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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Realms of Fantasy, October 2004

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"Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven" by Tom Gerencer
"Embers" by Rudi Dornemann
"They Are Girls, Green Girls" by Ian McDowell
"The Old Woman and the Moon" by Steven Popkes
"King Orfeigh" by Ruth Nestvold
"The Beast" by Bruce Holland Rogers
"In A Glass Casket" by Tim Pratt

ImageMy second review of Realms of Fantasy (RoF) is less favorable than the first, as it seemed to me that the quality of the stories dipped slightly this month. I have been receiving the magazine for over a year, and the writing in this issue, while still solid in comparison to much of the genre, doesn't quite measure up to the RoF standard. Themes of the dark side of humanity seem to dominate the issue, creating a unified theme, but many of the stories have minor flaws that distracted me.

In "Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven" by Tom Gerencer, a big, greasy looking man named Lester was the god of hors d'oeuvres. I loved that. And I'll remember to say snarkily, the next time someone asks me to explain something, "There are many things that we don't understand, and to try to change this often results in the destruction of the beauty of the moment." Those were just a few of the quirky delights of Gerencer's story, a short not meant to be taken seriously, and a story that did not fit with the theme of the issue, but one that is likely to be enjoyed anyway.

Rudi Dornemann's tale "Embers" takes place in a world currently in the midst of a steam engine revolution. The catch is that the steam is created by dragonfire. Other dragonfire creations exist, like the clockwork man, Arturo St. George. As you might guess from Arturo's name, Dornemann's tale has an elegant tone, but it is also touched with sadness and a bit of whimsy. Unfortunately for the gentle Arturo, the local villagers feel threatened by the new technology, and Arturo inevitably becomes the target of their frustration. The clockwork man reminded me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation character, Data. Many episodes of that popular TV series dealt with questions about Data's humanity or his rights, and similar questions are considered in "Embers." But at its heart "Embers" is a love story, and Dornemann does a good job of making it a touching one. Even if one places the emotional aspects of the tale aside, Dornemann's story can still be appreciated for remarkably subtle world building. Through a gradual and natural accumulation of detail, in dialog, imagery, and character, the reader learns about the draconian industrial revolution. Dornemann never falls back on an infodump, but instead reveals the setting and conflict with slow confidence. I felt the dark side in this story was shown in the populace's violent resistance to change, and hatred of the unknown.

"They Are Girls, Green Girls" by Ian McDowell is literary fiction at its best, exploring issues of alienation, teen brutality, social pressure, friendship, and young romance. When the fantasy element is introduced into the tale, McDowell does a great job of building tension around it. "Despite [Grandmother Forest's] name, she is not some quaint pastoral spirit, an old woman with mossy hair and a shawl of leaves. You would not like her if you saw her." One of the reasons "Green Girls" worked so well for me was that the characters seemed so easy to identify with. Rachel seemed a particularly strong character who was struggling with real issues. Supporting characters like the girls' fathers, one plump and Jewish and the other thin and Chinese, but both with "the same way of staring at the world through cigarette smoke and thumb smudged glasses," also helped to ground the story. The sense of realism helped me suspend disbelief, which made Grandmother Forest all the more awe-inspiring. I applaud McDowell for his strong use of setting as well. The author created a fine resonance between the remote old growth slopes of the Hengduan Mountains of China, and the ancient moonlit Uwharries, and also painted a vivid picture of the suffocating town of Boone's Creek, North Carolina. The only quibble I had with "Green Girls" is that I wish it had ended a paragraph or two sooner. The last paragraph, especially, seems to depart from the theme, slightly weakening the story. But overall, the story gets high marks. The dark side of humanity was shown here in the brutality of fellow teens, including one horrid implied scene of an attempted rape.

I felt that "The Old Woman and the Moon" by Steven Popkes had one slightly off-putting element, which is the intrusion of the narrator at the beginning and the end. Aside from that maneuver, which did not work for me, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the story. Set in pre-Babylonian times, probably on the Russian steppes, "The Old Woman and the Moon" purports to be about how a young woman must undo a selfish magician's spell and put the moon back into the sky for the good of the world. Perhaps that is the surface of the story, but to me the story had as much to do with the dark side of humanity, our harsh treatment of one another, and our animal propensity for violence and selfishness. Nichiva is an interesting character, unlucky and unattractive, harsh yet hopeful. It seemed slightly unfair to me that Nichiva was used for her capacity for violence, but I suppose that bad things must happen in dark fantasy. Perhaps even Popkes was torn about what Nichiva did, since he seems to have written two endings to the story.

"King Orfeigh," in which a human king tries to win back his wife from a lord of faerie, is short and sweet, and author Ruth Nestvold does an excellent job of transporting the reader with her imagery, but I am not convinced that the second person point of view was the best way to go with this story. I have never actually seen second person point of view used before in short fiction, so it might have just felt awkward due to my lack of exposure to it. Some quick Internet searches confirmed for me that second person point of view is increasingly rare, and that most people do not like to be told what they are thinking and feeling. In my opinion the story would have worked better for me if Nestvold had written it in first person POV, or maybe third person limited omniscient POV. See? It was so distracting for me that I spent the whole review talking about it. The dark side of this tale was mild compared to many of the others, and seemed to be the implied indifference of the king to his wife, which drove her into the arms of the faerie lord in the first place.

"The Beast" is a short tale that seems to be open to some interpretation. While the writing is not particularly gripping, and contains little of the imagery that most of the other stories in this issue do, the strength of "The Beast" seems to lie in its examination of moral issues, particularly the issue of utilitarianism. Is it right to torment one sentient creature in order to bring happiness and health to many others? Is the good of the one less important than the good of the many? Unfortunately the story seems too short to explore these questions in more than a cursory or abstract fashion, although author Bruce Holland Rogers did have me wondering if humanity was the true beast.

Tim Pratt wrote a gripping opening to "In A Glass Casket," which drew me in immediately. In the story a young boy first finds a mysterious glass casket imprisoning a young girl, then encounters a sinister man who is looking for the casket. I felt that having the evil Mancuso waiting at Billy's house so soon after the story started was a bit abrupt, but the creepy theme of parental control and the initial mystery of the glass casket combined to keep my interest through the story. I felt this was a fair offering by Pratt.

In my opinion, this issue of Realms of Fantasy was solid for the genre, but not outstanding. August 2004 seemed to me to be a much better month. Many of the stories seemed to hint at a theme that unified the issue, which I feel is a mark of solid editing, but the quality of the individual stories seemed to slip slightly.