"A Night in Electric Squidland" by Sarah Monette
"The Mountains of Key West" by Sandra McDonald
"Wild Copper" by Samantha Henderson
In "A Night in Electric Squidland" by Sarah Monette, Mick and Jamie are agents of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations, partners in a nondescript modern metropolis eventually identified as Babylon. Mick is a clairvoyant, and their boss is a class nine necromancer whose daughter lives in Seattle. They are given an assignment revolving around an anonymous tip about half a body, bisected laterally. The body turns out to be half of Jamie’s ex-lover ("I didn’t know you were bisexual," says Mick), the half with the identifying same-tattoo-as-Jamie. They must pursue the case to the scene of the crime, a notorious goth/Cthulu nightclub operating a ground-floor establishment and three subterranean levels where the patrons "get into some heavy shit." Soon into their investigation we learn that Mick is gay, whereupon he clairvoyantly receives that Jamie is in trouble in another part of the club, and thus an erotic element is introduced into the ensuing rescue.
This sounds and reads like a treatment for the pilot episode of a television program with a daytime time slot (hence the G-rated sex handling), no budget for stunts or FX (the lack of any fight action or weird magic), and a cast of amateurs (the turgid dialogue). Additionally, there is an insufficiently resolved romantic conflict and a mystery plot that resolves without almost any effort at all.
Tales of supernatural detection are as old as the concept of the fantastic as a literature; the modern, Lovecraftian, supernatural-intelligence-agency procedural has a tradition as well. This particular sub-subcategory of literary entertainment has been dealt with by Charles Stross skillfully in the two pieces contained in his The Atrocity Archives, which do evoke the thrill and dash of the hard-boiled, and do induce the fear and disgust of the eldritch and chthonic. The real problem with this one is that while it fails to work as a procedural, neither does it satisfy our expectations of something grotesque, uncanny, fantastic or even entertaining.
Sandra McDonald’s "The Mountains of Key West" is most effective as a meditation. It feels somewhat vignette-ish.
Julie Morgan, newly married, moves with her husband to the Naval Air Station he is a assigned to in the Florida Keys, but disappointment with the lack of opportunities to pursue her own goals and the insularity of the Naval community soon lead to depression, estrangement, anomie, and the apparition of mountains off the shore where none exist, as well as a mysterious fantasy man in a yellow rowboat, inviting her to join him. Is it a daydream or a hallucination? What will happen if she steps into the boat?
The tension of the story develops around Julie’s attraction to the vision of the mountains, rather than her conflict with her husband or her environment, so the piece begins to feel like a laundry list of petty boredoms and stereotypical flyboy housewife angst. None of the characters other than Julie become people, nor do any of the incidents become events.
Although it doesn’t work for me as a story, the narrative is full of both allusive and descriptive vitality, and the symbolic imagery of the mountain motif ("Landscapes. Jagged, up thrusting, rugged") is poignantly carried throughout.
"Wild Copper" by Samantha Henderson posits a world where the Faerie court, in exile from the old country, is granted a new domain in the New World, the Fae Reserve. Megan, the daughter of a Ranger, comes through unfortunate circumstances to be bonded by the law of geis, handmaiden indefinitely at the whim of the gods. The incursion has displaced some American gods, however, and gods always have agendas. Through the gods’ stratagems and Megan’s special, mortal nature come her only chance at winning her freedom.
Deft and slightly non-linear narrative tempo, and skillful creation of several interesting characters, make this the best story in the issue. I don’t read much of this kind of fiction, but I know that it’s a field plowed with some success in recent times by writers such as Neil Gaiman and Hal Duncan. Not being familiar with that body of work, I can’t say whether Henderson matches up, but the story stands sufficiently by itself. If you are partial to tales of mixed-mythologies, you may want to take a look at this one.