Reviewed by Chuck Rothman
Crowded is a new pro-paying magazine out of Australia that’s using the idea of crowdsourcing its stories: allowing reader and authors to decide which ones should be included in the issue. It’s a novel use of technology, but the question is: how does it work?
The issue leads off with “From Sorrow’s Gate” from Ian McHugh, a fantasy set in the aftermath of defeat. The survivors of a war against the Olwaii — carnivorous centaurs — is regrouping after the battle, when the Olwaii find them. The protagonist is a man scarred at the last defeat, when a traitor opened the Sorrow’s Gate to cause the city to fall. He tries to help this group, which includes Clara and her children. McHugh has a very strong story about failure and (some) redemption, with a complex and contradictory main character and a nice variation on the concept of centaurs..
“Mirrorball” by Jason Helmandollar starts out as George watches in shock as Sara, his wife of many years, calmly chops off her own hand. As he reacts to save her, he discovers a mystery: a tiny stainless steel ball hanging from wires, which he discovers has been there for at least half a century. The story follows George’s journey to find out about the ball and what it has to do with her self-mutilation. The answer is well worth the journey and the result is a strong, highly emotional story that I hope doesn’t get overlooked when awards are considered.
There’s a switch to a much lighter tone in Bill Ferris‘s “Athlete’s Food,” where Tyler is a journeyman pro basketball player, good enough for a cup of coffee in the NBA, but now reduced to playing in a league in Eastern Europe. Former big NBA star LaWilliam Morris joins the team, his last chance after a series of injuries and suspensions, and a big enough draw so that he lords it over Tyler and treats him like a rookie. Of course, Morris gets his comeuppance in a gross-out that’s amusing and horrible. The story is lighthearted and an entertaining read and I love the way Ferris caught the mindset of Tyler as an athlete desperately trying to stay in the sport he loves; the character is a major strength of the story.
David John Baker‘s “The Wild Hunt Below the Horizon” is science fiction of the far future, where some creatures set themselves up as gods and were toppled. Wyldernha was one of these, a goddess of the hunt, and is kept watch over by Immanuel, an ethical intelligence that tries to keep her out of trouble. She wants to hunt something, so to prevent her killing, Immanuel has her hunting black holes, in an area where Claire and Ben are wardens. But there is some history between Ben and Wyldherna…. Baker has a wonderfully imaginative setting for his story, and the relationships between the characters make it work.
Michael Wehunt contributes “The Anything Cloak,” with a great hook: “Jace shot a foamy jet of roach spray into his laughing mouth.” Jace is friends with Rand and the seemingly suicidal action is egged on by Maribeth, who has a magic cloak, used as a toy by the three preteens. Rand has a crush on Maribeth, and uses the cloak to try to get what he wants, though he soon learns that the magic comes with a price. I did love the setup and situation, but found the ending disappointing, using a standard horror trope instead of dealing with the implications of Rand’s use of the cloak.
“A King of Shreds and Patches” by Tom Brennan follows John Clay, the head of a small traveling theater. He is requested to perform before the Bishop, who has made it his mission to stamp out the heresy of believing in strange lights dropping from the sky. It’s a tense situation and Brennan makes the most of it by adding a few surprises along the way, creating a memorable story.
Rich Larsen attempts to bring new life to the most reviled of SF cliches in “The Garden” (the title should indicate which one). Webber is the only member of the crew of a ship, being tortured and tormented by the ship’s AI, Mother. The story is short, but I don’t think it does enough to bring anything that new to the table.
“House Hunting” by Shannon Fay is about a mysterious birdhouse that bites off a man’s finger. Youngster Mindy Park witnesses it and, when sent to the store to get some ice, she runs into a mysterious derelict who knows exactly what is going on, a horrific threat that only Mindy takes seriously. The story not only postulates an original monster, but does something about it, sending her on an adventure with the type of resolution I’m always happy to find: surprising, yet perfectly logical.
Karste is “Matron Saint of Murder,” in the final original story (there is one reprint). Her job is to serve the Lord Abraxas by destroying the cities where heretics live. She is given an assignment to destroy Marcaine, a wizard who was also her mentor. Marcaine is running a sinister academy with clones of Karste and it is up to her to find out his plans. Alexander Austin‘s story sets up a well-thought-out fantasy world that is almost worthy of a full-length expansion, and I liked the issues involved as well as the way that Karste is portrayed.
So, did the experiment in crowdsourcing work? I think so. These are all high-quality stories, including some rare gems, the sort of track record that most magazines can envy.