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

Abandoned Towers #3 (tri-annual)

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The Ghost of Preston Manor” by S.J. Higbee

“The Crystal Cage” by Timothy A. Sayell

“Spirits” by Jaleta Clegg

“A Fish was I” by David J. Cohen

Fireworks at the Check-out” by Samantha Priestley

Treasure” by Aurelio Rico Lopez III

Dr. Talbot’s Cider” by Pat Tompkins

Political Camp Pains” by Jonathan D. Scott

Dungeons and Dental Plans” by Tim McDaniel

The Time to Strike” by Andrew Braun

Pests” by Aurelio Rico Lopez III

Missing in Action” by Bruce Durham

The Mailbox” by Colin P Davies

Another Piece of Pie” by C.E. Chaffin

Eternity’s Prelude” by Tommy B. Smith

The Witch of the Westmoors” by Jeff Draper

Realities” by Lyn McConchie

Pathless” by Michael D. Griffiths

And the Wind Sang” by Bradley H. Sinor

The Thousandfold Magic” by TW Williams

 

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

“The Ghost of Preston Manor” by S.J. Higbee

We're not sure, but we suspect from the beginning: the protagonist, Agnes, may be a ghost. She is visiting a stately British manor, and cannot be, or is careful not to be, seen; although she can be sensed by mediums. These are our early clues.

We are given such clues to make us suspect that Agnes is indeed a spirit, and is from an earlier, less industrial time than our own. This story is very well written, and has a twist which is entirely consistent with internal clues. I defy the reader to guess it; you'll be wrong. (I was.) Although I think a key part of the story would be extremely unlikely, it's possible to accept the impossibilities for the sake of the story. Well written, and I recommend it. I always enjoy seeing a professional-caliber story in a semi-pro venue.

“The Crystal Cage” by Timothy A. Saye

A work of Swords & Sorcery (S&S), set in a pseudo-Roman-sounding empire in a mythical time and place. The author gives enough detail for us to be sure it’s not really our history.

The protagonist is a storyteller named Ganderamathrus. The story involves barbarians, wizardry, goblins and a princess trapped in a crystal cage.

In a snowy outpost of the Empire, egged on by Ganderamathrus, a barbarian warrior named Rolglor attempts to rescue the princess and beat off the (small) horde of goblins. The wizard himself never makes an appearance. The story's a bit long-winded for what it is, but part of that is the character development of Ganderamathrus the storyteller. The story ends with a humorous twist. I can't recommend this story whole-heartedly, as some of the writing is a bit clumsy, and it's longer than it needs to be; still, this writer shows promise. And I'm guessing more tales of Ganderamathrus will follow, if they haven't already preceded.

“Spirits” by Jaleta Clegg

I'm not sure why this story is written entirely in present tense. When a writer starts a story with "A thick fog drifts over the ground beneath a gibbous moon" he/she raises an expectation in the reader of some kind of action: clashes of spectral armies, a grey-clad thief about to raid a rich mansion or, at the very least, the Hound of the Baskervilles! Instead, we get a young man in a homemade "barbarian" leather harness, four spectral warriors emerging from standing stones, who speak in a curiously modern tone, and an entirely gratuitous unicorn, insofar as I can tell. And not much action of any kind.

The story doesn't really work for me. I'm not trying to be hard on the author, but in a short story, every element must contribute to the story: the POV, language, characters and descriptions. There is only so much space in a short story, and it's hard to construct a complete beginning, middle and end in that space. Often, inexperienced writers attempt to substitute a humorous twist for an actual climax; that's what the author did here, but with a lack of success. This is obviously a work by a developing writer, though, and it looks like the author can, with a little effort, get better.

“A Fish was I” by David J. Cohen

This is listed in the Table of Contents as a story, but it's a poem. I'm a story, not a poetry, reviewer, so I will just say this: even when written in iambic rhythm, doggerel will out. It lacks the charm of even the Beatles' "Octopus' Garden," which is a somewhat lame song also written in iambs. (For those of you who've forgotten, iambic doggerel goes "da DAH da DAH, da DAH da DAH" and so on, with usually an ABABAB rhyme scheme.)

Remember that attempted humorous twist I talked about in short stories? It's even more prevalent in poetry. And more often than not, not humorous. (As evidence of doggerel in iambic, let me throw at you Joyce Kilmer's "Trees"--"I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree..." Was that thrust down your throats in some English class? It was in one or more of mine, and it's no more palatable here in an underwater setting.) I don't wish to berate any author too much, but this is high-school writing at best. For good poetry of this kind, see Shakespeare (watch the meter here): "When icicles hang by the wall, and Dick the Pedlar blows his nail, then nightly sings the staring owl, to-whoo!" (I may have slightly misquoted this, but you get the idea.) It paints an immediate picture of time and place in one sentence.

“Fireworks at the Check-out” by Samantha Priestley

Why is this story here? The editorial in this issue promises "readers of Sci-fi, fantasy and S&S [will] relish the entertainment and escapism put forth by these writers." I've read this story three times looking for a hint of the outré, any trace of "sci-fi, fantasy or S&S" and as far as I can see, it's a simple story of a lonely woman hooking up with a guy while shopping at the local [British] supermarket.

Well-written, but hardly genre. I've seen more genre writing in the pages of Woman's World--and I'm not kidding.

Unless—because the "toilet tissue" is blue, it's a parallel world! In North America we no longer have "toilet paper" or "toilet tissue"--it's "bath tissue,” and it's unprinted, unscented and white--because anything else would be environmentally unfriendly. Just blue T.P. (I mean “bath tissue”) isn’t enough to make this a genre story.

 

Treasure” by Aurelio Rico Lopez III

The genre short-short needs someone like Fredric Brown to bring it to life. Although I can see what Aurelio Rico Lopez III was trying to do with this under-30-sentence work, it doesn't. Work, that is... too much is implicit, and not enough is explicit.

A Gollum-like protagonist (at least, that's the impression I get) leaves the sewer and finds a new kind of treasure. It's a sketch at best. I urge Mr. Lopez (III) to read "Honeymoon in Hell" or any other collection of Fredric Brown stories, and see the master at work. Or try Robert Sheckley instead.

For a better example of this author's work, read my review a bit further down.

“Dr. Talbot’s Cider” by Pat Tompkins

Back in high school, longer ago than I care to think, I played Dr. John C. Bates in the play "The Andersonville Trial," which gave me a fair amount of interest in the Civil War. This story, though not about Andersonville, a prison camp of that war, is reminiscent, because the protagonist, Chester, is a sutler in a prison camp in Detroit. (A sutler is a civilian who sells supplies to an army.) Chester sells whatever he can to both the "Reb" prisoners and their jailers, among which supplies is the titular "Dr. Talbot's Medicinal Pine-Apple Cider"--which promises to cure your ailments or prevent any if you take it while you are well.

This story is nice, well-written, and full of genuine (as far as I can tell) Civil War information and tidbits. What it doesn't have, as far as I can see, is any relationship to genre writing. At all. Again.

May I remind you, gentle reader, that the editorial promises that "Readers of Sci-fi, fantasy and S&S [will] relish the entertainment and escapism offered by... the writers of these genres... [and the] nether worlds between our covers." This is not to say that the non-genre writing is necessarily unenjoyable; but it's for sure out of place here.

“Political Camp Pains” by Jonathan D. Scott is a somewhat humorous tale about nefarious goings-on in a gubernatorial contest in an unnamed Southern state; the humor is rather heavy-handed, although the writing is at least competent. The story is not a genre story, which is why I'm not going to say much about it. Except to remind the author that the color of a "five-year-old penny" is not a copper color at all, but usually a mud brown. Which is fine as long as you're not using the phrase to describe someone's red hair.

“Dungeons and Dental Plans” by Tim McDaniel

At first, because of the illustration that was clearly a steal from a Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comic book, I was a bit prejudiced against this story. But the opening paragraph won me over:

“I’m sorry, sir. You can include only one sword, mace, or war hammer in your carry-on baggage. The rest will have to be checked.”

This tale of Kronak, the "wind-bronzed warrior of the North," and his struggles in the effete corporate boardrooms of the South, is fantasy humor of the best kind, in my opinion. Although occasionally the humor is laid on with a trowel instead of a brush, when we're talking corporate S&S, you probably can't lay it on too thickly.

The writer is familiar with the tropes of S&S and at least passing familiar with those of Corporate America, and uses both to surprisingly funny effect. Kronak is hired by a security company and sent to a training camp in Cleveland ("Cleave-land"); he and his warrior band become overly familiar with the southern replacements for mead (cappuccino, latté, Café Americano) and become successful. And when Kronak brings you someone's head on a platter, he really brings you their head on a platter. The story may be a teeny bit too long, but enjoyable for all of that.

“The Time to Strike” by Andrew Braun

"An elf, a dwarf, a man, and a wizard were about to enter a dungeon. It was a big, scary dungeon, the high-end type..."

When a story starts with a cliché and an issue of tense, I am somewhat skeptical of its chances; nonetheless, I continued reading this story, as I believe you can't condemn something without giving it a thorough examination first. The titular "Time To Strike" is the time for the characters to strike against the author. In the story.

Other stories have broken the "fifth wall" before and done it well (please don't ask me to name one right now--I'm on deadline), but unfortunately, this writer doesn't have the chops to carry it off. For one thing, he keeps referring to the story as "the broadcast"--which implies that the story is being written in real time as the reader sees it--which just isn't the case. For another thing, he has the characters having both their own thoughts and the thoughts of the writer (the writer in the story, which is not to be confused with the writer of the story); the characters can hear the writer typing, and so on. It's confusing. For the reader no less than for the characters.

Sorry, but this doesn't work at all. Even in the afterword there's confusion between past, present and conditional tenses. And that's the least of this story's issues. In the words of Monty Python, this one's "not a goer." Eh, eh? Know what I mean, squire?

“Pests” by Aurelio Rico Lopez III

This story is significantly better than the earlier (Poem? Short?) work by Aurelio Rico Lopez III in this issue. There is a clearer sense of character and place, and some pretty good description. But then, the author's not trying to do a short-short here.

Walter owns an orchard. The orchard has pests. Because we're fantasy readers, when we see a partially eaten apple with a shimmering golden wing stuck to it described in a story, we don't normally think, "wasps"--do we? So in that sense, we're ahead of the writer. So there aren't really many surprises in this story that the reader hasn't already figured out, but the story is surprisingly effective for all that.

What Walter's pests are, and how he solves his pest problems, are at the core of the story, and it's well handled. And I don't think the author is unaware that we're ahead of him, so he's not jumping out of the bushes and yelling "Surprise!" at us; that can spoil a story in an instant. (In the Moscow Writers' Bloc [which Algis Budrys used to call the "Moscow Moffia"] back in the '80s, with Dean Wesley Smith, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, me and several others, we used to refer to that kind of story as a tomato surprise... the author was the one to end up with tomato all over his/her own face.)

I'm glad that Mr. Lopez was able to avoid this. It's a minor story, but well handled.

“Missing in Action” by Bruce Durham is set in the same area and period as the well-known film Zulu (with Michael Caine). The protagonist is one Duncan MacDuff (Scottish enough for ye, laddie?), who is a rifleman under Lieutenant Pope, in 1879, facing thousands of Zulus armed with spears and shields at Isandlwana. The difference, of course, between single-shot Martini-Henry rifles and "aniklwas" spears (I’m not so sure this name is correct) is that spears never need reloading. Which is why the British lost this battle despite overwhelming technological superiority.

The British had only two 7-pound guns (firing shot, rather than cannonballs), and since those had limited mobility, they were easily taken by the enemy. When the few companies of British soldiers and their supporting Natal cavalry ran out of ammunition, the thousands of Zulu warriors simply overran them. The few British survivors escaped along a "donga," or dry creek bed. We come into this story near the end of that conflict.

And at the end of the conflict, MacDuff finds himself alive and in a different time and place; he has been abducted, much like the people in the movie version of Varley's Millennium, to serve in a future war. (Come to think of it, Van Vogt did it first in the story, “Recruiting Station.”)

I won't describe any more of the plot, as you have the key elements already. The action is well described, the setting real (at least the African element) and the battle well-researched. I think this story might have been another candidate for publication in a professional market. Needless to say, I liked it.

“The Mailbox” by Colin P Davies

"The Mailbox" is a short-short that doesn't attempt to outdo Fredric Brown or even Aurelio Lopez III; it's a quiet little "slice of life" story about an AI mailbox's attempt to get more out of a world that has pretty much forgotten snail mail.

Short, but okay, really. It wasn't wildly exciting, but it was written well and not a waste of time to read.

“Another Piece of Pie” by C.E. Chaffin

I don't really understand the presence of all this non-genre writing in a magazine that shouts it's a genre magazine. As far as I can tell, the only SF-nal content of this story is the word "cyborg"--nothing else.

While the story is well written; it's the story of an old man, Bill, who thinks he has lived long enough and outgrown his usefulness. Or has he? Which one is a sin, suicide or living long after you should be gone? Can attempted suicide (if you know you're not really going to die) actually a "peak experience"; can it help revive your brain? Maybe that's the SF-nal part of this story.

Well written, but not really genre.

“Eternity’s Prelude” by Tommy B. Smith

This is a kind of story I'm really not fond of reading, let alone reviewing; it's full of vague writing that just doesn't work for me. Hope is a "celestial"--a winged being who lives in an unnameable, somewhat indescribable realm, beyond which is The Vertex, "the embodiment of the unknown." She flies over the Sea of Neglect into an "ill-advised" valley to find that the "blackened land yielded a number of pools."

My problem with these kinds of stories is that everything is "unknown," "indescribable," "ill-advised"; pools of "liquid" have "crystalline sparkles," can be "comforting" or "noxious and unsettling." The descriptions, whether of the characters or the settings, are all vague; and frankly, I find them noxious and unsettling. The writing is full of passive tense, which I feel weakens a story immensely, and also shortcuts of description (telling, not showing, the action).

In the end, the story is a retelling of the Pandora story, but not terribly well done. The author needs more seasoning; if he's sincerely interested in retelling legends, I would advise him to look at one of Don DeBrandt's books, like "Timberjak," a retelling of Paul Bunyan, or "Steeldriver," a retelling of John Henry (the "steel drivin' man"). Both moved into an SF setting, by the way, but I’m sure there are fantasy equivalents out there.

“The Witch of the Westmoors” by Jeff Draper

This is less a story than a fragment; although the author has included a bit of character and place and the rudiments of a plot, we learn nothing at the end of the story (and the protagonist likewise) that we didn't know at the beginning, other than who the eponymous Witch of the Westmoors is.

The setting is unclear; could be early England, or could be Robert E. Howard's universe, for all the clues we're given. A must in this sort of story is enough detail to ground the reader. The witch paints "blue woad" on her face (is there any other color of woad?), and she and our protagonist fight "Pechts" (an obvious corruption of "Picts"), but even they are rather sketchily set out here; we only know that they're hairy, tattooed, savage and nearly naked.

The writer needs to expand this, if it's part of a larger work, to include enough detail to firmly ground the reader; we need to know who the protagonist is, where and when he is, and why he is fighting, just as a start. Whose land is it, the Pechts', or the lowlander clan's? Why do the Pechts raid the lowlands? Why should the reader care?

Here's a prime example of not enough detail to catch or hold the reader's interest. It’s a different kind of vagueness from the preceding story, but still as much a fault.

“Realities” by Lyn McConchie

Another very strong story, and well written. McConchie writes of a young woman named Aufreica, who could be a Singer if she only had the coin to pay for the teaching; her problem is that she has a low-level job washing dishes in the market, and barely earns enough to feed her mother and her younger brother and sister as well as herself. Her mother is too ill to work, and her siblings are too young; the burden of her family falls on Aufreica's shoulders. If she does not get training within a couple of years at the most, Aufreica's gift will wither, and she will be condemned to work in the market forever.

Although place and time are sketchy, we’re given enough clues (and we’ve probably read enough fantasy) to visualize a generic pre-industrial or early-industrial society that values artistry (and there is some kind of magic in the voice of a Singer), doesn’t hold slaves, and yet treats its lower-class citizens harshly. It’s a familiar-enough scenario, and I’m not sure we need a lot more detail to make this work.

The story details how Aufreica scrimps and saves, giving her family barely enough to survive on, while she squirrels away the fees she'll need to become a person of power. A nice character study; maybe a bit weak in feel of place, but it works. The ending is excellent and follows from the story (something a lot of fantasy writers need to learn) without being imposed upon the story.

“Pathless” by Michael D. Griffiths

This story is a not altogether unsuccessful attempt to do a Lovecraftian horror; the protagonist, Blake Thompson, is lost in the trackless wilderness somewhere near Kennebunkport, Maine (rather than the haunted, eldritch forests near Arkham, Massachusetts); he has recently graduated from college and is attempting a solo journey as a last gasp of freedom before settling into the usual humdrum postgraduate existence many people settle for.

He gets lost in these woods very quickly and, as the day wanes and the woods give way to marshlands, finds himself outside an old, decrepit hovel of a house, which is settling into decay rather like the marshlands around it. He enters the house seeking shelter from the cold evening mists and finds himself confronting an "ancient man... [whose] face was a stark white and pulled taunt over the bone, so that there was little difference between it and the skull underneath." More Lovecraftian description ensues, the story reaches a climax, and the hero finally has his strange encounter validated. Of its type, it is well written.

For me, there's one problem with it, and maybe someone less well read than I wouldn't have this issue: the monster, when described, is nothing more than the old Mad Magazine character created in the late '50s by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, and named, aptly, "Heap!"

Where I am supposed to be affrighted by "A heaping mound... looming up from the swamp. The foul thing was covered with a mix of strings that could have been swamp grass, lanky hair, or thin tentacles," I am amused, and envision the monster also covered with a mix of coffee grounds, old banana peels, eggshells, and the like.

So maybe it's my failing, and not the story's, though I don't see how a stringy mound, even one that had "fed on the flesh of humans for countless generations," could be terribly scary. But read the story and judge for yourself. I'd give it a solid "B" for effort. (And an extra point for ending the story with an exclamation point!)

“And the Wind Sang” by Bradley H. Sinor

Another retelling, or expansion, of a familiar tale. One of the most enduring English-language myths is that of Arthur, the Once and Future King; and of the Knights of the Table Round. Authors from Malory to Disney to Bradley and Sapir have put their own distinctive stamps on the story; most of them end the tale with the death of Arthur and the destruction of the Siege Perilous. Lerner and Loew's "Camelot" is still the most hummable version ever ("Fie on goodness, fie!"); and it's nice to see that the legend is still drawing authors to it.

Bradley H. Sinor has chosen to tell us a story from after the glory days of Camelot, after it has been renamed "Camlin"--the Round Table is gone, Lancelot fled, Merlin captured by Nimue, and so on. We know it well. Or do we? Maybe there's a bit more to that story than we know. Would you believe Lancelot as vampire? Nimue imprisoned by Merlin instead of the other way around, and more? Well, if that piques your curiosity, I think you will enjoy this story. The writing is consistent, the characters well developed, and there is a definite sense of place and time.

Another good semi-pro story.

“The Thousandfold Magic” by TW Williams

As thousands and thousands of fantasy readers write their own fantasies, it gets harder and harder to come up with an original concept, or if not original, one that hasn't been done to death a thousand times. Here, TW Williams has taken the concept of "witchfinder" and tweaked it slightly to be "magicfinder"; a concept with a smidgen more originality than most.

Cythrelle is a magic finder in a sort of a nineteenth-century English setting; unlike the witchfinders, who were churchmen and gained a lot of prestige and power from their positions, she is a lower-echelon flunky; although she can sense the use of magic, she cannot use it herself. All witches and magic users must be registered, and can be jailed or worse.

Cythelle works for Cunningham Coyle, Professor of Arcane Studies, Magics and Occultism at the University; she has helped him (and the unnamed Bureau) find and convict dozens of unregistered magic users. She may be the best magic finder of her generation; and he may be dangerously unbalanced, she comes to find out.

Some of the other authors in this issue of Abandoned Towers should take note: this writer gives the reader enough characterization and setting to make the reader care about Cythrelle and her problems.

This story is not merely competently, but well written. I would judge it to be one of the top stories in this issue, and I believe it could find a place in a professional market. According to the writer's website and the number of stories sold, he is a fantasy writer to watch.

A note to the proofreader of Abandoned Towers: proofread, will you? Throughout this issue, the letters "ffl" have been replaced by a rectangle with an "x"; also, the quotes are messed up in a lot of places, typical of a Microsoft Word search & replace. There are other issues, which detract from the reading (please replace your wingdings or widgets with white space—there's nothing wrong with white space!).

And in case you weren’t keeping count: Total number of stories according to the TOC: 20. Total number of genre pieces (I won’t differentiate between those which are actually stories and those which are poems at best): 15. That means fully ¼ of the contents are not genre. Weird.

Abandoned Towers appears thrice-yearly.