“An Eye for an Eye” by Charles Coleman Finlay
“Wizard’s Six” by Alex Irvine
“First Was the Word” by Sheila Finch
“Lázaro y Antonio” by Marta Randall
“Elegy” by Mélanie Fazi (translated by Christopher Priest)
Intrepid universal sleuth Henghis Hapthorn returns to the pages of F&SF after a two year hiatus in Matthew Hughes’s story “Sweet Trap.” In his latest adventure, a lovely young lady commissions Hapthorn to find her missing husband, and Hapthorn soon discovers not only that the last person known to be with the husband was also with several other men who disappeared, but also that all of these men shared some similar pertinent physical characteristics. Hapthorn, naturally, decides to answer the same “call” that the others had before their disappearance and finds some of his notions about the case turned on his head, a ship that is more than just a piece of transportation, and his own drawing in to the “sweet trap” of the title. Hapthorn’s far-future reality is somewhat slippery compared to the one we know but some things never change, and Hapthorn fans are sure to enjoy Hughes’s latest romp of a mystery.
From private detective to privately-engaged thief: “An Eye for an Eye” by Charles Coleman Finlay introduces us to a hapless fellow who makes something resembling a living by thievery—not necessarily for himself, mind you, but on commission, as it were. A beefy fellow named Casto Beckett hires our antihero to steal back his Faberge-enshrined testicles that his ex, Patrina Solove, kept after the breakup. It’s a dangerous business even for an experienced thief, though, and if a job seems too easy, the heist is only the beginning of the story. “Eye” is a nice, twisty tale where the devious thief is less devious than his clients, and where that dearth of cunning could cost him dear…and, as with Hapthorn, the main character might have been better prepared to face what awaited him if he had paid closer attention to the story’s title.
Paulus is another man for hire in Alex Irvine’s “Wizard’s Six,” although this time the protagonist has been sent to kill a wizard named Myros before Myros can collect his “six”—people who will guarantee that the wizard will live as long as one of those six do. Unfortunately for Paulus and his Six, Myros prefers children, which is forbidden, as “children’s magic was powerful but unpredictable, tricky to harness.” As a warning to the reader, it also means that Paulus has to kill those children if he can’t kill Myros himself. However, there isn’t anything gruesome in the story along those lines except the idea of it; that action mostly takes place offstage, as it were.
The story’s action in the first few pages is primarily Paulus hunting Myros—with the hunt growing increasingly difficult as each child is found—and the hunter himself having serious qualms about what he is doing. But there will come a time in the tale when Paulus is faced with a terrible choice, born from an event that gave him so much pain he paid a wizard to enchant a forgetting of it. Irvine gives us a story within a story at this point and makes it clear that Paulus hasn’t always been such a hunter, such a man; the overall result is a taut piece of fantasy that drives—one hopes not inevitably as the story proceeds—towards a hard and bitter confrontation.
“First Was the Word” by Sheila Finch introduces us to Jamal Lenana, a theoretical linguist who inherited the stubbornness possessed by his Tuskegee Airman great-grandfather, and who very reluctantly agrees to do a job for U.S. intelligence when offered an intriguing and unprecedented opportunity: trying to learn the language of an extraterrestrial. Accept that I’m a language hobbyist rather than a professional when I say that the linguistics Finch writes about in “Word” seem solid to me; I can certainly attest that she writes them well into the story rather than all of it coming off like a textbook.
That said, the ending was disappointing; the writing is excellent, the foundation well-built, the characters drawn in many shades and one in particular, Aldo Glenys, was a shady (sorry!) character I wanted to know more about. But after all that the climax, the fate(?) of the alien, struck me more like the conclusion of a sci-fi movie rather than an F&SF story—which was a shame, because I’d loved the rest of the story up until that point.
“Lázaro y Antonio” by Marta Randall is set in the Curve, which is, to say the least, a bad neighborhood—an afterthought of a community holding the poorest of the poor and where the half-dome covering it (the literal “Curve”) leaks garbage and other such business. Antonio is the smarter of the two, bringing Lázaro along to help when they do the robberies they commit to survive; it’s obvious early on that something is wrong with Lázaro—his memory is fractured—but that Antonio cares for him deeply and doesn’t want anything to happen to him. In fact, we learn later that Lázaro’s poor mental state was forcibly imposed on him, and his fantastic past makes one sick when contrasted to the sorry way he is living in the present.
Yet when those memories of his past collide with the reality of his present…the outcome actually is predictable, but wrenching nevertheless.
And finally, Mélanie Fazi’s “Elegy” (translated by Christopher Priest) is one of those odd stories that is beautifully written but where not a great deal actually happens. Deborah’s twin five-year-olds, Adam and Anna, disappeared two years before without a trace except for an open window—unlocked from the inside—and some of the children’s things laying at the top of a hill nearby next to an enormous tree—whom Deborah believes to be the culprit. She still hopes desperately that the children will be returned to her, while her husband, Benjamin, drinks away their marriage and his life. The story alternates between flashbacks, memories of Deborah’s family’s relationship with that tree in the past, and her present belief that she’s finally learned to hear the tree (again) and can speak with it. So no, not much “happens” in the story in the traditional sense, and there really is not much of a surprise to the ending, but there is a dark beauty in the reading of it.