|Art by Ignacio Bazan Luzcano|
"Splitskin" by E. Catherine Tobler (5951 words)
A story of two lovers in western America during the Gold Rush, this one is a bit surreal, a bit magical, and a mix of tragedy and freedom. The main character has two spirits, one male and one female, and in that dual nature has a certain power. Their lover, another with a complex spirit, lives with them and together they wait for a time when they can travel up the mountain to free their mothers, who were taken by Raven. The action of the story is solid, the magic of the West very real, very powerful. When a circus train arrives with the promise of taking the pair up the mountain, they do not hesitate. They throw themselves at the chance, without a clear idea of what is going to happen. Up they go to where Raven has their mother, a pair of Thunderbirds, imprisoned. And their mothers are freed, but not without a price. The lovers are parted in one way, both of them opened up by Raven, which sort of kills the one of them but doesn't quite the main character because of their dual spirit. Instead that spirit is allowed to escape, is given its freedom just as the Thunderbirds are freed. What happens next is a bit more in question. Their nature is freed, and they are found, and they tell their story, the message being that to be free you have to risk splitting yourself open, you have to bare yourself, take the risk. It's an interesting story and a vivid one. I really liked the characters, the action. It's a story that's well worth checking out.
"Swallowing Silver" by Erin Cashier (5939 words)
So I do not have the greatest of track records with Western stories with werewolves in them. But this story takes that convention and gives it some grounding in a complex family dynamic and an interesting hook, that a human man needs help taking down a Wendigo that has started to plague his town. He goes to his brother-in-law for aide, his brother-in-law who is a werewolf, because sometimes you need a devil to fight a devil. It's a nice setup, the dynamic between the two believable and the conflict palpable in Halpern, the human. At the same time that he hates his brother-in-law for what happened to his sister, who died in childbirth because of the wolf nature of the child, he also cares for his family, for his niece and his nephew, who is just turning into a man, just finding his place among his people. There's also some tension because along with Halpern and his brother-in-law is another werewolf who is not quite a nice guy. And then Halpern's nephew sneaks along to join them, and then the Wendigo attacks, and everything gets a bit pear-shaped. It's the only story in the collection that has some honest gun fighting, and it makes the story more exciting, the action classic and yet with that supernatural twist. This is the sort of werewolf story that I want, the sort of story that I quite enjoy because it's fun and yet with an edge to it, that family bit where Halpern can do very little to help his nephew, to help ease the pain he feels about his sister. It's a fine story, and for those looking for more of the classic tropes of the Western, this one's a can't-miss.
"The Snake-Oil Salesman" by Shannon Peavey (4200 words)
An interesting story about two brothers, Leo and Cary, with a pair of interesting abilities. Leo is able to say what people want to hear. Even, apparently, to himself, and Cary has the ability to hear the truth of what people are saying. Only, when Cary voiced this and told Leo that all he spoke were lies and that he couldn't tell what was real and what was false, Leo killed him. Killed him and put his head in a jar and joined a medicine show. Because Cary can still listen, can still talk. I like that dynamic between the brothers, not really good and evil but truth and lies. It's used to good effect in the story, the times when Leo is trying to say something and only what the other person wants to hear comes out. It's a bit haunting when he's talking to Cary, too, because that's the only time that he's being understood. Which makes it that much more tragic. It's a strange setup, fitting for the issue, and with a nice light Western feel to it. There is dust and sand and ash and that gives it the feeling of a Western, and the lack of the more obvious tropes isn't distracting at all. Instead it's a rather sad story about a man unwilling to hear the truth, who will go to great lengths to keep his ignorance, and yet who obviously can't stand his own gift. The story takes him on his journey, shows him refuse to change, and then sees that change is forced on him as the repercussions of his actions hit home hard. It's a great ending with a wicked turn and had me nodding right along. A fun one with a lot of mood.