"Chester" by David Gerrold
"The Gist Hunter" by Matthew Hughes
"Sweetmeats" by Marc Laidlaw
"The Legend of the Whiney Man" by John Morressy
"Poet Snow" by Robert Reed
"Bedfellows" by Harry Turtledove
"Eating Hearts" by Yoon Ha Lee
The June issue of F&SF has a consistently humorous tone. Though not every story is a comedy, the majority generate chuckles.
The short story, "Of Silence and the Man at Arms" by Charles Coleman Finlay is a fantasy romp with recurring characters Kuikin and Vertir. Previously, they stole the Bey's magic aegis and murdered the archsorcerer. Now they are pursued by a bounty man and his ensorceled imp, who having tasted Kuikin's fingernail, stalks the man in a relentless Terminator-esque fashion. Like all comedies of error, Vertir's luck is poor from the start when he accidentally breaks Kuikin's jaw. He enlists the aid of a midwife to tend to his friend. The witty introduction of her boulder-of-a-son provides the link to a caravan and a possible means of escape. The plot twists entertain as plans falter and the imp looms ever closer. While the tension builds to a satisfying climax, occasionally the background of the world slows down the pace. The imp produces much of the tension and at times is easier to cheer for than is Kuikin. Perhaps I'm too easily enticed by the promise of an evisceration, or perhaps Kuikin's dialogue which consists entirely of "Mmmm-mmms" that Vertir interprets, reduces the reader's compassion for his plight. Finlay develops an enjoyable cast of well-drawn distinctive characters including a jaded barkeep, a lying pawnshop proprietor, and a stressed-out caravan master. Their quirks alone are worth the read.
David Gerrold's novelette "Chester" grabs you from the first sentence and never lets go. The narrator's daughter Annie was scarred and maimed in a car crash of his doing in which his wife perished. Annie is now "unreachable." When he manages to engage her in a conversation, she discusses a scary "thing" from her dreams that "comes from underneath." Her father enlists a dreamcatcher to chase it away, but when the catcher is destroyed, he sleeps in her room and experiences the dream first hand. The beast destroys an industrial strength dreamcatcher, prompting the dad to purchase a dream watchdog. The relationship between father and daughter is genuine and heart-wrenching. While the connection between the crash and the appearance of the dream-beast is unclear, the tension of the piece more than makes up for the vagueness. The fast and gripping style of the story brings Stephen King to mind, although some of the dialogue scenes are mostly "talking heads." Gerrold nails the story's theme with the line, "The difference between human beings and coyotes is that when the Acme Rocket-Launcher blows up in the coyote's face, he doesn't lose heart." The paragraph that follows is notable and accurate.
"The Gist Hunter" by Matthew Hughes (not to be confused with the illustrator Matt Hughes) provides more laughs on a subtle level. In the longest novelette of the issue, Henghis Hapthorn returns from a brief transit through another dimension inhabited by a demon-colleague, only to have his assistant, an integrator, transformed into a beast—part ape and part cat. Luckily, the integrator's communications continue to function, connecting Hapthorn to Turgut Therobar who is accused of "murder and aggravated debauchery." Hapthorn vouches for his friend with Colonel Warhannny at the Bureau of Scrutiny and hurries off to Wan Water, Therobar's estate. The compound is surrounded by the Dimpfen Moor and its violent inhabitants the neropts—"large predatory social insects" who steal humans as work slaves or food for their young.
At Wan Water, Therobar's footman provides little insight into his master's activities. Hapthorn meets Gevallion, a lecturer assisting Therobar with his research on the Gist, "the elusive quality identified by the great Balmerion uncounted eons ago as the underlying substance of the universe." The Gist is described as unattainable, "the moment it is approached, even conceptually, it disappears." Hapthorn believes the Gist a farce and its quest foolhardy. Gevallion and his bulky assistant Gharst strongly disagree, so much so that they are willing to assist Therobar to enlist whatever means are necessary to hunt the Gist.
Hapthorn possesses a book of spells, which seem useless on an Earth where magic has been gone for ages. But the world is changing, and magic may be emerging once again, only to send realism into hiding for a few thousand years. When Therobar acquires the book and imprisons Hapthorn, all of the players come together in a preposterous battle between good and evil. Hughes sets the tone from the start, as part philosophical, part academic, and part adventurous. The unnamed assistant and his preoccupation with grooming, eating, and other pleasures that only an animal body can provide is particularly enjoyable. As the cast of characters grows, Hughes pulls all of the story elements back together into a cohesive ending. Like all adventurers, the hero prevails with his wit and a few surprises.
Marc Laidlaw reappears in the pages of F&SF after an extended absence with "Sweetmeats." The short story is an odd mix of a mysterious underworld run by a little brown man who calls himself "the King" and a sweets factory where grotesque and tortured animals are manufactured from syrups and sugars. Hugh is a boy who often spends his nights staring at the ceiling rather than sleeping. The King arrives in his bedroom and convinces Hugh to follow him under the house. After being chased by a mold cloud and creeping through a little people graveyard, Hugh arrives at the "Sweteshoppe" and meets the chef—a scary old man who knows all the secret recipes. Laidlaw uses transparent prose to carry the reader through the story, just as the King carries Hugh through his kingdom. With each new twist, Hugh's ability to ever find home again comes into question. The surreal blend of innocence and ever-escalating danger shapes a solid fable-esque story. Dahl's classic children's story "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" came to mind while reading this tale.
In "The Legend of the Whiney Man" by John Morressy, Wolfgang, the youngest of three princes, learns how best to deal with a whiner. His two older brothers travel through the Menacing Wood but neither of them reaches their destination. When Wolfgang follows the same route months later, he comes across the Whining Man, a person whose utter unhappiness and constant whining is so exhausting and soul-consuming, that those who meet him are forever doomed to wander whining themselves. The young prince's technique for averting the man's negativity is not only hilarious but practical. I wish I could dispatch the whiners in my life in such a manner. Wolfgang frees his brothers and marries the princess of the neighboring kingdom. But in a reversal of luck, he must re-enlist the services of the whining man. The conclusion is a bit of a punchline, but the tale is fanciful and fun.
Robert Reed makes another appearance in F&SF with "Poet Snow." Brenda decides to create a poem using snow as the medium. Each word will be placed on a flake, and all one thousand and three words will only drift into the correct order "five or six times on the entire canvas." Unfortunately, the execution of the poem depends on nature's cooperation, and as a result, chaos ensues. What should be twenty four centimeters of snow turns into multiple meters. The houses are buried and the people are worried for the collapse of their homes. Brenda's elderly neighbor, Ruby, organizes a haphazard lynch mob to confront the poet. The result is surprising yet predictable. The story starts out with a serious tone, but spirals into mirth. Reed has a sense of timing, crucial for comedy, carrying me along then driving home the punch line. The town is described as small enough to walk across, giving the piece an intimate and personal feel.
The most politically incorrect story in the issue is "Bedfellows" by Harry Turtledove. It doesn't take long to figure out the secret identities of the two protagonists. Turtledove combines politics and the same sex marriage issue into an explosive piece of fun. I'm not afraid to promote the story's high entertainment value. Genre magazines are one of the few places left to explore current and sensitive issues with a hint of absurdity, to give context and meaning to situations that seem out of control and too complex to ever fully comprehend. I'm glad that F&SF courageously printed this story.
"Eating Hearts" by Yoon Ha Lee is the most intellectual story in the issue. Lee begins and ends the piece with a reference to an old tale about a "human king, a son of heaven, and his mother, a bear who had become human by meditating in the deepest and most dreadful of caves." Chuan and Horanga are lovers and magicians. Horanga is a tiger, who now lives in human form. She must eat the hearts of humans to remain human herself, although the consumption can be metaphysical. She and Chuan spend the story philosophizing the nature of Horanga's humanity and Chuan's goal to become a perfect magician. The piece is clever, providing insights for readers willing to think through the complexities in logic argued between the two main characters. The cyclic nature of the storytelling provides a comfortable sense of closure to the many open-ended questions.
Overall, my favorite comedy in the issue is Morressy's "The Legend of the Whiney Man" and Gerrold's novelette "Chester" wins my vote for the most intense and emotional offering.
[Editor's Note: Review from an advance copy. Issues available at your local newsstand or bookstore soon!]
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