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Publisher: Bluejack

January, 2010 : Review:

Short Fiction, January 2010

Tis the season for annual awards and Year's Best lists. Here for your seasonal joy is the list of my own favorite stories from 2009.

Science Fiction

  • The Wind Blowing, and this Tide by Damien Broderick (Asimov's April/May)
  • Erosion by Ian Creasy (Asimov's October/November)
  • The Jisei of Mark VIII by Berrien C Henderson (Clarkesworld February)
  • The Motorman's Coat by John Kessel (F&SF June/July)
  • Her Voice in a Bottle by Tim Pratt (Subterranean Winter)
  • The Death of Che Guevara by Lewis Shiner (Subterranean Fall)
  • Black Swan by Bruce Sterling (Interzone 221 April)
  • The Dying World by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld April)
  • The Radiant Car Thy Sparrow Drew by Catherynn M Valente (Clarkesworld August)
  • Riders of the Three-Toed Horse by Garrett W Vance (Jim Baen's Universe February)

Fantasy

  • To Kiss the Granite Choir by Michael Anthony Ashley (Beneath Ceaseless Skies October)
  • Early Winter, Near Jenli Village by J Kathleen Cheney (Fantasy Magazine)
  • Three Fancies from the Infernal Garden by C.S.E. Cooney (Subterranean)
  • Lady of the White-Spired City by Sarah L. Edwards (Interzone #222)
  • In the Lot and in the Air by Lisa Hannett (Clarkesworld July)
  • Clockatrice by Tanith Lee (Fantasy Magazine October)
  • The Bones of Giants by Yoon Ha Lee (F&SF) August/September
  • The Spiral Briar by Sean McMullen (F&SF April/May)
  • Mansion of Bones by Richard Parks (Beneath Ceaseless Skies June)
  • The City Quiet as Death by Steven Utley & Michael Bishop (Tor.com)

The sharp-eyed amongst the readers may note that my list differs significantly from a lot of the other YB lists appearing these days in the SFnal world. One reason, of course, is that every judge will have different tastes in fiction. But I must also note that my beat here is the periodicals. I don't review anthologies, and therefore publishers, sensibly, don't send them to me. Other listmakers that I have seen are making almost half their TB selections from the year's anthologies that I have neither seen nor read.

And now on to the current year:

Zines Reviewed

Talebones

Talebones #39

Talebones, Winter, 2009

The last issue of this little zine, closing down after fourteen years. It feels to me like the passing of an era. The small press, these days, is turning electronic. One door closes, another opens. Readers should recognize the names that fill front and back covers. A lot of our genre's people have passed through these pages.

The stories in this issue are all quite short and fit into the zine's mission of presenting both Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy, though the fantasy predominates.

The Book of Daniel by Carrie Vaughn

Biblical variation. Daniel has a secret curse, but he discovers that God had his reasons for inflicting it on him. A neat alternative to the biblical version, although no less pious.

Legends of the Gone by Cat Rambo

Post-holocaust. After a sort of negative Rapture, the few humans left on Earth can no longer have children. They survive, each in their own way addressing the question whether this life is worth living. The narrator "planned the fish pens, and the windmill turbine, after spending days at the library and then Home Depot. It was tiring. Was there a point to it?" The answer is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Snow-White Heart by Marie Brennan

The Snow White story as horror.

Three Chords and the Truth by John A Pitts

A love story. Ethan is a student who makes some money as a busker, playing his grandfather's guitar around the Pike Place market. He's good at this, but it is in part because he is possessed by a kind of spirit of inspiration that won't be denied, the truth revealed in song. However, Ethan can't see the truth about himself. It's a little bit hard to believe he could have been quite so oblivious unless he were under the influence of some spell, but apparently not.

Safe, Child, Safe by Aliette de Bodard

Part of the author's series featuring Acatl, an Aztec priest of the dead. In this one, a father brings a sick child tainted with the aura of the underworld. Acatl suspects a curse but finds a crime.

Death was cheap, and caught us all, often giving little warning as to its coming. But this–the purplish, clenched lips, the pale face, the shaking fingers–this wasn't a death I'd have wished on anyone, much less a child.

Typical of this series, which I tend to like because the protagonist and the author accept the limitations of Acatl's power.

Fiddler by Jason D. Wittman

Angelica is a Fiddler, "hers a special instrument, carved from the wood of coffins." Her task is to summon those who bring death to the dying, but powerful figures try to bribe her to use her powers to eliminate their enemies. Not a good idea. A fitting, if extreme, conclusion.

Somebody Else by Patricia Russo

Joan is trying to evade Ivy, the office pest, who insists she saw Joan on the street, with the quick things. Until Joan sees the quick things, too.

She had to stop and hold her breath, terrified that some of the hopping, soaring, shooting, sharp-angled creatures would fly into her mouth, stab into her lungs, pierce tissue fill up her body with lines and angles, until a million broken projectiles perforated her from the inside out.

A moral lesson about humanity and kindness. The quick things are intriguing, whatever they are.

Funeral Party by Don D'ammassa

Space opera humor. The narrator is talked into transporting the body of a religious cult leader to be immolated in the planet's sun. Complications ensue as expected.

Bone Dice by Keffy R.M. Kehrli

It seems that the gods were so busy for several centuries throwing the bone dice that they failed to notice a new goddess setting up shop. There was once a city where the acid sea now lies, hewn from the rock itself. The sweat of our ancestors ran like rivers to build it, a city commissioned for the goddess who rose during the game of bone dice. Now the narrator and his [her?] brother are fleeing across the acid sea in hopes of catching a ship that will take them offworld to avoid some sort of retribution.

I really like the image of the acid sea, but a lot is obscure; it's not clear how the gods came to be replaced with offworld governors.

F&SF

F&SF, Jan-Feb '09

F&SF, January-February 2010

This issue is anchored by a major novella by Paul Park.

Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park

A metafictional memoir. The author/narrator is looking through some of the papers and artifacts left by his ancestors and discovers that several of these otherwise unrelated persons have had the same unusual dream, in which they take part in a recurring supernatural battle against forces of evil led by a horned woman riding a horned beast; there seems to be some extraterrestrial involvement, a sort of flying saucer. It is possible that these individuals were all born in a caul, as the narrator was, and which his grandfather regarded as significant. The more he learns, the more he is driven to discover more, to understand the secret.

Yet, as the narrator, he warns the readers about the unreliable nature of narrative and of memory.

It occurs to me that every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down, of organizing something in a line of words, involves a clear betrayal of the truth. Without alternatives we resort to telling stories, coherent narratives involving chains of circumstance, causes and effects, climactic moments, introductions and denouements. We can't help it.

As a narrator, then, we know he will be unreliable. We are given alternative accounts of the same events, and he tells us that some are fabrications, events as they might have been, or as he wishes they were. By the time we reach the end, we know we will never know the degree of reality of what we are told.

This is a dense work, full of fascinating stuff, much of which may seem to have no clear connection to the core of the story. It is not an easy read. The printed text is dense on the page, and there are texts embedded in texts, some in archaic or semi-literate prose. There are metafictional discussions about the nature of metafictional narratives. If we did not know the author, we might suspect at first that it is a literary work in which the hints of the supernatural will turn out to be some psychological aberration–particularly as the narrator is described as an academic, always a suspicious sign. But as the story gradually emerges from the mass of detail, we notice more and more that the setting is not the world we live in but some future/alternative in which things have gone very wrong. Or perhaps it is the telling of these events, or our growing understanding of them, that is creating the dystopian horror being revealed.

Recommended

The Long Retreat by Robert Reed

The beach is white sand and fine black mud, but the blood is what catches the eye—red and clotted, the largest splotches connected to severed limbs and the soggy, deflated remains of other men's vitals. Immune to the carnage, our Emperor walks slowly down to the water and half-falls, half-sits, and then slumps forward, fighting to catch His breath.

So begins this tale of imperial authority, as the beaten remnants of the Emperor's court come to ground on the shore of a large lake, cut off from any other avenue of escape. Yet the generals refuse to acknowledge the possibility of defeat, refuse even to admit that they are in retreat. The empire is too vast to be defeated; it will swallow its enemies. For now, their task is to preserve the Emperor.

A tale of the power of belief, of the sources of political power and its drawbacks. It is possible that some readers may see this as a Cautionary Tale.

Recommended

Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf

Much has changed in the solar system–only a million humans survive, all on miniworlds in the orbit that used to belong to Mars, while the Minds now occupy the former orbit of Earth. Many humans hate and resent the Minds and dream of destroying them and restoring human autonomy; this is the subject of much popular fiction, such as the young narrator enjoys and wants to emulate. He has now traveled to a workshop run by his favorite author.

And now I was seated, and they were seated, ready to begin. I thought of myself, back at home, sitting in the community library, working an hour here, an hour there, certain I was creating something absolutely new, and soon there would be ten readers testing it out.

For the most part, this seems to be fiction about and for wannabe writers–not a subject I consider interesting. It does, however, finally transcend this limited point of view to speculate about a world in which people no longer write about a future, or dream of different futures. Except that the author undermines this by naming one of his worlds Haynlayn.

Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock

Graeber is head of research for a greedy pharmaceutical company, the kind of guy who hires cheap foreign labor for his lab and sends his illegal housemaid back to Mexico when she gets pregnant. His current project is nanomeds, and initial results are so very promising that he has himself injected with them. But there are, of course, side effects.

There is little surprise or satisfaction when Graeber meets his karma, because the author has set up the character with no redeeming human characteristics. The offensive clichéd foreign accents of some other characters don't make this one more palatable.

City of the Dog by John Langan

Horror. The narrator and his girlfriend are on the way to a club when he spots what he believes to be an injured dog. He stops to see if he can help. Big as the dog was, it didn't seem especially menacing. It was an assemblage of bones over which a deficit of skin had been stretched, so that I could distinguish each of the oddly shaped vertebrae that formed the arch of its spine. Its fur was pale, patchy; as far as I could see, its tail was gone. But the dog attacks, and when he gets away from it, Kaitlin is gone. He searches for her until he is finally so desperate he goes for help to Chris, the man she has betrayed him with.

The ghûls are convincingly done, but the narrator doesn't really know the entire story of their relationship with Chris and Kaitlin. I find it hard to credit that Chris, knowing what he does, would have remained in the apartment with the sinister tunnel in the basement.

Bait by Robin Aurelian

Sibling rivalry in an unpleasant fantasy world.

Navin hated the twice-a-year family hunting trips, and always tried to get out of them. Spike adored and excelled at hunting and fishing. She'd bagged three outlaws, an adolescent river dragon, and an angel last summer, which had kept the housetrolls and brownies and gnomes happily fed for months.

This is a delightfully nasty fantasy in all senses, including the revenge fantasy. Anyone who ever had a bullying sibling will appreciate.

Songwood by Marc Laidlaw

Series installment. Spar the gargoyle stows away on a ship to escape his enemies and falls in love with the ship's carved figurehead. This one is only tenuously connected to the rest of the series and would stand perfectly well on its own.

The Secret Life of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes

The usual sort of variations on the classics.

The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm

Christy is trapped in her aging parents' cold house with her raging, crippled father and her abused mother. She longs to escape, and at night she hears the impossible sound of a train whistle.

It sounded closer, almost at the end of the driveway. It was fifteen degrees. I read at one time or another that freezing to death isn't very painful after the first minute or two. It is said that people begin to feel comfortable and simply go to sleep.

The train, of course, is not an earthly one. There is a strong sense of oppression here, the palpable presence of a mind turned insane with hate for the world and everyone in it.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy, Feb '10

Realms of Fantasy, February, 2010

Three noteworthy things about this issue: The cover features Harlan Ellison's name and there is actually a piece of new fiction by Ellison within. Most of the stories are not written in the first-person, which I have recently found tiresomely ubiquitous. And it is a Very Bad Idea to use a yellow typeface on white paper.

How Interesting: a Tiny Man by Harlan Ellison®

The narrator has created a tiny man. It was very hard work. It took me a long time. But I did it, finally: he was five inches tall. Tiny; he was very tiny. And creating him, the creating of him, it seemed an awfully good idea at the time. Which means, of course, that it did not seem such a good idea at some subsequent time. There are two alternative endings.

This is a very short piece of fabulism, strongly metaphorical, condemning the religiously-driven climate of intolerance that has so long existed in this country. It should not escape readers who it is who creates a man.

Recommended

Mister Oak by Leah Bobet

The oak tree has fallen in love with the girl in the picture window. She came to him one day for comfort after a fight with her boyfriend. Oh, she'd said again, laying her cheek against his bark, if only I had a man that was steady as you. The oak tries his best to be what she wants, but some loves just aren't destined to work out. A fanciful fable.

The Demon of Hochgarten by Euan Harvey

Stefan Von Stawy belongs to a religious order of knighthood dedicated to fighting sorcery. He is also a werewolf, which is an advantage in his work, although it seems to be an impediment to his happiness. Stefan considers duty more important than happiness. Sorcery has killed the Baroness Von Liffen, and it is his duty to find who has summoned the demon that shed her blood.

Nice detective story in a medievaloid setting. I'm not aware of this one being part of a series, but Stefan is just the sort of character upon which such a series could be based.

Mélanie by Aliette de Bodard

An unusually different university, where the learning that the students absorb becomes a luminous bodily display.

Numbers whirl beneath his white skin–numbers and equations, endlessly broken up, endlessly merging, a sight that makes Erwan's eyes ache.

The entrance exams are in three weeks, but Erwan is finding it hard to keep his attention from Mélanie, whose boyfriend Bertrand guards her jealously.

The secret of Mélanie is a commonplace of fantasy; I am greatly more intrigued by the way the students glow with their learning, and how they can lose it. A Neat Idea.

The Unknown God by Ann Leckie

Aworo is the god of the plains, the god of horses, but he is presently incarnated in a human form. As a human, he fell in love with Saest, a priestess of the river Nalendar, who turned down his proposal of marriage; Awaro cursed her, which he now regrets. He has come to Kalub in search of enlightenment, but he discovers there that Saest is not dead, which changes his plans. Aworo finds enlightenment, but it's not the sort he had been looking for.

"I think it suits you to have Saest trapped on that island. When she can go where she wants, she won't go where you want her to."

I like this fresh look at gods and their business with mortals.

Subterranean

Subterranean, Fall '09

Subterranean Magazine, Fall, 2009

This site offers good fiction, some of it longer than the usual fare at the usual webzines–a Good Thing. But since it is posted piecemeal, I tend to miss the moment when an "issue" is complete.

Chain of Stars by Jay Lake

Set in the fascinating world of the author's Mainspring novels. Zarai's lover Mannix had a dream: What do those who dwell among the stars see when they look down upon us here atop the Wall? Are we as deceived by our lives as those below us are by theirs? I would like to climb to the greatest heights, and see what my own existence signifies when viewed from such a distance. But he didn't want to share the dream and deserted her. Now Zarai has made the dream her own, along with the small band of people who have come to share the work with her, until they have built a functioning air/aether/spaceship.

This is by no means the first piece of steampunk fiction where the characters build some sort of flying machine. The unique factor here is the setting, in which the Earth revolves on its axle [yes, axle] by means of a vast system of brass gears. Although there are plenty of steamtechy details for those who enjoy them, the story is Zarai's growing leadership. I didn't quite care for the fact that one less-deserving character got to enjoy the fruits of other people's work.

Five Dispatches from the Third Word War by David Prill

After the weaponization of words. The war isn't going well. They are running out of words, but the enemy doesn't seem to have a shortage.

The word, a pronoun from the looks of the blast signature, had hit close to the Ministry Blocks. A large crater was visible in the middle of the street outside the blocks. The main language barrier was almost totally demolished.

Communication has been reduced to pantomime, from which these dispatches have been translated.

This one is all Neat Idea. The idea is clever, and cleverly done, but the story element is nominal.

Family Affair: A Smokey Dalton Story by Kris Nelscott

Detective fiction, part of a series of novels by this author, a pseudonym of Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Smokey tracks down a missing battered woman and her daughter. The setting doesn't seem to be contemporary–perhaps a couple of decades ago, rather than some alternate history. I see no SFnal elements.

The Belated Burial by Caitlín R Kiernan

Vampires. Brylee's vampire lover/mistress insists on giving her a funeral and burial. She will be interned in the coffin, in the grave, for a day and a night. She waits.

Brylee laughs very softly, for no ears but her own, and then she whispers, more quietly still, "Out—out are the lights—out all! And over each quivering form, the curtain, a funeral pall, comes down with the rush of a storm…" But she trails off, leaving the stanza unfinished. It would be a grand joke, if uttered by Miss Josephine, or Signior Garzarek, but from Brylee's lips, in this box and in this hole, the words tumble senselessly back upon themselves.

This is nicely and simply done, so that it didn't set off my romantic-vampire gag reflex.

The Death of Che Guevara by Lewis Shiner

Alternate history in the form of an interview. In 1967, Guevara makes an alliance with Peron to take over Argentina. His longtime associate relates what happened next, and the events that led to his death.

He did everything with intensity. He was like a crazy man in combat, but when he listened to you he was quiet and looked in your face and he was entirely yours. This was very attractive, to men and women alike. Those who were close to him were passionate about him.

It is an unfortunate fact of SF publishing that it has let its best slip away, out of the genre. No greater praise can be given to Subterranean Press that it is bringing Shiner's work back into print, and this story illustrates why this is so. The interview form, the voice of the narrator, ring perfectly true. Here is alternate history as it ought to be done.

Highly Recommended

Troublesolving by Tim Pratt

The narrator–this one has a name, Stephen–is separated from his wife and suffering a run of really bad luck when a strange woman hands him her card: Cameron Cassavetes, Freelance Troublesolver. She tells him that he is being stalked from the future.

"Lock your doors. And if they broke the locks, block them with a bureau or something. Don't trust anyone, Stephen. It's in your own best interests to become a nutball conspiracy theorist. See you tomorrow. Nine a.m. You won't be late." She hung up, apparently not big on the rituals of hellos and goodbyes.

Pretty neat time travel stuff.

Baen's Universe

Baen's Universe, Dec '09

Jim Baen's Universe, December 2009

A novella by John Barnes stars in this issue.

Things Undone by John Barnes

Alternate history/time travel. It seems that back in 1403 Francis Tyrwhitt discovered indexical derivability and changed the world; among other alterations, it made time travel possible. Indexical derivability made all things inevitable. Once you had its fourteen definitions, seven axioms, and forty-one basic theorems, from then on if you could describe what you wanted to do, it was just a matter of doing the steps, deriving the equations (or proving that no equations could be derived, which was equivalent to absolute impossibility), and then solving them. Solving them was a bastard, of course. Newton worked all his life, without success, to unify relativity and quantum. Now, in the 21st century, Rastigevat and Horejsi work for a government agency dedicated to undoing temporal instabilities caused by rogue time travelers. Their current assignment is to locate the "ballast" used by one time traveler; this is something, often a person, sent forward to the traveler's time of origin at the same time as the traveler goes back. They were selected for their job because of their unusual ability to recall events and circumstances that existed before some temporal alteration. It soon becomes clear that the current incident is nothing routine.

Much of the length of this work is taken up by detailed explanations, as above. More, perhaps, than is necessary. But this time, at least, the author has the excellent excuse that, whoever the narrator's audience, they will have no recollection of the details of what he is explaining. And it is also true that the first pages, before the explanations begin, can be a bit confusing. In addition to the physics and math neep, there are the details of a rather distasteful society based on fixed and segregated classes, including slavery. This gives the setting a strong sense of strangeness, of difference that gradually builds. The entire setup is quite interesting, though I don't credit that a government so intrusive that it would monitor the smiles between members of classes would somehow let this particular ballast run loose for nine months before calling in agents to intercept him.

Recommended

Life with the Tumblers by Mary E Lowd

Arlene is taking her son Kyan along on a six-month research trip to live with a species of sentient plants. All goes well until her husband shows up with his sisters and their unruly offspring. All goes well anyway, because this is that sort of feelgood story.

Corpse Vision by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Horror. OK, Dark Fantasy. Joe Decker is an American hack writer in Paris in the 1920s when he encounters an old man who knows about the visions he has seen in the streets: soldiers marching, students protesting, and one persistent vision of a dead woman by the banks of the river. Corpse vision, the old man calls it. The old man knows all about Joe, he has been waiting for him. He needs his vision.

The woman discarded at the foot of the bridge looked uncomfortably young. Her brown hair was falling out of Gibson Girl do, now horribly out of fashion, her lips painted a vivid red. Part of the lip rouge stained her front teeth. If she were alive, she would turn away from him, and surreptitiously rub at that stain with her index finger.

Well-done setting, the place and time evoked, with Know-it-all Hemmingway at his table in the Café du Dôme.

Recommended

The Blimp and Sixpence by Mike Resnick

The Harry the Book series, a bookie in a world of magics, in which the stories tend to follow the same pattern. Harry, again, smells a rat. "Something is five thousand misses here," I correct him. "Short Odds McDougal has never bet a longer price than eight-to-five in all the years I have known him, and suddenly he lays five large on the longest shot of the day." I pause dramatically. "I get the distinct feeling that the hex is in." Fortunately for Harry, it is Christmas Eve.

The humor here is on the broad side, and there is a moment on the gross side, as well.

Round Trip Coach by R.J. Ortega

Deal-with-the Devil story. Specifically the devil's coachman. Seamus O'Malley makes the most of his one-night furlough from Hell. Somewhat amusing sequel to the previous tale of the haunted O'Malley riverboat that caters to the occult.

Salvaging Scottwell by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Max is an obsolete and broken-down robot cop dog in charge of a poor neighborhood. When a murder takes place, Max takes it more seriously than the human cops.

"We will catch the murderer," Max repeated. "All murderers are punished. It makes no difference how wealthy or powerful they are."

The author has managed to create a sympathetic, believably robotic character in Max.

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, December, 2009

This zine seems to have recovered from the previous month's abundance of stories.

The Chrysanthemum Bride by Angela Slatter

The Wu family is descended from a warlord's concubine, long ago cast out of the house by his wife when the master died. But Wei-Ju has inherited her grandmother's looks as well as a few of her ornaments. All the hopes of her family rest on her beauty and her tiny bound feet. This is their fervent hope in all the years of lack, all the years when the groans of their stomachs compete for attention, trying to out-do each other: My hunger is greater! No, mine! Oh, be silent. Mei-Ju thinks only of leaving the hovel, not of what her elevation will mean to her family. She believes that when she at last leaves, she will not look back. But readers are aware, when good fortune does come, that it is not what she has dreamed of. The author has also given us the point of view of those preparing the bridal bed for her.

I have liked this author's previous tragic tale in a Chinese setting. This one is also a sad tale of a girl-child's fate.

Recommended

The Raccoon's Daughter by Nicole Kornher-Stace

The narrator is on a tour bus, journeying through the country where her mother was once part of the revolution, where her father, allegedly, was the revolution's leader. It is a surreal journey, in which people appear and disappear from the bus with strange and mythic stories to tell. The revolution has its own myths: To your right you'll see the schoolyard where the army once hanged fifty captive revolutionaries, strung them up on a swing-set one by one, with neither the mercies of a long drop nor a hood, in front of the assembled villages, which to their dismay did not quite crush the spirits of the people.

The narrator may be searching for her parents, or for the truth.

This is a political work, a work attempting to evoke the spirit of revolution, the spirit of resistance against oppression. But it is not a realistic work; it is the spirit, not the letter of the revolution that we see here—‌the myths, not the history. It is the myths that inspire.

The Tongue of Bees by Claire Humphery

Raymond, a decadent and effete young man who likes to read the poems of Wilde and Baudelaire, is experimenting with drugs in an attempt to fly, according to a recipe from an old grimoire involving belladonna and laudanum. Naturally, he tries to conceal his activities from Mummy, who loves him so much she doesn't send him away to school.

She lays his head down gently and tucks the blanket tight about him. "I shall scold you properly when you are better, for lying out here under the trees all day and putting yourself in such a case. Raymond, Raymond, will you speak to me again?"

Although the setting is said to be New York, the narrative voice is that of England in the very early 20th century. Raymond asks Mummy for another spoonful of laudanum just like Teddy, in the nursery, begs for marmalade. It's all as icky as can be, but Mummy surprises the reader in the end just as much as she surprises Raymond. No real fantastic element aside from Raymond's drugged hallucinations.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, December, 2009

A shortened month for this zine.

Tyrannia by Alan DeNiro

In an empire unidentified, a man, an insurgent, is tortured and killed, after which his body is dumped in a valley with the corpses of others believed to be insurgents. Birds and other creatures settle on his body, and nature takes its course. The birds use his breakages as terrain. His belly button has widened to a glade, with bamboo shoots along the water's edge sprouting upward from the intestines. The beetles ferment the organs. But there is more than nature at work.

A poetic, subtle fantasy.

Recommended

Beautiful White Bodies by Alice Sola Kim

Justine has lost her job and moved back in with her parents, taking a dead-end job in the coffee house. She befriends a high school girl, Pearl. But something is happening to the girls at the high school; they are all becoming impossibly, weirdly beautiful. She could be mistaken; the girls in the video all looked alike. All of them distinctly uncanny, with airbrushed skin and features with sizes and shapes that fell just a bit beyond the human norm. No one looked like that, except for video game characters. Pearl is depressed because she hasn't changed, even when it becomes clear that the beauty is a symptom of an unknown fatal disease. It doesn't matter.

A metaphor about the cost of beauty, the artificiality of it. Justine provides a valuable point of view: at twenty-seven, she is too old to catch the disease and too old to want to.

A Rose is Rose by Georgina Bruce

Sarah is an illustrator working on a book written by her sometimes lover Ravi, in which a painter named Sashi is adorning the king, his bride and his elephants for his wedding. Fiction and reality–or rather one fiction and the other–bleed into each other. The characters become each other; Sarah is Sashi.

Speaking to Ravi makes me nervous. The book makes me nervous. Ravi tells me I paint the pictures he sees in his mind when he writes, and that, too, makes me nervous. I don't think he knows how much it troubles me.

This is essentially metafiction, with the fantastic elements more metaphorical than literal. The title comes from the story's epigraph, a poem suggesting that a thing is identical to its parts, which doesn't quite seem to fit the story at hand, unless I'm missing something.

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld #39

Clarkesworld#39, December 2009

In compiling my 2009 Year's Best list, I found that more of my picks came from this source than any other.

Night, in Dark Perfection by Richard Parks

In the domain of the Faerie Queen it was always night, and the sky as seen from her Palace was always cold, black and full of stars, and she was always heartbreakingly beautiful. She would have it no other way.

But something is missing. The moon. And more. Something is wrong.

A sciencefictional reality overtakes a fantasy unreality. Beautiful title.

The Grandmother-Granddaughter Conspiracy by Marissa Lingen

Humans have colonized a world where one squiddy native species is suspected of sentience. Dr Hannah Vang is desperately trying to come up with a way to prove this, but the squiddies seem to have no memory. Just coincidently Vang's mother happens to have a case of dementia and a brain implant that cures it. How convenient. How unoriginal.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December, 2009

The editor of this zine often seems to group the pairs of stories thematically, and here the first pair deals with the displacement and impotence of gods. Which is, I suspect, entirely a construct of fantasy fiction. Who wants gods that are good for nothing, that never answer prayers, that step aside and let evil overtake the world?

Some rather obvious proofreading and copyediting lapses this time–a spur is not a stirrup.

Child of Sunlight, Woman of Blood by Tina Connolly

Battle of Good and Evil. The gods have deposited gifts on Earth and turned their backs on it, leaving their surrogates to fight it out. The surrogates are human, but more than human. The narrator, Ifit, is the loser of the battle.

I am only the last of the maar, the sun-beloved maar, and she had broken my feather-wove wand with a blow of her hatchet.

Yan is a semi-goddess/human grown strong on blood sacrifice. Ifit is frozen for three hundred years and released to find the world has changed, but Yan is still around.

This one irks me in many ways. Ifit's prosing devotion to freedom - always italicized, never defined. The repetitive references to near-Earthly foods [bafalo, artikokes]. The moralizing lectures with which the characters nag one another. The story suggests a world coming into existence with no use for gods, to which I say: Good riddance. Get on with it.

Kraken's Honor by S.A. Bolich

The kingdom of Westervar is cursed. Once, the King of the Sea lay with the human queen and gave her a son. From that time, the blood of the sea has flowed in their veins, along with the power to bring an enchanted sword to life. In the manner of such tales, the king has been murdered by the evil uncle and the true prince Faeryk forced to flee, along with his bard Halvak. They are shipwrecked and menaced by a kraken, but the prince recognizes the monster as his ancestor. A pact is made.

I like the way the prose evokes the icy sea and the accursed kingdom: On a night when the sky blazed and trembled with colors twining into a dance of ghosts across the northern rim, we came at last in sight of the Ice Tower rising sheer from its cliff above the sea. It glittered even in the dark, catching color from the sky, now green, now sapphire blue, now rose and gold and purple and white. I looked at it with loathing.

But when prince and harper raise their powers together, I find myself thinking it is all too much and begin to wonder–if Faeryk has a sword more powerful than the gods, then why did he have to flee from his uncle in the first place? I would have preferred this story on a more human scale.

High Moon by Kenneth Mark Hoover

Another tale about the town of Haxan, which draws people from across time and space. John T Marwood is the US Marshall, a dedicated lawman who is bothered a bit when people in town say, "You kill men like a farmer kills hogs." A man called Danny Moth turns up in town and becomes Marwood's friend. When they go out together hunting a human monster, they discover that they have been friends for a very long time.

Adding the mythological aspect into the mix changes things. If the author continues with this series, he's set up a pattern that subsequent installments will have to follow.

My Sister's Soul by Erin A Tidwell

As a magus, Khatereh keeps her soul locked in a box for protection from demons, but her sister Aliyeh has become obsessed with it; she has taken to picking the lock I opened the lid. My sister Khatereh's soul rested in thick folds of pure white velvet. Ornate patterns embroidered in gold thread looped and twisted together along the edge of the velvet. Beautiful to the eye, the case and its lining faded to obscurity next to the soul. However, even a magus can not survive entirely without contact with her soul. When Khatereh returns home, Aliyeh sees how sickly she is, how irritable; she does not seem to be herself.

Based on familiar legends, this one begins with some promise but the conclusion is disappointingly pat.

Tor

Tor.com, December, 2009

Cthulhu month, which certainly describes the Stross story.

The Horrid Glory of its Wings by Elizabeth Bear

Desiree hasn't had the easiest life. She was an HIV baby, grown up in foster care as a ward of the state, and the medications that keep her alive have had deforming side effects. Her eighteenth birthday is now approaching and she will have to choose her own direction. She has won a college scholarship. But Desiree has a secret friend, her only friend, the harpy who lives in the alley. The harpy is pretty foul. Its teeth are snaggled and stained piss-yellow and char-black. Its claws are broken and dull and stink like rotten chicken. It has a long droopy blotchy face full of lines like Liv Tyler's dad, that rock star guy, and its hair hangs down in black-bronze rats over both feathery shoulders. But the harpy offers Desiree an option that no one else can.

I guess this is fantasy, so I shouldn't ask what the harpy was doing in the dumpster in the first place. I tend to ask those things. I tend to wonder how people can become or be made immortal. If it were easy, wouldn't everyone want to do it? But there is no question that both Desiree and the harpy have the ability to overlook appearances and see what is within.

Overtime by Charles Stross

A Christmas story set in the author's "Laundry" series about a secretive UK organization set up to fight the invasion of Earth by Cthuloid monsters. Bob Howard finds himself serving as Night Duty Officer over the holiday break, but the organization is suffering from a sense of unease caused by a speech by a Dr Kringle from Forecasting Ops at the Christmas party, in which he predicts that this will be the last such office party. In short, that Doom will befall the organization during the upcoming year. But Bob begins to realize that Doom may be even closer at hand.

It's Christmas Eve, and the stars are Right.

Parents the world over still teach their children that if they're good, Santa will bring them presents.

There are things out there in the void, hungry things hidden in the gaps between universes, that come when they're called. Tonight, hundreds of millions of innocent children are calling Santa.

Who's really coming down your chimney tonight?

This is clever, entertaining stuff, more skiffy and humorous than horrific. Although it is part of an ongoing series, it stands quite well on its own.

Ideomancer

Ideomancer, Dec '09

Ideomancer, December, 2009

Witches and fairy tales, girls and magic.

Oak Park Eris by C.S.E. Cooney

Rival witches in the Chicago suburbs meet at an upscale not-Tupperware party.

Melisande's pretty, blonde, Michigan-born, Indiana-bred, Chicago-finished, housewifely face wore an expression not unlike the wild Russian Vodyany as it sits wetly by the millpond waiting to beat small children senseless with its cudgel, thereafter to drown and eat them.

This one is about the eternal love-hate relationship between mothers and daughters. Hell hath no fury like a mother whose daughter isn't invited to a birthday party. While the story is entertaining, we get the impression that these witches could do real damage.

Rumpled Skin by Mari Ness

Very short variation on the fairy tale, where things don't go happily at all after the miller's daughter marries the king.

The Gone-By Quilt by Autumn Canter

Emily was born with magic fingers on one hand. No one wanted to be friends with a witch girl, and she learned to cover up her power. But one day, lonely, she created a friend from the reflection in her mirror. Emily had an old broken piece of mirror that she propped up in the barn. On warm days she sat there to read a book and practice her stitches. She spent this time with the other Emily quilting together old fabrics, reading aloud, chatting with the girl in the mirror that wore her face. But when Emily grows old enough to want boys, her relationship with the mirror girl changes.

A folkloric tone to this tragic tale of jealousy, where power becomes a curse.

Shimmer

Shimmer #11

Shimmer #11, The Clockwork Jungle Book

In apparent celebration of the Year of Steampunk, this small press print periodical has given readers as its 11th issue a theme anthology, not just a steampunk anthology, but a steampunk animal anthology. Which is to say that some of these pieces have clockwork animals, and some have both animals and clockwork mechanisms.

Perhaps because of editorial fiat, or the presence of animals, or because they are so short, these tales tend to be fables. A common theme is the moral paradox of the mortal creator; Mad Scientists abound. There is a variety of settings, from the fantastic to the sciencefictional, and a strong multicultural tone; the cast of authors seems particularly diverse.

But with twenty titles all based on the same very narrowly-conceived theme, the individual stories tend to blur together in the readerly mind. Tales that might have stood out in a different setting seem indistinguishable. In short, I think this is a case of something that might have seemed a good idea at the time.

Shedding Skin; Or How the World Came to Be by Jay Lake

Here we have a combination of a creation myth with the Garden of Eden [which are two very different things], featuring the Snake and his free will rebellion against Old Man Spark's punchtape programming. It is potentially entertaining, but I found myself irked by the constant asides of the narrator, admonishing his audience of children. I also can't see the word "meathead" without suffering the image of Rob Reiner.

The Jackdaw's Wife by Blake Hutchins

Jackdaw, oblivious to the Badger who loves him, decides to build himself a wife after finding a galvanic heart in a trashpile."What's it good for? What's it good for?" Jackdaw jumped up and down in a frenzy. "Maker love us, it gives things life! Life! As in most fables, he is taught a lesson.

The Student and the Rats by Jess Nevins

Another Mad Scientist variation, this one who experiments on rats to transform them to automatons. Perhaps the cruelest and most vengeful of the tales, it ends on a Promethean note.

The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar by Shweta Narayan

One of several Emperor tales in the collection, it features Scheherazade-like series of nested stories told by the Artificer to teach the ruler a lesson.

Kay's Box by Marissa Lingen

While this one uses the names of Arthur and Kay, it has no real connection to the legend. Arthur is a failed inventor, and Kay is a monkey who is more clever than his master but has to pretend to be dumb to please the audience.

Otto's Elephant by Vincent Pendergast

Otto is a farm boy in charge of his master's farm elephant, when one day an old man shows up and tells him the elephant is really much more than it seems. Another set of nested stories, and an ironic lesson for Otto, which I tend to like better than the morally morals.

The Monkey and the Butterfly by Susannah Mandel

The Monkey falls in love with a Cat and brings the lady a gift. This one barely falls within the anthology's parameters, but it is fabley with a Moral.

Message in a Bottle by James Maxey

This one stands out memorably by being more alternate-historical than the others, with an apparent Mad Scientist of the Civil War era shooting three captive astronauts to the moon in a ballistic ship. They are not expected to return, but as they are Negroes and Indians, this was not considered a problem by the authorities. Upon reaching the South Pole of the moon, the explorers make a fantastic discovery: a dead domed city built by dinosaurs after a cometary strike on Earth. The belated appearance of automatons doesn't seem to fit the story, making me think that this element may have been added to fit it into the anthology. It didn't improve it, and I believe the ending would have been more poignant without it.

The Clockwork Cat's Escape by Gwynne Garfinkle

Short-short-short argument against mechanical immortality.

The Wolf and the Schoolmaster by James L Cambias

A Mad Scientist, having conquered with the aid of enhanced beasts and mechanical monsters, has now been defeated. Restoration is now underway, and Captain Volka of the wolf troopers is glad that no more children will be tortured into obedience as he and his fellow cubs were.The carnivorous roses were now on a diet of butcher's offal rather than the baron's enemies. Some of us had urged they be put to the torch, but Shepton and others had argued that their beauty outweighed their vileness. But some members of the new regime are too willing to make use of the baron's methods.

A lot of Neat Steampunky Stuff here, such as Volka's steam unicyle, makes for a more memorable tale than most in this issue, although the mechanical animal part is slighted. It is definitely my favorite, however.

Recommended

A Garden in Bloom by Genevieve Valentine

Is an artificial garden more beautiful than one with living flowers? A nicely sharp ending, but overall a tale that just doesn't stand out in this collection.

And How His Audit Stands by Lou Anders

Birmingham is employed by the railroad to track down escaped locomotives, whose captive souls often rebel at being forced into the machines. But Birmingham has his own agenda. Here, the animal aspect is downplayed to insignificance, despite aphorisms from a fable scattered through the text; the punchline of this, annoyingly, doesn't come at the conclusion as a punchline should, and the actual concluding moral is moralistic.

The Story in Which Dog Dies by Sara Genge

Very fabley. Last Man, now immortal, lives with Dog, who helps him hunt the antimopes–too stupid to live. But Last Man isn't all that bright, himself.

A Red One Cannot See by Barbara A Barnett

The enhanced lemur Philibert [lémur-homme] is returning to his childhood home in New Madagascar to offer uplifting to his wild, jungle-dwelling relatives; he learns a Lesson. The clockwork aspect in this one is essentially metaphorical.

The Fishbowl by Amal-El-Mohtar

The overheating of the seas has killed the wild fish, so inventors have created mechanical replacements, so much nicer than the few remaining specimens in captivity. By accident, Montrouse spits some actual fish soup into the tank containing his valuable mechanical fish, and it transpires that this causes the clockwork school to make oracular predictions. The story's moral is a condemnation of human values, but I find the premise way too far-fetched.

His Majesty's Menagerie by Chris Roberson

Alternate history in which Tippu Sultan is anticipating victory over the British with his clockwork tigers, when they show up with a corps of mechanical elephants. Ingenuity is now required, and delivered. Kind of neat ending.

The Emperor's Gift by Rjan Khanna

Syam the clockmaker was creating the mechanical panda for his sick daughter when the Emperor decided he wanted a gift for his lady. How can he turn down the Emperor? One of the heartwarming endings.

The Clockwork Goat and the Smokestack Magi by Peter M Ball

In which I am driven to great irritation by the repeated use of "Magi" as a singular noun, instead of the proper "Magus". Or just plain Mage. This is otherwise one of the more interesting stories in the issue, as a clockwork goat is sent by his greatest enemy and rival to the Smokestack Mage, who dwells in a dark and sinister alley where dark and sinister denizens lurk in the shadows. But the Mage is unwilling to accept the gift at face value and leaves it waiting in front of his door, whereby we get a neat moral.

The Giant and the Unicorn by Alethea Kontis

Another one of the heartwarming tales, this one all the way into the sentimental range. After the Toymaker has died, the clockwork Giant goes mad until the clockwork unicorn helps him.

Mockmouse by Caleb Wilson

The mechanical mouse announces that it has come to solve all mousely problems. A Cautionary Fable.

Albedo One

Albedo One, #37

Albedo One, #37

Irish SF/horror zine, which has obviously been around for a while without my noticing it. There seems to be a motherhood theme in this issue.

Safe by Robert Reed

When Bern is a child, the technique of removing an unwanted embryo from the womb and implanting it into a receptive uterus Elsewhere in the multiverse is a fairly new one. By the time she is grown, girls are starting to use fertility drugs to produce the maximum number of embryos possible, in order to fill the quantum multiverse. Quantum scanners search the infinity of parallel worlds to locate empty and receptive wombs, and for a while, Bern works as a facilitator in this field. But as she ages, the fact of her own sterility begins to weigh on her more heavily; in a world full of embryos, she has no womb to hold one.

It is quite possible for an author to write a story about some matter that is never directly mentioned in the text. It is also quite possible for a reader to read a story that never appears in the author's text. Thus I suspect that many readers will take this as a story about abortion in our own world. But the story I found here is the story of the embryos sent uncalled-for into the multiverse and the fates they found there. The child acclaimed as a miraculous god. The women [a multiverse full of these] beaten to death for supposed adultery or fornication. The families burdened with another unwanted mouth to feed.

Reed has written previously on the theme of human-populating the multiverse; "A Billion Eves" focused on the environmental damage. This one begins with Bern as a child feeling that she had never belonged in the world where she lived, but this interesting element seems to fade from the story as it goes on; Bern's life is really not a very remarkable one, and just when it looks as if it might become worthy of interest, the author leaves the conclusion to the imagination of the reader, which is already actively engaged.

Sing a Seller's Song by Sara Joan Berniker

Several years after an unspecified apocalypse, Adam sets out to pimp his crippled mother. There are worse alternatives. I don't find the sellers' songs convincing.

Stoker's Benefactor by Richard Alan Scott

How Bram Stoker came to write a book. While working as the Business Manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin, a benefactor approaches him, expressing interest in one of the young actresses.

This is an aspect of my work that makes me feel like some great whore master. There is never any lack of suitors willing to donate to the company, interested in Lillian Adams or any one of the company's actresses.

Of course The Worst must be feared.

This one takes the form of excerpts from letters, journals and police reports, giving the text a familiar tone. It is noteworthy that the distinction between the pure and the impure female is prominent in this narrative.

Recommended

Creepdoll by Gareth Stack

Tim considers himself a nice guy, but he can't seem to meet any nice girls. In desperation, he acquires a creepdoll, a lifelike cyberchild more often used for unsavory purposes.

Before him, the doll began to spin, smiling softly as it turned, fat wee arms realistically loose. Little knees bent convincingly below a sunflower yellow summer dress.

He joins a single parent group, meets a nice woman. But what will happen when she discovers the truth?

I can't figure the reason for the name "creepdoll." They walk, rather than creep, and while it is clear that they are usually marketed to creeps, I don't know why Tim would use the name. Tim's problems stem entirely from his failure to think through the consequences of his decision, which makes it hard to have much sympathy for him.

Offline by Gustavo Bondoni

Namibia has expelled or imprisoned all its whites and become a very up-to-date place. Citizens are all connected and monitored through a wrist implant. Milly has found herself pregnant after a visit to her white lover in the concentration camp, and in order to keep the baby she has to escape the country. Cutting out her implant renders her effectively invisible to the system, but being offline has its own disadvantages.

I have serious problems with this scenario. The author seems to be conflating a 22nd century Namibia with 20th century Zimbabwe. The country described here is a prosperous one, with advanced technology and happy for citizens.

Just three days ago, I would have enjoyed the ride here on that very same bus, floating on a cushion of air over any imperfections the road could throw my way. In air conditioned, silent comfort.

This is a very long road of development from the current impoverished state, not something that could be achieved in a few years or even decades. It is not credible that the 20th century drive to expel white farmers would still be ongoing. There were never that many to begin with. And on a more practical note, I would like to know what happened to the concentration camp guards and the gates at the conclusion, when they suddenly cease to exist.

Aegis by D.T. Neal

Julian Stein, a young artist, falls in love with the work of famous sculptress Renee Euryale. Unfortunately, any reader with a classical education will at once understand what her secret is and how this story will likely end. Unfortunately for the protagonist, his education was lacking in these details.

It is too bad, as this story offers some insights into the nature of art and creation, but either the readers are supposed to be screaming at the characters as if they were watching a B horror movie—"No! Don't go into the mansion!"or they are supposed to be shocked at the final revelation, which just falls flat. The editorial blurb declares that it was the 2nd place winner of the 2008 Aeon award, which makes me wonder if the judges had the benefit of a classical education. O tempore!

A Most Notorious Woman by T.D. Edge

A fantasy-vacation magnate spirits the Irish pirate queen Grace O'Malley into the future to captain his fantasy pirate ship on its vacation voyages. The venture is at first a resounding success. Grace yelled, 'Attack!' then swung into the smoke, quickly followed by her men. Harris felt his innards lurch as he flew through the churning air, oddly ecstatic at the prospect of landing amongst men who only wanted to kill him. Until Grace discovers the part of the deal that Harris forgot to mention.

Kind of rousing fantasy pirate tale, although I'm surprised Grace did not think more of the fate of her sons, left behind in Elizabethan England.


Copyright © 2010, 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!

Jan 13, 04:29 by IROSF

Comment Below!
Jan 13, 22:31 by twosheds
I thought the creator of the little man in Harlan's tale was Harlan himself. Kind of a commentary on the negative attention he received a year or two ago for a certain incident.

I'd comment on F&SF, but I haven't received my issue yet!
Jan 13, 22:57 by Lois Tilton
Well, that is definitely another insightful interpretation.

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