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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February


Mostly fantasy this time. I give the good story award to Fantasy Magazine‘s An Owomoyela, with Strange Horizons a strong contender.

Publications Reviewed



F&SF, Mar/Apr 2011

I usually expect at least a superior novella or something from this venerable zine, but the current one is a lackluster issue with little to get excited about. The Wallace story is a nice surprise.

“The Evening and the Morning” by Sheila Finch

Apparently concluding the author’s very long-running series about the “Guild of Xenolinguists.” Fifteen hundred years [which seems too short a time in this universe] after the founding of the Guild, it decides that its original mission has become obsolete. The Guild Mother House at Qing is unable to reach distant Earth, but Crow, in his old age, wishes to investigate the early records that he hopes still exist on the homeworld. The Venatixi race also seeks an ancient secret: the Elder Ones who are said to have presided over the birth of every sentient species. And the Venatixi possess the secret of FTL travel. An elder of the Venatixi offers to share knowledge with Crow, so his daughter takes him on the journey – along with two superfluous younger humans — to Earth. But upon arrival he sees there are no signs of human habitation anywhere.

Earth! A hot rush of excitement flooded his veins. He was standing on the ancestral planet, Earth. It had a pristine elegance here, like cut glass, white mountains rising up around the valley where he stood to form a bowl filled with liquid blue sky. He felt as if he’d stepped out into a world that was just beginning. Love for the planet pulsed like a virus in his blood.

Nice description. However, this is a very long story and also a simplistic one, and before it’s halfway over [or even earlier, given the giveaway title] the nature of the mystery should be quite clear to readers, who have a long, tiresome wait ahead of them until the characters finally comprehend the obvious. In the opening scene, we see the close friendship between Crow and the Venatixi Tu’ve. It is Tu’ve’s desire to search for the Elder Ones, but instead of taking this very short journey himself, he inexplicably sends his daughter, who, according to their custom, must first kill her father. This situation sets up reader expectations but they are quite unfulfilled, as Crow and Imhavi barely interact; we never come to know her at all, and she is quite unaware and indifferent to the miracle she is missing. Tu’ve’s sacrifice seems wasted, as is the reader investment in him.

Instead, the author has given us two callow young humans, who seem out of place throughout the story and never play any essential role that Crow couldn’t have taken. At half the length, with other characters, this one would have been more interesting. In fact, the most interesting character is the ship’s AI, which seems inexplicably to be a human AI in a Venatixi ship. It also seems already to know the secrets before the expedition sets out, which makes the whole thing rather futile.

“Scatter My Ashes” by Albert E Cowdrey

Harry Angleton has been hired to write the history of the Cross family, a Russian Jewish dynasty whose dying matriarch Queen is his primary oral source material and whose granddaughter Kathryn is his current lover. The source of the family’s wealth was apparently a Napoleonic treasure found by Queen’s sorcerer father as he fled Russia. When he died, Queen had him cremated to make sure he remained that way. But the sticking point in the family history is a later “massacre,” never solved.

Queen refused to discuss the tragedy, except to say it remained “a great mystery” to her. The basic question of whether the four had been murdered was never settled. The county coroner ruled that all their injuries could be accounted for by the waves and rocks, and issued an astonishing finding of “death by misadventure.” A lot of Queen’s money, Harry suspected, went into that verdict.

The story isn’t horror, but the author lets us know that it easily could have been, if things had gone a bit differently. Harry doesn’t really do much to solve the supernatural mystery, aside from discovering an anagram; events mostly just unwind by themselves with the old woman’s death. Harry is rather bland and dull for a Cowdrey protagonist. The narrative is missing much of the regional atmosphere that often lend color to his stories, as well as the more eccentric characters that give them particular interest.

“The Second Kalandar’s Tale” by Francis Marion Soty

This is a retelling, barely altered, of Burton’s version of the tale from the 1001 Nights. I don’t get the point of printing it. For one thing, it’s only part of a whole, and the segment makes little sense, taken by itself. The story is also an unedifying one of an undeserving man who lets women suffer and die for him.

“A Pocketful of Faces” by Paul Di Filippo

Isham Smoke is a detective specializing in face crime – labs that illegally grow vat protein into the semblance of an actual human, using stolen DNA. It’s a trade that attracts some nasty characters and some sick ones.

But now Marsha Mueller’s face began to detach everywhere at once, and fall off like a soggy washcloth: empty, gaping slots at eyes and nostrils and between the toothless lips.

Essentially, this is a cop story, Smoke and his partner following successive leads to uncover the crime. The story is told straight, with even a significant dose of grue, but I can’t help thinking of it as a takedown of Facebook, or something that grew from the notion.

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Jack’s father bought his mother from a catalog in China. She has a miraculous gift that she shared with her son when he was little, making animated creatures from paper.

A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. “Rawrr-sa,” it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.

For a while, Jack cherished his menagerie of the paper animals, but as he grew older and ashamed of his alien mother, he put them away in the attic. Yet the emotion that originally animated them remains.

A moving story of a mother’s love.

“Night Gauntlet” by Walter C DeBill Jr, Richard Gavin, Robert M Price, W H Pugmire, Jeffrey Thomas and Don Webb

The thing to remember about this setting is the University bell tower from which successive homicidal nutcases shoot and kill people. In this universe, at least, it seems to have become a tradition. One homicidal professor claimed that he was shooting at the nightgaunts flapping about the campus. The narrator has seen these creatures. He is a doctoral candidate in the English Department and an aspiring horror author whose stories have been rejected by Nathan Derby, brother of Dr Susan Derby, star physicist, horror movie fan and his latest girlfriend. More weird stuff happens, because this is the sort of collaborative round-robin thing into which each of the authors has to dump his own load. The result is a surprisingly coherent Lovecraftian dark tale with string theory puns, but no real connection to physics.

“Happy Ending 2.0″ by James Patrick Kelly

A couple goes back to their beginning to try to restore their failing marriage. A grownups’ wishful-thinking fantasy after they don’t live happily ever, a do-over with a twist. I doubt it will work this time, either.

“Bodyguard” by Karl Bunker

Javid is an elderly human, an envoy to an alien species whose world is soon due to become uninhabitable. He cares about this world more than his superiors do. His wife unjoins from him and joins an unhuman group. A bodyguard is joined to him and they become close. The primary feature of the story is the alien language:

There is no “un-joined” in Ensel’s language; no negation or opposite of “joined.” To leave is to become joined to another place, other people. Even to die is not un-joining; it is joining the earth, the darkness.

Not much happens in the story except for departures, joinings and un-joinings. The linguistic aspect is interesting, and it provokes certain insights into what makes a person human and real.

“Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls” by Kali Wallace

Rosalie lives in the house of Professor Lew, a mad botanist whose garden moves through a year in the course of a single day. Rosalie wants more than anything to go out into the garden, but she is never allowed.

Rosalie held still as Miss Morning dressed her. She used to try to help, but she had ripped her petticoat one morning and it took five days for her hands to grow back after Miss Morning clipped them off.

An original, strange and sinister setting for a determined heroine.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Ifs of Time” by James Stoddard

There was once a man who was the Windkeep of Evenmere, the Keeper of Time. He kept the clocks wound, the little clocks in the Inner Chambers, the Eternity Clock in the Clock Tower, the Hundred Years Clock in the Land of Twelve, all the clocks great and small, so time continued running. Time is important, you know, because everything happens inside it. A person lives and dies between the brackets of the hours.

The Keeper notices that time in the house has slowed and stopped. He searches for the reason and finds four people in a tower telling stories to one another, all about time.

An old-fashioned temporal fable.



Realms of Fantasy, February 2011

Happy to see this zine coming out again more or less on schedule. There are five nice, substantial stories here, all dealing with some aspect of love.

“The Swan Troika” by Richard Parks

Pyotr is a young nobleman driving his swan-shaped sleigh to his great-aunt’s ball when he encounters a rusalka along the banks of the frozen river. Because it is frozen, the ghost of the drowned girl can’t drag him to the bottom, in the way of her kind, so Pyotr invites her to the ball, finding something appealingly familiar about her. But to Great-Aunt Svetlana, the rusalka is more than slightly familiar.

A fairytale touching on tragedy, without romanticizing the monster whose nature is seduction.

“What is your regret, Pyotr? Think of it now because, when the time comes,” she leaned close and whispered the last bit, “I will kill you if I can.”

In some versions of the legend, the rusalka can rest at last if her death is revenged. The image of the black swan evokes another, similar legend that resonates with this one. But I do wish that Pyotr hadn’t harnessed only a single horse to his sleigh, so I wouldn’t have had to obsess about his calling it a troika.

“Thirteen Incantations” by Desirina Boskovich

Elisabeth is the kind of girl whose mother always makes her a bologna sandwich for lunch. Ana Celina is new, exotic, wonderful; her mother is a perfumer whose ordinary scents are enhanced with magic, and her special scents can evoke moments in the past, moments of love. Ana Celina wants to share those special scents with Elisabeth, but Elisabeth wants even more.

Elisabeth’s feet dangled over the water’s edge; her palms lay flat against the stone. In the breeze, Ana Celina’s hair tickled whisper-soft against Elisabeth’s bare shoulder, an accidental intimacy.

Poor Elisabeth – with scenes like this who could blame her for falling so deeply in love?

–RECOMMENDED

“Magpie” by Mark Rigney

Cath’s parents were both drowned in the flood, but she escaped by climbing. Now,

Smudge-face Cath, dress-torn and trembly, staring up at the great gaunt rider-man, hook-nosed, beak-faced, eyes glitter-bright and trapping. Trapping her.

Jackdaw becomes her new master, her mentor, and Cath is soon adept at flying down to nab the shining things. Part of her new life she loves, “the ecstasy of swooping, weightless flight;” more of her old life she regrets, but this is the life she has now.

More a story of changing jobs and lifestyle than metamorphosis. I’m surprised that flight wouldn’t be more of a compensation; we don’t really see much of her flying and the joy it brings, only the tawdry side of her life as a thief.

“No Tale for Troubadours” by Pauline J Alama

Heroic fantasy. It has been four children ago since the warrior Maid of Revie went to the Crusades to be disillusioned, but her husband has already been summoned to war and there is no one else when a priest comes begging her help against a band of trolls marauding in a village to which she has feudal responsibilities. So Ursula takes up her old sword [the armor no longer fits] and rides off to do her duty.

How long before a highly colored song of the adventure found its way to Veronne? I hastened home to tell my daughter Isabel what really happened, before minstrels turned all the blood and sweat and folly to poetry.

A rather standard light deglamorizing of knightly quests, with some nice cranky dialogue between Ursula and her sidekick sorceress, now known as Sister Agony in the Garden.

“The Time of His Life” by Scott William Carter

With two young children, a demanding wife and a day job, Tim hasn’t been able to find the time for his passion, the cartoon strip he’s been developing. Then, looking in the attic for something his wife wants, he discovers the secret room where time stops.

The next three weeks were pure bliss. The drawing pads filled by the dozens. Soon the walls were decorated with his creations — not just in pen and ink, either, but in bright oils too.

But of course in these cases there is always a cost.

If I had a wife like Tim’s, I’d want to hide from her, too. But the bitch-wife is pretty much of a cliché. I’m also not entirely convinced that the secret room could destroy his life quite so rapidly. Still, there’s a neat loopy twist at the end of this that sets it apart from similar tales.



Fantasy Magazine, February 2011

One particularly fine story this month.

“Of Wolves and Men” by An Owomoyela

Two tribes: the Odad and the Sal. The Sal were once stronger, but now the weaker. As tribute, they must give a daughter to marry the Odad prince. It is the custom of the Odad that its princes spend their wedding night in their abandoned sacred city, home to the wolves that they worship. But when the narrator wakes from that night, she finds that the wolves have killed her husband. Now she fears that the Odad will blame her for his death and take revenge on her tribe.

I thought of standing at the gates and yelling, “Look here, you men of Odad! It was your god and not mine who ate your prince, your god and not mine who would not let me burn or bury him.”

A fine, well-written story with a strong mythos. I like the way the narrator and the wolves communicate. There is an extra dimension in the fact that the narrator was once a prince herself, before being turned into a woman for the sake of the tribute. But in fact, the story would not have been much different without this element, if the narrator had been a daughter born. More interesting are the details of the wedding night, the elements of both rape and tenderness that will be forever unresolved with Ishur’s death. Yet I think it is very telling that she calls him “husband”. It also remains a mystery why the wolves decided to take the prince’s life. Did it have anything to do with the narrator’s change of sex? The wolves do not clearly say.

This is a new writer to watch for.

–RECOMMENDED

“Lizard Dance” by Gio Clairval and Jeff VanderMeer

Mai would like to be a dancer, but because she has become fat at age 12, her fate is to be bullied by the other girls at school. This is the sort of story that grafts a fantastic element, often ambiguous, onto a mundane problem story. Mai’s special talent is a control over lizards; she can make them dance. They become her only friends.

There is ambiguity here because Mai, at some points in the story, is definitely hallucinating lizards. So it is not entirely clear, at the end, whether she is undergoing yet another hallucination or someone has actually done an evil thing. I believe it is the evil thing, in which case the real problem is not just Mai being bullied because of her weight but the fact that there is a young sociopath in her school. But the impact is blunted by the previous hallucinations that introduce the ambiguity. In many such stories, the ambiguity is part of their strength. Here, it is a weakness.

“The House that Made the Sixteen Loops of Time” by Tamsyn Muir

“14 Arden Lane suffered from bad plumbing and magical build-up.” Dr Rosamund Tilley, its owner, usually tolerates the house’s magical outbreaks, which are generally no more than nuisances. But when it begins setting her and her lover Danny into a repetitive time loop, things get more serious.

A story like this a primarily a vehicle for its prose, which begins charmingly but after a while starts to suffer from a build-up of twee.



Strange Horizons, February 2011

A strong month for fiction here.

“Widows in the World” by Gavin J Grant

Post-lotsofstuff. The current household consists of the husband, a number of [other] disembodied wives, three children, and the Granny, previously known as Sarah. Plus the Granny’s mother, whom she has just killed, who keeps trying to come back to life. Also an undetermined number of bots and, of course, the house. It’s the sort of story where you don’t get the point if you wonder why the Granny is called a Granny when she seems to have no actual grandchildren or children, except that she is gestating the baby [someone asks why she is doing the rare thing of carrying the baby in vitro but I think this is a author's mistake for in vivo. Although this is the sort of story where you can't be quite sure of such things.]

This may be the longest thing SH has ever done, even in two parts. And for most of its length it doesn’t seem to be going much of anywhere. Which is to say, the house flies around from place to place, but it’s not so clear that the story is. Eventually, though, things that seemed odd take on meaning and the whole thing comes to a conclusion, in which we find that the question is: What makes a life worth living? It’s still a pretty weird story, imaginatively conceived.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Yew’s Embrace” by Francesca Forrest

We could still see the old king’s blood in the cracks in the flagstones beneath the new king’s feet when he announced to us all that this was a unification, not a conquest, and that we had nothing to fear from the soldiers that fenced us round. The new king said that my sister the queen would become his wife and that he’d make the old king’s baby son his very own heir.

But shortly afterwards, the old king’s son is killed. The king accuses the child’s nurse and orders her flayed, but the gods transform her into a yew tree. Soon the queen bears another son to the new king.

A cruel fairytale, as fairytales often are, with strong roots in myth, which can be crueler [see the flaying of Marsyas]. Fairytales tend to end with justice, but myth may prefer revenge. The ending takes an unexpected turn; no happily-ever here, and in this the story is realistic.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2011

No bright cheery stories here this month!

“Silent, Still, and Cold” by Kris Dikeman

In a world of constant winter, an Emperor makes war to extend his power. His soldiers enter a city besieged because it harbored a sorcerer who refused the Emperor’s command.

The city’s thick stone walls are encased in sheets of windblown snow, hiding the damage of the catapults. The east gate is a ruin, remnants of the battering ram and its housing mixed with the splintered wreckage of the iron-bound doors.

They find all the people gone, along with everything of value – the sorcerer’s doing. The officers are determined to learn his secrets, the conscripts mostly want warmth and food, and after that, women.

A bleak and dismal scene, effectively evoking the misery of cold. Although it makes no sense that the officers, well aware of the sorcerer’s traps, would order their men into such an obvious one.

“The Adventures of Ernst, Who Began a Man, Become a Cyclops, and Finished a Hero” by Jesse Bullington

Or, the Misadventures of Ernst. There was once a mysterious Cataclysm, when the Holbrookian monks hanged themselves in their own abbey.

When a band of intrepid heroes broke into the church-keep, curious as to why the order had stopped delivering their sour marsh-wine to the nearby villages, they found the cloister filled with hundreds of brothers swaying like overripe monkberries and fled without further investigation.

But rumor says there are treasures hidden there, if anyone dares search for them. Ernst’s sister dared, and disappeared. Now Ernst has vowed to follow her, but he is tricked into carrying a malevolent giant spider on his back, and a lustful ghoul follows him. And far worse horrors await.

Black fantasy humor, very, very gross stuff.

“The Ghost of Shinoda Forest” by Richard Parks

A Lord Yamada ghost story. The Imperial court in Heian Japan is a place of constant plots and intrigues. Yamada’s beloved, Princess Teiko, chose to kill herself in order to secure the throne for her son, but Yamada has never forgotten or forgiven her.

Whether I was drunk or sober, Teiko haunted my dreams. I had always assumed, if I drank enough that one day this would no longer be true, but there had been fifteen years of drinking after we parted, plus two more after her death, and now my optimism was quite exhausted. As this foolish hope had been all that I had to fight her with, there was nothing left for me to do tonight except the only sensible thing — I surrendered.

Now there is a rumor that Teiko’s ghost has been seen haunting the monster-infested Shinoda Forest. Yamada is certain that this rumor is part of another plot, meant to lure him into danger. But there is only one way to find out.

This is one of my favorite series, but the problem with series is not so easy to escape. For readers familiar with the Yamada story, this one is absolutely a must-read, a poignant love story finally closing the circle of loss and pain that has been driving the character into self-destruction. For others, the significance of this aspect of the story may not be fully realized, but they will still get a tale with the rich mix of court intrigue with ghosts, demons and swordplay.

–RECOMMENDED

“Dirt Witch” by Eljay Daly

Dorota’s village has been under attack by ghostly soldiers whose weapons can still kill. Her father had long ago saved the village for a time by stealing a fire-flower from a forest witch, but now he is dead and the soldiers have returned, as deadly as before. Dorota in her desperation follows her father’s path into the forest to find the witch and barter another fire-flower from her. But the witch was not happy about the theft of her flower and traps Dorota inside her filthy house, where illusion and reality are hard to distinguish.

A lot of strongly repulsive images here.

It was the kitchen, yes — another long room, a washing tub, a woodstove, a table. Roaches clung to the walls — dense clusters of them like black constellations in a grease-yellow sky. Flies out of season hummed over dirty plates, cups, bowls stacked on the table, the counter, the windowsill, crusted with lumps of food gone to slag, gone to fuzz, gone to slime.

The plot turns out to be a twisty thing with some surprises for the reader as well as Dorota. A good read for the strong of stomach.



Lightspeed, February 2011

The original fiction this month takes different views of the use of artificial constructs for sex and companionship, and maybe love.

“Long Enough and Just So Long” by Cat Rambo

Kayne [named for Poddy] is a space courier based on Luna with congenitally brittle bones that make her well-suited for her low-G life.

I was in the cradle walker because I was being lazy that day. I could see him taking it in, the metal spidering my lower body, the bulge where my flesh ended, where legs might have been on someone else, the nubs of my left hand — two but as useful as three of your fingers, I swear.

Thus she encounters the retired sexbot. He just wants to be friends. But he’s programmed to want to please people. His presence leads to a rift between Kayne and her best friend.

A story of friendship, jealousy and free will. I suspect Pippi of taking advantage. I’m not sure I’m convinced about the emancipated sexbots.

“Simulacrum” by Ken Liu

Paul Larimore perfected the technology that made the simulacra possible. One of his first subjects was his young daughter, Anna, whom he adored. But Paul also had a sexual weakness that led to using simulacra as porn, and when Anna discovered this, she cut herself off from him. The text of the story mostly alternates between Paul and Anna, as they express their feelings about each other and about simulacra – the good and the bad of them.

She was perfect in the way that little daughters are always perfect in the eyes of their fathers. Her eyes lit up when she saw that I was home. She had just come back from day camp, and she was full of stories she wanted to tell me and questions she wanted to ask me. She wanted me to take her to the beach to fly her new kite, and I promised to help her with her sunprint kit. I was glad to have captured her at that moment.

A heartbreaking story about love and unforgiveness. The insights of the characters are often profound but at the same time reflect their individual weaknesses.

–RECOMMENDED



Tor.com, February 2011

A vampire for Valentine’s Day.

“Though Smoke Shall Hide the Sun” by Brit Mandelo

Vampires. Nothing makes me more suspicious than seeing a new vampire title posted on February 14. This vampire isn’t the overtly romantic kind but one of the kiss-ass heroines of “urban fantasy.” It seems to be a universe in which the Others live in hierarchical territories, in an unacknowledged truce with the human mundanes. Hilde, having escaped her vampire master, has become a hunter, which is to say a merc, working against the outlaws of her own kind. She’s been recruited for an operation in partnership with a human pyrokinetic [which makes him Other]. But someone has been double-crossed.

Someone had put me in a box and locked it up tight. They must have known what I was. Cal? I was never so wrong about a person’s sincerity — their scent and tiny bodily reactions were impossible to hide from me. Which meant that Cal had been in some way incapacitated and I was a prisoner.

While this may not be a vampire romance, it is unfortunately derivative of that other overdone model, gaming fiction. The tension that might have been present in this action adventure is diminished by the fact of the first-person narrative, and Hilde’s secret ability is too awfully convenient.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Materials for review such as magazines and original anthologies can be sent to the following address:

Lois Tilton
POBox #4617
Wheaton, IL 60189

Electronic versions can be sent to: loist a*t sff.net

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

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