|Art by Rovina Cai|
"Small Wars" by Matt Wallace (8544 words)
I think the favorite part of this story is a part that gets almost no attention: namely, that the group showcased is an actual catering company hoping to score some Welsh gold to make food for goblins. Magic catering company just seems so great, because magic + cooking is amazing and I love it. Of course, the story is actually about being small, about being stepped on (almost literally) and being powerless and unimportant and all of it. Of being angry and quick to fight. This gets a bit explicitly explained at the end of the story, but artfully so. In more concrete terms, it's about a catering company led by a former-soldier named Ritter gathering together his employees, people who have been left out of polite society, who don't quite fit in. A knife fighter, a mountain of a man, and a guy who can eat anything form together into a strange sort of team, but with Ritter to lead them they work as a cohesive whole, if not a very harmonious one. The banter and the situation as a whole are well done, the magic meeting the more modern sensibilities of having a catering company. It all works together fairly well and the characters are nicely put together, if a bit familiar. They're a diverse bunch, but each is a bit limited by their defining characteristic (the fighter, the big quiet guy, the eater, the Irish guy, the leader). Still, I thought the action was fresh, the visuals well rendered and rather fun and funny, and the overall impact small with a proper amount of drama and heart. The ending comes a bit abruptly but it makes sense why, to sell the moment when things all go to shit. And in the end it's a fun story, and a setting I wouldn't mind seeing more of.
"The Caretakers" by David Nickle (5612 words)
I sort of love how cryptic the editorial preface is to this story, because in some ways it sums up a lot of my reaction to the story, which has a lot of feel and a lot of weight but doesn't quite…there's a mystery inside it, a mystery of what's going on and what the situation is with all these people, who seem linked in service to one woman who doesn't ask all that much of them except, it seems, to be ready for a call, and to respond promptly. There's a lot going on here, and the actions across the board seem to take on much larger, deeper meanings. The first thing that happens is that the meeting that everyone is in town for is rescheduled and everyone (or almost everyone) misses it. Change is in the air in the story, and not just because of the addition of a new member to their ranks, a member who seems to know that whatever is happening isn't worth what she's getting. That she has to escape. The main character of the tale, Evelyn, seems to have been in this group for a long time, and is dealing with things, with her job and with the looming terror of it, something her daughter senses and something that drives a wedge between them. It's a dense and slow story, one where all the characters seem to move in desperation but a slow desperation, blunted by years of fear and obedience. It was never quite clear to me what was going on, what was really happening, though the boss, Miss Erish, is suitably creepy and the prose is solid. There is a certain subtle horror at play, and I liked the story, the way it doesn't answer any questions, at the same time that I thought it made the story a bit more difficult to form an opinion on. Perhaps it leaves me feeling slow or not smart enough to really grasp it. I enjoyed reading it, though, for the atmosphere and the dread. Solid work with that.
"Fist Kill" by Jennifer Fallon (7009 words)
This story takes quite a few tropes and gives them a bit of new air. Kiam, an assassin in training, is tasking with killing someone in order to "graduate" to full member of his guild. And yes, okay, that's a plot that's seen a lot of play. And yes, okay, the fact that most of the women in the story are whores or acting as whores is…well…not exactly my cup of tea. But the story does circle around the idea of assassination being…well, not exactly moral, but as possibly used in more moral ways than others. The setting of the story is interesting, one that mixes magic and religion and politics. And Kiam is, while not exactly a dangerous choice of main character, at least fleshed out with care, making him a bit naïve and a bit romantic and a bit foolish. He's competent but there's a small sense that he comes off as smart because the people around him are bloodthirsty and rash. The mystery of the story is wrapped up without too much complication, but for those looking for a light, popcorn fantasy there are certainly worse options out there. It's not precisely what I like in a fantasy story, because the "noble killer" trope isn't really complicated all that much, but it's a solid example of the archetype. Indeed!
"The Maiden Thief" by Melissa Mar (9752 words)
Well okay then. [MAYBE SPOILERS RIGHT AWAY DEPENDING ON HOW YOU LOOK AT IT] This is a very intense and dark as hell take on the Bluebeard story, here using a young woman named Verena as the final wife of a madman. The story is uncomfortable, to say the least, and in the best of ways, a provocative situation that's bleak and dark and made all the more so by the shitty situation that Verena finds herself in. Which, it turns out, is basically just the situation of any woman in a world ruled by the desires of me. Because Verena is a woman who yearns to enter into the "men's world" in her own way, with her own undeniable competence, and yet at every turn she is beaten down, made to fit into roles that don't suit her in order to please a man, or to please men in general. It's the tragedy of the piece, that this setting is designed to turn women into victims, to avoid those areas that would allow them to see and act against the violence and oppression that faces them. Here it is only Verena, who was allowed to pursue her interests freely for a while, who feels the press of injustice and has the tools to do something about it. And even then the story makes damned sure the reader is aware of just how total the oppression can be, showing how Verena can be robbed of everything, her confidence and intelligence twisted into subservience and imprisonment. I loved the heavy gothic feel and just how hopeless the story makes things for a while, the way it let me squirm in that uncomfortable position of watching Verena be abused as she was. It's difficult and it's visceral and it's important to look at, to experience, to see what can and does happen. And it's a very good read.