Fantasy, edited by Sean Wallace & Paul Tremblay

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Image“Goosegirl” by Margaret Ronald
“All the Growing Time” by Becca De La Rosa
“Somewhere Beneath Those Waves Was Her Home” by Sarah Monette
“Shallot” by Samantha Henderson
“Bone Mother” by Maura McHugh
“The Greats Come A-Callin’” by Lisa Mantchev
“Zombie Lenin” by Ekaterina Sedia
“The Yeti Behind You” by Jeremy Tolbert
“The Salvation Game” by Amanda Downum
“Sugar” by Cat Rambo
“Brother of the Moon” by Holly Phillips
Brought to you by the same people behind Fantasy Magazine—which has been hailed by Locus as “one of the most promising new fiction publications to launch in the field in years”—is Fantasy, an anthology of original fiction to give readers a taste of what they can find in the magazine.

The first offering, “Goosegirl” by Margaret Ronald, sets the bar high for the stories that follow.  A nameless girl stumbles into a strange city, following the entourage of the princess betrothed to the city’s prince.  Confused, the girl is only able to say that she thinks she is there to marry.  She is dismissed as a simpleton and put with the geese.  While taking care of her avian charges, she reads the Red Book—a book of words with power—and learns how to use them.  But she is puzzled by one word: cleave.

Ronald tells the goosegirl’s story in simple, smoothly beautiful prose, drawing the reader through to its uplifting ending.  This is a story that you will finish with a smile on your face, but unlike some heroines, the girl has earned her happily ever after.  The characters are sympathetic, even the ones acting against the girl; the world is rendered in the right amount of detail to feel real and gives the impression that beyond the boundaries of the page await much more unwritten.  An all-round excellent start to the anthology.

Next up is Becca De La Rosa’s “All the Growing Time.”  It is about Isolde Martial, who eats lost time, and My Lord Yesterday, who gathers seconds and grows them into minutes, hours, days.  They meet once in Venice under the Bridge of Sighs and spend two weeks together there until they argue.  They go their separate ways, Isolde to Marseilles and then to Ireland, My Lord Yesterday to the ocean in a wicker basket made of time.  My Lord Yesterday’s neglect of time creates rifts through which the dead climb, and so Mister Death comes to make him rectify the situation.

I find it difficult to define Becca De La Rosa’s fiction.  The words “wonderfully weird” don’t quite cover it.  Her meld of quirky ideas and elegant, amusing style is best conveyed in the text itself:

“Isolde Martial is tall and thin. Her hair looks like a telephone cable. Isolde Martial lost an eye in Finland; she left in on her bedside table at night, and when she woke up in the morning it was gone. Isolde Martial believes a magpie took it. This is only one of the reasons for her ongoing feud with the magpies. … Isolde Martial will sing for you all fifty-six verses of Child’s ninth ‘Tam Lin’, if you ask her.  Don’t ask her.”

In “All the Growing Time” she weaves a charming story of romance quite unlike any other; it is funny, just a little touching, and chock-full of imaginative wonders.  For those who enjoy the bizarrely unconventional, this will be the highlight of the anthology.

“Somewhere Beneath Those Waves Was Her Home” by Sarah Monette tells the stories of trapped women.  Magda, trapped in an imperfect marriage, explores the nearby Maritime Museum and finds a corridor of nameless figureheads from shipwrecks, imprisoned away from their ocean home.  “Russet,” a selkie, is trapped on land, unable to find the skin hidden from her by a man who thinks they are in love.  The meeting between the two women lifts them from wallowing into action.

The ocean is a constant presence throughout the story—in the selkie’s desire to return to it, in the trapped figureheads and in several coast-side scenes—sliding in and out of Monette’s mostly fluid prose.  She uses selkie lore to good effect, and its place within a larger narrative prevents this from being just another selkie story.  The image of the trapped figureheads is kept at the centre of the story by the use of item placards as section dividers, and for me is the story’s most memorable feature. 

Monette quickly evokes sympathy for her characters’ plight and the conclusion is a satisfying one.  My only complaint is that the tone of the story shifts a little when the two women meet, losing a little of its poeticism to a more informal feel, and it jarred me a little.  Nonetheless, an enjoyable story, and the image of the trapped figureheads is particularly staying.

“Shallot” by Samantha Henderson offers a unique recasting of the tale of the Lady of Shalott, as explained by Henderson in the short author detail before the story: “I always thought of the Lady of Shalott as an alien rather than Elaine of Astolat.”  The Lady landed safely on Earth but her breeding partner crashed, and so her eggs will not quicken even in the body of a local boy she lures into her castle-shaped nest.  Eventually, despairing, she gives up.

Though the core idea is science fiction, the story feels like a fantasy—in part, no doubt, because to everyone except the Lady, it is a fantastical series of events and not something they can connect with the skies above.  Henderson shows successfully that the two genres need not exist on either side of a wall.  She writes beautifully and with perfect pacing, quickly painting a striking cast of characters: a very strong story.

I’ve a liking for Baba Yaga stories, so I enjoyed Maura McHugh’s “Bone Mother” very much.  A prince comes to petition the Bone Mother, Baba Yaga, for the water of eternal life and offers in return a blue rose that will restore Baba Yaga’s youth.  But he violates their agreement, which angers Baba Yaga.  Her retribution ties the story neatly into legend.

The story starts off with a touch of the whimsical and transitions smoothly to a more serious tone after the prince’s violation.  Baba Yaga is characterized well—grumpy, slightly saucy, and quick to lose what little patience and mercy she possesses. She is a convincing and interesting witch-goddess.  Neither she nor the prince get quite what they want, which makes for a more satisfying story, and it is not quite clear who has the last laugh.  Perhaps both.  I hope McHugh turns her pen to Baba Yaga again. 

“The Greats Come A-Callin’” by Lisa Mantchev is a sly, amusing story about a young woman, born Elizabeth but preferring to be called Lizbit, who is given a brick containing the ghosts of her dead Great-Great-Aunts and Great-Great-Grandmother.  They emerge from the brick and, over the following days, transform Lizbit’s house into a copy of the old, sold family house.  Annoying though this is, the gravest insult to Lizbit is the disappearance of her studio and the art pieces she had prepared for a show. 

Mantchev’s story will curve the lips of anyone who has a generous number of older female relatives prone to making decisions and changing things entirely over one’s head.  I certainly felt for Lizbit, bewildered and angry in the face of the changes taking place around her, and I rooted for her to find a satisfactory solution.  She did so in a way that balanced independence and acceptance in good measure.  The most interesting part of the story is her relationship with her namesake, who hides away because she believes there is only room for one Elizabeth.  As with all stories that aim for humour, I found some parts a little too silly—the metaphor of the hamster running a wheel inside Lizbit’s head quickly wore thin—but that was more a matter of personal preference.  All in all, a good, fun story. 

In “Zombie Lenin” by Ekaterina Sedia, a mentally troubled young woman considers death and resurrection, the blood-price demanded by chthonic deities for the latter and the violation of that law by zombies.  She has seen the titular zombie following her since a visit to his mausoleum as a child, and he helps push her into her considerations.  Sedia’s prose is fluid, ably leading the reader through a story that is both moving and interesting.  Easily one of the anthology’s best. 

The main character of Jeremy Tolbert’s “The Yeti Behind You” sees creatures of a somewhat different nature.  He wakes up one morning to find a yeti beside his bed, and over the next few days sees a range of extinct creatures following other people.  This is tied into the trouble he is having in dealing with his girlfriend’s impending birth to their child.

This story didn’t work for me.  While the relationship between Michael and Beth is very well conveyed, it didn’t capture my interest, and though I could see what Tolbert aimed for with the yeti and other creatures, it felt a little too tacky for my liking.  I admit, though, that my reaction lies far more in the problems of my personal preferences rather than flaws in the story; for some, I don’t doubt that this will work just fine. 

“The Salvation Game” by Amanda Downum tells of Lily, a young woman whose twin brother has fled across the world after their mother’s suicide.  For years he was safe, sending postcards of cities and landmarks, until the postcards stopped and Lily felt through the connection they’ve always had that he was in danger.  Following him to Prague, she tries to convince him of his peril, but he brushes her off; she must enlist the double-edged help of a witch in order to find him again.  But saving him from the strange cult-like group he has joined is not as easy as she had hoped.

Setting and emotion are skilfully evoked; the short scenes where Lily is finding her way through the labyrinth are particularly strong.  I liked the witch character, who possessed the right blend of kindness and cruelty for her role; she felt a little like a stock character, but a good one.  The supernatural connection between twins is the stock of too much sub-par fiction, but Downum handles the trope well, making it serve the story rather than feeling tacked-on.  I enjoyed “The Salvation Game,” though didn’t find it quite as striking as some of the others in the anthology.

The next and penultimate story, “Sugar” by Cat Rambo, is an emotionally-charged tale of a sorceress, Laurana, who is in love with both a pirate woman and her old lover, Britomart, who lies dying from wounds inflicted during a war between mages.  It is told against a backdrop reminiscent of the Caribbean, speckled with fascinating details—my favourite being the golems Laurana uses to work on her sugar plantation.  All of the characters, even the minor ones, are fleshed out sufficiently to feel like people with lives and loves, the main three particularly so.  The relationships between Laurana and her lovers are real and affecting, leading to a powerful close.  Highly recommended. 

Holly Phillips has a gift for giving real-world situations a lick of the fantastical, of the fairytale, and “Brother of the Moon” is no exception.  The prince, called only “our hero,” knows that his never-named country is lost to Russia and to the West, and makes the journey by foot to the old capital to seek a solution, an absolution—he is not quite sure.  There, in a knife in the night, he is given a solution by a strange man, but not the solution you think. 

The anonymity of the prince and his country gives this story a wider scope than if it were focused on one person and one place, adding to the story’s depth.  Yet the struggles of the prince, his chastely romantic relationship with his sister, and his reaction to the events in the story are excellently and individually realised; though he could stand for many, he is also himself.  Another story I recommend.

Sean Wallace and Paul Tremblay have done a good job of collecting a set of wide-ranging stories to provide a “sampler” of their tastes, though I felt the range in quality stretched a bit further downwards than the issues of Fantasy Magazine that I’ve read.  Nonetheless, there is plenty in here for readers of all tastes to enjoy, and I recommend it on the strength of the stories that particularly wowed me—those by Margaret Ronald, Becca De La Rosa, Samantha Henderson, Ekaterina Sedia, and Cat Rambo—and on the fact that I enjoyed all but one of the rest.