Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May
Mostly fantasy this time, as I lead out with a new original anthology. Real science fiction seems to be getting scarce, though not good fantasy. A Good Story award to K J Parker’s “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” from Fearsome Journeys.
Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy Volume One, edited by Jonathan Strahan
The title pretty much says it. Here’s a substantial original anthology with a strong cast of authors, twelve stories of what the editor describes as “mainstream fantasy” but turns out to be sword and sorcery, military fantasy, and the eponymous quest. The pieces are generally on the longer side.
“The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats” by Scott Lynch
Battle magery with a mercenary company of wizards known as the Red Hats, which they don’t wear in the heat of the fray, lest they be seen by the enemy as targets.
Wizards working offensively in battle have a bad tendency to get caught up in their glory-hounding and part their already tenuous ties to prudence. Distracted and excited, they pile flourish on flourish, spell on spell until some stray musket ball happens along and elects to take up residence.
Working spells to ward the others while they work is Watchdog’s job. But the latest threat from the enemy is something none of them have encountered before, although readers will recognize it as a kind of tank.
This scenario could be described as Musket & Sorcery, and readers will doubtless be reminded of Cook’s “Black Company” tales, complete with a journal, albeit slightly less grim and dismal than that venerable series. This, too, has the unmistakable signs of a series, of which this would be the initial installment. The tone is darkly humorous, yet not unmindful of the price in human lives exacted by war.
“Amethyst, Shadow, and Light” by Saladin Ahmed
Zok the thief, all brawn and little brain, and his partner Hai Hai the rabbitwoman step into what is clearly a trap set for their kind. Thus he finds himself with an amethyst slave ring around his neck, compelled to find and steal the Diamond Diadem that the Amethyst Empress needs to defeat the evil Shadow Warriors.
At this point, readers may well be saying to themselves, “You’ve got to be kidding?” Taken straight, a premise like this one is a cliché hoary with eld, calling out for subversion, for irony, for some inverting twist. Such passages as this one suggest we aren’t going to get it:
They were tall and thin, shrouded in back rags and mail. Their strangely stretched faces were the yellow-white of moonlight, and their red eyes shone with a dull glow. Zok felt an unnatural fear seize him as he stared, and his guts twisted up until he felt like shitting blood.
Thankfully, the author comes through at the end, just in time, but perhaps not enough.
“The Camp Follower” by Trudi Canavan
During the long years of warfare, Captain Reny has taken a camp follower into his tent.
It was during the time between battles, after long meetings to discuss strategy, that he made use of the woman. Aside from the physical release and the sensual pleasure, he gained something even more valuable—a time in which he was free from thought and care. The past and the future did not penetrate his mind.
But Kala is more than she seems, with more insight into his affairs than the typical camp whore. Then one night when she hasn’t returned to his tent, he sees her among the wounded, not thieving but practicing some kind of magic. The soldiers have started to talk about Lady Death.
A look at battlefield politics and a reasonable explanation for the power of sorcerer kings, who benefit from unceasing war. Rather typical S&S with restrained prose and a hint for understanding a universal problem that persists to our own day.
“The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” by K J Parker
Dodinas le Cure Hardy, being a knight, is the guy people come to when a dragon shows up in the neighborhood. Although there aren’t supposed to be any dragons, not anymore.
But you do your best. You struggle, just as a man crushed under a giant stone still draws in the last one or two desperate whistling breaths; pointless, but you can’t just give up. So I looked him steadily in the eye, and I said, “So, what do they expect me to do about it?”
His wife has even more pointed remarks on the subject, as she always does. [“Hard, sometimes, to remember that when I married her, she was the Fair Maid of Lannandale.”] But it really is a dragon, and somebody has to cope with it. He’s the knight.
Parker does a wonderful job with this, exhibiting a sound knowledge of medieval warfare and weaponry, but most of all giving us a wearied yet resigned narrator whose insights into the situation are both poignant and engaging. Superior stuff.
“Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine” by Kate Elliott
In a kingdom beset by armed factions, the herbwife Anna and her family have always taken the side of General Olivar against the marauding Lord Hargrim whose soldiers killed her husband. When strife reaches the village, she goes to help the injured, but in the woods she stumbles across the general, wounded, and hides him from the enemies seeking his life. With Hargrim’s men controlling the roads, the general’s only hope is to get a message to the king’s court, and Anna volunteers to make the journey, carrying his token. The title represents the spell she uses to deflect notice – easily done, as men rarely notice an old, poor woman.
A long piece, with the fantastic element almost far enough in the background to be ambiguous. The story focuses on the lives of the ordinary common folk, for whom the presence of lords more often than not brings trouble. Anna is a determined and ingenious character, whose lies explaining her presence alone on the road are always convincing.
“My pardon, good dames, but I’m wondering if you know where I can find my cousin’s sister. She is laundress to the king’s sister, so they tell me. I walked here from the village to let her know that her brother is gravely ill.”
“Spirits of Salt: A Tale of the Coral Heart” by Jeffrey Ford
The narrator seems to be a scholar whose subject is Ismet Toler, known as the Coral Heart after his blade, which turns his opponents into statues of red coral. “As he wrote, ‘The weapon has a personality and if I’m not mistaken a will, which I am learning to merge with mine.’” The tale at hand deals with his youth and training by a retired assassin, and about his duel with the swordsman of red coral whose crystal blade turns his opponents to salt.
Toler crouched and brought his weapon up to block the downward chop of the crystal blade. The crystal clanged off the metal of his weapon, hard as blade steel. He absorbed the blow and rolled away, two somersaults backward and then into a standing position. As he lifted the Coral Heart in defense, he felt the beat of the pulse in his palm. His heart regulated it and regulated the sword. The training he’d done was paying off.
A rather enigmatic piece, in which we have the swordsman’s mentor/foster mother apparently at odds with her past/future self, a powerful witch who may have created his opponent as a test for him or as a challenge for her. In fact, it isn’t the Coral Heart who is the center of this piece, but the former assassin and her conflict with the witch/other self, in which Ismet Toler may only be a pawn. The story has a fragmentary appearance, as if it is a chapter at the beginning of a definitive history of the swordsman, but such a longer work may not actually exist. Not your usual swordsman-in-training story.
“Forever People” by Robert V S Redick
Majka is a widow with a secret, living alone with her young son and mother-in-law, when a strange traveler comes to the door. There is something different and unsettling about him. When her son plays a certain tune on the mandolin, he begins to tell the story that goes with the verses, about a clan that long ago defied the king.
“The king sent no word to the Forever People. He called instead for his sorcerers, and told them it was time to prove their loyalty. And the sorcerers locked themselves in a tower for five days and nights, and a blood-red glow lit the tower windows. When it was done a great shriek went up from the tower, and half the sorcerers went mad and never recovered. But the curse was cast, and it fell upon the Ve’saqra and heated their bones like irons in the forge, and all eight thousand were scalded to death from within.”
Majka knows he is telling the truth. Her husband had kept one of the incandescent bones of his ancestors as a relic, sealed in a lead jar. And now she understands that the king has found them again, the descendants of the survivors.
There’s a powerful legend at the heart of this story, and a strongly flawed protagonist in Majka, a woman who isn’t really sure what she wants, except for the safety of her son. The setting is full of dark portents, such as the demonic white weasel that haunts Majka’s farmyard. But the tale ends so abruptly it feels like an excerpt from some longer work, leaving readers with events pulled out from under them.
“Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” by Ellen Klages
It seems that the emperor has offered a fortune to whoever brings him the secret of the French Pearl, which is supposedly hidden and warded by a wizard. Natto the thief purchases a map that supposedly gives its location. But such suppositions turn out to be highly misleading.
Low humor here, a nice serving of well-deserved comeuppance, and some clever dirty tricks on a trickster.
“Shaggy Dog Bridge: A Black Company Story” by Glen Cook
The Black Company is on the run, looking for a way out. The pursuing enemy has pinned them against what seems to be the Mother of All Gorges.
Whatever, a knife-edge wound slashed the earth for seven hundred miles, across the grain, through mountains and forests, swamps and plains, often more than a thousand feet deep, never more than an eighth of a mile wide. It drained lakes and shifted rivers. Our side, the west, boasted hundreds of square miles of dense hardwood forest on rounded mountains with deep valleys between. Tough traveling. From what I could see the east side was exactly the same.
Finding a way across it is their major problem. Even when One-Eye the sorcerer discovers the illusion-hidden magic bridge. And they find what lies on the other side, which is not nice at all, as usual in this milieu. A whole lot of action, mayhem and sorcery ensues, as potent forces of evil clash inside Croaker’s mind; it seems that a spate of torture in the Lady’s hands has rendered him particularly susceptible to the sendings of those enslaved undead spectres known as the Taken.
As one of the most long-running series in the genre, any Black Company story comes with a lengthy tail of backstory and series characters. Readers familiar with this story will recognize Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin and their evil nemeses. But Cook has a way of presenting this material that makes it accessible to those who haven’t been following the Company’s Annals since the beginning or anywhere close to it. Here is the usual dark humor mixed with unalloyed dark, coming to a conclusion that concludes even much less than usual, as the title suggests. This story will go on, but of course we knew that.
“The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear
A faceless man of bronze – a Gage, once the servant of a Wizard – has come to Messaline, City of Jackals, on an errand involving a murdered poet. There he encounters Serhan, a swordsman once part of the Caliph’s guard known as the Dead Men, also investigating the murder. The perpetrator is a Wizard known as a ghost-maker. “He kills for the pleasure it affords him. He kills artists, in particular. He likes to own them. To possess their creativity.” The two masterless men join forces to hunt down their common enemy.
One of the classic tropes of Sword and Sorcery is the pair of companion adventurers, and this one might well be first in a series, the origin tale of the partnership, which turns out to be of more importance than the immediate quest. The setting is typical of the exotic cities in which such adventures take place, filled with interesting gods and their priests and priestesses.
“One Last, Great Adventure” by Ellen Kushner and Ysabeau S Wilce
The Hero is getting on in years and considering retirement so, somewhat perversely, he sets off to Illyria with his companion/lover?/werefox to fight another, perhaps final monster. There may be a reward in it somewhere, involving rubies and a princess with perfect feet.
He doesn’t care what form it takes, or if it’s devious, cunning, or smells like a poopy diaper and can sing five-part madrigals with itself. He’s never met a monster he couldn’t kill. He’ll kill this one, too. And then he will claim his reward and be done with heroics for good.
But things in Illyria are not as they should be. The identity of the monsters is in dispute. The princess on display is a ringer and the real one locked up in the storeroom. Reynard, too, is up to something, the Hero knows not what.
I could have told the Hero this adventure was probably ill-advised. If a person is going to retire and already has the wherewithal to do so, he should stop going forth on adventures, not undertake another. Nonetheless, this is a light-hearted fun piece, which also offers some insights into such matters as the autonomy of princesses and the nature of monsters.
“The High King Dreaming” by Daniel Abraham
“The High King is not dead but dreaming, and his dreams are of his death.” He seems, however, to be dead, lying on his pyre holding his sword. His cunning man declares,
“He waits now in places beyond our sight, but he is not gone. All of history remains before us, and we have lost him now only because he must rest. When he is needed, the High King shall rise and Justice shall again protect the land.”
This tale seems awfully familiar, although the names have changed. The story is about the strength of legend and the hope placed in it, like the sword you don’t need because you know it’s there. An optimistic piece, more so than I think realistically deserve, but the case the author makes is well done.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2013
A three-issue month, for a total of six stories. #120 involves sailors and clockwork automatons, whereby I note that this trope has secured its place as a genre cliché. #121 gives us loneliness and titles containing similes, while #122 is set in empty worlds.
“The Clockwork Trollop” by Debra Doyle & James D Macdonald
The title says it. Near the turn of Victoria’s century, Professor Haversham perfects the clockwork whore, considering a chess-playing automaton an insufficient challenge to his talents. He intends it as a benefit to society, but unexpected consequences put a spanner into the gears. This is humor of the somewhat absurd and farcical sort, but even so, I don’t believe that even the lowest tavern owner is going to let random streetwalkers into his back rooms to ply their trade without getting his share of the take.
“The Drowned Man” by Laura E Price
The Teachout sisters, Corwyn and Gwen, are returning by ship to claim their pay from the museum after acquiring a mysterious and dangerous music box that Corwyn must keep, sealed with wax, strapped to a wound on her thigh.
But the songs still seeped out and circled round her head. At first they were pleasant enough, but after two days of almost hearing music that clawed at her ears and attention, she got disgusted with the whole business. By the third day, she managed to ignore it.
While at sea, they spot what seems to be a drowned man floating in the water, but he turns out to be alive and, once on board, a thief who breaks into their cabin. Matters become worse when his wife shows up, along with their spawn.
Among other things, a twist on the siren story, with the water dragon being the sort of creature often identified with such deadly singers. There’s quite a lot going on here, and the clockwork sailors are a minor element. The primary focus is on the sisters, a fascinating pair of adventurers, with many hints given about their prior activities; I suspect a series could be in the making.
“Singing Like a Hundred Dug-Up Bones” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
Knowe is a solitary character who enters the scene appearing rather like a ghoul, but she resolves into a nascent archaeologist. The setting seems to be somewhere in the islands north of Scotland – the Orkneys or Shetlands – and not in our own century. Knowe has taken an interest in the ancient burial mounds, but one day, while looking for bones, she meets one of the ghosts who reside there. Another thing about Knowe is her love of songs, although her own voice doesn’t serve well for carrying them. The ghost, a musician herself, is the first person who doesn’t mind this.
There’s a strong sense here of the connection between the present and the distant past.
She knows there’s still more in that first chamber, more again in the three un-opened chambers: people with close-kept histories, locked up in metal and stone, in the state of their bones—stories for Knowe to spell out in slow, small pieces. Her ancestors’ stories.
There’s also a strong sense of loneliness. Knowe hasn’t had a happy life; she claims she doesn’t really like people much. The ghosts appear to be her first real friends, the only people with whom she can share herself. That’s a sad state of affairs. The situation may be due in part to patriarchy, at least to the behavior of her father. This is a profoundly misandristic work; men are portrayed on a scale of useless to oppressive. Most notably, there are no males among the ghosts, which is, to say the least, peculiar. A lot of men appear to have died at sea, but even the few who are buried in the mounds don’t join the ghosts, to their relief and satisfaction. There are only mothers, daughters, sisters, no brothers or sons. Their songs are all about women, and not about loving men. Which goes a long way to explain Knowe’s contentment in this society. She sees herself as part of this line of daughters and sisters, among her own at last, and learning their songs.
Which makes for a problem. The author makes the point that hundreds of years passed between the time the ghosts lived on the island and when it was repopulated, during which the language they spoke had been lost. Yet the ghosts are fluent in Knowe’s language. Tolnait explains that while the current people don’t linger among the mounds, she’s learned some of their words, but some words don’t make a whole language. I’m not buying it. Also not quite buying how the songs, in the language Knowe doesn’t understand, can be as moving as she claims. The tunes, perhaps, and the stories they tell – yes, but those stories were told to her in her own tongue. Of course, I’m a story person.
“Our Dead Selves Lie Like Footsteps in Our Wake” by Jeff Isacksen
Another patriarchal society, in which women, even of the ruling magical caste, and deformed males are not valued. But Mikale and Adalia, talented beyond the norm, have each other.
Most spells alter threads. They can turn air into bursts of fiery energy or freeze water in a glass. Others destroy threads or create them. The formula on Adalia’s nightstand binds things—ties threads together.
Time, however, unravels threads. Apart for too long, Mikale turns into a lush, Adalia takes out her hostility in duels. The story becomes Mikale’s struggle to recover and realize his talent.
A failed love story that was never really a romance. I found it rather short on heart, couldn’t feel for the characters.
“The Penitent” by M Bennardo
No 17596 has occupied his cell for four years under conditions of total solitude.
Everything in the prison was kept as quiet as possible. Even the guards wore rags wrapped around their feet to keep the soles of their shoes from ringing on the flagstones. Above all, the prisoners must not be reminded of the world outside their cells. Above all, the prisoners must not be disturbed in their term of penitence.
Now, for the first time, the door is unlocked, and he walks out, discovering all the other cells are empty. The entire city is empty. The guards are long gone. But then who has been pushing his tray of food under the door every day?
An odd fabulist piece, entirely concerned with the existential relationship between the penitent and his place of confinement, as the rest of the world has ceased to matter. Although there’s some evidence that the conditions of his confinement have driven him somewhat round the bend, I see no suggestion of ambiguity here; the details are too clear, too specific to be a delusion, despite the situation being quite inexplicable.
“Dreams of Peace” by Dana Beehr
Chaladon, last of the Deep Dancers, has spent most of her life following the call of a voice from her dreams and seeking to end the Ever-storm that is consuming the world. Chaladon takes shelter in an abandoned town but wakes to find herself apparently transported back in time to when it was a bustling, prosperous place full of ordinary humanity, except that it all seems an illusion.
As with the hotel furnishings, it seemed—just for a moment—that Chaladon could see devastation beneath: tattered carpet; splintered floorboards; shattered furniture; thick dust…. “
And the magical barrier preventing anyone from leaving the place.
There is an excessive number of Capitalized Fantasy Elements here – the Fire Veil, the Deep Dance, the Garden of Forking Paths. The text is also mostly backstory, as Chaladon recalls the places she has been, the people she once knew, the things she has done. It’s all quite uninteresting until we get to the end, when the author employs a radical twist as Chaladon makes her choice. Problem is, the impact of this choice depends on a bunch of last-minute revelations that the author has kept to herself.
Tor.com, May 2013
A lot of fiction posted this month.
“Jack of Coins” by Christopher Rowe
A bunch of teenagers in a decaying city encounter a strange man who seems out of place there. He seems to be lost, including his memory, including his name. But readers will suspect he’s from Elsewhere.
This didn’t trouble Les as much as it did the rest of us. “I’m going to call you Jack, then,” she said, and even though it sounded right to us because his visage and raiment were so like the card, the man just nodded, unsure.
Jack, in fairytales, is the name of the guy who climbs between worlds. This one is sort of a reverse Pied Piper. While for the teenagers this setting seems to be a mundane dystopia, everyone else, including the police, know that magical forces are clashing. There’s a potentially interesting conflict between Les and her brother David, who, the narrator tells us, eventually joins the police, takes the other side. But we know too little about him, them, all of it, to understand the reason.
“We Have Always Lived on Mars” by Cecil Castellucci
Nina is part of a too-small colony stranded on Mars and wishing she weren’t.
I hate this cramped life. This small space. This constant living on top of one another. I long to run. To be alone. To be away from these others clinging to the end of humanity. To not have to check my gear one million times before I step outside.
One day outside the habitat her suit rips, but she survives without it. She can breathe the Martian air. To the colonists, she seems to be a miracle of directed evolution, a sign of hope. But the author has set up a really hoary old twist.
I suppose it’s part of the point of all this YA publishing, an audience that hasn’t seen all this before, that won’t recognize the genre’s oldest clichés and recycled plots. The rest of us can only groan.
“Fire Above, Fire Below” by Garth Nix
The tarmac of a car park starts to melt, and in only minutes the entire Oldgate building is engulfed. The problem is the dragon down below, forgotten by most of the city along with the old pact that it is now clearly time to renew. A lot of stuff has been forgotten and built over where it shouldn’t have been. The fire chief sends for a representative of the Dragonborn, who requests the service of a volunteer to assist and carry the gold. Gold is important to dragons.
“The dragon is too old and weak to . . . do what it needs to do. It cannot make its way through all the tons of rubble that now lie above it. It is dying,” said Ylane through the open door. “It gathers its remaining strength to breathe fire all about itself, in the hope that it can burn its way free. I do not believe your chief would like another fire such as the one that consumed the Oldgate tower.”
Good original legendary premise, well-executed, with a neat conclusion. Readers will have suppose that Ylane isn’t telling Jaxon everything, and they’ll be right.
“Shall We Gather” by Alex Bledsoe
The Reverend Craig Chess is called to the bedside of a dying old man who “wants a man of God to tell him he ain’t going to hell.” Thing is, Old Man Foyt lives among the Tufad [fairies] over the line in Cloud County, which is run by the First Daughters, and Craig doesn’t want to be viewed as an interloper. Another thing is, the old man has sort of absorbed some of the Tufa by living among them for so long, leaving him “a little bit in the middle.” So the First Daughter wants Craig to ask him whether, at the end, the Tufa go before the same god as the Christians do.
A warm story of simple faith. When Craig first gets the phone call from Lula Mae Pennycuff, I thought this might be hillbilly mockery, but it turns out to be no such thing.
“The Button Man and the Murder Tree” by Cherie Priest
A Wild Cards story. Raul Esposito works for the Chicago Mob in 1971, but he’s also turned a card as a joker, with mushrooms, button mushrooms that grow on his skin.
He started at his wrists, since those growths had blossomed first, and were largest. He pruned them one by one, scraping the blade along the clustered stalks. They popped free and dropped into the steel waste bin with a spongy little ping that made his teeth itch. Some as small as his pinky nail. Some the size of his thumb. Brown-capped or gray, with creamy undersides and speckles.
Lately, the bosses have decided to post the names on the hit list to the Deadman’s Tree, and Raul isn’t happy to see Harriet’s up there now. Harriet’s an old flame, and he knows he’ll probably get that call. But when he does, he discovers that Harriet has a secret of her own, a lot like his. The bosses haven’t been telling him everything.
This one feels like it should have been set about forty years earlier, if it weren’t for the constraints of the series. Otherwise, it’s relatively unconstrained and reads well on its own.
“Super Bass” by Kai Ashante Wilson
In Sea-john, a city with something of the flavor of our Caribbean, Gian is a hero back from the wars with what we would call PSTD. He’s vowed to leave all that behind, to find happiness and love at home, and he’s found the man he wants it with. But he never brings his man around to meet his mamas-and-papas, like he’s ashamed of them, which he is.
“We can’t hardly step in the street, but somebody don’t stop us to say they just now seen you, hugged up with some fella we ain’t even met once. Now, all of a sudden, you going to services out of parish. What it feel like, Gianni, is you cutting out the people who love you best.”
Cianco is the Summer King [this seems to be a relatively permanent position] at his own parish’s temple, which is having a healing ceremony today. The priestess there doesn’t think much of his boy Gian, like he doesn’t belong. She wants someone better, someone prettier. Gian has to prove himself, through faith and love.
A complicated background here – both Gian’s personal history in the war and the society of his home town. Of great importance is the local religion, in which a lot seems familiar, largely suggesting voudon, but its own unique self. The ceremony is fueled by offerings, community fervor, faith and sex. As Cianco’s sissy, Gian serves as a necessary channel of power, a thing he has never previously done. He soon learns it’s a matter not only of power but wise judgment in the employment of it. The description of the different cases and their disposition of them is quite interesting. There’s also lively language and dialog.
But there’s not a whole lot of conflict, except Gian’s inward ones. Of much stuff that could go wrong, or threaten to go wrong, he pretty much does it right. It looks like his heart’s desire is all going to fall into his hands, and Cianco is going to love Gian’s own family, too. Cianco is a great guy and Gian seems to be a lucky one to have him, but it doesn’t make for a lot of story tension.