Strange Horizons, May 17, 2021
Reviewed by Mike Bickerdike
“Balfour in the Desert” by Fargo Tbakhi, is a rather confusing story. The plot centres on an Englishman, Balfour, and his Arab companion, who are chasing a creature across a bleak desert. The nature of the creature is mysterious and the reason the men are chasing it is not explained. Balfour spends some of the time hallucinating, some of it dreaming and some of it thinking about ‘button’, ‘farthing’, ‘toast’, ‘parliament’, and ‘power’. Indeed, neither the imagery nor the motivation of the protagonist is clearly rendered. Too many things in the story are described either with adverbs that make little sense (sand is described as having “careful ambiguity”) or conflicting descriptions, such that the truth of the story avoids one’s grasp. The Arab’s eyes are described as showing ‘plain emotiveness’; the creature’s cry is “sonorous and shrill.” As the reader I cannot imagine eyes that are both plain and emotive, nor a cry that is both sonorous (meaning deep and full) and shrill. Presumably, the author intended to add colour and richness to the story through unusual use of language, but I’m not sure it’s worked well here; fantasy short stories generally benefit from clearer imagery. And then we come to the end, which remains a mystery for this reader, despite several re-reads. Indeed, this slipstream story purposely avoids clarity, preferring ambiguous metaphor, which may limit its appeal for many readers.
More of Mike Bickerdike’s reviews and thoughts on science-fiction can be found at https://starfarers-sf.com/