Fantasy Magazine #1

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Image"The Tyrant in Love" by Tim Pratt
"To Make the Dead Speak" by Margaret Ronald
"In the House of Four Seasons" by Jeffrey Ford
"Bones Like Black Sugar" by Catherynne M. Valente
"The Finer Points of Destruction" by Richard Parks
"Hanging the Glass" by Sarah Brandywine Johnson
"Shriek: An Afterword" by Jeff VanderMeer
"The Sense of Spirals" by Sonya Taaffe
"Sun, In Its Copper Season" by Vera Nazarian
"Tear Her Standard Down" by Megan Messinger 
"A Sure and Casual Song" by Erzebet Yellow-Boy
"Closer to the Lung" by Simon Logan
"The Bunny of Vengeance and the Bear of Death" by Eugie Foster
"At the End of the Hall" by Nick Mamatas
"Summer Ice" by Holly Phillips
Editor Sean Wallace has stated that the first issue of Fantasy Magazine would be packed full, and that was not a joke.  With no less than fifteen stories, this magazine is offering more fiction than many anthologies.  And the roster of authors is full of seasoned professionals as well as talented newcomers.

Up first is "The Tyrant in Love" by Tim Pratt.  It is the story of what happens when a tyrant has exhausted all traditional forms of torture and degradation and is left to explore the realm of his emotions.

As I started reading the story, I struggled with the characters.  Neither the tyrant nor his harlequin is likable.  The tyrant is casually cruel; the harlequin is also cruel, but is more eager about it.  The tyrant comes up with a plan to alleviate his boredom.  He wishes to go out among his subjects and do good deeds.  The harlequin is less than enthusiastic about this plan, but has no choice but to go along with it.  On the tyrant’s day out, he meets and falls in love with the widow of one of his forgotten victims.

The story is both beautiful and grotesque.  It reminds me of those paintings that seem pretty until you look close and see that atrocities are being committed amongst the flowers and butterflies.  The harlequin serves as the tyrant’s double while he is away from the palace.  At one point, I was almost convinced that the harlequin only existed in the tyrant’s mind.  Though not literally his depravity, he served as a potent symbol of it throughout the story.  I was left wondering if it was the tyrant or the harlequin who was the greater evil.

The second story, "To Make the Dead Speak" by Margaret Ronald, is a wistful tale steeped in romance and necromancy.  Morrow is on a quest.  When his love, Moss, became ill the year before, they made a plan.  He would search out her spirit and bind her to him after she died.  Morrow goes against the wishes of his family and ventures out during the Waiting Days, when the year’s dead walk the earth before passing to "a place over the ocean."

While the story was well written and entertaining, the climax was a bit flat, tension-wise.  Morrow seemed too levelheaded to act any differently than he did when his moment of truth came.  The obstacles presented weren’t entirely convincing as true impediments to the course he had chosen because they were easily dismissed.  However, the story has a nice dreamlike quality that carries it through to a quietly satisfying denouement.  

The first image of "In the House of Four Seasons" by Jeffrey Ford is of a woman, Mrs. Gash, sitting at a coffee table in a birch grove putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  It’s one of the best uses of an image as a tool to hook a reader I’ve seen in a long time.  

I confess, for much of the story, I felt like I was in a carnival fun house.  Ford has a talent for weaving a mass of surreal and often confusing story threads into a coherent whole where the pattern only becomes apparent at the end.  He throws bizarre, even shocking, details in seemingly at random.  The beauty of the story is that they aren’t random at all, merely following a design that we are too close to see, much like an Impressionist painting.  It’s a story that benefits from multiple readings.

"Bones Like Black Sugar" by Catherynne M. Valente is an expansion of the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretl."  It’s short, but Valente’s lush prose makes it feel as intricately crafted as a full-length novel.  Gretl, who is not named but is obviously the child heroine grown up, finds that she regrets her part in the story.  She has become a simple woman who has been pressed into unwilling service to the brother she saved.

Valente has a way of writing that feels like a fever dream.  She uses dense detail that takes on a texture of its own until the story seems to be set against a backdrop of expensive, yet tasteful, brocade.  It is a gorgeous story that I enjoyed quite a bit.

With "The Finer Points of Destruction" by Richard Parks, the magazine shifts tone.  Up to this point, the stories have all carried the tint of traditional fantasy.  With Parks’s contribution, we are catapulted into modern fantasy.  

Jack Kimble is visited by Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Destruction.  She is searching for her husband, Shiva, and knows that he will come to Jack’s apartment, but she doesn’t know when.  Since she destroys something of Jack’s every time she manifests, Jack goes out to search for Shiva.

The best way to describe this story is as a marriage counseling session by way of the Hindu god, Shiva, and the ten aspects of his wife, Parvati.  It’s an amusing concept and Parks has a voice that is fun to read, with the witty dialogue being the highlight of the story.  

I reviewed Parks’ story "The Penultimate Riddle" for Tangent this summer.  That story examined the beginning of a relationship through the interaction with a mythical beast.  "The Finer Points of Destruction" focuses on the potential end of a relationship and makes an excellent thematic bookend to the earlier story.

There are many good elements to "Hanging the Glass" by Sarah Brandywine Johnson.  It is the story of a lifetime friendship between an artist and an author.  The artist, James Dryden, is fascinated by masks.  Even though his paintings are much more valuable, he spends all his time making masks.  The story’s narrator is the author, and collects his friend’s creations.

It’s a strong story that is slightly flawed by the conceit of using present tense.  The story is told in episodes several years, if not decades apart, with all sections written in the present.  It seemed unnecessarily confusing, and was the one thing that really troubled me about an otherwise well-presented tale.

"Shriek" is an excerpt from Jeff VanderMeer‘s forthcoming novel, Shriek: An Afterword.  The story is Janice Shriek’s reminiscence of her brother, Duncan, and how the death of their father and the family’s subsequent move to Ambergris affected him.  VanderMeer’s imagery is outstanding.  He seems to have a gift for finding the one perfect description that not only gets the physical aspect across, but also the feel.

This is the section of the review where I reveal a shocking lack of experience with VanderMeer’s Ambergris.  It seems as though this excerpt has been included to prod lazy readers like myself to get off our duffs and buy the book.  If that is so, it succeeds admirably.  

"The Sense of Spirals" by Sonya Taaffe is the story of a labyrinth.  There are characters involved, but it is the labyrinth that is the most interesting.  There’s llittle action.  It’s mostly two characters, a brother and sister, watching the labyrinth grow around them while discussing the nature of their world.  The action happens to the setting; the characters remain in one place.  But things don’t stay the same in this world.  The only rule is constant change.  A cigarette, once lit, can transform to a sugar cane, or a flower.

There is something so mysterious and alluring about labyrinths.  Their very existence seems like a challenge, with ominous consequences for failure.  Taaffe captures that allure in a marvelous story set in a world that I longed to explore further.

"Sun, In Its Copper Season" by Vera Nazarian is the myth of a sun goddess.  Usually, in fantasy literature, a sun deity is male, so a sun goddess was a welcome change.  The goddess is lonely for a companion who understands her.  She doesn’t know it until she catches a glimpse of someone passing through her garden.

Nazarian’s myth is perfect.  It never crosses the line into a modern story, and retains the mythic feel from the first word to the last.  The language is dazzling and appropriately tinged in gold and copper.  In the company of some very strong stories, this one stood out.  The prose is polished so smooth that it felt like a popular tale that had been told over and over without ever growing stale.

Changelings, fairy half-breeds, and cross-dressers in Jazz Era San Francisco populate Megan Messinger‘s story "Tear Her Standard Down."  Jamie Cawthorne is drawn into the world of Faerie when he receives a call for help from his old friend, Cora.  When Jamie tracks Cora to an asylum, he finds that before she was committed, she hid her baby in the back room of her deaf mother’s house.

Though extremely entertaining, "Tear Her Standard Down" feels like two stories grafted into one.  On one hand, there is the mystery of Cora and Jamie’s past, on the other, the nature of the child.  For the most part, these stories mesh seamlessly, with the snarl being that Cora’s story is unresolved.  Aside from that, this is an appealing tale from a talented writer.

"A Sure & Certain Song" by Erzebet Yellow-Boy is a retelling of the Rapunzel tale with very little new material added, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is a readable story whose biggest sin is its familiarity.  The few fresh touches were welcome and appropriate.  A satisfactory telling of a traditional story.

"Closer to the Lung" by Simon Logan is an interesting choice to include in the same issue as the previous stories.  First off, it feels much more modern, taking place in the present or the near future.  Secondly, the fantasy element is extremely slight and not altogether essential to the plot.  With its use of viral infection, it almost has a science fiction feel.

It starts off in the realm of fetish, with people feeding on the blood of others for pleasure, then moves quickly to a love triangle.  Even though the fantasy element is slight, the story feels like good vampire fiction.  The dark, urban atmosphere is the piece’s backbone and is nicely done.

Eugie Foster’s “The Bunny of Vengeance and The Bear of Death” starts of with what appears to be a lighthearted encounter between the two characters of the title. The characters are iconic godlike figures in the tradition of the Greek gods, although they take on dual roles. The Bunny of Vengeance also serves as Bunny of Words, while the Bear of Death moonlights for Reason. Bear has come to collect Bunny, who continues to interfere in the world of humanity, despite a general consensus among their folk to step back. Bunny, it turns out, is unwilling to relinquish her pursuit of vengeance, believing that it is necessary amidst the flawed morality of humans.
If the cute animal personifications initially seem to promise a slight, warm fuzzy story, that impression is soon countered by the topics of their debate. As the story progresses, Bunny and Bear take on a wager which sees them wading deep into the depths of human cruelty and harm. Through their decision to follow one man’s life through various moments, the abstract argument gains concrete form and emotional impact. Ultimately, the story is emotionally effective and, impressively, given its subject matter, makes its point through character and story rather than cold rhetoric. A strong story.

The penultimate offering, "At the End of the Hall" by Nick Mamatas, is the story of a woman’s impending death wrapped in the scenery of pulp science fiction.  At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about it.  It’s well written, and there is a moment in the middle with a delicious build up of tension, but I wasn’t quite getting it.  

Then I read it again.   There are many subtle elements and the story certainly benefits from a second read to catch them all.  It is an entertaining homage to the history of the genre that doesn’t spoon-feed the reader a prepackaged moral.

Manon, an artist and the protagonist of "Summer Ice" by Holly Phillips, has become disconnected from her art.  She goes about her life, seeing beauty in everyday items, like branches and roof pebbles, but is unable to find inspiration.

If the speculative element of the Logan story was slight, in "Summer Ice" it is missing altogether.  And yet this, like the other, feels like a genre piece.  To be specific, it feels like a fairy tale.  Phillips, through the eyes of her artist, uses strong visual imagery.  She references Sleeping Beauty, and the comparison between the comatose princess and the artist—who is only going through the motions of her life—is easily made.  This story, though not the flashiest, encompasses the literary end of fantasy and is a fitting conclusion to the issue.

(Reviewed by Aimee Poynter except for "The Bunny of Vengeance and the Bear of Death" by Eugie Foster which was reviewed by Ben Payne.)