Realms of Fantasy, October 2006

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"Marriage Game" by Susan J. Kroupa
"Dead Man’s Tale" by Billie Aul
"Sunday" by Alethea Kontis

"Blood of Virgins" by David Barr Kirtley     
"Snake Charmer" by Amanda Downum
"Myths & Legends" by Kathe Koja
"A Fish Story" by Sarah Totton
The October 2006 issue of Realms of Fantasy (RoF) kicks off with "Marriage Game" by Susan J. Kroupa. In it, two husband-and-wife ghosts spend a day playing what they call the Game, earning points off one another by seeing if they can guess and manipulate the actions of a married couple on vacation in Lincoln City, Oregon. Points are earned as they follow the couple into a chocolate shop, and various sweetmeats are sampled by the "F ’n’ Bs" (flesh-and-bone humans) and wagered on by the ghosts. Eventually, they follow the corporeal couple back to where they are staying and watch them have a marital dispute over something trivial that’s never made clear.

While I found the playful tone of this short piece somewhat entertaining, I was expecting a better payoff at the end. An unexpected surprise saying something about the human spirit (no pun intended) to really slam this one home. But that never happened. Then again, this was a light piece so maybe my expectations were too high. But the humor wasn’t really all that clever, so I think my expectation of something more poignant was not unreasonable. Also, this story is very reminiscent of the 1937 film Topper starring Gary Grant and Constance Bennett, a screwball comedy about a fun-loving couple of ghosts pestering their stodgy corporeal friend. I really don’t see where seventy years later this needed to be done again.

"Dead Man’s Tale" by Billie Aul is a mystery story, à la Faerie meets Sam Spade. Or in this case, Samantha "Sam" Thompson, PI, who is hired by the Undead Anti-Defamation Association to discover what really happened to Anasztazsius Talaj, a member of the undead who was dismembered by his gay lover. If Talaj would just reanimate himself and reassemble his body parts, then everything would be fine, but something is keeping him from doing so. The story follows Sam Thompson in her investigation to discover whodunit.

Lovers of both mystery and high fantasy genres will no doubt enjoy this blending of the two. The narrative is rather tongue in cheek, which I liked, but at ten thousand words, I thought it went on a little too long. It seemed to ramble in places and could have used some tightening. Also, much is made of the description of the interior of homes and offices, where I would have liked a little more treatment to the worldbuilding. I was fascinated by the Flood that flushed Faerie folk from their underground domains and forced we humans to accept them, albeit grudgingly, into our society. I just found myself not that captivated by the plot which, like many mystery stories, hinges on coincidence. But if you’re a fan of detective stories, this might be up your dark alley.

In her novelette, "Sunday," Alethea Kontis combines three fairy tales to retell the classic "The Frog Prince." "Cinderella" and "Jack and the Beanstalk" are the other two. I could give you the setup and the basic plot, but rest assured there’s much kissing of frogs, attending of balls, and a magic bean or five. There wasn’t really anything here that I didn’t see coming, but as with the retelling of just about any fairy tale, it’s more the journey and not any epiphany or surprise ending. Kontis handles all these elements quite well, though a couple of scenes did feel a bit rushed. Example: when the female protagonist is at the second ball, a few jealous maidens jump her, kick her, then rip her dress to shreds. A few snarky lines of dialogue foreshadowing the physical assault would have set this scene up better, I feel, and created more dramatic tension as well. As it’s presented, the violent attack came out of the blue and strained my suspension of disbelief. But that’s a small detail in a story where overall the writing was very good to excellent. I could take up much space deconstructing this even further, but that’s really not the point with a retelling like this. The point is to enjoy it. And I doubt few who appreciate this time-honored sub-class of the folktale will be disappointed. But to give you a little idea of what’s in store, the protag is named Sunday because she’s the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. Her mother’s name is Seven and she’s named all her daughters after the days of the week, Sunday being the youngest. Need I say more? This one is fun!

"Blood of Virgins" by David Barr Kirtley is a clever tale of dragons and college life. Chris is a freshman at college who is harboring two big secrets. Not only is he a virgin, but he’s afraid of dragons. And afraid he should well be, because dragons like to drink the blood of virgins, making him a most desirable target. Thing is, having one’s own dragon to ride is a status symbol, much like having a fast car. Soon Chris meets another virgin named Miranda at a meeting of the Campus Greens. A left-wing hippie-type, she is opposed to the widespread use of dragons. The two of them hookup, and though Miranda and Chris share a bed on occasion, she is saving herself for a man who truly loves her. (Funny, I thought it was only right-wing conservative types who did that.) Chris is confused because he’s not sure if he wants to have sex with Miranda because he loves her, because he lusts after her, or because if he loses his virginity he won’t feel the ravenous eyes of every dragon he passes, thirsting for his chaste blood.

I thought this one a bit silly at first, drawing the analogy to a young man’s first car and his first time of having sex to this single fantasy element, but Kirtley’s skillful handling of the pace throughout saved what might have been a disaster in another writer’s hands. This story really could be subjected to deep Jungian analysis, examining the dragons in this modern society as an archetype analogous to many temptations and social pressures on our own. Personally, I didn’t think there were any virgins in college anymore, but Kirtley made me believe in them, as well as dragons. This story has more depth than its light premise implies.

In "Snake Charmer," Amanda Downum tells us that the dragon is dying. Even Simon feels it. Someone will eat the dragon’s heart and take its power. But before Simon can do so, he must join up with Mary Snakebones and her sister who’s a snake dancer at a nightclub known as The Garden of Eden. There, Mary’s sister is abducted at gunpoint, and the chase is on into the dark night.

This one is difficult to review because, though it has many admirable qualities, I really can’t recommend it. I’ve read three of Downum’s stories in the recent past—"Wrack," "Dogtown" and "Flotsam"—and enjoyed all three greatly. Here, the level of writing is just as superb, and the dark underworld is portrayed as well as any I’ve ever seen. Visually, it’s stunning, and the world leaps off the page like film noir refulgent with flaming color. The tension is great, and the situation desperate. My only problem is that I couldn’t care about the characters. Rather like cyberpunk in the late ’80s, after the luster of the neon wore off and the thought of plugging things into one’s head grew old, I lost interest, mainly due to my lack of affinity with any of the nogoodniks. Not that I’m advocating the converse with a cast of Pollyannas cluttering the fictional landscape, but I do need to feel something for the protag for me to get caught up in the story. There’s some fine writing here, but the author failed to make me sympathetic toward the main character, Simon. Nor did I feel antipathy either. Near the end, I must admit that Simon does become more attractive and engaging, but by then it’s too late. I really do think this could have worked, but Downum seemed so distracted by the action of the plot and the slickness of the prose that she forgot that fiction is about people the reader can root for, and that stylistic brilliance can never compensate for that. But this is all very subjective on my part, so if this kind of narrative appeals to you, give it a whirl. I guarantee you will see it visually.

In "Myths & Legends," Kathe Koja deconstructs the very act of creation. High school student Elise has an assignment due tomorrow: "Write a one-act play (three pages, at least two characters) about one of the Myths or Legends on the topic list." She finally chooses leprechauns. This is a fairly short story and one that’s nearly plotless. It’s late at night, and Elise struggles along with the dialogue, eventually putting herself and her boyfriend, Davy, in the play. One gets the feeling that Koja is up to something here, but I never really could figure out exactly what. I kept seeing her at her PC, projecting her mind into Elise sitting at her PC, trying to find something important to say. The narrative tends to ramble, and I would have liked it better if more interaction between Elise and her family, who are barely introduced, were included. Or maybe Davy, despite the late hour, calling her on her cell or something. But our budding young author (Elise not Koja) is too tired to even check her email. As to the play, I’m sure Elise passes with flying colors the next day, because in high school just showing up with some sort of effort will usually earn you a B minus in creative writing class. Assuming you can spell correctly, and I’m hoping Elise wasn’t too tired and forgot to use her spellchecker. I’ll leave it up to each reader to decide what grade Koja gets on this one. The fact that she sold it to RoF means she passed with this "assignment," but I wouldn’t necessarily give her an A plus.

Sarah Totton’s "A Fish Story" is one of the quirkiest little tales I’ve read in quite a while, and I say that in a good way. In the Vale of Brecon resides a lady named Dagmar. who is anything but. Despite spending two years at finishing school, she is a very uncouth, obnoxious young woman. Still, she harbors romantic feelings for Henry, the bell tower boy. Henry’s job is to climb the tower twice each day where he "plays" five enormous bronzed fish, making them echo by banging them together. Henry is recognized by the community as one of the better practitioners of the art of fish-clattering. To get his attention, Dagmar sits below the tower playing her bangy-wurdle, a musical instrument of the insane, the bizarrely eccentric, and the lower classes. She uses it to accompany her vocal proclamations of love. (Which sound quite cacophonous, I’m sure.) But Henry wants nothing to do with her, so he empties a water pail out the tower window. Cold and wet, Dagmar goes home, where her hand freezes on the doorknob, and, after much screaming, she is unthawed by her fondest friend Eora, the duchess’s daughter who lives next door.
I could go on, but I really don’t want to ruin this charming story for you. And I’m sure my synopsis above sounds quite ridiculous, but when the author is telling it, it works. It doesn’t really matter what Totton is writing about here, although there is a distinctive story. It’s the quirky narrative style she’s adopted that makes it come alive. She could just as easily be writing about beekeepers on the moon or some such nonsense, and it would work. There were times when I was shaking my head in disbelief, wondering why I was being pulled along by the impossibilities of this tale, but for some reason I couldn’t stop reading. While quite absurd, this story adheres to its own intrinsic logic. I haven’t even told you the part about how fishing and the big fish that got away figure into the tale. And I’m not going to. This is one you’ll just need to discover for yourself. Enjoy and luxuriate.

Out of the seven stories in this issue, my favorites are "Sunday" by Alethea Kontis, "Blood of Virgins" by David Barr Kirtley, and "A Fish Story" by Sarah Totton.