Realms of Fantasy, October 2007

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“Everyone Bleeds Through” by Jack Skillingstead
“Save Me Plz” by David Barr Kirtley
“Roger Lambelin” by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake
“When the Train Calls Lonely” by Devon Monk
“Honest Man” by Naomi Kritzer
“Everyone Bleeds Through” by Jack Skillingstead explores the nature of parallel universes, where other worlds almost like this one exist, including not-quite carbon copies of the people in our world.  That means there are also other versions of you, and your awareness just might slip or "bleed through" from one to the other.  And maybe, just maybe, that strange hitchhiker you feel compelled to pick up is really the love of your life in one or more of those other worlds.

Rena, the hitchhiker, seems to do a lot of traveling from one "self" to another and has become quite knowledgeable about the phenomenon.  She also levitates when she meditates.

Perhaps it’s easier to slip through if one is emotionally open.  Dale had closed himself off, avoided entanglements, escaped, or so he thought, any commitments.  His encounter with Rena is the catalyst that dissolves his emotional barricades.  He "remembers" love, “Wholly and without reserve, all barriers down, the moat drained, guards sent home, portcullis raised and locked down, all my defensive weapons acquired in life (lives?) reforged to plowshares.”
Never mind logical, scientific details, like what happens to that other "you" in that other world when you slide in to take his place.  Or what happens to the "you" in your original world, when your awareness goes elsewhere.  Or are you really several places at once?  Do all your experiences in one world manifest in the others, with slightly different details?  Rena explains, after a fashion.  It all seems to be happening simultaneously somehow, with a large dose of fate or destiny mixed in, and it works—in the story, at least.  After all, this is fantasy, not science fiction.  We fantasy enthusiasts happily accept all sorts of strangeness, as long as the story’s internal logic remains consistent and the telling of it runs lyrically like a mountain brook dancing over the stones.  Which it does.

“Paper Cuts Scissors” by Holly Black takes us on a tour of the Dewey decimal system, in a bizarre library.  Fans of Jasper Fforde will recognize the concept of characters jumping from one book to another, although in this version, their activities are more restricted and only affect the books in Mr. Sandlin’s private collection.  And the collection, an eclectic hodge-podge that includes tattered paperbacks, hardcover reprints of classics, and even not-for-sale reviewer’s galleys, occupies a limitless maze-like space that brings to mind the magical Unseen University library of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.  Mr. Sandlin’s library had developed a reputation amongst lovers of books, and it was known that every year he hired another library student to work at organizing his collection.

As for the title, Justin’s fellow student, Sarah, is a tournament rock, paper, scissors player who easily bests Justin because he’s so predictable.  But maybe there’s more to Justin than is seen at first glance.  And one ought not to underestimate the power of paper, or the words printed thereon.

Justin wasn’t really interested in library science to begin with.  In fact, he was afraid of books, afraid of the adventures they took him on.  He likened the opening of a new book to jumping off a cliff with a bungee cord, never quite certain you wouldn’t hit the rocks below.  But his girlfriend, Linda, was enamored of books.  So Justin read, despite his anxieties, but that wasn’t enough for Linda.  She wanted them to both quit their jobs at the bookstore and enroll in library school, with the express purpose of meeting Sandlin and gaining access to his magical library.  They fought.  They argued.  Linda, who had already demonstrated the ability to put objects into books, folded herself up and inserted herself into a Russian novel. 

Justin frequently reads what he thinks of as Linda’s book, finding the story different every time he opens it, but with Linda always in some sort of peril.  He fears she may not know how to get out again.  Blaming himself for her situation, he embarks on a quest to become Mr. Sandlin’s library assistant so he can take Linda’s book into the magical library and rescue her.  As with most quests, things don’t go quite the way he anticipates, but he learns a lot about himself in the process.

“Save Me Plz” by David Barr Kirtley is a gamer’s dream…or nightmare.  If you’ve ever wished you could really inhabit the world of a computer game, with unlimited choices to explore, and alter your environment, with no fear of injury or reprisal because you could always start over, think again.  Or maybe it’s only fun for the person controlling the game?

Meg thinks she’s in charge of her life, that she makes her own decisions.  It’s only on a whim that she sets out looking for her ex-boyfriend, Devon, whom she hasn’t seen for several months.  She doesn’t think it the least bit odd that she carries a sword or is menaced by dog-sized spiders. 

Devon seems to have disappeared.  His roommate says he moved out after dropping out of college.  His mom thinks he’s still in school.  He doesn’t respond to e-mail.  Mutual friends haven’t seen him.  Growing more and more concerned, Meg finally becomes desperate enough to purchase and start playing "the game"—Realms of Eldritch, the multiplayer online game that Devon was always playing.  “Some of it was based on real life.  People carried magic swords, and many of the enemies were real, such as wolves or goblins or giant spiders.  And like in real life there was a gnome who sometimes appeared to give you quests or hints or items.”

Shades of Jumanji.  Look out Meg.  Or maybe it’s already too late for warnings.  I really liked the Narnia-like teaser at the end.

“Roger Lambelin” by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake is the saga of the Blood Red Knight who lived the “chivalrous life to the full, fighting every belted knight who challenged him and loving every woman who beckoned to him.”  His life is changed forever when he encounters a female knight, who goes by various names including Schneewittchen, Iceberg, and Fee des Neiges.  Roger is smitten, enchanted, obsessed.  “He lived for nothing greater then the sight of her smile beneath her broken nose.”  But his love is forever unattainable.

And if your true love, the center of your existence, disappears into the realm of the fairies, into the place dimly remembered from your nursery tales, do you not follow, no matter the cost? 

A tale of love and loyalty, friendship and trust, memories and choices, and above all integrity—being true to the right as you see it.  He was a noble knight.

“When the Train Calls Lonely” by Devon Monk is an old but timeless story: a young girl waiting faithfully for her man to come home from the war.  The twist is that Elisabeth is no ordinary girl.  Abandoned as a baby, she was raised by a woman who had just lost a baby and needed another to love.  She’s different from all the folks around: darker of skin, with yellow, green-flecked eyes that people find disturbing, especially if she looks at them overlong.  And she sees and hears ghosts, although that’s not a talent she advertises.  After her stepfather’s ghost tells her goodbye, she has frequent visitors, mostly the young men who passed through town on their way to war.  She thinks perhaps her stepfather sent them.  “Lots of men, some young, some old, all of them stopping by my room on the way to dying.  They came by when the train rumbled through town.  They stood by my bed wearing their Sunday best, and every one of them had things they wanted me to tell their kin.”

Elisabeth faithfully writes down their messages and mails them to their families.  During the day, she keeps busy with all the things women do when the men are off to war: doing both the men’s and women’s chores, tending the farm, keeping everything going until the men come home.  She lives with the heartbreak of seeing two of her adopted brothers on the way to the dreamlands, and prays that the other two, and her Johnny, will soon be coming home in the flesh.

An old story, but timely, with so many once again waiting for their spouses or sweethearts to come home.

Perhaps every truly honest person needs a friend who is able and willing to bend the rules a bit, as the occasion requires.  An offbeat sort of guardian angel, or maybe a "fairy godfather" who pops up at opportune moments.  “Honest Man” by Naomi Kritzer introduces an apparently ageless con man who really can tell the future, maybe even read minds.  When Iris first encounters him, he’s running a "Stradivarius" violin scam under the name of Leo Franklin.  “Leo like the lion, Franklin like the president.”

Iris, innocent and trusting, unintentionally messes up the deal he’s working on. He forgives her intrusion, explains to her that you really can cheat an honest man but he only cheats the dishonest, and offers her a prophetic gift: her Bennie will come home safely from the war, they’ll be married, have a boy and a girl, and many happy years together. 

The con man seems to have taken a liking to Iris.  Years later, “Joe Truman, Joe like the ballplayer, Truman like the President of the United States of America” shows up, a tramp willing to work for food.  Times are hard, but Iris offers him a meal, even before she recognizes him.  In return, he assures Iris that her sickly daughter will grow up well and strong, that both her children will become college professors, that Ben will go back to school and become a teacher, and Iris will work at a college.  Not daring to fully believe him, but aware his previous prediction came true, Iris muses “If it’s meant to be, we’ll find a way.” 

Many years later, Iris is recently widowed and discovers she has been conned out of a large sum of money, paid for faked bills.  Her children would certainly help her, but she doesn’t want to admit to anyone that she allowed herself to be scammed.  She remembers Leo/Joe and his statement that he only cons the dishonest—whereas her honesty and prompt paying of bills have allowed her to be victimized by a lowly sort who preys on the newly bereaved.  Who should conveniently show up but a still-young “Leo Clinton, Leo like the boy who went down with the Titanic, Clinton like the President of the United States of America.” He asks whether his first prediction came true, of many years of happiness.  Iris’s response is as revealing of her character as it is of the strength of the prediction.  She “thought about the Alzheimer’s, the Parkinson’s, the broken hip and pneumonia, the last weeks when Ben was so frail and helpless.”  Her answer, completely honest as always: “I wouldn’t trade even one day of that time for anything.”

Leo offers to help Iris cheat the cheater.  And then the fun really begins.  I hope you enjoy Iris’s little adventure as much as I did.