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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-November


Here are the monthly ezines, some various stuff in print from various sources, and a preview that bodes not well.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, November 2011

Only three stories this time, a longer one being serialized.

“Hence the King from Kagehana” by Michael Anthony Ashley

This must be one of the longest works ever published in this ezine. We seem to be in a feudal not-Japan in which a sort of war exists between the indigenous emperor and some invading tribe. Kagehana is a village devoted to the creation of akunin, what we might call ghost ninjas – spectral warriors with arcane powers. Young boys are subjected to treatment that splits their souls into their three parts [echoes of Freud]; the corporeal aspect serves primarily as a vehicle for the ghost, while the moral aspect is destroyed, replaced by a knotted rope that might be seen as the agent’s programming. Saga has been assigned to sabotage and destroy Lord Tomuchi, and the fact that he admires Tomuchi can not overcome the power of the knotted rope.

Saga understood the client’s ultimate goal without being told. Primed by their three years of mysterious catastrophe and bloodless corpses, the troop would find a slain Tomuchi looking every bit the rokurokubi—one of the legendary demons, formerly human but transformed by evil deeds into neck-stretching monsters that frightened mortals and played sabotage and, yes, drank blood. None of the man’s virtue would save his reputation when the troop scattered to the winds, spreading the horrible truth of the famed crippled lord, of the friend and servant of the Emperor in the Southern Court.

But there are other powers at play in this game, in which the rules are deception and treachery.

The story is complex, and some readers may find it confusing, as it takes some time to reveal Saga’s many deep secrets. At its heart, it’s a story of identity, duty and compulsion. Both Saga and his ghost hate what they are being forced to do, but they are only pawns, and there seems to be no way to free themselves. There’s a lot of carnage, a lot of destruction, which overwhelms the story’s humane intentions. I find it hard to cheer for Saga, but then it’s hard to know who to favor in this scenario, with everyone only playing a role in the schemes of someone else we never know.

“Read This Quickly, For You Will Only Have a Moment” by Stephen Case

It seems that rare individuals exist who have the power to kill by uttering a person’s name. A tyrannical king has acquired one of these death speakers and holds her in prison to use against his many enemies, but now his wizard has a plan to release her.

This isn’t a bad idea per se, but it’s written in such a way that makes me think about the nature of fiction and some of the pitfalls into which unwary authors may fall. It’s quite a short piece, but at the same time, it’s much too long. The title says so. The wizard has smuggled a note to the prisoner in which she urges her to read it quickly, for she will only have a moment to do so and act according to its instructions. The story is the note, which is short for a story, but way too long for a note and certainly can’t be read quickly, not in just a moment. Worse, the note expends much of its length by telling the prisoner what she certainly already knows and doesn’t need to be reminded of now. Because of course the note is not really a note and isn’t addressing the recipient; it’s addressing the reader and telling the reader the background of the story, without which it wouldn’t be comprehensible. But at the same time, the reader is realizing that the story isn’t what it says it is, in large part because of the title. So while the idea isn’t a bad one, this wasn’t the way to make a story of it.

“The Red Cord” by Wren Wallis

Souls in this world seem to be awfully fungible. Tharil has two souls, which lets her tell fortunes. The soldiers in the inn have dead souls, and the Courier has no soul at all. Tharil has always believed the fortunes of the soulless can not be told, but the Courier who comes to the inn challenges her: “Have you ever tried?”

The question stills me. I have not tried. I have never looked at the future of a soulless one before, because why would I? What is there to see? It seems almost blasphemous to suggest the thing she is suggesting, particularly in this house on this night, the room full of martyred men.

This one is part of a novel, in which presumably there is more background, but the story is nonetheless coherent on its own, even with the complete lack of closure or understanding of why the Courier did what she did. The prose seems rather too conscious of itself.



Lightspeed, November 2011

“How Maartje and Uppinder Terraformed Mars (Martian Trad.)” by Lisa Nohealani Morton

Tall Tales of Mars.

[Maartje] exhaled and exhaled through the hole in her suit as we went up and up in our tiny rocketship. As her breath hissed out it thickened and spread and wrapped around the planet. Before long it was pushing everything down; my mother’s breath became the atmosphere of Mars.

Firmly within the Tall Tale tradition, shifted into space. Nicely done short.

“Houses” by Mark Pantoja

The people have left their houses, who no longer have anything to do. Four-Eighteen wakes from standby when a bear breaks into the house and makes a mess. In the course of cleanup and repair, it discusses the situation with some of the other houses. While this one uses the terminology of science fiction, such as androids and programming, talking houses really belong over in fantasyland.



Fantasy Magazine, November 2011

“Seven Spells to Sever the Heart” by K M Ferebee

Samuel Crewe was the son of a witch, but his mother and all his older brothers have either been burned at the stake or exiled or died. It is not a happy heritage.

His schoolmates shunned him. They knew that he was the son of a witch, and that tragedy had somehow, indefinably, deformed him. This was like having a contagious illness. It left its mark as clearly as pocks or scars, so clearly that Samuel sometimes looked for it—scanning in the mirror for this visible sign, for where stitches stamped the torn-open part of him.

A haunting story of loss and loneliness, a drastic way to deal with the pain of heartbreak. There’s a wry melancholy in the narrative voice, and the setting is an interesting fantasy version of an England where witches are common if not appreciated.



Strange Horizons, November 2011

“Counting Cracks” by George R Galuschak

Into a normal suburban existence comes a Hum emitted by some kind of alien lifeform. It causes a fatal interference in the brains of most mammals, except for a few humans with OCD who manage to block the effect.

I counted cracks when I was a kid. My sister touched things. We were a pair, the two of us. My mother used to say we’d fallen out of our cribs as babies. It was a joke, I guess, but I was just a kid and I didn’t know that, so one day I asked her how come she’d let us fall out of our cribs.

This is more about individuals coming to terms with the way their own minds work, about “normality”, than about aliens and hums, which is just as well, since that part of the story isn’t very coherent.

“Eight” by Corinne Duyvis

Time travel. In 2020, an older version of military cadet Mona Washington arrives from the future bearing bad news about the ongoing war. Immediately, the military authorities set to work to alter events based on the future reports. But there have now been eight iterations of Mona Washington arriving in 2020, and the news is never what the military wants to hear. The narrator here is Eight, and as she discusses the situation with her predecessors, we see that the real interest of the successive Washingtons is less the war than the personal lives that have been interrupted by this time project – their lovers, the children they will never see again.

The real themes here are personal identity and duty. Eight remembers being Washington Prime, but she is no longer the same person, nor is she the same person as Six or Seven. The first half of the narrative is excessively talky and really quite dull, but it picks up interest once Eight is able to go one-on-one with her other selves. The focus is very tight, on just a few of the Washingtons, and we see very little of the larger situation, the war, the future world they used to inhabit; we have no way to judge, as Eight does not, whether the alterations made in the story’s present are making things better or worse in the future, whether their sacrifices have been of any real use.



Weird Tales, Preview, October 2011

Billed as a “Special Preview Issue”, this short item was made available to the attendees at the recent World Fantasy Con. It is numbered 359.wfc. There are five short stories in fifty pp.

I had a rather longstanding relationship with The Unique Magazine beginning over two decades ago, through a number of ups and downs. This relationship had fallen into abeyance lately, as the late management never did deign to send me copies for review. So I was definitely eager to take a look at this preview of what we might expect from the newest incarnation.

Alas, it seems we shouldn’t expect much. There is a story by Tanith Lee, whose association with the magazine is very longstanding, and that is the only bright spot. The other offerings range from mediocre to awful. To really awful.

Normally, an issue like this, a debut or preview, is produced with great care as a showcase, featuring material chosen to impress prospective readers with its quality. If the material here, excepting the Lee story, is what the editors chose to showcase their zine, I can’t say much for their judgment. And although what I received was an efile and perhaps not in final form, I didn’t see much evidence that it was prepared with anything like great care. It doesn’t bode well for the future of this once-great publication.

“The Wrath of Stan” by Meg Oppenberg

Humor. The sort that employs character names like Whipplemartz. Stan, having been turned into a vampire at age 17, is still a geek and still a Trekkie who will never get laid by any female of hotness. Despite being allegedly a technogeek, he doesn’t really know how to proceed when his credit card info is stolen by thieves. Pretty lame stuff.

“More than Mercy” by Jean Pavia

Java and Molaney are about to compete to determine which will be the new queen. There can be no doubt of the outcome in the minds of readers: Java reverently follows the rules, cares for her sled dogs; Molaney cheats shamelessly, abuses her animals.

A wry smile played at her lips as she realized that her actions in providing these necessities was the true test of her worth; her masters would applaud her prudence when she was queen. They would then be able to tell her that she had surpassed their expectations; that the rumored secret of the match was, in fact, that each pretender rise above the mundane regimentation imposed by text. She would have far exceeded their humble expectations.

I’ve said this before: Publishing a deceased author’s trunk stories is no fitting way to honor her. There were moments, reading this, when I could only think it was a misnamed episode of Goofus and Gallant. Furthermore, the prose has a stilted quality that doesn’t make the reading enjoyable. A shame.

“To Be a Star” by Parke Godwin

A Christmas story. Mildred is a naive but talented actor who makes a wish after another failed audition. Her wish is answered in the person of Melvin, a talented hack who is reincarnated as her Christmas tree, in which form he tries to give her advise.

As Mildred grew surer of the lines, there was even a twinge of admiration. She could act, just couldn’t audition, an art in itself, but her choice of material would sink her like the Titanic.

Heartwarming, of course, as Christmas stories ought to be, if a bit on the hokey side.

“The Waters of Sorrow (Parallel Earth: Age of Steam)” by Tanith Lee

In a parallel Earth that nonetheless has Amontillado wine and the play Hamlet, a theatrical steamboat comes to a small town to perform, and a susceptible young woman, Ghisla, falls in love with the leading man. He, unexpectedly, falls in love with her, as if he had known her from some near-forgotten time in his life. Alas, she is discovered drowned the next day.

Now the story explicitly evokes the drowned spirits of maidens that are here called vilya but which readers may recognize as rusalkas, or the wilis of the ballet Giselle.

On these nights that are given to them, the dead girls rise from their living tombs of bark or water, they stretch out their long pale arms, and the skull-moon gilds them also, making their skin gleam silk-bright, and their eyes dark emerald as leaves and rivers, and
the knotted wildwood of their hair into spiderwebs of spun silver.

The question then becomes, what is the author going to do with this familiar material? Will she take the default, predictable route of plot? No reader who knows Tanith Lee would suppose so, although the author lets us think she might for much of the story. It is framed as a mystery, apparently inexplicable, until the final revelation of the actual, sad events. The only story of real merit in this issue.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Gift of Freedom” by Christian Endres Subtitled “Holmes in Wonderland”

The editorial blurb states that it was written in German and translated into English for this publication; the title does not, however, name the translator, doubtless to protect the guilty. An example:

But not matter how studiously we Londoners condoned over the horse manure lying in the streets waiting to be picked up – the manure is there and would not dissolve into scented air, just because we chose to overlook them.

Is this supposed to be spoken by some foreigner newly come to London, without a firm grasp of the language? No, these are meant to be the words of the narrator, Watson, a man fluent in his native tongue. Is there some subtle irony intended? I doubt it. No, the only explanation seems to be that whoever is responsible for this translation is not competent to work in the English language. Nor is whatever editorial hand passed it on to publication.



On Spec, Summer 2011

Issue #85 of the Canadian little printzine seems to have more than the usual amount of nonfiction, including a tribute to the late Joanna Russ. There are seven pieces of fiction, all but one fantasy. I enjoyed this one more than the previous; there’s a greater variety in the settings and stories.

“Hedge of Protection” by Steve Stanton

A couple that isn’t a couple yet comes to Haiti to seek help from an old friend of one of them, a practitioner of voudon. They claim they are searching for their lost spouses/lovers, although it is not clear in what sense, as the lost ones are apparently dead. At any rate, this quest doesn’t really seem to occupy much of anyone’s interest as much as the pursuit of sacrificial chickens.

This is a novel excerpt, and it shows. We have two characters, Zak and “Dr Jackie Rose”; the contrast between these modes of address is jarring. Dr Jackie Rose is a colorless character who foolishly wears a white linen suit to a place where she knows they cut the heads off chickens. Zak is a skeptic who nonetheless shows a great aptitude for the practice of voudon and develops a strong tie with the priestess, Tono. Together, they have a strong cathartic experience. Yet, at the end, it is Dr Jackie Rose that Zak turns to, a development that only makes sense in terms of some prior relationship outside the bounds of this story.

“Space Monkeys” by Ryan M Williams

Nominally science fiction. It seems that samples of a primitive lifeform have been taken from a passing comet and are now being marketed as pets. Emmett buys some as a gift for his autistic son, in hope of capturing his interest. The story is about fatherly love, about Emmett’s understanding of Danny and his faith in him, knowing how to make this gift meaningful, knowing that breakthroughs have to begin in small ways. Well-done and heartwarming, if you can overlook the obvious problems of mass-marketing alien lifeforms.

“The Whole Megillah” by Allan Weiss

Humor. The Kabbalist wizard Eliezer ben-Avraham is summoned in a dream to the city of Shusham on the eve of the feast of Purim, which is appropriate because the place is being haunted by the demonic figure of Haman. Eliezer agrees to try to banish the apparition, but he seems more interested in prune-filled hamantaschen and being appalled by the fact that the city seems to be ruled by a woman.

Here we have an obvious series character, and again, it shows, although this time it doesn’t ruin the story. Eliezer seems to be a sort of Wandering Jew character, translating the original Christian legend into a Jewish one. The setting is also more of medieval Europe than an ancient Hebrew kingdom, although it’s a Jewish landscape instead of Christendom. The casting of Purim as a Feast of Misrule is apt. But Eliezer is not an admirable character [I suspect the horse is the real brains of the outfit], and while his misogyny might fit the setting, it is still distasteful.

“Artificial Stupidity” by Michael R Fletcher

An AI-comes-to-sentience story. Happily, the author uses light humor to bring a new twist to this overdone scenario. Nicely done in a short-short.

“The Fox Maiden” by Priya Sharma

Readers might expect Japanese myth, but this is Gothic romance. Lily was discovered as a feral child in a cave after the death of her father. She’s placed into the care of a mean old aunt who only wants to marry her off to get rid of her and doesn’t care that her chosen suitor is a brute and a ravisher. There is even a mouldering old manor house. Named Grissleymire. I didn’t see a light burning in the window. There’s a tragedy here, because Lily has come too late, but the reader first has to beat through the thicket of clichés before arriving at it.

“First Light” by Chadwick Ginther

Ffraid [odd name] has the power of the Flame Elemental in a world that has apparently lost its sun and is now starving in a seemingly endless winter in which creatures of evil roam. Ffraid is making a delivery from her father the blacksmith when she encounters such a creature. Readers will expect that she will use her powers to defeat it, because that’s what happens in these scenarios.

“On the Many Uses of Cedar” by Geoffrey W Cole

“Fanny will relive the cold November day [her husband] hits her twenty-seven times.” An unfortunately ambiguous sentence begins this work. Fanny will relive the day twenty-seven times; her husband, on that day, will only hit her once. Readers should forgive the author and editor, though, because this is a neat little story, otherwise well-written in the future tense. Fanny’s husband runs a logging and sawmill operation in the mountains. Her job is to prepare meals for the crew. She is not happy there.

She will see that the mountain poured its innumerable icy streams over his heart and scoured away everything but hard stone. She will see that in the two short years since their wedding the mountain re-made her husband.

Although her husband does not remember reliving the day, Fanny and some others do. They discover that black eyes will heal, that a bottle of rum will be full again the next day. But what Fanny really wants to know is whether her husband is still the same man she married, the man who hit her for blocking the flume or the man who brought her a glowing golden cedar cone.

–RECOMMENDED



The New Yorker, November 14, 2011

“Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser

The narrator, a man disappointed in life, takes pity on a door-to-door salesman and buys a bottle of Miracle Polish from him, even while believing that it’s a fraud. The polish, however, is genuinely miraculous. When he looks at his reflection in a newly-polished mirror, it is subtly different.

But the image in the mirror was unmistakably me – not young, not good-looking, not anything in particular, a little slumped, heavy at the waist, pouchy under the eyes, not that sort of man that anyone would ever choose to be. And yet he looked back at me in a way I hadn’t seem for a long time, a way that made the other things all right. He looked back at me – the thought sprang to mind – like a man who believed in things.

The reflected image alters him, and he wants to share the miracle with his girlfriend of convenience, Monica. But Monica views her image in the mirror as a rival.

It’s not uncommon to find a bit of the fantastic in this publication, and I like this one. It’s a kind of magic realism in which the element of the fantastic is subtle but unmistakably real. The alterations in the characters are quite effectively done, portrayed with meticulous detail. To me, the conclusion feels like a tragedy, but I believe the author may feel otherwise; the ending is ambiguous in the way it holds out a faint promise of “unbearable hope”.



The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, November 2011

Second issue of the bugzine. Five original stories, most very short, plus one reprint. Generally clever stuff.

“Zaar” by Forrest Aguirre

A young [four-legged] girl floats down the river on a log while her beetle protector attempts to save her from the consequences of her naïveté. Charming absurdity, studded with amusing, if somewhat hectoring, footnotes linked to narrative asides.

21 Perhaps you wonder what rookish dreams the bird dreamed as it slept. They involved some sporting friends, a long strand of piano wire, and a pencil-thin prima donna with a beehive hairdo. I will leave the details for you to sort out, but the woman did not fare well and the birds obtained a new nest. It is not by linguistic accident that we refer to a group of crows as a “murder.”

–RECOMMENDED

“Centipede Girl” by Ada Hoffmann

Centipede Girl lives alone in the sewers because people freak out when they see her all covered in ‘pedes. But she’s lonely, wants someone to touch. Readers may suspect this won’t work out well.

“@carpetsalesrep” by Brenta Blevins

If Kafka used Twitter. Greg turns into a bug. It would be interesting to know – what was the first story written entirely in tweets? I suspect I will be seeing more.

“Abandoned in the Courtyard of Youth” by C A Cole

Childhood sucks. A rather obscure vignette.

“The Ferry Quick Like Rain: An Insect Tragicomedy” by Kirk Marshall

The car to Ferny Grove has many passengers, some optimistic about their destination, some dubious, each according to their own nature. They are a varied, eccentric lot.

Hackles erupted with transcendental speed from beneath Biff’s seat, peering up at the reclining gecko warily. ‘Ha ha, the lizard who came out his shell. You be good, there, reptileboy. If we’re to get y’all’s scaly tookus over to this Grove, now, we all gotsta agree to be friendly, like. Friendly, yeah?’ The roach coughed bodily, his chitin flesh shimmering. ‘I like that we’re all peaceable, I do. Still: you start messin’ with this lot, see, and I won’t hesitate. I will get defensive. I will go primeval on you.’ Hackles stopped, watching Biff’s noncommittal expression. ‘I swear.’

Contemplation of mortality, thick with irony. The dialogue is often a bit much.

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.

Comments

Pingback from Cedar Review | Geoffrey W. Cole | Science Fiction Writer
Time November 24, 2011 at 1:40 am

[...] stories reviewed, the reviewer only gave out two “Recommended” tags, and guess what, “On the Many Uses of Cedar” was one of them! The reviewer didn’t like the first line, which she thought was a bit [...]


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