"Deciphering Vermilion" by Helen Rykens
"Bobby's First ABC's" by E.L. Chen
"Perfidy" by James Viscosi
"Not Poppy, Nor Mandragora" by K.G. McAbee
"The Trial Of Edgar Allan Poe" by Hugh Cook
Challenging Destiny is a fun little Canadian magazine of new fantasy and science fiction, coming complete and replete with high glossy covers, interviews, reviews, and illustrations. The latest issue is lighthearted in tone, indicated by the eye-catching cover, designed by Rhett Ransom Pennell, of an elderly lady and assorted aliens brandishing far-out futuristic cereal boxes (approved by moms across the universe!!!).
The cover thus setting the tone, the magazine's first tale, "Deciphering Vermilion" by Helen Rykens, is similarly light-hearted and engaging. It's a tale of a faux psychic and opportunist who, living in a universe of colonization, uses her wit and talent to survive. She must appease a god-like race, the Kagazi, who have come to New Estonia to trade, and who, impressed by her talents, end up taking her to their world, an honor that few experience. This is a well-written and diverting story, painless to read (if a bit on the forgettable side), thanks to the author's simple prose and story-telling abilities that keep it moving along at a good, breezy clip.
Next is "Bobby's First ABC's" by E.L. Chen, and, not surprisingly, this regular of On Spec and other publications has penned, in my opinion, the best tale in this particular batch of SF. This is a true gem of a story, a delightful idea rendered even more delightful by the author's skilled handling. It's a flight of pure fantasy, where letters from the alphabet come alive, and are hunted by wildlife control. It sounds cute, and is, but it is also a fine exercise in execution, Chen's prose being as light and pleasing as her airy subject. A fine story by a fine and always interesting writer.
James Viscosi's "Perfidy" follows, continuing this issue's light and readable tone. A director must put on a play for a vainglorious king, and in doing so must strike a fine balance between keeping her troupe of actors, some loyal, some not, artistically challenged while stroking the king's vanity. Things go awry, as things must for fiction and drama, when a popular and egotistical actor decides to do things his way, and the story's title comes into play in the resolution. While not the most riveting of reads, the story does achieve a statement concerning the double edged sword of artistic integrity vs. writing for political or commercial ends. The characters are reasonably well-drawn, and Viscosi's style is likewise decent, making for a story well told.
"Not Poppy, Nor Mandragora" by K.G. McAbee is a tale somewhat darker in tone than its predecessors, and also somewhat less successful. It tells the story of a villager whose family was killed by a monster, and of the female monster-slayer who comes to, well, slay the monster, and who can keep the villager as a servant after the deed is done. After a fairly engaging beginning, I found this story to wander counter to my expectations (not always a bad thing), but the trouble here is that when all revelations are revealed, and the story unraveled, I didn't especially care.
Rounding out the fiction side of things is the ambitiously titled "The Trial of Edgar Allan Poe" by Challenging Destiny favorite Hugh Cook. This is an overlongish and muddled tale putting Poe before a court for supposed crimes committed against a young girl, delving into the often lurid lives of other writers, poets and politicians along the way. The idea of a court not limited by time and space was interesting, but I didn't really find much of a story or any engaging characters to enliven it. The story's cocky tone and ironic stance, permissible for some pages, wore thin and tiresome toward the end.
All in all, this was an enjoyable issue, fiction-wise, suitably breezy in tone and subject for the easy-going summer months. The presentation and illustrations are superb, as is the gallery of SF art showcased by editor David M. Switzer from his private collection. An interesting piece by James Schellenberg entitled "The Origins of Canadian SF" is very worth while, as is the informative interview with Alison Sinclair. Challenging Destiny is a very attractive package, and if you haven't checked it out, check it out soon.
Erol Engin lives and writes in Toronto. His fiction has appeared in Challenging Destiny and he has recently completed a children's heroic fantasy novel called Penelope Proudfoot: The Berryland Adventures.