Realms of Fantasy, August 2007

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Image “Waiting at the Door” by Cherith Baldry
“Little Miss Apocalypse” by Christopher Barzak
“A Trade in Serpents” by Alan Smale
“MetaPhysics” by Elizabeth M. Glover
“Restless in My Hand” by Tim Pratt
“Time Tells All” by Way Jeng

“Waiting at the Door” by Cherith Baldry offers a new twist on the child stolen by fairies theme, told from the viewpoint of one of the immortals.  The Fair Folk are not noted for their compassion.  They are usually shown as proud, vain, selfish, shallow, arrogant, and cruel.  But perhaps one who was himself suffering from rejection and betrayal might feel a moment of empathy for a human rejected and betrayed.  Only a fleeting impulse—but enough to open the door to pain and start a life-changing chain reaction.

Lord Corydalis, once the favorite of Queen Myrrhis, has been displaced by Eranthis.  When a human woman comes searching for her stolen child, and the queen plays games with her to amuse herself and the court, Corydalis aids the woman.  His motives, at first, are jealousy and the desire to discomfit Eranthis.  The woman is grateful for what she sees as unexpected kindness, until the queen reveals that Corydalis was the one who stole her child.

“He thought he would never forget the searing look of shock and betrayal the woman had turned on him before she fled after the servant, out of the realm of the Fair Folk.”  Thus begins a voyage of self-discovery, fueled by admiration for the woman’s courage and the strength of her selfless love for her child.  Corydalis’s life seems empty and pointless by comparison.  He thinks at first he can somehow make amends, make the woman happy again and so ease his own pain and self-loathing.  It turns out to be far harder than he expected.

Can a leopard change its spots?  Can a lord of faerie feel guilt?  I don’t know, but Baldry presents a very convincing character transformation.

“Little Miss Apocalypse” by Christopher Barzak is a bit of a downer, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn us.  It’s about enduring love, but a rather sick form of it, in my opinion.

Aidan, attracted to Eve from the start, manages to avoid her for two years.  “Whenever she caught my eye, I’d look down into my cup… I thought if I got too close, I might cease to exist.  I wasn’t stupid.  The flame-attracted moth always gets singed.”  So Aidan, in the name of his version of realism or common sense, expects to get hurt.  A self-fulfilling prophecy?

Once they get together, and we see that Eve is even more pessimistic and emotionally fragile than Aidan, she tells him “The world doesn’t always provide a happy ending.”  So we’re prepared for heartache and disaster right from the start.

Add to the mixture that Aidan is the only child of miserable, battling parents so has very little concept of a normal relationship.  Eve’s mother committed suicide and her estranged father is dying of cancer.  Eve, who may or may not be bipolar, carries the curse that drove her mother over the edge; she not only sees and talks to ghosts, but she is aware of spirits trying to leave their bodies.  She sees the approach of death.  All of this makes for a depressing situation. 

I was hoping the characters were going to grow and evolve, that they might rise above the circumstances and some good would come of it.  The inclusion of the insightful and sympathetic psychology professor added fuel to that hope.  But in the end, I was disappointed.  I suspect Edgar Allan Poe would have liked this story better than I did.

“A Trade in Serpents” by Alan Smale begins with historical fact: Benjamin Franklin’s tongue-in-cheek recommendation that the colonies export rattlesnakes to England as a fair exchange for the criminals being transported to America.  But then the author asks himself a number of intriguing questions.  What if Franklin actually had the ability to carry out his suggestion?  What if the man of so many accomplishments were really many people—multiple personalities inhabiting one body—and one of those personalities, perhaps unknown to the others, was adept in the black arts?  What if a plague of super-snakes invaded London, all of them bigger, faster, and more aggressive than their natural counterparts, with a particular disposition for attacking politicians and the aristocracy?  What if the British authorities, acting in desperation, took Franklin into custody and tried to persuade him to confess and to call off his snakes?  The veneer of civilization is still thin; even among educated people there are thoughts of witchcraft and pacts with the devil.

Add to all this the family drama of Mr. Finny, charged with housing and interrogating Mr. Franklin.  Mrs. Finny has left the household.  Eight-year-old Alice misses her mother, gets scant attention from her busy father, and has recurring nightmares of being attacked by rattlesnakes. She and Franklin become friends.  Young Simon Finny is a bully who enjoys teasing his sister and thinks he knows far better than his father how to deal with Franklin.  And then there are a gang of thugs who try to take the matter into their own hands.  Stir it all together with great care and you have a well-crafted suspenseful adventure, definitely worth reading.

“MetaPhysics” by Elizabeth M. Glover is a delightful tale of what might happen when an agent of the devil, looking for souls to snatch, encounters a self-confident young woman, secure in her atheism, but with a profound faith in the laws of science—or perhaps it’s just a strong grounding in reality.  Having dismissed Pascal’s Wager as nonsensical, she proceeds to clobber the demon with statements of physical laws.  The results are hilarious.

“Restless in My Hand” by Tim Pratt features a magical axe delivered a bit late to its rightful inheritor.  The axe has been held in trust for generations, waiting for a curse to be played out and a male heir to be born.  Had he received the axe on schedule, at the age of fifteen, Richard might have been willing to listen to its whispering, to follow it to war in another world.  But now?  He has a wife and son.  How could he leave them to go adventuring?  And when his wife dies, the need to care for his son is even stronger. 

The axe does its best to entice him away, but Richard stands firm.  And so, the axe finally begins to sing to his son, instead.  Did Richard make the right choices?  I think so.

“Time Tells All” by Way Jeng explodes the myth that all men are actively seeking happiness.  Steven leads a quiet, peaceful life with no friends, no parties, no excitement.  He likes it that way.  He knows his heart defects are going to kill him, probably sooner than later, but he’s accepted the situation and found a comfort zone.  A mature, responsible man, he doesn’t want to cause anyone pain by allowing them to get too attached to him.

Then Happiness and Fate move into the house across the street.  Yes, the real immortal Happiness and Fate, not just some girls with funny names.  Fate had decided Steven deserved a better life, but it’s Happiness, with her bubbly party-girl personality, who pursues him.  “I know what guys want,” she tells her more subdued sister.  But in this case she doesn’t.  Ever-polite Steven resists her manipulations until he’s finally had enough and yells, “I don’t want to have a drink, and I don’t want to meet everybody on the planet.  I want to be left alone, in silence, sober, like any sane human being.  Why do you keep pushing?”

Well, what’s an anthropomorphic representation to do?  She may fuss and sulk for a while, but it’s a well-known fact that Happiness is capricious and can’t be expected to stay around long-term.