“Systemic” is well written and, upon first read, engaging. But the mission part drags, mostly because there are no real obstacles to overcome. The tools provided work flawlessly, and the protag faces no real challenges, even when events go off-plan. “Systemic” is more about Bodger’s discontent, but discontent is a nebulous emotion that doesn’t evoke much tension. It fails to spur Bodger to action, and so the story falls short.
Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.
"The Man with Great Despair Behind His Eyes" by Ken Scholes
"The Whimsical Lives of Bean Counters" by Carrie Vaughn
"The Twa Corbies" by Marie Brennan
"Systemic" by Christopher East
"Lodging" by Katherine Woodbury
"The Early Retirement of T.J. Ferris" by Ryan Neal Myers
"Stray Dog Swordsman on Redemption Road" by Steve Parker
The Winter 2005 Talebones, issue 31, is the first time I’ve encountered this small press magazine. I was impressed by the quality of its production values; it is well bound and has a nice, stiff cover.
The first story is Ken Scholes’s alternate history, “The Man With Great Despair Behind His Eyes.” Scholes posits a world where Meriwether Lewis is sent to explore the Louisiana Purchase territories because of a piece of paper, a modern twenty-dollar bill. Lewis travels to the northwestern territories to meet an old man, Man-from-the-River, who takes him on a hallucinogenic journey through the future, touching upon important events, and giving Lewis a glimpse of Man-from-the-River in his own time—Man-from-the-River is a famous person from modern time, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing his identity.
“The Man With Great Despair Behind His Eyes” tries to give us insight into a possible Meriwether Lewis as he struggles with many of the great questions of his time regarding the future. Will the country be a success? Will what they do have a positive impact on the future? It also avoids taking the easy way out; the traveler from the future doesn’t give them hints or tell them definitive outcomes.
I found the portrait of Lewis intriguing; it revealed aspects of the famous historical figure I hadn’t been aware of, namely the man’s depression and self-doubt. I was less convinced by Man-from-the-River, but I was raised with certain attitudes about the person this character represents that probably contribute to that diffidence. This is a well researched story that offers alternate history fans a plausible look at influences on Lewis and Clark’s famous trip. And it’s timely too, given the recent anniversary of that journey.
In “The Whimsical Lives of Bean Counters” by Carrie Vaughn, Emily is an accountant. She lives with a Celt-rock musician in a Victorian carriage house, which would probably be enough magic in life for most people. But Emily also has a hobgoblin. The little beggar eats her candy, plays with her computer, and makes footprints across her reports. In short, he causes mischief. And when she complains about it to her boyfriend, Dav, he asks her if she only likes magic in her life when it’s nice. Eventually, Emily comes up with a plan and catches the troublesome hob. But just as she is about to take decisive action that will eliminate him from her life, Dav’s question comes back to vex her.
Emily plays nicely against the expectations people often have of accountants, and I liked the whimsy in this story. It highlights the need to hang onto magic, even if we have to make some allowances for it.
Marie Brennan’s “The Twa Corbies” is a retelling of a Scottish ballad by the same name. The narrator can speak to birds, to his dismay. He has the misfortune of overhearing two ravens talking about a dead knight they wish to feast upon, and he feels obligated to report the death of the knight to his family, and thereby the lady of the manor. Unfortunately for him, the lady was the one responsible for the knight’s death in the first place.
I enjoyed Brennan’s characterization of a narrator who regrets the choices he made that enabled him to understand birds. The author’s experience as a folklorist allows her to give this story extra verisimilitude. While I haven’t heard the ballad this story is based on, I have heard many similar pieces in the Celtic tradition, and “The Twa Corbies” does a good job of capturing the feel of those.
“Systemic” by Christopher East is a dark, futuristic thriller in a vaguely dystopian society. Marc Bodger is a professional chameleon who lives outside the system in complete anonymity with his designer body. In return for his life, he does Mission: Impossible-like jobs for his employer.
During Bodger’s next assignment, the job is going as planned when he finds himself, for the first time, questioning the mission and his role in it. Then the unexpected happens. He gets a message warning him to get out, and when he leaves, the building collapses behind him. It seems that he was slated for destruction, but his employer had second thoughts. Only now Bodger really needs to disappear.
In “Lodging,” Katherine Woodbury tells the story of a political bride, Princess Sylvia, married to an ambitious young king, Damarit of Lucoray, to cement her own kingdom’s position. Sylvia’s dowry includes the land bordering a great river and her brothers pressure her into the marriage. They go so far as to anoint their sister in a magical cream to make her appear to be Damarit’s heart’s desire. It works, the king proposes, and Sylvia learns that the King of Lucoray executed his first and greatest love at the insistence of his parliament. Sylvia is possessed by the executed woman’s ghost, and Damarit attempts to defend his actions to the both of them.
“Lodging” is primarily about the fear of being disposable. As much as the political climate of the world hinges upon marriages of power and politics, the women have no real authority. Even death is not enough to prevent being used as a political tool.
Ryan Neal Myers gives us “The Early Retirement of T.J. Ferris,” a short-short intended to make the reader think about goals and ambitions, real and assumed. T.J. Ferris is a powerful young businessman who has scaled his way to the top of the corporate hierarchy. He should be happy, and yet the gargoyle outside his window mocks him, stripping him of his resolve. The gargoyle is a metaphor for the corporate ascent T.J. has made. When he achieves the pinnacle, he discovers that it is not the heights he craves, but the climb itself.
The final story of the issue is Steve Parker’s “Stray Dog Swordsman on Redemption Road.” Iwata Shinosuke is a ronin samurai traveling from village to village, making a living by killing bandits or occasionally working as a bodyguard. In one village, he witnesses the funeral of a young girl, killed in a horrible fashion. As he makes his way to the next, he is met on the road by her ghost. She begs him to avenge her, and in reluctant hero fashion, he embarks upon a quest to appease her shade. Parker’s story is one of redemption, with Shinosuke attempting to atone for the breech of honor that left him a ronin, a status that elicits open contempt from the people he encounters.
This issue of Talebones was a pleasing introduction to this publication for me. I’m sure it will satisfy other speculative fiction fans.