Giving the Good Story award this time to the Malik piece at Tor.com, where I found a couple near-misses as well.
A fine novella here from Usman T Malik. I wanted to enjoy the other two stories, but couldn’t get over some stumbling blocks.
A contemporary variation on the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, featuring twelve brothers “cursed to remain in a rock punk club for their bad behavior.” Which might not, to a certain set of youth, seem much like a curse at all, but after a long while, it begins to wear.
I remember the rest of it, too, waking up wanting to die, the hacking coughs, the bleak despair driving me—driving us—to drown ourselves in the neon darkness, the impossible wish to see sunshine just once more, the imprisonment. But when I look back, everything glows with false freedom, and I remember us always laughing.
Yet Jake, the oldest brother and the one responsible for their situation, makes it clear that the bar is indeed an outpost of hell, except that others there can freely come and go, such as the twelve sisters.
I really like what the author has done with the fairytale material, inverting the storyline to focus on the brothers, not the sisters, and omitting the outsider from the equation while adding a new central figure: the bartender/witch/goddess who lays the curse. We see that it’s the brothers whose boots have holes worn in their soles [only to self-repair every day]. There are hints, too, of other tales, such as the ones where dancing is a capital punishment, and stories of sisters saving their [own] brothers. And of course the obligatory near-impossible task imposed as the condition for saving them. And, most importantly, time, which is where I start asking questions.
In fairy tales and fairy lands, time can stop, and people can spend years without aging or dying. But once they leave, once the story, as revisions usually do, leaves fairyland and returns to the mundane world, mundane rules again apply, the aging process begins again, and people have to get jobs and get on with mundane lives. “Happily ever after” doesn’t apply, and the story doesn’t end with twelve weddings.
This story is Jake’s, for whose crime all his brothers are condemned to suffer, although the story makes it clear that they remained out of loyalty when they could have gone free. They suffered because Jake was an asshole who let himself be ruled by his rage. The story doesn’t belong to Isabel, the girl who brings her sisters to save them all, and definitely it doesn’t belong to her sisters, who remain blanks, except that they only come to the bar in loyalty to support her. The story wants us to go with Jake to find Isabel, who has refused to accept that he loves her because she suffers from crippling depression. But I can’t get past Jake’s brothers, and even moreso, time.
He tells us more than once that the youngest brother is fourteen years old, was fourteen when he came to the bar and apparently still fourteen when he left it. While trapped in the bar, he would cut himself. Another brother once hanged himself. Yet from the moment they are allowed to go free, most of this trauma seems to dissipate. All but Jake, the brothers do well, they get good jobs, they have nice houses and cars, they marry [not any of Isabel’s sisters]. But we aren’t in fairyland anymore. All that stuff takes time, takes years. I want to know how all this normality was achieved. I particularly want to know about the youngest brother [youngest brothers are always supposed to be important in these tales] and the other teenagers, how they recovered from their trauma, did they go back to school? I also start to wonder about their parents, if they had them, because while time stopped for the brothers while they were trapped for years in fairyland, it didn’t stop outside, as Isabel’s storyline makes clear. What did the brothers do about reclaiming their IDs and explaining the discrepancy of their ages? This is the stuff that matters in mundania. Isabel’s timeline suggests that it can’t have been much more than a year between the time the brothers were free and when Jake found her again, with his brothers all prosperous and employed adults. Is the story claiming that the brothers somehow, magically, became the ages that they would have been? While this is possible in a fairy tale, I see no evidence of it here.
So not only do I wonder what a fourteen-year-old kid was doing in a bar, I start to wonder about Isabel and her sisters in there. Because we learn that Isabel is the oldest of the sisters, which I certainly can’t accept. She was in high school, studying calculus, which ought to make her sixteen or seventeen, and when Jake finds her afterwards, she has just turned eighteen. So how old were all these younger sisters in the bar? Even if they’re not all natural sibs, as the story claims, the youngest have to have been way too young for this scene. Isabel does have parents, and we’re left to imagine the girls all sneaking out of the house at night, dancing till dawn, and no father/king noticing the fact and sending soldiers to follow them. And while I’m on this trail of thought, it leads me to wonder just how old is Jake, the oldest of twelve brothers, when he’s fucking this teenage, maybe underage girl in the bar? In fairyland, age may not matter, but in mundania this starts to feel kind of creepy.
A potentially interesting juxtaposition: in a dungeon of the Dominicans in 16th century Mexico, we find two girls, both in their own ways victims of the Inquisition. Anica is a Converso, whose entire family has been denounced for practicing their ancestral Jewish religion. Bienvenida [not her real name] is of the conquered, indigenous Nuata people, whose ancestral religion and lore are likewise viewed with suspicion by the Dominicans. Bienvenida, now a servant tasked to sweep the floors in the hallway outside the cells, is well aware that circumstances might one day place her inside. The Conversos are isolated, kept in solitary confinement in cells so thick-walled that voices can’t pass, but Bienvenida is able to hear Anica reciting poems through her door. Although it is forbidden, she initiates contact. Both girls have formidable mothers, but Bienvenida’s mother is a stronger presence in the story, an expert in the uses of native plants for purposes medicinal and otherwise. Under the Inquisition, this is a precarious occupation, but she believes she has an absolute obligation to help anyone in need. Bienvenida shares this belief, which is in part why she attempts to help Anica.
So this is a potentially interesting situation with strong story possibilities, but somehow it doesn’t really come to life. I don’t feel a bond between the two girls, ostensibly based on Bienvenida’s love of poetry, of which we don’t see very much. Anica seems just a bit ungrateful for the other girl’s attention and assistance, for the risks she’s taking. Instead of a story of the connection between two characters, a story moving and heartbreaking, the author seems to be striving for an artificially elevated tone.
I look out my window now and, instead of an empty sky caged by bars, I imagine the leaves of our fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees fluttering there. My mother bought them dear, right off one of the Spanish ships, then planted them in our courtyard so that they would rub lovingly against one another when the wind blew. None had yet given fruit when we were taken from our home, but I picture globes of brilliant red, ovals of green, and sweet, dark teardrops hiding among their leaves. I pretend I am swallowing the sparkling, rubied seeds of the first, and reaching for the scion of the last amid its fragrant greenery.
This piece is based on historical fact. Anica was the youngest member of the very prominent Carvajal family; their fates were as described here, except for Anica’s. Many of the details here, such as the Carvajals passing notes among themselves, written on seeds, are a matter of record.
A cosmic mystery. As a child, Salman liked to listen to his grandfather’s tale of the impoverished Mughal princess who ran a tea stand beneath the eucalyptus tree near his school in Old Lahore. She used to say she could come to no harm there because of the jinn who lived in the tree, charged with the protection of her family. But except for Salman, family and friends in America scoffed at the old man’s tales. Later, when he died, Salman discovered a treasure of books on the nature of the jinn, as well as a journal that suggested his grandfather’s stories might be more true than he had ever suspected. He becomes determined to visit Pakistan and seek out evidence from those days, including the treasure, “the map to the memory of heaven”, that the princess might have bequeathed to his grandfather, hidden beneath the roots of the eucalyptus, destroyed by a lightning strike that might have been of supernatural origin.
It plummeted: a fluttering, helpless, enflamed ball shooting to the earth. It shrieked as it dove, flickering rapidly in and out of space and time but bound by their quantum fetters. It wanted to rage but couldn’t. It wanted to save the lightning trees, to upchuck their tremulous shimmering roots and plant them somewhere the son of man wouldn’t find them. Instead it was imprisoned, captured by prehuman magic and trapped to do time for a sin so old it had forgotten what it was.
So now it tumbled and plunged, hated and hating. It changed colors like a fiendish rainbow: mid-flame blue, muscle red, terror green, until the force of its fall bleached all its hues away and it became a pale scorching bolt of fire.
For readers who know of the jinn only through tales derived from the Arabian Nights, here is a deeper version. The story is concerned with them as expressed in Islamic theology, in relationship to the creation, as beings of fire, the earlier creation, as humans were made of clay. It’s fascinating and poetic stuff, at least to the theologically or mystically inclined. But it is also the epic romance of Muhammad Sharif’s life of marvels.
A three-Thursday month giving us extra fiction from this site. #170 features fantastic creatures fighting back against capture, #171 has fugitives and exiles, and #172 is a Weird Western special issue promoting the publisher’s anthology of reprints from the zine. I’m particularly fond of this subgenre, and two of these pieces hit the right notes.
The revenge of the dryads. Primaflora was a happy dryad in her grove until it was attacked by agents of the Duke, the trees chopped down and the motile dryads captured and chained for transport to the palace, where they join the menagerie of abused beasts. This is her first, long, journey, on which Primaflora, alone of her fellow dryads, considers resistance to her captors. With the aid of an Oracular Pig [sic] she escapes and joins a resistance group, after another journey.
She would see the city brought down, chopped as savagely as the trees. She would see her sisters avenged. Instead of the slow green life she had known, a contemplative existence, she would choose one no dryad had undertaken before: a life of fire and vengeance. She would see the city destroyed somehow, see the ravenous maw that had eaten so many of her sisters closed for good.
I see a lot of problems here. The life cycle of the dryads themselves is fairly well-conceived, although I wonder how they breed, whether there are males of their species or if they’re gynoecious; the text doesn’t say. At some point of growing maturity, the motile forms undergo a compulsion to root and take on the form of a tree, which proves to be a growing difficulty for Primaflora in the course of the tale. But once we arrive at the city, we find way too many other kinds of fantastic beasts from a variety of mythologies and other imaginaria. It’s an incoherent muddle. At the least, the author could have limited the collection to creatures of the same mythological origin as the dryads. I get an uneasy sense that this is just another version of Narnia, where it’s OK to cut down trees as long as they’re not Talking Trees.
The wood of the dryad trees, once cut down, is good for nothing but burning. The Duke’s city runs on firewood power and has deforested its immediate vicinity. But there is a special bounty placed on dryad wood that makes no obvious sense. And when new dryads root in the Duke’s grove, the older ones, even if still flowering, are cut down to make room. It’s a wasteful practice that seems mainly to demonstrate that the system is evil at its core and justify Primaflora’s passion for vengeance. Although this, too, is inconsistent. Primaflora volunteers to join the camp of the resistance forces, but as soon as she is offered a weapon to raid the human settlement, she gets cold feet.
Mainly, though, this tale is tedious, slow and repetitive. Primaflora undergoes one journey after the other and never really gets anywhere. The very last scene does make up for a certain number of sins, but not the whole multitude.
This one had me grinding my teeth all the way through, as it employs one of the more deceptive devices in fiction. The narrator is a child, Leah, whose mother is one several people in her village who are leaving for a reason no one will tell Leah, because she’s a child. Leah’s mother promises to tell her, then doesn’t. She promises to take Leah with her, then doesn’t. Naturally and justifiably, Leah whines and complains that no one will tell her because she’s a child, but in fact it’s the author she should blame, artificially attempting to ratchet up the story tension and make readers feel they’re being treated like a child, with the consequence that I, at least, don’t care about any of them.
In a fantasy realm something like Arabia where the religion is something like Islam, an assassin follows the repressed cult of a Thirteenth Prophet, on whose behalf she has led a raid on the Emperor to kill him and every member of his harem. But after the blood has been shed, she finds one woman and her baby surviving, hidden in a closet.
She had stared at them, and she thought not of the name of the Thirteenth Prophet, not of the crimes of the Faith, but of the Thousand Names she revered, and she remembered, for the first time in years, that one of those names was Mercy.
Thus, sparing the two, she heads into the desert on a quest to find a safe refuge for them, but her former followers pursue her.
I could have used more insight into the assassin’s impulse to mercy, but the story is sufficiently well-written to keep me from great heights of crankiness.
The title definitely intrigues. It suggests the likelihood of humor, but that’s not really what’s going on here. It involves a Tall Tale, but it turns out to be a true tale. Mainly, it features an interesting protagonist and a very entertaining narrative. The central character is Mr Stutley Northrup, sometimes called “Old Stuck-Up”, who lives the near Pennsylvania shore of Lake Erie in the mid-nineteenth century. Now comes to him the Justice of the Peace, a former student, wondering about the rumors of a sea serpent in the lake. Northrup isn’t impressed; he already knows all about the sea serpent, seen it himself. But there’s a complication, the real reason the JP has come to Northup about—and against—the monster. A body has washed ashore, and it’s been identified as Amos, Northrup’s hired man, known by him as a fugitive slave.
The narrative wanders, entertainingly so, here and there, back and forth, in the course of which we learn of Northrup’s upbringing in a “hemi-demi-semi-quasi Quaker” community where he learned toleration of all living creatures, and where he sees a portent that he doesn’t, then, entirely understand. The mystery of the sea serpent is one that readers will grasp far more readily than the local JP, a man who requires some persuasion.
He continues: Now, as for our friend in the lake. Been there long as I’ve been alive. Longer, maybe. Plenty of time to wreak all the havoc a soul could fear, if havoc was wished for. If my understanding’s good, we’ve as long again to go before any hope of rescue. Yes, rescue. Don’t be a fool, Chambers. Sit down.
But there is a second, more subtle mystery that reveals itself only at the end, requiring readers to do some re-thinking of the evidence.
Set in a fantasy world previously used by the author, which has explored various sorts of shared individuals, and where individuals seem to have their own spirit creatures. At this time, the California gold rush is underway. The protagonists are Native Americans born to thunderbird women who were one day seized by Raven and imprisoned in a mountain. It is their ambition to free their mothers, but first they have to reach the mountain. In this, they are aided by a shifty man named Jackson, who runs a magic circus train. Jackson’s motives are self-serving.
He believed the thunderbirds were true and he wanted their power for his own. He felt that with the double spirited children born of the thunderbird’s own bodies, he might achieve this. This was visible to anyone who looked into the depths of his eyes. The serpent wanted to wrestle the birds, wanted to claim them even as he knew he could not.
But the narrator is convinced that they are stronger than he is and takes his offer.
The piece strikes me more as fantasy than a Weird Western, most strictly defined, and it relies overly much on the previous stories in this setting. What interests me is the way Gugán is a raven, of raven heritage, while the narrator is eagle. This makes the precise nature of the identity, or shared soul, between them unclear. I’d think that if they were in any real way one, they’d have the same spirit bird. The mothers are both thunderbird, but it’s not clear if they, too, share whatever Gugán and the narrator share. How much we are to take this as literal and how much as imagery?
I also wonder is why raven and eagle are capitalized in referring to the two children. Gugán isn’t Raven, that is, The Raven, Raven Himself, the Trickster god, the individual who stole the thunderbird women while Gugán could only watch helplessly. Individuals can take on the forms of their spirit creatures, have the god’s spirit within them, but this is hardly the same as becoming the god itself. Or so it seems, when the narrator says, “Gugán blamed himself, believed he had called Raven because he shared a kinship with the trickster and his ways.” Raven is the adversary here, Gugán is the narrator’s ally against him, and I’m wondering how this is possible. Did the conflict between himself and his spirit doom him? Again, it’s unclear.
A mining town in the Black Hills has some strange neighbors, a community of werewolves or, as John Halpern calls them, devil-men. Halpern’s sister married a werewolf, which makes him Eldred’s brother-in-law and gives him the right to ask a favor. A supply wagon has recently been attacked in the hills, and Halpern thinks it was a wendigo. He appeals to their common interest, thinking that sometimes it takes a devil to fight a devil.
“But if it’s as I say, Eldred—it’ll take every wagon that comes through. That’s how they work. They’re always starving, you know that. Give the thing long enough, and I guarantee it’ll attack town.” He still couldn’t read Eldred’s face, and he didn’t need to look to know what Merrill thought.
Definitely a Weird Western, with monsters and horror, although at its heart this is a story of family and its ties. As Halpern notes, some werewolves are assholes, some aren’t. This probably doesn’t apply to the wendigo. I rather wonder about the wendigo, how it ended up in the plains instead of its native forests of the north-east, but I suppose that, like anyone else, legendary monsters can travel.
Leo and Cary were brothers afflicted with reciprocal curses: Leo could only say what people want to hear and Cary only what they don’t. In consequence, Leo tended to speak lies and Cary the truth, however unpalatable. So unpalatable that one day Leo cut his brother’s throat to shut him up. He wasn’t happy to see the severed head appear in a jar, a new featured attraction of the medicine show where he works. At night, he sneaks into the tent and the head speaks to him, and Leo speaks back, unable as always to say what he really thinks.
Leo stepped closer to the jar. Cary’s white-blond hair floated up from his skull, the tips waving slightly. It looked like strands of spiderweb, or exposed nerves.
Another one definitely a Weird Western, emphasis on the weird. I find myself wanting to know more about these brothers, how Cary in particular managed to live as long as he did, although, as Leo discovers, telling people what they want to hear can also backfire.
The Ausema story is my favorite of these selections. I like the whimsy.
Urban fantasy in a future cursed by malignant clouds of Noise. Which is to say that the Musical, a minority of the population, are so cursed, not the Tonedeaf. The Musical must be sure to keep a Song going at all times, to ward off the Noise, and they employ the obsolete technology of cassette for the purpose. There is no rationale whatsoever given for this situation. Our hero, Cheryl, is a talented singer and also a screw-up, who hands us an overload of tape neep.
Type Two BASF ferrochromes, from before they moved production to Korea when I can find them. AC biasing is fine, but no Dolby noise reduction, I don’t care if you think I’m crazy, the preemphasis weakens the range of the spell, everyone knows it, sometimes we’re snobs for a reason. I think I’ve laid down maybe ten, twelve different ward Songs on quarter-inch ATR master tape, you know, different variations for different seasons, a couple specialty tracks for when I’m gonna fly somewhere, all pretty standard stuff. Dub off a new copy whenever a cassette wears out.
The piece is mostly about Cheryl yammering on in this manner while screwing up and making a save in an unremarkable way.
The slaves in the marquesa’s garden discuss their work and hopes for eventual escape. This is essentially a setting more than a story, although it hints at a number of stories that might be set there—highly mannered stories that likely would involve an over-privileged aristocracy and the afflictions of slavery. It’s a magical, fantasy garden, requiring great pains on the part of the gardeners to make sure everything is just right and the marquesa is not displeased. It’s an intriguing setting, wrought with imagination and a touch of wit.
We have also begun some tests with the fairytale tree to see if it will put forth an evil lord of some variety. So far the nearest we have come is a marquesa, one oddly gifted in growing plants and hosting parties.
A world in which magic users perform some but not all important functions, being divided into several different hereditary guilds. Amal’s family is Salt, and often refers to each other by this title, as if to remind them who they are. Salt involves “deep, wordless workings—heat and cold and calm and light”. Amal and some colleagues were attempting a working that promised improvements in magical text messaging. The consequences were catastrophic.
A bright flash of light, bright like a nuclear explosion or the wrath of God, and a great internal cracking, like the marrow turning itself inside out in my bones. And then nothing but the burn of salt, and drowning.
But for the rest of the world, all text, all written work, had been obliterated. The pages of books were blank, and pens refused to mark paper, sticks to scratch signs in dirt.
This is a work of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. It centers around Amal’s relationship with her family, who have remained at home near the salt sea where they belong and seem to feel that her original sin was going to London. I’m rather more interested in the glimpses into a world without written words, where any information not in human memory has been lost, even the backups.
A wide variety in the fiction here, from pieces with a high obscurity index to more conventional stories. It’s a sea-themed issue, five stories plus a novel excerpt.
A weirdly literary piece with a Greekish chorus serving as quasi-narrator, going strophe and antistrophe with Simon not-Stylites on his pillar, who sends a delegation of them to seek the whale for reasons unrevealed. While they’re gone, Simon engages in dialogue with himself, suggesting that he’s been possessed—”the false Simon who emerges sometimes.” By the spirit of Penlan Tork, perhaps, otherwise unidentified, or the usurpers, likewise. Or not.
This is not why I believe in power. For Simon it is all or nothing. I would rather be on high in the wild air than trapped into a power-sharing arrangement in which my credibility, built up over decades of platform intransigence, remains solid. Now that the six of my Attylites have departed and my experiment with a shadow oligarchy has failed I return to Simon.
This one is pretty obscure [the editorial says “oblique” and certainly it’s not direct], but kind of interesting to follow if you don’t mind not knowing where you’re going, other than the obvious destination of Patagonia. If I were to guess, I might say the piece is about heteronomy, relying on authority to make one’s decisions and abandoning agency. Or not.
Had I not just read the preceding, I’d say this one is exceedingly odd. The sea in question is the Greensea, i.e., a sea of grass crossed by a caravan of elephantine spiders who have given a ride to the narrator, having discerned, so they say, that he has a spidery soul. It’s an unending journey, turning the world, as the spiders recite their myths around the campfire and make declarations that might be profound if they could be understood.
And Spider wove a web across the blue and black, caught and keeps the fires there to light our paths, suspends the moon and sun for us in nets. But she tires. Oh, she tires. She has been holding on so long. Today you will rope the moon down for her, to let her rest her weary legs, and tomorrow you will rope the sun.
But . . . spiders. Not octopedal aliens, or pseudo-arachnids but, apparently, actual giant sentient spiders. And insect cities, as well. OK, so this is fantasy and the impossible must be cast aside, but these entities are everything that actual spiders are not: social creatures, migratory, and capable of benevolence. The term “spider” here doesn’t mean anything that resembles an actual spider, except in some superficial physical sense. What, then, does it mean when they say of the [apparently human] narrator that, deep down, he is a spider?
Later they and I will play, in camps divided by the vastness of the Greensea, or the beetle city, or whatever else stands between us, and, looking at the sky, we will know that we are spiders.
This isn’t a matter of arachnophobia on my part [I’m rather fascinated by the beasties] but literal-mindedness; I’m not getting past it to the story’s heart, wherever it is.
Not an animal wife but an immortal combatant, now fighting the Nazis in WWII by delivering an Enigma machine from Arkhangelsk to Scotland. The usual sort of action ensues. The real interest here is in the background based on northern folklores, especially the selkie’s sorceress wife and their talented children.
When she shed seven tears into the waves, I heard her summons and came to her. I did not know why, but she had placed a geas upon me. When I strode from the sea, she lay down beneath me and bore us six children, each with their mother’s sky-blue eyes and my dark glossy hair. These boys wrestled and played laughing in the pounding surf and never once felt the cold. Some could take on the seal-form, like their father. One spoke the language of birds. Still another could summon wind with thought, and another see far distant places in his mind’s eye.
There is irony, as the selkie recognizes, that once their mortal enemies were the Norse vikings, but now their descendants are all allies against the Nazis [this, despite the fact that the Finns were at that time German allies against the Russians invading their land, which our Finnish shaman does not mention]. I can also imagine that Hitler would have been vexed to know that a Wolf’s Head was against him. But the author has mixed in other mythoi, which seem out of place. The Pythia—well, this is a powerful oracle whose reach might well extend to the north. But Baba Yaga, while in the right place geographically, doesn’t seem right for the role she’s cast in here.
I’m also a bit disturbed by the repeated reference to the selkie’s “masters”. Have the Allies, too, like the Nazis, enslaved these creatures to compel their aid? Is the selkie’s wife a hostage? I wouldn’t put it past them.
There’s a metaphor here for a boundless love, “like the sand on the shore”. Which seems, as these things go, not exceedingly romantic, but that’s how it is. So it was that the old fisherman loved his young wife, and then the daughter she died in the bearing of. To save the child’s life, he gave her to the denizens of the deep in their onshore palace.
Now the Nacreous Palace had always been there, just beyond the village, its mottled pink spire rising haughty against the sky at the end of the point. The man Sandoval was frightened of the colossal conch-shell, of its glow and the sound of the sea that whooped from its portico when the wind was high.
The child was saved, but both father and daughter emerged from the palace transformed. Ambergris proved a blessing to the whole community, yet it was clear that she would one day return to the palace.
As denizens of faerie go, these are a benevolent bunch, despite their reputation in the village, and it all comes to a particularly happy ending, driven by love. I must say, however, that when it comes to repelling an enemy, a giant magic conch shell would seem to be a lot more impressive than a single magicked girl.
This is SF, but barely, set in a future when no one goes to the beach anymore. The narrator is an old woman who recalls past times there with increasing intensity, drawn to her memories.
Drift. Your body seeping away from you, one soft wave after another, until at last you are nothing more than sand, everywhere and nowhere. For a moment I feel it happening to me, a wonderful ebbing, being carried away into cool dark depths—
Good use of the sea imagery. There’s no tragedy here, although those around her might see it as such. There’s a time to let go and allow the tide to take you out.