Leading Edge, #48, October 2004

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"Summer of the Brides" by Leigh Anna Harken
"Grey Sheep" by Nick Pincumbe
"Shadow of the Wolf" by Steven Carlton
"Gatecrasher" by Christopher Kugler
"Of Two Minds in Lanais" by Eugie Foster
"The Reluctant God" by Paul Woodlin

ImageThe cover of this issue of Leading Edge (Sir Bunny Vs. The Wockwurm by Ursula Vernon) is wonderful—adorable and weird at the same time. As far as I'm concerned, the cover alone is worth the price of the magazine. Fortunately, the fiction inside was also worth a look. I found this issue somewhat uneven—while some stories were very good and enjoyable, others left me scratching my head. But overall, it was a good read.

The first story, "Summer of the Brides" by Leigh Anna Harken, was not my cup of tea. It focused largely on fairies and wedding dresses. The former subject can be interesting and entertaining, if done well (in this case, it was not), and the latter is not interesting at all. The story was much too long, and constant unwarranted changes from past to present tense were distracting at best. Moreover, the story itself could barely breathe under the weight of ponderous descriptions of every character and every detail of their wardrobe, as well as the protagonist's shopping, cooking, tea drinking, and talking to her estranged husband.

The subplot involving the confusion—a strange furry creature that doesn't like fairies—was engaging, but unfortunately it didn't amount to much and was simply dismissed in the end. The ending was a letdown, with one of the fairies explaining to the protagonist why she was special, and said protagonist reconciling with her husband. I admit that I probably did not get this story. I suppose it's my aversion to the wedding dresses that did it.

"Grey Sheep" by Nick Pincumbe is an anti-utopian tale, set in a bleak future where a few surviving humans spend their grey days hooked up to A-frames, their white noise drowning out the unbearable reality and the last remnants of coherent thought and speech. The only exception to the rule is Howard—a very old man, who refuses to die through sheer spunk and love of life. And there is also Death, who has a drinking problem and enjoys playing chess. The resulting story is scary, touching, and funny. While each of the individual elements is not particularly unique, their combination is fresh and appealing, like salmon with cucumber relish—Howard's last meal. Overall, an enjoyable tale, told at a peppy happy bouncy pace, very fitting with Howard's image.

"Shadow of the Wolf" by Steven Carlton gave me a bit of a scare in the beginning. The protagonist, named Red, meets a strange man named Tobias Wolf. I braced for yet another retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, but was pleasantly surprised. While indeed the story followed a familiar plot, it had a surprising depth and originality so lacking in many face-lifted fairytales, with a few nice twists. It takes place during the Vietnam War, and the war echoes throughout the story. Red is traveling to live with her grandmother who she has never met, but encounters with wolves and government agents that are desperate for new weapons and strategies in the stalemate war can interfere with the best laid plans. A solid, entertaining story that blends many diverse threads into a complex and satisfying whole.

"Gatecrasher" by Christopher Kugler is a light and amusing, if predictable, piece. While I am not fond of afterlife stories, Kugler raises some interesting questions. Dr. Jackson Brown makes a career out of dying—or rather, a state similar to suspended animation that is equivalent to death as far as the afterlife is concerned. He's on his twenty-seventh trip to the pearly gates, to find answers from the most prominent theological minds that have passed on. And the Vatican pays him and his associate handsomely for this research. Of course, on the twenty-eighth trip something goes wrong. While I liked this story, I felt that the author only skimmed the most interesting questions this situation offered—such as, how many inhabitants of heaven are still technically alive, albeit in a deep coma on life support? Does brain death qualify one for an afterlife? How exactly is the protagonist's state different from "clinical death"? All in all, a fun piece.

Magic! Poetry! Fisticuffs! All this and more make Eugie Foster's "Of Two Minds in Lanais" the best story in the issue. Kyr, a poet, is summoned by Malei, a beautiful courtesan, who is in trouble. She hands Kyr a stone containing a rare spell, and between the spell and the hostile gang, which is also looking for the stone, Kyr finds himself in a very dangerous situation. And the stakes just keep going up.

The magic system is well developed, and bears an amusing similarity to today's technology. There are magic spells that act as PDA's and memory storing devices, along with more traditional mind-linking and hiding spells. Some of the plot points rely on the assumption that the human brain has a finite capacity for memory, much like a hard drive. This premise provides the protagonists with some difficult dilemmas—for example, Kyr had to give up his sense of taste to make space for storing his books. Kyr's final sacrifice gives him depth rarely found in short stories, and wins the reader's sympathy. At least, it won mine.

"The Reluctant God" by Paul Woodlin was a disappointing tale of a student (either a chemistry or a math major—it changes during the story) who discovers a series of potions that allow him to see unrealized possibilities, speed up his nervous system, and finally allow him to slip between different parallel universes. There is also a bit of damsel in distress and revenge fantasies thrown in. The themes of parallel universes and wasted possibilities have been treated quite extensively, from Steppenwolf to The Butterfly Effect. Unfortunately, Woodlin's story offers nothing new but an ill-conceived "scientific" explanation. The science part of the story does not work at all, mostly because the mere presence of the words "experiment," "beaker," and "equation" does not make something scientific. Moreover, it requires the reader to disregard everything s/he might know about high school biology, physics, or the ways universities function. In my opinion, the story could have worked better if the phenomena were left unexplained.

Overall, this issue was entertaining, and one of the stories was excellent. I did not enjoy the opening and the closing stories, but that was likely due to my personal idiosyncrasies.