Shadows of Saturn, Issue 1, April/May 2005

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"City on Fire" by James S. Dorr
"Death on Elsewhere Street" by Janie Fenn

Shadows of Saturn is a new online magazine, "dedicated to dark science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream stories with horror elements." The magazine appears to pay professional rates, and is edited by Peter Burtis. There are two stories in this first issue, as well as one poem (not reviewed here).

First up is "City on Fire" by James S. Dorr. The story is set in the far future, as the sun has swollen and threatens to destroy the world. Between the glittering New City and the Old City, which has been abandoned to ghouls, is an area of tombs. Here a group work preparing graves and protecting the dead from the ghouls. One day, a column of refugees appears from a distant city that has been incinerated by the sun’s heat, and the group talks to one of the refugees who has a strange story.

Dorr appears to be strongly influenced by writers such as Wolfe and Vance, and this story seems to be a stylistic and thematic homage to them and their work. Or perhaps Dorr is trying for a Lovecraftian richness of prose. Whichever, Dorr does not have the skill for what he is attempting. In reaching high, he instead falls hard. "City on Fire" is painfully bad. At times the prose is so awkwardly constructed that it is nearly incomprehensible, and there is little in the way of story or characterisation to compensate for that lack. Were Dorr a new writer, this might be excusable, but he is not. He is an experienced and successful author. At one stage in the middle I entertained the thought that this might be a humorous pastiche, but I don’t think it is supposed to be.

The type of story that "City on Fire" wants to be succeeds only when the lush prose and exaggerated description lend texture and feeling to a strong underlying story. For an example of such a story, readers might do worse than to read Todd McAulty‘s "Amnesty" in the recent issue 7 of Black Gate.

It is rare that I can’t find anything positive say about a story, and "City on Fire" is no exception. The love story that the refugee tells to the tomb workers has an interesting and unusual core, but it occupies only a small fraction of "City on Fire." It is clumsily linked to the larger story and its tragedy is subsumed beneath the farcical prose. Dorr might have done better to make more of the refugee’s story. However, he did not, and "City on Fire" is badly-written, confusing, and unappealing. Not recommended.

The second story in this issue is a better effort. The city in which "Death on Elsewhere Street" by Jaine Fenn takes place is divided into two parts: the legitimate topside with its wealthy citizens and the downside with its outcasts, beneath the apparently flying city. The story concerns a downsider woman who has come up to topside to begin a new life with her lover. On her way to meet with him, she is accosted by an Angel, an enhanced assassin employed by the city to remove criminals. To make the assassination legal, the Angel requires witnesses, and Geal, the protagonist, has been selected to be one. But the intended victim of the assassination is the employer of Geal’s lover, and she won’t risk her lover being hurt.

Fenn keeps the pace of the story moving nicely, and it all ties together neatly. Geal is a strong, determined character who the reader will sympathise with, even at the end. The story’s setting is a bit generic—there is nothing here that you won’t have seen several times before—and the writing is rather ordinary. Nonetheless, this is a decent story, perhaps flattered more by the weakness of the first story than it would have been in another context, but gripping and entertaining anyway.

I was disappointed with the first issue of Shadows of Saturn. Janie Fenn’s "Death on Elsewhere Street" was a reasonable semi-pro story, but "City on Fire" was decidedly weak. Magazines normally take an issue or two to find their feet, and this is only the first issue. However, Shadows of Saturn will have to do much better than this if it wishes to rise above the vast number of other ezines out there.