With the giant novella-length epic poem done with, this latest issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly brings things back to basics with four original stories and two poems (of much more modest length). The stories build up worlds filled with magic and darkness, where there are things lurking at the periphery, at the edges of the world, in the blank space of maps. The stories look at characters who are seeking something. Themselves or a much-deserved rest or gold or even escape from certain death. And none of the characters find the situation easy. The stories embrace their magic and their mayhem as the character work against the monsters and circumstances arrayed against them and attempt to wrestle some sort of victory from the jaws of defeat. These are fun, sometimes thrilling pieces that build very different world, especially once the poetry gets added in, but it's also a strong issue that does a lot right. So yeah, to the reviews!
|Art by Jereme Peabody|
"Thokmay" by Dennis Mombauer (4620 words)
This is a rather odd and slightly surreal story about shadows and loyalty, about duty and choice. The story features Thokmay, a young man being trained to be a priest in a very strange order that studies duality and shadows. And Thokmay, apparently nearing the time when he will be full invested into the order, is sent on a mission to retrieve an artifact from a nearby monastery where a traitor-monk has fled. The story follows this test of Thokmay, this way of preparing him for the next level of his training, and in that the story gets rather cerebral. Thokmay is a person who has been prepared for this, though he hasn't quite been aware how. The nature of this mission, and of the visions he sees while trying to carry it out, confuse him until they all snap into place and he, and the reader, see the true trajectory of the story. To me it's about the duality that the priests both embrace and reject. Thokmay goes on a journey [SPOILERS] but it's not really to confront a runaway priest but to confront himself. The nightmares that he witnesses in visions in the monastery become glimpses into his own mind, into his own possibilities. The monastery itself seems to exist mainly to test him, to show his fracturing, to chew him up until he is a mass of scars and hurt, until he is completely separated from himself, and then to give him the choice of what to do next. It's not a very happy story, concentrating as it does on blood and pain and scars. Tokmay is pressed to make a choice between a sort of freedom he's never really known or continuing to serve the masters he doesn't really know, masters who seem to care little for him or his pain. And the story shows how he makes that choice, what he chooses to cut away and what he chooses to become. It's a dark, violent story with a nice sense of action and uncertainty, a heavy metaphoric battle being waged, and an ideological war being decided, at least for one person. It's certainly a piece to spend some time with!
"The Thing Without Color" by Aidan Doyle (5058 words)
This story looks at indiscretion and need in the face of danger, in the face of something ancient and malevolent stalking the darkness. The story follows Akamiko, a swordwriter who has the ability to bring forth magical aspects of special weapons. She's been sent north the edges of civilization to collect a special blade for the Emperor's birthday. The story does a great job with Akamiko, who is an older woman worn by battle and cold, looking for a bit of warmth in the harsh environment of the setting. In the past it was a warmth that she found in a man, in Yamamoto, who she looks forward to seeing again only to find that things with him weren't exactly what they seemed. I like how the story handles warmth and passion, how it pushes Akamiko to confront her past with Yamamoto without exactly condemning her for it. Faced with Yamamoto's widow, who has harbored a grudge for quite some time, Akamiko navigates this tricky situation the only way she knows how—directly and pragmatically. And the story does this around a rather fun and thrilling and dark plot that involves something waking up out of the ice and stalking the living, the colorful. Which is another part of the setting that I liked, that its magic comes from color and that the mythology of the story swirls around light and darkness and all the hues of the rainbow. The action is nicely done and fairly intense and Akamiko shows a shrewdness and determination when dealing with the supernatural threats. She is an old hand at this and it shows in the way she tackles all these situations. And really it's just a fun and solid piece of fantasy fiction, not the deepest of wells but layered enough to provide a thoroughly enjoyable experience and make me wonder if there's more stories set in this world, especially with Akamiko as a main character. A great read!
"Heart of Tashyas" by Raphael Ordoñez (10,017 words)
This is a nicely drawn historical fantasy that does a great job of capturing the time period of early exploration into what would become North America, and follows Francisco Carvajal y Lopez on a quest for gold. The sole survivor of his expedition, Carvajal, called the Moreno, is an interesting character, first and most a survivor, not greedy exactly but drawn to gold for the status that it might buy, so that he might to rise above his mixed heritage and have a place for himself. Because as he is Carvajal has no real place, no real home. He's between these things, and as much as that keeps him alone and homeless, it also has taught him how to live tough and keep going. The world that he navigates is full of things that he doesn't quite understand but that he doesn't stop to argue. When he learns of a magic that will turn men into animals and back again, he doesn't balk. He goes forward, always with the hope of gold primary in his mind. I like the way the story complicates his desires, though, the way it tempts him and pulls him around, the way that he has to face that his drive toward wealth might be just something to set him always further and further from the place of his birth, always seeking some payoff that might never come. And that he wouldn't even accept. He's a man of bargains, even when the bargains seem to turn against him, even when they leave him with nothing but a trail leading always ahead and a series of places he can't return to behind him. I also like how the story uses magic and how it goes from being a historical fantasy to being something…a little bit different, pulling on some different traditions to make this story more interesting and complex still. There's a darkness here but it's one that's really only a shadow of the real terror lurking at the edges of this world. The story is in some ways about maps and the danger of the unexplored places, because what lurks there could be anything at all. It's another story that moves at a fast pace and manages a number of scenes of violent action. It's thrilling and it's just the right amount of creepy and it's an excellent read. Go check it out!
"The Price of Mockery in Dallium" by James Rowe (2013 words)
Well this is a short and rather cute story about riddles and about insults. The premise is just a bit silly but that works with the overall tone of the piece, which features a potter imprisoned and facing certain death because he insulted someone. In the setting, insults are serious business and so the man, Strato, finds himself in a cave with very limited options. Either solve a statue's riddle or die. Pretty straightforward. Part of the story hinges rather hard on your personal feelings about riddles. In my experience they are incredibly difficult to manage in fiction in a way that is completely satisfying, because riddles often seem to have more than one answer but only one "valid" answer. But then, the story works a bit with that, and doesn't really dwell too strongly on the riddle. Instead, the focus (for me) was on the fact that Strato is pushed to change away from what got him into trouble. Namely, he has to consider what he says and really think before he opens his mouth. And that allows him some access to the "trick" of the riddle, which also looks at this problem of insults and how if people change a bit of how they think they might not be pushed to calling names or something similar. [SPOILERS] Like I said, I think it's a rather cute story in that, showing that for some, insults can be symptomatic of a rigidity in thinking and an unwillingness to shift perspective. It's a little simplistic in that, because I feel like it doesn't really address insults that come from a place of hurt where someone is purposefully trying to provoke insults in order to undermine a perspective they don't like, but for what it is I think the story does a good job approaching the subject through an SFF frame that allows it to be examined. An interesting read!
"Undercurrents" by Jennifer Crow
This is a beautiful poem about songs and forces and something like fate but not quite. The piece is narrated by a siren or someone playing that role, someone with a song and a presence that is captivating, that is magnetic, at least to the person that the narrator is calling to. I love the darkness of this piece, that the narrator implies that this other person has been looking for this song always, has been drawn to this moment not by free will exactly but by an unseen and barely felt gravity, that they've been falling to this moment and have reached a bottom of sorts, a place where their progress will stop in some ways, though other parts of them will move on. Because the poem seems to imagine that this is not something that will last, that this hunger and drive that has pulled at this other person is not something that can be fully sated, that cannot in satiation be satisfying. That it is like the sailor moving on, lashed to the mast, to hear the song and know it but not able to stay, to fling himself into the sea, but still feeling as if he had. Because no matter what it's not the sea that would have ended him. It was hearing the song and knowing that after there will be nothing to compare. It's a haunting and yet lyric and lovely poem that finds these characters only brushing in words, in sounds, but having something deeply intimate between them. It's a great poem!
"Seventeenth Lessor" by Mary Soon Lee
This is a neat poem told as a conversation between a dragon and young prince about the prince's father. About weakness and what it takes to rule. The dragon here is a teacher and the prince there to learn what it means to be king, though perhaps not in the way that he expects, and perhaps not in the way that the dragon says. After all, despite her cutting remarks about his father, about his traits, about kindness and friendship, what she seems to be doing is not teaching him not to value these things but to live in two ways. To seem like the king that people expect and respect. To be ruthless and efficient and make decisions not out of kindness or love but because it is right. But also, though seeming to do that, to actually be guided by love and by respect. It's something that I like about the poem, that it recognizes that rule of this sort requires a certain kind of hand. That people have to believe that the king is unerring, that he is fit to rule by right of being detached and absolute. But that what makes a king good is still his goodness, is still his heart. That in many ways a good king doesn't want to be king, doesn't want to live that lie, but does anyway because it's necessary. The poem moves quickly and fits in a lot of world-building, a lot of emotionally heavy moments between these two characters who are both worried about the king, the dragon's friend and the prince's father. It's a fun and moving piece of a larger picture and a great read. Go check it out!