Paradox, #8, Winter 2005-2006

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“Anezka” by Bruce Durham
“O, Pioneer” by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
“Draw Thy Breath in Pain” by Carrie Vaughn
“Cassandra’s Cargo” by D.J. Cockburn
“Forty Shades of Gray” by Tom Welch
“Power Play” by Jack Whyte

Though I don’t usually seek out historical and speculative fiction, the subjects of Paradox, I am following my New Year’s resolution to broaden my reading horizons with the latest issue of this twice-yearly magazine.

Bruce Durham starts off the issue’s short fiction with “Anezka,” the winner of Paradox’s historical fiction contest. In 182 B.C.E., an unusual guest comes to the castle of King Prusias of Bithynia (an ancient Roman province adjoining the Black Sea). Honored household servant Anezka learns a bit about this guest, a general named Hannibal, and is privy to his dying words. Inspired by a painting of an aged woman listening behind a tapestry, “Anezka” includes interesting details about daily palace life in Asia Minor and a humanizing character study of a historical figure. I like history on an intimate scale, as well as all things ancient Greek and Roman, so I enjoyed this story.
The next story, “O, Pioneer,” kicks butt in terms of content and quality. Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff wonders what would have happened if desperate Chinese explorers, escaping Genghis Khan, had landed in the New World centuries earlier, cross-pollinating the cultures. When Columbus arrives, the technology of Bohnhoff’s Native Americans stuns him. A refreshing, well-paced counterpoint to the still-influential view of the New World as uncivilized, “O, Pioneer” keeps you speculating, even through the end. I wish Bohnhoff could have lingered with her culture-clashing characters longer; there’s definitely a novel struggling to arise from “O, Pioneer.”
As for “Draw Thy Breath in Pain,” it sounds like a fascinating idea: the true origins of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most-discussed tragedy. But Carrie Vaughn steals the tired conceit of Shakespeare in Love, in which the Bard’s real life translates directly into his plays. In this case, Shakespeare meets Horatio, a minor character from Hamlet, who, amazingly enough, turns out to be even more boring a personage than Shakespeare. Vaughn tells, rather than shows, the reader what motivates the Bard and Horatio. Plus, she tosses in the tritest interpretation of Hamlet’s character possible. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean. On second thought, don’t read it…unless thou wishest to draw thy breath in pain.
The issue improves greatly with D.J. Cockburn’s “Cassandra’s Cargo,” in which a minor British official begins to have nightmares when a full slave ship nears his port. Images of enslavement, the defeat at Waterloo, and even false teeth combine to enlighten the self-important protagonist. “Cargo” starts off as a deceptively familiar morality tale, but becomes more complex in the last third. A Muslim ghost, whose fate is somehow intertwined with our protagonist’s, gives the story a sonorous power, as well as modern resonance. Unusual and unforgettable, “Cassandra’s Cargo” is the best in the issue, surpassing even the poetry by Jane Yolen (yeah, I know I wasn’t supposed to review it).

After “Cargo,” Paradox fizzles out with “Forty Shades of Gray” by Tom Welch and “Power Play” by Jack Whyte. In the first story, Welch envisions an alternate WWII in which Ireland, a free state, contains Nazi sympathizers. Protagonist Dermot picks up a German and takes him across the border to the UK. Shooting, lies, and mayhem ensue. Routine, unemotional style belies an interesting concept. In the second story, “Power Play,” Whyte goes back to Roman Jerusalem, where a Jewish builder tells a rich Roman that money doesn’t buy power. Two people yakking at each other, even if they have opposing viewpoints, does not necessarily make for good fiction or even dramatic tension. It just makes for a third-rate Socratic dialogue.

Sadly enough, stupendous work like “O, Pioneer” and “Cassandra’s Cargo” can’t stand up to the tedium of “Power Play,” bringing the average rating of the short fiction in this Paradox down to mediocre. Read the incisive reviews instead or, better yet, the poetry. A brilliant collection of verse with explosive subject matter—Emily Dickinson, Lucrezia Borgia, the exile of a Byzantine emperor—and masterfully controlled execution, the poems in this issue could teach the fiction a thing or two.