"The Cardinal's Cats" by Cherith Baldry
"Sonnets Made of Wood" by Leah Bobet
"The Chamber of Forgetting" by Sarah Prineas
"The Wild Man" by Caitlin Matthews
"The Secret of Making Brains" Joe Murphy
"Talent" by Laura Anne Gilman
A more appropriate title for the December 2004 issue of Realms of Fantasy might be Realms of Darkness. This issue of revolves around a theme of human darkness. Betrayal of family, torture, abuse, and other horrid creations of humanity are explored in this issue. The authors tend to leave the stories slightly bitter, rejecting the glossy shimmer of a fairytale happy ending for the brooding gloom of reality lighted by only a flickering candle of hope.
Cherith Baldry's "The Cardinal's Cats" is a fine blend of whimsy and menace. Set in Cardinal Richelieu's France, and primarily featuring Soumise, the cardinal's favorite cat, the story builds slowly to an exciting climax. In Baldry's world, the cats are as intelligent as the humans (if not more), and when Soumise discovers a plot against her cardinal, she rallies the cardinal's bevy of cats in an effort to save Richelieu. I found Baldry's subtle touches when describing Soumise's relationship with Richelieu to be powerful and intriguing. Even though Richelieu adores Soumise, the cat clearly thinks of the cardinal as her property, and at times seems to be concerned for him only as a means of self-preservation, or as a point of honor. There is a certain irony in a cat thinking of the most powerful man in France as a possession. But on occasion, a hint of tenderness can be detected from the cat's perspective. Careful and understated touches like that were my favorite parts of this story. Anyone who shares a life with an animal companion will likely enjoy "The Cardinal's Cats."
"Sonnets Made of Wood" by Leah Bobet is graced with lovely language. Bobet shows a flair for crafting sentences that seem lyrical while they conjure imagery of fantastic people and lands. The slight formality of the language suits the somber mood of the work. Bobet's first sentence is incredible, immediately drawing the reader into the tale. "It was an ill-luck marriage from the very first, and so nobody was surprised when the lady vanished." "Sonnets" can be interpreted many ways, heedless of the narrator's insistence that "this is a story, simple and unadorned," with no moral lesson or wise warning. The story has what might be interpreted as a feminist slant when the narrator speaks regretfully about the cruelty of men and the foolishness of the women who are drawn to the harsh excitement of men. I felt the story would have been stronger if Bobet had left part IV out. That portion was well written, but it seemed to add little to the rest of the story, and almost acted as a miniature story of its own. Illustrator Matt Hughes deserves a special mention for his amazing artwork for this story.
"The Chamber of Forgetting" by Sarah Prineas seems timely considering the recent American abuses during interrogations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In this compelling tale, Prineas explores the nature of human darkness through the eyes of a once amoral, highly skilled assassin who has been mind-wiped via a magical chamber. The new Mattamdar has no recollection of his brutal past, nor does he remember the horrible torture that he went through at the hands of his captors. Even in his physically and mentally crippled state, Mattamdar terrifies his captors, who remember how deadly he once was. But Mattamdar seems to have no motivation to recreate his old persona, and his captors are left to deal with the moral questions regarding the disposal of the new Mattamdar. Prineas deftly captured the mental growth of the new Matt, and also the evolving understanding of Captain Benedic, the soldier most responsible for Mattamdar's care. Prineas also creates moving imagery with the garden scene, in which the previously implacable killer is taught to play like a child with the king's daughter. Prineas pulled no punches when bringing the story to its inexorable conclusion, which left me with a lingering respect for the author.
Caitlin Matthews's "The Wild Man" is more Arthurian historical fiction than fantasy. The author opens as well as Bobet, with a gripping introduction to the story that ensnares the reader. The haunting mists and grotesque war crimes of this dark tale left me feeling like I was reading Edgar Allan Poe. Matthews's use of language was flawless, leaving the impression that a medieval warlord was indeed relating a story of horror, tragedy, vengeance, and redemption. I enjoyed the way the author humanized King Arthur, showing his fear, anger, and guilt. The emotional connection to the characters, including Cunedda the wild man, made the threatening gloom of the setting seem all the more real. As I read "The Wild Man" my blood ran cold, much as the narrator promised. I felt this was the most powerful piece in the magazine. I will be looking for more of Caitlin Matthews's excellent work.
"The Secret of Making Brains" is a complex story, and one that took me three careful readings to appreciate. Author Joe Murphy presents various contradictions and puzzles in this story about a bizarre rural family that crafts artificially intelligent automatons to populate an abandoned town. The story continues the dark and sinister theme that runs through this entire issue. Sprokly's malignant cousins are the overt form of the chilling undercurrent, but Grampser's cold smile and low throaty chuckle raised my hackles even more. Murphy's story, while an interesting puzzle, may be inaccessible to some readers at its deeper levels.
"Talent" by Laura Anne Gilman is a different kind of ghost story, about ego, greed, and possession. An old pool hall operator keeps a wary eye on an old, washed-up player named Eddie who smells of "mothballs and dirt," especially when Eddie seems to pay too much attention to Betsy, a young new talent. I've never cared for the noir style of narration, which makes me a biased critic of the story. But for a fairly simple tale, Gilman does a good job of putting on nice touches to add atmosphere.
In my opinion, this issue of Realms of Fantasy was very good. The stories explore the darkness that can be found in humans without flinching from the gruesome task. The lingering impact of a few of the tales might provoke thought among introspective readers.