"The Oathkeeper Destiny" by Scott M. Sandridge
"Guardian" by Sharon Partington
"Heartwyrm" by Micheal C. Planck
"The Waters Stir" by Rachel A. Marks
"Even a Stone" by Jane Lebak
"The Fortunate Purgatory of Arthur MacArthur" by Chris Mikesell
This issue of Dragons, Knights, & Angels is laden with similar characters and quest-like plots, a coincidence I can only assume is because most of them are published entries from their 2006 Fiction Contest. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the rules, theme, or focus of the contest guidelines were—as they are not stated in Selena Thomason’s editorial—and thus can only wager a guess that all stories had to contain these three things to warrant admittance: a dragon, a knight, and an angel (though not in that particular order). This proves a problem for Issue #33 as the stories blur together, making it difficult to see anything truly original amongst all the sword-swinging men, quizzical angelic figures, and troublesome dragons.
Scott M. Sandridge uses a jumpy point of view and a clichéd theme in “The Oathkeeper Destiny” to take the reader on an action-packed, blood-soaked journey that leads right back to the beginning. It strays from the premise of Dragons, Knights, & Angels at every turn, from the pagan deities to the Viking-like names. Yavar is a young wife whose evil husband has forced her into a life as a killer-for-hire. She hates every moment of it and finds treachery in every friendship she ever made. Hard to follow, the story had twists that didn’t turn a corner, and at times read like a movie screenplay, complete with sarcastic dialogue with a modern undertone. Yavar rambles through the tale with no real destination; I kept waiting for the plot to reveal itself. While the action scenes glistened like blood on the blade of a knife, they led nowhere. The ending finally arrived, following one killing after another and one run for your life after another. Sorry to say, it was predictable and unsatisfying.
Ambriel, an angel of light, must battle the Destroyer in order to save the soul of a runaway teenager, Mark, in "Guardian" by Sharon Partington. Ambriel has chosen to guard this boy—as is an angel’s duty—but knows he is putting himself into great danger just doing so.
During the cliché battle between Light and Dark—Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Black and White, fill in your own variation here, etc.—Ambriel listens to the boy’s thoughts, which comes off awkward and hard to read. The writing style is not effective here. The entire scene would have been stronger if the reader had been allowed inside Mark’s head, separated by new scenes. Faith, as evident in the final scene, is a strong aspect of every person’s life. But is it our own or something handed down from our individual guardians? The question is asked, the answer is the reader’s, though it’s clear how Partington feels about it.
The plot of "Heartwyrm" by Micheal C. Planck is typical fantasy fare, with a nameless knight—also championed as Ser Knight, to get personal about it—on a quest to rid the kingdom of one sinuous and havoc-wreaking dragon. It opens roughly; Ser Knight has already stumbled upon the scaly beast, which leads to several paragraphs of rehashing the past, and must now make his next move. Pinning the dragon with his sword, he discovers it can talk. Fortunately, I have a soft spot for talking dragons, even ones that are clearly influenced by the likes of Monty Python/Terry Pratchett humor. Some parts, like the consequences of giving into sloth and declaring specific aspects of life as simple sins, are hammered home a bit too heavily. Everyone in "Heartwyrm"—including the dragon—speaks like an old, feeble king of Great Britain, but the biggest problem is just how standard the story is, from start to finish.
In "The Waters Stir" by Rachel A. Marks—an Honorable Mention of the 2006 Fiction Contest—Sareck finds the dead body of a young woman washed ashore. Not knowing what to do with it, he takes her into his home for the night. In the morning, he discovers that she’s not exactly dead and gone, and maybe not even a woman. After learning that a dragon holds power over her, Sareck sets out to slay the foul beast, for a foul beast it must be to do such a thing. The main theme of "The Waters Stir" is sacrifice, a crux pertinent to its plot and Sareck’s history. Still, the story suffers from flowery prose and archaic dialogue that comes off stiffly. I’ll grant Marks credit for writing an engaging fight sequence toward the end, but that alone is not enough to hold "The Waters Stir" above the surface.
"Even a Stone" by Jane Lebak breaks past cliché barriers to help stand out among the other stories. Sir Charles Hallwyn, an unskilled knight, passes by an angel sitting on a rock. They converse, and Sir Charles learns about the angel’s punishment; he must sit there, warming it, for three years. The angel then learns of Sir Charles’s business of stealing and selling dragon eggs. The question of what is morally right and wrong fuels most of the dialogue.
There are many odd things about "Even a Stone." The occurrences of modern day language and items felt jarring in a story set in such a generic fantasy world. There are attempts at humor which come off as uninteresting, and the out-of-place flashback, smack in the middle of the story, confused this reader more than it clarified anything. Even the story’s ending tries to get by on a gag that’s been seen countless times. For a story that poses such hardy questions, the answers seem anything but trite. Lessons are learned, yes, but whether they will resonate with the characters is a completely different story, one the reader won’t likely be able to experience.
In Chris Mikesell‘s "The Fortunate Purgatory of Arthur MacArthur," the winner of the 2006 Fiction Contest, Professor MacArthur finds himself dead and standing in a boiler room. It’s actually a makeshift form of Purgatory. Also in this boiler room is an imprisoned dragon. Cue the angel! Her name’s Linda, but she’s not as nice as one might expect, and she might not even be a real angel. MacArthur’s test is to make sure the dragon doesn’t escape from the boiler room, a tiring assignment that pushes him to the brink of insanity.
Mikesell’s writing is strong, having a distinctive voice and a facile eye for viewing the (under)world. "The Fortunate Purgatory of Arthur MacArthur" is both a lighthearted and a sad tale, and Mikesell is able to successfully switch between both without losing a step. There are plenty of interesting descriptions here, and the originality of it is something to appreciate. The ending is appropriate and satisfying. Clearly deserving of winning the 2006 Fiction Contest, this is the strongest story in the issue.
If Dragons, Knights, & Angels can diversify their zine’s focus and aim to present stories that stray from containing only straightforward messages and morals, the fiction will certainly grow in quality. Otherwise, readers are likely to see these same stories in future issues with the only differences being the names of characters, places, and titles.