Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2003

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"The Bone Witch" by R. Garcia y Robertson
"Old Virginia" by Laird Barron
"The Swag from Doc Hawthorne's" by Jack O'Connell
"The Seasons of the Ansarac" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"A Game of Chicken" by Charles Coleman Finlay
"Reach" by Sheila Finch
"A Quartet of Mini-Fantasies" by Arthur Porges
"The Genre Kid" by James Sallis

This issue opens with a novelet by Laird Barron called "Old Virginia." Pure horror, this piece gives us a withered old lady with mind powers as a secret weapon of the CIA in the 1950s. Our hero is an old warrior, a vet of two wars, charged with protecting the scientists who are studying the elderly psychic woman in a back-woods West Virginia house. As the story opens, the vet has little idea that he's about to see the heaviest action of his career–and possibly his last. His concern is about Soviet operatives who may be lurking nearby. He doesn't suspect that the greatest danger lies inside the house he is protecting–until it is too late. The piece builds suspense nicely, and it kept me guessing until the very end.

It's too bad Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Seasons of the Ansarac" is a reprint (from the online zine Infinite Matrix), and therefore out of the purview of Tangent. Otherwise I'd review it by saying it's the best story of the issue and worth the admission price alone. As only Le Guin can do, she creates a fascinating and detailed other world, peoples it with fully-realized characters, and brings her story to a satisfying conclusion in just 15 pages.

"A Game of Chicken" is a humorous short story by Charles Coleman Finlay in which a crackpot inventor tries to sell a science fiction magazine publisher on the idea of printing his magazine on paper made of chicken shit, with chicken-shit-based ink. The story is just the right length to play out the joke without overdoing it, and is sprinkled with some wonderful dialogue.

Sheila Finch's short story "Reach" gives us the best opening of the issue: "The first thing he notices when he's finished dying is that the man and woman who've appeared by the bed are over seven feet tall." The protagonist is an accident victim who's been resurrected decades in the future, after undergoing cryonic suspension. He was a dancer in his previous life, and the new body he's been given post-suspension by his girlfriend allows him to reach for a second shot at achieving fame and glory. The only problem is, his new life begins to lose its meaning when he discovers that everything in this fabulous future really is within reach, removing all of life's challenges. The story is overly sentimental for my taste, but the point is well made.

Arthur Porges has pulled off a remarkable feat with his "A Quartet of Mini-Fantasies." In the space of a page and a half, he gives us no less than four short shorts, each evocative of another reality, with characters playing out beginnings, middles, and ends. There's a deadly Santa Clause, a reptilian girlfriend, vampires, and masters of shadowcraft. The stories are lyrical and elegant in their simplicity. I'd love to see them as a regular feature of the magazine.

In Jack O'Connell's novelet "The Swag from Doc Hawthorne's," two professional thieves get more than they bargain for when they plan the burglary of a well-to-do doctor's house. Their first clue that something is very different about this job comes when a pair of very strange individuals try to buy items from them that they haven't even stolen from the house yet. Rattled, the thieves go ahead with the burglary in spite of an impending sense of doom, and at the house they fall under the mysterious power of a hidden library. Well written and well paced, this one is a memorable look at the two thieves, a very sharp and clear portrait of them both. But I found the plot confusing and slippery. The strange buyers are never explained, nor is the power of the library. My attention never wavered, but I had no idea what to make of the piece as a whole.

"The Genre Kid," a short short by James Sallis is another I wasn't sure what to make of. The Kid discovers one day that he can shit little Jesus figurines, and he turns his unique ability into a career. At first he's treated as a miracle, proof of the existence of God, but by the story's end, he is merely a performance artist, or perhaps just an artist, and finally not even that as the power departs from him as mysteriously as it came. I just didn't know what the point of it all was.

And finally, we have R. Garcia y Robertson's engaging novella, "The Bone Witch." It's fantasy in the Tolkien tradition, complete with a quest (return a dragon's egg to its nest), heroes and heroines (a young witch girl and her loyal knight), and an evil lord bent on bringing death and misery to the land. It's a testament to Garcia y Robertson's writing that I found the story highly entertaining and the characters full and rich, and even the quest and its conclusion compelling. I'm not a fan of this genre, but this piece overcame my prejudices. It's part two of a saga begun in an earlier issue, but as editor Gordon Van Gelder says in his intro, you needn't have read the earlier piece to enjoy this one.

Van Gelder also says elsewhere in the issue "One of our primary goals is to bring you a great variety of fiction–fantasy, science fiction, some horror fiction, some stories that are hard to define." I do believe he's pulled it off with this issue.