Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early February

February brings some better fiction. The Good Story award goes to F&SF‘s Sarah Pinsker story.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, March/April 2014

A very mixed issue with some good work, including a fine short story by Sarah Pinsker, for whose work I will now be watching. Also a lot of the other sort of stuff, like a novella with ethical problems and, as usual, a number of humorous pieces, of which the Buckram is actually funny.

“The Lightness of the Moment” by Pat MacEwen

Xenology. Shannon, a serial loser, is one of a two-person grad-school expedition on the world of humanoid beings they call Neons, for their brilliantly colored scales.

As he spread his small arms, the thin membrane connecting each arm to his sides was pulled taut, and the sunlight behind him shone right through the green, pink, and blue of the webbing. The child glowed, like living stained glass.

Their study is supposed to be governed by standard noninterference protocols meant to determine that the Neons not recognize her as alien or be influenced in any way by her presence among them, yet Shannon, wearing a mimicry suit, is roaming all over the place interfering; her standard method is to seduce and simulate copulation with the males.

At which point, my abused suspension of disbelief falls through the basement floor. As in, no way. Even with mimicry suits, just no way this could work; evolution places too much importance in the recognition of suitable mates. Also, by robbing a male of his sperm, his reproductive fitness is likely to be harmed, which is exactly the sort of alteration the ethical guidelines forbid. And so it continues, with Shannon bumbling through this unprotected world, violating protocol, overturning local norms and causing havoc out of ignorance and carelessness. While Niera, observing from the ship, keeps up an endless line of nagging and carping, we begin to think she has a point.

But even more to the point is the entire premise, because the real problem is not Shannon’s activity but the entire concept of her experiment, in fact, the whole idea of expeditions like this one, that serve no real good but the quest for academic credentials for self-serving humans. The disasters that follow in Shannon’s wake might be extreme, but only expected in the course of such ill-advised programs. There is just no way such activity could not do harm. Given the possibility of remote viewing from orbit, which a culture advanced enough to get there in the first place would certainly possess, there’s just no excuse for it, or for this story, which suggests that such violations can somehow be made right and absolves Shannon for being well-intentioned and doing penance.

“Apprentice” by Jon DeCles

When a gryphon appears in the village and proceeds to attack valuable horses, the locals engage the services of a wizard living conveniently nearby. As part of his price, he demands a servant to keep his place in order, which task falls on Dafyd the difficult stable boy. Dafyd proves to be a good servant and in the fullness of time embarks on the study of magick, which alas is a perilous undertaking.

Dafyd mused on the possibilities for a long time before it occurred to him that his master might not approve of what he had done. When that thought dashed cold rain on his delight, he rushed to the armory, put the jade frog on the table, and turned pages in the grimoire to find a spell to undo what he had accomplished. He knew that such a spell must be of roughly the same status as the one for the initial transformation, so he did not anticipate any great difficulty, and in fact he found such a counter spell quickly.

A nice specimen of the wizard’s-apprentice tale. Although there is a lightly humorous tone to the narrative, this is not comedy, and the conclusion is moving. The proposition that Dafyd was ever difficult, however, is unsupported, and I don’t know why it was introduced at all.

“Draft 31” by Michael Libling

Doc Caplan decides to set up a practice in his old hometown, a move resisted by his wife Beth until the axe came out at her job. Beth still harbors resentment and not a little jealousy, particularly after Cap runs into his old flame Allie, concerned about her son Josh, who insists on remembering people who never existed, like the father that Allie had never identified. Or the son that Cap never had. His first sight of Josh fills Cap with inexplicable misgiving.

He had no explanation for the dread he felt, nothing he could put a finger on. Seasonal malaise, though not quite. It was more the sense he’d been found out — that the boy had found him out. But what could the boy know? What was there in Cap’s life that needed finding out?

And as the plot thickens, we do find out. Tense psychological horror here. Everything seems at first so normal, but the strain builds slowly, assumptions that once appeared sound begin to show cracks, then rapidly disintegrate. Well done and intriguing.

“Collar” by Leo Vladimirsky

Dystopia. Tom is a navvie, which is to say a guide helping jobseekers get out to the factory ships, a six-mile swim from the US shore. It seems that Congress has passed a law that no goods sold in the US can be made on foreign soil, with the unintended consequence that all work is now carried out on offshore Chinese factory ships. But workers attempting to reach them must fear the Labor patrols who try to keep people from reaching the ships.

The factory ships had come in even closer and the lights were now a continuous band straight across the water. A bobbing, burning, solid white fence. A noose. A cage.

A collar.

Thus Tom’s job, and the choices he has to make for self-preservation.

An “If This Goes On” story. To take the developments here literally isn’t really possible. Even the US Congress isn’t likely to be quite that stupid or venal. It works, however, as a metaphor for the coming entrapment of the formerly middle-class in the crushing consequences of economic globalization. As such, an effective Cautionary Tale.

“A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly” by Oliver Buckram

Treya is a translator fluent in the language of the beetle population, which is based on a standardized operatic format.

She translated in a low voice. “He’s doing the Lamentation on Congestion…apologies for being late…greetings from the Baroness. He’s going off on a tangent. Could be an extended monologue. No… He’s back on track. We’re definitely doing the first scene of A Routine Mercantile Transaction. It’s a one-act, so this shouldn’t take long.”

Unfortunately, her unscrupulous ex has come to town and is stealing her business, despite being less skillful on the bagpipes. And the beetle Baroness is not above cheating, herself.

Buckram is clever and inventive, and it’s always a pleasure to see what he’s getting up to.

“Hark, the Wicked Witches Sing” by Ron Goulart

In 1942, Bernie Hix’s Hollywood agent isn’t enthusiastic about his latest script. Hix thinks it might help if he’s known to be involved with some actual witches, so he jumps at the opportunity when Polly the starlet tells him she’s being cursed to fall down at inopportune moments, such as auditions. Hix turns detective [like his character Mr Woo] and follows the trail to the starlet who got the part instead of Polly. And her menacing new agent.

As Hix was on the brink of entering Visitors’ Parking Lot 2, a freshly polished black 1940s Cadillac drove up behind him, stopped on the street and honked its melodious horn once. The frizzy-haired writer turned and at that moment the sky grew darker and a sharp wind came wooshing across the lot.

The humor here is pretty stale, based on 1940s allusions and clichés. I wonder if younger readers even known what a B movie is.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” by Sarah Pinsker

Andy got his arm chewed up by the combine and they replaced it with a bionic prototype. He heals well and gains increasing control over the arm, but he begins to have a mental disconnect because his arm thinks it’s a highway in Colorado.

He struggled to communicate with it. It worked fine; it was just elsewhere. Being a road wasn’t so bad, once he got used to it. People say a road goes to and from places, but it doesn’t. A road is where it is every moment of the day.

The disconnect only gets worse, and Andy finds it harder to carry on with his life. He struggles with the compulsion to drop everything he loves and drive to Colorado.

Very well done story of character. Andy is deeply real, and readers will feel his pain even if they don’t quite understand it. The SFnal problem remains in part a mystery, but the conclusion is emotionally fulfilling.


“Byzantine History 101” by Albert E Cowdrey

Alas, another story of Professor Threefoot, in fact a sequel to the previous. His hapless son-in-law expired some time ago, after siring a son who has since disappointed the old fart by being gay and marrying another man. Adam Sr manages, however, to take revenge from his grave, with the assistance of his son’s husband, a piece of work on the order of the nasty old man.

Not as stupid as its predecessor, as it presents a coherent story, even when based on the events in the earlier piece. Still, there is hardly a worthy character in the bunch and the humor is labored. It’s pieces like this one that make readers wonder why the author seems to have a permanent reserved place on the zine’s table of contents.

“Albion Upon the Rock” by Daniel Marcus

Twenty-two thousand years ago, a colony ship set out from Sol to Tau Ceti, ran into a gamma ray storm and got lost, its damaged AI no longer aware of its purpose and its human population gone feral, along with the cats and rats onboard. In the course of time, back home, humans turned posthuman, colonized other star systems, including Tau Ceti, and spread across the galaxy. Now a multidimensional entity of distant human origin has spotted the ship heading towards the oblivion of a black hole; it opens communication with vaguely benevolent intentions. At the same time, one of the humans living within the ship finds that it’s his time to sacrifice his life to make room for another generation.

Not an entirely original premise, but Marcus twists it in a different way than readers may expect. Despite some levity in the dialogue, the outlook is bleak, reflecting the title, which is taken from William Blake [Albion’s rock standing “in the Sea of Time and Space”]. Here, we have the image of the crippled ship: “a spacetime serpent, tail stretching back home to Sol, head falling forever into the black hole, falling forever toward journey’s end, as the Universe wheeled and turned and grew slowly, slowly cold.” Nicely depressing.

I like this well enough that I rather wish I didn’t have a quibble, but that’s the job. The narrator names the entity Brown for convenience and employs the masculine pronoun in reference to it. The entity is not remotely human in any physical sense, nor can it be considered to have sexuality. “It” would certainly be the more appropriate, properly neutral pronoun.

“The Uncertain Past” by Ted White

Theory says that observers from the future can’t change events in the past, but experiments seem to disprove this: every trip records events that differ from the historical record. “It’s like the actual past is unobservable.” The question is why. The answer we don’t find, only another complication. Nothing really new here.

“Butterscotch” by D M Armstrong

Mysterious spectres have appeared in the world, corporeal ones that people are calling “travelers”.

They appeared to be made of the dust from vacuum bags, looked like people for the most part, though their faces were haggard, old without being aged. And their skin was a mottled pigeon color, the unfinished gray of industrial cabinets. Their clothes were rags, versions of what they might have worn in life, though not all such clothing could be attributed to certain time periods, and upon inspection this attire seemed to be a part of their tired flesh.

Arthur and Alexis see one of these crossing their yard just at the time when Alexis discovers she is pregnant. The phenomenon returns repeatedly, and when the pregnancy doesn’t go well, they encounter speculation that it might be related to the presence of the traveler. Arthur feels slightly guilty because he has had doubts about having children, but Alexis, her condition deteriorating, blames him entirely and orders him out of the house.

Another one it’s hard to take literally, even taking the premise as fantasy. The travelers are actualized metaphors, corporealized emotional fields. The question is whether they are cause or consequence. What the story leaves out is the reason this phenomenon has decided to materialize at the particular time of the story, and not at any previous time. If the author is suggesting that this is the true age of anxiety, that’s one thing, but I’m not sure how seriously readers are going to take it.

But at its heart, this is a story of character, effectively done. Arthur is a man who becomes increasingly determined to fight for his wife, his child, the marriage and family. Even in the face of Alexis’s growing irrational hostility, he refuses to give up. His confrontations of the traveler become more desperate because he has no idea what to do – will attacking them help or harm the situation? The presence of his toxic mother-in-law doesn’t help the story, as it diverts agency from Alexis; it’s Alexis who makes the choice to turn against Arthur. In the end, Arthur appears as a rather heroic figure, yet I wonder if this marriage can be saved in the long run, poisoned as it is with Alexis’s betrayal.

“I Said I Was Sorry Didn’t I” by Gordon Eklund

The disagreeable narrator bitches and moans about everyone hating him for what he did, while readers wait to find out what it was, caring less and less with every page, which is just as well, as we don’t. Tedious stuff.

“Our Vegetable Love” by Rob Chilson

In what seems to be a medieval setting, the local wizard once planted a hedge of soul-suck trees. Unwary wayfarers who come too close to the trees have their minds sucked up and into them, and occasionally a villager weary of life trades his human body for that of a sentient, mobile tree, as Roger Thistledean once did. But after the wizard disappeared for reasons unknown, the plantation spread until the villagers began to regard it as a threat. Thus the annual Bonfire Day, when villagers and trees assemble: “Today we go forth and murther our kindred.”

Roger Tree pulled his taproot slowly out of the ground. Each hairlike rootlet he carefully eased out of the loose soil, and coiled the taproot. Then the three other main roots. These were shorter than the taproot and had few rootlets. Stepping carefully, he maneuvered these three thick roots to the firmer ground beside his plot and pulled his three boots over.

This year, Roger’s youngest great-granddaughter is upset that she’s deemed too young for the ceremony and determines to start her own bonfire, after telling her arboreal grandfather that he’s “nowt but a tree” and sparking an existential crisis for Roger.

Unusual fantastic premise with a not-unexpected heartwarming conclusion.



Clarkesworld, February 2014

Finding interest in the Theodoridou story.

“Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable” by Cat Rambo

Bereavement. When Antony’s mother is disappointed with the clone of her beloved cat, he should have taken it as a sign that cloning his deceased wife Mindy might not work out as planned. To which readers might respond: “Well Duh!” That’s not really what this story is about, though. It’s about commitment and the leap of faith required in love.

Regardless, I can’t be enthusiastic. Stories where clones are grown to physical maturity in days or weeks do that to me. And the metaphorical parallel of cat and woman is too obvious, too pat. Except that it’s imperfect. The cat is merely an [imperfect] genetic duplicate of its original while the woman is also supplied with [some of] her original’s memories. We also see almost nothing of the new Mindy or the signs that tell Antony something is wrong; in fact he might as well have had his misgivings before any encounter with her. It’s not the results of the cloning that are the problem, it’s the concept itself, wrong at inception, but realized too late, with potentially tragic consequences.

When I read this story, what comes to mind are persons who, like Mindy, suffer an accident or perhaps a stroke. When they return to their lives, their loved ones often face a shock: this is no longer quite the same person. Something in their personalities has been altered. Given how commonplace and well-known this phenomenon is, the notion that a personality can be replicated through cloning is quite absurd, not in a good way. The author can write a good story, but this premise is a weak foundation. The story may be heartwarming, but it’s not credible.

“The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul” by Natalia Theodoridou

Not really a list story. To properly understand this piece, readers need a bit of familiarity with the work of Theo Jansen and his designs for the walking mechanisms that he has named some variation on “Animaris” in biological nomenclature as if they were organic entities. The first of these was the “Strandbeest”, meant to roam beaches, and it seems that the name “Animaris” combines the roots for life and sea. The key to their movement is in the “magic numbers”, which are the optimal lengths of the various leg segments. US readers should read the commas as decimal points, not as graph coordinates.

What might seem like a neat, original skiffy creation, then, is in fact essentially Jansen’s work, not our author’s. Readers may find this a disappointment; I rather did. The story features a lone castaway named Theo, barely surviving eight years after crash landing on a near-sterile world he calls Oceanus, which seems to be all water and beach. For companionship, he’s made a series of Jansen mechanisms that he calls beasts and gives names based on “Animalis”, after the breath of life.

Animalis (Latin): that which has breath. From anima (Latin): breath. Also spirit, soul.

When we find almost every detail in a text faithfully replicating an original model, the departures from that original are generally significant. Here, there are two such departures: the nomenclature, and the alteration of “magic numbers” to “holy” ones. Who is the holy, who is the creator who endows his creations with a soul? At which question, the meaning of the character’s name acquires significance beyond its association with Jansen.

All of this, however, while fascinating enough in its own right, is only background material to the story. The story is loneliness. For eight years, Theo has been alone. The graves of his companions, including a lover, are near the fuselage of the wreck where he lives. He is slowly dying; the ship’s supplies are long gone, and what native organisms he can find are insufficient to support human life. He accepts this. “Eight years was not bad. Eight years of living here were long enough to live.” He’s also gone a bit deranged in all this time*; his testimony might not be quite reliable, if we were taking testimony. But we aren’t. What matters here is his subjective experience, the meaning he takes from events.

The lone castaway, the survivor, is one of the most venerable tropes of the genre, at least from the time of Robinson Crusoe. In classic SF, this character is usually the archetypical Competent Man, firm of jaw and resolution, determined and positive, who employs his knowledge and ingenuity in constructing a comfortable dwelling, an electrical grid, a homemade starship with which to escape. Not here. The overall tone is not determination but despair. Theo survives despite himself, despite his urge to swim into the sea beyond the point of return. It takes an effort for him to choke down the revolting local foodstuff. When he dutifully sends out a regular SOS signal, it is without hope of an answer; there is no hope here. When he visits the graves of his dead companions, he tells them, “We died for nothing.” So while his construction of the Jansen mechanisms shows him to be a competent engineer, this activity is not in aid of survival, but despite it. In Theo, we see personified the shift in SFnal tropes from the triumphalist and toward the humanist and existential. Instead of conquering space, we see how it can defeat us.

(*) Thus we should forgive him his error in Latin: Homo Necans does not mean “Man who Dies” but “Man who Kills”. I’m not sure if we should forgive the editor, though, for not catching it.


“And Wash Out by Tides of War” by An Owomoyela

Sometimes stories are like jigsaw puzzles. Authors cut them into a lot of small interlocking bits, throw them out at the readers, and make them reassemble the pieces into a whole. Sometimes this can make readers impatient, wishing for the linear.

Herewith: Humans have established colonies on a few other worlds when they are attacked by an alien enemy. Another set of aliens shows up and offers military aid in the form of supersuits that turn their wearers into killing machines; the process can be reversed with a sample of the wearer’s DNA. Aditi’s mother signs up [it isn’t clear if all the wearers must be female, but elements of the text suggests it] and abandons her [or so Aditi takes it] to go to war. The suits do their job, and after over a decade, the human side prevails. In the meantime, Aditi’s father has died and she has grown up orphaned, hostile and conflicted; she resents her mother, keeps her mother’s DNA blood sample around her neck, and signs up to go to war herself – just in time for it all to be over and ruin her plans. Then her mother comes home.

This is meant to be a character piece, so most of the puzzle pieces show Aditi in her natural environment and flash back to various stages of her past. I can’t say I find her a very interesting character. There is a parallel plotline about a popular entertainment serial, war propaganda but with a compelling story, that Aditi follows, along with everyone else on the colony. With the war over, it becomes a question how the story will end. I’ve come to find this device overdone. At some point in the reading, I realized the reason for my general dissatisfaction: this is meant to be YA.

The obvious question here is: will Aditi forgive her mother? Will she accept her back in her life? Will she give her back the DNA sample she has kept for so many years so she can become her mother again? But the question that interests me is the one Aditi asks: “Why the hell,” I ask him, “wouldn’t you just put your blood in a bank safe if it meant that godsdamn much to you?” And the only possible answer: you wouldn’t. I can’t conceive that the military wouldn’t have kept a sample on file, against all the contingencies that might come to pass. It just makes no sense that the drop of blood in Aditi’s pendant would be the only sample retained. What does make sense is that the mother is using that sample as a test. She, too, is conflicted.

My mother holds up her hand. “This lit me up like a candle,” she said, turning those long, precise fingers. “I was a goddess. A fury, a valkyrie. I wanted this. Now I miss being human.”

Now she is placing the choice, the course of the rest of her life, in her daughter’s hands. At the very last moment, the story takes on interest. Suddenly, it’s no longer just about Aditi and her immature resentments. It’s the mother’s story as well. It’s about a woman who could easily [as I believe] return to a human life but places her own future in the hands of a daughter she doesn’t know at all. An act of faith as well as an act of penance.



The Dark, February 2014

A mismatched issue that seems to have a dual personality, with two lesser stories and two fine ones.

“Dream Flight” by Douglas Smith

Lilith Hoyl is a shape-changer who takes the form of a crystalline flying thing and also has a telepathic link with birds. Through such a link, she contacts a dying child who yearns for flight, even if it’s of the Disney variety.

A dying-kid story, gorpy as most such are. This one particularly so. In typical unoriginality, the protagonist also manages to assuage her own personal grief through an act of kindness. Whatever is this piece doing in an allegedly dark fantasy zine?

“Worse than Alligators” by Steve Berman

Jameson’s little sister is having a sleepover, and Jameson is in charge, although his parents let him have his boyfriend Eddie over to help. But the girls know what is down in the storm drain.

“Fingers. A little girl’s fingers.” Eddie’s face looked pained. “Wet hair and her squirming fingers.” He stood up and screamed.

This one purposely resembles the plot of a campfire ghost story, except that the real monsters are the 10-year-old girls, Jameson’s sister the worst of them. It’s a bullying story, and thus has a didactic air. But there is truth in the portrayal of the bullied girls who wet themselves because they’re afraid to use the bathroom.

“Zeraquesh in Absentia” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

This is more like it. In the haunted city of Zeraquesh, Lieutenant Hesraine seeks the assistance of the best detective in the region for a missing person case she cannot solve.

It’s interesting to see the form of the private-eye story [the author uses that term] put to such a use as it is here, a tale in which no one and nothing is what it seems, and the detectives already know what they seek. The author is having a bit of fun with us.

The detective is attended by moths. Their spindly bodies are painted, or tattooed, onto her arms. Their disembodied antennae wrap her wrists. She wears gloves that appear to be gray fabric at first glance, but up close it is apparent that they are wings, brachiated and patterned. Skulls and eyes.

A highly mannered tale with striking descriptions, it reminds me of the work of Yoon Ha Lee, which is no bad thing at all. This one is more dream-like, however, as hard to pin down as smoke.


“Burial” by Helena Bell

A neat fabulist piece, quite short, seemingly inspired, as per the epigraph, by the scientific attempt to control mosquitoes by blocking the development of their flight muscles. The author asks us to look at this project from the point of view of its victims, beings much like mosquitoes whose lives now have no meaning and can’t understand why.

Here, the Shipmaker lives on an island where eggs sometimes wash up from the sea; the boys fly away, the girls remain until they die. The Shipmaker attempts to find purpose in this sterile life.

Sometime she dreamed of plunging a knife into her own chest, ripping out her heart as it beat and folding it as quickly and as deftly as she could into a small, red flecked ship and setting it onto the wave. She dreamed of other islands filled with unknown bodies.

Enigmatic and poignant. The story can be considered, in a way, science fiction, as it is based on actual scientific work based on genetic modification. It’s noteworthy that the author of the article refers to this process as a genocide. But other than the premise, the work is fantastic, with the island itself playing a central role, absorbing and transforming the bodies of the dead. Each section of the text but the last begins, “Nothing on the island was wasted, not even the dead.” We don’t really know what the Shipmaker is doing with the bodies of the dead, or why. She certainly doesn’t seem to be making ships. She is a tragic figure because she can’t make sense of the situation she is in, no matter how she tries.




Apex Magazine, February 2014

Again, only two original pieces in the issue, both SF, with an announced post-apocalypse theme. Apex seems to be pulling back from its previous expansion of the fiction offerings. But the real problem here is not in the quantity but the quality. Once again, we find one good story and one bad one. Once again, that the bad story has not only been published but featured. It’s hard to understand this. Perhaps it’s because the bad stories are by the better-known authors. But for whatever reason, I don’t think readers can have confidence in the current editorial direction of this zine.

“Antumbra” by Lucy V Snyder

An astronomical event has apparently placed the orbits of Earth and moon into tidal lock, with dire consequences. Survivors have gone feral, including June’s stepsister Lily, who seems to be a mutant, though she was conceived long before the event, which may or may not have something to do with the local mad scientist.

The author is an established pro, so I don’t know what the excuse is for a story so very awful in all respects. Nothing makes sense. We begin with an infodump [who are you telling this to, June? Who on your world doesn’t already know what happened?] which informs us that the event only happened ten years ago, yet the oceans are already full of alien organisms from the spores on space rocks. Or maybe mutants. The scientific consequences of the event and its effects on Earth haven’t been worked out in any sensible manner. For example, women’s menstrual cycles have already become screwed up because of the changes in the moon. [No, I don’t think so.] There is no reasonable explanation why Lily is now a monster with reptilian dentition. Although the title and infodumpfery leads us to expect that June’s problems stem from the astronomical event, it turns out that this isn’t really a post-apocalypse story after all, and the details of this are quite irrelevant to what is, in fact, a mad scientist story.

This is the second wretched story I’ve found here over the last two issues – at least this one isn’t overtly offensive.

“Maria and the Pilgrim” by Rich Larson

We’re in a future South America, or so it seems, when a human-caused apocalypse called the Contagion has wiped out most life on Earth. In the villages, survivors have been genetically engineered to grow a protective membrane and be able to eat anything, including dirt. The plan is for the villagers to have healthy, genetically altered children; failures are to be exposed. The plan has been implemented from above, by people outside the villages, we’re not quite sure where, who aren’t bred to develop membranes or the polyvore gene. Representatives from above, known as pilgrims, visit the villages periodically wearing biohazard suits to test the population.

Our heroine is Maria, a healthy child of about ten, who wants to impress the pilgrim with how healthy she is. But her mother had given birth to another daughter, a defective one whose membrane hasn’t properly developed. Instead of exposing Fausta, the villagers have kept her in the local biohazard-safe habitat intended, by those above, only for emergencies. They arrest the pilgrim, meaning to force him to heal the child, but he insists this isn’t possible. Maria tries to intervene, but this doesn’t go well.

“You are not a good pilgrim,” Maria said abruptly. She stood, feeling her heart thump her ribs. She didn’t want to leave Fausta alone with him now.

I quite admire Maria as a protagonist. She doesn’t quit. She takes great risks to do what she believes to be right, and with the lessons she’s learned during the course of this story, I think she’ll grow up to be a great leader of her people. If she survives. More broadly, the story is a critique of sociopolitical systems that separate people into castes, with one group controlling the lives of the other – all for their own good, or so they claim. Maria proves an excellent fictional vehicle for making revealing this.



Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, February 2014

Heroic Fantasy, more narrowly known as Sword and Sorcery, don’t get no respect. Nor many paying readers. Time and again, I’ve seen publications dedicated to this subgenre go down in insolvency as they attract more wannabe authors than actual customers. The chronic sins of S&S tend to be a lack of originality, as authors rework the same long-depleted ground, and prose too often either clumsy or overly empurpled – or both. Nonetheless, I retain a fondness for the stuff and a quixotic hope of one day finding some well-done stories that will be as appreciated as more fashionable types of fantasy are. Alas, I fear this isn’t it, although the fiction may well be appreciated by fans of the subgenre and there is one really good one here.

The four stories are mostly sorcery, tending to the dark side, and little or no sword. There is also a lack of variety in the settings, which are all some sort of desert. While the prose isn’t such a critical problem with these pieces, the unoriginality is. Still, for the Simmons story, I’m glad I read this issue.

“The House of Nharat” by Garnett Elliott

In a pseudo Mesopotamia, the city Nin Ursu finds itself suddenly attacked by an inimical neighbor that has found itself a sorcerer with the power to summon the figures of the zodiac to spearhead its attack. A local priest summons Harun, a sorcerer acquaintance, to counter the magic, and Harun takes a young apprentice scribe as his assistant. Spellcraft ensues.

Standard sort of sorcery duel involving avian familiars, demons, and animated statuary as well as the star figures, which are a pretty neat idea. Harun displays suspicious impotence at one point, for a personage who has apparently survived about forever, as if the author felt such a setback would add tension to the plot. In the end, we find Harun triumphant because he proves himself more honorable than his opponent, rather than more skilled.

“The Last First Time” by Colin Heintze

The city Karkil was accursed, ruled by a sorceress who made an apocalyptic bargain with the Lords of Chaos, resulting in the city’s obliteration. Once a year, on that date, it reappears on the empty sands, where it is avoided by all sensible people. But Samwrit the merchant, his caravan attacked by bandits, stumbles into it unawares and falls in love with a lovely young woman there. Ever since, every year, he has returned to relive that day with her, becoming increasingly obsessed with a woman two hundred years dead.

I turned away to conceal my tears. She wasn’t simply pursuing one, final thrill. She had never gone to bed with me out of obligation. All those years perfecting my seduction of her were unnecessary. She loved me, the real me, truly and without guile.

Or so he believes.

This dark dark fantasy has a somewhat interesting setting that generates a rather complicated plot. The conclusion is suitably ominous, although the effect is marred by tentacles where no tentacles need be, and there is an anachronistic barista in the coffee shop. Unfortunately, the text in several places includes what seem to be editorial notes by the author on his revisions. Unless this is some sort of metafictional gloss, which I don’t think so, it represents inexcusable editorial carelessness, grossly unprofessional.

“The Living Curse” by Ethan Fode

Soren, having once been bitten by a ghul, is now cursed with semi-immortality and other powers, that come with a cost.

Worse was the thing that lived inside him, inflicting its daily measure of pain. Even as it corrupted his flesh, it sustained him, keeping him alive, biding its time until the enchantment holding it at bay began to fade.

Wandering in the desert, a common activity in these stories, he is captured by a cannibalistic temple, which he destroys. But nearby he encounters a tribe of the temple’s followers, tainted with the same brand of evil. To destroy them will require using sorcery, which only strengthens his curse.

Another dark dark fantasy, this one more predictable and thin. There are tentacles. It has the look of a series story.

“A Paradise of Wasteland” by Adrian Simmons

The witch Lemyta lives in a wasteland where there are sandstorms, communing with the animals, who do her bidding. One day a tribal prince comes asking her help to obtain his ancestors’ weapons to use against enemies.

[The arrow] was as old as the Ilasheghen themselves, and painted along its length was a prayer in a language so old even she did not know the words. The tip was not bronze or iron but a dull grey metal that gleamed coolly in the sun.

“I want more arrows,” he said. “I want the blades that sing, and the shields that howl.”

For which, of course, there is a price to be paid, a price that Lemyta believes to be too high.

By far the best of the stories here – best-conceived and best written. The setting and its mythos are well-realized and convincing, as is the action. It’s the only piece here that adds some swords to the sorcery, the only one with a true claim to the label “heroic”. The last line is highly evocative in its simplicity and manages to be ominous without tentacles. If the editors of this zine could find more stuff like it, they’d have something.


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.

2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early February

  • February 7, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    “What might seem like a neat, original skiffy creation, then, is in fact essentially Jansen’s work, not our author’s. Readers may find this a disappointment; I rather did.” This was overwhelmingly my impression on the first read (I was familiar with Jansen’s work before reading the story, so that may be part of it). I also have to confess to being (illogically?) troubled by the story’s obvious but unexpressed debt to Jansen’s theorization of his own project. Does anyone else feel that a line has been crossed there, in the absorption (not even fictionalization) of a living artist’s work?

  • February 12, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Megan, I certainly thought the story entered ethically problematic territory, but in the end I decided to recommend it because the author did clearly attribute the inventions to Jansen. It may have been appropriation, but it wasn’t plagiarism. And iirc, Jansen has encouraged others to make their own versions of the inventions, just as the story’s protagonist did. Also, the story might serve to introduce readers to Jansen’s work, which is certainly way neat.


Leave a Reply to Lois Tilton Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *