Reviewed by Bob Blough
This issue of Tor.com contains one superior fantasy that may not even be fantasy, one entry in a series I dislike that will probably be nominated for the Hugo Award, and three stories in between. How much you enjoy stories from series will determine what you enjoy from this issue.
“Business as Usual” by David Barnett is a mere trifle. It is not a story but a report to the queen by a Mr. Walsingham. This is a precursor to his steampunk novel that has been published by Tor. It is interesting only as background if you plan to read the books.
“The Death of Me” by Jonathan L. Howard is also part of a series, but this one has a true plot. Johannes Cabal is a necromancer who trades with a local hat maker. But he doesn’t trade for hats. They trade for rarities from the Fay. In this episode Johannes is faced with death, given to us as an interesting woman in a black carriage. Or is that really the case? The episode ends satisfactorily but no real conclusion is reached. So, this is a necessary episode for readers of the series and an interesting, if unfinished, read for others.
When is a fantasy not a fantasy? That is the question I asked myself after reading Dale Bailey’s brilliant novelette “A Rumor of Angels.” This is a fantastically atmospheric tale of a boy leaving his father and taking to the road in Depression Era America. You can literally feel the grit of the dust and equally the despair of the people travelling west. The fantasy is used more as a goad to get them moving and it may not be enough for some to accept as such. But I think without the lure of the angels (representing what?…salvation…redemption…death?) the reader would miss a lot of the allusive quality of this piece. Mr. Bailey is an excellent writer.
Another series story. This in a series I read and enjoy. Beth Bernobich takes us back to the world of her novel Passion Play. It’s a loner story about a woman, Irene Denk, trying to infiltrate Duenne’s University. The university is within the Empire that is attempting to annex Irene’s country. There is magic involved, where mystical jewels given by the Gods are the maguffin in the story. It’s enjoyable enough, but still just an episode with no ending. As much as I liked the growing romance between Irene and a fellow student, nothing much takes place in this novella by itself. I suggest you read the two (soon to be three) novels and get the whole enjoyable experience and leave this novella alone until it is a finished work.
The next long novella is another matter. This is from a much loved series by Charles Stross. It concerns Bob Howard, who works as sysadmin in a branch of the British government which oversees a world in which H.P. Lovecraft’s fictions are the real. It’s a mash-up of Lovecraftian horror and Len Deighton spy formula. “Equoid” revolves around unicorns. Not sparkly oh-so-sweet unicorns but unicorns that look like slugs in shells and then transmogrify into much more horrific beings. If you like the series this is a must-read. I will admit I do not like the series. The humor is too snarky for my liking and too forced. And there is so much backstory to go through by now that my attention wanders through all the info dumps. A story I really disliked, but it will be nominated for the Hugo this year and may actually win.
The last story is the start of a series and an enjoyable start it is. In “Fireworks in the Rain” by Steven Brust, Phil is an immortal who can meddle with the world to make changes for the good of people. He is a normal guy who eats take-out and watches movies with his girlfriend, except that he is thousands of years old. He decides to meddle in the life of a banker in order to help slow down the foreclosures that are happening all around him. It is an engaging, breezy start to what promises to be a fun series.
I, also, would like to say something about a reprint in this issue because it is the first time in print for “The Lady Astronaut from Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal. It was published last year in an audible-only collection entitled Rip-Off, edited by Gardner Dozois. The reason I mention it is not just because it is a very good story but because of the circumstances surrounding its publication. The story placed third in nominations for the novelette Hugo last year but was disqualified by the committee. By first being in an audio book (and the fact that she wrote some minimal stage directions to help the reader) it was considered as contender in the dramatic-short category. All that said, if you haven’t heard it, read it now. Believe me, you will not regret it.
This month at Tor.com was not spectacular but there is one new story, and one reprint that deserve your attention.