Lightspeed #21, February 2012

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Lightspeed Magazine #21, February 2012

“Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil” by Carrie Vaughn
“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genevieve Valentine
“War 3.01” by Keith Brooke
“Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring” by Brooke Bolander

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

The second issue of the revamped Lightspeed Magazine hits the stores with a February cover date and, as with the last issue, some really good fiction waiting between its “covers.”

We begin this review with “Harry and Marlow and the Talisman of the Cult of Ergil” by Carrie Vaughn, author of the Kitty Norville series of books.

Harry and Marlowe are independent acquisitions experts, searching the world for Aetherian technology left behind when Earth was visited by aliens. Once Harry and Marlowe find these exquisite items of high technology, they pull an Indiana Jones on them. That is, grab the doo-dads from the natives and high-tail it back to civilization.

Setting the story in a steampunk world, Vaughn by necessity has the action take place in a world far different from ours, and I don’t mean only technologically. Mostly, the differences are cultural. Harry and Marlowe have no problem talking about non-English natives of distant lands as barbarians and knowing that the English are far superior because they are, after all, English. Okay, maybe not so different, but certainly more blatant. Which does help with soothing Harry’s conscience when she’s stealing.

I loved Harry’s rationalization, her reason for taking the alien trinket: “She wasn’t stealing, not really; she had so much more use for the object than these northern heathens possibly could.” And that’s Iceland she’s talking about, land of the heathens. Clearly, this is a world substantively different from our own.

That lovely bit of rationalization is quite a nice piece of character building. The pragmatic sense of personal possessions and the inflated ego evidenced by her thoughts tell us quite a lot about how Harry sees herself and her world. It’s the little things like this that really make a good story stand out.

Another nice detail I quite liked was the hand torch Harry employs to light the way for her while she tries to escape the degraded Viking descendents who had passed the centuries living beneath a dormant volcano. (And that’s why I love science-fiction and fantasy: it’s the possibility of writing sentences like that.) It’s not battery powered, the torch. Instead of a yellow electric glow, it offers up a weak greenish light, an Aetherian glow. It seems much of this world’s technology is dependent on reverse engineering the machines recovered from a crashed alien craft.

A last-minute twist gives the reader a much different view of one of the characters and it’s a welcome change. Most of the story is spent attempting to avoid a German airship blockade of England, allowing Harry and Marlowe to return home with the Aetherian doo-dad. Really, not much happens in the story, but I don’t think it was meant to.

Now, this could be just me, but I get the sense this was Vaughn stretching her wings a bit, perhaps working the kinks out of a new book by first writing a short story set in that world. The characters felt so well-developed and the writing so assured, I have the firm conviction we haven’t heard the last of Harry and Marlowe. This was a fun place to spend a few minutes and I’d certainly like to make a return visit, one that lasts hours instead of minutes.

The opening line of “The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genevieve Valentine is truly a thing of economy and beauty: “There was something more civilized about a town that could bury its dead, if they stayed dead, and so Folkvarder Gray put out the notice for a gravedigger.”

I mean, look at it. In that one line, we learn there’s the possibility of zombies or revenants so that makes it a fantasy story of some sort. We learn this is a place with a shortage of people willing to take certain jobs, or that no one wants to take what would be considered a dangerous job. It also introduces us to one of the main characters. That, ladies and gentlemen, is some darn good writing right there.

Valentine continues using that sort of spare, economical writing to fill the readers in on the world created around our gravedigger. By dropping names here and there, we learn that the story takes place in an alternate possible-America, but one with more of a Scandinavian bent, naming places New Freya (after the wife of the king of the Norse gods) or Odin’s Lake. It’s subtle and very sure-handed, slipping in the information in a friendly manner, so you think you’ve known it all along.

Out in the wilderness of this possible-alternate America, there lies a quiet village called Konstan Spring. It was almost inevitable it would be named that as the spring is the most important thing about the place, although that’s not apparent at first. The people of Konstan Spring are a patient sort, the type of people who appreciate a job well done by someone who knows what they’re doing. They’re prepared to wait if it means finding someone who makes art from drudgery.

Folkvarder Gray, who’s the head man of the village, had been looking for a new gravedigger for Konstan Spring and knew he’d found the right one in John, a man who dug his graves narrow and deep with sides as smooth as glass. For his part, John was happy to be in Konstan Spring. Until the first funeral.

Out in the open, unmarked field that served as Konstan Spring’s graveyard, John dug what he thought was the final home for Samuel Ness. The grave was a thing of beauty. Too bad it wasn’t put to use for very long. Two days after being put in it, Samuel Ness wriggled out of the grave and went home to resume his life.

It’s the spring, you see. The waters bubbling up through the ground of Konstan Spring heals sickness and hurt and keeps folks from getting old. It also makes sure death is only somebody just passing through and don’t ever come to stay permanent like.

All of which is just set up for when John the gravedigger goes to live over the chemist’s shop, which is being run by a quiet young girl named Ami.

In case you didn’t notice, I’m quite enamored with this story. It flows as smoothly as the waters from the spring, with deft touches of language and character that draw readers in and make them feel welcome. The setting is just twisted enough to make it an interesting place in and of itself, while the characters, who’d seem a bit odd or out of place in some other world, fit right in here in this story.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” is a great story and I firmly urge you to read it. You’ll be glad you did.

It’s always a pleasure to find a very short story that’s full to the edges of ideas and fun and characters, and that’s just what we get with “War 3.01” by Keith Brooke. Set in a slightly future England, the story follows young Kevin O’Farrell, an Irishman come to England to work in the coding and computer business. Life’s rough on Kevin, in that the local skinheads (most of whom are in the army) don’t like foreigners like Kevin coming to England and taking English jobs.

Using only a few choice and colorful phrases, Brooke does a great job of filling us in on Kevin’s world and his place in it. Then Brooke blows it all to heck.

Kevin and the rest of this future England walk around in a haze of augmented reality advertisements, eyes filled with warnings and helpful hints from their meSpheres, personal computation fields. Think of a smart phone grown much smarter, one that no longer needs to be held in your hand. That’s the meSphere.

And it’s just been taken over.

Kevin walks to meet his friends for a quick drink when the meSphere stutters and fritzes and everything changes. The message arrives on everyone’s meSphere: There was a war. You lost.

The Brethren of the Jihad boast that they have taken over the country and the news feeds are filled with streams showing the MP resigning, the army surrendering. Kevin, though, isn’t sure. He has a suspicion it might not be real, and the only war they lost was the one in their heads.

In this fast-moving story, Brooke manages to shove some clever ideas up next to each other, creating information density just heavy enough to ensnare the reader into its orbit. Kevin is a likable protagonist and the world in which he lives seems real enough to wait five minutes for.

While this is a complete story, I only wish Brooke had let it go on for a while. See, the story ends right where another story could begin. Maybe it’s just a mark of the good writing that I wanted more right away, but whatever it was, this was some good stuff. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Love, horror, disappointment and revenge are braided together with a feeling of wonder in “Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring” by Brooke Bolander. Opening somewhere in the American west at the close of the 19th Century, the story introduces us to the lovely Rosa, a young woman traveling toward revenge, and the fox that crawled up out of her stomach to walk the path next to her.

Now, Rosa, being a sensible young woman, knows female foxes, vixens, don’t just conjure up out of nowhere. Rosa suspects it has something to do with the patent medicine she got from the old bruja woman who lives outside of town. Either that or her heart’s been torn up so bad she’s hallucinating. She holds onto that possibility right up until she urps up the second fox.

All in all, Rosa has 24 foxes climb out of her mouth and join her on the trail of Captain Todd, the man who said he would marry her and also the man who said he would kill her. Rosa and the good captain had been set to marry, but Rosa was impatient and demanded to see what the captain’s house – her house after the marriage – looked like. Captain Todd, though, never took her down the white road to his house.

One night, Rosa could stand it no longer and snuck out of her house, past her mother and father, past her three brothers, and out onto the white road leading to Captain Todd’s house. What she found there changed the course of her life. Twenty-four young women, all dead, all missing their scalps, were secreted under Captain Todd’s floorboards.

Captain Todd was a bad, bad man. He went on the run rather than face a well-deserved justice. Rosa, who felt the fear and anger of the other twenty-four women, decided she’d be the one to take down Captain Todd, rather than any other posse that went after him. One trip to the bruja woman later and she’s on the trail with her horse and, later, twenty-four vixens, which just might be the souls of some twenty-four women who suffered under the sharp blade of a bad, bad man.

Bolander, a self-professed chaos-sowing trickster girl of a writer, sets that chaos aside for this story, gifting us with a well-thought-out narrative, full of the horror of bad deeds by a bad man and the grandeur of the desert through which he flees to escape justice.

Little moments of quiet comedy crop up unexpectedly, granting a short reprieve from what could be a serious downer of a story. The climax of the story, appropriately grisly, though, isn’t where the real horror is to be found. No, that’s what comes after, as the advice of the first fox to crawl from Rosa’s throat goes unfollowed.

This is a rough story, but one filled with a rousing battle of good versus evil, fun characters, a novel situation and a beautiful setting. Well worth your time.

Considering that Lightspeed Magazine rounds out its contents with some seriously good reprints, I think I can safely say you’re going to really enjoy this issue. The four original stories contained in the issue start well and only get better, no matter in what order they’re read.