This must be the longest short fiction column yet! This is due in large part to my adding Jim Baen's Universe, which is surely the biggest e-zine yet, to the review lineup. The usual zines are also included this month, but I've had less time/room for many of the smaller publications. I did, however, look at the debut of the new e-zine Heliotrope.
This month's honors for the best issue goes to F&SF. Weird Tales, Lone Star Stories and Abyss & Apex also put out good issues.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 2006
A double issue is usually the occasion for an editor to drag out the big story guns. Looking at the ToC for this issue, I could imagine editor Van Gelder assembling it with ambitions to crush the competition under the weight of Big Name Authors and Hot New Writers. Take that: a new Peter S. Beagle story! Take that: an Emshwiller! Or maybe not. But regardless of the editor's plans for SFnal world conquest, I must say that the Oct/Nov F&SF is full of strong stories. It's really hard to find just one or two to recommend above all the rest.
Abandon the Ruins by Charles Coleman Finlay
This story continues the adventures of Maggot, the prodigal troll. As a human raised among trolls, he has been able to find a place with neither. Wandering across the wilderness, he encounters a hostile band of human hunters and rescues a prisoner from them. After so long alone, Maggot discovers that he is glad to have found someone to laugh with again—a friend. But bad luck separates him from Ehren, and Maggot goes on his way alone again until he finds the ruins of an ancient city, entirely deserted by its makers. He also re-encounters Ehren there. However, Ehren seems to believe that Maggot has trailed him to this place; he now regards him an enemy or a competitor. They then discover that a third person is present in the ruins, a lonely female troll who quickly comes to regard Maggot as a potential mate.
While technically this is a fantasy, owing to the presence of trolls and a brief flash of magic, it is in essence a straight adventure tale, as Maggot encounters the perils of the wilderness, wild animals, hostile humans, and the potential for betrayal in those he might want to trust. It is clearly an episode in a longer story. Maggot survives, but it is hard to see how his story will end. Trolls are a doomed race, there seems to be no going back, and again the unknown is before him.
Pop Squad by Paulo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi's work often tends to be horror of a sort, the science-fictional horror that springs from the dark heart of humanity in imagined futures where new kinds of corruption are possible. In this case, he confronts the dilemma of overpopulation in a world where personal immortality is a fact of life. When "rejoo" can keep everyone young forever there is no more room for new lives, so the rejoo treatments produce infertility. But some women can't resist the atavistic urge to become mothers, and thus the protagonist's job on the pop squad, which is to pop the illegal kids in the head with a large-caliber handgun. Lately he finds himself burning out.
In such stories, the idea is the thing, and constructing an effective story around the idea is secondary. The story here is the burning-out, symbolized by the protagonist's obsession with a toy dinosaur he has seen a child carrying—wondering where it came from, when no one makes toys any longer, or anything else for children. But in a piece this long, redundancies have crept in. The introduction of rejoo is also handled rather awkwardly, and the oversized Grange handgun the protagonist keeps mentioning as more suitable for blowing away nitheads, not toddlers, only underlines the point that it is only present for its effect on the readers; if this situation were real, the disposal of the illicit children would not been done with so much unnecessary mess as spattering their brains all over the walls and floors.
El Regalo by Peter S. Beagle
Angie is a teenaged girl with a typical affliction—an obnoxious younger brother. Because she is used to keeping an eye on Marvyn to know what he is up to, she is the one who notices he suddenly seems to have strange powers. Marvyn admits what their Cuban housekeeper has told him: he is a brujito, a witch. Now Angie has a new problem, to keep Marvyn from letting his new abilities get out of control. It's true, they're sometimes useful and sometimes fun. But sometimes he can scare himself.
He moved closer, strangely hesitant: neither witch, nor pirate nor seraph, but an anxious, burdened small boy. "Only sometimes it's like too much fun. Sometimes, right in the middle, I think maybe I should stop, but I can't. Like one time, I was by myself, and I was just fooling around…and I sort of made this thing, which was really interesting, only it came out funny and then I couldn't unmake it for the longest time, and I was scared Mom and Dad would come home —"
What happens to Marvyn is more real and frightening than the fate of the sorcerer's apprentice and his overflowing scrub buckets. I do have one quibble: Beagle does not seem to be sure how old Angie is. He tells us she is twelve, but also that she is a year younger than her crush, a junior in high school. A twelve-year-old is in junior high and shouldn't be messing around with a high school junior, but most of the references to Angie in this story suggest that she is in fact about sixteen.
Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman
In Cambodia people are used to ghosts. Ghosts buy newspapers. They own property.
A few years ago, spirits owned a house in Phnom Penh, at the Tra Bek end of Monivong Boulevard. Khmer Rouge had murdered the whole family and there was no one left alive to inherit it. People cycled past the building, leaving it boarded up. Sounds of weeping came from inside.
The house is bought by a young woman, Pol Pot's daughter Sith, who lives a shallow, self-centered life of denial and conspicuous consumption. Then Sith falls in love with an ordinary young man, and she can not bring herself to tell him who her father was. But the ghosts know, and they begin calling her on her phone, appearing on her TV screen, haunting her. When she moves out of the house to escape them, they follow. Ryman's Cambodian ghosts are not vengeful. Sith knows what they want, but she would first have to admit to herself what her father had done.
Several times during the course of the narrative, Ryman reminds us that this is not a true story. Of course it is a fantasy, in a fantasy magazine. There are ghosts. What bothers me is the truth that Pol Pot did have a daughter named Sitha, but she was born six years before the Sith of Ryman's story, and does not seem to have lived the sort of self-indulgent, moneyed life he describes. Perhaps I am being too literal-minded, but I do have to wonder what the real Sitha would think of this tale, which makes such unauthorized use of her life in a story that is not true to it.
Revelation by Albert E. Cowdrey
Doctor Drea is a burned-out professor of Creative Writing who is not pleased to discover that a psychiatrist friend has encouraged one of his patients to enroll in his class, to cope with his persistent delusion by putting it in writing. The patient/student has become convinced that the earth is a dragon's egg and the dragonet is now about to hatch, this being the cause of earthquakes, global warming and other such restless phenomena. To his surprise, the professor finds some promise in the tale.
"Go home. Dig your story out. Try to forget about yourself for half an hour—forty-five minutes, if possible. Your hero is Jamie Cassandra, not Uriel Pierson Clyde, and for the sake of the story you need to devise a plausible scenario to explain what made Jamie believe in his dragon. Not your dragon: his. I hate to tell you this, but fiction consists in making things up. So go home and make something up.
Readers involved in the writing business, whether commercial or academic, should particularly appreciate this piece. Drea is delightfully cynical and crabbed, and the ending is a Neat Thing.
Killers by Carol Emshwiller
Emshwiller's tale presents a post-apocalypse world, where natural disaster has been combined with war to drive the population back to a desperate subsistence level. It's a woman's town now, with most of the men gone to the war. But sometimes one or two of them come back, to steal, to kill. There has been a killer in the neighborhood lately.
Lots of those men brought their injuries and craziness to our mountains. Both sides came here to get away from everything. They're hermits. They don't trust anybody. Some of them are still fighting each other up there. It's almost as bad as having left-over mine fields. They're all damaged, physically or mentally. Of course most likely all of us are, too, and we probably don't even know it.
The protagonist is ambivalent about the men, about the man she is sure is skulking around near her house. She knows he is probably dangerous, that he could be the killer; on the other hand, he might be her missing brother. She has never quite given up hope that Clement might still be alive, might come back one day. The man, when cornered, is not her brother, but his maleness is attractive to her. Still, what if he is the killer? What if he is dangerous?
Emshwiller opens a window in this story to show us how very thin the veneer of what we call civilization can be, and the darkness of soul that can be exposed when it is torn away.
. . .
With By Good Intentions by Carrie Richardson
A different kind of Deal With the Devil story, with the tone of a Tall Tale. Roy Sandoval has signed a contract to construct a new off-ramp to Hell. As usual in deals with the devil, the terms of the contract are harsh, but the payoff for finishing on time is worth it. And Sandoval Paving is up to the challenge.
[Ramon] shows Roy a capped jar of thick, gray sludge, and a chunk of sulfurous, flaking rock. "It's this local brimstone, Tío Roy, from Hell's Half Acre. We can crush it and use it instead of fly ash. It saves us a lot of money, the slurry spreads easier, and sets up faster and harder." Roy examines the test plot. The reformulated slurry has set up into a smooth, hard surface full of tiny glittering flakes. "¿Qué es?" he asks.
"Iron pyrite, Tío. Fool's gold," Ramón answers.
This tale provides fine entertainment, as the Sandovals confront the obstacles the devil raises to keep them from finishing the job on time and claiming the reward that the contract promises.
Asimov's, September 2006
A particularly dark and depressing issue, with a quasi-theme of parallel or alternate worlds, and the doorways into them from our own.
Sunlight or Rock by John Kessel
Erno first appeared in Kessel's award-winning "Stories for Men," as a restless, reckless, irresponsible young male in a female-dominated commune—specifically "a gender-differentiated anarcho-social democracy." Expelled for cause from this nurturing if stifling environment, he is woefully unprepared for life in a male-dominated subsistence economy, and scammers find him their natural prey. Erno is surplus baggage in an uncaring universe.
The story at hand is clearly only the second installment in some longer, in-progress work. The ending only finds Erno moving on to the next episode in his life, in which he will either fall further or begin to climb up from the low point he has now reached. The problem is, for the reader who comes to this story without having read the previous one, without knowing where Erno has been and how he has fallen into his current situation, it seems merely to be an exercise in pointlessness, when it is actually a pause on the way.
Godburned by Karen Jordan Allen
Pearl has always wanted to come back to Mexico, to follow the example of her college Spanish teacher and touch the ancient Sun Stone. At age 73, she fulfills her dream but fails to realize the danger of invoking the old Mexica gods. They may claim her life, but they can not control her will.
Pearl is a well-realized character, and her encounter with the Mexica deities takes place in a well-realized world where myth and daily life intersect. However, I thought the characters dwelt redundantly on the question of parents sacrificing their own children to the gods, which is answered only indirectly at the end. I was more interested in the choice Pearl has made, and the effects it will have on the world of the living.
Postsingular by Rudy Rucker
A sequel to "Chu and the Nants" (Asimov's, June 2006), in which Chu's father, Ond, has failed to learn the lesson of the nants that devoured the moon and almost ate the Earth. Instead of the nants, we now have the orphids.
"Orphids good, nants bad. I realize now that it's got to happen, Nektar. I want to get in first and do it right. Orphids self-reproduce using nothing but dust floating in the air. They're not destructive. Orphids are territorial; they keep a certain distance from each other. They'll cover Earth's surface, yes, but only down to one or two orphids per square millimeter."
Being thus enamored of his creation, Ond is determined to release the orphids into the world, which, predictably, has consequences—including a doorway into another world.
I liked this one considerably better than the earlier story. For one thing, the characters appear to be actual people, albeit some of them strange specimens, rather than purple cartoons. The action and the humor also are more human—even the orphids are.
Girl in the Empty Apartment by Jack Skillingstead
Joe is a young playwright trying to exorcize the demons of his abusive childhood through his work, in which he tells us that the only important philosophical question is whether you should kill yourself. He meets a strange girl who tells him that he's part of the leading edge of human evolution, one of the Harbingers capable of creating new worlds; he is detained by Homeland Security, which is suspicious about the people who keep disappearing into those other worlds. Or perhaps he is only sitting alone in his apartment, going crazier.
This is one of those equivocal stories where there is either really crazy stuff going on, or the narrator is suffering from severe hallucinations; in the first case, the story is SFnal, in the second, it is merely absurd. Here, the weight of the evidence leans towards the absurd, though I suspect this may not be what the author intended.
Primates by David D. Levine
Gorilla expert Ed Vick gets a call at the zoo where he works. It seems that some guy has seen a strange primate creature out at his place, maybe an escaped gorilla, and can Ed come out to take a look? Ed does go out to take a look, but he finds himself the unwilling guest of one of those backwoods wackos who thinks he's discovered Bigfoot and it's going to make him rich. Levine has crafted a realistic plot and a very believable, dangerous wacko.
We are the Cat by Carl Frederick
When physicists go spelunking. A rockslide traps three of them in a cave with no other way out, and in the darkness Conrad begins to lose it, telling the others that they are now in an unobserved world, where they have become the cat in Schrödinger's Box. This piece is thick with physics neep and the plot is not unpredictable, but Frederick manages a real sense of claustrophobia.
Silence in Florence by Ian Creasey
In which we are reminded of the importance of urine to early medicine, and the ubiquity of the chamber pot. Maria realizes that the strange visitors to the palace must be angels, since they have not used their chamber pots since their arrival. She is determined that they will be able to cure her daughter, who is mute. What she has overlooked is the opposite explanation—that the strangers are demons, instead. And of course the science fiction reader knows there are even other possibilities.
Analog, October 2006
This time it's a serialized novel by Robert Sawyer taking up most of the fiction space, with only four shorter pieces—though three of them are quite readable.
Takes Two to Tangle by Ben Bova
Straight out of the 1950s, with his snappy fedora and his pants belted up under his armpits, comes Bova's Sam Gunn with another hokey scheme to get rich. This one is narrated by a Daniel Townes, particle physicist, to whom Gunn comes with a proposal involving a matter transmitter. Of course, whipping up such a device is nothing to the genius of Townes, now that Gunn has put the notion into his head, but as usual, the course of scientific progress is thwarted by the forces of reactionary religion—here in the person of Bishop Ingrid MacTavish. Fortunately for physics, the bishop is so overwhelmed by the Manly Presence of Townes as to forget her objections to the scheme, even when the matter transmitter manages to create a duplicate Sam Gunn.
Did I mention that the piece is hokey? SF has come a long way since the likes of this dinosaur roamed the newsstands.
From Wayfield, From Malagasy by Robert J. Howe
The Malagasy has been stranded on an unknown planet that turns out to be inhabited by humans who have developed a culture of total self-sufficiency. Everything an individual possesses is made by that person, and trade does not seem to be known—certainly the natives will not trade for anything Captain Wayfield can offer them, all of it made by persons he does not even know. But the crew does not have adequate provisions to survive, and in the time it would take them to become self-sufficient, they would have starved to death. Wayfield comes to the conclusion that he will have to take supplies from the natives by force if necessary, if his crew is to remain alive.
This scenario raises interesting ethical and sociological issues, but I found Wayfield's sudden attack of conscience less than convincing. Why did none of his objections occur to him before the raid on the native village, when they seem so obvious afterwards?
Rival of Mars by David Walton
The narrator is a rocket scientist hoping to work on the upcoming manned expedition to Mars. He has begun dating a professional mother—a woman licensed to give birth—and he grows to admire her dedication to the job, to the wellbeing of the baby. But Angie wants a baby of her own, and the narrator is put in the position where he will have to make a difficult choice.
The problem with this story is that it presents a false dilemma. If the premise is that only a limited number of women have the health and dedication to be mothers, as Angie does, she ought to be in demand if she left Philadelphia to settle elsewhere with the narrator. Sustaining a society requires a certain birthrate, and there is no indication that things are any different in Walton's future. His demographics just don't add up.
Nigerian Scam by Richard A. Lovett
Ryan Mann is a bicycle racer laid up by an accident, and he spends too much time on the internet while he is recovering, to the point when he starts actually reading the spam on his internet account and encounters something unusual:
WE HAVE INFORMATION IN THE PLANETARY SYSTEMS OF OUTER VEGA, TO WHICH WE AFFORD EXCHANGE FOR YOU IN MONEYMAKING PLAN OF RECIPROCAL DATA FROM PLANET EARTH.
Thinking to string the scammer along, he discovers that the so-called alien is offering the plans for an anti-gravity device. To his surprise, the device actually works, and suddenly Ryan is on his way to becoming very rich. But he knows there must be a catch.
This is an amusing tale that gains added interest from the scammer's letters, as well as the process of constructing the alien device. The actual revelation comes as a bit of an anticlimax, however.
Realms of Fantasy, October 2006
This issue is again notable for the wide variety of fantasy types exhibited in the stories—excepting outright horror.
Marriage Game by Susan J. Kroupa
Eternity can get a bit tedious, so the ghosts like to hang around the flesh and blood population, vicariously experiencing the things that they miss most—like sex and chocolate. They like to play games with F&Bs, too. The ghosts are hanging around the chocolate shop when they see a middle-aged married couple in the middle of some kind of dispute. When the wife wants to enter the shop, the husband taunts her about her weight, which, the ghosts being ladies, causes them to take her side. The game is on.
A warm and charming story from an odd point of view, for the ghosts' ability to interfere with the flesh and bone is limited, and they are not omniscient; they never learn, as we never do, the cause of the quarrel, even as we see its most intimate moments.
Dead Man's Tale by Billie Aul
One of those fictional worlds where the Things that Go Bump in the Night live among mortal humanity, and the law accounts for their differences. Sam Thompson is investigating the death of Anasztazsius Talaj, whose lover has dismembered his body and fed him to the bears. Chen claims in his defense that Talaj had asked him to do this thing; being Undead, Talaj could readily reassemble himself. The problem is that Talaj's body is not showing any signs of reconstituting.
This is a rather lengthy and complexly plotted detective story, strewn liberally with red herrings and mythical, magical creatures of all sorts, who each contribute their own bits to unraveling or obfusticating the mystery. But our narrator perseveres despite all obstacles, both human and supernatural.
"I'm a detective looking into his . . . the recent incident involving his body. Did he ever say anything to you to make you think he was Undead?"
"Considering he didn't say anything to anyone else, why do you think he'd say anything to me? What a dumb question. How do you expect to find out anything if all you do is ask dumb questions?" He harrumphed and crossed his arms across his chest in disgust.
He was clearly one of what I call the Short, Surly Folk.
Sunday by Alethea Kontis
The author has compressed a number of different fairy tales and rhymes into this piece. Sunday Woodcutter is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, born on the Sabbath day, though she refuses to be blithe or bonny, good or gay. She kisses frogs and dances with princes at palace balls; her sister Monday can't sleep if there are peas under her mattress, and her brothers are named Jack. Naturally, she has a fairy godmother, and if she and her prince don't live happily ever after, at least they are guaranteed an interesting life. This sum of its parts works as a story, sort of, though the author's efforts to shove in as many different fairy tales as possible is a distraction from the central narrative.
Blood of Virgins by David Barr Kirtley
All the cool, popular guys ride their own dragons, but Chris is afraid of them. He has good reason; dragons feed on the blood of virgins, and he is a virgin, though of course he wouldn't admit it to the other guys. Then he meets Miranda, a social activist crusading against dragon-keeping, the exploitation of children to provide them with blood. He wants to make love to her, which would incidentally solve his problem with the dragons, but Miranda is offended by the notion that he would be using her. The story is a bit message-heavy, more of a YA piece than adult fiction.
Snake Charmer by Amanda Downum
The urban voodoo fairypunk setting is the main interest here, and the author's prose, which verges on the poetic:
The dragon is dying.
The city feels it in bones of stone and iron, in scabby concrete skin. The otherkind feel it, a weight in their blood. Even Simon feels, it, mortal as he is. The city waits.
The dragon will die, of age or violence, and another will take its place. Someone will eat the dragon's heart, and take its power.
Simon wants the dragon's power, as well as revenge on Sal, who has killed his lover Chance and done other mean things, and Sal is also after the dragon, and it is Halloween, and Sal comes to Mary Snakebone's place to kidnap her sister Helen the snake dancer, and Mary tells Simon that he is Simon Magus, or maybe Baron Samedi, though how those two are the same I can not tell, and Mary is the dragon's daughter, or Erzulie, though shouldn't that be Helen?, and someone named Manny may or may not be the dragon, and if all this is confusing, it's because the author drops us into the middle of the end of it, and we don't know who these people are, or what they have been doing, or what has previously happened to them, or what voodoo has to do with dragons—or dragons with voodoo. And it's too bad, because all this stuff is potentially interesting—or perhaps it was interesting in some previous story to which everything in this one is a sequel, but here it feels like reading the highly condensed ending of a novel after someone has ripped out the earlier chapters and thrown them away.
Myths and Legends by Kathe Koja
A one-act play written for Drama class on the midnight before it is due. The topic: Leprechauns. The play: two kids catch a leprechaun to force him to grant them three wishes. The narrator is desperate to fill her page count, but it is dark in the house at midnight, and fear lurks in the shadows—the fear that has given birth to all the legends that look so harmless in the daylight.
But—what if it was a real leprechaun and he was captured in some aquarium, why would he, it, whatever want to grant your wish even to get free? And even if he did, wouldn't he want a payback of some kind, revenge for getting caught in the first place?
A Fish Story by Sarah Totten
Dagmar Batterfly, a young lady of good family, has unaccountably begun to make a spectacle of herself pursuing Henry, the bell tower boy, whose job is to play the bronzed fish that occupy the tower where our world would have put bells. Not only is Henry an inappropriate object for Dagmar's affections, he does not reciprocate them. In fact, Henry finds her attentions embarrassing; he wants to marry the swineherd's daughter. But Dagmar persists, coming up with a scheme to catch the Barbary Fish in order to win Henry's heart, and thereby attracts the unwelcome attention of the Leechfield fisherman, despite her protests.
"Look, Eora, there are two kinds of people in the world. The Pursuers and the Pursued. And the Pursuers neither like nor wish to be pursued. It is an insult to their nature."
A pleasantly absurd comedy of manners with an ending highly satisfactory to most of the parties concerned.
Weird Tales, August/September 2006
The Unique Magazine continues to offer more fine dark fantasy under the new old management.
The Elixir of Youth by Brian Stableford
The tale begins in fairytale mode, with a father and two sons. The elder goes off to seek his fortune, while Benedict, the dutiful younger son, remains at home to work in the family wine business. But the story grows darker when the elder son returns with a bottle that contains, he claims, an elixir from the fountain of youth. This he offers in trade to his brother, in exchange for his inheritance. Benedict doesn't believe him, nor does he intend to give in to blackmail after all his years of hard work. He kills his brother and hides his body in a barrel of wine. But because Gilbert had first swallowed the elixir, its essence has begun to leech into the wine, which the Duke's steward insists on purchasing for his master's feast. From there, the situation grows more complicated.
"My lord, [Benedict] said, "my father has not the slightest idea how the vintage turned out so well—but I know the secret."
Lord de Romanin raised his eyebrows in a delicately aristocratic fashion. "Which is?" he said.
"Mine to keep," Benedict said, boldly. "But I can assure you that the wine has a preservative effect as well as a wondrous taste. It will be of great benefit to you if you keep on drinking it, provided that you do not share it too generously—but only I have the secret of making it, so you will need to look after me well."
The Duc de Romanin looked long and hard at Benedict then, but in the end he only said: "Will you need more dead men?" he asked politely.
This is a delightful shuddery dark humorous fantasy, and Stableford presses the story to a gruesomely logical conclusion. I would prefer less redundancy in his speech tags, but—
Fourth Avenue Interlude by Richard A. Lupoff
It was 1949.
I was just a kid of twelve and I was crazy for books. I'd discovered Book Row in New York, Fourth Avenue below Fourteenth Street. You could find anything you wanted to read down there, and at bargain prices, too, if you weren't too picky about things like first editions in dust jackets.
The narrator, who may be the author, takes a job as a stockboy at one of the bookstores. One day a manila envelope falls out from between a couple of old boxes. It contains what is alleged to be the complete manuscript of Poe's last, unfinished work, "The Lighthouse." Of course, this couldn't be true. Yet the narrator never forgets the story he has read. He always wonders, what if it were?
This is more a fictionalized memoir than a fantasy, but it has a great deal of charm for the book-lover—as who among us is not?
Corpse's Wrath by Keith Taylor
Another in Taylor's series set in ancient Egypt. Si-hotep is a professional thief but also a secret agent of Kamose, the Archpriest of Anubis, "the darkest, most-feared magician in the Two Lands." He has been tasked to apprehend a fugitive wanted for stealing an emerald scarab belonging to the late Pharaoh, but Perkhet is a violent, dangerous brute. Si-hotep plans to trick him onto a boat hired by Kamose, where the crew will be able to overpower him, but he has not counted on the lich, the animated corpse of a murdered man seeking revenge but willing to kill anyone else it encounters.
This tale crosses over the line from dark fantasy into fantastic horror, though there is little to choose from between Perkhet and the lich. Si-hotep should not be blamed if he resolves that, from now on, the Archpriest can find another agent.
Aftermath by Tina & Tony Rath
A holy hermit has been brought to the convent, dying, and it is soon clear that he was once Sir Lancelot. Where Lancelot is, surely Guenevere must not be absent from the plot. Not a particularly inspired version of this overdone tale.
Conversation in the Tomb of an Unknown King by Richard Parks
It is the nature of a tomb wight to dwell in a tomb, preferably one with a treasure to guard. But it is the nature of human beings to try to take such treasures. Uldun the tomb wight understands this quite well, but he finds himself having to explain the facts of life to the latest young interloper who comes to steal his gold. Of course he will have to kill the lad, that's the way it works. But it's a shame, because it seems that young Karl was set up to be killed, and Uldun doesn't approve.
A uniquely ironic point of view makes this tale more interesting than most.
Revival by Natalia Lincoln
There's a haint under the stump of the old Killing Tree, and it wants something from Tadpole's Mama. Mama doesn't want to talk about it; she doesn't want Tadpole to know her dark secret. Tadpole hopes that Jesus can save them all from the haint, but when she goes to the revival meeting, it isn't Jesus she meets there but the spirit of her dead Grandmam, who leads Tadpole to discover the second sight that she needs to save her family.
Despite the fantastic elements, this story also offers a realistic look at the uses of dark magic, and its pitfalls.
The Children of Moriah by Robert Weinberg
Suppose the old gods of antiquity are real, and still powerful. Suppose they are willing to cure the fatal diseases that still plague humanity, for the usual price—human sacrifice. How would you choose the ones to die, how would you offer up their lives? Bryan Talbot works for Nergal, the Babylonian god of death. Nergal wants ten thousand lives in exchange for a cure for leukemia. Everyone Bryan touches while working for the god will die as a sacrifice. The choice is entirely random. Nothing else would be fair. Reason insists that the number of lives saved will be greater than the number sacrificed, but reason does not know grief.
A novel and interesting ethical dilemma.
Blackwater Ghosts by Terry Sofian
Phil Maddox is a rescue and recovery diver, but unfortunately most of his work lately has involved the recovery of the dead, not saving the living. There is a serial killer leaving the dismembered bodies of young girls in local lakes. Phil is suffering from PTSD, his marriage is dead, and he has come to feel he can't go on when he gets an email from a woman asking him for details of rescue diving for a book she is writing. A regular correspondence develops and becomes Phil's lifeline to sanity as the serial killer strikes again and again. But Gail is not what she seems to be.
This is a rather lengthy work, a close study of a character on the brink, rather than a detective story. The authoritative diving and forensic details give the story extra depth and interest. I do have a minor complaint about the typography. The piece contains basic narration, plus excerpts from Phil's journal and online exchanges between Phil and Gail. While the excerpts are done in a different typeface, it is not sufficiently different to be easily distinguishable from the narrative text, nor is it clearly set off from it, leading to moments of confusion.
Strange Horizons, August 2006
The Women of Our Occupation by Kameron Hurley
The drivers were big women with broad hands and faces smeared with mortar grit, and they reeked of the dead. Even when we did not see them passing through the gates, ferrying truckloads of our dead, they came to us in our dreams, the women of our occupation.
My brother and I did not understand why they had come. They were from a far shore none of us had ever seen or heard of, and every night my father cursed them as he turned on the radio. He kept it set to the resistance channel. No one wanted the women here.
Reading this opening, one might suppose that Hurley is writing a feminist revolutionary manifesto, urging women to rise up and overthrow the oppressive sex. But this is a story about war and the relationship between the occupiers and the conquered people, regardless of gender. Hurley's flattened, matter-of-fact prose is effective at describing the beaten-down lives of the defeated and how it sows the seeds of insurgency.
Draco Campestris by Sarah Monette
Monette takes us on a tour of a fantastic Museum in some time and place that is not here and now. The Salle des Dragons is being reopened.
All that season, the taxonomist, impeccable in suit and crisply knotted tie, assisted by a series of tithe-children, none of whom he could distinguish from any of the others, clambered among the bones of the eighty-nine dragons, scrutinizing skulls and teeth and vertebrae, recovering from the mists of misidentified obscurity Draco vulcanis, D. campestris, D. sylvius, D. nubis; separating a creative tangle of bones into two distinct specimens, one D. maris, the other D. pelagus; cleaning and rewiring and clarifying; entirely discrediting the identification of one specimen as the extinct D. minimis. It was merely a species of large lizard, said the taxonomist—any fool could see that from its teeth—and should be removed from the collection forthwith.
As well as the dragons and the other wonders of the Museum, it has its shadowed corners where the tithe-children dwell and serve, who may not be alive. Monette's prose beautifully evokes the image of this fantastic, imaginary place, but I can not help—though I know I shouldn't—wondering if perhaps she didn't find her inspiration here.
Flotsam by Amanda Downum
Rebecca Killian left Ireland a long time ago, choosing a human life as an artist when her lover, her cousin Aoife, chose immortality and the sea. Their family is of the Daoine Domhain—the people of the deep—and all the others have returned to the sea but Rebecca.
The tide is pulling out, leaving dark swathes of seaweed limp on the sand. This time Aoife waits on the beach, waves breaking around her ankles. She's shed the white dress, along with any pretense of humanity. A creature of salt and bone, of razor spines and scales and writhing anemone hair.
Now Rebecca has come back to die, and if possible to see Aoife one last time. But she also has a student with her, a young and promising artist. This last season that the cancer will grant her could help set Siobhan on the road to a career of her own. Again, Rebecca must make a choice.
A bit of heartbreak, painted in faerie tones.
The Town on Blighted Sea by A. M. Dellamonica
There must have been an anthology proposal out somewhere on the topic of Sex With Squids, for it is otherwise rather unlikely that this theme would be showing up so often, in the same place. However it has come about, this particular perversion does not seem to involve happy circumstances. In this case, it is the humans who are the refugees, the losers in a civil war on Earth that involved alien backers and alien technology. The squids have allowed a million of their defeated human allies to settle on their own homeworld, but as always, there is prejudice and intolerance. War veteran Ruth [Ruthless] assumes they will one day return to Earth, but the younger generation regards this as hopeless nostalgia. Yet when Rav gets into trouble, documenting the illegal traffic in "feelers" by squids addicted to the taste of humans, it is his Aunt Ruthless that he turns to for help.
Following them inside, the camera dipped and hovered, seeking a good vantage point. By the time it was settled the woman had stripped, leaning back against a wall so the squid could taste her various scent zones.
Why had Rav wanted this, Ruthless wondered, feeling queasy as the tentacles explored the woman's body, poking at her ears, the corners of her eyes, eventually probing into her vagina and anus. It went bad quickly after that: the squid yanked her tongue, pulling with brutal force before sliding another tentacle down the woman's throat.
It is the universals that matter here—the similarities, not the differences. Sex and squids both notwithstanding, this is a story about the people who have lost a war and the price they have to pay for refuge from it.
Jim Baen's Universe no. 2, August 2006
If quantity were all, this new e-zine would shoot right to the top of the charts. There are departments for science fiction stories, fantasy stories, classic reprints, serials—three of them at once!—and a section for stories from new authors. And several of the pieces from the established authors are quite long; although I haven't done a word count, some appear to be novella-length. This brings to mind a peeve I have previously expressed here, that e-zines typically and unnecessarily restrict their fiction offerings to the shorter lengths. If this venture of Baen's is successful, it will prove that longer pieces can indeed be published online.
It is clearly not intended to be a literary venue, or one for experimental prose. I would place it closest to Analog in terms of its likely appeal to readers, although Universe has a broader scope, taking in fantasy as well as SF and showing a strong slant, as one would expect from this publisher, in the direction of military action. Happily, it seems to be avoiding Analog's tendency towards political polemic, being more concerned with plot action; readers will probably be able to expect that the Good Guys will win in the stories published here.
I will be looking only at the original stories. Many of these are set in the fictional universes previously established by their authors in novels. I assume that the intention is to attract the readers of these novels, however I find it can be less than a good thing, depending how the author deals with the problem of backstory. In general, I prefer the self-contained fiction.
Treasure in the Sand by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
There are three possible sets of readers for this piece. Those who are not familiar with the universe of Frank Herbert's SF classic Dune are not likely to find any interest in this sequel. Those who are will discover some strange alterations—the planet Arrakis has lost part of its name—and perhaps some disappointment; there was a certainly quality to the language in the elder Herbert's original that is missing in the prosaic prose of his successors. Yet the setting should still be comprehensible. Finally, those who have followed the entire series will find a coda to it here. The planet Rakis has been thoroughly slagged, with no life supposed to remain, but an expedition of treasure hunters is on its way to loot it of whatever they can find. Their guide is Lokar, a priest devoted to the religion of the sandworms, who has taken this only opportunity to return to the holy planet. The expedition arrives, its members fail to find the treasure they sought, and they find a treasure they had not sought.
It is a sketchy and perfunctory piece, with one-dimensional villains and a protagonist barely more developed, where the authors seem to be marking time throughout the narrative until they strike Lokar with the revelation necessary to bring it to an end. The surface of the planet is inconsistently called "sandy" when it is actually vitrified sand; not a trivial difference in this particular setting.
Dog Soldier by Garth Nix
Military SF here, an action-filled slice of milspeak and low-g combat, complete with requisite SNAFU factor. Assault Sergeant Gellies has been sent a piece of new equipment for testing.
This unit is a Combat Candroid DOG 01A prototype. Designed for support use with Assault Engineer units, the DOG 01A is a sophisticated artificial life form. For reasons of durability, the body is mechanical, with a high survivability in all but Class 10X environments. Lightly armored, the DOG 01A is impervious to low-powered radiant, sonic or projectile weapons and highly resistant to Xene solvents. Its Central Intelligence Unit is based on a Sysicram 310 multiproc, with a prototype biological intelligence and personality transfer from a Terran natural life form, the dog variant known as a collie-shepherd cross. Prototype frageware interfaces this natural personality with the special requirements of different environments and the specialized tasks of an assault engineer unit.
Naturally, the operating instructions for the unit were not included, but the Colonel, naturally, wants Gellies to take it on the exercise, anyway. Naturally, the exercise turns into a real enemy assault, and Gellies finds himself depending on the new unit to save his entire outfit, and the mission.
After a slow start that does nothing for this piece, it picks up the pace and the action moves briskly. The aliens throw in a few tricks to make things hotter for Gellies and more interesting for the reader. While the basic situation isn't original, Nix doesn't let the outcome become too predictable.
When Sysadmins Ruled the World by Cory Doctorow
About the time you might start to think that science fiction—the real stuff, not the species of fantasy that goes under the name—is really dead, along comes a story by Cory Doctorow. Felix is a sysadmin who gets called into the data center at 2 am to deal with a really bad worm attack that has all the routers down. While the network engineers are trying to get the system back online, worse things are happening outside the sealed building, as Felix discovers when he gets a call from his wife, telling him she is dying and their son is already dead. Soon they all learn what has happened.
Here's what we know for sure: the building's been on generators for three hours now. Visual observation indicates that we're the only building in central Toronto with working power—which should hold out for three more days. There is a bioagent of unknown origin loose beyond our doors. It kills quickly, within hours, and it is aerosolized. You get it from breathing bad air. No one has opened any of the exterior doors to this building since five this morning. No one will open the doors until I give the go-ahead.
There's a lot of computer neep here, and while this is not my native language, it seems to have the ring of authenticity as the surviving sysadmins try to figure how to keep the internet running and the world held together as long as they can. I'm not sure the mix between the tragic and the comic keeps quite the right balance in the story, however, and the cartoon illustrations tip things rather uncomfortably toward the comic for what is, after all, a tragic story.
The Ruby Dice by Catherine Asaro
Kelric is Imperator of the Skolian empire, one of three great interstellar powers vying for ascendancy. He is beset with political and dynastic problems, but personal issues are beginning to dominate his mind and leave him no peace. While he has had at least four wives, one is still alive and now the ruler of the planet Coba, where he had spent eighteen hidden years in luxurious captivity as a master of the game of dice with which that world is run. He must now decide to confront his past and thereby to determine the destiny of worlds and empires.
This summary can not begin to encompass the amount of backstory here, which is more than a novel's worth, as well as an entire series-worth of more distant background concerning the author's Skolian Empire universe. And this is a problem. In the case of the Dune series, the authors made the choice of touching only lightly on the extensive backstory of this world, assuming—probably correctly—that most readers would be familiar with at least enough of it to make the current story comprehensible. Asaro has taken the other route, piling on the backstory at every juncture of the plot. But this lengthy piece is a character story, and character is not something we can be told; we must watch it develop in the course of events, and too much of Kelric's character has been developed during the course of events we have never seen, if we have not read Asaro's previous works. Moreover, the story at hand turns out to be a condensation of yet another novel, during which I assume these events will be developed at greater length, with a greater chance to appreciate the characters involved. Accordingly, I must view this piece only as a teaser, and advise readers to wait for the full thing if they find it to their interest, perhaps reading up on the backstory in the interval.
Sisters of Sarronnyn: Sisters of Westwind by L. E. Modesitt Jr.
A tale from the days of the founding of Recluce, in the world of Modesitt's series. In Westwind, Creslin, the ruler's son, is a mage, a swordsman, and in general a figure of such perfection that everyone must love him. When Creslin and his wife leave to establish their own vassal state on the island of Recluce, Guard Captain Shierra volunteers to accompany him. Much of the story deals with the details of founding a colony and with the relationship between Creslin and his wife as seen through Shierra's eyes, and as they relate to Shierra's own relationship with her younger sister, who had once fallen in love with Creslin. The events wrap up with a rather pat conclusion, complete with everyone learning some kind of edifying lesson, but human relationships are generally at the center of Modesitt's work.
Modesitt's solution to the backstory problem is a fairly satisfactory one. It is a retelling of events already told in a previous work, told from the point of view of a different character. Readers familiar with this story will find a new slant on the events, and readers new to his world will find enough information to allow them to appreciate the story at hand without getting mired in a lot of backgrounding.
As Black as Hell by John Lambshead
I am not acquainted with this author's previous work, but the story here appears to be a stand-alone, an action-oriented vampire thriller with military overtones. At one time, Karla was Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the sonnets, but she has aged and deteriorated mentally in the last four hundred years, until she is captured by a special commando team and bound with a spell so she can be used against others of her kind. At this, she proves effective, but there is a problem—the binding spell was a love spell, and it has worked too well on her handler, Jameson.
Although Jameson is the protagonist and point-of-view character for most of this story, it inexplicably begins in the mind of a soldier named Gaston, who turns out to be only a minor character; it might have been more relevant to learn more about Jameson, instead. I also found a consistency problem in this piece: when Karla is first introduced, she seems unacquainted with modern life, has never ridden in a car, for example, and is unused to contemporary fashions, as if she had been pulled innocent from the grave. But a short time later we find she has been well-integrated into the London vampire community, which is quite well-integrated into the contemporary world, including its fashions and gadgets—not so innocent, after all.
For Blue Sky by Wen Spencer
Here is an interesting premise—the city of Pittsburgh has been transported to Elfhome by a faulty magical gate, and its human population is now making a place for itself alongside the elves. Complications have resulted for John Montana. The half-brother whom he has raised was fathered by an elf of the high caste, and John has always feared that they would take Blue Sky from him if they discover what his parentage is. Now his fears have materialized, but Blue Sky, in the manner of teenagers, is determined not to cooperate.
This piece is another set in a world previously established by the author, but Spencer spends too much time on the character of Tinker, heroine of a previous novel set in this milieu. While fans of that earlier work might be pleased to see more of the character in this story, she is not really necessary to it, and the explanation of her current situation slows things down and distracts the reader's attention from the problems of Blue Sky and John.
What Sleeps in the Shadows Belongs in the Depths by Julie Czerneda
The inhabitants of Circle Cove celebrate a momentous event in their past, The Summoning, when they once made a sacrifice to call the Quiet God from the depths to aid them in defeating an enemy fleet. There are now signs that the god may be restless, and young Agnon has begun to have visions, suggesting another sacrifice may be needed.
I am not sure if this particular story is a sequel to some previous work, as it seems to be. The author flips between Agnon's point of view and that of the god-creature, doubling our perception of the situation. The ending comes too easily, with too little work and, surprisingly, too little sacrifice on the part of the characters. I prefer the notion that the residents of the cove are choking their own god to death as the water becomes polluted with their wastes.
Benny Comes Home by Esther Friesner
Oy! Bubbeh Gratz may think the sci-fi stories that Oscar, the pisher, is constantly reading are drek, but it is only Oscar who can see that the boyfriend Cousin Benny has brought home from Europe after the War is no faigeleh but a vampire. Even worse, a goyish vampire! What a megillah!
In this sort of tale, the more excess the better, and Friesner piles it on until the text groans with yiddishisms like the Gratz's overloaded buffet table. Much family matchmaking fun.
Decaf and Spaceship To Go by Katherine Sanger
Aliens come to Starbucks for the lattes and frappucinos. Worse, they cut in line! But I don't know why they get out of their vehicles when it's the drive-through line.
Technical Exchange by Kevin Haw
The alien Exiles are integrating themselves into Earth's society and economy, and Ford Gregory is an engineer assigned to test the possibilities of adapting alien spaceship technology for atmospheric aircraft. This is a joint venture between the company he works for and the aliens, and Ford enjoys working with the Exile engineer called Thomas, but unfortunately the alien leaders have also begun to pick up some of the techniques of Earth's ruthless system of corporate management.
Medic! by William Ledbetter
This military SF tale is a variation on the new-guy-in-the-squad story, with the new guy being a medical robot. Ledbetter makes the old plot fresh by telling it from the robot's point of view. The action is quick-paced with a strong edge of danger throughout.
The Best Plaid Lans by Loren K. Jones
This piece is essentially a alternate history Feghoot, although the pun is contained in the title. The author carries the explanation on well past the point where the reader gets the idea.
Supercargo by M. T. Reiten
More military SF. Fanatics have captured a cargo ship and plan to use it in a terrorist plot. The crew has been killed, only the supercargo and a young infantry sergeant [presumably as a passenger] remain onboard, and they have to re-take the ship from the Bad Guys. Briskly paced, it begins with the scent of grilling flesh in the corridor, and the supercargo reminding the soldier that the only meat aboard is the crew.
Lone Star Stories, August 2006
A pretty good issue, where the three fantasy stories all have elements of the horrific, even the humorous piece.
Wolf Night by Martha Wells
It was a cold day in the middle of winter, and Parker was alone on the trail, looking for shelter for the night, when he saw the old Indian.
The Indian didn't answer. The horse stamped and snorted, uneasy. It was late afternoon, thick gray clouds overhead and the wind rustling the fir trees down the pass. Snow was falling, very gently, little flakes catching in the old man's hair. Parker wondered uneasily if the man had died like that, frozen stiff, standing up.
Then the Indian lifted his head.
His eyes were red, as if the vessels had burst and filled the whites with blood. The pupils were open slits of blazing light.
The Indian is a chimera, a kind of magical projection placed in the middle of the trail as a warning. When Parker reaches the stage station, he finds the stage driver gutted, and the passengers suspecting he might be the werewolf responsible.
What begins as supernatural horror adds elements of a detective story as Parker tries to discover who the killer is before no one in the station is left alive. This is a fantasy west where such beings as haunts, shamans and werewolves seem to be rather common, but there are still stagecoach drivers, Indians and payroll robbers. The revelation of Parker's alternate identity at the end adds a bit of extra interest, but this tale could have stood on its own without it.
Angst in D Minor by Jenn Reese
Callia is a teenaged siren. The kind that should be home on her island, singing men into the rocks and then eating them with a side dish of olives.
Normally, it doesn't matter what we sing. We could be saying, "If you come to us, we'll just kill you and eat you," and it wouldn't make any difference. Men don't care about content nearly as much as they care about packaging, and the siren's voice—my voice—is beyond compare.
But Callia wants to go to school like the normal kids, instead. Unfortunately, at Bullfinch High, the normal kids turn out to be the children of the gods. Hijinks and complications duly ensue.
The Great Conviction of Tia Inez by M. Thomas
When Tia Inez's husband Roberto went missing, she crossed the border by herself to find him, crossed the desert with two bottles of water and the spines of a cholla cactus in her leg, where she still bears the scars. But she never found Roberto, and he has never come back, despite her conviction that he will, one day. Now Inez begins to hear stories about the men who never come back because someone has cut them up for their body parts. And to make matters worse, her father's ghost has appeared on the porch, playing checkers, and refuses to leave.
She even got the next-door neighbor Remedios to come and make one of her special recipes for feeding the reluctant dead. Grandfather ate all the spirit mole she made for him, then jumped two of Remedios' checkers. Remedios shrugged. "Sometimes, just feeding them isn't enough," she said. "The dead don't always keep themselves here."
Thomas gives us a compelling image of a woman's obsessive faith, and the strength of love. Her characters are memorable, and the world they inhabit is vividly alive. Nor does she flinch at the gruesome image when it is called for.
Abyss & Apex, Third Quarter 2006
A&A likes to do theme issues, and in the third quarter the common question is: What do you really want? This is what the editors tell us, at least. I would go for: Be careful what you wish for. Of course this theme fits some of the stories here more closely than others, but most are pretty satisfactory reads, regardless.
Nine Thousand Four Hundred Ninety-four Days by Vylar Kaftan
This is the number of days the prisoner has served at hard labor on a harsh prison planet of for a crime he never committed. Even the human Warden is upset at the miscarriage of justice when it is finally discovered. It isn't fair, what was done to him. But fairness is a human notion.
Humans do not see the justice in events like we do. If your feathers dry and fall off, it is dhrianya for sins committed in childhood. If your brood is born blind, it is dhrianya for resenting your parent. Or if there is no sin committed in past, then the dhrianya will come. Bring balance. Great joy comes to those who suffer most, for all balance in end. "Unfair," I repeat, tasting the word.
The prisoner struggles to grasp the alien concept of fairness, but this proves to be a mistake.
It is the most basic of philosophical problems that the prisoner faces, the question of the meaning of life, the question of faith. Kaftan suggests that in such matters it may well be our belief in karmic balance that makes it so. But the author's narration is redundant, and repeats the point past the point when we get it, already.
New Spectacles by Will McIntosh
The Poly-layer Voice Analysis glasses that Tristan wears in his job as a crime interrogator reveal whether a speaker is telling the truth. When he forgets and wears them into the hospital room where his grandfather is dying, he comes face to face with some shattering truths about his relationships with his family. This story has a strong emotional impact, which derives largely from McIntosh's very human characterization. He reminds us that there are times when we may be better off not knowing the truth.
Ageless by Aaron Callow
Henry is almost seven hundred years old, one of the first people ever to undergo the immortality treatments. His old friends have all gone or died and he has made no new ones in a long time.
He had done a lot with his life and that was more than could be said for most people. Perhaps that's why he had lasted so long. But a lot of water had passed under too many bridges and lately it felt as though the remaining trickle was pooling in a stagnant gully.
He thinks maybe it's time to go. But on the last night before his appointment, he meets Audrey.
This story is definitely a case of "be careful what you wish for," applied to an entire society, but it is always individual people who have to suffer the unintended consequences, as Callow's characters show us in this simple but strongly felt tale.
Interfaith by Lisa Mantchev
In classical myth, it was Zeus who was always boffing all the goddesses, nymphs and mortal maidens, engendering new demigods. Here, it is God the Father who takes this appropriate role. He mates with the Olympian goddess of the hearth, and they have a divine daughter, Justine, whom Hestia is left to raise alone, neglecting her own divinity.
"There are seraphim in the attic. You want to round them up?"
"How wonderful!"Justine dropped her pen and clasped her hands together to give thanks.
"You have to the count of three, and then I'm setting off a bug bomb."
She ran, scattering beneficence and glory in her wake. I swept up the trail and emptied the glittery mess in the dustbin.
But Justine, in the manner of teenagers, begins to accuse her father of abandoning her.
Mantchev's story is both amusing and warm. Anyone who has ever raised a mortal teenaged girl will sympathize with Hestia.
The Ghosts of Los Hellas by RJ Astruc
The island is a retro paradise, the sort of place that ancient Hollywood imagined back in the middle of the twentieth century, except that it is a real place with real people. The SWIFTWATER Corporation has come to this place to promote virtual tourism, where the visitors can enjoy the island experience without have to feel the heat. But the Hellans are complaining. Everyone on the island is starting to see ghosts, and they blame SWIFTWATER's power cables for evoking them. They want the corporation and its project gone. Enter Gig, hired to fix the situation by the young man in charge of the project, his former lover's spoiled son.
The night was hot—unsleepably so. Gig lay in a puddle of his own sweat and outlined conspiracy-themed theories in his notebook:
- The Los Hellans want SWIFTWATER out and have made up this ghost story to cause trouble.
- Radiation from the gusano is causing hallucinations throughout the Hellan populace.
- The ghosts are the product of mass hysteria as a result of extreme social tension, caused by SWIFTWATER's presence and the sudden boom in foreign interest.
- The ghosts are real and SWIFTWATER has inadvertently unleashed an unspeakable evil upon this world.
It's interesting to look at this list and imagine the four different story lines that could have emerged from these four hypotheses. But Astruc has taken a fifth, less dramatic route. She packs a whole lot of story into this piece, and I particularly like her evocation of Los Hellas with its own variety of voodo-brujas, who have their own websites for the convenience of their customers. Unfortunately, the author packs in too much backstory, from which Gig's real problems derive, so their resolution fails to have the impact that it otherwise might have.
Goddess by Jon Hansen
Ben is used to divinities sometimes showing up in the coffee shop where he works, but this time a goddess of love makes him an offer. Can he refuse? A heartwarming tale, with the author going for a lyrical touch that might be a tad bit overdone: "The goddess laughed, the sound ringing drops of crystal sun."
Small Change by Mikal Trimm
A man acquires the power to flip all coins to heads, one hundred percent of the time. "Why is this important?" his wife asks. Damned if I know.
Heliotrope, August 2006 (premiere issue)
Another new e-zine, this one in a PDF format, which is not my favorite for reading online. There apparently is or will be a paper edition as well. Perhaps that version will have a masthead listing the editorial staff, which the e-version seems to omit, but thanks to Google, I have discovered that the editor is Jay Tomio, of FantasyBookSpot. Heliotrope bills itself a "The Magazine of Speculative Fiction," which is a rather broad claim.
Honey Mouth by Samantha Henderson
A ghost story. The narrator has bought the house knowing it was haunted by the ghost of the previous family's murdered daughter. Soon enough, she appears, but not in her own form.
I go inside for a glass of water and as I turn on the faucet it's as if I took a spoonful of honey and sucked it down in a big glob. I take a big swig of water and it fades, then comes back strong and buckwheat. I turn to look for a girl in a red sweater but no one's there, and behind me a big-bodied insect taps on the picture window.
A bee. It lands on the glass, and I see its underside and delicate clawed feet and it circles, left, right, left, wiggle.
The narrator follows the messenger and learns the reason why.
There is an element of a mystery in this story, as well as the ghost, and that issue is resolved at the end, as well, although neither question seemed to be regarded as particularly urgent. There is also an extraneous second ghost hovering about the scene, but it is unconnected to the events of the story, a gun that is never fired.
On the Air by Edward Morris
Illustrating how alternate history should not be done, Morris brings his talking head literally onstage, a radio stage littered with dropped names of 1930s luminaries, to lecture us on the events that changed history from the pursuit of war to space exploration.
American Gothic by Michael Colangelo
Family horror on the surreal side. We begin with the family's son, engaged in some kind of shamanistic project, instructed by the animal spirits that speak to him. Then Father comes home, the abusive Bible-thumping alcoholic patriarch, to lock his wife in a sweatbox as punishment for some sin we have not seen. But it is the farmyard animals who have the last word, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Orwell's Animal Farm, though devoid of political ideology. The opening scene of this piece seems to belong to an altogether different story than the rest, and the whole makes little sense, delivering only some disturbing imagery.