Realms of Fantasy, June 2011–100th Issue
“The Ground Whereon She Stands” by Leah Bobet
“Escaping Salvation” by Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson
“The Economy of Powerful Emotion” by Sharon Mock
“The Good Husband” by Thea Hutchison
“The Equation” by Patrick Samphire
“Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy” by Euan Harvey
“The Tides of the Heart” by David D. Levine
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
This is an outsized issue to celebrate Realms of Fantasy’s 100th issue (100 pages to match), a timely milestone to mark its resurrection as a magazine. It contains seven stories; a decent set overall, though none stood out particularly in my mind.
Leah Bobet’s “The Ground Whereon She Stands” is a well written tale of unrequited love, anchored in the fantastic. Our narrator Lisbet finds herself saddled with an aesthetically and aromatically pleasing but nonetheless inconvenient enchantment, which causes flowers to sprout from her feet constantly. She suspects her friend Alice, a “herb woman,” to be behind it all, for reasons that soon become clear. The story is grounded in a certain poeticism, with Bobet blending its fantastic elements into the narrative in the style of magic realism. The magic is essential—it shows us the nature of Alice’s relationship with Lizzy, and it represents the thorny tangle of emotions that brews inside a person when love is withheld. The story is open-ended, romantic without being cloying, and filled with beautiful, delicately crafted imagery and language that observes its own rhythm:
“She clipped the branches clean when they battered on the windows in summertime.”
My favorite story in the issue.
“Escaping Salvation” by Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson, achieving a stylistic consistency and narrative unity despite co-authorship, veers into the familiar, dusty landscapes of post-apocalyptic America, replete with nomadic tribal survivors and scarcity of resources (in this case, water being the most vital). They set apart their own look at this now thoroughly overused territory with the introduction of a unique supernatural threat—dust angels, dangerous sentient beings that manifest out of dust and other materials and need to be killed before they materialize fully and become more powerful, after which their magical body parts are salvaged for various uses. The story follows Lizzy and Roe, two angel hunters who get trapped by a dust-storm (pregnant with potential dust angels) and end up having to take shelter in a tent-town where things aren’t quite right.
The piece is dryly written,with the angels barely sketched out, despite various characters remarking on how horrifying they are. They feel generic because of Lizzy’s uninspired voice and narration, which finds fit to repeatedly remark on “those eyes” (referring to the eyes of a dust angel) in amazement without giving us any picture of what the eyes look like, or why they’re so hypnotic in their influence. None of the characters really held my interest, and the final act of the story is saddled with an extended expository infodump that ironically demystifies the intriguing dust angels with an uninspired origin myth. Still, the story entertains well enough with its brisk pacing and action, and delivers some evocative ideas and imagery, such as the harvesting of angel body parts, and the manifestation of the angels themselves. The note the conclusion strikes also resonated well.
Sharon Mock’s “The Economy of Powerful Emotion” is a subversion of fairy-tale tropes, using the narrative style of the same. This results, of course, in a certain distance from emotion and characters, but the story is worthwhile for its take on the venerable genre. Mock gives us a tale revolving around a princess who weeps jewels, resulting in her lifelong role as the coffers to her greedy father’s kingdom, though his voracious need for her product leads to its devaluation in the surrounding economy. A prince in a much poorer enemy kingdom takes it upon himself to seek the princess out and pluck her from this exploitation.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Mock does clever things with this basic story, showing us the hidden facets of what might have been a traditional fairytale and thus expanding its reach and scope. We see a young woman growing into herself and seeing the shackles that bind her, and we see the far-reaching effects of one curse on a kingdom’s economy and subjects in a wonderfully woven tapestry of narrative threads. The curse and the “witch” behind it are not without their reasons either. It’s all quickly covered and lightly drawn, but dense in its implications and meanings. Despite the simple, clear writing, there is a surprising complexity to the story. It’s not without its lovely images either:
“As her tears spilled they turned to stone and fell into her lap. Morning light shone through the falling diamonds, covering her face with tiny rainbows.”
Worth reading, even if you’re wary of re-imagined fairy-tales (as I am; and I say that as a devoted Neil Gaiman fan).
Thea Hutchison’s “The Good Husband” tells the familiar story of a man being taken into the home of a woman who lives alone in the countryside (this time during the end of the American Civil War), and finding things different than they seem at first. However, it breaks down the dichotomy of good and evil when it comes to such stories, and tries to look at the concept of a “witch” and, indeed, a “husband” from a different angle.
I wasn’t a fan of some of the prose in this story, which becomes so filled with repetitive fertile imagery that it starts to sound like a florid romantic novel, with plump bosoms heaving and muscles glistening. The tactile language is necessary, though (I just wish it had been better executed), as the story’s trying to liken the sexual connection between man and woman with the bond between “man” and nature. This is interesting, to say the least, especially considering the role of Keeler, the woman in the story, as a “mother” figure who needs a man’s hand to bring her land and her womb to fruit. The knotty implications of this make for a fascinating read, and a satisfying internal debate about whether the story is ultimately sexist (towards women) in its attempted sympathy for its brand of witchcraft. I’m not convinced it is, but I often wondered whether the reductive linking of woman to nature to be tilled (powerful, but still passive, waiting for man) is healthy. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t seem to necessarily argue for this view of man and woman, only to illustrate this paradigm through one character; Keeler, who might be considered a nymph/succubus or a witch, but a sympathetic one. It would be dangerous to see her as representing all women, or the man, Jody, as representing all men. The story is more about consent, respect and balance between man and nature, man and woman, rather than a stringent adherence to the metaphors it chooses to convey this. An interesting piece.
Patrick Samphire’s “The Equation” is a light story about a confrontation between magic and rationalism, embodied in the scenario of a guy, Cameron, meeting his high-school love, Rachel, in a cafe after more than a decade. We see which sides they’ve taken soon enough, with Rachel suspiciously employed by their sinister science teacher from way back, and Cameron traveling around the world trying to weed out and preserve magic (which, incidentally, he became aware of after their first kiss—a sweet touch). It reads how it sounds; quite superficial in its conflict, and while the rapport between the characters is pleasant, the story doesn’t give it time to develop into something truly worth rooting for. Furthermore, the back story involving the science teacher is downright preposterous, and the ending felt very rushed and silly to me. The discussions of magic, while not very original, do bring some energy to the table; “There’s magic…in a baby’s first breath, in an old man crying.” Cameron’s recognition of Rachel in the beginning is breezy and charming, and I wished the story had been more about the two of them (Rachel gets short shrift as a character, mainly serving as just a mouthpiece for one side of a debate the author and narrator have clearly already decided the outcome of).
Euan Harvey’s “Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy” is a quasi-transcript of a historical document from Han dynasty China, which has been passed down and redacted and edited by at least two different individuals. This might appear to evoke Umberto Eco’s work, but Harvey eschews the metafictional route, instead using the narrative framework of the story-within-a-story simply to give his straight-up historical fantasy/horror story a few more layers for the reader to unwrap. The skill with which he crafts his tale ensures that you’ll enjoy unwrapping those extra layers, and revealing the pattern of the whole. The central story is that of Yu Kung, who, having been told by a sorcerer that he will die in three days, decides to defy death and ends up paying a hefty price for doing so. He tells a Baron his story, and the Baron tells someone else, who writes it all down for a reason that makes sense by the conclusion.
A well written fantasy that elegantly evokes its time and place, weaving mythology into a personal tale of men trying to direct their own fates in a world that asks that they not. The tyranny of their Emperor begins to reflect the tyranny of time and fate.
David D. Levine’s “The Tides of the Heart” sees Lou, an occult plumber who handles sensitive situations involving water spirits for the Guild (a supernatural watchdog institution that oversees the balance between the worlds of humans and magical entities). Think nixie clogging the kitchen sink. When she finds a powerful undine trapped in an old building about to be demolished, she stumbles upon a secret that stretches back to the foundational history of Portland, and suddenly finds herself both enamoured with the lovely water spirit and trying to save it for the sake of the entire city.
This one brushes up close to being ‘quirky’ enough to irritate me, sacrificing an investment of emotion in the characters and events for a lighter tone. There’s nothing wrong with that, in essence, but unfortunately most comical or quirky fantasy that I come across just isn’t that funny or unique in quirk factor. Levine’s story isn’t hilarious, or that unusual, and I’m not sure it’s even meant to be—but it is light in a way a souffle is, enjoyable enough, but insubstantial, leaving me unfulfilled. I never really felt the danger to the city, or Lou’s love for this marvelous, stunning creature. It all feels like reading a story that’s hitting the notes it wants to, instead of being immersed in a world where undines can be found languishing in bathtubs and creating riverquakes. Lou can be a likeable narrator, but her relationship with the undine, Naïda, is disappointingly shallow, revealing little about what it might feel like to fall for a goddess. Naïda herself has little personality. There are precious few moments where I felt like I was seeing something unique and special, such as the point at which Lou observes that the creature’s “skin felt like water-skiing, wet and soft and warm, firm yet vibrantly resistant.”
Not a weak story by any means, but it falls short of the potential provided by its premise.
A solid issue with no standouts, though Bobet, Mock and Harvey’s offerings impress in their own quiet ways.