|Art by Xiao Ran|
"Eyes Beyond the Fire" by Nick Scorza (9531 words)
This is a rather action-y mystery fantasy set aboard a ship at sea with a fun cast and a compelling main character. About loss and rank and regret and violence, it does a lot of things right, including building a world that is distinct and populated by a number of interesting peoples and gods. Gods in this case that actually exist and run around interacting with people. At least, they are being that claim to be gods. Answers in the story are a little slow in coming, but like any good mystery the story builds well, setting the stage and then sealing everyone up, the killer picking off cast members one at a time. It's not exactly a closed-door mystery, but a ship at sea is even more isolated than a chalet cut off by snow or a retreat in the mountains where the roads are all closed. There is a claustrophobic atmosphere that is effective, not just for the action but for the main character, Lys, unable to escape her past, her loss, and her station. She is trapped in more ways than one, but that doesn't stop her from striking up a friendship with another passenger on the ship and finding out exactly what's going on. The fighting is intense, the mystery well handled, and the resolution satisfying. The world glimpsed here is, as is fairly standard for the publication, ripe for further adventures, and I look forward to reading them. Indeed.
"The Rest Will Blur Together" by John Wheeler (5775 words)
This is a story about memory and what memory means to a person, what it makes a person. Melika is a woman with a Gift, who can take away a person's memories. The problem being that the memories people don't want come along with a bit of themselves. A bit of who they are. A bit of their souls. And it makes it so that she can't separate them from herself without assistance. She needs to write it all down. When she takes a memory that someone else desperately wants, though, Melika is pushed to the limits of her morality. Her past is stolen and ransomed and she has to decide whether to give in, to give up one of the memories she's been entrusted with, or to lose any certainty of the face of her dead husband, her dead children. And fuck is it a rather dark and tragic choice to make, one that is rendered beautifully and powerfully through Melika's suffering. Her uncertainty. Her desperation to know who she is and who she loved, who loved her. The world building is interesting if a bit vague on what being Gifted means. For Melika it means she helps people, is important enough that she would be avenged but not important enough that she can get favors for what she does. There is a feeling to the world of the story of loss and war and corruption. And through it all Melika remains a sort of island of stubborn morality. The refusal to give up the secrets of her clients. But the story also looks at what she has if not her own past, who she is if she could be almost anyone she has served. It's a complex story and one that ends a bit softly but still powerfully. It's sad and it's quite good.