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“At These Prices” by Esther M. Friesner
“Murder in the Flying Vatican” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“The Mole Cure” by Nancy Farmer
“A Wizard of the Old School” by Chris Willrich
“The Tomb Wife” by Gwyneth Jones
F&SF’s August issue opens with a whimsical tale, “At These Prices” by Esther M. Friesner. Bixby, an employee at a hotel in the Tiernan chain, catches guest Bella Franklin trying to steal hotel accessories, but before he can finish reprimanding her, he turns a gray-blue shade and begs for some of Bella’s coffee. When he drinks it, he realizes that it isn’t the hotel’s brand of coffee but Bella’s own, making him her loyal servant—because, long ago, some of the fey folk became addicted to coffee and began worshipping it and must serve those who give them the “sacred brew.” Bella, selfish as she is, proceeds to take advantage of Bixby’s servitude, until she enters a bet with some of Bixby’s fellow workers.
Bella Franklin is the perfect caricature of a disgusting, self-absorbed woman, pleased to see a tattoo of her face on the buttock of a roasted pig. The problem with caricatures, though, is that they do not feel real, and rarely does the unpleasant variety of caricature reach the end of their story in favorable circumstances. I also found it hard to take the coffee addiction seriously; phrases like “blessed Mill” and “Holy Hour” made me cringe rather than laugh. While this story might appeal to some, I found it too simplistic for my tastes.
In the second offering, “Murder in the Flying Vatican” by Albert E. Cowdrey
, Colonel Kohn is called to the orbital station Heaven’s Footstool—nicknamed the Flying Vatican for its possession of sovereign powers—to solve a murder. Brother Kendo was killed during the daily Great Meditation, a time when the lights are dim and anyone could have slipped a knife into his back. As Kohn begins interviewing the Brothers and Sisters of Heaven’s Footstool and their esteemed guests, he soon realizes that a dark conspiracy lies beneath the veneer of Zen-like spirituality.
Cowdrey tells a competent, interesting mystery, logical but not too predictable. After the mystery has been solved, however, it turns into a fairly straightforward case of hunting down the “bad guys.” The first-person narration sadly meant that I never worried about Kohn’s safety, and, with one exception, I never felt that any of the other “good guys” were in particular danger of dying or not saving the day. A touch more peril—and also some moral ambiguity—could really have livened this up.
“The Mole Cure” by Nancy Farmer
starts off unremarkably and does not improve much. Tony is obsessed with the moles growing over his body—merely freckles, according to his partner, colleagues, and friends—and fears that every little thing in the outside world will turn the moles into cancer. Then, walking home after being released from his job for a month’s forced vacation, he sees a sign saying “Dr. Molnar’s Mole Cure.” Inside, Molnar tells him that his myriad phobias were not unfounded—“You see, moles aren’t what people think… They insinuate themselves into every activity and make you behave in a way that is beneficial to them, not you.”—and offers a cure. At first Tony is overjoyed that his moles are disappearing, but he soon realizes that all is not as it seems.
The truth about the moles and Molnar’s intentions make for interesting reading. Sadly, the rest of the story lets it down. The prose is lackluster. Tony, too, is bland, at first a typical OCD sufferer with no other character traits and then a typical “finds himself in a bad situation and is powerless to change things” character. His inability to find Molnar’s practice after their last session serves only to reinforce the written-by-numbers feel of the story’s basic outline. Overall, a rather underwhelming story.
The penultimate story, “A Wizard of the Old School” by Chris Willrich
, sets off a significant improvement in quality. Krumwheezle, the titular wizard, is approached by two rogues, Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, for help—first to destroy a virulent, malevolent book and then to help them conceive. But Krumwheezle has become infatuated with Gaunt and allows a misinterpretation of an old text to lead Bone into danger in a foreign castle.
“A Wizard of the Old School” is a fun story peopled with good characters: Krumwheezle, who is torn between being a good person and committing foul acts to get what he wants, is a sympathetic protagonist; Gaunt and Bone are considerably more than just the typical questing poet and thief; and the shield-maid they find inside the castle, though waiting for her true love to rescue her, is no weak-minded maiden, but instead a fierce woman desperate for love after prolonged imprisonment. Willrich also throws some fantastic ideas into his story. “…our world — a flat Earth where the nearer stars are luminescent dragon eggs, the farther ones divine campfires” is my favorite line; I also loved Krumwheezle’s upside-down room suspended over the sea, with waves pounding against the domed ceiling. These attributes populate a story that is well-paced and not crippled by predictability. Willrich weaves an enjoyable yarn worth reading.
“The Tomb Wife” by Gwyneth Jones
is another good tale. Aboard an interstellar freighter are the makings of a grand exhibition, including ruins from the world of Lar’sz’. One of these artifacts is a grand tomb “haunted” by the deceased’s wife—interestingly, here “wife” means the one left behind, not necessarily a female. As per the society’s traditions, the wife went into the tomb after her husband’s death and occupied it in solitude until she too died, but in this case, her bones were never found. Elen, the freighter’s navigator, is fascinated by the tomb and imagines she can hear the wife walking around in it. Gradually, the unsettling presence of the tomb and its “ghost” complicate the freighter’s transition to its destination, and Elen learns more about the Tomb Wife and what haunting means for the Lar’sz’.
The ideas of the Tomb Wife and how interstellar travel might work are excellent, particularly so in the way they come together at the end. Elen, who must navigate the strangeness of relativity, is an intriguing character: consumed to an extent by her role, she is obsessed by the non-linear flow of time, a character trait that makes her quite unique. The story’s conclusion is a strong, well-fitting one.
However, I must admit that my initial impressions of the story were not so favorable. I found the apostrophes in the names Lar’sz’ and Tene’Lar’sznh gratuitous; there was a shade more infodumping in one or two places than I thought necessary; and I felt that the characters, excepting Elen and Sigurt, were made too much of cardboard with traits stuck to them rather than shown. As the story developed, and I got to know Elen better and learned more about the tomb, I cared less for the minor flaws. For all these nitpicks, I wound up enjoying the story. The ideas and the character of Elen make this one worth reading.