Fantasy Magazine, April 2011
“Choose Your Own Adventure” by Kat Howard
“The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon” by Peter S. Beagle (Reprint)
“The House of Gears” by Jonathan L. Howard
“The Hunter’s Ode to His Bait” by Carrie Vaughn (Reprint)
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
April’s Fantasy issue carries two original short stories, and two reprints, as per usual.
Kat Howard’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” threatened to put me off right from the title, which promised something light and metafictional, two things that don’t usually go well together. Thankfully, the story doesn’t try for irreverence, instead giving us a more poetic and mysterious meditation on stories themselves. The title’s other promise, of a gimmick holding the story together, is unfortunately inescapable. Yes, you get to choose the paths this story takes, and yes, the writer knows that you know it’s a short story and therefore won’t be choosing one path but reading both. It doesn’t really matter, because they lead to the same thematic place, even though the endings are different. All stories, Howard is telling us, tell the same story, if you look deep enough into them. You know the one; human beings can tell stories, and have therefore come to need them. Too true, of course.
As one might expect, there are no characters or any real narrative. If you’re expecting either, look elsewhere.
It’s actually quite a fast and evocative read, if unsurprising. Well written, with some well crafted images and language—for example,“A staircase, worn into the rock by millennia of pilgrim feet” or “The moon limns the trees in silver.”
Jonathan L. Howard’s “The House of Gears” is about as different from Kat Howard’s story as you can get; with a rock-solid dependence on classical narrative that harks back to pre-modernist prose. It’s all plot, atmosphere and theme, with very little in the way of meaningful characterization. The characters are personalities; flashy but shallow, well defined cardboard-cutouts (though the protagonist is a continuing character from other stories; so perhaps he shows himself more in those). The story follows a necromancer, Johannes Cabal, who travels to a remote and tellingly ominous house in the countryside to investigate a Monseiur Samhet, a man supposedly “capable of resurrecting with an insolent ease that intrigued Cabal.”
Without giving anything away, the story tilts into sufficiently madcap steampunk territory that sees Cabal using his wits to try and get himself out of a gnarly situation. None of it is very original, nor very gripping in the sense that I was never emotionally invested because of the detached, wry tone of Howard’s deliberately archaic prose, which was both laborious and amusing at times (though not as much as the author probably wanted it to be). Though the story is detailed, it feels tongue-in-cheek. It’s clear that Cabal’s misadventures are supposed to be witty and entertaining, and the piece is both; just not in enough measure for me to prefer this kind of story over something that really makes me feel for the characters or immerses me in a world or culture that seems new and unexpected. Humour is difficult to pull off in any genre, let alone SF/F.
As mentioned earlier, the story is part of a series that feature Cabal as a central character; I haven’t read any of the others, and therefore can’t comment on how this one stands up in comparison to the rest.
So two original stories; both good enough, but neither truly impressive. As always, the nonfiction pieces and interviews with authors make for appreciable filler that bolsters this zine’s professional quality, as does the quality of the featured artwork.