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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-October


A couple of commendable publications this time, the last F&SF of the year and the anthology Rags and Bones.

Publications Reviewed



F&SF, November/December 2013

A good issue. I discern a theme of transformation linking several of the stories.

“Success” by Michael Blumlein

A mad scientist story. Dr Jim was always known to be brilliant but erratic. Increasingly so. He had Theories. He couldn’t be bothered with publishing any more papers, doing any more grant applications, performing any more experiments. In consequence, first losing his job, he ended up in a mental hospital. From whence, inexplicably, he disappeared and came back again several days later, apparently cured. What happened? The author doesn’t tell us directly, but it has something to do with the man that Dr Jim keeps in a cage in his basement and beats up on every day. His new wife, Carol, tolerates secrets in the basement. She tolerates a whole lot because she appreciates her husband’s genius. But there are limits, and Carol is a very strong-minded woman.

The scientific underpinning of the piece is epigenetics, the study of hereditable change to the phenotype that does not result from alterations of the DNA. Dr Jim carries this theory much further.

The perigene, he hopes, will also yield, though the when and the how are less certain. The task confronting him is so much greater and will therefore require commensurately greater, deeper, and more profound levels of imagination and thought. For as the epigene is to the gene, so the perigene is to the epigene: more complex by far, cryptic, Delphic, cosmic, grand, and elusive. It will be the final section of the book and its crowning achievement, the centerpiece of the Unifying Theory of Life.

Carol, too, embraces epigenetics in her work as an ethnobiologist, in which field she is seeking tenure with great determination. Their discussions on the subject, during Dr Jim’s more rational periods, generate considerable scientific interest before they run off the rails. But the theory also serves as a metaphor for personal change – more than a metaphor.

She can feel this in herself. She’s changing — on the deepest levels — and it seems to be happening, in part, in response to her grasping and grappling with this new idea, working it, following its threads, making intuitive leaps, doubling back, finding ways around apparent dead ends. She feels as if she’s tussling with some wild and beautiful animal, making it more beautiful and useful by taming and disciplining it.

In the end, we discover that this is Carol’s story, because Carol is the stronger character, in total control of the process, consciously and sanely directing it, whereas her husband’s mind proves unequal to the demons he has invoked.

–RECOMMENDED

“Through Mud One Picks a Way” by Tim Sullivan

Humans from Earth, as is their fictional wont, are settling Cet Four and displacing the native species from their swampy homelands. A Cetian delegation has come to Earth to ask them to stop, but instead they have been abducted by a human named Hob who has them confined in a basement pit. Uxanna, during her stint on Cet Four, learned to communicate with the native species, a tactile process that requires hosing off afterward. Returned to Earth, however, she finds her skills in short demand and now is working for Hob; her job is to get the aliens to cooperate, but she has ethical misgivings.

Uxanna clutched the handrail for a moment before dropping and spattering some of the pit’s knee-deep muck. She straightened up, waded toward the nearest of the three Cetians, and squatted to touch its milky belly, ignoring the methane stench as her fingertips came into contact with its wet hide. The Cetian began to rearrange its mass in response. Part of it swelled and extended toward her, gaining length and definition as it popped and slurped itself into a new shape. The new limb split at the tip into five trembling digits.

This story means well ethically, but there are a lot of improbabilities in the scenario. Among which, I find it hard to believe that people could integrate at all into Earth’s society after four generations of dilated time.

“Hell for Company” by Albert E Cowdrey

A ghost story, a tale thrice told by Twain, through Ambrose Bierce, but of course all authors are liars, and Twain alleges that he doesn’t believe it, himself. But in New Orleans, the story goes, he once met a deranged young man named Maurice Lemoyne whose brother Jean had recently killed himself. Maurice, however, claims that in fact, he is Jean, whom Maurice had shot in a duel over a girl.

I knew him so well, I could feel his reason tottering as the sheer enormity of his crime swept over him — what he’d done to me, to our mother, and to himself. It was while he was in this disordered state of mind, completely out of control, words falling unregarded from his lips like spittle, that my vengeful spirit passed through his staring eyes, possessed his mind and body, and thrust his soul into outer darkness. Suddenly I was the one kneeling and looking down at my own dying face, which was white as a mushroom, while the still-spreading pool of blood was black.

To make things worse, Maurice is attempting to kill him again, to regain possession of his body. Later, Twain hears Maurice’s version of the events, which he relates to Bierce, who relates them to us, though the medium of Cowdrey. Which makes this actually a fourth-told-tale.

This one deploys many of the author’s strengths, being a ghost story in the New Orleans setting, as well as a leavening of humor in the mode of Twain, or perhaps also of Bierce. The recent publication of Twain’s autobiographical writing has proven to be a vast lode of treasure which today’s authors have begun to mine. One notable fact that emerges from it is the fact that Twain knew everyone in 19th century America; this has already inspired a lot of fiction. Cowdrey doesn’t rely on the material overly much, however, using it basically as a frame for the Lemoyne story, in a manner that was quite common in that century, adding to the sense of place.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K J Kazba

In a fantasy Victorian world, Lindsome Glass has been sent to stay with her great-uncle the mad scientist, known locally as the Stitchman. His project is the vivification of corpses and the creation of the chimerae that haunt the grounds and the surrounding landscape. It is not a suitable sort of place for a young lady, although Lindsome attempts to behave with proper decorum.

Heart pounding, Lindsome backed away. The goat did nothing. Its gaze remained fixed at some point beyond her shoulder. As she watched, bits of its flesh grew misty, then resolidified. It’s all right, Lindsome told herself. It’s just an old vivified, rotten enough for the soul to start coming loose. It’s so old it doesn’t know what it is or how to act. See? It’s staying right there.

But what shocks Lindsome beyond the possibility of decorum is the bell jar and what it contains.

This is horror in a mode that fits the pseudo-Victorian setting, in which people mess with What They Were Not Meant To and suffer the consequences. Interestingly, the process of vivification itself is well-accepted in the story’s milieu; young Lindsome is acquainted with it and, indeed, knows more than her uncle’s scheming assistant would like. But it is a highly creepy process and the fact that it is commonplace doesn’t expunge this. Mad Uncle Albion’s mansion exhibits the usual signs of moral decay: filth and decay are pervasive, despite the presence of servants in the house. Most interesting is Lindsome, a strongly-drawn character just spunky enough and no more than necessary.

One peculiarity, however, given the setting and the use of souls in the vivification process, is the apparent absence of religion. Even on the direst moments when one might expect people to invoke God, there is no mention of it. Something to wonder about.

“Stones and Glass” by Matthew Hughes

In the author’s Raffalon series, which is to say thieves and wizards. Raffalon has encountered misfortune, having traveled to the gem fair in Tattermatch, expecting the place to be full of traders; instead, the event has been canceled. Raffalon has clearly failed to exercise due diligence in his affairs.

For a year, Raffalon had risked life, limb, and, occasionally, lucidity of mind to perform the services Vaudelare the Sublime had required of him. He had entered places from which no one else could have emerged, evaded warders and watch-beings no one else could have eluded. And always he had returned to lay at the thaumaturge’s feet the sometimes seemingly valueless goods he had been sent to steal.

The gems he had intended to sell are fakes, magicked into the semblance of weft stones by the wizard his former employer. Raffalon, however, conceives a clever plan with which he might recover some of his losses. At the same time, he attempts to deflect the unwelcome interest of a fellow traveler who seems to suspect the truth of his profession. Plotting and scheming ensue.

Entertaining, as Hughes’ stories generally are, although there is only a shadow here of the highly mannered prose readers may recall enjoying in his extended series.

“Baba Makosh” by M K Hobson

The Russian Civil War. Sent to locate Hell, Pudovkin’s small squad of scouts is hungry and cold and lost in the forest. Just when Blotsky and Lvov are about to murder each other, the old woman appears.

She was plump, her skin as dark and glossy as rye bread. Her face was kind, and she smiled, but she looked very tired. She wore stiff, heavy, old-fashioned clothing, uncommonly rich; a brocade sarafan tied with a broad sash of fine black wool and a kokoshnik decorated with pearls and gemstones. She stood among the ghostly birches, holding a wooden tray covered with a woven towel; on the towel sat a fragrant brown loaf and a silver dish of brownish salt.

It isn’t necessary to be familiar with Russian folklore to know that you don’t disrespect such a personage. Fortunately for Pudovkin, his grandfather had brought him up properly in the old ways.

This one is deeply saturated in very old myth. As well done as it is, I’m perplexed that the author has chosen to use the term “Hell”, with its Christian implications of punishment and evil, to refer to the underworld realm that the squad visits – a very different place, of wealth and abundance. I also find it odd that the rationalist, atheist Red faction, or at least one Red commander, would be interjecting himself into immortal quarrels in such a way. Lenin as Perun the storm god? These aren’t the Bolsheviks I recognize. Although the notion that science can overthrow the gods is quite characteristic of them, as is the purge of believers such as Pudovkin’s grandfather. This is the main symbolic thrust of the story, the wanton destruction of the traditional Russian life of the soil by the ascendant Soviet system’s drive to modernization. We get sufficient glimpses of the civil war to recognize the evils it left in its wake, but the main action here is on the mythical level, in the underground.

–RECOMMENDED

“Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois

Near future. A crisis is in progress, by which we gather that some force has taken over the drones and turned them on the US government, or parts of it. The president’s Secret Service bodyguard has managed to get him away, discarding their official vehicles, weapons and all electronic equipment, all of which could reveal their position to the enemy. Finally, they cut out their implanted chips. Having reached a deserted rural cabin, they huddle inside in the cold while explosions continue in the vicinity and the president’s health declines.

A story about duty, exemplified most strongly in the agent named Trenton. Some others put their own survival ahead of duty, while still others question their mission, are not so sure the president is worth it. The author seems to admire Trenton’s dedication while not being quite convinced his decision is right. But more strongly, this is a Cautionary Tale that frightens us because it’s so plausible. Already we live in a security state where everyone’s movements and communications are monitored, a state already possessing the armed drones overhead in the story’s sky. It wouldn’t take much. We never learn who the enemy is, whether a rogue element in the government or some outside force. It’s even conceivable that the drones themselves have gone rogue or are suffering from a fatal malfunction. To the people trapped in the cabin, it doesn’t really matter who’s out there. The message: Be afraid.

“Sing Pilgrim!” by James Patrick Kelly

An inexplicable, immoveable chair. Anyone who sits on it inexplicably begins to sing, then shimmers out of existence. Naturally, this inspires a religion.

Intriguing notion in this very brief tale about human credulity, with a punch line to groan for.



Lightspeed, October 2013

A lesser issue, a bunch of lightweight stories.

“The Five Deaths of Marvin Dimitri” by Dylan Otto Krider

So Marvin promises his wife Nora that he’ll come back to her, and he always does, despite various wartime and peacetime mishaps that have left him appearing to be, or declared, dead. Which happens to a lot of people, although perhaps not so frequently, but there’s an important distinction between being thought to be dead, which is commonplace and nonfantastic and no real subject for interesting fiction, and actually being dead and coming back to life, which doesn’t seem to be the case here.

“The Master Conjurer” by Charlie Jane Anders

Peter does a magic spell, the Clean Casting, and it works, and suddenly he is a celebrity besieged by news cameras, and people think he can do things.

Congress was talking about regulating magic, and there were questions about whether the makers of the spellbook the teachers had used could have some liability, even though it had five pages of disclaimers in tiny print. And there was a mention in passing of the notion that the teachers might have been influenced by the famous Clean Casting.

The part the author leaves out is, like, what the spell actually was. This is deliberate. The author waves the omission around over our heads to see how high we’ll jump, like cats to a string. Of course she finally does, and of course it’s anticlimactic and kind of silly. But it was never about the spell, it was about Peter, who’s pretty much a loser, before and after the spell. Not that it seems to be his fault, it’s just the way it is.

“HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!!” by Keffy R M Kehrli

A kickstarter appeal.

This is no scam! It is the best way to ensure that you will survive the next ten years. Or months, depending on how quickly I’m able to move beyond the prototype stage.

I suppose readers will find this funny the more such appeals they have received. Or maybe the fewer. Or maybe not.

“Ghost Days” by Ken Liu

The lost human colony on Nova Pacifica has gengineered its children to survive on a planet that would be hostile to their unaltered kind.

With their scaled skin, their heat-tolerant organs and vessels, their six-lobed lungs—all engineered based on models from the local fauna—the children’s bodies incorporated an alien biochemistry so that they could breathe the air outside the Dome and survive on this hot, poisonous planet.

Nonetheless, the original humans attempt to teach Ona and her classmates about their Earthly heritage. Ona, however, is more interested in learning about the heritage of the world where she lives.

At the beginning of the story, the author establishes the metaphor of a recursive function, “each time going back earlier in the sequence, solving earlier versions of the same problem . . .” He then bolts and rivets to this frame the different elements of the plot as symbolized by an old coin that links Ona’s teacher to her ancestors on Earth, passed from one generation to the next. To this is added a highly unlikely element in which the coin proves to be a link to the extinct natives of Nova Pacifica. The whole thing ends in a warm, gooey chorus of universal goodwill.

This isn’t good. The patina of story is too thin to cover the scaffold of the plot, and except for a few moments, the characters aren’t much more than cardholders on the rungs, holding up the author’s message. But the contrived ending where the coin just happens to open a link to the planet’s ancient natives goes way beyond credible.



Rags and Bones, edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

Subtitled: New Twists on Timeless Tales. The editors suggest the book has a literary bent, which refers to the way these stories engage with the works that inspired them. According to the introduction, the original inspiration for the anthology was the retelling of fairy tales, but most of the twelve stories here are based in some way on published fiction from the last couple of centuries.

Here is an important distinction. A fairy tale comes from an oral tradition in which there are many versions of the same underlying tale; there is no single text. Not so when we consider published stories; in such cases, it’s a specific text that we must engage, whether to retell, subvert, or continue. Always, familiarity with the originals adds greatly to the enjoyment of the retellings, though in some of these stories, it’s more crucial than in others. Happily, each piece is followed by an author’s afterward that identifies the original work, saving readers a lot of guessing.

The collection is a good-sized one and features a number of authors prominent in the field. It also contains stories from both of the editors, a matter of less significance than some people want to make of it. While there is interest in the relationship between the relationship between the original and derivative works, the important thing is whether they can stand before readers on their own merits.

“That the Machine May Progress Eternally” by Carrie Ryan

Inverting Forster’s “The Machine Stops”. Instead of an inhabitant of the Machine-run Underneath finding his way onto the surface, Tavil descends from the surface into the world of Underneath, from which he is unable to escape. Ryan’s tale captures the tone of the original, and in fact seems more suited to that era than our own. Where Forster described Wonders, which were a large part of his story’s impact, we now see the same futuristic trappings as unremarkable and are left with Tavil’s account to engage our interest. Alas, Tavil proves to be a poor hero in comparison to Forster’s original, Kuno, the intrepid explorer who dares the surface. Tavil begins intrepid enough, daring the tunnel that leads below, but he succumbs too easily to the Machine and, worse, the anti-empirical views of the below-dwellers. The author has created an authentic-seeming 19th-century piece that could almost be mistaken for the original, but it works more as a literary curiosity than a story in its own right.

“Losing Her Divinity” by Garth Nix

This one is Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, though inspired by it rather than a retelling. It’s more like the author took the story’s elements, threw some of them in a blender, and added a bottle of fizzy stuff. It came out vaguely recognizable – there’s the journalist narrator, though his voice is more Vancean than Kiplingesque, the train journey [carriages hauled by mammoths], a crown, Freemasonry. But the story itself is original and quite a bit more entertaining than the previous.

The narrator, a voluble fellow whose account is not entirely trustworthy, encounters a fugitive goddess while on a journey. She and her sister, pursued by their militant priesthood/keepers, are escaping godhood to enjoy the corporeal delights of mortality.

“Pikgnil had found an ancient text that spoke of Verkil‑na‑Verekil, of the city before it was ruined, of the king who ruled there, and of his crown. It was his crown that interested us, for the text spoke of its singular property, that it could make a man a god . . . or . . .”

But as the narrator later learns, their quest for corporeal delights did not work out well. He relates all this evasively and under duress to an odd couple of ruffians who turn out to be Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz, Nix’s own pair of fantasy adventurers. And there’s the rub.

Readers unfamiliar with the original Kipling story will be able to enjoy this one on its own merits. Readers unfamiliar with Nix’s characters, on the other hand, and their career as godslayers, are going to miss a lot, and particularly the ending. Why have these two captured the narrator and keep poking him with sharp objects? The narrator doesn’t know himself, so he can’t tell us. The most likely supposition would be that they are agents of the militant priesthood, send to retrieve their fugitive goddesses and bring them back to their temple, but this isn’t really it. Less importantly, readers are going to miss such details as the irony of Mister Fitz complaining that the narrator talks too much. So here’s another bottle thrown into the blender, or maybe a bunch of bananas. The result is fun stuff, mostly hanging on the narrator’s digressive voice, but there’s a lot more going on behind it.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman

Fairy tales. A mashup: two kingdoms, separated by a mountain range penetrable only by the dwarfs, who dug under it instead of climbing over. On one side, the royal castle has been for most of a century trapped in sleep and roses, as we all know. But the dwarfs, crossing between the kingdoms, report to their queen on the other side that the sleep over there is spreading, until now the entire kingdom is trapped in it. The queen realizes that it is likely to spread into her own kingdom as well, if no one stops it. The dwarfs, being of a magical nature, are able to resist the sleep, and so is the queen, whose previous time in a sleep spell has rendered her likewise resistant – as well as identifying her to readers.

There were sleeping riders on sleeping horses, sleeping cabmen up on still carriages that held sleeping passengers, sleeping children clutching their toys and hoops and the whips for their spinning tops; sleeping flower women at their stalls of brown, rotten, dried flowers; even sleeping fishmongers beside their marble slabs. The slabs were covered with the remains of stinking fish, and they were crawling with maggots. The rustle and movement of the maggots was the only movement and noise the queen and the dwarfs encountered.

The mashup, the story of two queendoms, is in itself an inspired notion, but only the beginning of the twists and turns as the author weaves these two tales together, providing an unexpectedly fresh look at both. Ingeniously-wrought surprises await the reader who makes it into the castle.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Cold Corner” by Tim Pratt

Homecoming. Terry returns to North Carolina after flaming out as a celebrity chef in California. While reflecting on his failure, he keeps encountering other versions of himself from other paths his life has taken in other timelines, some a lot worse than his own. One has opened a bar where the various Terrys and TJs congregate.

“We’re family. What else is family for? And it doesn’t get much closer than this. Every one of us who makes bad decisions . . . hell, we all know it could have happened to any of us. There but for the grace of good luck.”

Pratt is taking on Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” here, in which a typical Jamesian expatriate returns to his ancestral home in New York, where he finds the lurking ghost of himself from an alternate lifestream that never happened, in which he remained in the US to become rich and “vulgar”. I find myself enjoying the Pratt story a lot more. There is no family in the James story, no sense of home, only one distastefully self-absorbed man talking about himself. The Pratt story is full of family, of the warmth of home, strongly symbolized by home-cooked and regional food. If the original has a sort of ghost, here we are closer to the territory of science fiction as Terry shifts among alternate timelines meeting interestingly different versions of himself. It’s notable that Terry is twenty-three, the age at which James’ protagonist originally left for Europe. But we can see that Terry is going to make some serious lifestyle changes now, seeing what he might have become [quite a few of his alternates are meth cookers], while the James character continues in self-indulgence. A definite improvement.

–RECOMMENDED

“Millcara” by Holly Black

As the title suggests, a retelling of Carmilla in the vampire’s voice. It is clearly the same story, even to the names of the characters [in the original, Carmilla is one of several anagrams of the character's original name Mircalla]. The setting is now contemporary and the characters preadolescents, but the essentials of the plot are quite the same, even to the unlikely scheme that places the youthful-appearing vampire in the home of her victims. The shift in narrative voice works well. There is a great deal of sensuality here, and passion, with being overtly sexual. Millcara has the emotional sensibility of a young girl, denying the consequences of her actions. Everything will be just fine if Laura only wakes up.

And you don’t understand that when they’re fading, when they’re sick, I don’t feel smug or pleased, I feel panicked. I feel like I am being left behind by the one person in the world I would most hate to lose.

“When First We Were Gods” by Rick Yancey

A far future when a limited number of elite families achieve immortality by regularly shifting into new, vat-grown flawless bodies. They have annoying names like Beneficent, Omniscient and Courteous. A class of mortals exists to serve them. Beneficent marries the perfection-obsessed Courteous for political reasons but falls in love with her servant Georgiana.

Both this and the original are science fiction, though the original is a very old example of the genre: Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”, in which a maddish scientist becomes obsessed with his wife’s slight imperfection. In both cases, this results in death; in both stories, there is a strong suggestion that imperfection is what makes us human. In the current story, the imperfection is mortality. “The moment he stole her mortality from her, his true love was gone.” By using the name Georgiana, Yancey not only links with the Hawthorne story, he contrasts this name with the grotesque names of the immortals, which suggest perfect virtues. [Although in Hawthorne's day, such names were considered quite normal.] It’s also noteworthy that in both cases, male characters attempt to impose perfection on the women they love – but not quite as they are.

I have to conclude that the story doesn’t work well, in part because it’s hard to take people with names like Beneficent seriously – to take the entire milieu seriously. And the text drags on and on and on until the end of the Earth, with the posthumans essentially unaltered in all those billions of years.

“Sirocco” by Margaret Stohl

In this one, the text tells us upfront that we’re working from The Castle of Otranto, the ur-gothic novel now being made into a movie. So we’re on location at a castle [cursed] in Italy where the Sirocco blows up from Africa, our protagonist is a Theo, and we begin with a fatal accident. Check, check, and check. This being a contemporary setting, however, it also resembles Law and Order: Otranto, with whiffs of murder and insurance fraud and a computer where the evidence is found. Concluding twist very much in keeping with the original.

Gothic novel meets bad teen horror flick. Fun stuff.

“Awakened” by Melissa Marr

Placing a selkie [the author spells it selchie] at the center of Chopin’s “The Awakening”, changing the protagonist’s name from Edna to Eden. The author has included a selchie law I’ve never heard of, that a selchie can go free if her captor strikes her three times in anger. But Leo, son of an abusive father, has chosen Eden for just that reason. “You can’t leave me; you can’t disobey me . . . and I . . . won’t ever need to hurt you.” He does, however, hurt her in lust. Eden is willing to provoke him to violence if it will set her free of him.

This one reduces the complex psychological story of the original to a one-dimensional metaphorical message. In the original, the strictures that chafe the protagonist are society’s demands on a married woman, and motherhood. Her husband is reproached for his lenience; he simply can’t understand what she wants. There is also a strong sense of lust and desire. Nothing of that can be seen here. Leo comes straight for the Abusive and Controlling Male Handbook, and there is nothing to Eden but the craving for freedom from him. Also lacking is a setting, which besides the sea is sterile in its emptiness, while the original was rich and well-populated. This version doesn’t at all do it justice.

“New Chicago” by Kelley Armstrong

Post apocalypse, with a zombie-like plague sending the uninfected behind the walls of the new cities where life, if safer, is just as hard. Cole’s brother is working to get them into an inner enclave of wealth, and Cole helps out with a little discreet pickpocketing. He should have known better than to swipe the accursed monkey’s paw, because he’d seen how much the previous owner wanted to get rid of it.

This is a story that’s been retold to the point of attaining folkloric status, but the core is always the same: Be careful what you wish for. Armstrong does it more than justice, particularly with the ending, worthy of any campfire.

“The Soul Collector” by Kami Garcia

Petra killed to escape the streets, a cop saved her, and now he wants to send her back there under cover, a cop and a killer. Problem is, the boy she always loved is still back there, and working for the man she’s supposed to target. Problem also is, the mysterious guy who steps in and actually does the killing, who calls himself the Soul Collector.

The author claims this to be a version of Rumpelstiltskin, which it only vaguely resembles.

“Without Faith, Without Love, Without Joy” by Saladin Ahmed

Opening with an epigraph from the original, The Faerie Queen, which also provides the title. The brother called Joyless tells us that he and his brothers once lived peacefully in Damascus when they were transported to a nightmare world called Albion where their abductor, Redcrosse, has taken away their true names.

He is using this strange place to test himself. To prove himself to his God and his Queen. And killing us is part of his test, it seems. He has hunted us, or set his creatures on us. The lion. The dwarf. The arch-​magi.

Now his two older brothers are lost and Joyless confronts their enemy, knowing that the rules here will not allow him to win, either.

This is inverting the point of view with a vengeance. Ahmed is striking back at the tendency of the Western fantasy tradition, from its beginning in the original poem, of dehumanizing such characters as the “saracen”. [See for example the Calormenes in Narnia.] Of course in Spenser’s the original, there are no real human persons; everyone, including the knight, is an allegorical representation, and the three saracen brothers seem to belong in the world of the poem as much as all the other figures do. Nonetheless, this work makes a powerful statement.

“Uncaged” by Gene Wolfe

Leave it to Gene Wolfe. I find myself unable to comment on the relationship between his story and its original, which the author’s note informs us is “The Caged White Werwolf of the Sarban” by William Seabrook – a work quite unknown to me. This one has the feel of a sequel. We’re back in the age of bwanas and white hunters in Africa, and our nameless narrator has received an appeal from the widow of a planter who kept her in a cage because he believed her to be a leopard. The man takes a long trip to free her – a white woman alone in a cage in the middle of Africa. [What else can I do?] One scene break later, and they are married, on a ship home to America. The narrator worries. Children are missing on the ship. He considers how he might confine his wife, comes up with nothing. She seems to be able to come and go through locked doors.

The stateroom was dark. The corridor in which I stood brightly lit. In our stateroom, emerald eyes glowed with reflected light!

A fascinating situation. The narrator is now back home, in a house where his family will soon be arriving, harboring a woman he has no real doubt to be a were-leopard. He knows she has killed; he has all but witnessed it. He knows she is still killing and will continue to kill. Reports are already in the newspaper. Yet all he can say is, “What can I do?” Of course, readers might come up with a suggestion. We can be pretty sure what he ought to do, what he should have done already. He probably knows this as well. What the story is asking us is why he doesn’t. Without being able to comment knowledgeably on its ties to Seabrook’s original, all I can say is that this one is well worth reading on its own merits.

–RECOMMENDED

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

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


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