Reviewed by Louis West
This month’s stories consist mostly of fantasy tales with some interesting twists.
“The Too-Clever Fox,” by Leigh Bardugo, is an enjoyable folk tale, a companion to the author’s novels. Koja, the fox, was born an ugly runt, easy prey for his hungry mother who had too many pups to feed. But his cleverness won him his life. This talent he used to survive hounds, a farmer’s trap and a hungry bear, making friends with even some who’d once tried to eat him. Then the hunter Lev Jurek came to town, and the animals began to disappear. Koja decides to use his cleverness to charm Jurek’s down-trodden sister into revealing the secret to Jurek’s success. But cleverness can become overconfidence after a time, and Koja’s very life may be forfeit once he learns the truth about Jurek’s hunting magic. Nice diversity of animal characters combined with an animals versus humans conflict.
Jedediah Berry’s “A Window or a Small Box” is a surrealistic fantasy about a couple, Jim and Laura, who unwittingly slip in and out of alternative universes, all while trying to find out how to get back home. Goons chase them, gooey, wiggly human-looking things, but for reasons the couple don’t understand. The long hunt for their home wears away their relationship—they’d already planned their wedding when they first fell between universes—until they split. But other forces want them back together to force them to live in this strange different world. A weird, rambling story, and the title never did make sense to me.
“A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill,” by Elizabeth Knox, is a twisty tale in which a lawyer and a surveyor tangle with the mysterious Zarene Valley clan and a recluse who is perhaps both alive and dead. Teal and Barnes intend to convince the people of Zarene Valley that the government’s planned dam would bring them benefits, even though it would force many off their ancestral lands. However, the mansion on Terminal Hill was high enough not to be flooded. It was there that Teal and Barnes decided to begin their campaign—if they could convince the owner of this apparently rich estate, then the rest of the clan should be easy. Except the recluse traps them, wanting to know what’s inside them, until the house conspires against him.
An intriguing tale with an unexpected end, although the pace slowed as Teal pondered all the details about how he’d made it to this house, information the recluse was strangely interested in.
Micaela Morrissette’s “Porn & Revolution in the Peaceable Kingdom” is an erotic, somewhat creepy, fantasy tale of a future time when animals get smarter and take over due to tech-dependent humans forgetting how to think for themselves. Now it’s the animals that keep humans as pets, watching over their care. Tim, the slime-mold and loyal Wal-Mart worker, has a pet human, Mimi, who adores him like any well-cared for pet should. Interspecies families and clonic reproduction have led to world-wide peace within the animal megademocracy. But that asexual norm leaves Tim little prepared for when Mimi comes of sexual age and begins to mate with neighbor pet humans.
All is not well in the animal kingdom. Some rant that the old, hormone-driven sexuality ways were the only way to really live as opposed to being slaves of the megademocracy that decides everything for everybody. Then there are the viral extremists who think humans dangerous sleeper agents just waiting to take over again. Among all of this confusion, Tim is changing, slowly losing his sense of who he is, until he assaults Mimi and discovers that he is no longer an asexual being. That act leads to a huge jump in human evolution, proving the viral extremists correct.
“The Stranger,” by Anna Banks, is a light YA tale about Galen, a young male aquatic Syrena, who does the forbidden and rescues the human female Rachel from being drowned. Grateful for being saved, she offers to help protect the secret of Syrena existence from humans. But Galen is confused by her motives and unsure if he can trust her, especially when she says he should never trust most humans. Rachel sells the treasures that Galen pulls from the sea, building “human-power” for her Syrena friends. Then she offers an opportunity for Galen to learn about humans from inside human society itself. Sadly, the story just . . . ended without any twist, revelation or tension resolved.
Veronica Schanoes’s “Burning Girls” is a historical fiction horror-fantasy which traces the life and struggles of Deborah, a Jewish girl with a gift of healing and witchcraft. She is born into late 19th century Poland where her people are persecuted by the pogroms. She learns her skills from her grandmother while her much prettier sister, Shayna, learns the craft of fine sewing. Except her grandmother had made a deal with a demon, offering her grandson in exchange for more powers. Deborah fights the demon and eventually finds a way to destroy the contract. Then the Cossacks burn the town where Deborah lives and kills her family. Only her sister survives, and they flee to America, but the demon follows.
Shayna falls in with a smooth-talking rich gangster who brags that her sewing skills are so great that she could sew a hundred shirtwaists a day all by herself. He locks her in a room with stacks of cloth, saying his bet is worth more than her life. But she can’t, and an old lady appears, offering to do it for her in exchange for something. The third night, the old lady requires her first born. She agrees. Deborah eventually learns how to banish this demon, but at great cost to herself and her sister, who dies in the 1911 New York Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, falling, burning, from the factory windows higher than any fire ladder could reach.
I enjoyed the historical accuracy of this retelling of the classic Rumplestiltskin tale.
In “Jake and the Other Girl,” by Emmy Laybourne, the world has gone to hell because a massive earthquake has cracked a bio-weapons storage facility releasing them into the atmosphere. Jake, Captain of his high school football team, is tired of hiding from those affected by the bio-bugs—the crazies. His blood type prevented him from going mad, but has made him sterile and impotent. Discovering a picture of an old girlfriend, he decides on a whim find her. She’s holed up in her basement, her crazy father locked in the laundry room, but she’s convinced that he will get better once the atmosphere clears. Jake is confused. He can’t have what he once had with her and, in the end, leaves her, but not before she asks for his gun. Rambling, somewhat unfocused, the way this story unfolds is reminiscent of Jake’s mindset.