“Kitsune” by Adam Stemple
“The Last Race” by Gene Spears
“Proserpina’s Curse” by Lisa Jensen
“The Archer of the Sun and the Lady of the Moon” by Eugie Foster
“The Mouse and the Buzzer” by Tom Brennan
“Tea for Three” by Ernesto Brosa
“The Meteor of War” by Andrew Tisbert
History is the context in Paradox: either Alternate History speculative fiction or historical fiction with a fantastic or sfnal twist. The cover shows one of Howard Pyle’s famous pirate illustrations, which certainly fits the season, even if it doesn’t quite fit any of the stories.
Richard Mueller’s “A Storm over Cumorah” offers the reader a very strange Alternate History in which the Church of Latter Day Saints, or Mormonism, has become the state religion. The time is 1940, and we open with a German admiral joining an SS officer and a diplomat on their way to Cumorah, the holy site where Joseph Smith found the golden tablets. This is where the Prophet of the LDS Church resides. They are to meet the President of the United States (Reed Smoot; Roosevelt is his VP) and Jacob Scudder Savage, the Prophet, who during WW I had gotten a bullet lodged in his brain. Now he hears the voice of God and leads the Mormon Church. The Germans want aid in materiel, or at least neutrality from the Americans, while they seek racial purity in Europe. The British need America as well, which the Germans know, and they wish to discredit the British if they can. It’s a moody, eerie story, vividly and stylishly written, sending the issue off to a promising beginning.
“Kitsune” by Adam Stemple fumbles at the start, at least for me. This objection probably falls into the category of taste, but I find it difficult to get into stories that begin at the climax, the protagonists pause and one asks the other “What are we doing here?”, the other one gives some version of “As you know, Bob,” and then the next 80% of the story is flashback until we catch up with the climactic moment, and the story carries on from there. In Stemple’s story, what drew me into the tale was not the climax teaser but the engaging voice of the narrator, Ken’ichi, servant to the samurai detective Master Shichiro. It’s his voice that makes the backstory interesting, even a little fun despite the fact that they are there to investigate the mysterious and gruesome murders of villagers on the estate of the strange Lady Akihoshi. Nice touches like the scent of cherry blossoms filling the air before they discover the bodies drives the reader just that much deeper into the Japanese world of myth, where kitsune may or may not exist. The unraveling of the murder ups the tension nicely at the end, but it’s the byplay between Master Shichiro and Ken-ichi that gives the story its zing.
“The Last Race” by Gene Spears is seen through the eyes of Phormio of Pergamon, a physician come to ply his trade at what is threatened to be the last Olympic Game at Olympia. The ancient temples to the old gods are falling apart; the Prefect who is in charge of overseeing the Emperor’s new religion is trampling the old ways with barely contained disapproval of these devilish ways. Life is going on anyway for the minor athletes, the prostitutes, the drinkers, inn-keepers, and food vendors. The passing of the old life is mourned by Phormio, an old drunken poet named Menander . . . and by Leonides of Croton, an aging athlete here to try for his sixth laurel. But he’s got a knotted tendon in his knee, and the physicians say it would take weeks to cure it, so he sneaks one last time to the temple of Zeus. . . A very well written tale imbued with the spirit of Götterdammerung, all the more effective because the writer stays strictly with the ordinary, everyday folk all trying in various ways to deal with change.
“Prosperpina’s Curse” by Lisa Jensen sums up the entire story in the opening section: Captain Hook is trapped forever in the hell of Neverland, with the hated Peter Pan, whose “youth and innocence and heartlessness” overmatches Hook’s own heartlessness, which, he tells us, is never enough. And then we get his life’s history up to a famous event in the Peter Pan tale. This is the third Captain Hook POV story I’ve seen in the past few years; ever since Flashman strolled onto the fictional stage, there’s been a fashion for retrofitting famous tales, usually from the POV of a villain or sidekick. The opening pretty much leached the story of any surprises, but I very much admired Jensen’s writing skills. The only place she tripped me up was in referring to Hook’s “new-made parts” as physical, when at the time she sets the story, a man’s “parts” meant his talents and abilities. But otherwise, she’s done a splendid job with the voice. I just wonder what her definition of innocence is—I thought it was freedom from moral wrong, harmfulness, and cunning, and her Peter Pan is the living embodiment of all three.
Eugie Foster’s “The Archer of the Sun and the Lady of the Moon” gave me that frisson I get when reading Chinese myth. When I read her work I forget for a time I’m reading in English—recalling the same enticing sense of Beyond the Fields We Know that I got when first exploring Chinese tales in library books when I was small. This story begins when the archer Hou Yi, an archer so skilled the Jade Emperor granted him immortality, meets the handmaid Chang’er, who stops him from killing a bee. With grace and skill Foster gives us the image of the bee on the woman’s wrist—he is about to smite it—she reminds him that justice must be wielded with compassion, not impulse. They are permitted to marry by the Emperor, and walk through his heavenly court, watching the people below. Jealousy, love, power, mercy, and ferocity imbue the beauty of the tale with real emotion, but what binds it together and fixes it among the stars is the question of whether the finite can find harmony with the infinite.
Tom Brennan’s “the Mouse and the Buzzer” tips the older reader off to the time of the story in the first few lines, when Johnny’s friends call him a square. So does the rest of the story’s opening, where the reader learns that Johnny’s family is finally getting the Brand New Thing that everyone else on the block has, in this case a new power source. Those of us who remember kids at school or in the neighborhood proudly wearing radium necklaces to cure frequent sore throats, or how X-Ray machines sat in shoe stores, and for a quarter you could irradiate your own feet—all Brand! New! Clean Scientific Progress! —will not find this brief, evocatively written, chilling tale the least fanciful.
“Tea for Three” by Ernesto Brosa is an exquisitely written exploration of madness. The story is short: Edgar (who you know by the second line has to be Edgar A. Poe) visits his dying wife, then goes outside to wander about a park, where he meets a pair of middle-aged ladies who invite him to tea. He goes home, sleeps, then gets up to go to a reading. That’s the skeleton of the tale; the distorted entrails, the franticly beating heart, the swooping, giddy emotions and visions, and above all, the racking fear, are what it’s really about.
The issue winds up with Andrew Tisbert’s powerful “The Meteor of the War.” It begins with Jacob falling to the ground, hearing the slave-chasers beating the bushes; he’s dazed, realizing that he really has been sent back in time, and the mysterious Investors who sent him offered him a chance to make good. He is soon involved with John Brown and his sons, Frederick, Douglas…and elephants. What he wants, what the Investors want, what human beings on either side of the Civil War want all move inexorably together in a kind of Fibonacci structure to an intense climax.