|Art by Todor Hristov|
"TOP SECRET: The Union Station Hypersphere Incident" by Marco Panessa (4753 words)
This story makes for an interesting read in part because it takes on a rather neat form, that of a stolen synopsis of a report given to the President regarding a strange incident that occurred when an extra-dimensional object passed through our universe, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. The story is a bit heavy on the info, but the form makes the fictional info dump compelling, framing it in such a way that it's natural that the science, while present, would be made more accessible. The plot surrounding the report is a bit more opaque but still full of important and tension, because as the report progresses the scope of what has happened, or what people hypothesize has happened, becomes clear and frightening as fuck. That the report has been intercepted, that there is action being taken regarding it, is left mostly in the faintest of sketches but I feel enough is here to make it clear why things are happening and a good idea of what's happening, though coded in cloaks and daggers. And I love the science at play here and the rather delightful way the story bridges science and politics, defense and certainty. That this is a military (or quasi-military) research commission, the results and recommendations are similarly colored, showing not just how science can be skewed to serve military interests but how the mere presence of military interests lead to interpretations of data that are only circumstantially supported. It's a fun read and a nice way to kick off the issue.
"The Stubbornness of Wizards" by Eugene L. Morgulis (4080 words)
Awww. This is a rather adorable story about a wizard and a young girl. And okay, yes, it also has a lot of weirdly dark undertones, but it makes the story all the more charming. In the tale, Dora is a fledgling magic user who wants to be taught by the main character, who's a bit of a curmudgeon. He believes that wizarding flourishes from stubbornness and pride and will to power. And Dora prefers a different approach, one that turns out to be more powerful than anything the main character could offer. It's a story, too, of escalation, and about the main character's refusal to see the power in front of him, his refusal to see that he was doing exactly what he had said he wouldn't, and he was doing it for all the wrong reason. And to his own harm. It's a funny tale that moves well and works for having Dora be a bit more remote. There are moments when she seems almost too good, almost too pure and innocent, and yet I think that it works well for the sort of fantasy this is, with wizards of the more ridiculous nature and tropes rather huge and easy to spot. And I love that this is a story about the magical power of love. Because, of course. It's a story that has not failed to bring a smile to my face and anyone who thinks that things are a bit too bleak in fantasy these days can revel in this tale, which is neither grim nor (really) all that dark. Though it is almost scary the power that Dora wields, and how love here is seen as subversive, as almost contagious. But it's a fun story and definitely one worth checking out!
"O!" by B. Morris Allen (1676 words)
This story takes on the idea of the trade in souls as a shopkeeper deals with a difficult customer and an apprentice learns that there's a lot to learn about being a proper tradesperson. The story excels at taking some classic fantasy and horror tropes, specifically the deal-with-the-devil idea of selling one's soul, and twists it in an interesting fashion. And from two directions, first with the shopkeeper's interactions with the customer and then again with the apprentice later on. I like that the story doesn't take itself too seriously, also, because it opens up this space where it's critiquing in some ways the nature of souls and how people imagine them as these things that can be detached from their people, but it's mostly just having a good time playing in the fantasy sandbox, building this scene and this world of magic curio shop that's fun and maintains a nice momentum. It's another charming story that plays with some big ideas but keeps things rather tongue-in-cheek, and it keeps the mood of the issue light and fun and fast, which given recent events is definitely appreciated. Another fun tale!
"My Mother After Life" by Amethyst Loscocco (1104 words)
The issue as a whole continues its rather sweet and positive trajectory with this story, despite hitting on some emotional heavyweights with the death of a parent and loss and guilt and grief. Starring is Gwen, and the story wraps itself around the recent death of the Gwen's mother when her ghost returns and starts doing chores. At first reluctant to face the specter, to confront her mother, Gwen works up the courage to and that's when the story finds its heart. Again there is a certain humor here as well, in the nonchalant way that Gwen's mother responds to her situation, to the kind of fucked up situation that this is, where Gwen has to face the lingering ghost of her mother quite literally before she can move on, before the healing can begin. It's a sweet story with a strong voice and a great central premise. I have a soft spot for ghost stories and this on succeeds for me in selling the mixture of anger and guilt and love that surrounds the death. That tends to surround a great many deaths. So I like the way that Gwen reacts, the complex sea of emotions that she must navigate, and I love the way that the story resolves these two characters, the way that it brings their stories together and then settles them. It doesn't really forgive anyone, but it does, to me, place the characters both in a place where they can heal, where they can move on. Which is touching and sweet and makes for a nice read. Indeed!
"No Gods but Men" by Evan Dicken (5006 words)
The fantasy stories keep right on coming, this one dropping the mood a bit but keeping things grounded in family and mothers and daughters. Here Naran is a witch, cursed in some ways for having once been a priestess of a god and broken her vows. The fallout from that moment resulted in quite a few things. The punching of a hole between her world and one of shadows, out of which crawl monsters dark and dangerous. A child, who despite Naran's efforts has turned out to be a bit of trouble wherever she goes. And the birth of a dark godling that hungers for power and control. It's a nicely moody story, dark and deep, with a great dynamic between Naran and her daughter, between Naran and her own past. And I like how that past is revealed, how Naran is essentially punished for things she couldn't exactly control, for being used first by the convent that took her and then by the man who would become father to her child (though in genetic material only). It's a story of quashed ambitions and becoming stuck, but also about the hope of release, the hope of trust, and the hope of setting right old wrongs. Not old mistakes, really, but in finally wresting control of agency and power and refusing to let the world move without trying to do the right thing. Naran is a fun character, rather bitter but still wanting to hope, to heal, to nurture. And the story is full of light cutting through the dark, about redemption and breaking patterns of abuse. It's a fine tale and certainly one to check out!
"Phase II" by Frank Oreto (4337 words)
We're solidly into the action-adventure-horror side of things with this one, taking the torch from the previous story and running with it, delivering a yarn about a man in the country trying to make right and, well…this story focuses on Lee, a man without a lot of redeeming qualities. He's lazy, rather abusive, and not exactly bright. The story runs with that, making it both the start of the trouble and (sorta) the solution. When he finds out that his truck has some sort of weird bug on it, something that's fused to it, making it run cleaner, like a parasite on the vehicle, he at first thinks to cash in. Well, he at first is understandably freaked out. But his second thought is for profit. It's that mentality that allows things to go from bad to worse and create and cement this story as vividly horror. The mood is nicely achieved, building up a story that seems at first to just be about country living and small-time schemes but turns out to be something much bigger and much darker. It's back Body Snatchers and part NASCAR, which is to say that it's a weird, creepy, and filled with guns, beer, and violence. The idea of Phase II is nicely explored and complicated as well, the idea of planning as Lee is forced to match wits with, well, bugs. And it's rather lucky for him that the bugs aren't all that smart, or else are playing some game that Lee doesn't really see. But it's another fun story with a touch of humor and a heaping helping of horror. Another entertaining read!
"Bedroom Community" by Nancy S.M. Waldman (3013 words)
This story marks the most serious the issue gets (as far as original fiction is concerned) and the whole issue is organized to earn this moment of solemnity and yearning. It's a post-apocalyptic story and one of the few really science fiction stories of the issue, too, that looks at the way that people kill and the responsibility they hold to killing and yet the will to live. To survive. Not to fulfill any sort of human destiny or greatness. Not because the loss of humanity would be the worst thing in the world. But because of human curiosity and a desire to hope. Not for survival, but for something worth surviving. Something better than what came before. There's a lot here about atonement and about accidents and about escape. The main characters live in relative comfort in this new world and sort of keep to themselves, but as they venture out, as they come face to face with their own continued footprint, they have to examine what good they're doing and what good they can do and what they owe it to the world to do. There's a bit of a tangled web to this story, of connections and wrongs and death, but it's one that's well handled. And there's a weight here that goes well with the main character's age, his tiredness, but also that lingering will to see what happens next. To participate. To try even if it might fall apart again, trying to learn from mistakes and plan accordingly. And it's a touching, beautiful read. Check it out!
"Shamrock Part 8 – Illusion" by Josh Brown and Alberto Hernandez
I KNEW IT! [Maybe SPOILERS who knows at this point?!] That gloriously f*cking monkey monk! And okay, maybe nothing is confirmed yet but this comic continues to bring a smile to my face in all the best ways. It's almost guaranteed that the last page, the last panel, is going to get me to make some strange exclamation and then curse the moon that I have to wait two more months for the next installment. But, ahem, perhaps I should actually talk a bit about this installment, which sees our hero in a bit of a dire situation, captured by that asshole Mullen with some dead allies in their wake and some serious guilt. I like the way that it's building up Shamrock as always living with this burden of people dying around her. It's very "hero's journey" in the classic 90s sense only here it's a trail of dead men whose deaths give Shamrock motivation and character depth and I dig the flipping the script in that regard. Also, bird people. I love this. I love that this is like "yeah there's bird people now so what." I love it so much. Because of course there are bird people and of course there are monkey monks and I can't wait for like the crocodile bounty hunter to show up or werewolves to start hulking out and every time there's something new that adds to the visual splendor of the world and creates memorable characters and scenarios. It's almost funny that Shamrock herself at this point is growing skeptical that everyone seems to know her and there's magic now and ALL THE THINGS! So yes, this series continues to be a blast to read and a great way to close out every issue. Definitely catch yourself up on this series if you haven't!!!