Fantasy Magazine #4

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"Alicia’s Prayer" by Lisa Ann Figueroa
"The Matreshka" by Marly Youmans
Image"Bizarre Cubiques" by Hal Duncan
"Bronson Rebellion" by Megan Messinger
"Irregular Verbs"by Matthew Johnson
"Under the Red Sun" by Ben Peek
"Rosemary, For Remembrance" by Hannah Wolf Bowen
"The Green Man" by Amber van Dyk
"After Midnight" by Alison Campbell-Wise
"Mosquito Story" by Afifah Myra Muffaz
"Why the Balloon Man Floats Away" by Stephanie Campisi
"Dead Sea Fruit" by Kaaron Warren
"Exposure" by Darren Speegle
"Ticket to Ride" by E. Catherine Tobler
"Among Their Bright Eyes" by Alaya Johnson
"Mushrooms Sprouting in Your Footsteps Like Tears" by Catherine M. Morrison
"During the Dance" by Len Bains
The fourth issue of Fantasy Magazine showcases a wide array of fantasy fiction from barely-disguised SF to magical realism and everything in between.

"Alicia’s Prayer" by Lisa Ann Figueroa is about two sisters who take their sick Aunt Josefa to a curandera, a Hispanic healer, in hopes that the curandera can help her. This is a subtle, quiet story with hints of unresolved conflicts, both in the family history and in their present relationships, that hover over the trio as they make their way to the curandera’s house. The characters are deftly done and entirely believable, something not so easy to achieve in such a short space. The magic, as is appropriate, is also subtle, hovering just behind the words of the characters, never seen until it has done what it should. The curandera’s house, in particular, strikes a good balance between the familiar and the magical unknown.

However, I felt the story was too subtle for its own good in one particular. Figueras tries to carefully introduce the problem at the heart of Alicia’s life without melodrama or heavy-handedness, for which she deserves credit. But I’m afraid I missed it entirely, and the ending came out of the blue. In retrospect, there are hints beforehand, but I would have preferred a less subtle way of handling things that would not have left me scratching my head at the end.

The title of Marly Youmans‘s story, "The Matreshka," refers to those Russian dolls that open to reveal a smaller doll beneath. The reason for this title only becomes clear at the end (so I won’t spoil it).  Seth and Bill are brothers. Bill is the settled one with a fiancée who plans on having children. Seth is less grounded; he wants his life to run like clockwork, or thinks he does until he meets a forest spirit.

I had trouble getting into this initially, mainly because of the odd structure. For no reason I could discern, the first, sixth, and seventh scenes are in first person, and the rest is in third, but all of it is in Seth’s point of view. It’s his voice that opens and closes the narration, but also his thoughts that run through the middle. This felt more like a gimmick to me, especially as I had to go back and forth between the first two scenes to be sure who the narrator was. However, once I got past that difficulty, I found a quiet, understated story about a man unsure of where he belongs. Seth is endearing in his confusion, in his inability to make sense of what happens to him, a character easy to root for. The ending is completely satisfying, and oddly enough, manages to justify the use of first person (although I still would have preferred the whole piece to be in first).

"Bizarre Cubique" by Hal Duncan is a collage between pieces of art criticism on cubism and how it tries to represent 3D space in two dimensions, and a rather desultory first-person narration by someone who turns out to be a faerie, most probably a gargoyle, able to travel the rifts in time and shift between parallel universes.

I’m probably the wrong person for this. I’ll admit upfront to not liking cubism, and the art passages bored me—I’ve read similar things in Art History courses, and once was enough. Moreover, I understand the story takes place in an alternate universe, but the random changes of names threw me off ("Pharis" for Paris, but "Boulevard Saint Michel" stays unchanged, for instance). It seemed more of a cosmetic change than anything, and one that quickly got on my nerves, as I paused every few sentences to run a name in my mind, trying to check whether it might be a place or a person I should know, only with a few extra consonants. There are glimpses of a fascinating alternate universe here, with gargoyles and dryads travelling on trains, but most of this goes nowhere. The narrator wanders through the streets of Pharis, staring at the tourist attractions (living in Paris does give me an edge for spotting that kind of reference), and then wanders off. There is no discernible plot arc, and on the whole, this just didn’t make any sense.

"Bronson Rebellion" by Megan Messinger paints an alternate world where people have to live near the Forest, bargaining with it for the right to settle near its edge. And the price the Forest asks is never cheap. The narrator is a black slave who sees a girl walk out of the Forest, a girl made by the Forest from two murdered children, for reasons of its own.

Messinger paints a creepy world where the feeling of never being safe becomes more oppressive than the shackles the slaves wear. The narrator is sympathetic and the dilemma she faced convincing. The world is subtly, unobtrusively drawn, with Messinger only filling in the necessary parts, and letting the reader work the rest on its own. There’s a hint of a larger canvas, but the story remains steadily focused on its intimate problems, something I particularly enjoyed; so much fantasy of that kind tends to overshoot the mark and go straight for the big issues. Having the narrator’s problem be purely local did much to make this story real for me. The ending, while not exactly a surprise, was satisfying and tied in nicely with the beginning—something I only realized on reading the story a second time. Recommended.

"Irregular Verbs" by Matthew Johnson is an intriguing tale about the Salutean Isles, where each set of people have their own language. There is a common tongue, but beyond that it is interpersonal relationships that create new words, words only those in that relationship will understand. Sendiri has just lost his wife, and fears he is also losing the language they made together.
The story is an intriguing reflexion on language; we take so many things for granted that it’s hard to remember that many expressions are, indeed, coined between two or three people, and will never mean anything in particular to anyone else. The idea alone wouldn’t have been enough to carry this, but the characters are up to supporting the story. I found the image of Sendiri desperately trying to remember the words he and his wife made together both symbolic and touching. This is deliberately low-key; there is no magic, just a set of invented people.  The worldbuilding is derived straight from Polynesian culture, but it’s because of this that it works. It could happen right now, among us. Perhaps in a far corner of Polynesia there really are Salutean islands and a man like Sendiri, struggling to remember language. This is a strong, moving story.  Definitely check it out.

"Under the Red Sun" by Ben Peek is the longest story of the issue. It’s also my favorite. Peek paints a world where sicknesses are rife and take anyone without warning. But people can live forever if they want to: all they have to do is go to a Surgeon, and they’ll have their sick, corrupted body replaced with a new one, a body partly moved by metal and electricity. They become the Returned. Of course, there is now a growing trade for unspoiled bodies to feed the Surgeons’ cliniques. The narrator has just buried his sister Fiona at his mother’s request. But before they can get back to the tomb and burn the body, Fiona’s corpse is stolen.

There is much to loved her. The world is perfectly drawn—creepy, hopeless, grimy. The Surgeons, barely hinted at in the beginning, begin to take on shape as we grow to understand how the society keeps itself from falling apart, one day at at a time. The characters are vivid, well fleshed out, hints of their relationships enough to make them deep without losing too much time in backstory. And the mystery draws to a satisfying yet surprising conclusion, leaving the narrator face-to-face with a credible dilemma. I cannot recommend this enough. Yes, it’s long, but well worth the time.

The eponymous character in "Rosemary, For Remembrance" by Hannah Wolf Bowen has had an accident when she was younger. Now she has no memories of her own, but she remembers everything others forget. Her brother, who feels responsible for the accident, comes and visits her, knowing that every time she remembers something about him, it means he has forgotten it.

This is a deft, quiet story of a relationship that cannot find a happy ending. It took me quite a while to understand what the problem was with Rosemary, which slowed me down. I wished it had been made clearer at some point. The characters are very convincingly drawn, but I found myself dwelling on paradoxes—that Rosemary’s sister should show up in every set of memories related to her, not just once, and so she could theoretically remember him—and trying to work out how the memory transfer worked, than really enjoying this. I may be too logical-minded for this kind of story.

"The Green Man" by Amber Van Dyk is about Venice and the canal where no gondolier boat may enter, the canal where the Green Men live and shape their stones. The story alternates between the point of view of a Green Man and Eli, who is in Venice with his girlfriend.

The ideas are intriguing, the Green Men and their stones, but this story lacked the length to have an impact. The narration is fragmented between the Green Man and Eli, and while this draws a parallel between both, it is too artificial to be drawn into. And I found Eli to be too self-absorbed and whiny to empathize with. I think this is due, in part, to the story’s brevity; the passages in his voice are insufficient, resulting in a strong sense of atmosphere but not much else.
"After Midnight — a Fairytale Noir" by Alison Campbell-Wise is a dark retelling of Cinderella. A private eye is commissioned by the prince to find the girl who showed up at the ball, with whom he is now obsessed by. And the narrator knows where to find that ash girl—after all, he once helped raise her at the behest of her fairy godmother.
There have been more retellings of Cinderella than I can count. I think it fairly safe to say that there probably hasn’t been anything like this one. Campbell-Wise mixes noir archetypes, dark fairy-tales and tragedies, with gusto, and the best part of it is that it all fits together. The voice of the narrator is the familiar one of the PI, and I thought at first I was in for a rather humdrum investigation—something I enjoy, but that isn’t particularly earth-shattering. And then the story veered into darker territory, and I was hooked. The stepsister is probably the most memorable character, an imaginative transposition of the bitter, sarcastic seductress of noir novels. And the ending is a shock. Nothing is unearned, but all the same I had expected something…tamer. Clearly, I misjudged Campbell-Wise. This is one twist I’ll remember for quite a while.

In "Mosquito Story" by Afifah Myra Muffaz, Marina is married to Henry and deludes herself into thinking that he loves her. The sad truth is that Henry is busy bedding Lily, Marina’s good-for-nothing sister. Marina hears them, but keeps lying to herself about her husband’s true worth.

This starts out as mainstream, with the strength of mainstream: the convincing characters in a real setting (a tropical country, but I’m not cultured enough to know which one). Marina is the highlight; I really felt for her, and wished her husband was less of a bastard. Then the story turns fantastic, but so subtly I’m still not sure what happened. Without revealing the ending, I’ll just say that it made sense, but that the beginning failed to prepare sufficiently for it; I understood it, but it felt slightly out of the blue.
"Why the Balloon Man Floats Away" by Stephanie Campisi is a coming-of-age story.  Kasia finds a Balloon Man floating to her window; he keeps trying to give her balloons, which she refuses. As Kasia moves through life’s events, gaining a lover and reflecting on relationships and sex, the Balloon Man is barely mentioned. But still, he hovers over everything.
I found this hard going. There are some beautiful, unconventional images here, and the author does have a way with words. But Campisi also tends towards long, rambling sentences that are hard to parse. It was never clear whether Kasia moved in a real or dream world (I suspect both). The metaphors are beautiful, but I wasn’t sure whether to take them literally or not, leading to much confusion. The symbol of the Balloon Man, while not exactly original, is a powerful one, but by the time I reached the end of the story, I found it difficult to care about either him or Kasia.
In "Dead Sea Fruit" by Kaaron Warren a dentist has to operate on anorexic girls—the Pretty Girls, as he calls them. The Pretty Girls tell him the myth of the Ash Man. After he kisses a girl, everything will taste like ashes in her mouth, and she’ll grow thinner and thinner in a matter of weeks. The narrator is sceptical, until he meets Dan, who complains "he’s unable to kiss women because of the taste of his mouth." His kisses, of course, taste like ashes.
Having already read one story on anorexia, I thought I had my fill of them. After all, there could only be so many ways to re-tread the subject. I was wrong. "Dead Sea Fruit" is only tangentially about anorexia. At its heart, it’s a love story, one in which the object of one’s desire is never totally known or understood. The building relationship is utterly convincing, interlaced with scenes from the Pretty Girls ward that gives it weight. Is Dan the Ash Man, or is it only a myth? I won’t answer this question, but Warren does, and does so convincingly. The ending was both unexpected and logical.

In "Exposure" by Darren Speegle, Rachel has come to Lucerne in Switzerland with two friends to enjoy the carnival. However, when her friends prefer to smoke pot in the apartment, Rachel finds herself lost in the wonder of the carnival and meets a strange masked man who she feels drawn to.

The premise is hardly original, and the first-half a bit too slow-going for my taste. The story truly takes off in the last three scenes or so, when the masked stranger brings Rachel home.  It is there that I found the emotional punch that lacked from the rest of the narration. Sadly, too much is left unsaid by the end for it to really work. There are hints of older myths at work (it reminded me, very strongly, of Psyche and Eros, I suspect deliberately), but the story could have done without most of its first half and with a little more emphasis on the ending. As it is, the last paragraph ends too abruptly to be a fitting conclusion.

Next up is “Ticket to Ride,” a literary dark fantasy by E. Catherine Tobler.  The narrator is a circus traveler, long ago “turned” to a vampiric existence that drives her to feed on the sorrow of mortals.  One day, she lures a forlorn customer named Jack into her tent.  The union of their minds leaves her hungering more than ever for her own elusive grief.

If you can manage to claw the Beatles earworm out of your Eustachian tube, you will find that this story has a music of its own. The writing potently engages the senses, grounding the reader firmly in a rich physical setting.  What the protagonist experiences as memories flood her mind is no less vivid.

Unfortunately, this story is so full of metaphor that it overflows.  What is achingly evocative on page one becomes ridiculous by the middle of the story, when the narrator tastes “sun-warm butterflies” on her laughter.  The strong imagery creates an abstraction layer that ultimately distances the reader from the protagonist.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the story has the pacing of a dirge, and most of the action occurs within the narrator’s psyche.  The story is written from so deep in her point-of-view that it’s difficult to grasp the narrative’s full context, or understand who is feeding on whom, and how, and what it all means.  The ending will leave readers uncertain whether the protagonist is saved or doomed.

"Among Their Bright Eyes" by Alaya Johnson features two familiar characters: the creature of Baron Frankenstein and the bride he made for it. Both of them, fleeing the catastrophe that destroyed their maker, have found refuge in a remote jungle. Deprived of energy, the creature has sunk into slumber, but his bride lives on, unsure of what she should do. Until she meets a young girl called Kaapi, who gives her a true sense of purpose.

This story was deft and well-written, as well as thoroughly depressing. The bride and Kaapi are finely drawn, but I’m not sure I agree with what seems to be the rather dubious moral of the ending. From end to end, the story revels in depression and darkness. While very well done, but it got to be a little too much.

In "Mushrooms Sprouting in Your Footsteps Like Tears" by Catherine M. Morrison, a woman finds a god in the forest and makes love to him. This is rather short, and hard to comment on without major spoilers. I found it surprising, in an unpleasant sort of way. If you like your fantasy dark, you might want to give this a try.

"During the Dance" by Len Bains is similarly short. A family in the East End of London loses their youngest child, Me-Me. As they stand by the graveside, the narrator, her older brother, remembers the dancers Me-Me used to see everywhere. Again, the shortness makes it hard to provide a significant review of this. I found it a thoughtful, quiet examination, both of grief and the things we often fail to see in life. The prose is beautiful, but not in a way that detracts from the story or the characters. The ending is as sadly quiet and magical as the rest.

(Reviewed by Aliette de Bodard except for "Ticket to Ride" by E. Catherine Tobler which was reviewed by Brit Marschalk.)