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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May


This column is mostly taken up with a massive and entertaining anthology full of long-established authors. I also look at a smallish new ezine with new authors.


Rogues, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois

Be careful what you wish for. I’ve remarked a number of times in the course of doing these reviews that I don’t get to see enough anthologies. Well, here’s an anthology to sink all the rest: over eight hundred pages filled with twenty-one heavyweight tales by heavy hitters spread across a variety of genres. It’s the third in a series of similar theme collections, following Warriors and Dangerous Women, neither of which I saw for review. The genre mix is mostly fantasy and nonfantastic thriller/detective. I see no explicit science fiction and only one piece I’d call horror. The stories are uniformly quite long, occasionally longer than is best for them.

They also raise the interesting question: What is a rogue? The consensus is that the rogue is an outlaw, operating outside the normal rules, but usually more in the capacity of hero, not villain. If a rogue steals, it’s from the rich; if a rogue kills, it’s probably someone who deserves it. But falling in love with a rogue is usually not well-advised and unlikely to lead to domestic happiness. Traditionally, the rogue has been a male, but in keeping with current genre trends, the volume offers a good assortment of roguish females.

The majority of the stories feature characters from series or previous works of the authors. This is something that I often find a problem, particularly in a book like this one, where it’s not likely that readers will be familiar with all these authors, despite the individual popularity of many. However, in most cases, these stories work pretty well independently and aren’t bogged down in backstory problems. And the general tone and mode are familiar, even if the specific characters may not be. The pair of roguish adventurers is certainly a genre staple; we even have a story offering homage to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the template for many of these subsequent heroes.

Overall, if I were to sum up the book in a single word, it would be Fun. These tales are generally fun reads, entertaining, full of action and adventure. In this, the genre mix works to the anthology’s advantage, offering a constant change of pace and variety, even while most are on the lighter side, with engaging narrative voices. It’s not a book full of true darkness, evil, gloom and depression. Rogues are fun, as long as we’re reading about them and not living with them.

“Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie

Carcolf is a courier who wishes she were anywhere but Sipani, a carnival city full of rogues and fools. Carcolf, too, is a rogue, deep in an elaborate plot full of diversions and impersonators, until a random cutpurse relieves her of her consignment. Kurtis can hardly believe he succeeded in this theft, but his relief is short-lived, as he finds a debt collector waiting for him. And so it goes, from one hand to the next.

Sipani, and most especially its moist and fragrant Old Quarter, was full of thieves. They were a constant annoyance, like midges in summer. Also muggers, robbers, burglars, cut-purses, cut-throats, thugs, murderers, strong-arm men, spivs, swindlers, gamblers, bookies, moneylenders, rakes, beggars, tricksters, pimps, pawnshop owners, crooked merchants, not to mention accountants and lawyers. Lawyers were the worst of the crowd, as far as Friendly was concerned. Sometimes it seemed that no one in Sipani made anything, exactly. They all seemed to be working their hardest to rip it from someone else.

A good choice for opening the book, presenting as it does an extensive gallery of roguish characters portraying a wide spectrum of the species, full of adventure, derring-do, and thievery. It would be sort of ruining the effect if readers started to wonder just how everyone in Sipani seems to know about this package, and who is holding it at any moment, and who is likely to pay the most for it. Questioning some matters doesn’t reward inquiry and just spoils the fun.

“What Do You Do?” by Gillian Flynn

The narrator got into the psychic business by accident, following a workplace injury. “I quit because when you give 23, 546 hand jobs over a three-year period, carpal tunnel syndrome is a very real thing.” In her new line of work, she claims to read auras instead of palms, but she starts to believe her own line when she encounters a client’s problematic house, where her problematic stepson lives.

I watched the house. It watched me back through long baleful windows so tall a child could stand in the sill. And one was. I could see the length of his thin body: gray trousers, black sweater, a maroon tie perfectly knotted at the neck. A thicket of dark hair covering his eyes. Then, a sudden blur, and he’d hopped down and disappeared behind the heavy brocade drapes

The narrator’s voice carries this faux-haunted-house tale, very reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw, even to the stepson’s name Miles. It’s likewise ambiguous, leaving the narrator and readers not knowing whose story to believe.

“The Inn of the Seven Blessings” by Matthew Hughes

Featuring the author’s series character Raffalon the thief, one of many rogues he has created in his fictional universe. By happenstance more than active larceny, Raffalon acquires a puzzle box holding a small carved image of a god that exerts control over his body when he opens it.

When his fingertips touched the smooth wood, a faint tingling passed along the digits, into his palm and through his arm, growing stronger as it progressed. Alarmed, he instinctively sought to fling the thing away from him but found that his fingers and arm refused to obey him. Meanwhile, the tingling sensation, now grown into a full-body tremor, reached its crescendo. For several moments, the thief stood, vibrating, in the middle of the forest road. His eyes rolled up into his head and his breathing stopped, his knees locked, and it seemed as if a strong wind passed through his skull from left to right.

To Raffalon’s dismay, the god insists on rescuing its former holder, who was just kidnapped by a savage tribe of anthropophagi – a quest that the thief is reluctant to embark upon. Having little other choice, he makes a bargain with the god, but it soon becomes clear that both the deity and its former bearer are inclined to treachery.

Entertaining adventure, enlivened by the author’s narrative voice. Raffalon is a clever fellow, but not too clever, who employs one of the oldest tricks in the book. Plenty of fun here.

“Bent Twig, A Hap and Leonard Adventure” by Joe R Lansdale

Detective series story. Hap’s lover Brett needs him to rescue her errant daughter Tillie, gone missing after her pimp was murdered. Tillie is in urgent need of rescue.

This guy, Robert, sold drugs and sold her. Town like this, people who used her services…Well, everyone knows. Everyone here knows the size of their neighbor’s turds and can tell one’s stink from the other. Thing is, Robert, he was most likely selling drugs for Buster Smith. Buster runs a Gospel Opry show over in Marvel Creek.

Lot of mayhem, as the guys put the hurt on a bunch of bad men. The tone is hardboiled Texas noir, which makes it entertaining, although there’s too much actual evil here to call the reading fun. I do also wonder if “rogue” is the best designation for Hap and Leonard, at least in the story at hand. They’re not exactly on the right side of the law, but that’s when the law is on the wrong side.

“Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick

Still another series, featuring another sidekick pair, con men Surplus and Darger. In a New Orleans populated by fantastic creatures, they hire Miss Petticoats as an accomplice in their scheme to run the black money scam, a complicated and devious bit of chicanery involving sleight of hand and diversion – the diversion being Tawny, who is quite a rogue in her own right. Double-dealing and treachery ensue, along with zombies.

Everyone here, save for the zombies, is a rogue, a paragon of dishonesty.

For a time they talked business. Then Surplus broke out a deck of cards. They played euchre and canasta and poker, and because they played for matches, nobody objected when the game turned into a competition to see how deftly the cards could be dealt from the bottom of the deck or flicked out of the sleeve into one’s hand. Nor was there any particular outcry when in one memorable hand, eleven aces were laid on the table at once.

Entertaining stuff, another purely fun read.

“Provenance” by David Ball

Shady art dealer Max Wolff has just received an irresistible offer for a Caravaggio painting.

Max knew this painting, as any student of art history would know it. It was a beautiful and cursed creation, the work of a madman.

And it had been missing since the Second World War.

Further, Max knows the perfect buyer for it: the Reverend Joe Cooley Barber, preacher of prosperity. To his client, he relates the provenance of the work, its passage through the hands of SS murderers, arms dealers, corrupt dictators, and other evildoers, worse by far than mere rogues. But it’s the rogue who wins out in the end of this twisting plot, that will take the reader back to reconsider the implications of the opening lines. Not fun stuff as in laughter, but satisfying, with a good art history lesson included for the price.

“Roaring Twenties” by Carrie Vaughn

A magical bar story set near the end of the decade of the title, with a distinct supernatural element in the population.

The good thing about Blue Moon is that it’s invisible, so it never gets raided. Bad thing is, being invisible makes it hard to find for the rest of us. You have to have a little magic of your own, which Madame M does, and finding places that aren’t there is never much of a problem for her.

M is there to meet with Gigi, Pauline is there to have her back when trouble happens. Trouble duly ensues, among which is the mundane Fed who shows up in the place that he never should have been able to find, packing a gun that never should have gotten past the door. Just because the Fed is clueless doesn’t mean he’s not trouble, not packing heat like he is. But in fact, he’s not the real problem at all.

The author puts a feminist twist on this classic scenario, including the relationship between M and Gigi, a classic of another kind that readers may or may not anticipate. Otherwise, the main interest is in the mix of the setting; I like the way the author isn’t overbearing about the nature of the club’s denizens, most of whom are clearly rogues, some more malevolent than others, but no real evil showing.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch

Straight fantasy. Theradane is a city ruled by feuding wizards, and Amarelle, retired and pardoned thief, is wasting time with her reprehensible drinking buddies when someone tosses a vorpilax through the bar’s skylight. Pissed-off, she decides to confront one of the ruling cabal and tell them to knock it off. Her friends don’t think this is such a good idea.

“Of course I can.” Amarelle stood up nearly straight and, after a few false starts, approximately squared her shoulders. “I’m not some marshmallow-muscled tourist, I’m the Duchess Unseen! I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE—”

She is received by the wizard Ivovandas with surprising cordiality and an extortionate demand. Amarelle won’t end up as a street lamp, like her former partner, if she steals a certain street, the power locus of Ivovandas’s chief rival. Of course any sort of theft is an explicit violation of Amarelle’s pardon, but the wizard makes it clear she has no other choice. So – how do you steal a street? Amarelle has a year and a day to figure it out. Numerous futile attempts ensue.

Highly amusing, after a rather slow opening. A lot of ingenuity in play from a clever crew of magical rogues.

“Bad Brass” by Bradley Denton

Crime, which is not unexpected when rogues are involved. Matthew Marx, part-time substitute teacher, burglar, and smartass, has his eye on the profits of the high school Sousaphone-jacking ring. But the exchange with the crooked teenagers’ buyers doesn’t go well, leaving Matthew’s potential take meager. Still, stealing from crooks is what he does.

In the movies, a lone thief is often portrayed as an elegant schemer. But in the actual process of stealing, especially when stealing from other crooks, cleverness matters less than luck. Down and dirty gets the money.

But back in the high school, things turn out not to be what they had seemed in a plot full of complications, beginning with the fact that Matthew’s ex-wife is the principal, dating the school band director.

A kind of improbable plot, in which things turn out better than the characters have any right to expect.

“Heavy Metal” by Cherie Priest

Horror. Kilgore Jones, also called The Heavy for good and sufficient reason, has been called to Ducktown Tennessee, former home of the Burra Burra copper mine, its remains now a museum.

Fifty square miles of lifeless landscape, nothing but poisonous red hills as far as the eye could see. Except for the smattering of houses, churches, and the central hub of the mine facility, it’d looked like the surface of Mars.

Something is wrong there, even more than usual. A small team of ecology students had just begun a survey of the unreclaimed land when first one, then another, drowned in a cratered, rain-filled sinkhole with “an unpleasant stink of bottom-pocket pennies and stagnation.” The sole survivor of the group say she saw something come out of the water and call them into it. Disposing of such somethings is what Kilgore does, with the aid of his Bible.

This is a character the author has deployed before, although perhaps not to the extent of making it a series. There’s a bit too much of his angst from these other stories. What I like is the setting, the derelict mine, the poisoned but recovering land, the crater, treacherous even without its monster. And the people of the place, still loyal to the toxic mine and resenting the restoration of the land by outsiders.

“The Meaning of Love” by Daniel Abraham

Sovereign North Bank is an autonomous and lawless enclave within the greater city of Nevripal, the sort of place that naturally attracts rogues and worse sorts.

Shit and piss and trash were thrown from windows to the distant street until rain came to wash them away, and like plants in rich soil, the unstable, unreliable buildings rose, driven by the deep human desire to be the one least shat upon. The streets, such as they were, grew darker and narrower and sometimes disappeared altogether under plank-and-tar awnings that redefined them as homes and shacks.

One of its many denizens is the young fugitive prince Steppan Homrey, currently sorrowing because the woman he loves is going to be sold to the workhouse. His wiser protector Asa, unrequitedly in love with the prince, unwillingly promises to see what he can do, which turns out to involve a great deal of roguery.

The plot here is stolen in part from Shakespeare, who wasn’t above stealing them himself, which makes him a bit of a rogue, as well. Although there is plotting and conspiracy, the character of Steppan is flat and we have to take the author’s word for Asa’s love for him, since we can’t really see it. The story itself is also a bit on the thin side, though flavored with the ironies that so often attend the sentiment of love. Despite the fantasy tone of the setting, I find nothing explicitly fantastic here.

“A Better Way to Die” by Paul Cornell

Alternate history featuring the series character Major Jonathan Hamilton, an officer deep in this version of the nineteenth century great game, with aliens and their wonders, which the powers here are exploiting for their own purposes. Hamilton is also deep in angst and despair from his adventures in previous series episodes, which the author discusses at excessive length.

He had started to feel a deeper anger, nameless, useless, than any he had felt before. He knew what he was owed, but had become increasingly sure he wouldn’t receive it. The fact of him being owed it would be seen now as an impertinent gesture on his part, a burden on those who had invested elsewhere. He had one request now, he’d decided, looking at the card in his numb fingers: he would ask to be sent to contribute to some hopeless cause.

It seems that the authorities have imported a younger version of himself from a parallel reality, for a purpose not disclosed to Hamilton but from which he suspects no good to his current self. He had pressed the boy too hard and forced him into acting on weakness; he has gone rogue, his presence conceivably threatening the king, and now Major Hamilton’s task is to eliminate him.

Interestingly, here we have the term “rogue” used in its other sense, as the younger Hamilton has gone rogue and subverted the expectations of authority. This is a fascinatingly corrupt setting, the class system on steroids, where servants are both ubiquitous and literally invisible, where men like Hamilton accept their duty to be expendable. Unfortunately, setting and character both owe too much of their development to the earlier episodes of the series, making them imperfectly realized here for readers unfamiliar with it.

“Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor

The title will surely suggest to readers a connection with the classic Fritz Leiber series, and here we find Saylor’s Roman detective Gordianus as a young man on a tour of the Roman Empire, encountering the history of Leiber’s rogues as heroes of Tyre’s storied past. As his tutor Antipater informs him,

“There are those who believe that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser arrived from a realm outside of ordinary time and space, a place of magic, if you will, and so it may be that they were present here in Tyre not just a hundred years ago, but also a hundred years before that.”

Which means, of course, that they might also be present in Gordianus’s day. According to Antipater, the ancient heroes were once cursed by spells contained in a collection of arcane scrolls known as the Books of Secret Wisdom, which the tutor has always coveted and now intends to obtain, despite Gordianus’s misgivings. Antipater is particularly interested in the recipe for invisibility, supposedly contained therein. A local rogue proves willing to sell them.

Definitely fun stuff. I suspect that readers will be less credulous than Antipater. Strictly speaking, the references to Leiber’s characters aren’t essential to the story, but rather a token of affection from the author.

“A Cargo of Ivories” by Garth Nix

Here are the author’s series characters Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz on another adventure, which currently involves burgling the manse of a sorcerer to purloin a batch of ivory figurines representing various minor deities.

Possibly unbeknownst to Montaul, fourteen of the figurines were not merely representations of godlets, but energistic anchors that secured the actual deities to this mortal plane, and could be used to summon them into renewed existence. As the said godlets were all proscribed for various reasons, usually their inimical nature, the destruction of the ivories had long been sought by the Council of the Treaty for the Safety of the World . . .

The pair has well-laid plans, which naturally go agley, as they encounter a local thief who has purchased the exclusive license to rob the place and isn’t pleased to see them. They join forces, however, when it becomes clear that one of the malevolent godlets has become animated. Fortunately, the sorcerer’s house holds an albino pigmy moklek, and one of the few means of destroying such ivories is by an albino moklek crushing them underfoot. If only the adventurers manage to secure them in time from the toxic tendrils of the animated godlet.

This one ventures close to silliness. The series features sarcastic banter between the heroes, with occasional reminders that the puppet-mage Fitz was once Hereward’s tutor. While these two have the general properties of rogues, here they appear to be acting as agents of order and safety.

“Diamonds from Tequila” by Walter Jon Williams

Crime thriller. Sean is in Mexico making an action movie and hanging with the film crew, smoking California weed and messing around with a 3-D printer. One of the crew has grandiose notions that pretty soon people will be able to produce anything they want in their own garages – like drugs – but Sean isn’t really interested in anything but the movie that might make him a star. Things are going reasonably well until he finds his nominal girlfriend Loni [for the consumption of the tabloids] messily dead in her cabana. Naturally, the situation is full of complications, like the Mexican drug cartels, Big Pharma, and the DEA. But worst of all, from Sean’s point of view, they’re going to ruin the movie because the suits don’t want to spend the money to reshoot Loni’s scenes. So Sean takes steps of his own.

Sean is a character from a previous work, a person whose life is deep in the entertainment industry, TV and now movies. This is a cynical milieu, which the author exploits effectively: on finding Loni’s body, Sean correctly figures the first thing he should do is call his agent. But his desires are simple; he just wants to be a star. Compared to his surroundings, it’s not too hard to wish this rogue well.

Desperation Reef is going to be a hit. I know this because Loni’s getting killed gave it the sort of publicity that the studio would have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for. All the people who have seen the tabloid headlines or who watch the entertainment news will want to be part of the story— part of my story.

“The Caravan to Nowhere” by Phyllis Eisenstein

Aside from Fafhrd and the Mouser, whom we don’t really see, I believe this to be the most venerable series character in the book; I’m not sure how many readers will recall Alaric the teleporting minstrel, whom we find here as a young man joining a trade caravan for a dangerous desert crossing because the caravan master likes his songs. The master has a son whose mind has been destroyed by addiction to a certain powder they obtain for trade, and the drovers have to be constantly on guard to keep him from trying to reach the mirage of a phantom city on the horizon. Alaric is also fascinated by the spectral city but, not addicted to hallucinogens, realizes it is only illusion.

As before, the city wavered and shifted at the horizon, its many towers now relatively distinct, now merging into a broad blur. Toward evening, the whole mass seemed to rise into the air, and empty sky was visible beneath it. Clouds, Alaric thought, though that was a difficult surmise to accept while the rest of the sky was a featureless blue save for the brilliant smear of the sun.

But the dangers of the journey involve treachery as well as hallucination.

The primary interest here is in the setting, the panorama of the desert, although it is a low-key journey, too greatly prolonged before anything finally happens. There is no figure here whom I would call an actual rogue.

“The Curious Case of the Dead Wives” by Lisa Tuttle

Mystery in the author’s series. Miss Lane, a lady detective in the days of Sherlock Holmes, receives a young client wishing to retrieve her beloved sister, who had suddenly died a month previously, but whom she has more recently seen in the company of a sinister man who addresses the dead woman as “Mrs Merle,” although her name had been Travers. The missing woman’s diary suggests the possibility of suicide and contains a sketch of a man that Miss Lane and her partner Jesperson discover to be an undertaker and director of the cemetery where she had been buried, an enterprise offering special coffins of his own design:

“The in-built alarm system will alert the on-site security guard (always listening, night and day) within moments of revival, in the unfortunate event of a burial having been premature. In such an event, the coffin is designed to keep its inhabitant alive and comfortable, with more than sufficient air to breathe until disinterment may be effected, which will be done with the utmost dispatch to minimize discomfort and eliminate all worries.”

Foul play seems the obvious conclusion.

The title makes the nature of the foul play rather obvious, and the conclusion comes as no real surprise. As a feminist detective story as well as fiction of manners, it spends a great deal of time expounding the narrator’s views of the role of women in this society – I rather like the analogy to spoiled fruit, but it carries on at rather too much length to be as interesting as it might be. Again, there is no rogue here, only a villain, which is not the same thing at all.

“How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman

A tale of London Below. This is a complex and fascinating fantastic milieu that may well confuse readers unfamiliar with it, but the tale is told with such wit that we don’t really much care. Our roguish hero is the self-described Marquis of Carabas, whose identity lies in his very special coat. Alas, he has acquired enemies, who have cut his throat [a temporary inconvenience] and stolen his coat, a calamity. He learns that it has been sold to the dreaded Shepherds yet is nevertheless determined to retrieve it. But he is betrayed and finds himself chained at the bottom of a drowning pit.

He wished he were wearing his coat: there were blades in his coat; there were pick-locks; there were buttons that were nowhere nearly as innocent and buttonlike as they appeared to be. He rubbed the rope that bound his wrists against the metal pole, hoping to make it fray, feeling the skin of his wrists and palms rubbing off even as the rope absorbed the water and tightened about him. The water level continued to rise: already it was up to his waist.

Further mishaps and adventures ensue. High entertainment.

“Now Showing” by Connie Willis

Lindsay is a college student who once thought Jack was the perfect guy for her, albeit a scoundrel type [ie, rogue], until he stocked the Dean’s office with a flock of geese one week before graduation and was expelled.

We had watched about a million movies together. Jack was the only guy I’d known who liked movies as much as I did, and all kinds, not just comic book hero and slasher movies. He’d loved everything from Bollywood to romcoms like French Kiss to black-and-whites like Captain Blood and The Shop Around the Corner, and we’d gone to dozens of them at the Drome and streamed hundreds more in the semester we’d been together. Correction, semester minus one week.

Ever since, she hasn’t seen a single movie, but today she lets her friends talk her into going to the Drome to see Christmas Caper, a romantic spy romp that Jack had once promised he would watch with her. And who does she run into at the Drome but Jack? Who tells her she’ll never, ever get in to see that movie. And, eventually, why. Lindsay ends up in her own romantic spy caper.

I can’t say that I was entertained by this silliness, which wasn’t any fun – much like the movies at the Drome. It was way overly drawn-out, full of too many movie name-droppings and a really lame conspiracy.

“The Lightning Tree” by Patrick Rothfuss

Featuring the author’s character Bast, who very strongly reminds me of a fae Tom Sawyer living an idyll, skipping school, splashing in the swimming hole, spying on the local girls at their baths – and more than just looking, for despite initial appearances, Bast is not a child. Nonetheless, he spends a great deal of time in dealings with the local children, trading favors for secrets, as children observe a great deal that their elders do not, and children have a native belief in magic that their elders would view with suspicion. So Bast guards his own secrets closely, even from readers, who are left in wonder.

What is Bast? It is never made entirely clear. If not Tom Sawyer, perhaps a faun or sprite, something of nature, something wild. We are pretty sure he is not from here. Fae, perhaps, but as he tells us, that name doesn’t mean any specific sort of thing. The children may believe he fulfills their wishes by magic, but we can see that much of this is merely trickery and the power of suggestion, the magic of a street conjurer. But perhaps not all.

Bast rubbed his face. This never used to happen. He had never been in conflict with his own desire before he came here. He hated it. It was so simply singular before. Want and have. See and take. Run and chase. Thirst and slake. And if he were thwarted in pursuit of his desire… what of it? That was simply the way of things. The desire itself was still his, it was still pure.

And what does Bast want here? Why has he come among us? What has he come to learn? That secret must probably wait for another story. I’m quite fascinated.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Rogue Prince” by George R R Martin

This, of course, is the big draw, strategically placed at the end of the book, a tale of Martin’s blockbuster setting Westeros, specifically a tale from the past, from the reign of the Targaryen dynasty, the dragonlords. The prince is Daemon, younger brother of King Viserys I, commander of the capitol’s City Guard, and not the sort of character most people would look forward to as the next king. Because his brother had no son as his heir, Daemon assumed the throne would next be his by right, but Viserys named instead his beloved daughter Rhaenyra. This caused strife within the royal family, which only increased after a second queen bore several princes.

Martin’s massive epic is popular because of its vivid storytelling and vibrant, larger-than-life characters, so readers will doubtless be expecting much of the same here. Alas, they are likely to be disappointed, as this piece is in the form of historical annals, flat and dull. Rather than characters, we have names – dozens of names, many of them identical or hard to distinguish from the rest. Rather than drama, we have dry recitation of events.

A wife and children did little to curb the carnal appetites of Prince Aegon the Elder, who fathered two bastard children the same year as his trueborn twins: a boy on a girl whose maidenhood he bought on the Street of Silk, and a girl by one of his mother’s maidservants. And in 127 AC, Princess Helaena gave birth to his second son, who was given a dragon’s egg and the name Maelor.

I’m put in mind of the complaints so many students have made about the study of history, that most rousing of subject matters [by which Martin’s epic was inspired] but which is too often reduced in schoolbooks to an uninspiring list of names, dates and battles. Martin has now done this to his own stirring imagined history.


Bastion, May 2014

The second issue of a new online SF zine. I’ve mentioned a number of times that I’d really like to see a premier Hard SF zine start up. This isn’t it. There are nine fairly short stories, several of them more fantasy than actual science fiction, more skiffy than rigorous. The editorial suggests that future award winners can be found in these pages, but they’re not there yet.

“Moving Past Legs” by Jamie Lackie

Humans have enhanced the intelligence of octopus [which are remarkably intelligent to begin with], and people buy them to jack in for an addictive intimate communication. Legs and Jeremy had a wonderful, loving relationship until Legs insisted on breeding, whereupon she lapsed into depression and declared she wanted to die. Jeremy finds himself addicted to a depressing experience, and Legs becomes involved with radical octopus politics. Improbable, but with some clever moments.

“The Endless Flickering Night” by Gary Emmett Chandler

Post apocalypse. After the war[?] groups of humans retreat underground with crews of slave children and a large supply of films [on actual film, apparently], where they run mining operations with the children, who happen to have psychic powers to find whatever it is the owners are looking for [dowsers]. The older humans are now growing old, the children are growing up, and the tunnels are growing unstable.

Improbable to the point of making no sense, with a rousing feel-good conclusion that fails to move me.

“Worried About” by Brandon McNulty

Either this is an even worse economic climate than our own, or Mia and Jake are just near the bottom layer. It seems that Jake got Mia pregnant, then quit his job for a better-paying one to help with the expenses, but Mia is cranky, hostile, and insomniac. She worries a lot. One day her mother sends her something called worry dolls; put them under your pillow at night, and your worries will disappear. But not exactly as Mia expected. The scenario is essentially fantasy, of the darkish sort. A cleverly done but not original plot. I find myself not liking Mia and not caring what happens to her.

“Vines” by G J Brown

Cop story told in the second person, perhaps to make it seem hardboiled, which it doesn’t, much. It seems that this is a future where normal humans [colors] co-exist with grays, as in the denizens of flying saucers. Spiros is a detective who finds a color girl and a gray man murdered together in her bedroom, a circumstance odd enough to require investigation. A too-obvious clue suggests that the crime might be related to the dealing of a drug called Red Vines, that only affects grays; the gray victim seems to be a dealer. But the whole setup is covering up a deeper conspiracy, with a TZ-flavored twist at the end that I find quite improbable.

The noir detective tale, really does need the right voice, and this one doesn’t have it. The plot twists and turns, but it just doesn’t engage my interest as the characters explain it to one another instead of discovering it.

“A Considerate Invasion” by Mark Patrick Lynch

UFO aliens again, invading Earth by spreading a contagion that makes humans happy about it so they will die out peacefully. Ashton Clarke, once an autistic child, has found that the contagion actually shifted him away from the spectrum towards what used to be the human norm, so that he finds it possible to resent the invasion and decides to tell the aliens so.

“You’ve done it through making us nicer. So nice we welcome you with open arms and don’t object even when we learn we’re dying, that you’ve switched off the genes that allow us to reproduce. I don’t understand why, if you can do that, you even bothered to make us happy about it.”

There’s very little plot here, as the story is essentially a dialogue taking the place of a narrative. I originally wondered if the protagonist’s name refers to the Weird author Clark Ashton Smith, but I think not. The best line here is the one about the dogs.

“A Rather Different Sort of F-Bomb” by Marty Bonus

The infodump informs us that global warming has caused famine in the US and the narrator’s brother turns into a population control activist. A story we’ve seen often before.

“Zombie Limbo Master” by Rosemary Claire Smith

Zombies have taken over the world and are running limbo contests. The narrator has been captured and forced to compete. They cheat. So does the narrator. A wacky idea that may amuse some readers, but that’s all it’s got. Fantasy, of course.

“Nigh” by Eric Del Carlo

Nighters have appeared among the human population, “metaphysically infallible beings,” their sole apparent purpose being the knowledge of the date people will die, which they must reveal if asked. Aaron Lavoie asked and learned his date was at age twenty-two.

Aaron had quit school, fallen into a deep well of depression, sold off many of his earthly goods in order to pay his rent. Every act, every thought even, had been fatally tinged with meaninglessness. He’d lost steady control of his emotions, and his bad behavior had cost him friendships. But relationships too seemed pointless.

Then Aaron’s date came and went, revealing that he, too, was now a Nighter.

This is the only story here I found of real interest, as it examines the implication of knowing the end, despite the fact that we all know the end is coming, though not when. Another fantasy.

“Wruyian Sands” by Jessica Payseur

Lana’s older sister has run off with her to the planet Iwchu, where the Sands are the only interesting thing. But Cami is usually too busy scrounging and begging to take her, so Lana runs off to the Sands herself.

The feeling welled up, built inside me, making me feel both wonderful and too contained. Just like the Sands were trapped in the ring of the path, unable to speak words, I felt trapped with the immense happiness inside me. It had to come out. And so, like the fluid motions of the Sands, I began to move, slowly at first, then faster, twirling, moving my arms, dancing to the music and the song of the Sands.

Readers will be wondering less about the Sands and more about the reason Cami left their parents, the nature of rules and prohibitions that constrict peoples’ lives. They won’t get a very satisfactory answer.

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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