— August 2012

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alt, August 2012

Reviewed by John Sulyok

“The Cairn in Slater Woods” by Gina Rosati

“The Cairn in Slater Woods” is one part mystery, one part fantasy, but altogether disappointing. Dylan is a teenage boy going into his senior year, but has had to relocate with his mother to her deceased aunt Z’s house. It’s not in great shape, there are sounds in the walls, unruly cats, and Dylan’s bully-of-a-cousin JimBeau. The bad is offset by the good: two girls eager to spend time with Dylan, if for differing reasons. And of course, there is the ominous cairn in the woods behind aunt Z’s house. It’s a tale of teenage curiosity.

Gina Rosati manages to bring the prose together after a shaky start (Dylan narrates, but doesn’t sound like a teenage boy) and develops a believable setting and interesting characters, if a little archetypical. The problem is really with the story’s length: it’s just not long enough. When the twist comes, it feels rushed and clunky, and the final paragraphs leave the reader with nothing to dwell on, consider, or (worst of all) remember.

“Faster Gun” by Elizabeth Bear

Doc Holiday stars in Elizabeth Bear’s “Faster Gun,” in an alternate history, science fiction yarn. Holiday guides four women to a wreck in the desert. But what could be wrecked in the middle of nowhere? Holiday’s best guess is a space ship, which the four women are eager to explore for reasons that become apparent as the simple tale moves on.

Although the tale may be simple, the writing is not. And that isn’t a good thing. Bear’s prose is dense and cluttered, slowing down a story that should have a quick, exciting pace with phrases that no cowboy could have deciphered, much less uttered. It breaks the illusion that the story is being narrated from Holiday’s time. Prose aside, the story itself meanders and leads to nowhere but a “twist” ending. It feels hollow despite its density.

“The Fire Gown” by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick continues his new monthly series of an alternate history Europe on the cusp of all-out war with the rising Mongolian Wizard. This second installment, “The Fire Gown,” follows Sir Toby and Ritter of the Werewolf Corps as they continue to investigate suspicious activities, which this time is the death of England’s Queen Titania.

“The Fire Gown” moves along a much more linear path than the first part – “The Mongolian Wizard” – did, and does not develop the internal mystery as well as it could have. It does, however, develop the overall plot of the series in one very important way. This makes it feel like a middle step between two more important parts, but is a good enough second story to keep the series interesting.

“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” by Rachel Swirsky

In Rachel Swirsky’s “Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” Renn is an artist, less talented with capturing the world in art through paint than through magic. One of Lisane’s many students and lovers, Renn is surprised when she is called to Lisane’s deathbed and asked for one last thing: to paint Lisane with Renn’s magic. Over the course of the story the history of these women is revealed, and the weight of what is asked of Renn finally understood. It is a difficult request, lined with love and hate.

In this story, Rachel Swirsky shows her artistry and love for the language of storytelling. Words are chosen with the same care an artist would choose a color or a stroke of the brush, to create a representation of an idea with precision and meaning. It is a treat to read and a world aching to be explored further.

“Men Who Wish To Drown” by Elizabeth Fama

There is an epidemic in short fiction, one which relies on a heavy-handed moral or twist to excuse a story which is ninety per cent bland, unimaginative, or simply given less-than-enough attention to make the journey worth the ending, even if the endings were good. “Men Who Wish To Drown” is part of this epidemic.

Elizabeth Fama tells her tale through the lens of an old man named Resolved, writing a letter to his great-grandson as part of his will. The narrative is a first-person retelling of Resolved’s encounter with a mermaid on a deserted island. The story’s message is about making the right decision, but the journey to get to that message is hindered by a lack of relatable characters. The relationship between Resolved and the mermaid is supposed to be the crux of the story, but they hardly interact at all. Their relationship is assumed based on being the central characters. This is not sufficient nor is the ending anything worthwhile.