"Dead Money" by Lucius Shepard
"Distant Replay" by Mike Resnick
"The Eater of Dreams" by Robert Silverberg
"End Game" by Nancy Kress
"Fifth Day" by Jack McDevitt
"Green Glass" by Gene Wolfe
"Lilyanna" by Lisa Goldstein
"The River Horses" by Allen M. Steele
The issue’s lead story is the novella “Dead Money” by Lucius Shepard, a gritty tale of the underworld of high stakes poker with a voodoo kick. Initially set against the bleak backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans, the setting gets brighter as the action moves to the Bahamas and Florida, but the tone is decidedly noir. I’m personally not a big fan of bleak visions, but Shepard tells an engrossing story—one that kept me engaged to the end. If you like dark tales set in seamy real-world locales in which damaged characters grapple with one another, with themselves, and with undeath, this could be just the story for you.
A second novella, Allen M. Steele’s “The River Horses,” takes us to Coyote, the newly settled frontier world of his latest novels. Marie and her boyfriend, Lars, are banished from their town for a bar fight turned especially nasty. Guided by the savant, Manny, they are to explore uncharted territory and report back their findings. The bulk of the story details a journey of discovery for Marie, as she learns how to trust and to be trustworthy, and how to find strength within herself. The interactions between Manny and Marie have the ring of heartfelt truth, and the action sequences are tense and exciting. However, the long sections of narration, primarily in the form of journal entries, seem too obviously a tool for shortening the piece by providing background and skimming over sections of the story that could be fleshed out. The incident that gives the story its name comes late in the tale, and seems to bear only an incidental relationship with the overall theme. “The River Horses” could be better developed as a full-length novel, in which form the characters would have more room to breathe and the plot more room to develop fully.
Ten shorter pieces round out this weighty double issue:
“Always” from Karen Joy Fowler is the first-person account of a woman who has spent most of her life in a cult where the members believe they will live forever. Despite the passage of time, the comings and goings of other members, and the shocking events that happen one spring, the narrator stays on. This is a fascinating character study, a glimpse into a life most of us would find incomprehensible. The speculative element is subtle, if indeed it is present at all, but the character has an eerie inner stillness that makes the story memorable, even haunting.
“Distant Replay” by Mike Resnick evokes the sweetness of a bygone era seen through the rosy lens of intervening years, yet never succumbs to the maudlin. Septuagenarian Walter Silverman meets a woman who could be his beloved Deidre—her name, her appearance, even her likes and dislikes are the same—except his wife is seven years dead and this Deidre is forty years younger. This is a gentle, enjoyable story of memory and the persistence of love.
The title character in Robert Silverberg’s “The Eater of Dreams” carries out his duty, secure in the knowledge that he will maintain the order of his world by taking into himself any and all dark dreams the Queen-Goddess has, dispelling their power to spill into the real world. But his optimism may be displaced. For who can hold back the darkness forever? Appropriately, this tale has a dream-like quality, and flows with lovely language that reads almost like poetry.
In “End Game,” a single-minded genius sets his sights on the elimination of distraction for the betterment of the world. However, his good intentions lead to unexpected consequences for every life he touches in this fascinating piece from Nancy Kress. The symptoms of realization manifest slowly in the reader, overtaking us before—like the characters—we realize too late that we are infected.
“Fifth Day” by Jack McDevitt is the tale of a scientist who dies young, mysteriously leaving his Nobel Prize-worthy work unpublished although he had ample opportunity to do so. The narrator, a journalist, seeks to learn the reason for this and uncovers the scientist’s painful past. Although this story is well-written, I found its conclusion a bit predictable and unsatisfying.
Gene Wolfe’s “Green Glass” is the surreal tale of Joey, as he tries to make his way out of what seems to be a set of featureless green tunnels. Along the way, he meets Josephine, and the two join forces to seek their freedom and to discern reality from illusion. But Joey has an uneasy feeling that he’s seen all of this before, only from a different perspective. Wolfe takes us along for a disturbing ride, with an unsettling slow reveal at the end.
“Lilyanna” by Lisa Goldstein is a supernatural mystery narrated by a lonely librarian. Harris Kent longs for the days when the library was a sanctuary of quietude and the printed word. On his nightly rounds of his branch after closing, he begins to discover clues seemingly left by a glamorous woman from long ago. Increasingly intrigued, he puts the pieces together one by one, until he must make a choice between his own world and the potentially dangerous world beyond. Goldstein paints a thoroughly sympathetic character in her introspective Harris, and weaves an engrossing plot—up until its climactic moment, when the story curves one direction, then veers another, and abruptly ends.
In William Barton’s “The Rocket into Planetary Space,” Alan Burke “the Jerk,” his wife, and another couple together achieve their dream of embarking on the first landing mission into space since the lunar landings in the 1960s. We learn of this voyage, and an attendant discovery, through Burke’s thoughts as he gazes out of their ship, flashbacks detailing the trials and triumphs that got him here, and—finally—the actual exploration of an asteroid well beyond the moon. Despite Burke’s insistence regarding the joy, nervousness, and excitement he feels, I was too bogged down in technical jargon and passive narration to feel much interest in what should have impressed me as a momentous undertaking.
“The Rocket into Planetary Space” seems designed more as a plea for attention and funding for space exploration than as an entertaining story (a notion supported by the presence of a lengthy author’s note following the story, which calls for just such attention and funding). I’m sure Barton’s cause is just, and it would be wonderful if those with the means would finance landing expeditions to distant asteroids, but I found this story too distractingly self-referential and blunt in its approach to be interesting as fiction.
“A Small Room in Koboldtown,” an excerpt from Michael Swanwick’s just-finished novel, The Dragons of Babel, is a sort of detective story set in the author’s intriguing modern-day world populated by the denizens of legend and fairy tale. When a boggart is murdered and a haint is fingered as the prime suspect, powerful haint politician Salem Toussaint arrives to offer assistance to his maligned constituent. Toussaint’s employees, Will le Fey and Ghostface, work together, despite their differences, to solve the baffling case. Swanwick’s novel treatments of fantasy and mystery elements, along with persistent good humor, make this a fun and engaging read.
In “Wolves of the Spirit” by Liz Williams, Siri Clathe is a lighthouse keeper, alone—except for the spirits—since her mother died. Entranced as a child by the beautiful song of the sentient selk, she is appalled when a man arrives dragging the skin of one of the creatures across the ice. She is relieved when it seems he did not kill the selk, but finds as the evening goes on that he may not be what he seems. This is a tale beautifully told of a young woman finding her own strength to stand alone through her loneliness, and to hold back the dark.