Fantasy Magazine, #2

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Image"Nine Tails, Hundred Hearts" by Yoon Ha Lee
"Lessons with Miss Gray" by Theodora Goss
"Light of the Moon" by Karen Anne Mitchell
"Sparking Anger" by Margaret Ronald
"It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks" by Paul Tremblay
"Children of the Revolution" by Lavie Tidhar
"Ragazzo" by Bruce McAllister
"On the Bus," Patricia Russo
"Cotton Country" by Aaron Schutz
"The Sphinx and Ernest Hemingway" by Wade Ogletree
"The Voices of the Snakes" by Karina Sumner-Smith
"The Novel of the Holocaust" by Stewart O’Nan
"Madonna Littoralis" by Caitlin R. Kiernan
The first story, "Nine Tails, Hundred Hearts" by Yoon Ha Lee, is the story of Yeng, a man whose family has been murdered by gumiho, the nine-tailed foxes.  He comes across Hu jing, Transcendent fox, and discovers that there are foxes that are unlike the hated gumiho.

This story is about looking beyond the surface.  Hu jing provokes Yeng to see the truth that lies beneath.  Though a common theme, Lee makes the story fresh by not offering easy solutions or a truly happy ending.

I keep saying over and over how much of a fan I’ve become of Theodora Goss‘s work.  Her ability to mix the mundane world with the fantastic is so assured that her stories venture beyond the willing suspension of disbelief to actual belief.  "Lessons With Miss Gray" is no exception.

It is the story of a group of young girls who spend the summer taking magic lessons from Miss Gray.  Like the characters in Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Miss Gray approaches magic as if it were a science.  She teaches the girls with varying levels of success, until a tragedy brings their lessons to an end.

"Light of the Moon" by Karen Anne Mitchell begins as the narrator is released from a psychiatric hospital.  She is instructed on the importance of taking her medication and sent out into the world by way of a halfway house.  Almost immediately, she begins hallucinating a world where she is one of many slaves captured by an alien race.  As the story goes on, it becomes more and more difficult for her to determine which of the two worlds is her true reality.

While the idea of reality versus hallucination is a common one, Mitchell’s hallucinatory world is interesting in that it crosses the boundary between fantasy and science fiction.  Judy’s overlords are described as alien conquerors, but in the language of fantasy.  It’s an interesting story with more depth than others of its kind.

"Sparking Anger" by Margaret Ronald is a retelling and expansion of the Russian Baba Yaga tale.  Lisa, the story’s main character, has been suspended from school for breaking her high school football team’s star quarterback.  Her mother has sentenced her to tending the garden, where she finds skulls that her mother only sees as rocks.  As the story progresses, Lisa has a strange encounter with her neighbor, Mrs. Kostianaya, and after a shed appears in the old woman’s back yard.

I liked most of this story.  Lisa is able to physically stand up for her friends, even if it puts her in danger that the adults are unwilling to help her out of.  My only complaint was that the high school boys were a little too stereotypically evil.  Their offenses were predictable and common enough that the adults’ nonchalance toward the reasons for Lisa’s violent reactions was unbelievable.  However, this was only a minor flaw in an otherwise satisfying story.

"It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks" by Paul Tremblay is an almost nostalgic piece of end-of-the-world fiction.  It’s the story of a family’s week-long vacation in a cabin near a lake, told from the perspective of the young son, Danny.  Halfway through the week, something terrible happens, and Danny’s parents do their best to keep it from him.

Though the story never states exactly what happened, a few well-placed clues give us a pretty good idea.  Tremblay does an excellent job of conveying Danny’s parents’ determination to maintain as much normalcy as possible while society grounds to a halt around them.  It’s a quiet story that by the end packs an emotional punch.

"Children of the Revolution" by Lavie Tidhar, though not a bad story, was probably my least favorite of the issue.  It deals with an American expatriate on his first visit to Moscow.  Shortly after he arrives, he smokes a spiked cigarette and meets a small boy.  The boy tries to speak and after a few moments, disappears into the sunrise.

Tidhar is a talented writer, and does a great job at capturing the experience of being a stranger in a place that isn’t exactly welcoming.  The reason the little boy chooses the narrator to help him is unclear, as well as why the boy needs help in the first place.  The narrator’s decision whether or not to assist the boy was a little too easy, but still acceptable within the frame of the story.  All in all, not too bad.

"Ragazzo" by Bruce McAllister contains one of the most original climaxes I’ve seen in short fiction in a long time.  It’s the story of an American family living in Italy due to the father’s job.  With an abusive mother and a distant father, the narrator, John, only receives affection from his grandmother and the elderly neighbor who is may or may not be a witch.  John’s grandmother shields him from the worst of his mother’s anger until she must return to the States for medical treatment, and he is left on his own.

John’s family is broken, and at the center of the break is his mother.  She carries a crippling grief that humanizes her even as she presents a danger to her son.  McAllister recreates a vivid sun-dappled landscape that fits the hint of folk tale that is sprinkled through the text.  An excellent story that delivers on all levels.

"On the Bus" by Patricia Russo is the story of two sisters who dream each other’s dreams.  Both are dying, and both are hoping their mother will save them.  Vela is trying to die peacefully when her more flamboyant sister, Thana, barges into her life and demands that she talk their mother into saving them.  Thana claims to know that their mother will be on a certain bus at a certain time and drags Vela out to wait at the stop.

Mentions of the changing seasons and the Greek god of the underworld hint that the story’s roots lie in the Persephone myth, but Russo isn’t just retelling the story of a girl’s abduction and a mother’s grief.  This story is much later and the heroine isn’t Persephone or Demeter.  More an expansion than a retelling, "On the Bus" inverts the myth and changes the focus of the story from tragedy to hope.

"Cotton Country" by Aaron Schultz explores how slavery literally haunts a small community in the rural South a generation after the Civil War.  Willy’s mother, an ex-slave, drifts in and out of reliving her past.  She is dying and Willy tries to resign himself to her death but is not quite successful.  He consults a preacher, a wise woman, and a doctor in hopes of saving her.

"Cotton Country" is beautifully written and, in spite of an ending that seems just a touch too earnest, is elegantly executed.  Schultz has tackled a sensitive subject with judicious care and created an effectively moving piece of fiction.

In "The Sphinx and Ernest Hemingway," Wade Ogletree pays eloquent homage to the Hemingway story "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."  On safari, Hemingway shoots a female sphinx that he has mistaken for a lion.  When he comes to claim his kill, the sphinx has concealed enough of herself that he again mistakes her for something she is not —this time a wounded woman. 
Ogletree paints an interesting portrait of Hemingway that rings startlingly true.  He is not the myth portrayed as a parallel to the sphinx.  Just as she is neither lion nor human, Hemingway is not a monster or a god.  The central message seems to be that it could only end badly for either one to embrace and transform into one half of who they are, while abandoning the other half completely. 

Karina Sumner-Smith humanizes the Greek demi-goddess Medusa in "The Voices of the Snakes."  Focusing on Medusa’s experiences, the story relies more on her history and punishment for desecration—with Poseidon—of Athena’s temple than of her death at the hands of Perseus, though that is alluded to as well.  The snakes that make up her hair spend their days taunting her as a part of her eternal punishment.  She hates them, and they return the sentiment. 

Sumner-Smith takes great care to illustrate a prisoner too weary to care about her punishment anymore.  She creates a story so sad and resigned that the ending is almost breathtaking.  Very well done.

"The Novel of the Holocaust" by Stewart O’Nan seems particularly relevant considering that Elie Wiesel’s Night is the current pick for Oprah Winfrey’s book club.  The story’s protagonist, The Novel of The Holocaust, is traveling to New York City to appear on a talk show to promote his novel.  On the trip there, he remembers the events in his life and how they contrast with what he has included in his fiction.

The Novel of The Holocaust and his book seem to be an amalgamation of Night and The Piano with hints of The Diary of Anne Frank.  O’Nan explores how fiction based on true stories takes the place of the actual events.  When the extra veneer of film is applied, there is almost nothing left of the truth.  Though not traditionally a fantasy story, its examination of the idea that all fiction is some sort of fantasy makes it fit.

The final story in the issue is Caitlin R. Kiernan‘s "Madonna Littoralis," that previously appeared in the first issue of Kiernan’s vignette subscription service Sirenia Digest.  Her prose, always intense and incredibly lush, is almost hypnotic as she tells an erotic tale of doomed love and madness centering on a creature who is and is not human.  The story is effectively written as a surrealistic stream of conscious that jumps back and forth in time.  "Madonna Littoralis" is a beautiful offering that makes a strong anchor story for this second issue of Fantasy Magazine.