On Spec, #47, Winter 2001/2002

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"Puce Boy" by Michael Libling
"The Prodigious Daughter" by E.L. Chen
"All a Woman Needs" by Catherine MacLeod
"Ouija" by Catherine MacLeod
"The Path to the Sun" by Jaine Fenn
"What I Did On My Summer Vacation" by Kate Riedel
"The Second Most Important Picture" by James Stephen Forrest
"Hedd" by Susan Mayse
"Adapting for the Deep" by Holly Phillips
"Pisces" by Carl Sieber

The Winter 2001/2002 issue of On Spec is a good one, featuring a variety of genre stories and plenty of solid writing. While some of the stories succeeded for me more than others, I found all of them smoothly prosed and very readable.

The issue gets off to a running start with "Puce Boy" by Michael Libling, the creepy, perfectly clocked tale of a man with a dark past. Approaching a town that is a site of childhood trauma for him, a man named Orry remembers back to his youth, to a time when he and his widowed mother moved there to start a new life. This simple coming-of-age set-up gets pitched a curve ball, however, when (in flashback) fourteen-year-old Orry meets an odd little girl named Keitha, who possesses a strange talent to "see people in colors" and predict their fates. When Orry tries to use this power to manipulate his own future, the results are disastrous. While telling the story in flashback makes the overall thrust of the plot a bit predictable, it also serves to increase the suspense; we know something terrible is going to happen, but we're not exactly sure what. Libling keeps the reader guessing with an engaging, assured prose style, and his characters are well drawn and sympathetic. A classy little horror yarn.

"The Prodigious Daughter" by E.L. Chen is the solid, if somewhat flawed, story of Samantha Lee, a down-on-her-luck piano player who is recruited into an information heist both for her rare performing skills and her link to a powerful music industry mogul. The story itself is confidently told and certainly engaging, but I felt the noirish near future depicted didn't seem paramount to the action. Removed of its few science fictional trappings, in other words, the story would have held up just fine, making those elements feel extraneous. An enjoyable read, nonetheless, and I came away from the story looking forward to seeing more of Chen's work.

The first of two consecutive stories by Catherine MacLeod, "All a Woman Needs" is a well enough written tale, about a waitress in a small town overjoyed that she has a secret to keep in a place where there simply are no secrets. This being a genre fiction magazine, I didn't find the MacGuffin all that difficult to guess, unfortunately. The other MacLeod story, "Ouija," is flash fiction, not long enough to tell much of a story, but just long enough to conjure a bit of dread. There's good writing in both of these stories, but ultimately I didn't get much out of them.

I was very impressed by "The Path to the Sun" by Jaine Fenn, an intriguing combination of alternate history, spy caper, and sense of wonder adventure fiction. The story suggests a timeline wherein the Aztec nation grew into an American empire that thrives into the early twentieth century. In rural England, a British War Ministry official named James Dawson is sent out to investigate the arrival of an Azteca defector named Ahuitzotl. Disenchanted by his nation's culture and politics, Ahuitzotl has stolen the first ever "flying craft" (in this timeline designed by the Aztecs) and escaped to England seeking political asylum. The story moves into adventure territory when Ahuitzotl convinces Dawson to fly to London with him. The flight, at first an intensely emotional experience for the reserved British official, is soon set upon by danger that further illuminates the culture clash, even as it brings the men closer together. The interaction of these two distinct personalities makes for an interesting examination of cultural differences, politics, power and belief. There is an awful lot going on in this ambitious, thought-provoking story, most of it very good.

The next offering is a simple but well constructed ghost story by Kate Riedel, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation," wherein a young girl working at her brother's bookstore uncovers a dark secret from a historic building's past. There's not much to say about this one; lightweight, but enjoyable and nicely written.

James Stephen Forrest contributes the next story, "The Second Most Important Picture," a straightforward fantasy featuring Kirsten, a young girl with a talent for magical artwork, and her tyrant of a school teacher. The teacher is deftly rendered despicable, garnering plenty of reader sympathy for Kirsten's ultimate revenge, which is a bit telegraphed but satisfying. Not much depth, but a fun story.

Another child struggles with unpleasant adults in "Hedd" by Susan Mayse, an agreeable fairy tale about a young orphan girl who is set upon by a scheming aunt and uncle. Her friendship with a gargoyle she encounters at a nearby church helps her to triumph over her elders. Again, a fun, simple story that hits on all its objectives.

The most satisfying story in the issue for me was "Adapting for the Deep" by Holly Phillips, which ventures two hundred years into the future to tell the story of a genetically engineered woman named Sidonie. In this global society, modified "superior" humans have been outlawed, so Sidonie's creator, Dolphus, has kept her true nature a secret; it's a secret that Sidonie soon jeopardizes by applying for space exploration, thereby risking exposure. The story is well structured and beautifully written, and the central idea is intriguing, a fine examination of an interesting premise.

Wrapping up the issue is a short, effective alien invasion tale by Carl Sieber, "Pisces." In just a few short pages, the author not only manages to establish a tense global situation, but ties it into the relationship between the protagonist, a public speaker named Thompson, and his estranged daughter, a pilot who will be involved in the Earth's defense. I found this story impressive mainly in how much it manages to do in so little time.

Overall I found this an attractively produced and well written issue, with the Libling, Fenn, and Phillips stories standing out.

Christopher East lives in Iowa. He's had a handful of short stories published in various genre publications. His most recent story appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated.