"The Pitiless Stars" by Jim Young
"Angry Duck" by Scott Bradfield
"Twilight States" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"Think So?" by Robert Reed
"Promised Land" by Steven Utley
"Old As Books" by Mike Schultz
"Hero, the Movie" by Bruce McAllister
The first offering, a novelette by John Morressy titled "The Tournament at Surreptitia," is a light, humorous piece that revisits the world of the wizard Kedrigern and his lady love, Princess. In this installment, Kedrigern is approached by Drurich, an honorable knight who is in danger of being disgraced when he is challenged to a duel in the hidden kingdom of Surreptitia. Kedrigern agrees to assist Drurich in finding Surreptitia, and finds himself on an adventure.
With seduction, danger, insanity, and a dash of humor, Morressy turns high fantasy on its ear. He parodies fantasy stereotypes without making them ridiculous. As a wizard, Kedrigern is intelligent, but not all-knowing. He loves his wife and is attracted to more than her beauty. Princess is a worthy mate for Kedrigern, with brains and cunning to match her husband’s. Their marriage is surprisingly genuine, almost mundane.
King Benixis the Pacific is a delightfully flaky villain, with a chilling mixture of innocence and danger. His machinations, though loony, have a twisted logic, that almost make sense.
“The Tournament at Surreptitia” starts a little slow, which can happen when bringing new readers up to speed on familiar characters. Once things get rolling, though, I forgot the length and simply enjoyed the ride.
“The Pitiless Stars” by Jim Young is a traditional space explorer story with a retrofit for the digital age. Instead of trying to explain away faster than light travel with glib pseudoscience, Young gets around it by making the explorers robots with human personalities downloaded into their CPUs. While reading the story, I was put in the mind of a good episode of Star Trek, though I’m not sure in which series it would fit best.
Mira and Tibor are a father and daughter team who are sent to study the first gravitational pulsar discovered by mankind. When the downloaded human robots reach their destination, they discover they are not alone. Mira and Tibor are required to survive first contact while transmitting their findings back to Earth.
At first, I found the dialogue stilted and the characters mechanical, but these elements fit well with the idea that it was only a simulation of life. However, it did make it difficult to connect with the story, almost like it was written by Spock. The lesson at the end felt a little preachy, but not distractingly so. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but was not blown away.
Ducks are funny, and angry ducks are funnier, just ask Donald Duck. So when I saw the title of the next story in July’s issue, I was ready to laugh. I wasn’t disappointed. With “Angry Duck,” Scott Bradfield walks perfectly the line between an earnest documentary and the inherent ridiculousness of an angry duck poet. Sammy the Duck’s colleagues, teachers, students, and editor are interviewed, offering a clearer and clearer picture of the life of a talented artist . . . or maybe not.
Bradfield ratchets up the humor until Sammy’s hilarious fate is revealed. Humor is hard to write well and Bradfield succeeds marvelously. “Angry Duck” is not a traditional story, but the mockumentary structure makes for an easy read that fits well with the humor. A great story.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of “Twilight States” by Albert E. Cowdrey. I was entertained, the story is certainly well written, but I’m not sure I enjoyed it.
The protagonist, Milton, is the owner of Sun and Moon Metaphysical Books. He has a complicated past that is tied up with a story in a rare issue of a World War II fantasy magazine. When Erasmus Bloch, who happens to be Milton’s deceased older brother’s ex-psychiatrist, comes looking for that very magazine, Milton’s careful equilibrium is destroyed.
The story-within-a-story is effectively handled, leaving the reader with an unnerving sense of foreboding. Milton, as a narrator, shifts from being unreliable to reliable, making it difficult to get a fix on his motivations, but Cowdrey pulls it off. I was really won over, and the fact that I didn’t like it at first made me like it all the more at the end.
“Think So?” by Robert Reed is an amusing take on the issue of intellectual property. Mick, the protagonist, thinks up a joke. Any time anyone tells the joke, which is kept track of by eavesdropping nanobots that number in the hundreds of trillions, the user is charged a use fee that makes Mick rich.
"Think So?" is a fun poke aimed at intellectual property laws. Yes, the idea is taken to the extreme and this comes off as the tiniest bit disingenuous, but that too works to the story’s advantage. It’s short, sweet, and well worth the ten minutes it takes to read.
“Promised Land” by Steven Utley is the first of two outstanding stories that nudged me into the strange, new world of subscription holders. With its questioning of family, friendship, and a person’s never ending desire to learn more, it is probably one of the most touching stories I’ve read in a long time.
The discovery of a wormhole that makes time travel to the Paleozoic Era electrifies the scientific community. At first, I was concerned about the use of the wormhole as a device for time travel since it is becoming a science fiction cliché. But time travel, though integral to the plot, is not the story’s focus. The story’s true heart is the relationship of Dr. Rene De Souza and her best friend, a colleague named Dick. Most of the plot takes place in the hospital as Dick is dying. As another research scientist, he laments that the wormhole was discovered so late in his life. It is the one regret of his otherwise satisfying career.
“Promised Land” is a quiet story that reveals itself gradually. The only villains are death and dumb luck, but Utley manages to evoke conflict and suspense. I loved this story. It was a testament to the value of friendship that will stick with me for a long time.
"Old As Books" by Mike Schultz is my favorite story of the issue. It’s almost as if Schultz knew exactly the kinds of things I liked to see in a story and added them all. There’s an immense magical library, which is really close to my idea of heaven. Codexers serve as the librarians, with the Nexus as their leader. Codexers need mental acuity and physical dexterity, and the story’s main character, Codexer Sagitta, is ninety-five years old and his body is failing him. As a former Nexus of the library, Sagitta is aware that his time in the only home he’s ever known is growing short. He has a confrontation with the current Nexus, who also happens to be his son, regarding his abilities. Sagitta doesn’t want to retire and fights to hold his position.
Sagitta is entertainingly crotchety and feels as though everyone is out to get him. We sympathize with his desire to stay in the library and continue to be productive. There is a nice scene when Sagitta meets a group of potential codexers and senses in them the same spark that brought him to the library. Schultz, like Utley in the previous story, touches on the fact that the elderly do not stop enjoying their life’s work as they get older and should not be forgotten or pushed aside.
The final story for July, is a novelette by Bruce McAllister titled, "Hero, the Movie." It’s in the form of a treatment for a screenplay about what happens to the hero of a ’50s creature-feature after the movie is over. In the beginning, the story is described as a romantic comedy, but it really isn’t.
Rick Rowe, the young hero who saved McCulloughville, Nevada, from giant mutant locusts, has married the Professor’s daughter and become a celebrity. The only problem is happily ever after is not all it’s cracked up to be. As his stardom fades, his life falls apart. He floats from place to place, unable to kick the need to be a hero.
"Hero, the Movie" isn’t a comedy. Rick’s descent from hero to ordinary man is depressing, but he also finds that heroism doesn’t have a simple definition. At a certain point, the idea that the story was meant to pitch a movie to studio execs intruded on my enjoyment because I doubted it had a chance to get a green light. I kept hoping I was wrong and it would come out as a quirky independent project. The ending is surreal, but somehow appropriate.