Fantastic, #23, Summer 2002

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"The Collar" by Nick Pollotta
"Upon a Painted Ocean" by O'Neil De Noux
"The Master of Time" by James S. Dorr
"Memphis Blue Again" by Gerard Houarner
"The Last Battlefield" by Edward J. McFadden III
"Thieves Fall Out" by Chris Bunch

Nick Pollotta's "The Collar" is a gritty and hard-boiled story of a hired killer who, upon finishing a job, discovers that his employer is a vampire. From this initial discovery he makes the natural decision to become a demon hunter, believing that demons are more likely to be immensely wealthy than humans. This belief turns out to be valid, but the decision he makes after killing his first demon is more surprising. As a straightforward adventure story this works well, and I enjoyed the way the ending undercuts the rather dubious moral assumptions of the beginning.

There's a great deal to like in O'Neil De Noux's "Upon a Painted Ocean," though the story runs out of gas at the end. On the beautiful planet Octavion, where dinosaurs roam primeval forests and swim crystal seas, Troy and Sam, brothers, live by the Painted Ocean. Troy, the older brother, has become involved with a mysterious blue woman who emerges from the ocean, and is drifting away from his brother. Worried, Sam tries to separate Troy from the woman, but his attempts backfire and only entangle him further with the mysteries of Octavion. The ominous tone of the ending didn't fit with the moody, elegiac tone of the rest of the story, seeming rushed and tacked on. Despite this anticlimax, the bulk of the story is told simply and well, and the relationship between Troy and Sam is well drawn and believable.

Bezzabet Pot is an apprentice to Tyche, the Clockkeeper, who keeps the Clock perpetually running, a task of great importance. For the Clock, you see, controls Time. Were the Clock to stop, all Time in the land of Telunoc would cease to flow. Such, at least, is the setting of James S. Dorr's fantasy "The Master of Time." When a traveller comes to Kolanta-Nihi, home of the Clock, Bezzabet quickly falls for him, but soon learns there is more to her lover than is readily apparent. Her quick thinking and some wizardly assistance are all that stand between Telunoc and a quite literal end of time. The setting mixes the mechanical and the magical in a clever way, and Bezzabet is an appealing heroine.

Questions of identity abound in "Memphis Blue Again," an intriguing short story by Gerard Houarner. The Ship, sent from Earth long ago to spread humanity throughout the stars, has strayed from its mission. Rogue AIs battle with the Ship's systems for the loyalty of the humans on board, who spend the bulk of their time in the virtual reality of the Eidolon Palace. IAMELVIS, a tool of the pro-human AIs, has been sent to recruit the human Jopse away from Ship, and in the process undergoes a transformation he had never expected. Houarner revives the hoary tale of the wandering generation starship with a mixture of current sfnal ideas and quirky settings.

Fantastic editor Edward J. McFadden III appears in his own magazine with a short story, "The Last Battlefield," apparently an expansion of one of his older stories. I haven't read the original version, but I'm not sure if much was gained by doubling the length. It's essentially a short-short with a sting in its tail, telling of the ironic fate awaiting a wealthy man who freezes himself in hopes of finding a cure in the future. Little is done to avoid the clichés common to such stories, and the story drags on too long for the final twist to have much impact.

"Thieves Fall Out" is a refreshingly straightforward sword and sorcery tale of thieves and wizards. Many stories have I read where burly and barbaric thieves are hired to steal mystic items from the houses of wizards, but surely one more can't hurt. I would not accuse Chris Bunch of vast literary ambitions, but he knows how to keep a story moving. Aramaios, hired to steal an enchanted pearl from the house of the dead (and unpronounceable) wizard Lycyth, is, of course double-crossed, but manages to escape with bags of loot and a girl. Predictable it may be, but nonetheless enjoyable.