|Art by Chris Drysdale|
"The Light Comes" by Tony Peak (4032 words)
This is a story where magic and dreams meet and mingle, where dragons have cursed humanity with an affliction that turns their dreams into purple frost, that turns their bodies into twisted monsters. Dynaea is a Sentinel, who patrols dormitories in order to catch the Slumber early enough to kill those too effected. It's a cruel job, and one that she's having more and more trouble following through on. She wants to believe in a better way, wants to believe that there is hope in finding a cure if her home nation worked with its neighbors to the south. No one seems willing to try, though, have resigned themselves to death. That Dynaea doesn't is called naive, but I think it nicely layers the idea of dreams being a weapon. That dreams have become something that people fear, and in some ways then they fear progress, fear innovation. They have been cursed to lack of sleep and that makes them sluggish, irritable, and less likely to reach out, to try the way of peace. It's a nice story in that respect, one that focuses on the need of dreams in the physical sense as well as the spiritual sense. A good read.
"Minor Disasters" by Elise R. Hopkins (2809 words)
This story seems to be about truth and reassurance, about the news and how it has stopped reporting things that it should be reporting. It follows Robin, a wife and mother, as she harps about how bad the news has gotten when it reports about an outbreak of dead birds. Things quickly escalate from there, though, and the story does a nice job showing a mystery illness spreading, how people handle it, how Robin refuses really to believe in it. The story seems to be making a statement about the state of our news, how it's not focused on actually trying to inform as much as misinform, how it uses information, or the broad strokes of information, to rather keep people in the dark and profit off of them. How most people are completely okay with that arrangement if it means they get to have nice things. For people without the security that Robin enjoys, though, the lack of coverage in the news can be much, much worse. The lack of coverage on the amount of trans women and especially trans women of color murdered, for example. Even the news highlighting the recent police murders of people of color seems to be handled very carefully by the media, half in denial and half in hopes of seeming not racist. That Robin wants to avoid the news because it's starting to get too close to unpleasant is something that is a problem, because the story captures how people don't want to be confronted by the ugliness that they could do something about. They don't want to act, so they condemn themselves to ignorance and to acting from that ignorance. It's an idea that the story brushes against, and a reading that I think makes this one well worth unpacking.
"White Horse" by Kate O'Connor (2473 words)
This is a story about death, about a man, a soldier, who encounters a white horse on a battlefield and doesn't quite understand what it is. He chases it, seeking to follow after his squad-mates, but it outdistances him, and eventually he finds that he has lost it, lost it and returned alive to the world where he tries to forget the experience. He's reminded of it, though, when death circles around him again, not coming for him but for his wife who gets cancer and doesn't beat it. The emotions he feels at the horse are understandable, anger and rage and resistance, but the horse is not a malevolent force, is not there to haunt him but merely to lead the dead to wherever they are going. His loss, his acceptance of the horse as part of life, is interesting and powerful, the story focusing on his growing understanding of it, on his growth as a person, as a mortal. The story pauses on those times when he interacts with the horse, ending on his own final meeting, and it does an excellent job of bringing him full circle, showing that sometimes those who have the strongest glimpses of the horse are the ones best ready to accept whatever comes next, to face it without blinking. Sad and slow and poignant, it lingers just long enough at each scene, not drawing things out but giving them the space required to impact. Another good one.
"ReMemories" by Nancy S.M. Waldman (4978 words)
This is a rather sweet story about a woman tasked with looking after her grandson when her daughter leaves for a while. Why she left is unclear at first, the main character having to do a bit of detective work to find out just what is going on. In the mean time she's dealing with her grandson, who is kept "protected" by a number of electronic devices, things to record his memories and monitor his vitals, things that he doesn't really want but which are forced on him. The setting is nearish future with enough new technologies to make it interesting and new, and I liked how the science fit in with the story as a whole, how the technologies didn't make things better so much as they made certain things easier, both in good and bad ways. Like real technology. And, more than that, the story features a strong relationship between woman and grandson, between mother and daughter, and it works. The ending might tend a bit toward the saccharine, but like the cake at the end of the story, it provides a very rich experience, fun with moments of seriousness that drive home the need for human contact, the need for forgiveness and privacy in a world that is moving more and more toward a total surveillance state (and mostly a voluntary one). A neat idea and complex characters in a fascinating setting. Indeed!
"The Gunman on the Wall" by Aleksander Volkmar (4420 words)
So the setup for this story is effective, a man living in a blasted village at the base of a great wall. The people live in wonder of what's on the other side of the wall, live in wonder and fear because a gunman lives on the wall and kills any who try and approach. And life goes on, people living for the hope of getting over the wall, hoping that they will be called. The drama is solid and the character work, the way the story builds its tension, is effective. The oppression of the place, of the wall and the sun and want for escape, is quite sharp. [SPOILERS! LIKE A LOT OF THEM!] It's not that the ending is all that unexpected. The story does a fine job making it seems almost inevitable what would happen, how everything would play out. Which is a little disappointing only because the message of the story then becomes one that is a little familiar for me, which is that the main character becomes the gunman, becomes this oppressive force, to keep people happy and to spite the hopelessness of the world. Which I understand and is executed well but is not a message I personally enjoy. Because, in my mind, it doesn't really serve anyone to stay there. Even if people would lose their hope because there is nothing in sight, it doesn't mean that it's better therefore to live with murder and oppression. Trying to keep people from the truth I do not think does them any favors. People are strong, and given reality will try to make the best of it. The story does a very good job of making the village seem not worth saving. But then the main character, in the end, does just that, out of cowardice at actually trying to move on, to escape the cycle of wall and gunman. It's a well written story, and a nice exploration of how people fall into the traps that keep them oppressed, that pass on the oppression time and time again. I do think it's worth spending some time with, and thinking about, and that I don't agree with the main character's choice doesn't even mean the story is calling for that choice to be viewed as good. But it's a little difficult to not be disappointed that the story is so bleak. Still, worth reading.
"The Magister's Clock" by Simon Kewin (604 words)
This is a fast little story about a woman's quest to find a magical clock. The Magister's Clock, which can tell the time of any event. Which can foretell events. It has been Saffiah's life's work to find the clock in hopes of bringing it home and selling it. Only, when faced by it, she asked it a question, a question that most would find very tempting to ask in that situation. And it answered. And the answer is not at all what she had been expecting. Disbelieving, she thinks her mission a failure, and I suppose it was, but not in the way she had thought. It's a fun little story, the twist offering up a nice bit of drama and the visuals all strong, the idea of this magic clock compelling. It's quite short, but there's enough to work as it's own thing, the character not super solid but that works in some ways as well, the story mainly being about that complicating twist. Light and fun, it manages to say it's piece, bow, and leave the stage gracefully. Even with a rather dark ending, it's fun and a welcome way to recover and catch my breath as I move fully into the second half of the issue.
"Making Ends Meat" by Jarod K. Anderson (2245 words)
This is another short and rather humorous story, again rather steeped in darkness, about a man willing to do just about anything to have a job. Unemployed for quite some time, he answers a help wanted ad online and despite having serious misgivings about it, goes and begins work. Things aren't even as bad as he thinks they're going to be, though things continue to be incredibly creepy. Eventually things get a little too much for him and he goes to leave, assuming that he's done...until he sees how much he's been earning. It's a funny story about just how desperate people become, just how blind they're willing to be when it comes to where their money is coming from. On one level it's just a sort of funny tale about a guy taking a job, and on another it's about the way that people are forced to betray others, how they are forced in some ways to become monsters in order to live. Like people who live by denying insurance claims or taking part in tactics that cause real human suffering. It's not that their terrible people, but that they are in a terrible situation and feel they can't avoid it. So they don't see the obvious signs of the pain they cause. And in that way the story does a nice job showing how that can feel, how taking part in something so obviously horrible can often seem like the best option. So hurrah!
"For the Heart I Never Had" by Raluca Balasa (4315 words)
This is a quite interesting story about a place where people are given cards that govern their traits, cards for bravery and strength and greed and also for empathy and compassion. It's a strange sort of world and one that has turned bleak for Azai, who was once a feared man before his brother stole his cards and left him only empathy and selflessness. Seeing the cards as worthless, he never bothered using them, until someone tracked him down to offer him the chance at revenge. What follows is a confrontation between brother caught in a cycle, finally understanding each other a bit, finally coming to terms with how they were both damaged and used, and Azai taking destiny in his own hands, doing something that he never would have been able to do without the cards that his brother gave him in disgust. Though there were parts of the system that confused me a little, the important parts stand out, and the message of the piece, that there is always hope as long as you don't let yourself be governed by hate, is a strong one. The ending really drives home the relationship between the brothers, the wasted pain and anguish but also showing the chance at redemption, for both of them, as long as they hold to empathy. Quite well done.
"Shamrock - Part 3: Fury Uncaged" by Josh Brown and Alberto Hernandez
Another fun installment of this comic, which I am so glad Fantasy Scroll is putting out regularly now. Shamrock's on the hunt for her people and has found them enslaved. This chapter brings the reader a bit more up on what's going on in the world outside, getting in its world-building nicely before having Shamrock initial escape plan "beat the shit out of people" and meeting her first boss battle, Mullen, who is drawn quite impressively as a total douche. The comic doesn't lose a beat for all that it comes out only once every other month now, and it picks up on threads laid down last installment with Shamrock calling Ruarc out of hiding with her sword. The pacing and the choreography are all excellent, once more showing Shamrock as a force in complete control of the situation. At the same time she's showing that she can easily grasp the situation, which in turn reassures readers who might still not know all of what's going on yet. The structure is classic enough that so far it's enough to know that there's an evil ruler somewhere that needs to be stopped and Shamrock will have to work her way through his cronies in order to get to him. It's fun and action-packed and once again leaves things on a cliffhanger, which means having to wait until next installment to hopefully watch Shamrock wipe the smug smile off of Mullen's face. Always a pleasant way to close out the issue.