"Divining Rod and the Countess" by Christopher East
"Transition" by Steve Vance
"Passing the Test" by Anna Feruglio Dal Dan
"Maggie Doll" by A. H. Jennings
"Loose Drawers" by Charlie Allery
"Seeing Is" by Craig Wolf
"The Secret of the Squick" by David Taub
"After the Reformation: Interviews with the Grammarians (Selected Extracts)" by Helen Keeble
Farthing‘s fifth issue certainly has a diverse range of stories, the longer entries turning out to be much more satisfying than others. While not as balanced as previous issues—this one seemed to rely on campy tales built around cliché punch lines and puns more than mere lighthearted adventures—I still found some stories, namely "Passing the Test" and "Maggie Doll," to be enjoyable and worth the read. And as always, the drabbles throughout are both charismatic and entertaining.
"Divining Rod and the Countess" by Christopher East is an odd story with a strong premise to it, but unfortunately, is unsuccessful for a couple of reasons. It’s told from the perspectives of two by-products of the universe—Rodney, the Divining Rod, and Carolina, the Countess—who travel in search of the right people they can use their extraordinary talents on. One can find anything, the other can count anything. Valuable gifts alone, even more remarkable when used in synchrony. This dynamic duo makes their living by charging clients a thousand dollars a question to find/count anything they’d like. Their latest customer, Mr. Jeffries, already rich, decides to ask some very different questions of the two.
While the story’s message dripped a bit too sappy for my tastes, I found the characters drawn much too thin to warrant any real interest in their lives. We learn little of the two by-products, and while I suspect this was done intentionally, it made it difficult to emotionally follow Carolina on her revelation at the end of "Divining Rod and the Countess." The same can be said of Mr. Jeffries, a man who, within just half an hour, is able to come up with the right five questions to ask. Everything worked out like it should with little to no conflict on either’s part. Again, the idea of a walking Divining Rod and a breathing Countess is interesting, but with too much left unresolved, it is now me asking all the questions. Luckily, I don’t have to pay a thousand dollars a pop to get some answers.
The influence of music and its effect on both the body and soul are ever present in "Transition" by Steve Vance. Mariska’s husband, Michael, who was the same age as Danny, recently passed away. Danny’s taken on the task of seeing his old fling through the hardships of the following days. While dropping Mariska off at her house, a song Danny’s obsessed over for years comes on the radio: it’s an instrumental piece from the era people just sum up as "the oldies," its title and creator always eluding Danny. But nonetheless, the song eases Mariska’s heart. As time passes, Danny watches her obsession with the song burgeon dangerously.
As a story of a woman dealing with the loss of a loved one, the story works well enough, posing the standard questions that death brings out. As a piece of speculative fiction though, "Transition" is a disappointment. This could very well be due to my own personal taste, as short stories where the SF aspect is slight—or nearly slight—do nothing for me. Music stories tend to convey the same ideas, generally, of songs literally taking people away, and Vance doesn’t offer up anything new here to stand out. Danny and Mariska clearly have a history, and though the tension can be downright heard towards the end of "Transition," I was just hoping for something different. Those that like their stories more mainstream will probably enjoy it, though.
"Passing the Test" by Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, my favorite of the issue, cleverly tells the dismal procedure that is Cosulich trying to return to Earth to ascertain safe citizenship for himself and his daughter. This involves a written test, but the questions are not so straightforward. One wrong answer could get Cosulich sent back to his home planet where terrible things await his return. He doesn’t want that to happen, not at all.
It’s a story built on building suspense, and Dal Dan keeps it up all the way to the somber ending. "Passing the Test" asks some important questions about humanity itself rather than what it just means to be human. Plus, there’s a humble reference to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit, which always gets my approval. If anything, I’d have liked to have seen more interaction with Cosulich and his daughter, which would have fueled his desire to pass the test even more. Otherwise, it’s a stimulating story that both asks questions and answers them all while keeping the stress of matters in the reader’s face.
If Pixar’s Toy Story ever had a slightly more absurd fraternal twin, it’d be "Maggie Doll" by A. H. Jennings. Oni Bean, of the Sunnytown Beans, has just escaped from the Licorice Men right into the arms of one button-eyed Maggie Doll. As he adjusts to his new locale, he learns about the mysteriously crude Red Rabbit who, according to Maggie Doll, can save the townspeople from the Licorice Men. But getting his help is a different issue altogether.
"Maggie Doll" never stops to explain itself, which is a good thing. What are clearly a child’s toys become full-fledged characters, each with incisive personalities and emotions. Oni’s clueless, Maggie’s a worrywart, and Red Rabbit a jerk. I really enjoyed how they interacted with one another, and how Jennings kept the setting just detailed enough to leave me wondering what exactly was happening in the background. This is the sort of story I expect to find in Farthing, and hope to continue to find; it’s smart, edgy, and full of character.
"Seeing Is" by Craig Wolf is about a boy named Jody, an all-seeing (and knowing!) detached eye, and the devilish secrets everyone keeps inside themselves. While heading out to spend the entire day at the pool, as nine-year-olds are wont to do on a hot summer day, Jody spies an eye gazing up at him from a hole in the sidewalk. Curious as a cat, he examines it only to find it whispering things about his father and favorite uncle. Mean things, too. The eye’s comments nag at Jody until he’s forced to learn the truth of things on his own.
Though the secrets revealed are no light matter, Wolf handles Jody and his interaction with the godly eye with just enough humor and absurdity to keep things compelling. The how and why (and what the) of the eye are left to the reader’s imagination. I personally pretended that it was just that, an eye, detached and stuck below a wall of cement. Though no one’s lives are changed for the better from its whispering, it does prod Jody enough to feel guilty over something his father did a long time ago, evoking the simple wrath of a nine-year-old. The title obviously references the common phrase "seeing is believing," and it certainly turns out to be so for Jody.
Taub’s worldbuilding is thorough. The existence of sentient bugs and bug ships are mere details in the background. I’d originally suspected the story to be about Kai’s interaction with them but that was not the case. Instead, it’s more about his job and the secret that the Squick, a glob-like bug race, have mastered. I still never understood why the character was named Kai Treskel but everyone called him "T.C. Treskel." That’s minor though as "The Secret of the Squick" is quirky and imaginative. The ending wrapped everything up in the sort of way that warrants smiles while also making complete sense within the context of the story.
"After the Reformation: Interviews with the Grammarians (Selected Extracts)" by Helen Keeble is nearly impossible to summarize. It’s the sort of story that breaks free of the staple essentials; there’s a lack of an actual protagonist, and quite possibly, a lack of a substantial plot. Keeble provides interview excerpts with letters (actual letters, such as "i") and words (such as "the") that have gone through some tough times (i.e. the Reformation). The use of language is strong and consistent. The interviewees are different enough in their voices to make for interesting reading. Is it clever? Yes. Is it a story? Maybe. No. I don’t really know.