posted Sunday 6 October 2013 @ 2:48 pm PDT
In addition to some of the usual monthly and quarterly online zines, here’s an anthology of fairy tales, from which I pick Nathan Ballingrud’s tale for the Good Story award. Overall, best publication of the lot this time has to be the fifth anniversary double issue of BCS, with the Richard Parks story another Good Story award winner.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #131, October 2013
A fifth anniversary double issue from some of the zine’s most notable authors as well as newcomers. Although it’s billed as a single issue, it’s being posted on two successive weeks – an annoyance. There seem to be two themes: the first, excellent, one being love; the second seems to be steampunk, broadly conceived. With one exception, the stories here are all worthy of recommendation.
“Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls” by Richard Parks
Hiroshi is fascinated by the dry, abandoned well outside the village.
“I sit here because I like to listen. There is a sound coming from the well, from down in the darkness. It’s almost as if the music is being played just for me; almost as if I’ve heard it before. I don’t understand that, but that’s how it feels.”
His uncle the priest is concerned for him; malicious kami are known to inhabit such places. But Hiroshi can have no peace within himself until he seeks out the music, so he climbs down into the underworld, where he has a number of encounters with kami and other beings, all of whom tell him to go home, because he is in a place where he should not be, yet where he was called to be.
An excellent tale inspired by Japanese Buddhist mythology, of reincarnation, karma, and promises. The author’s seemingly effortless mastery of this material is what makes it work so well.
“Walls of Skin, Soft as Paper” by Adam Calloway
The title is the flipside of the author’s excellently enigmatic “Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin”, set in his city of Ars Lacuna – an audacious move. The protagonist Tomai now works in the lampblack mine and returns home after his shift to the termite-tower slum called Bugspit, where his wife is waiting for him. I think we are to assume that his wife, now named, may be the beautiful girl from the original, but this is not certain. The final image is quite striking, a sketch of love made with admirable economy of line. There is, in this world, little to love, but the denizens only love all the more what they have.
“The Coffinmaker’s Love” by Alberto Yáñez
Miss Lavinia Parrish takes an apprenticeship as a coffinmaker, an odd choice of profession for a young lady from a family of rank and wealth. But Lavinia has since the age of six been in love with Death, in the form of another young girl who claims that Lavinia should not be able to see her – an ability undoubtedly conferred by the fact that she was stillborn and revived against expectations. It becomes a lengthy courtship.
Lavinia knew that Death went to every funeral, touched every casket or urn, stood by every pyre or shallow grave. She visited each person who would die, and paid her respects after. So Lavinia knew that Death would see her work, and Lavinia knew in her heart that Death would know that it was hers.
And so the coffin was a love letter to her beloved.
A love story that readers may find heartbreaking. I particularly like the image of the coffin as marriage bed.
“Blow ‘Em Down” by Rebecca Gomez Farrell
A steampunk version of Exodus, or to be more specific, the book of Joshua, in which the Hebrew brass band shatters the glass dome of Jericho. I can’t be amused by the wholesale slaughter of innocents.
“On the Origin of Song” by Naim Kabir
Written as a series of archived reports from a world where civilization is based on magic in the form of Song, and Song is derived from nature. So says the Academy.
“Hypothesis speaks of a heartbeat’s Song and the soul’s ringing Music that flows through the veins of all men and the beasts and the trees, though hard Theory from these hundred turns show the clear lack in the sand, rock, and earth; and so our Conclusion must focus on building histoire naturelle of the moving and breathing and all the combined Musics of the beauty we call Life.”
However, someone once produced golems from stone, and now a golem giant has appeared in the towns, calling himself a naturalist and investigating the nature of Song. Golems are not supposed to have souls, but the giant’s activities have raised doubts, which, the Academy fears, will bring their authority into question.
A poignant account of a repressed people in search of liberation.
Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales, edited by Paula Guran
Here are eighteen new tales from an encouraging table of contents. Fairy tales are a favorite with many authors as well as readers. In an anthology like this one, we’re not quite sure what approaches to the material to expect, there being such a large variety of possible strategies. We might find straight retellings from a different point of view or in a different setting; original tales in the fairytale mode; original stories that incorporate traditional tropes in a contemporary mode; stories based on different traditions; subversive or deconstructive narratives. Or all of the above, as in this case.
Not all readers, therefore, will find all of these pieces equally to their taste. Some of my own favorites may not be yours. But I suspect that most readers will find some offerings here that strike them as the right thing.
“The Coin of Heart’s Desire” by Yoon Ha Lee
Set in an imaginary empire based on Korean folklore. Upon the death of her mother, the young empress Tern inherits the throne and all its burdens. She knows that the great families will test her power and plot to take it from her. Thus she visits the secret underwater treasury guarded by a dragon, where she selects appropriate gifts for them. The dragon then inquires what gift she might want for herself.
The dragon’s smile showed no teeth. It extended a hand with eight clawed fingers. Dangling from the smallest claw, which was still longer than Tern’s hand, was a disc rather like a coin, except it was made of dull green stone with specks in it like blood clots, and the hole drilled through the center was circular rather than a square. The most interesting thing was the snake carved into the surface, with every scale polished and distinct.
With limitless wealth comes temptation. Tern is a ruler profoundly concerned with duty and justice; the ability to choose them requires wisdom. Only history can tell whether she has made the right decision. Here is beautiful prose, as one expects from this author, and a heroine who seems to have a heart and mind of stone, firm and inflexible.
“The Lenten Rose” by Genevieve Valentine
A remake of “The Snow Queen” story. The characters are told as young adults, not children, not innocent. Returning from the land of winter, Kay bears the scars. His heart is frozen. “The house is choked by roses—white, always white, nothing must be red any more.” We might say he is suffering from PSTD.
The story is allusive and non-linear, shifting from Kay to Gerda’s point of view, from past to present. It’s full of symbolization, especially colors and flowers, red roses and white, and the hellebore, the Christmas Rose, that can bloom in the snow, so early in spring it might be said to be winter; the story seems to be suggesting that it’s white, but the flowers actually bear a tinge of pink. The story makes much of its poison properties, while leaving it to the reader to guess whom Gerda meant to poison. Or whether it would have been better if she had.
“The Spinning Wheel’s Tale” by Jane Yolen
Here’s an interesting point of view: the Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, who insists, “It’s not my fault.” Not that I suppose anyone ever claimed it was. Very slight.
“Below the Sun Beneath” by Tanith Lee
Another retelling of one of the classics. Yannis went for a soldier when he was young and hungry; now crippled and discharged, he’s aging and hungry, with rumors on the road of a king bedeviled by witchcraft. Not surprised, then, to meet up with a witch and be offered her bargain, given her gifts and secrets to ward him against the king who wants to know where his daughters have been going at night, into the underground where the sun sets.
“The soles – not of their shoes, which are pristine as when sewn for them – but the skin of their feet. That is as marked as if worn right through. Blemished, black and red, and decorated in silver and sparkle, too. As if they’d bruised and torn them, then dipped them in rivers of moonlight and rime.”
Of course we know this story well, even if this version may not end exactly as we expect. The pleasure in the reading is to watch how the author creates the differences of her own variation, the treatment of the details, the images, the language. At this, Lee excels.
“Warrior Dreams” by Cinda Williams Chima
A contemporary setting along the shore of decaying Cleveland, where Russell is afflicted with both PSTD and an infestation of imps and similar wights. But his main problem, according to all the portents of doom, is Jenny Greenteeth, the storm hag of the lake. The other sprites want him to be their champion, wielding the cold iron that they can not. Russell figures, why the hell not?
This isn’t a fairy tale but an urban fantasy with fairies. The storm hag is local folklore, as are several other supernatural figures who appear in the tale. But the author isn’t content with them and dumps into the lake an ill-assorted mass of old-world ixies with little apparent consideration of how they got there and what business they have in the lake. The story manages to mix a pair of incompatible clichés about the contemporary wounded warrior – the self-sacrificing white knight and the homeless psycho living under the bridge.
“Born and Bread” by Kaaron Warren
“There was once a baby born so ugly her father packed his bags in fury when he saw her.” Now that is a true fairytale opening. Doe is indeed not a normal human, but her mother loves her and slowly kneads her into the shape of a lovely young woman who can bake a mean loaf of bread. One day Crouch, the meanest man in the village, dies, placing a curse on his almost-as-mean wife, to lie with him in his grave. The wife refuses, despite the damage the curse inflicts on the entire town. But Crouch had loved Doe’s bread, which provides her a way to end the curse.
A warmly humorous, rather unlikely sort of tale. The Doe and Crouch threads aren’t strongly bound together.
“Tales that Fairies Tell” by Richard Bowes
A near-future setting wherein a young failed artist named Julian dreams of a talking cat. Then Puss shows up in real life, boots and all, with a plan to give him a Fairy Godmother and elevate his status. He’s done this before and found it amusing.
Status and celebrity are what this tale is all about, it being New York, reflecting the ways of Versailles, with the subtle dance of in and out, up and down, driven by social media. The author views this ironically.
As if drawn by scent or psychic power, Julian’s roommates, the waitress/composer, the pedicab driver/dancer, even the tour guide/filmmaker, had found his or her way back to the apartment. They showed him online updates.
We see Puss in this incarnation as a creature with his own motives, which are far from universally benevolent. If Julian recognizes this, he’s wiser than most fifteen-minute wonders.
“The Sleeping Beauty of Elista” by Ekaterina Sedia
Reworking a classic tale as contemporary social commentary – the prick of a spindle becoming a hypodermic, the curse a disease, the witch a well-meaning but ignorant nurse. The events the author refers to actually took place, but what we have here is social commentary, not fiction, a metaphor that could have been the center of a story that wasn’t written.
“The Road of Needles” by Caitlín R Kiernan
A sciencefictional setting for another classic. Nix Severn is a skycap, the sole human crewmember stationed onboard outbound space shipments in case something goes wrong. Which it has. Now she has to make her way in her red hooded jumpsuit through the series of containers on this terraforming shipment gone wild, to reach the Oma the AI and see if she can make a repair. A wolf with her lover’s face accompanies her, at least the hallucination of a wolf.
The title, as well as many of the details here, comes from a less-well-known version of the tale. There’s a lot of stuff going on here at once – Severn’s home life, her work life, the extinction of many species on Earth, the design of the ship. It makes for a rather cluttered tale, but the elements do work together; the out-of-control terraforming modules have recreated the forest that Severn has to push through to reach “Grandmother”. It’s a version of the tale in which the journey means more than what happens once she arrives. The ship design is intriguing although the description is obscure; it seems to be fashioned in the manner of a train, with connected modules and an engine at one end, the whole running on some sort of rails.
“Lupine” by Nisi Shawl
Once there was a little girl whose mother hated her. The mother was not a bad woman, but she had not wanted a child, and so she put her daughter into a secret prison and pretended she did not exist.
Now that’s a fairytale opening! Not content with this, Lupine’s mother [whom I must think a bad woman despite the narrator’s disclaimer] forced an evil potion on her that made her act hatefully toward those she loved and lovingly to those she hated. When she falls in love with an admirable young man, she runs into the forest where she can do him no harm.
What a great opening for a fairy tale! I was really anticipating the rest of it, when it stopped. Dead. Flat on its face. I have to fault the editor, who didn’t send the manuscript back to the author and tell her to finish it.
“Flight” by Angela Slatter
Once there were two princesses, light and dark. They both loved the same prince, who spurned the Black Bride and chose the White. All their lives the sisters have sought revenge on each other. When the White Bride’s daughter Emer is about to come of age, she is bitten by a raven and transforms into a bird who then flies straight to the throne of the Black Bride, now a powerful witch, who chains her there and tells her side of the story. Finally, after imprisoning her sister in the form of a hare, she send Emer off on a quest to retrieve a crown on a glass mountain from a giantess – which piles up a whole lot of fairytale tropes in one heap.
Plenty of worthy material here, but I it all jumbled together, with too many elements stuck onto the frame to make a pleasing whole. One problem is that Emer has been given the main billing, when hers is merely the continuation of the greater and more interesting story of the two rival sisters, that becomes much less so when we get it condensed and second-hand. Then Emer’s story becomes a feminist tract about self-realization, at odds with the fairytale setting and jerking the reader’s attention to contemporary issues instead.
“Egg” by Priya Sharma
The narrator, childless, is obsessed with wanting to give birth. An old hag promises her what she desires, not without plenty of warning about getting what you wish for. The gift is an egg.
. . . its speckled pattern, its curves, strange weighting, and remarkable calcium formation that’s both delicate and robust. It hurts but I’m determined. The old hag promised. I put my egg inside me.
But Chick is not quite what the narrator had in mind. She has to feed her worms. Her development is retarded. Her face is beaky and she has a wishbone. The hag offers to take her back.
Another-transformation-into-bird story, a powerful tale of mother love. Plenty of fairytale precedents for this one, but a strongly unique version of it.
“Castle of Masks” by Cory Skerry
Every year, the village chooses one of its daughters by lottery to be sacrificed to the Greve in the castle, where the flayed masks of his victims are displayed on the walls. The Greve was once a hunter who was cursed because he killed the familiar of a witch. After his own sister is taken, Justus decides to take the place of the next sacrifice and slay the monster himself. One sight of the monster, however, and he begins to doubt his plan. He also starts to think the Greve might actually be a nice guy.
Twist here may take some readers by surprise. Disguise is a commonly-used trope in these tales, and the disguise is rarely penetrated in the traditional versions. This is in large part because the traditional fairy tale is told from an omniscient and usually distant point of view, with limited concern for realism. Shifting to Justus’s point of view, with his constant concerns about the success of his disguise, works to increase readers’ doubt that his scheme is going to work. As, we discover, it doesn’t really. In the end, it’s Pia’s scheme that I find more unrealistic and unfairytale-like.
“The Giant in Repose” by Nathan Ballingrud
Once upon a time, in fairytale land, a prince sets out on a quest to find his six older brothers, turned to stone by a giant who can’t be killed because he has hidden his heart. Ivar discovers a beautiful woman trapped by the giant, who tells him the secret of the heart; he can free her if only he can find it. But years and years pass in his search and he wearies of it. Taking passage to America, he leaves the land of Story and enters the mundane world, where he homesteads in Minnesota, marries, and begins to grow old. Until a crow, an old companion from his quest, arrives with the news that he has found where the giant’s heart has been hidden. Ivar, at first, is reluctant to leave his present life, but returning to the Story, he finds his lost youth returned to him.
But Ivar had never felt stronger, or more confident in his purpose. He wanted to leap from the boat and swim the rest of the way, however far that might be, so great was his sense of strength, so great his need to spend it like an abundant coin. He wanted a foe whom he could break in his hands, he wanted a woman whose body he would open with his own. He was young and strong and the Story pulled him the way God pulls the soul.
Wonderful stuff. This is how it ought to be done. The author skillfully performs the feat of recreating the true spirit of the original, timeless tale and juxtaposing it with the world of time and mortality. Readers may guess what choice Ivar will make in the end, but I think they will still be moved by the beauty of it.
“The Hush of Feathers, the Clamor of Wings” by A C Wise
More transformed birds, another seventh son. One of the interesting things about an anthology like this one is seeing which tropes call most powerfully to the authors. Here we have the seven brothers turned into birds – in this case sordid pigeons, not glorious swans, which sets the tone of this version of the story. Lisette gives up seven years of her life sewing nettle shirts, lips sewn shut in silence, to save her selfish ungrateful brothers. The most despicable is the narrator, brother number seven, who chose his own freedom over his sister’s, who chose to reject her sacrifice and choose to keep the sky. Does he feel guilty about this? Oh, yes, we know he does, because the narrator keeps telling us, over and over.
The contemporary setting adds a significant new dimension to the tale, but the way the narrator harps redundantly on the moral makes it tedious. And the brother remains despicable, after all.
“Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me” by Christopher Barzak
Laura tells the true story of the goblin market, not suitable for the children, who need the moral lesson of the bowdlerized version. The real forbidden fruit was a sister’s kiss, pressed on her by Lizzie who then drew back from what she had done – “the love she said no one would call love should they ever discover it.” But among the goblins, besides the sweetness of the fruit, Laura found the sweetness of that love she wanted.
The author has made some interesting choices. In large part, he employs the exact language of Rossetti’s original work, yet there is the major difference that profoundly changes the meaning of everything. I note that he draws back at one point in apparent squeamishness to make Lizzie and Laura not blood sisters after all, but foster-sisters. I wish he had left it as it was. The fewer alterations from the original, aside from the crucial one, the stronger the tale.
“The Mirror Tells All” by Erzebet Yellowboy
Reinterpreting “Snow White”, as the narrator, the daughter, argues against the view that it was all about mother/daughter competition and the fear of being supplanted by a younger woman. It’s about a woman who can’t stop looking in the mirror. Which is a fine fairytale opening line. It isn’t exactly a fairy tale, though. If it were a fairy tale, the mirror would have to be magic. It would have to be a curse. There would have to be a witch – in the symbolic sense, at least. Because if the mother is the victim in the story, someone else has to be the witch.
The setting is contemporary and apparently meant to be realistic. Or so it seems. When the narrator brings her mother a comb to try to draw her attention away from the mirror, it tarnishes, untouched on the dressing table. But maybe it isn’t meant to be realistic, because the narrator wonders why no one ever noticed that she had no mother. Maybe that was the magic, the curse, that only her daughter could see her in front of the mirror. Otherwise, the mother doesn’t seem to eat or drink, and she doesn’t seem to eliminate as she stands in front of the mirror, because surely someone would notice that. But if there is magic here, no one ever confronts it, and that isn’t really like a fairy tale.
“Blanchefleur” by Theodora Goss
The miller married a fairy woman and they had a son. When the miller’s wife suddenly dies, Ivan is so afflicted by her loss that he withdraws from the world, and soon everyone is calling him Idiot. But the Lady of the Forest, his aunt and godmother, sends for him. When he reaches her home, he discovers that all the servants are cats, even the Lady’s daughter, Blanchefleur.
. . . scattered around the room were low cushions, on which cats sat engaged in various tasks. Some were carding wool, some were spinning it on drop spindles, some were plying the yard or winding it into skeins.
The change does Ivan a great deal of good in the way of jump-starting his brain, but his cousin the white cat Blanchefleur isn’t impressed. At first.
This one is more in the homely, whimsical mode than the epic or heroic, even though Ivan ends up doing one or two deeds of heroism. Otherwise, it’s much on the fairytale model, complete with three trials and appropriate transformations and boys called Idiot who end up inheriting the kingdom.
Clarkesworld, October 2013
More humor here this month than usual.
“The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey
The Creature from the Black Lagoon regrets leaving home for Hollywood, but it’s too late now; he’s under contract.
“Don’t expect too much,” Karloff had advised him over sushi not long after he’d arrived, full of ambition and optimism, and Lugosi, strung out on morphine and methadone by the time the Creature made the scene, had been even more blunt. “They vill fuck you every time,” he’d said in that thick Hungarian accent.
But the Creature has fallen in love with Julie Adams and knows this will never end well.
The author succeeds in merging humor with poignancy in this Hollywood piece.
“The Symphony of Ice and Dust” by Julie Novakova
In a posthuman future, a small expedition has traveled to the distant dwarf planet Sedna to make a symphony when their ship discovers two ruined, frozen spacecraft, one of these holding two humans in cryosuspension. It seems that others had come before them, mostly lately eleven thousand years ago at Sedna’s last perihelion. And they had left a message.
Most of the text follows the earlier storyline, as Theodora and Dmitri undertake an emergency voyage to investigate a report of something spotted on the planetoid. While what we apparently have is their ship’s log, or parts of it, there are only short excerpts from this; most of the narrative, is summary. We learn, as the posthumans do, that their mission goes catastrophically wrong, but not before they identify the remains of the alien spacecraft from millions of years before.
Now the posthumans are left with a decision to make.
There are no surprises here. From the beginning, we are aware that the pair of humans has long been dead, and it’s pretty obvious that the other ship will turn out to be alien. In consequence, there is little story tension. The aim of the piece is emotional, i.e., pathos. We are meant to be profoundly moved, to feel the hope, the despair, the heroism of the doomed couple; we are meant to wonder only how the posthuman group will respond to all this, but even in here there is little to really wonder about: they are musicians; they will make their symphony.
The thing is, while we know we are meant to be moved, while we are told the events are moving, we don’t really see it all that clearly. The focus of the piece isn’t clear: is it on the posthuman generation or the human one? Rather than listening to the moving last words of the doomed human couple directly through the ears of their discoverers, we get a narrator who tells us what Theodora is thinking, for example. Where does this come from? Is the narrator addressing us, the readers, or the posthuman discoverers, or is it somehow their voice, derived from information we know not?
“Bits” by Naomi Kritzer
Renee works for a sex toy company that offers products called “Squishies” and “Firmies”. The real product is IntelliFlesh, sensate and attachable, that can be shaped in whatever forms the market demands – custom productions.
You’re not really supposed to say, “you want what?” to customers when you’re doing customer support for a sex toy shop. We are pro-sex, pro-kink, and anti-shame: there is officially no wrong way to have sex.
But there are very strange ways, as in the woman married to the alien with the eighteen-inch bifurcated penis. Turns out, though, there’s a market. For sex, it seems, there’s always a market.
The humor here, despite the subject matter, is more humane than outgrossing.
Apex Magazine, October 2013
I’m unhappy to read in this issue’s editorial that Lynne M Thomas is going to be stepping down from the helm of this ezine. Under her brief tenure, the quality of the fiction has risen noticeably.
Here are three original stories by female authors, two about love, all with female protagonists.
“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin
Having just been bitten by a zombie, Becca has decided to record her last human hour, after which, her mother will put a bullet in her. At least, that’s the plan.
This is slow, this is so slow, this is agonizing, but I cannot kill my daughter, not when she is still my daughter. Even though the grey is creeping up to her shoulder, down to her wrist. Even though she has begun to reek.
A story of mother love, taken to an unusual extreme. On the other hand, if it’s the end of the world, why not? What’s it going to matter? Exactly how the end of this sequence is being recorded is not clear.
“Grey in the Gauge of His Storm” by Damien Angelica Walters
In this metaphor, everyone has a fabric lining. The fabrics are different for each individual. Sometimes, they tear and need to be darned. The narrator’s lining is lace; it tears easily. When her lover tears it, he stitches her back together with a strand of his own burlap.
In the dark, I run my hands across my lining. Trace one fingertip along the new stitches. A part of him, now a part of me. I wonder if there are other women with threads of him still inside them, but I push away the thought before it can take hold.
The metaphor is of course for abuse, the story of women who convince themselves that abuse is love. The metaphor is quite apt, well conceived and well executed. The substitution of storm for anger is less so, unnecessarily indirect.
“An Assault of Color” by Mari Ness
Painting spells and curses. The artist works on commission and likes doing the curses best. Her career is satisfactory until an ominous client arrives in the night, shimmering with a powerful magic that curses her to curse it.
The house seemed to shudder. The artist shut her eyes against the whirlwind of colors, the pulsing brilliance, the patterns —
She could not paint this, even if it was in her mind. She could not. From the patron, another whisper. “Because if you do not, you will die.”
A work of imaginative, transformative cruelty, an assault indeed. The artist will never be the same, whether for better or for the worse, it’s impossible to say. Readers may also have to wonder whether the artist can be said to deserve this unasked-for fate, whether a creator of curses can be said to be an innocent victim.
Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2013
Six short stories, greatly varying in quality and content, from the overly conventional to the absurd. Only the Cole story caught my fancy.
“Mister Bob” by Dan Campbell
Aliens. Mr Bob is an investigator, “specialize[ing] in solving the unsolvable? Seeing the unseen? Knowing the unknown?” He has now been engaged by the human Gaia Corporation, terraforming a world they call Eden when a number of non-indigenous, large, vicious birds have suddenly materialized there.
Extending appendages into each wound, as well as the mouth and anus, I continued my observations, noting its last meal, blood type, mitochondrial decay, trace molecules in the lungs, and other important details. As my mantle brushed the bird’s feathers, nostalgia overcame me once more. The sulphuric flavor I had associated with Eden’s atmosphere was intense, concentrated in the filaments of feather.
But Mr Bob is actually more interested in where the birds might have come from, and particularly how. He wants to go home.
The humor here comes from the alien point of view and its contrast with the human. Mr Bob is not taken with the bilaterally symmetrical.
“Lightning Strikes” by Lindsey Duncan
Centauroid barbarian armies menace the city Calrhayas, and the auguries show the gods abandoning them. Diyesari is selfishly concerned only for her missing sister, held among the barbarians’ prisoners, and the gods conveniently arm her.
This is the sort of fantasy that annoys me not just for its unoriginality but its distorted values. We have an entire city at the point of destruction: slaughter, pillage, arson, the works. The city has powerful gods, presumably well-propitiated, but the gods don’t seem to give a damn; they obviously could save the city with a few well-placed lightning bolts, but they don’t bother. They do, however, exert themselves to save one minor priestess and her sister. Why? What is so important about these two women, when the rest of the city is abandoned to its fate? Because, apparently, the author cares about them, and for no other reason. Well, I have no reason to care about them, so I’d just as soon they were carved up by the centaurs, along with the rest of the population that the gods don’t care enough to save. Because what’s the use of gods like that?
“Lone White Seagull” by Geoffrey W Cole
The airplane flies into a cloud and can’t get out. Ergot always spends his travel time writing poetry, hoping to improve after his first million words. Now he can’t stop writing. His pen doesn’t run out of ink, and he covers the walls of the plane with his words.
Ergot broke open a fresh notebook and described her sleeping form in verse. The flowery smell of the dawn filled the plane but he thought he detected something else on her, a scent he couldn’t place and that his mind told him was best to ignore. In his poems, she became a nymph, a goddess, a slender crane, as he worked further and further toward competency.
A neat step sidewise in reality.
“Camouflage” by Eden Roberts
Things do not seem to be going well for Wanda in Chicago, so he gets on the train and goes north, as far as he can. Things become surreal. He meets a girl named Harry and her Arctic hare in Minnesota.
“My purse likes your bag,” she says. “She thinks he’s cute.” She holds the purse out to me. I know it’s just the skin and not the whole rabbit, but it’s like a little piece of Nunavut has come to me already. I pet its silky soft fur.
Things continue to warp in and out of surreality; the weirder they are, the better Wanda likes it. Is there a point to this? Not that everything needs a point, but I rather doubt it. Escape isn’t so easy.
“Heart-Song” by Danielle Davis
Nycalla has been captured by humans, who killed her mate and now want to watch her fight to the death. Nycalla wants revenge. Cobra-thought.
“Nice” by Jamie Mason
Revolution against the forces of Niceness. Fred is not Nice, so he becomes a role model, against his will. I detect an ironical screed against Political Correctness.
Strange Horizons, Bonus Issue, Sept-Oct 2013
OK, so it’s SH‘s annual fund drive, and various pieces are posted when the contributions meet specific goals. These include two original stories, of which the Shawl was posted in two parts. Unlike the editors, I can’t imagine people reading the first installment without certainty that the second would ever be posted. But it duly was.
“Teffeu: A Book from the Library at Taarona” by Rose Lemberg
A beautiful little meditation on the love of books and languages and words, and the narrator’s attempt to hold fast to that love when the mundania of life intervene.
But there was another house I lived in, circular and ancient, with stucco walls painted in flowering ink that spelled itself into a thousand names for every sunset since the world was new. And I had made a library there, for all the books I’d ever want to live with me in all the languages, in all the alphabets and abjads, syllabaries and logographic scripts.
“Red Matty” by Nisi Shawl
A future that seems to be postapocalyptic, but with some animals still modified so they can broadcast their thoughts aloud to the humans in their packs. Betty the beagle is modded and Matilda the elephant is not, but Betty can sense the newcomer’s intelligence. She must have lost her antenna. Or someone has taken it from her.
A heavily political, polemical work quite reminiscent of Orwell. People are Good or Evil – that is, some humans are Evil, we don’t see any animals who are. There are no pigs. In which respect, Orwell was more subtle.