist slips from his hand and i’m going under, the swift cold makes me gasp and fills my chest). These little details tell me I am not dreaming. Where is everyone?

The neat thing here is the way the author has woven the fragmentary memories into the narrative, so that the impact of her losses strikes over and over as they take form in her mind and she begins to grasp her situation. Well done.

“The Woods of Wistman’s Grove” by Tyson Young

The woods are said to be haunted.

“You ever get to that fork in the road,” they’ll whisper, “where the hills sink and the breeze chills your bones—you turn right ‘round and take the long road. Y’hear?”

According to the narrator, who seems to have been turned into a crow, the source of the curse is a witch.

A fairytale with a surprisingly happy ending, thanks to love.

“The Master Shoemaker” by Katya Olivia-Llego

Falco isn’t really a master shoemaker or even a very good shoemaker, but it didn’t matter when he was the only shoemaker around. Then the gypsyish shoemakers show up in town, and everything changes for him.

What he wanted was to make shoes this beautiful too. Somehow, he felt it was more than skills and exotic materials. There was something magical about the L’apictu shoes. He took off the oxfords and slipped his feet back into his heavy, chunky boots. He dragged his feet out of the shop with his head bowed down.

The secret magic of the shoes becomes his quest.

A poignant variation on the Shoemaker and the Elves fairytale.

“The Greatest of His Age” by Bart Allen

An unexpected secret about Mozart. Very short. My piano teacher never told me stories like this.

“Musici” by Derek Zumsteg

In the mid-eighteenth century, a stranger appears in the audience of a third-rate provincial Italian opera house to listen to its star singer, the castrato Enri. Giovanni says he wants to hire the company to perform in distant Bavaria, but Enri, quite intelligent despite his self-destructive lifestyle, senses there is something not quite right about his story. The two achieve a remarkable closeness, but Giovanni has difficulty persuading the singer.

Giovanni stood in an instant, blushing angrily. “Listen to me! I saw Senesino in Florence two years ago. He is everything ever rumored. He sings so sweetly, so clearly, we wept. You are better, Enri. He sings allegros with power, but you shake the world. He may be the best contralto, and I don’t care.”

A well-realized milieu with well-drawn, interesting characters coming to life on the page. And more Mozart.


“North” by Kristy Truax-Nichols

Julie tells Chris about her lifelong dream of flying.

There, on her father’s gray, slanting porch with its missing and snaggle-toothed boards, he realizes he doesn’t want Julie to fly. He wants to pin her to the sun-baked earth so she can never escape him. He wants to love her, but more than that, he wants to keep her.

A strong tale of unequal love, evoking the old lesson that love sometimes means letting go. Of course we knew it would.

“Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods” by Damien Walters Grintalis

Giant clockwork beings that call themselves gods are remaking humans like dolls, a process of torture. The attempt to evoke feeling here isn’t working.


Fireside #3, Winter 2012

Another belated 2012 zine. The ToC lures readers with well-known names, but these are not the best pieces from the authors in question.

“Form and Void” by Elizabeth Bear

It’s no wonder that Kathy Cutter only has one friend.

She was snide, and she was superior. She was insulting, and she was irate. There couldn’t be anything wrong with her, because she had been raised with all the therapy and all the right­minding her family could afford, so if anybody complained to the teachers or administrators about her it was obvious that there was something wrong with them.

It’s a bit of a wonder why Comanche Zariphes wants to be her friend, but she does and she is, insults notwithstanding, all the way to Io, where Kathy wants to see the dragons – modified humans all gleaming with artificial jewels. Dragons notwithstanding, there’s not much more to this story of an unequal friendship.

“Remaker, Remaker” by Lucas J W Johnson

In an alternate future Roman Empire, Marcus Fullius is a certified Remaker who is engaged by a mysterious client with ambitious plans that we never get to know. Fullius doesn’t seem to know much about human anatomy, which would seem to be a basic requirement of the job, and it’s a mystery why someone would come all the way from Rome to Londinium to engage him.

The more derivative a story, the more it takes to overcome it. This one falls way short. The premise is standard clockwork fantasy, with a large debt to Miéville. It adds nothing original and worse, makes no sense.

“John Fisher” by Daniel Abraham

The narrator marries a woman with a young daughter who seems to think he’s the devil. She also has an imaginary friend to whom she talks on the phone, and the conversations are disturbing.

Her voice was low and kind of rough that way that kids get when they think they’re being quiet without actu­ally being quiet. And she was saying, Not mommy. I don’t care what you do, but you don’t get to hurt mommy. When I looked out of the bedroom, her eyes went wide, like I’d caught her at something, and she hid the toy phone behind her back.

Then John Fisher starts showing up in his dreams, and they aren’t good dreams.

The story is ambiguous. We can’t be sure if John Fisher is a dangerous but benevolent protective figure, as the conclusion seems to be trying to convince us, or a sinister one, as the rest of the text strongly implies. If the first, I’m not convinced. Not only the narrator, but none of the characters has a name, other than the bogeyman.

“The White Phoenix Feather” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Viola’s company specialized in Extreme Dining. Her job was to sit at a table and look decorative, while protect­ing the clients. In order to maintain the illusion of risk, she brought no weapons to the table.

Unfortunately, her client this time has breached the terms of the contract by mentioning his plans to another, which means that the attack has come at the beginning of the meal instead of with dessert, as expected.

Funny, and the pretentious dining experience details add a certain overstated piquancy to the meal.


Eclipse Online, January 2013

Both stories this month are science fiction.

“The Advocate” by Genevieve Valentine

Siphiwe works for the Martian Embassy. Which is to say, she answers the phone and tells callers, as Agent Acting on Behalf, that the Ambassador isn’t available, which it never is, the Ambassador being a swarm of microscopic entities in a sort of terrarium or, as she calls it, a Petri dish. In fact, she works for the UN Mars Exploration Administration, and the whole setup is a cover for human colonization. Her job used to be PR and in a way still is. “She’s not sure what’s worse; if they’re mocking her, or if they’re serious.” But if it’s her job, she means to take it seriously. Particularly when a problem arises.

A sort of neat idea here with a strong character in Siphiwe. Her plan to address the problem is well-conceived and executed, cleverly done. Trouble is, the problem, the whole Ambassador idea, is so far-fetched I can’t really take it seriously enough.

“The Amnesia Helmet” by F Brett Cox

Saturday afternoon at the Rialto, and Marlena, who loves the comic strip, has a special interest in the Buck Rogers movie:

The girl, Wilma, who just appeared for a bit near the end of the first chapter but who was wearing trousers and didn’t seem to be a princess. Marlena was even more eager for Chapter Two of Buck Rogers than she had been for Chapter Two of Flash Gordon.

Inspired, she decides to make an amnesia helmet, like in the movie, and tries it on her little brother. Then she tries it on her friend Pete. Problem is, it actually seems to work.

A rather sad story about an abusive childhood, the pain that never quite totally fades.


Lightspeed, January 2013

First the fantasy stories, then the SF. Liking the SF better this time.

“With Tales in their Teeth, From the Mountain They Came” by A C Wise

A story of words and war. The protagonist never said the word “love” to her lover, until it was too late.

She held him as long as she could in their house by the sea. But hands pressed to his skin, and stubborn lips and teeth refusing to shape words, could only hold him so long. His love was vast; it encompassed strangers, dying in fields he’d never seen. He went to War. Her love was small, and encompassed only him. She stayed behind.

After his loss, she became an Acolyte in the Library, where speaking aloud is not done and it is believed that the Librarians have utterly lost their voices. But she is sometimes compelled to speak until she finds another who answers her.

A heartfelt, emotionally-wrought piece, the sort of thing that doesn’t invite readers to wonder: Does this really make sense? Alas, uninvited, I can’t see that it makes the slightest bit. If the books, the words, the texts in a library are vulnerable to fire and destruction, there might be several possible ways of preserving them, several possible media on which to do this. But the medium chosen here, far from offering any advantage, is generally even more susceptible to ruin and decay than the original pages.

“Purity Test” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Michelene’s father always suspected her mother had betrayed him with other men, and he obsessed about virginity.

I did not understand enough of life to fathom my father’s concern with purity. I believed him obsessed with pureness of heart. He did not care about anyone’s heart, having lost his own. He cared only that the woman who married his son was a virgin, and he did not trust doctors and midwives to determine it was so.

He employs a sorcerer for this purpose and for other, more sinister tasks that he hopes will restore his family’s crumbling power. Knowing its maker, Michelene fears the unicorn when it is her turn to be tested before marriage.

Unoriginal premise with a mawkish conclusion.

“Lifeline” by Jonathan Olfert

SF. The Lifeline company has matched Habiba with her Lifeline and now she’s waiting to meet him for the first time, in a New Dakar teahouse that’s upscale for her and thus downscale for him. The guy shows up, he’s Norwester, which seems to mean Euro or American. The two don’t connect.

“I expected—I don’t know, I expected to feel a connection. My friends who used the Lifeline machine, they felt it when they met their Lifelines. My mother’s Lifeline had been dead for a week when she used the machine, and she felt something at the grave. I used to think it was wishful thinking, but now here you are, Habiba, here you are wanting to feel something at least as badly as my friends ever did, and you’re not feeling it any more than I am.”

An angry story about the way race and class and privilege can inform personal relationships. To the extent this piece doesn’t work is because we have no way of knowing how reliable this Lifeline thing is supposed to be and why people should trust it to bring them together. If Habiba and Gereth are an example of how it works, they shouldn’t.

“The Sounds of Old Earth” by Matthew Kressel

Old Earth is being recycled to make new worlds and the remaining inhabitants are being moved out, whether they want to or not. The narrator does not. He’s been able to keep the toxins from his ancient familial property, where the frogs are still alive in the pond, but he can’t stop the terraformers.

“Grandpa,” Rachael said, “it’s not just the toxins, it’s the overpopulation. We used up all the matter in the asteroid and Kuiper belts to make New Earth. We need Old Earth’s mantle to build more colonies. And besides, it’s natural.”

The frog pond is an idyllic and well-chosen symbol, as amphibians are among the most sensitive creatures to environmental degradation. The conclusion is heartwarming. It also makes an interesting contrast to the Olfert story above, considering the relationship between the privileged and the underprivileged, and the place of both frogs and humanity in the new system.


Kaleidotrope, Winter 2013

The seven stories here are almost all dark, to a greater or lesser degree. Several quite depressing.

“This Is Not a Metaphor” by Christie Yant

When I say to you, I am cursed, you think I mean that I am sad, that I have had a run of bad luck and am short of hope. When I say, I am in darkness, you think I mean I see no way out of this morass of grief and self-pity. What I mean is what I say: I am cursed, cursed to isolation from every living soul, to clogged drains and high gas prices; cursed to see only the ugly and cruel in the world. What I mean is that due to powerful sorcery, I am able to see and feel only the anguish of endless night.

Or maybe it is, after all. A very short story about the effects of toxic relationships.

“Remembering the Days that Hurt Us” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

A couple of the walking wounded meet in a bar. It was a war where curses were weapons, that left terrible scars on people like the man who calls himself John Doe.

They’d given him a medal, in the end. Their very highest honors for all those days and months and years and lives — they’d all been very careful not to ask him any questions.

And just when it seems that Thomas might become a friend, it turns out he’s supposed to be his case worker. That hurts.

PTSD when the hallucinations happen to be real, but the wounded are still human beneath it all. Effectively done, makes an impact.

“Necronaut” by Corey Mariani

OK, we have a future when people can teleport their consciousness into brain-dead bodies on other worlds. A ship loaded with these vessel bodies was sent to a newly-discovered world called Orcus, but no one transmitted there has ever been heard from again. Authorities want to know what’s wrong, so they strong arm a guy who calls himself Mad Brad Hammerfish, an imprisoned former media star, to teleport there and find one of the missing, a guy he used to know. Complications ensue.

Comedy of the absurd, making no sense because it’s not supposed to, but in a melancholy way.

“The October Witch” by Francesca Forrest

When Josh’s car almost goes off the road, he gets a ride with a woman who just happens by. On learning that he’s a folklorist, she wonders that he hasn’t heard about the October witch supposed to be in these parts.

“Well she mainly stalks newly departed souls, the confused ones not sure which is the narrow way up to heaven and which is the wide path to hell. When she spies the soul of a fine-looking young man, she invites him home to be her husband for a year. I don’t have to add that she don’t take no for an answer.”

Of course readers know from the beginning what’s really going on, but the tale is well-done, nonetheless, with a definite folklorish flavor.

“Wetwork” by Brendan Detzner

Fuckmeat is on the job. He used to be a pirate, then he was drafted into a similar line of work. Basic horror, very short, with an ambiguous ending.

“How I Found My One True Love and Saved the World from Ruin” by Russ Colson

Arden Mosley is subpoenaed by the time court to provide testimony on the superiority of the heliocentric model of the solar system over the geocentric – to determine which version of history will prevail. Philosophical argument ensues, but alas, Mosley’s judgment is corrupted by emotion, which makes it kind of hokey.

“Before the Blood” by T D Edge

The narrator is back on Earth for a short visit after more than forty years away, to see the girl he lost when they abducted him. From what we can see of her here in this short piece, it’s too bad.


Black Gate, January 2013

This site has finally taken pity on readers’ eyesight and resolved on a redesign that will make the fiction easier to read. There are three stories posted in January, of which one is a reprint, the other two series installments from the zine’s regulars; I prefer the Fultz.

“When the Glimmer Faire Came to the City of the Lonely Eye” by John R Fultz

Artifice the Quill, in exile, has joined a company of players and is now about to see his first play staged for the ghosts that haunt Mornitetra, a city where the eye of its god looks down from a tall pedestal in the central plaza. The subject of his drama is the doom of its sister city Ultimetra, from whence the ghosts have come after the god destroyed their own, in wrath at their sin. Artifice has misgivings about this venue, but he is not in charge of the troupe.

If the drama offended the Mornitetrans, what penalty would Mordeau and the Players face from an insulted King Tomias? Tomorrow’s performance must please two separate audiences at once: the living and the dead. Which contingent would display a greater wrath if the play contradicted their historical beliefs?

In the case of this particular zine, I have to wonder about my usual misgivings concerning endless story series, as it seems likely that the readership here consists primarily of regulars who will be familiar with previous episodes. At any rate, in this case the story has no real need of such familiarity, as it stands effectively on its own. The real interest is not so much in Artifice himself as in the head of the troupe, Mordeau, whose sorcery enhances the stagecraft and effects, so that even a god can be moved.

“The Terror in the Vale” by E E Knight

Sword and sorcery. Skiar the Blue Pilgrim is a Discern, survivor of an old order dedicated to science and knowledge – now persecuted by the conquering empire. He remains to fight tyranny, which is in plentiful supply under the current regime.

“Head-taxes. Some of their number offered body insult to the bloodless daughters of Nob Weaver-head, pulling up skirts to check for a woman’s thatch to add adults to the rolls, and the Weaver’s guild met them in the street with violence. A Maygyen was killed. The Maygyen hung the weavers and promise to hang ten from each town of the Vale in retaliation!”

The Blue Pilgrim, although a master of weapons, is one of those brain-before-brawn heroes. But when he thwarts the efforts of the mercenaries, their imperial overseer turns to blackest sorcery.

This differs from the standard run of S&S only in the hero, an adept of science rather than magic.


Bourbon Penn #6, January 2013

This zine claims the “odd” word, but what we seem to have here is a horror issue, including dark humor. The stories are quite short, with frequent signs of imagination and quite a few nameless narrators.

“Rorschach” by Carl Wilhoyte

Jerry has a bad attitude, which may or may not be because of his crappy job turning down cancer patients’ insurance claims. When a fingernail begins to emerge from his back, he fears it’s cancer, but it’s something more weird.

The title suggests the way an inkblot produces a near-mirror image of itself on the other side of a folded paper, alike but not identical.

“The Haunting” by Holly Day

The narrator, whom we know as Ms Cary, is either surrounded by monsters or suffering from dementia. She believes someone is sending her packages containing the body parts of abducted children, like the children who live on the milk cartons in her refrigerator. The school crossing guard is a troll with a removable head and the woman across the street has snake hair.

I imagine her dipping her entire head into a cage full of frightened rats, the snakes in her hair darting this way and that, tangling around each other in their haste to catch the fat ones, the ones with the least demented testicles.

A tragic situation, told with a vivid imagination.

“Zombie Song” by Derek Owens

Illustrating the well-known truth that parents exist for the sole reason of ruining the lives of their teenage daughters. Especially when a zombie family moves in across the street. Although one of the zombie kids is kind of cute, her friends think.

She goes, Best thing about it is it’s totally safe because their sperms are all dead, and all three of us go, Ew, Summer! Then Summer goes, But you’ve got to be real careful his thing doesn’t fall off inside you, and we all go, Ew! again.

The humor ends on a darker note than this.

“Extreme Medicine” by Linda Peer

Harry is working to become the national king of medical radio, although his show has only caught on so far in low-information states. Harry may not quite have his heart in the movement, but others aren’t so inhibited.

After the ad, Harry said, “We get letters every week from listeners anxious to perform home surgery or to rent one of the rolling surgery containers that have sprung up. Personally, I think retrofitting shipping containers as surgical theaters is a brilliant business plan and a fine example of recycling.”

An example of the proposition that there’s nothing so extreme someone isn’t already out there doing it. Too close to reality to be really absurd.

“Kill Me Again” by Jessica Hilt

Considering the question, Can you be a serial killer if you just keep killing the same person over and over again? A love story, an odd courtship.

“Body Language” by Alex Aro

She moved her lips so I couldn’t kiss them and told me I didn’t appreciate what they had to offer. I asked her where she had put them; she looked strange without a pair of lips on her face.

A surreal metaphor for a failing relationship.

“Child” by Beth Hull

Child, for reasons that are unclear, is neither male nor female. At age thirteen, fast approaching, she is supposed to choose. She doesn’t want to. She likes things the asexual way they are. Gender politics, with spiders.

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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