|Art by Jeremy Vickery|
"Sundark and Winterling" by Suzanne J. Willis (3914 words)
This is a softly sad piece punctuated by moments of ripe violence and an interesting take on the standard revenge tale. I think my favorite part about it is the world building, the way that the magic works, that dragons here are creatures that can transform to look human but that their “true” form is that of a dragon and the story focuses on the love between a dragon and his fae lover (and almost spouse) who is, well, more human sized. That the love was completely okay and not focused on bringing the two to the same size was cute and well done and, ultimately, tragic. After all, it’s not really a happy story, showing a deep loss and need for revenge, not only to satisfy the anger and frustration that Sundark feels but also because the man responsible for her loss, her brother, isn’t about to let her off. But I did quite enjoy the way the story goes and, again, how it twists the standard revenge tale into something a bit more beautiful, if no less bloody and brutal. It’s a nice read, rather melancholy and nostalgic but doing enough to look forward to be hopeful, an attempt to salvage something out of violence and intolerance and hate, showing the power of language, the power of song, and the will of two people to be together. A touching way to kick off the issue, and appropriately (if a bit tragically) romantic tale for around Valentine’s.
"Red Cup" by Paul Magnan (3513 words)
This is a bit of a strange story, a mix of botany and revenge. In that it fits in fairly well with the last story, though this one doesn’t exactly twist the idea of revenge so much as it moves a fairly standard revenge tale to an arena that I have never really seen explored. Sentient plants. In some ways it’s kind of great because there are some rather anatomical descriptions in the story that are rather captivating and unique, and it’s also something of a story about someone overcoming adversity. I’m not sure on my own thoughts about the story, though. While the take on plants is inventive and novel, the actual content of the story is a bit more conflicting for me. There is a walking plant that draws the ire of all the other plants because it can walk and because they can change gender. There are quite a few parallels that can be drawn from that and the treatment of Red Cup is rather graphically depicted. At the same time [AND SPOILERS FROM HERE] there is a sense that Red Cup *is* better than the rest of the plants here, and the ending brings things to a rather dismal conclusion where Red Cup kind of decides to go off to try and enact bloody revenge and things get a little…uncomfortable at that point for me. Because most people who are abused don’t just turn around and want to become abusers. Not that they can’t, or don’t sometimes, but seeing that as sort of the message is…well, it left me a bit conflicted. But it’s an interesting and rather strange story that makes me want to learn more about plants. Indeed!
"The Water Moon" by Steve Simpson (4810 words)
This story continues the trend of weird in this issue, at least as far as I’m used to from this publication. Which is not a bad thing, as the story is strange and interestingly constructed, filled with parallels and a sense of loss that is profound and haunting. The story follows a man who was born on an island that fell to Earth from the moon, and the people there all believe that they are copies of people on the moon, that when they die they go home to live out their lives there. And Ivan was born on that island but raised in Brazil, was taught how to create a copy of himself, a sort of mirror image that can act outside his own, something that is taboo on his home island because of how the soul-moon-transit system works. Everything is weird in the story and it is delightful, Ivan’s numbness to everything and the way the story unfolds, the breaks in time and the breaks in story as things split and come back together. This is a story about the loss not only of love, which makes it rather appropriate for Valentine’s Day, but also a loss of culture, of losing the roots that kept Ivan linked back to his homeland, back to his heritage and beliefs. He becomes too much an outsider, which allows him to act in certain ways but also kind of dooms him. The story moves and twists and the result in vaguely jarring but also fascinating and deep with an interesting perspective on life on the water moon. A fine read!
"Battle Lines" by J.W. Alden (912 words)
This is a rather short but rather interesting story about soldiers stuck in a stalemate situation, bonding and not bonding, enemies and people both. I like the way that it builds the voice of the characters, the way that it’s obvious that the soldiers are tired of fighting, tired of whatever conflict that’s put them on opposite sides. They have more in common than not and yet they are tasked with killing each other and that’s where the conflict comes. Knowing that there’s a choice to be made, knowing that people will likely die. Knowing that there really isn’t a good way to be when you’re at war. That it doesn’t really matter who started what or who boarded what when it means lives are at stake. That there’s this game where everyone is lying and everyone is out for blood. Where the simple beauty of a dream is so much more alluring than the reality of war. It’s a nice story, easy and fast and satisfying, that doesn’t really answer too many of the “so what happens?” questions but rather comes down on the idea that it doesn’t matter, that the outcome isn’t the important thing but rather the people, the mentality. The story does what it does quickly and well, and for that it’s well worth checking out.
"Talking with Honored Guests" by Alexander Monteagudo (1009 words)
Here’s another short one, this story about the weight of guilt and the power of anger and the ways a person can stifle themselves out of fear. The story focuses on Olufemi, a young man who can make fire with his hands, who dreams of being an administrator of towns, laying things out, helping people mediate their disputes. He knows the power of anger in part because [MINOR SPOILERS] during a violent outburst as a younger person he burned his sister and carries that guilt with him everywhere. And the story opens to him trying to mediate between two obstinate factions, a task that could advance him greatly or, if he fails, stall his career. And the story is about letting go of mistakes and not being afraid of anger but also not letting it rule. Harnessing feeling in order to act but not getting lost in the violence of it. Trusting yourself and not hiding behind fear or past mistakes. It’s a nice message and it’s well pulled off in the story, which features a rather fun situation and a nice cast of characters, from the bickering factions to Olufemi’s sister to the main character himself. It’s fun and it offers a nice clear message without being shallow. Another fine read!
"How I Lost Eleven Stone and Found Love" by Ian Creasey (3909 words)
Well this is a rather interesting and rather romantic and deceptively complex story about love and eating disorders using alien pets as a sort of metaphor. Which, you know, keeps that weirdness I mentioned earlier going strong. The first thing I noticed in the story was the voice, this sort of lazy ease that the story is told with, the main character awkward and social inept and yet there’s something about him that makes for a rather compelling main character. Perhaps that in some ways he arrives unfiltered. He’s not exactly a great person, is selfish in many ways and bordering on annoyingly “standard dude,” but the story looks at eating disorders in a rather interesting way, with Stuart, the main character, prone to overeating and his romantic interest, Isabel, prone to undereating/purging. And the story is careful not to judge the characters for their disorders, doesn’t really offer to “fix” them exactly (though Stuart does seem to get the much better treatment in the story with regards to his disorder), which is nice. And it doesn’t cut them off from either being with each other, indeed shows that they have an easier time relating because of the ways the see the world and the ways people treat them. I personally have mixed feelings about how it all comes together (the alien seems to cross metaphors but I still think the little critter is cute), but I think that it does a nice job trying to engage a rather thorny and often misrepresented group of people and a family of conditions that are not looked kindly on by society at large. Body is something that is very complex and the story have enough nuance and care to make it worth giving some time to. Indeed.
"The Great Excuse" by Jacob Michael King (4712 words)
I cannot call myself the greatest fan of Lovecraft, but I am fascinated by a lot of his ideas about horror, and this story captures a lot of what I find interesting about that kind of story. The narrator of the story is a homeless man, a self-identified “bum,” and the story itself is a strange mix of social commentary and eldritch horror. As a story, and in good Lovecraftian style, not an awful lot actually happens in the story. As the layers of story set up, it’s not really about that, and the style and structure of it reinforce that idea, that this isn’t a story about point A to B to C but rather a story about perspective and cosmic insignificance and about hope and despair and even a little bit about my pet interest, opting out of society. Obviously here there is no portal to step through to enter a magic realm, except there kind of is, though the portal is sort of like opening up an eye to see with new perspective the world. And there is no real escape from reality except there is, an escape through that change of perspective, so that the “mundane” cares of the world like work and things, just sort of fall away. The story is well told, written down as a text in another homage to Lovecraftian storytelling, though with a much more modern voice and sensibility. Still, it’s where the story brushes against the big unknown that it really shines, that sense that there’s something big lurking just out of sight. And there’s the central question of what’s behind the curtain, what the people are shown, that the story sells and that makes the whole thing sort of come together, those final images strong and lingering. It’s another weird tale but well told and with some nice flourishes. A chewy Lovecraftian horror with a nice not-so-Lovecraftian voice. So rather good!
"The Velna Valsis" by Henry Szabranski (1231 words)
Well okay then. You know, as far as Nazi stories go, this one isn’t bad, about as subtle as you can be and still have the majority of the story be about Nazis. The allusions are rather hard to miss, but it takes a look at complacency and cost and consequence. [SPOILERS WILL PROBABLY ABOUND] I’m not a hundred percent on the metaphor of the woman kind of being the people of Germany, though, to be honest. Part of it might be my hesitation about any sort of Nazi story, especially ones that involve supernatural forces. It has a tendency to flatten things out even when the story is rather conscious of this and tries its best to remind the reader that there are no devils. The story doesn’t quite stick to that, though, dipping into magic and into mayhem not to explain what happened but to frame it, and the frame, pretty much regardless of how well done, is going to be limiting. That said, the story is about pain and about seduction and incremental steps and going so far there seems to be no options. It’s got a lot of interesting and striking images and the writing is solid. Probably most people will enjoy this and I just have some personally hang-ups with Nazi Germany in fiction. It’s part of a tradition, though, and it is rather interesting. I do recommend that people give this one a read, because it is a nicely balanced and flowing story. There is a sweep and flow to it, and a slow reveal. So yeah, go check it out.
"Have You Seen Me?" John Vogt (5078 words)
Well this is a rather chilling and sad way to close out the original fiction of the issue. [PROBABLY SOME SPOILERS RIGHT OUT THE GATE SORRY] It reminds me in some ways of the X-Files, and in particular the episodes where Mulder finds out the “true fate” of his sister in a place that exists in a feeling of lost. Lost children. And here we have a woman who went missing and a child, and there found something that she’s been trying to recapture ever since. A feeling of happiness and belonging and acceptance that has eluded her in life as an adult. And here again we are faced with the idea of wanting to get away from the “real world” and into a place that exists beyond. Here is much more the portal fantasy only it’s also a really dark horror about child abduction and trauma that doesn’t really heal. That Marissa is so focused on getting something back that she doesn’t care about who she hurts. It’s a great and creepy story that builds that feeling of dread and mystery. If this exists or was a hallucination, and what the nature of this place is, and it’s guardian. It’s creepy and it’s relentless at the end, flowing very nicely as if by a script, all leading to the ending that is rather terrifying and also dark as a moonless night and heartbreaking and just very well done. It’s a nicely moving bit of writing, full of longing and loss and it’s quite good. Hurrah!
"Shamrock #6 - Perseverance" by Josh Brown and Alberto Hernandez
[SPOILERS I AM NOT EVEN GOING TO TRY NOT TO] OH MY GOD NINJAS! Just when I thought that this comic was reaching peak 90s (the monkey monks are amazing and take center stage in this chapter), things go even further and the last panel of this chapter has me SO EXCITED for the next installment. And I have to wait 2 months?! Not fair! Ahem. Right, well I suppose I should actually speak for this chapter of the comic, though, which starts out with a nice flashback before re-establishing Shamrock doing some training with her new allies. The comic is great at capturing a feel of cartoons-meet-live-action (90s and maybe even 80s Saturday morning cartoons mixed with 90s Xena/Beast Master/Hercules) and makes no apologies about being about the fun. Here we have a classic training moment where Shamrock gets a nugget of wisdom from the master monkey monk (yes I just wrote that and that's why I love this comic) with a fun moment with Ruarc and a butterfly. Things are just sort of building nicely, and this is a slower chapter. Which is fine, in part because next chapter promises to be AMAZING AND ALL THE ACTION. Seriously, nostalgia levels are threatening to overwhelm me and I just like the mix of elements here, the characterization of Shamrock and the fluid movement of the art and just everything works to be fun and compelling. Indeed. More of this, please!