Fantasy Magazine #54, September 2011
“Lessons from a Clockwork Queen” by Megan Arkenberg
“Using It and Losing It” by Jonathan Lethem (reprint)
“The Nymph’s Child” by Carrie Vaughn (reprint)
“Three Damnations: A Fugue” by James Alan Gardner
Reviewed by Caroline E Willis
“Lessons from a Clockwork Queen” by Megan Arkenberg is a delightful steampunk fairytale. It follows two clockwork queens, five winding-key maids, and one perfumer’s daughter named Cassia as they live out their lives in Arkenberg’s dreamlike world.
Arkenberg structures the story as a series of vignettes that push each other around like gears. At the center of each of these is a moral, often whimsical and contradictory, but a moral nonetheless. I found the voice of the story to be a special treat; it had a sort of precise, sing-song imitation of logic that reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland combined with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions. If you enjoy anything even remotely like that, read it!
“Using It and Losing It” by Jonathan Lethem and “The Nymph’s Child” by Carrie Vaughn are reprints and not reviewed.
“Three Damnations: A Fugue” by James Alan Gardner is the story of three people who cannot overcome their pasts, no matter what they try. For those not musically inclined, a fugue usually consists of a melody repeated by different instruments in different pitches. “Three Damnations: A Fugue” uses three first person narrators (the instruments) to explore the theme of trying to overcome the past (the melody). Each story is set in a different genre; the first is horror, the second is SF, and the third is fantasy. The different genres are Gardner’s way of exploring the theme in different pitches.
I am quite fond of stories that use structure like this. I’m also the sort of person who enjoys sonnets and haiku and the intense formulaic style of folktales from oral traditions, so I enjoyed Gardner’s choice of style. The genre switches were slightly jarring, but only in the way a sudden crescendo is; it nudges you out of the story only to pull you further in.
The only thing I found disappointing was the final narrator, Mandy. She is the object of desire for the first two narrators, and after seeing them project their wish-fulfillment fantasies all over her, I was curious to see what she was actually like. The first two narrators manage to be sympathetic, in their own way, but Mandy was exactly what they thought her to be: a selfish, self-destructive girl who used people and acted like a slut by having sex with a lot of them. She actually was everything her pair of jealous, obsessive boyfriends convinced themselves she was in order to justify their own abuse of her. So it turns out these obsessive, deluded people also had perfect clarity when it came to understanding what Mandy was thinking, and only Mandy had problems with projecting her own desires onto others. It was a real drawback in what was otherwise a quite well-written story.