Realms of Fantasy, August 2004

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"The Angel's Daughter" by Jay Lake
"The Smell of Magic" by Mike Lewis
"The Water Castle" by Jay Lake
"Words & Music" by Kate Riedel
"The Right God" by Richard Parks
"Elfrithe's Ghost" by Kij Johnson
"The Laily Worm" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
"Falling With Wings" by Devon Monk

"Folkroots" Terri Windling

ImageI was delighted to find that my first review of Realms of Fantasy (RoF) coincided with one of the best issues I have recently read. I have been receiving the magazine for over a year, but the writing in this issue seemed especially charged with emotion. Themes of love and hope in dangerous settings abound, and there are clever ideas well executed within almost every story. Editor Shawna McCarthy was in excellent form this issue, and had some great fiction from which to choose.

I thought "The Angel's Daughter" by Jay Lake was a fun little story. The break from the casual voice of the beginning and ending paragraphs to the more formal storytelling style seemed slightly abrupt, but I thought the humor in the opening and ending was clever enough to make up for the lack of transition. I was most captivated by the description of the lad's songs, and I felt those three paragraphs were some of the most pretty I have read. Much of what is good about the human condition was in those songs, and through them, I feel Lake leaves a warm, lingering impact on the reader.

Mike Lewis expertly explores jealousy in "The Smell of Magic." I was pleased with Lewis' use of the sense of smell in this short story. Many writers forget that scent is powerfully evocative; factual studies show that scent easily triggers memory and emotion. In addition to making an acute sense of smell the main "power" of the protagonist, Lewis helps ground the story–helps the reader suspend disbelief–by mentioning the smells of various things and people throughout. These observations seem casual, but the smells seem to have symbolic meaning some cases. Lewis' ending leaves some questions unanswered when he seems to allow the reader to decide whether the deceased really was "cursed." I think the "naming" was based on jealousy, but there may be room for debate, and each reader will have to decide for themselves.

Jay Lake's second story in this month's RoF is much longer than the first, and much more intense. War, slavery, murder, and suicide are featured prominently in "The Water Castle," perhaps in order to highlight a message of peace and hope. Atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict in this tale make it difficult to cheer for either, but the sickening head worms and murderous actions of the Poison People tended to turn me against them. Lake wrote a dark story here, one that snuck up on me at odd moments, like here: "Maizie whimpered and cursed, but let herself be seated on a stool and shaved with an eerie gentleness by an old man and a small boy who never spoke to her or each other, yet worked with near-perfect coordination." I found that passage creepy, and a great tension builder, and Lake has several other good ones in "The Water Castle." I would have liked to see this story much longer, and with a less abrupt ending. I was not satisfied with Arcadia's fate. But Robert's swim in the last sentence was poetic, and that helped make up for the odd finish.

Kate Riedel's "Words & Music" baffled me. I liked the writing style, which seemed to have a lot of personality, but the ending made no sense to me at all. If there was a link between Sophe's Methodism, her time learning the bookstore trade, and the mysterious characters (like Jake, the Sefer Briyah girl, and the Necronomicon "buyer") I completely failed to see it. So while I enjoyed the dialog, the imagery, the bookstore setting, and the first part of the plot, I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed to leave absolutely everything up in the air. Rarely does a magazine contain only stories that I like, and this one was the miss for me in this issue.

In contrast to Riedel's story, the next tale, "The Right God" by Richard Parks, made perfect sense to me. Set in a contemporary USA, where minor gods and spirits are awakening all over the place, the story has a whimsical style, but that is balanced by the pragmatic and unromantic nature of the main character, Don Lang. "The Right God" seems to be about the struggles that we all face while we look for meaning and direction in our lives. There are overtones of disconnectedness and alienation that reminded me of the movie Lost In Translation, but those depressing moments seemed well contrasted by the humor of Don's situation with Rockball, and the strange events occurring in the wider setting. Overall I enjoyed this story.

I was so excited to see a story by Kij Johnson that I skipped to her story, "Elfrithe's Ghost," and read it before any of the others. I fell in love with Johnson's writing a while back when I read "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" on SCIFICTION. (The story is still available for free in the SCIFICTION archives.) I was not as excited when I saw that the story was only one page, but Johnson did well with that page, wasting no words, and by the time I finished I felt reassured that Johnson is in as fine a form as ever. She seems to have a special gift for writing poignant stories, stories that linger sadly and sweetly long after the last word has been read. Don't miss this one, and while you're at it, go to SCIFICTION and read "At the Mouth of the River of Bees."

Every sentence of "The Laily Worm," by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, delighted me. Stories like this one are the exact reason that I read fantasy. I googled her at once and found out that she has been called "this generation's Ray Bradbury." Hoffman creates a sense of wonder in this setting filled with whispering trees, "the hiss of sand sliding over itself…under the surface of water rushing," and the languages of fire and snow. Like Perry, the main character, I grew to love the harsh northern land of the tale's setting. Hoffman creates images masterfully and conjures moving scenes, like when Masery soothes her brother Perry with her silver comb. The idea of awakening memory through the strokes of a comb was elegant and touching, just one example of Hoffman's vibrant imagery. Some of the memories: "our real mother…giving me a peppermint drop to quiet me as she combed some nasty tangles from my hair…hot biscuits and butter on a cold winter morning…baths in front of the fire…sap sugar candy at the harvest fair." Hoffman builds a world subtly, unobtrusively, by sharing Perry's memories, and in doing so helps the reader suspend disbelief. I was very impressed with this story, and I will be looking for more of Hoffman's work.

In an ugly world of brown clouds, fields of garbage, rotted hills, waist-deep oil, sewage, and burning chemicals, Devon Monk tells a story of tenderness and love. In "Falling With Wings," Dawn and Setham, not much more than children themselves, struggle to survive and raise babies discarded from the skyworld above. "Dead things, broken things, rust and filth, bob in the muck and sewage, stare with tumored eyes, cut, sting, bite." From that muck Setham digs the babies, and his ragtag band of orphans raises them. While Monk's setting and plot seemed unlikely to me (children do not seem to care for each other in real life the way Monk imagines here), I was still touched by the story. The imagery of the toxic world that mutated the children, presumably granting them their wings, seemed both a rant against pollution and a prayer that something uplifting might come from it in the end. The story of deep caring, acceptance, and affection between Setham, Dawn, and most of the other children seemed hopeful, wistful, and was made even more so by the contrasting post-apocalyptic wasteland setting. Overall, in my opinion, this is an excellent story.

Terri Windling's exhaustive examination of "Little Red Riding Hood" seems as detailed and well researched as her usual columns, and even though Tangent primarily reviews the fiction portions of RoF, I think Windling deserves credit here for her hard work.

In my opinion, this issue of Realms of Fantasy was outstanding. Many of the stories had a lingering impact on me, which I feel is a mark of excellent writing. The issue also works well as a whole work, which is a result of the thoughtful editing.