Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2018

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Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2018


“Jewel of The Heart” by Matthew Hughes

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh
“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven
“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey
“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason
“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois
“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher
“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed
“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer
“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Reviewed by Filip Wiltgren

Reading “Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes is a bit like finding your way back to the good ol’ days of adventure fantasy. Wizard’s henchman Baldemar, striking a deal with a magical entity, must now go on a quest through time and space to fulfill his part of the bargain…

“Jewel of the Heart” gives me nostalgic twinges to the likes of Roger Zelezny and Jack Vance—there’s a strong Dilvish the Damned, or perhaps Tschai, vibe over it. At the same time, “Jewel of the Heart” goes beyond its 1970’s counterparts. It’s a new generation adventure fantasy, melding classic components with inventive themes and pop culture. It’s interesting to read, well written, and pays homage to its roots and tropes. But most importantly, it’s fun.

Vandana Singh‘s “Widdam” is a bit like diving into a dream. You see grand vistas, float through the story, sample the taste of a world gone mad with global warming and ecological destruction. Sentient drilling machines roam the wilderness, the mining mafia sends drones to illegally harvest minerals from reservation lands, and everyone is slightly crazy and somewhat lost.

The setting in “Widdam” is amazing. The whole story sweats, grunts, crawls and heaves. Its dystopia is portrayed in loving, or perhaps despairing, detail. The characters are all children of their environment, hopelessly struggling to save something, anything, in a world going to pieces around them. The prose is beautiful, flowing like a dried-out river, shoving sweat and dust down your throat.

To me, “Widdam” feels like a story that should be experienced, rather than read, and I found myself wishing for a strong plot to carry me forward. But if you like poetic, beautifully written, and wonderfully described SF, then you’re sure to love “Widdam.”

What if changing sex was as easy as changing clothes? If all it took to go from 80 percent XY to 100 percent XX was a few hours in a body modification chamber? If everyone could make themselves into perfect models?

Nick Wolven‘s “Galatea in Utopia” explores the meaning of sex, gender, love and abuse in a near future where looks are nothing more than whims. Wrapped around a love story, “Galatea in Utopia” raises surprisingly deep philosophical and moral questions, although I leave it to the reader to decide whether it resolves them. There are also a number of issues relating to sex, sexuality, and abuse that carry trigger warnings. At the same time, “Galatea in Utopia” is true SF to its core, taking a technological advance and expertly extrapolating a society from it. This is the type of intellectual story that one could find in a required reading list at college, but don’t let that deter you—it’s an interesting, character-driven story that pulls you along from the first sentence.

What if the British aristocracy had taken Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to heart as literal truth rather than satire? This is the basis for Dale Bailey‘s “The Donner Party,” in which a lady of inferior birth does everything she can to reach the heights of polite society.

Like Swift’s model, “The Donner Party” comes with some serious trigger warnings. While I’m not squeamish, I did have some thoughts to simply strangling every character in it. Fortunately, “The Donner Party” is brilliantly executed, and balances between morbid curiosity and social outrage, while managing to build just enough sympathy for a cast that is as unsavory as they are oblivious and sanctimonious. This is not a story that I’ll forget anytime soon.

Rot. Molding leaves and fungus. The smell of soil. And a thoroughly despicable lawyer. Lisa Mason‘s “Aurealia” is a tour de force, an assault on the senses wrapped around a mystery, a tale of friendship and copious amounts of unscrupulous sex and a main character one loves to hate. And yet, Mason manages to make him engaging.

“Aurealia” sticks to its theme in a skillfully executed and very entertaining manner. The writing itself feels like a cross between thoroughly modern dark fantasy, and classics like Poe and Lovecraft, dragging you forward, almost against your own will. If you like dark fantasy, mysteries and gorgeous prose, “Aurealia” is for you.

Gardner Dozois hardly requires an introduction. His “Neanderthals” is a hard-boiled slice of life in the life of a hired killer, and it’s got so many twists and turns that it makes an Escher drawing look straightforward. I won’t spoil the trip for you, but there’s a lot of mindboggling crammed into a very short space, and it was only at the very end I finally started to see the unifying theme. I enjoyed the story, in part due to the skillful writing, but the character and plot didn’t engage me. However, if you like somewhat absurd and unexplainable stories with a strong pulp feeling, you’re sure to like it.

“A List of Forty-Nine Lies,” by Steven Fisher, is dystopic flash fiction consisting of a list of forty-nine lies. I won’t spoil it by going into details, but it starts with a bang and ends with an emotional gut-punch. Fisher manages to combine a break-neck pace, experimental writing, and a solid plot with a definite payoff to the reader at the end. I’ve read it before (during a workshop) and loved it, and I still love it; this one is for the awards lists.

In Robert Reed‘s “An Equation of State,” an alien armada enters the solar system, and creates a trap for their pursuing enemies. Not believing that monkeys with black powder are worth the effort of first contact, they send only a single, enormously powerful entity to Earth. Thus starts a chain reaction that will change more than humanity.

Robert Reed is a master, and it shows. “An Equation of State” is political SF polished to a shine, and draws you through it, never letting up. I would gladly have read an entire novel in this vein. However, the ending felt disjointed to me, and left me feeling disappointed. But if you’re a fan of Robert Reed, or of smooth, well written SF in general, you’re in for a treat.

A young boy realizes that people can be described in terms of mathematical functions: his father is an exponential, his brother a circle, and he himself a chaos function. And when he accidentally changes the function of his middle school crush, “The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer really takes off.

I liked “The Equationist.” It felt full of a youthful optimism, and made me feel like the world was a pretty nice place in spite of everything going on. It then swung an emotional arc through nostalgia, the warmth of friendship, and a sense of wonder and possibly, to be rudely crushed by a coming of age moment. And who knows, maybe people really are mathematical functions.

A dispossessed noblewoman turned hat maker, turned assassin. This is Biantera, the hero of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s “A Feather in Her Cap.” And the story’s moral might be: if you’re going to hire an assassin, make sure to pay them or kill them. Biantera’s client does neither, and the ensuring mayhem and vengeance-driven skullduggery is a treat to read.

“A Feather in Her Cap” is a wonderful bit of historical caper, taking place in a Venice of thieves and milliners, scoundrels and richer scoundrels, and it’s only flaw is the length: I would gladly have spent several hundred pages immersed in Biantera’s revenge – it’s pure fun!