|Art by Xiao Ran|
"In Skander, for a Boy" by Chaz Brenchley (7446 words)
This story calls to mind all sorts of "classic" fantasy with its northern blond-haired main character, Harlan, sent to collect a boy from the decadent southern city of Skander. At least, I read a certain level of playing with the tropes of north versus south, Viking stoicism and straight-forward dealing compared to "exotic" shrewdness and deception. In that Harlan makes an interesting main character, the picture of the old Viking, rather blunt and to the point but, more than that, tired of where life has brought him. A warrior and an explorer both, I thought the story captured a side of the "northern fighter" cliché that rarely gets seen (and so sort of breaks the cliché down). And in so doing it circles around the ideas of loyalty and friendship and rule. In many ways it challenges the perceptions that Harlan himself enters the story with, his prejudices toward the "honest" dealings and the kind of slavery that exists in the north. What he finds, though, or what I feel the story brings him to, is an understanding that these are all just places, and that the south holds no more depravity than the north. In the end it becomes about friendships, about exploration, about freedom. About living in fear and growing old as opposed to seeking new challenge and at least keeping on that trapping of youth. Of living. It's a fun story, the setting cleverly built and the character work strong. Again, it had that "classic" feeling to me but defied my expectations, kept itself fresh, provocative. An entertaining read, definitely, with a great world and charming characters.
"Blessed are Those Who Have Seen and Do Not Believe" by D.K. Thompson (4820 words)
This is another clever bit of misdirection, a story that seems for a while to be going in one direction and then becomes something else, a story about humans and monsters and the space in between, of angels and devils and life everlasting. In the story, Elijah is a spiritualist diagnosed with a terminal disease, and faced with the end of his life wants to make something, wants a legacy. For him it means being the first to find and study an angel. The story builds on some common tropes when it comes to spiritualist stories, ghost-hunter stories. Elijah is a man driven both by knowledge and by passion, but isn't really religious. He knows ghosts exist and he is fascinated, but it doesn't go much deeper than that. He is friends with a vampire and rivals with a ghost. It's a carefully plotted and effectively structured piece, building up Elijah before revealing him. [SPOILERS FROM HERE] And part of what I love about this story is how is reveals him, and how it twists the reader into understanding him and in so doing makes the reader a bit culpable of having been seduced by a monster. Because of all the supernatural creatures in the story, it is Elijah who does the most harm, who is the most twisted. And it is his mortality, his humanity, that allows him to do it, to have the ambition and the cruelty. It's heartbreaking seeing it all happen, being the ghost in his head finding the truth. What I thought I knew or thought was shattered and what was left was that I had been rooting for him, had wanted…and the story just does a very good job of setting it all up, of selling Elijah and then showing him to be a monster, a fully human monster. It's uncomfortable and shocking and it worked quite well for me. A strange and beautiful story!