Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Quick Sips - Fantasy Scroll #9

Well October is really trying to kill me, though perhaps with kindness if the new issue of Fantasy Scroll Magazine is anything to go by. The publication normally puts out a pretty stacked ToC, but this issue has not a single reprint so far as I can tell, which means nine original short stories (only one of them flash) and a graphic story. I'd mind more if everything wasn't so good, once again proving that Fantasy Scroll knows how to satisfy regardless of speculative genre. Horror makes a bit more of a statement this month, perhaps because the issue releases so close to Halloween, but otherwise there is just about everything a person could ask for, from swashbuckling fantasy adventures to more ponderous and emotionally devastating science fiction. So without further ado, to the reviews!

Art by Jessica Tung Chi


"Thomas Lynne" by Jordan Taylor (4355 words)

This is a story about being trapped, but circumstance, by family, by small town life, and about making choices. Not always very good choices, and not always very informed choices, but choices all the same. It's a story about Janet, a girl whose best friend is a young boy who can see strange things. A changeling boy who is due to be sacrificed and balks at the responsibility. There are quite a few things about this story that I like: the voice of Janet, the picture of small town, Southern life with its politics and frowns and dramas, and the way that magic infuses it all with a certain something else. As I have to keep saying, I'm a little less a fan of the casual teen pregnancy (not that it doesn't happen, but that it's presented in such a light manner, as something that wasn't intended but is, ultimately, a good thing that benefits everyone). It's something that's played as important, as part of something larger going on, but something that has to do with the titular character's past and nature and less with Janet and the actual child. It's still a fun story, one that has a nice amount of charm and a resolved female character throwing herself against the Queen of the Faeries. And it leaves the story open still, this scene a part of something bigger, something growing in momentum, and as such it's a nice bit of world building and character establishing. Indeed.

"When Angels Wear Butterfly Wings" by Stone Showers (349 words)

Well this is one dark, dark piece of flash fiction. One that mixes a lot of grief and hurt together and offers it up without an awful lot of hope. It's a rather direct story, one that takes the death of a child and uses it to question the stories that we tell children. Not just the one specific to the story, which is rather harmless in the grand scheme of things. No, I read this as pushing a bit deeper, taking place in a church and all, and asking why we tell our children lies that do not serve to protect them, and indeed open them up to harm. Why lie about sex and birth control and consent (to perhaps take a few I personally take issue with) by denying children education and instead giving them lies designed to shelter them from knowing what to do when things invariable happen or go wrong? Parents lie to children for many reasons, mostly to make life easier for parents because their authority flows from being, well, an authority. From being right. Take that away, and many parents don't know how to face their children. At least, once again, that's what the story speaks to for me. The danger of lying to a child just because it's a child, of wanting to protect ignorance and misapprehension because you assume that it's easier. Or more magical. Or easier to control. But hey, this week has already shown that me and stories about parents and children sometimes throw me. I like the story, though, with its weight and its quick punch to the face. I like the way it says its piece and then steps back, lets the reader struggle with the implications. Definitely one to read a few times.

"Sea Found" by L R Hieber (2174 words)

This is something of a…haunting story (okay, okay, bad pun, but still). The story follows a young woman as she seeks to capture the attentions of a ghost. As she seeks to escape a world she feels detached from, apart from. The story might be just a bit unsettling for the obvious sexual overtones between this very underage girl and this young-but-not-that-young ghost, but the sensuality is part of what Christine craves, part of what sends her into the night chasing after ghosts. And I like that [SPOILERS] her transformation isn't really one that she regrets or feels cheated by. Many times a story like this would be a cautionary tale saying don't look beyond, don't be weird, try to fit in and everything will get better, you'll make friends, etc. This story refuses to take such an out, and instead of insisting that she would have been fine, gives her the opportunity to be what she wanted. To transform herself and revel in the power of it. To finally feel comfortable in her not-skin. Of course, the story doesn't completely excuse her, and she does become something of a dark and malevolent force along the coast, responsible for death and suffering. But it matches with her drives, with her quest for companionship. It's more chilling here, her hunger, her action, but it also confronts the reader with how the world has shaped her, how her loneliness and isolation have twisted her. It's an interesting story, and one that fits quite well with Halloween, a tale to tell around the campfire, with a strong voice and a complex ending.

"Fountain" by Lynda Clark (3339 words)

I obviously have a soft spot for stories with lots of cats in them. And queer people being awesome. Here an older trans woman finds herself helping people she didn't think she would and dropping her guard enough to accept helping putting some demons to rest that have been haunting her for a long time. The story looks at isolation, at protection. Maude has been living by herself (well, aside from the cats) for a long time, and in that time has erected barriers against not just the sun, but the pain and rejection she felt when she was pushed out of town by her abusive and authoritarian father. The story examines the barriers, the protection, at how it keeps safe but also keeps alone. When Maude is confronted by two travelers in need, she decides to trust a little, and in so doing gets a taste of how it is to not be alone and not be afraid. It's that taste, I think, that finally allows her to do what she had never been willing to before. The story takes place in a bleak setting but the action is lifting, fun, and hopeful. Despite the harshness of the environment, there is a hope for something better, for a world where people won't have to live afraid. Taking on gender and a number of intolerances as well as briefly brushing against colonization and colonialism and abuse of various kinds, this one has depth as well as action, and the lingering image of burial mounds in the sand, slowly being erased by the winds. A very nicely done story.

"Beneath the Raven's Wing" by Rebecca Birch (3742 words)

This is an interesting story for both how is subverts many of the typical tropes when it comes to gothic storylines and also how it recenters some of them. In the story, Moira is a young woman with a secret legacy and a secret protector. A protector, it turns out, that she doesn't really need. It's great to see a story like this where the main character, instantly out of her comfort zone, still manages to surprise people with her will and skills, with her power. Normally for young women she would have to rely on the dark Corbet to save her, but Moira bucks that trend in favor of saving and protecting herself, claiming herself instead of letting herself be claimed by any other. Not that the story isn't without its romance, which is an interesting touch, Moira and Corbet still obviously drawn to each other, and Moira, though very much her own person with her own agency, still wanting to fly under Corbet's wing. It makes the story both critiquing a lot of what gothic stories did to female characters as well as retaining a bit of the essence of the time, that Moira is unwilling to go where her heart does not lead, is unrelenting in her drive to protect those she cares about and retain her own power, but is does still want to be suited, to be courted by Corbet. It's an interesting mix, and I think it worked, telling a story that is romantic but where the gaze of the story is Moira's and not Corbet's. Another fun and appropriately spooky story for October.

"Exit Strategy" by Shane Halbach (4489 words)

This one might not be as Halloween-themed as some of the other ones, but it certainly is a lot of damn fun. Calling to mind older sword and sorcery fantasy stories, it involves a dwarf, a heist, and a dragon. And I'm not going to lie, this one reads an awful lot like a D&D session, but that's never really bothered me. It reads like a really fun D&D session, filled with fun characters and people doing their best to find the weakness of a tough opponent and find a way to bend a few rules. In any fantasy where there's a rather rigid magic system, there are situations where things can be interpreted rather loosely. And here things get a bit clever as Delevan, the dwarf, and his fellow thieves seek to filch a whole lot of coin from a powerful dragon. There is a bit of back-story as the characters argue before agreeing to team up, and a lot of banter as things go from bad to worse to everything-was-fine-from-the-start. The characterization might not be incredibly deep, but sometimes that's not the point. Sometimes the point is seeing people get eaten by a dragon and live to tell about it. Fast and with a delightful and rather grumpy voice, the story does what it sets out to do: to entertain. Job well done.

"Where the Millennials Went" by Zach Lisabeth (3766 words)

Wow, this story is both incredibly fun and silly and incredibly dark and depressing as hell. Which, kudos. But this subject has been popping up again and again in stories recently, the broken promises of youth, of being a Millennial. I'm actually not sure which is more depressing in its own way, this one or the one about suicide from the Queers Destroy Horror issue this month. Both take similar tracks, but this one embraces the childhood dreams. The idea that we were sold, that things will work out. That we will have it better than our parents, or at least as good. That progress only works in one direction and that things will always be happy and bright. The truth is a much thornier issue, especially because as a Millennial I feel that much of that was told to us not in good faith, as a way to shatter us, to make us disillusioned and, I'm guessing the hope was, willing to prop up the lifestyles of those who came before who don't want to face the grimness of what they have broken. Who want to die in comfort without having dealt with what they have built. Here we have Maggie, who refuses to give up the dream, the magic. Who instead of facing the "real world," which is a very loaded term, instead leads a revolution to reform the dreaming, allowing people to stay after they grow "too old." It's a silly story covering over a bitter and dark truth, that people of this generation have nowhere to go. That they have been broken in many ways and refusing to play along means…well, a lot of things, really. Here the "real world" can be opted out of, and it's something that appeals to Millennials who find their "real world" not the one they were told to expect. It's a fun story, with a great and moving language and imagination. But it's also dark as hell on some levels. So immensely suited to the month, I guess. And also quite good. Hurrah!

"Scents of Life" by Robert Lowell Russell (3789 words)

This is a deeply sentimental and romantic story about a woman facing Alzheimer's, first in her father and then as a student studying the brain, then as a doctor trying to figure out a way to retrieve and strengthen memories, and finally [SPOILERS] as a patient using her own treatments to stay close to the man she loves. It's not a story for those who don't like crying, who don't like going through some emotionally loaded situations. Because the story is very sweet, very touching, like a movie montage filled with a love tempered by tragedy, with characters that are strong and alive. The story covers a lot of ground and that is how it plays the long game, bringing Katie through her life, the most emotionally charged moments of it, and connecting everything together, drawing it to the end where things don't actually end. Where things awaken and come alive again. It's not a triumph without notes of sadness, but it is an uplifting story about the possibilities of medicine in the face of Alzheimer's, fighting back against an illness that strikes where a person is more vulnerable: their mind. And it guides the reader along the same path that Katie walks, slowly remembering a life she has forgotten so many times, reclaiming each day what she has lost. Another fine work.

"The Parting Gift" by Hall Jameson (3944 words)

Ah, the original fiction this issue really wants to work hard at bringing the emotions. This emotional mine field comes in the form of a brother waiting for his sick sister to die. His sister who loves cryptozoology, who claims to have seen a Sasquatch and other creatures, who tries to tell her brother, Ben, that she'll haunt him after she dies. It's another difficult story to read because the turmoil of the main character, because of the tension of this loss that hasn't quite happened. And then Ben finds something that crashes in a lake by their house. Finds something that turns out to be quite cryptid. Something not even from this planet. Ben tries to help the creature, tries to live up to his sister's legacy, but even so his resolve fractures under the strain of the waiting, of the grieving that can't quite wait. There is a great sense of anticipation and loss to this story, even if the ending doesn't come as too much a surprise the getting there leaves it in doubt, in question, to the very end. It's another very emotionally draining story, one that maybe shouldn't be read directly after the last story, but both shine by bringing the reader right to the brink of despair and then offering in hope. Finding something magical in the face of loss. A fine way to close out the fiction this issue.

Graphic Story:

"Shamrock - Part 4 - Hero's Scream" by Josh Brown and Alberto Hernandez

Shamrock rockets to the end of its first chapter with its fourth installment, which starts out with a short but well executed fight between the titular hero and Mullet--I mean Mullen, henchman extraordinaire. The moment where Mullen realizes the full implications of who he is fighting is done well and the art really sells it, building up tension for what is sure to be a rather large plot line going forward. The end of the chapter wraps up nicely the small matter of the captured villagers, as well as establishes some more of Shamrock's motivations and past. It also solidifies the path forward, the questions that need answering, and teases a bit of things to come. The main villain remains saved for later, which only makes me more curious to know what his deal is (also what he looks like. Does he have a skull for a head?). There was perhaps a certain lack of death-by-tiger this chapter, but I imagine that it happened all off-panel, as by the time Mullen runs off there are no more slaver-minions left, leading me to imagine piles of dead bodies lurking just out of sight. The series continues to be appropriate for readers of all ages, though, staying true to a more classic fantasy aesthetic and plot. As I am a child of the days when fantasy hero + animal companion was all the rage, this works out well for me. All that's required now is a mischievous weasel or something to round out the adventuring party. The first chapter played things pretty close to home, though, and I'm super excited to see the scope of the story pull back to reveal more of the setting and more characters. For this chapter, it solidifies Shamrock's mindset and competence by giving her a small victory, and leaves a tantalizing trail of breadcrumbs to follow forward into the next chapter. Always a treat!

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