Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

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  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
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  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
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Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
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Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2009 : Review:

Short Fiction, December 2009

So I gave the Inbox a kick and more zines fell out. Some of these will have to wait until January.

I saw another disheartening sign recently: it seems that Wheatland Press, publisher of the Polyphony anthology series, is now considering whether to put out another volume after the current hiatus. If they receive 225 pre-paid orders they will go forward with the project, otherwise not. This is not a Good Sign. Where are the readers? Wheatland is an established small press, and this anthology series has been well received. Yet it seems that there is a question of finding as few as 225 readers willing to buy the book. I suspect they found more than 225 manuscripts in their slushpile when they were reading for the previous volumes.

Zines Reviewed

Asimov's

Asimov's, Jan. '10

Asimov's, January 2010

Nostalgia for the old pulps seems to be a theme for this issue.

Marya and the Pirate by Geoff Landis

The pirate is Domingo Bonaventura from the out and out, his quarry a cargo of cometary water on its way to the inner Earth orbitals by way of the Earth orbital whip. The whip was little more than a smart rope, but one rotating fast enough that its end would match the speed of the incoming spacecraft, grab it, and swing it in a precisely defined arc that would end up with the cargo in a perfect Earth orbit, and the energy from the ship's original speed banked into the whip's orbital energy, where it would be used to toss the next cargo toward the outer belt. Marya is the crew of the cargo ship, now Domingo's prisoner. Domingo thought he had planned for every contingency, but not the whip going down. Now he and May are trapped in a trajectory for Earth, where the atmosphere will burn them up along with the ship unless they can discover a solution.

Here is the rare pleasure of seeing hard SF done right and done well in a setting where survival hangs on a very thin thread. However, I wish the author had done more with Marya's point of view. Despite Domingo's initial opinion, she is a competent character, and I rather suspect she had plans for him until circumstances changed everything.

The Good Hand by Robert Reed

Alternate history. After WWII, the US enforced its monopoly on nuclear weapons, gradually becoming an empire hated and resented by the rest of the world. The narrator is an American businessman on a trip to France when the US bombs the French space program in Algeria. Rockets and the assembly buildings, fuel tanks and even the railroad lines leading south from Algiers had been obliterated. Smart-bombs and small teams of commandoes had done the brutal work. Casualties were less than fifty, although those numbers were preliminary. Then that wise BBC voice explained that a wing of long-range Skyrangers was fueling in Missouri, preparing to strike the uranium enrichment facility outside Grenoble. The narrator finds himself a hostage as the French resistance places a desperate and probably losing bet on American humanity.

This is the sort of AH that is really about events in our own world - specifically the US drive for world hegemony. It is ominously probable and likely to provoke readers to ominous thoughts.

The Jekyll Island Horror by Alan M Steele

A memoir. Solomon Hess was an aspiring science fiction writer working as the valet of a wealthy pulp publisher in the 1930s, when something fell from the sky onto the exclusive island enclave where his employer was residing. Only Hess realized that the monster did not originate on Earth. It was a creature, all right, but unlike any that I'd ever seen before. Lying prone on the beach, with its head and forequarters upon the sand and its feet and tail in the surf, it resembled some prehistoric beast that had emerged from time's abyss after a long sleep of countless millions of years. He is sworn to secrecy, but years later he passes on the tale to the author, lest it be lost.

The interest here is in the verisimilitude of a period piece. Hess's memoir is written in the style of early pulp SF, and the author has annotated the text with references to the fictional publisher and his empire, as well as using a setting that actually exists. However, this is not a short work, and some readers may become impatient with the lengthy descriptions of William A Russell and his dipsomaniac wife, society in the 1930s, and the rules for dining at the Jekyll Island Club. For others, this will prove a large part of its attraction.

Conditional Love by Felicity Shoulders

Gene-modification of children isn't working out so well. Mistakes are made and then dumped off. Grace Steller works in one of the government hospitals where the mistakes are dumped. Her latest patient is disturbing in a new way, because there is reason to believe his defect was intentionally created to make him vulnerable to sexual abuse: he imprints on every new adult he sees, which wipes out all his short-term memories. His prognosis is grim, and Grace wants to help, more than the system will allow her to.

The heart of this story is the question: Did Grace do the right thing? The author seems to be trying to balance the evidence. We are told that Grace has made mistaken decisions on earlier occasions. And we are shown a young patient undergoing a process of growing the limbs she was born missing, which suggests the possibility of cures that might mean Danny's condition isn't as hopeless as Grace assumes. In fact, I believe that the weight of the evidence is against her, as Danny's condition is not depicted as so very desperate. But this is a matter that readers will want to decide for themselves.

A Letter from the Emperor by Steve Rasnic Tem

Jacob has a lonely job on an interstellar reporter ship, a messenger to the far and often forgotten reaches of the deteriorating Empire. Tonight there were a thousand such voices, most chronicling the minutiae of rulings and orders, specifications and principles, some calling out for contact from worlds not visited in generations, some pleading for assistance, remuneration, or the simple return of a greeting, and a few hesitant inquiries concerning Strangers, and fewer still wondering aloud if Strangers had at last taken over all that could be seen, heard, or imagined. Upon reaching his destination, he finds the aged governor desperately awaiting the message from the Emperor that should commemorate his retirement. But Jacob suspects there is no message, possibly even no more Emperor.

A humane and heartfelt story about the human need for connection with others.

RECOMMENDED

Wonder House by Chris Roberson

Their pulp magazine publishing empire has fallen on hard times, and Itzhak and Yacov need to find a way to boost circulation. It was an accident of history that the three largest publishers of "tenth-tael terribles"—or "popular entertainments," as Yacov preferred to call them-were all located within less than a kilometer of each other in the city of Yerushalayim. Well, an accident of history that two of them were located there. Wonder House had been founded because the first two were there. Readers will probably not be surprised with what they come up with. This isn't really an alternate history but a story using an established alternate-history setting.

Wilds by Carol Emshwiller

The narrator, always feeling himself an outcast from human society, has gone into the mountains to become a wild man. He is happy there until a young woman arrives with her backpack full of useless stolen money, expecting things like cooked food. The narrator finds his life altered. I catch a fish and this time cook it for myself. There are still hot coals in the fire ring so it's easy to start it again. I haven't had cooked trout since I got here. It's delicious but I feel ungrateful and disloyal for all the wild has done for me.

One of this author's recurring themes is the individual alienated from society, and here is the ultimate example.

Analog

Analog, Jan/Feb '10

Analog, January/February 2009

Three novellas in this double issue. I wonder if this is unprecedented. And a lot of sequels - not at all unprecedented.

Neptune's Treasure by Richard A. Lovett

A sequel. Floyd and his sentient AI implant Brittney have taken their tug to the Neptune system to look for work or something to do. But Floyd and Brittney are growing apart. Floyd only wants to continue being Floyd, but Brittney is caught between what she was designed to be and what she could become. In the meantime, they go exploring and discover alien spaceships among the wonders of the planets. Getting to them proved almost too easy. The vent followed a crack in the ice, like a ramp into Triton's dark heart, though Floyd had enough lights that it wasn't anywhere close to dark. Vapor-smoothed surfaces glittered ahead of us, and nitrogen-ice dust sparkled from his drill.

The stories in this series have all seemed to take second place to their setting, as if the author primarily wanted a stage for exploring the outer solar system. There is a great deal of that here, and I judge it the best part; the speculative descriptions of Neptune's moons are quite fascinating, often splendid, crammed full of Neat Skiffy Stuff.

Thus Spake the Aliens by H.G. Stratmann

I had really hoped the previous episode was the last of this series. The stories have been just awful—badly written, tedious, preachy—and each one recapitulates the same awfulness all over again as if once weren't more than enough. In the unlikely event that any readers have been enjoying these, they will likely find this one more of the same.

The Possession of Paavo Deshin by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Another sequel, but that's OK. Paavo has seen the ghosts all his life, but today, on the school playground, they touch him and call him by another name: Enrique. He froze, like he always did when they were too close. He waited for them to go away. But they weren't going away. Instead, she grabbed his shoulders, pulling him toward her. Her fingers dug into his shirt; her nails brushed against his skin. These ghosts are actually Paavo's biological parents, who left him behind when they had to flee to avoid prosecution for violating a bogus alien law. Now they are trying to get him back, but Paavo's foster parents aren't about to let them have him.

A custody battle like no other, where every side has its own agenda. An engaging story, a title very apt. While it is part of a series, this one stands alone pretty well. I am not without quibbles: I don't credit the security loophole that let the Grazians into Paavo's supposedly-secure school. And the author cannot quite keep from a bit a moralizing at the end. Still, I call it

RECOMMENDED

Simple Gifts by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

The Tanaka Corporation wants to mine a valuable mineral on an alien world, paying the aliens as little as possible. Rhys Llewellyn is a freelance cultural anthropologist hired by the corporation's translator, who fears that the aliens will be cheated, to study their barter system of negotiation. But the corporation's executives are not inclined to listen to his warning.

Straightforward tale of alien relationships. The Arkuit are convincing, the corporation hacks are not equipped with horns and tails, the conclusion satisfactory if not a great surprise.

Shame by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn

Another, less happy, tale of alien relationships, and of prejudice. Only one old man remains on the deserted colony world to tell the tale of the alien hanging from the gallows in the middle of town. He had a name (said the old man), but no one could pronounce it. Most folks just called him Boy, or sometimes Satan because of the reddish tint to his skin and those hooves that passed for feet. The town's tolerance of him was grudging, until another, hostile race of aliens showed up.

A Cautionary Tale about jumping to conclusions. Unfortunately, this is one of those SF stories where a village passes for an entire world.

On Rickety Thistlewaite by Michael Flynn

The world Thistlewaite is notoriously unstable, and after an earthquake devastated the state of Jenlùshy, Bridget ban was sent to restore order and infrastructure, in the course of which she appointed the engineer Jimmy Barcelona to be the new Emperor. But Bridget has now gone missing, and her daughter Méarana has come in search of her, for which an audience with the Emperor is required by the oppressive local protocol. "Behold the August Presence," the Voice of the Sheen cried out. "Behold the Resilient Services Reign, who provides the sheen with robust and reliable infrastructure!" But the Emperor is oppressed more than anyone by the protocol, and he doesn't want to let Méarana go.

This seems to be a sequel or outtake from a novel, not a story that previously appeared in this zine. The primary charm is the entertaining narrative voice, reflecting the exotic and rather strange local customs of this world.

Rejiggering the Thingamajig by Eric James Stone

Bokeerk the vegetarian Buddhist tyrannosaur is stranded in the teleport terminal due to a technical malfunction. The AI gives her a choice of waiting twelve years for parts or trying to make the repair herself, on a planet that regards a tyrannosaur as prey. "I don't know anything about repairing teleports," said Bokeerk. "I illustrate children's books. I'm on my way home from the Galactic Children's Book Fair."

Silly.

A War of Stars by David L. Clements

Not much here but infodump about a war going on for millennia and humans brainwashed to hate and kill. Seen it before, seen it better, with actual characters.

Interzone

Interzone, Dec. '09

Interzone 225, December 2009

One of the better issues of the year. I could figure out what was going on in every story.

Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows by Jason Sanford

SF horror. Creatures from an alien dimension have invaded Earth, creatures who lurk in the shadows at night and carry off humans to some unspeakable hell. The narrator is a firefighter whose wife was taken by a ripper; now he can't stop his daughter from trying to join her.

The terror inspired by the rippers is vividly evoked, as in a scene where the firefighters let a man burn to death rather than risk the rippers. But the text fails to evoke equivalent horror of the rippers themselves. For a split second I saw another world through the ripper's body - a surreal scene of darkness upon darkness, of shadow creatures slipping here and there screaming unknown obscenities and begging for my soul. This is worse than being cooked alive? I'm not convinced.

By Starlight by Rebecca J. Payne

Another story about cloud-sailing ships. In this case, the fleet runs on a vicious class system; the narrator was abused all his life in a workship, but he managed to steal a brideship and its bride from the Aurigan fleet. Now the two of them have to face the dangers of the sky alone—the hostile Grounders and enemy ships. The bullship was moving fast, its sails still relatively bright. They weren't changing course to follow the tradeship. There was no doubt. The Taurans were coming for us.

This world is full of interesting and well-realized details, such as the living ships, and the young couple are appealing characters with a strong relationship. But I can't quite credit the system in which the fleets enslave their own.

The Killing Streets by Colin Harvey

Dystopia. One of those futures when just about everyone is on the dole, plagues are breaking out, and packs of vicious lab-bred Snarks are attacking people on the streets. Thom is lucky to have a wife with a real job, but while she is away at work he visits the woman he really loves and can't afford to live with.

This is a story about finding redemption and a sort of triumph even in defeat. All his life he seemed to have been scared, or miserable, or both. Knowing it couldn't get any worse was weirdly liberating. I'm not sure if this is enough to overcome the general weight of depressingness which the story creates successfully.

Funny Pages by Lavie Tidhar

Superheroes. Israeli superheroes. And the corresponding supervillains, too, like Dr. Meshugeh, whose diabolic plot threatens to drown Tel Aviv unless the government (safely on higher ground) makes peace. This, of course, cannot be tolerated. From retirement, the Sabra senses that he is once again needed.

I was thinking that I never wanted to see another superhero again, but along comes Tidhar and kicks the dust out of the stereotype, then mixes it up with political satire. Much fun. Screaming people ran away as the wave hit, while surfers from all around the country hastened to the scene. "This is awesome," one of them told CNN. The Prime Minister's office was not available for comment.

Bone Island by Shannon Page & Jay Lake

A setting where the most ancient magic is still alive, where one family has the charge of a stone altar and a stone axe stained with blood, and a witch lives in a cottage. The old witch has died and left the cottage to an outsider, but there is another witch already on the island, and the two are instantly at odds. Between them is Cary Palka, the local witch's lover and familiar, whose family holds the key to the cottage and the axe. He knows, as everyone does, that the new witch is trouble. The new woman didn't need to call the wind. But it had come, perhaps of its own accord. Maybe it followed her, punished her, threatened to thrust her back from whence she came. Or it could have been the old Witch, complaining from her mossy grave outside the churchyard.

This one is primarily the setting and the atmosphere, the presence of ancient magic strongly evoked. There is a sense of powers as deep and strong as the sea, yet their manifestation is mostly in subtle ways and the final confrontation veiled in fog, as the authors suggest that these are mysteries, not to be revealed.

RECOMMENDED

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld #38

Clarkesworld 38, November 2009

Both the offerings this month are science fiction involving the limits of machine intelligence. This zine regularly offers good stuff.

The Mermaids Singing Each to Each by Cat Rambo

Lolo inherited her uncle's boat as a guilt offering. Her uncle raped her when she was a girl, and her relationship now with the Mary Magdalena isn't good. But she needs the money the boat can bring in, as by salvaging from a huge lump of floating trash that her neighbor Jorge Felipe knows about. But the Lump is also coveted by corporate scavengers and surrounded by packs of vicious mermaids, and Jorge Felipe's company isn't so safe, either.

This one is are several different stories grafted together - Lolo's estrangement from her boat, her desexualization, the mystery of the mermaids and Niko's tie to them. It's a bit much, particularly a lot of backstory, to fit into the story space, and a distraction from the main storyline of Lolo and the boat, as well as what I found the most effective aspect of the tale—as an updated version of Hemmingway's fish story.

Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman

The sanibot Charley 83 encounters the corpse of one of the human crew members as he cleans his section of the spaceship. Although at first he does not recognize it as a corpse or even understand what a corpse is. Charley's programmed abilities are limited. He was caught by conflicting priorities. On the one register, he had to clean the stain. On the other, he had to stay out of the way of humans, and his path was obstructed by something that seemed very much like a human. The abilities of all the bots are limited. Charley's supervisor insists that he is malfunctioning, but Charley knows that something is wrong, and it is not himself.

This is an inventive and rather charming variation on the Daniel Keyes classic, with a highly appropriate title. We not only see Charley's analytical abilities evolve, we see him confront a problem that his kind was never designed to address.

RECOMMENDED

Abyss

Abyss & Apex 32, Fourth Quarter 2009

Almost all the pieces are SF in one way or another, and not particularly dark SF, as one often finds at this venue.

Mirror Girl by Paul Carlson

Desdemona Pringle is living the life of an ordinary little girl in a too-ordinary small town, but she is gradually coming to realize that something is wrong, something is not real. On Monday I found a book of Sherlock Holmes stories inside my school desk. There wasn't a name on it, and nobody reported a missing book, so I brought it home. Its stories taught me a lot. I wasn't going cuckoo. Like the man said, if I ruled out the impossible, then I must accept whatever remains, however improbable. She learns that she herself, her parents, her school and the entire town are a computer simulation. What, then, is reality?

Desi's growing skill at spying on her creators has some interest, but the basic story is one that we've all read before.

Lake of Dreams by Christopher Lockhart

It seems that Something Bad once happened on Earth, making the place uninhabitable. The moon is now the human homeworld, and it has developed a totalitarian government that regards all things of Earth as unclean, all thoughts of Earth as subversive. An officious official of this government, Inspector Cavendish, has come to the remote Lazlo mining base to investigate the disappearance of a prominent scientist. Cognitive dissonance ensues, as Cavendish realizes that the denizens of Lazlo have little respect for the bureaucratic procedures that he represents. To them, the missing scientist or any other dead man is of no consequence. My examiner nodded as his unseen colleague trailed off in doctorese. "Yeah, we see this all the time around here," he said. "Machinery gets jammed with raws and idiots ignore standard procedures and take short-cuts, sticking body parts where they don't belong. Use your imagination for the rest of the story. Real cause of death for this individual—stupidity. Case closed.

This one is somewhat unusual in its unsympathetic narrator, but Cavendish provides an effective point of view on both Lazlo and the prevailing ideology of the greater lunar society.

Epitaph in Oak by Craig Watson

There is a war on. It was quieter now. The front had moved on, leaving only the dead and dying in its wake. The staccato symphony of rifle fire and the shouts of men echoed in the distance, but the sounds were soft--carried on a breeze that smelled of burned things. A thin veil of debris and spent black powder hung in the air and carrion birds sailed in low, eager circles. Onto the deserted battlefield come robots, and one of them selects a dying soldier to question about death.

An odd setting. The conflict suggests the US Civil War, the military technology suggests the twentieth century, and the robots imply some undefined future. Nor is it clear why the robots come to the battlefields, which they do of their own will; the robot called Portland can not articulate the reason for its actions. What remains is a scene of two sentient entities contemplating the end of their existence and comforting each other.

Out of the Blue by Lavie Tidhar

A galaxy has exploded; the remnants of it have torn a hole in the continuum of space not too far from Earth's solar system, and something has come through. To the site of this discontinuity have come two groups of Israeli Jews—one that wants to explore the alien phenomenon scientifically, the other that believes it has made a new covenant with God. Old friendships are shattered by this division. Let me tell you something: the discovery of the Blue - the expedition to Alpha Centauri, all the work, the science that let us come here, in ships, in your converted asteroids, all of that - it was done by our side. Not yours. We discovered it, while your side sat in the yeshivas and studied the Torah. And now you dare come out here, to the place that could mean the difference to all of us, and meddle. Who knows what will come out of the Blue? Who knows what already has, and we didn't pick up? Or what had already come out, and was kept away from us?

I don't find this scenario very credible—that two boyhood friends on Earth would both find themselves in such positions, given the profound importance that such a phenomenon would have. This universe is too small, too parochial. Where is the rest of the world? These matters do not seem to be of primary importance in the story, which is leading to the point where readers perceive the depth of the rabbi's sacrifice. Some may find the conclusion heartwarming, others sentimental.

The Wrong Basement by David Sakmyster

The narrator goes to the basement to change a fuse, but there are too many steps in the staircase. This isn't his basement. And when he and his wife start sorting through the stuff stored there in various boxes, he finds an incredible treasure. I was humbly kneeling before Mount Olympus, and yet - it felt like I was among old friends. I recognized every issue from a lifelong fascination with these glorious storybooks; I had studied their covers in price guides and online web sites, and once, at a comic book convention in Denver, I even had the pleasure of holding an AC #27—Lex Luthor's first appearance (although the book was only in fair condition and worth a paltry $1,500). But things are not as simple as they first appear.

A Neat Idea, although I'm not sure how the comics kept from getting moldy down in that old basement.

RECOMMENDED

A Recipe for Broke-Heart Bread by K. Bird Lincoln

Émilie works some juju on her selfish sister Belle. She slices a red line across the pad of her ring finger. It takes just a little squeeze to get two drops of blood to slide into the little pool of olive oil nestled in the mound of flour.

Neat method of revenge.

The Chinese Chef was a Hologram by Max Salnikov

Falco is looking for inspiration, but it can't get through all his nano-enhancements. Jargony.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, November 2009

Most of the offerings this month are science-fictional, but the skiffyness tends to be used less for its own sake than as a device for saying something else.

Nomadology by Chris Nakashima-Brown

Scenes from the revolution, the tension between the attraction of imperialist-generated luxury and revulsion. Most of the references are contemporary, some already dated [the Avenida Ahmad Chalabi]; although some of the phrases are nicely turned, in general the prose is working the shock meter pretty hard. I can't believe you were fucking one of those crazy ass Janjaweed militiamen in my apartment. The guy was wearing a necklace of ears sliced from the heads of junior high school cheerleaders, for Christ's sake!

Not subtle.

True Names by Stephanie Burgis

Carrie is a frontier wife, pregnant and harried by the press of chores, with the menfolk soon to arrive from the fields for a dinner she hasn't even started. When the doorbell rings. It isn't the preacher's wife outside, but a dapper little man with the last of the day's sunlight shining on his slick, copper-colored hair and a fancy leather sales case by his side, made of some kind of mottled snakeskin. Carrie has to summon all her inner strength to deal with the intruder.

A very old tale, with the name trick working backwards.

A Brief Investigation of the Process of Decay by Genevieve Valentine

Terraforming Mars, arriving on weird organic, biodegradable ships. The ships start to decay, balancing on the ten coral legs that hold them off the ground, leaking carbon dioxide and nitrogen and oxygen out of every gnarled bone. Every once in a while the ice falling from the generator glances off one of the ships and picks up some seeds, and the biologists watch a green ice cube bounce into the horizon and cheer. But Mira notices signs that perhaps the dying ships might be sentient.

The real interest here is psychological, not biological, and there is some evidence in the text that this might be meant as an ambiguous narrative, given the stress the colonists are under, and Mira is hallucinating the signs of sentience. I doubt, however, that this is what the author intended. In which case, I lack a lot of sympathy with her sympathy for the ships. "In the midst of life, we are in death"; children are born on Mars who will eventually die there. Would it be better for them never to be born? As it is with humans, so it might be with ships. Also, the absence of scientific rigor weakens the story. Currently, a one-way trip to Mars takes about six to nine months, not years, certainly not a length of time to be spent in stasis; I see no reason it should be different in the world of this story. I assume that the organic ships are meant to be taken literally, as a plausible thing, but with such a gap between the story and reality, I cannot have faith in it.

All the Anne Franks by Erik Hoel

The aliens have shown up. Dan is a member of the first contact team tasked with understanding their transmissions. Except that they don't understand the alien transmissions at all, even when they pretend they do. In the meantime, Dan's relationships with his family are disintegrating, as well as—it seems—his mind and the minds of the rest of the team, either from stress or some indiscernible emanations from the aliens.

This is ambiguous SF, where the main focus is on the dysfunctional relationships and the aliens serve primarily as a metaphor; we know they exist, but little else. It is the knowledge of their presence that changes everything, but we suspect Dan's relationships with his family weren't doing so well to begin with.

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, November 2009

It's interesting to see the variety of fantastic settings presented in this zine, while it assiduously avoids the typical secondary worlds of genre fantasy.

Cesare by Megan Arkenberg

In a city where the ruling Patriarch is chosen by a group of Electors in a ritual rather like the selection of a Pope, one of the Electors intends to leave nothing to chance. Cesare has murdered her way to her position, murdered the last Patriarch, and now is intent on seizing the power that obsesses her. Everyone knows her ambition, no one is strong enough to try to stop her, except perhaps one man, an old companion from the wars.

An unsettling portrait of a monster. Cesare's name invokes the infamous Borgia. This is not a realistic political work; it seems beside the point to speculate about the course of events following the conclusion. I don't find it realistic in a psychological sense, either. Cesare almost seems to be inviting people to stop her, to kill her, knowing they cannot. But as a metaphor for relentless ambition, her tale is powerful. The prose has some nice moments: A layer of morning snow covers the paving stones, sinks into the mortared cracks, clings in soft clumps to the brown statues and the slender obelisk of the Patriarchs. Cesare is an ashy smudge against the whiteness; the purple sash of the Electors makes her body definite, anchors it in a city that would otherwise belong to ghosts. But this passage did not give me the impression that Cesare was wearing black, as the author later stated.

The Confessions of Prince Charming by Kelly Barnhill

It's not all Happily Ever After. The many downsides of the prince business. If I wasn't such a sap, I wouldn't be sent on these damn errands, but some mother is sobbing for some lost daughter and a father gritting his teeth and saying "half my kingdom" and the mama saying "please" through tears and snot, and I want to say "yeah sure, lady, everybody's missing someone", but instead I gallop away because they expect it, and let the rain worm its way into my boots.

Fun fairytale mashup.

My Best Friend's Girl by Ari Goelman

A dialogue. Before the narrator's best friend John committed suicide, he revealed that he had summoned a succubus, who would soon kill him. Of course John wasn't quite right in the head. After John's death, the narrator summons the succubus to get answers. Or so he claims. . She had killed my oldest friend. Someone had to try. But it wasn't like I thought it was going to work. It was just a whim. Now, after their affair has run its course, the narrators seems to be in arbitration about enforcement of his contract with the succubus.

This is an ambiguous fantasy in which there is no real evidence that the narrator's girlfriend is actually a succubus, let alone the same succubus who killed his friend, if there was any such succubus. It is essentially a deal-with-the-devil story, but whatever the deal might have been is not quite clear. If there was any deal at all.

Medusa Complex by Christie Skipper Ritchotte

Mythology is destiny. Susanna's mother has died, and her medusa heritage is now claiming her. Your mother wanted to tell you this would happen. She often began to speak, but her words shriveled and turned to dust before they left her mouth. She realized her words would be not for your benefit, but for hers, and so she remained silent. She let you think ugly thoughts and assume the worst.

Taking the mother-daughter dysfunctional relationship to a different place. This piece is told, not in Susanna's point of view, but to her, by the spirits of the snakes coming to birth in her scalp. A Neat Idea, and I like the way the author crosses mythologies to call these "naga."

Into the Monsoon by A.M. Muffaz

Song's mother wants her to go with her father to Bangkok, to keep him from straying. She does this. She goes shopping with her father. He looks for pajamas and buys pants. She experiences snubs from the Thais—she is from Malaysia, different. She either comes back home or she is still there. She buys bread and walks back in the monsoon rain, falling into a drain or suffering some other watery accident.

This is an unclear story. The sequence of events is unclear. There seems to be no point to them; although the presence of an addict, sitting like a beggar, is a significance-marker, it is unclear what significance this might be. It is also unclear how Song knows she is an addict. There also seems to be no fantastic element. The author's prose strains too hard for effect: The sky was a punishing cloud, moving over the city like steel wool. It crushed the smog into the streets and the grime into her skin, and hurried the crowd to seek cover. They pushed past her as she stood on the bridge overlooking rush hour beneath the station. . The setting is crammed full of details, minutely observed, but it is like a series of street scene photographs, brightly colored but telling no story.

Reading by Numbers by Aidan Doyle

Cultural dissonance. Michael Walker is a student of mathematics studying in a virtual "number garden" in Japan, where he meets his wife. At first, their union seems destined.18 - "Look at our numbers!!! We have to be friends. It's fate!!!"

19 - That was how I met

20 - your mother.

21 - It took me a moment to grasp the significance of what she was saying. 220 and 284 are the smallest pair of amicable numbers. The sum of the proper divisors of 220 (1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55, 110) is 284. The sum of the proper divisors of 284 (1, 2, 4, 71, 142) is 220. The numbers are bound together.
But even numbers have different significance in different cultures.

While this one strongly reminds me of C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, the narrative is original, fresh and engaging.

RECOMMENDED

Apex

Apex Magazine, November 2009

A special World SF issue of this zine, guest-edited by the prolific and ubiquitous Lavie Tidhar as a companion to the Apex Book of World SF anthology.

After the Fire by Aliette de Bodard

The alchemists of the Chinese Empire have managed to burn up the Earth, but a few of them have managed to escape into space. In hibernation, Jiaotan dreams, unable to escape the holocaust. The trees were shining masses coated with the melted metal of skyscrapers, the mountains sterile rocks with the corpses of acid-eaten forests; underfoot were ashes—and bones, crackling like corn in the frying pan, their pale fragments billowing in the air, small and sharp. Her sister Sukuang suffers from the same dreams and the impulse to kill herself in atonement, but unlike Jiaotan, Sukuang is an engineer, essential to the ship all their lives depend on. Jiaotan must keep her alive.

The dream scenes of destruction are harrowing, more convincing than the rest of the scenario.

Benjamin Schneider's Little Greys by Nir Yanov

Benjamin Schneider is a lifelong hypochondriac whose imagined diseases somehow turn out to be real. Now he is coming to Dr. Katz with complaints of strange grey circles on various parts of his body. Katz is driven to discover what they could be. If the coils in his arm seemed like foreign bodies that had entered by mistake into the field of vision of the X-ray camera, then the circles in his eyes seemed like foreign bodies that had entered by mistake into the field of vision of reality.

An interesting situation, an improbable conclusion.

An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on My Mind by Alexsandar Ziljak

Cyberpunk. The narrator is a nano voyeur/pornographer, stealing the most intimate moments of peoples' lives to put them up for public sale. He stumbles by accident one day upon Lydia, galactic sex goddess, fully aware that anyone with her connections will have powerful protectors. His partner, however, lacks this crucial awareness. I look [in the news] for murdered and killed. Several in the last twenty-four hours, but Piko's name is not amongst them. One is unidentified; the cops give his picture. The face is not in the best shape, but it's not Piko. That means they already disassembled his corpse into molecules. And the narrator knows he is their next target.

The narrator describes his business in such detail that we know him as a sleaze who probably deserves the fate that is pursuing him so relentlessly. Without the distraction of pity or sympathy, we can watch his flight with dispassionate interest.

RECOMMENDED

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, November 2009

Another monotonous month of first-person narrators. A little variety might be nice.

The Woman and the Mountain by Sarah L. Edwards

Long ago, the people came to the mountain because it told the truth. But they did not want to hear ill-omened truths, so they stopped coming. The ominous future the mountain had foreseen came regardless, marauders came, and now at last one woman returns to ask again. "Among my people they tell stories of the Great One of the Mountain," she said, each word spoken firmly and with care. "They say wise men came to you to learn your wisdom, that you—" A pause. "They say you speak truth."

There are two stories here. One is the story of the drawbacks of looking into the future, for this is what is meant here by truth. The other is the story of the man buried in the mountain and his loneliness, and this story is only partly told, in a way that leaves me unsatisfied—not with the future, but with the unrevealed past.

The Silver Khan by Steven Case

The narrator is a spy, sent to discover the secrets of the Silver Khan and whether he poses a threat to neighboring nations. The Khan's palace rises from the ground and floats above its gardens during the day. When the sun began to set in the west, one could hear the chink-chink of the great chain being wound as the palace settled slowly back toward the ground. By sunset it would once again touch its foundation stones, and throughout the evening that followed the groan of granite settling and cooling would echo up and down the corridors of the palace. Then the gates would be opened and the court would flood out into the gardens. In the gardens there are hundreds of statues, larger than life, that seem to be very slowly alive. This is a mystery that the narrator is driven to solve, with drastic consequences.

The center of this tale is the palace and its wonders. It is a fantastic, fairytale, otherworldly place, and even if its magic is based on natural principles, it remains in the realm of the incredible.

The Manufactory by Dru Pagliossotti

Alternate historical science fiction. Shortly after the British Anatomy Act of 1832, someone discovers a way to drain a body of its "vitae," which seems to confer a sort of immortality on those who can afford it. This leads to hard times for the narrator, a professional grave robber who used to make the Big Guineas selling fresh corpses to the medical schools for dissection. While we scrabble in the dirt in the middle of the night, the factorymen simply bribe mortuary workers and deacons to look the other way, snatching fresh corpses out of their coffins in broad daylight and stowing twitchers in their place. The twitchers get buried, the fresh corpses take their place on the manufactories' inventory lists, and nobody finds out that vitae harvesting isn't always... clean.

This piece could have been a powerful metaphor for the era of Dark Satanic Mills, but the author's bland, generic language fails to conjure his setting to life. Time, place and the narrator's class are not effectively evoked.

The Book Thief by Jennifer Greylyn

A Cautionary Tale. The narrator is a youngish student who fails to recognize when an offer is too good to be true. An innkeeper offers him a dead man's rooms with all their contents if he will just arrange for the funeral. As the contents include a large number of books, he takes the deal. But of course there is a catch. The last thing I remember is opening the book.

You would think I'd remember more than that. The first line. The first word even. But it isn't that kind of book. You don't notice what it says. Only that it pulls you in and takes you away from yourself. Like a dream you can't resist. A dream you can't quite wake up from.

The author provides enough fresh and original detail to keep her setting from being entirely generic, although her narrator tends to over-explain.

Tor

Tor.com, November 2009

I don't think I have yet mastered the navigation of this site.

A Memory of Wind by Rachel Swirsky

Trojan War. Iphigenia is the narrator, addressing her father Agamemnon, who sacrifices her to bring the wind, while looking back at the tangled relationships in their famously dysfunctional family. It begins on a very strong note: I began turning into wind the moment that you promised me to Artemis. Before I woke, I lost the flavor of rancid oil and the shade of green that flushes new leaves. They slipped from me, and became gentle breezes that would later weave themselves into the strength of my gale.

Swirsky makes excellent use of the material, crafting an original and moving version of Iphigenia's story. Maybe it's the seventeen screens I had to click through to read the entire text, but I did find it dragging and redundant in some places where the interest turned away from the main character.


Copyright © 2009, Lois Tilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Lois Tilton

In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. She is now reviewing the fiction of others.

COMMENTS!

Dec 11, 05:55 by IROSF
Please comment!
Dec 11, 18:12 by Richard Lovett
Interesting comments on "Neptune's Treasure," Lois.

FYI, I was a travel writer (among many other things) before starting to sell fiction. I often draw on that.

I liked your summary of the characters, too. You've inspired me to get cracking on part IV, which stalled when I started needing to pay the rent with nonfiction writing.
Dec 31, 17:56 by Richard Horton
Hi, Lois.

It's refreshing when we agree, stimulating when we don't -- this time I find myself largely in agreement: about the Stratmann stories, the Tem story, the Ziljak story, Rusch's piece ...

My reading of Shoulders's piece ("Conditional Love") is that Grace made a horribly wrong decision, by the way.

And the Flynn story is a sequel to his (pretty good) novel THE JANUARY DANCER. I suspect another novel is forthcoming -- whether this story is part of it or not I don't know.
Dec 31, 22:58 by Lois Tilton
That is also my own reading of the Shoulders piece, but I am not entirely convinced that the author didn't intend it to be ambiguous.


I'll have my Years Best list in the January issue.
Jan 2, 02:26 by Lois Tilton
btw - I see that the Asimov's online forum has a discussion of this story.

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