Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-June

Wading through the summer quarterly deluge and finding some great reading, most notably in Subterranean Magazine’s summer issue, a K J Parker special. Also a good issue of F&SF. Good Story awards to both Parker stories and the Valente from Subterranean and to the Arnason story from F&SF.


Publications Reviewed


Subterranean, Summer 2013

Awesomeness! A special K J Parker issue! Two works of fiction and one of history from one of the very best in the genre. The rest of the ToC completes an absolutely premier author lineup. The issue is RECOMMENDED

“The Sun and I” by K J Parker

Suffering from the poverty of wartime inflation, Eps decides, in a moment of inspiration, to invent his own religion.

“We could pretend that God came to us in a dream, urging us to go forth and preach His holy word. Fine,” I added, “it’s still basically just begging, but it’s begging with a hook. You give money to a holy man, he intercedes for your soul, you get something back.”

Owing in large part to luck, the Invincible Sun takes off in a war-weary population. Or maybe it’s more than just luck. Readers will note that more than once, Eps says, “It’s as though some higher power possesses me and speaks through me.” As though God appears to him in dreams and dictates doctrine, even when Eps keeps protesting that he made the whole thing up. Sometimes events overtake their creators.

Although the tone is dark humor, shading strongly to the cynical, there’s a whole lot of real insight here into the nature of religion as an institution and of faith – which are not at all the same phenomena. And from religion, we get history, which has so often been shaped by it, as it is in this account. But far from being overly didactic, it’s as highly as entertaining as any more secular adventure of a band of rogues.

“Illuminated” by K J Parker.

Analyzing a problematic text in the Studium, the author’s school of wizards. It’s a celibate order, with a small number of female adepts, and the primary narrator isn’t really happy with his current assignment to mentor one of them.

You can’t argue with women about temperature, I’ve noticed. They’re always cold, all of them. It can be hot enough to puddle the nails in the doorframe, and still they’ll moan at you for not lighting the fire.

Their task is “forensic recovery, investigation and damage limitation” in a deserted tower once used by a rogue wizard. They find standard texts, a classic work of pornography, and a journal written in a kind of wizardly code, which is where the problem lies. It seems that the rogue, who was also mentoring a female adept, had developed a new magical form, which didn’t do exactly what he thought it did.

The excellences here are many. There is the Studium with its fascinating practices and magical forms, and we also get glimpses of a history more vast than is immediately presented to us in the confined space of the tower. There is the entertaining narrative voice – or rather, voices – which become a matter of greater significance near the end, as the mystery of the journal is finally decoded. And at its heart, this is a story of texts, as the name of the form indicates, of the written word. The frame is a meta-text, as scholars in the Studium’s future address the text left them by our narrators, in which they address the encrypted text of the rogue wizard. We also have texts – written words – erased and rewritten in a palimpsest, on parchment of a problematic nature. The form verbum scripsi explicitly employs the power in the written word, and the form of encryption, which reads as “gibberish, except sometimes . . . ” is itself a spell that can damage the unprepared mind. As the narrator warns:

Think about what you do when you write something down. You take a thought out of your own mind, you separate it from yourself, and you fix it in a permanent medium, like a fly in amber. Then you leave it there.

So it is with a story. Too many pass through the mind without leaving a lasting trace of interest, but some, like this one, make a permanent impression.

“Stage Blood” by Kat Howard

Stage magic. The run-the-swords-through-the-woman trick; here, the box is transparent glass.

There was no blood inside the glass coffin with the woman. Not on the swords that Ian slid through, through the glass and through the woman, and then out again before unlocking the glass coffin in which she lay.

There is blood everywhere else on the stage, however. The trick is Ian’s secret, and he keeps his secrets locked carefully away, behind a hidden door. Stella, however, knows the secret of secrets, and how to unlock them.

Very elegant horror. Readers will be in doubt, up to the last moment, who will prevail in this magical contest, the magician or the woman who is more than his usual victim. They are also likely to see the old trick in a different light, just what it means to penetrate a subject woman with a deadly blade.

“The Case of the Stalking Shadow” by Joe R Lansdale

A Dana Roberts story – part of a series that I would have thought I’d previously seen, but no. Roberts, then, is a ghost hunter or, as she puts it, a supernormal investigator. The current account describes her first case, as a teenager at a family party near the remains of an ancient and haunted forest. The kids had decided to play hide-and-seek there at night, which readers will recognize as a Bad Idea. Roberts’ hiding place seems to have pulled her a bit into some other dimension; the kids in the game have faded, and something else is approaching her.

However, as the shape came closer, I began to have a greater feeling of unease than before. The shape came along with an unusual step that seemed somewhere between a glide and a skip. There was something disconcerting about its manner. It was turning its shadowed head left and right, as I would have expected a seeker to do, but there was a deeply ingrained part of me that rejected this as its purpose.

Roberts’ cousin Jane has also seen the shadow, and as adults, they decide to go back and confront their fears. It’s telling that Jane brings holy water; Roberts, cans of gasoline.

An odd piece, rather disappointing. The mysterious evil is unoriginal, though well-described, the protagonist’s conquest of it highly facile. And the narrative is written in an archaic diction that suggests a past century, when laser pointers did not exist. I also can’t see the need for the framing device. It’s rather surprising to see this author producing something so dull.

“The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World” by Catherynne M. Valente

Between the Wizards of New York and Los Angeles, the moon seconding NY and the sun LA. With the Bride, the prize, watching from under the bar in the Gnaw Hollow Saloon.

I was born at Burnt Corn Ranch on the summer solstice and I came out of a pinto mare just as human as you like. Maybe you don’t like too much, and that’d be about right. Back then Burnt Corn were run by Tincup Henry and his girl name of Ashen. When she was a skinny little cough of a thing her mother said she whored with the Devil and ate of the bread of Dagon. She locked that girl in the barn with the new lambs and lit the whole thing on fire. Possible she knew what was coming, possible she was crazy. Ashen’s eyelashes and eyebrows and all her hair burnt off before her brother Cutter (who happened to be the Duke of Maine, but he didn’t know it yet) run out in all the stink of burning wool and beat the flames off with his own hands.

So that’s the kind of magical tall tale we have here, and that’s how it’s wrote. As the Bride warns us, it’s not a pretty thing; it’s cruel and heartless – the principals having disposed of their hearts along with their names.

Here’s Valente out in Lansdale territory, taking it, making it her own, although not at all as dark as Lansdale can be when he pulls out all the stops on the horror organ. This one isn’t horror but a kind of post-apocalyptic mythos in the key of fantasy Western, in which the hyperbole is de rigueur. Inventive, imaginative. Really neat.

“Don’t Ask” by Bruce McAllister and W S Adams

A merc goes through his merc lover’s body bag, enumerating the damage, looking for evidence of what killed her. There’s not much left intact.

A love story. So much of what we love about the other involves the body.

I always wondered what her bones were like, under her skin, in the darkness when we were at last in darkness and could touch each other, or in the light, once or twice in down-time bungalows, when we could look at each other and touch too, but see our bodies bright as day.

An unusual mixture, both gruesome and moving.

F&SF, July/Aug 2013

A good issue this time, ten stories, an overall fine selection. I quite enjoyed the reading and had several pieces to recommend. There’s a somewhat high proportion of exaggerated titles.

“Oh Give Me a Home” by Adam Rakunas

The buffalo are mini-bison, and Brewster is breeding them as superior meat animals, to the irritation of Big Ag, who afflict him with lawsuits. Brew has won, all the way up to the Supreme Court, but the corporation’s strategy is to wear him down with new suits. This pisses him off.

“You want to see drama? Find out what happens when no one can pay your license fees anymore. Find out what happens when you’re up to your neck in dead cattle ’cause the ranchers can’t afford the modified feed. You can’t see it, but I can. My dad could. That’s why he fought Amagco so hard.”

While the tone here is light, the issue is a serious one that reflects the current practices of corporations attempting to establish proprietary control over agricultural practice. And while Brewster can win some rounds on technicalities, it seems to me that he’s surrendering on the larger principles, which disappoints. It’s a pretty talky story, although the expected courtroom-speeches scene doesn’t materialize.

“The Year of the Rat” by Chen Quifan, translated by Ken Liu

In a future China that rather resembles the old Red one as well as the present, unemployable university students are recruited to make war on the Neorats™, under the motto: “It’s honorable to love the country and support the army; it’s glorious to protect the people and kill rats.” Or perhaps less than glorious.

“You’re here because you’re all failures! You lived in the new dorms the taxpayers built, ate the rice the peasants grew, enjoyed every privilege the country could give you. Your parents spent their coffin money on your tuition. But in the end, you couldn’t even find a job, couldn’t even keep yourselves alive. You’re only good for catching rats! Actually, you’re even lower than rats. Rats can be exported for some foreign currency, but you?”

It seems that the rats raised for export have either escaped from their breeding farms or been deliberately released by the farmers for less than honorable reasons. It isn’t clear. The rats have enhanced intelligence and seem to be developing a civilization. The narrator’s friend Pea is unhappy about killing them, until Pea himself is killed under unclear circumstances. When things finally do become clear, it’s too late for him.

A cynical, Orwellian work with the message that innocence is doomed and everyone is expendable to those who manipulate events. The author has a mordant vision of society that reflects both past and present; the images of surplus students unable to find jobs is all too real throughout the world today, although no so drastic a method of employing them. And the neorats are a particularly neat SFnal invention for a cynical world, the ultimate expendables.


“Kormack the Lucky” by Eleanor Arnason

An Icelandic story. Readers familiar with the sagas will immediately recognize the name of Egil, to whom the Irish slave Kormack is sold when no one else can get a good day’s work out of him. “Kormack said nothing, but he thought that the old man could hardly cause much harm. Eighty years old and blind!” Which shows how little Kormack knows. One day Egil tries to kill him, and the elves rescue him; the elves are unfriends of Egil. Yet even in Alfheim, Kormack is a slave.

This was his fate, Kormack thought, to go from owner to owner, a slave to farmers in Iceland, then a slave to Icelandic elves. It was a discouraging idea. At least he was alive, unlike Svart, and he was away from the horrible old man. If it was his fate to labor for the elves, he would not trust them. Svart had trusted the Marsh Men and been killed.

This state of affairs does not last, however, Kormack’s adventures are only beginning.

Arnason is uniquely qualified to mine this material, and what she makes of it is no retread. Egil Skallagrimsson is a figure from history whose actual exploits seem more like those of a sword and sorcery hero. But things get even more interesting after Kormack escapes from Egil into the lands of the elves and the Irish fey. The central figure is revealed at length to be the legendary smith Volund, whose inventions here are a great deal more far-reaching than in the received version of the tales, most notably the iron dog who quotes poetry. But Kormack himself turns out to be a strong-minded character who learns at last what makes a life happy, unlike Egil, who died in the mean and miserable old age that the story describes.


“In the Mountains of Frozen Fire” by Denis Winslow Mallard Codswallop Bourginon Cushing as recounted by the Official Enigma Club Raconteur, Rus Wornom

Which is to say, Wornom is the actual author, as opposed to the fictional Cushing, also known as M4, also known as the Mongoose, natural enemy of the assassin ZX-12, aka the Cobra. The title continues with a parenthetical note that the account is reprinted from the club’s magazine of 1919; this suggests that the medium will be pulp, and so it appears, as the story opens with M4 battering bad guys thereunto.

Before his assailant could pull himself back up, M4 was on his feet and drove a knuckle sandwich of iron into the back of the Russian’s head. The killer’s neck snapped! Then his eyes wide in shock, Smiley Korshowski — butcher, murderer, and one-time cavalier virtuoso of the Imperial Kolvenyik Ballet — collapsed to the floor, his neck twisted at an angle unnatural to those still quite alive.

Further adventures ensue, as the secret agent follows the trail of his quarry into the demon-accursed frozen mountains of Ghutranh.

As the “codswallop” suggests, this is humor of the violently empurpled over-the-top variety, both satirizing the lurid adventure fiction of a century past and slathering on absurdities of its own. I found it rather thick going, but there were saving touches of wit here and there, which lightened the way. There is also, if you dig down past the prose, an actual fantastic adventure story.

“The Color of Sand” by K J Kabza

Living by themselves on the dune are Fairday, her son Catch, and the sandcats. Fairday and Catch comb the beach for the strange stones that they don’t know to be magic until Bone the sandcat tells them the name is refulgium – using the magic of the stone to speak.

They were stones, but not stones. They were too translucent. Held up to the light, they shimmered with pinks and oranges and reds, like water beneath the setting sun. Held in the palm, they exuded a soft warmth. Catch even sniffed one once. He lacked the words to describe what he smelled, but he knew what it was not. This was not a thing of the sea.

Upon learning this, Catch swallows a stone of his own to find out what will happen, which is that he instantly grows to the size of a giant. Fairday is determined to restore him to normal, whereupon they embark on a marvelous adventure.

A charming tale with an original premise. It resembles a fairy tale in some ways, but the mode of telling is all its own.


“Half a Conversation, Overheard While Inside an Enormous Sentient Slug” by Oliver Buckram

Short-short murder mystery, which is to say the testimony of the dishwasher in the matter of the murder of Lord Ash. It is left to the readers to determine how far they ought to trust the dishwasher, and to deduce the present whereabouts of Lady Ash. Amusing.

“The Woman Who Married the Snow” by Ken Altabef

Ulruk is a shaman of the Inuit. One day the body of a man drowned five years earlier is discovered frozen in the lake. Seeing him, his wife is overwhelmed by grief a second time. Ulruk, whom she asks for help, considers the spirit of the snow.

The snow was ever asleep now, having seen so much, as an old man who was beyond having to work and sits observing the activities of all his children and grandchildren. Ulruk imagined the great spirit puffing thoughtfully at his pipe as he watched them, perhaps laughing slyly at their jests, perhaps gratified by their triumphs.

Moved by the woman’s grief, he can only ask. But he makes a great mistake.

The title is somewhat misleading; no marriage takes place in this tragic story. Ulruk blames himself for what happens, and readers will certainly agree with him, but the question is why he agreed to what the woman asked. The author suggests it has something to do with Ulruk’s grief at the loss of his own wife, but as this is an event we’ve never seen, it’s hard to feel.

I like the description of the snow spirit, who turns out to be not quite what Ulruk had in mind.

“The Miracle Cure” by Harvey Jacobs

Dr Tobey Chalmers is excited about the recent reports of gallbladders discovered seemingly-miraculously healed of stones when the surgeon cuts open the patient. Such excitement is seen by the medical establishment as embarrassing, as a sign that the believer is overly gullible or some kind of nutcase. A miracle, however, would be commonplace compared to the outlandish explanation offered here. Pretty silly stuff, with an execrable punchline.

“The Heartsmith’s Daughters” by Harry R Campion

This one marries the modes of fairytale and campfire horror story. When the smith’s triplet daughters are miscarried, he promises his wife that they will have more daughters. Alas, his heart fails him too soon, so his last act is to create three daughters at his forge with hearts of iron, brass and gold. Ironheart protects their home, Brassheart carries on the work of the smithy, and Goldheart is their mother’s loving companion. But in her innocence, she underestimates the force of evil and malice in the world.

The sisters slipped out of the smithy. Coming nigh to their father’s grave, they knelt by the marker of the barely-born triplets and ran their hands over the smooth black obsidian. Brassheart took up her mallet and a chisel, and with three deft strokes, ringing blows whose thudding reverberations seemed to shake the ground underfoot, the foundations of the little house, and the uneasy sleep of their mother, she struck from the gravestone a chunk of cold, sharp-edged darkness the size of her fist.

A tale that doesn’t quite work out happily ever after. It’s a dark thing of malice and revenge in the service of innocence and love, but innocence can’t really survive under such pressure. Thus is the moral, because it’s that kind of story.

Lightspeed, June 2013

Stories of illusion and reality.

“Paranormal Romance” by Christopher Barzak

Sheila is a witch who specializes in love spells, although she’s never seemed to find it for herself, nor really tried hard. She’s a connoisseur of love, being particularly fond of the vintage of the young gay couple downstairs.

Their love was still fresh. Sheila could smell it whenever she stopped in to visit them on weekends, when Trent and Gary could be found on the back deck, barbequing and drinking glasses of red wine. They could make ordinary things like cooking out feel magical because of the sheer completeness they exuded, like a fine sparking mist, when they were near each other. That was pure early love, in Sheila’s assessment, and she sipped at it from the edges.

Sheila doesn’t like curses, but like many single women she’s cursed with an overbearing, interfering mother who, this time, has set her up with an unwanted date.

The author, oddly, opens the story by assuming the reader will suppose a witch to be someone green-skinned and warty, as if the contemporary sort is a fresh surprise. Otherwise a pleasant sort of lite story.

“The Huntsman” by Megan Arkenberg

An updated urban version of the faery tithe, as the children are bussed away to become changelings. One of them grows up to be the Huntsman, but what he hunts are faery hearts, faery blood. This time, he finds more than he had expected.

“It’s the best bargain you’ll get in this town,” the faery woman says. She’s standing by a cracked kitchen sink with mold between the tiles, rinsing diced tomatoes and crooked green jalapeño rings. “A heart for a heart. And my heart’s more than what she’s used to, I’ll tell you that. You couldn’t find better if you went door-to-door from every house in the tithe-projects.”

Faery deglamourized, the skuzzy reality behind the illusions and dreams, the disillusionment when you can see it for what it is.

“The Ballad of Marisol Brook” by Sarah Grey

Marisol, a deceased film star, is reconstituted as the spokesperson of the cosmetics company who will contractually own her. Her revival party is a glittering Hollywood event.

Late in the evening, Marisol receives a letter, hand-delivered in a white glove, from Mr. Oliver Stuyvesant Brook, through his counsel, Ashwild & Craycroft, notifying her that the unfortunate drowning of the true Ms. Marisol Brook operates to terminate their marriage and nullify any support obligations delineated in their prenuptial agreement.

Her career takes a downward trajectory as a succession of male and corporate entities use her for their own purposes. A portrait of disillusion, as Marisol gradually sheds the false images that have concealed who she really is, whom she really loves. Nicely done.

“Alive, Alive Oh” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

The narrator always expected to come home to seaside Wales after a stint of terraforming a toxic exoplanet, but things didn’t work out that way. She misses home even more for her daughter’s sake, who’s never known life in the open air of a world, never tasted real unprocessed food. The narrator tells her stories.

“Sometimes you could catch them with the shells open. I caught buckets of razor clams at the estuary. Find a hole in the sand, that’s where they’ve dug themselves into. You just drop a bit of salt into the hole and then reach in and drag the clams straight out of their shells. They’re plump and meaty. If you were hungry enough, I guess you could simply eat them on the spot. In the old days, they had special knives to pry the shells open and eat them alive.”

A horror story of sorts. Which makes sense if you actually think about the words of that song, of the fate awaiting the hapless cockles and mussels.

Strange Horizons, June 2013

One of the best issues I’ve seen here in some time.

“Jinki and the Paradox” by Sathya Stone

Science fiction advocates have often been known to call their genre a “literature of ideas”, and here is an actual example, a story based on mathematical concepts. It seems that an advanced species of aliens wants to conduct an experiment, and has offered human colonists some planets if they participate.

“The Rathki believe that civilization rises only because of the random error, events no one can predict. If you have the usual probability math governing events then you’ll only ever get unicellular organisms, or maybe just no life at all, because life is a random error.”

In Jinki’s colony, the randomness comes in the form of Mr Quest, the official Trickster in the chaos potential. The colonists are required to heed Quest’s suggestions, which is how they got Jinki, because he decided the colony needed a child. But having a human child in the experimental environment is forbidden, so the aliens created Jinki, embodying a Kai, a being of light. Jinki has to learn as a human child would, inside Time. He’s not allowed to look outside Time, lest he create a paradox. Then comes the day he wishes on a falling star – Mr Quest’s idea, of course.

I get a nice mental zing from this one. The author does the child point of view well; Jinki has a lively curiosity without being too cutesy or cloying. I can’t help thinking that it’s not a name I’d give in any experiment of mine – much too close to “jinx”. Whether this was the author’s intention, I can’t say.

“Collateral Memory” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The author’s note tells us that the story is related to events in the author’s childhood in Guatamala, part of a shameful history. In this milieu, American military kids, missionary kids, and Guatamalan kids play together, though not on equal terms. The game they play is the raid, mirroring the raids the local forces make nightly, breaking into houses, beating the residents, and dragging many of the away for torture. Sides are chosen by lot, but the rule is: it has to be real; real bruises and contusions always result. But Elena has a special talent for magic that she can use to help her side conceal themselves from the raiders [we don’t see Elena on the other side, breaking in on the others].

It’s only the second time I’ve used the spell during the game, and most of the others think it’s just unexpected luck that so deepens the dark in the shed. Except Memo. I know he can’t decide whether I’m cursed or blessed by what I do, but he’s tired of the relentless losing too.

Eventually, everyone grows up and moves on. As an adult, Elena discovers the others claim they don’t remember the game. She needs confirmation.

Essentially, a political work, a condemnation of those who turn away, who deny that the game is a mirror of the larger game in which the deaths are not pretended. The magical element comes across as secondary. Elena’s victories from it are minor, and they mostly earn the resentment of the other kids – for cheating, for not doing more, for favoritism, for cowardice. As an adult, very little has changed. People expect more of magic; they expect great miracles. The story is too realistic; it tells us that even magic doesn’t actually matter, except in the smallest ways. Elena really does come off as a coward, and sympathy for her comes hard.

“Longfin’s Daughters” by O J Cade

“Three sisters live in next to an eel pond.” The two oldest sisters live in a sensual intimacy with the eels, swimming with them and more.

(She remembered how her legs had trembled at the first brush of the wet skin against her flesh, how she had sunk to her knees in the dark water and rubbed her face against the warm flanks of the eels, her hair floating on the surface and covering their faces as well as her own.)

The youngest sister is reluctant to have anything to do with the eels, but what is inevitable, is inevitable.

Very much in the fairytale mode, this transformative tale doesn’t have much in the way of suspense. What it offers is highly sensuous language and imagery, downright erotic.


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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