The first story in this music-themed issue is “The Deepest Notes of the Harp and Drum”. Narrator Jane tells us right up front she murdered her meanie of a sister and fed her to the wild pigs of the forest. In this world, musical instruments sing the memories of its source material, so when a group of traveling minstrels comes to town with instruments made from a forest pig, Jane fears being outed for her crime. There’s a gleeful cynicism to Jane’s droll deadpan, the sing-song cadence of her narration and her selfish, amoral attitude.
The title character of Jordan Taylor’s “La Orpheline” is a young Parisian thief who was also once a cat, until the Magician stole her catskin. Now she works in the costume department of the Opéra le Peletier dressing the company’s head soprano. The Magician turns out to be the soprano’s secret benefactor, and his jealous lover, the famous courtesan la Reine des Fées strikes a deal with La Orpheline: the location and means to retrieve her catskin for helping the courtesan replace the head soprano in The Marriage of Figaro. The chorus-like narrator is amusing, and the plot unfolds in a grand, operatic flourish. It disappointed me that the story’s fantasy elements—La Orpheline’s catskin, the Magician’s wards and hexes—were superficial and not integral to the plot. Switching them out for a non-magical mcguffin and more practical obstacles would have made little difference.
This is an enjoyable issue overall though two of the original works are from series and aren’t quite as successful as standalone stories without the wider context.
‘With Teeth Unmake the Sun’ is the latest story in A. Merc Rustad’s Sun Lords of the Principality Series, a rhapsodic merger of space opera and high fantasy. In this one, gender fluid First Wolf offers to wage war against the Sun Lords hoping to reunite with his/her pack, long ago devoured by Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf. The scale of the story is breathtaking; its god-like players aloofness is disturbing, as they slaughter billions of people with barely a second thought. The characters are too opaque to get behind, much less empathize with. Very little explanation of who the Sun Lords are and why the wolves hate them, so understanding the wolves’ motives depends on having read the other stories.
Tony Ballantyne’s ‘Midway’ is an upbeat slice of galactic life about a man who has spend half his life travelling out to other planets trading bits of Earth culture with other species. He hasn’t been around another human in decades when he learns of a woman tradesman who is also traveling through that area of space and seeks her out. It’s a nice midlife crisis story, and an amusing depiction of people living a mostly peaceful interstellar existence.
Ashok K. Banker continues his Legends of the Burnt Empire series, this time focusing on Vrath, the son of Sha’ant and the river goddess Jeel (it helps to have read the previous entry, ‘A Love Story Written on Water’ in December’s Lightspeed). Banker’s depiction of Vrath’s fluidness, and how the river-born godling interacts with the natural world, is striking: “He feared nothing; neither the boulders dotting the white water rapids where hapless land animals often dashed out their brains, nor the yawning abysses where his mother split herself into dozens of falls plunging thousands of fish-lengths to crash deafeningly in a miasma of vapor and sound. He went over the falls shouting his joy, knowing no harm could come to him in his mother’s realm. Sensing also something of his true nature. The force that surged in his veins, calling out to and answered by his mother’s endless coursing yet filled also with some greater power, a power he did not yet know the name of, but which burned fiercely within his blood.” This is the story of how Vrath came of age and first encountered his father, and feels like an interlude, a transition to the next piece in the larger whole. Still, it’s enjoyable and well written and I look forward to the next entry.
The world-building alone makes Meg Elison’s ‘Endor House’ worth reading. Written in the form of a news profile on Hermes Maleficarum, a publisher of books of magic distributed throughout the multi-verse, there isn’t a lot in the way of plot. Cassandra, the time traveling journalist writing the profile, skips ahead to different points in Hermes’ life, from the brash youth who wants to change the way the company did business under his father, to his wedding many years later, to his own son wanting to usurp his father’s place. Elison hits a bull’s eye with the tone of Cassandra’s celeb-stalking profile piece. There’s a glittery, superficial sheen to it, a measured distance from the subject meant to generate “awe”, though perhaps more to flatter Hermes than to impress the reader. For the reader, little hints and morsels of subtext evince a believable, but false, intimacy. This is high-concept fantasy, though the concept is almost all we get.
Other Notable Stories from Around the Web
Galaxy’s Edge has a couple of stories I enjoyed in its January issue. In Elly Bangs’ ‘The Wordless Age’, language is now a commodity and using words costs money. Louis is a word broker who hopes to get rich enough someday to own his own word. Selling his genome can get him close, but pairing it with his sister’s genome will put him over the top. The problem is, his sister lives in the Pirate Zone, a lawless place where people use whatever words they want without paying for them. This story has a very Twilight Zone aura to it, heavy on allegory and leaking irony everywhere. Louis’ attempt to go on a date, where they even avoid using articles and conjunctions to keep from racking up a big bill, is a hoot. Like a lot of Twilight Zone episodes, it can come across as pedantic, and it often reads like the characters are making choices just so the writer can make a point. The contrast between the Lawful and Pirate zones plays well, though, and I enjoyed how the story kept accounting for questions or objections the reader might have about the premise. ‘What You Don’t Remember’ by Christopher Blake is a second person story about an empath who interrogates political prisoners by extracting their memories. The story suffers from “generic post-apocalyptic dystopia syndrome”, but beyond that the characters are strong and there is a nice twist at the climax.
On the grisly side of things, issue 44 of The Dark has Sara Saab’s chilling monster story ‘Burrowing Machines’. It’s the story of Jo, an engineer overseeing a tunneling project under London, who unleashes ancient underground creatures that wreak havoc on the trains. A standard premise for this kind of story, elevated by the unsettling atmosphere Saab evokes and the unexpected choices of its protagonist. Vajra Chandrasekera creates a terrifying dystopia in ‘On the Origin of Specie’ in Nightmare Issue 76. The narrator is a tax protester thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom. I found its imagery remarkable for a story that can only describe what the narrator feels, not what he sees. The middle of the story is an overlong discourse on civil disobedience that could have been more effective if briefer.
Fireside Magazine keeps up its tradition of publishing low-key, contemplative spec fic in January’s issue. Russell Nichols’ ‘Beyond Comprehension’ follows Brian, a man who has lived his whole life with dyslexia, and his young son Andre, who has just received an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Brian struggles just to find one book he can share with his son while Andre “reads” and memorizes hundreds of books a day. Brian’s anxiety over his self-worth, exacerbated by childhood trauma over how his schoolmates treated him because of his race and his disability, is powerful. Mary Soon Lee offers ‘Lord Serpent’, a charming fable about a laundry woman who asks help from the gods to defeat an unkillable demon, and Jaymee Goh’s short and sweet ‘By the Storytelling Fire’ gives us two would-be lovers who flirt with each other over fairy tales.
Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)
* ‘Burrowing Machines’ by Sara Saab
* ‘On the Origin of Specie’ by Vajra Chandrasekera
* ‘Beyond Comprehension’ by Russell Nichols