|Art by Xiao Ran|
"A Killer of Dead Men" by David Tallerman (6476 words)
This is a rather straightforward story of skulduggery and assassination as a killer-for-hire, Otranto, is tasked with killing a foreign noble who seems unwilling to stay dead. The way the story plays with Gothic tropes while sticking more to an Assassin's Creed-style action adventure is admirable. The name, obviously, gives a nice wink to the relationship between the supernatural and the real. And I quite enjoyed that aspect of the story. Otranto himself is rather standard, consummately professional and an easy enough main character to follow. He's the authority, the more objective narrator, because he professes to not let things like emotions get in the way of things. And that's fine, plays into that idea of the Gothic, the question of whether or not what's going on is real or not. Of course, I thought a little more could have been done with that, as the explanation of everything is tied up in a sternly anti-supernatural manner (so more Udolpho than Otranto, really, but still a nice allusion to the Gothic traditions, to the way of making things seem magical or supernatural while revealing the "truth" of more mundane means...basically Scooby-Doo but with assassins). And there is something rather fun about watching this assassin deal with not quite knowing what's going on, having to fumble when he's so used to be unassailable. It's a well choreographed story, one that works on a rather visual level, and it makes for a nice popcorn-style story, entertaining and well-paced and satisfying. Indeed!
"So Strange the Trees" by James Lecky (6116 words)
This is a rather sweet story about instant love and honor and loss. At least, I feel that despite it not really being a happy story, it still manages to be fun and a bit hopeful. That love is powerful and can come up unexpectedly. It plays with a lot of classic tropes (the star-crossed lovers, the killer whose heart melts, the tragedy of love, etc), and it does a fair job of selling the idea that the main character could fall in love in such a manner. After all, it is a story of magic, and in many ways the magic of love. It's a bit of a bloody story, like the previous one, but with its eyes set on the romance of the story. That said, it's a strange kind of love story, and not exactly one that is free of the problems of the tropes. Yes, it captures the idea of chivalrous love, in all that entails, including some rather rigid gender roles and the fact that while both people participate in the affair, only one of them is punished. This isn't new, and it's not terribly done, but it doesn't really avoid a lot of the reasons that I'm not a huge fan of stories like this. The love here is magical, has really nothing to do with the people, and I'm often uncomfortable about such things, because it implies an objective love (hint: not much of an objectivist, me). The story is tightly packed and the characters are interesting in that they are familiar. The story does a nice job of evoking the place the love comes out of, a world where duels are extremely common and men and women live much, much different lives. While it doesn't really get around objectifying the woman/love interest (who [mild spoilers] literally is transformed into an object), it roots itself in a tradition where this is expected. It's light enough that it pairs well with the other story in the issue, and I'm sure there are those who will quite enjoy it.