|Art by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein|
"Conjure Man" by Stefon Mears (5148 words)
Okay yes, this is a fun story with a healthy dose of clever charm and a great main character, a strong voice and a compelling plot. The setting is Urban Fantasy, magic alive in Portland, and Heath is a conjure man, a human sorcerer, a bit down on his luck and looking to put away an easy assignment. Only things go a bit pear shaped and he's soon having to rely on his wits and his cunning to outplay a marquis of hell in order to protect a man he really doesn't like. And I think I loved that most about the story, that it stopped being about who deserved what. That in many ways Heath probably would have preferred to just let his client go for all the trouble and danger, for the unexpected turns, but that he had something to prove, especially after some sort of hit to his pride that preceded this incident. The magic is excellently rendered and the character work complex, showing the layers of Heath, his mercenary nature that peels away in the face of his pride, his desire to prove himself, to show that he can tussle with the big spirits. Not out of loyalty to the hipster who hires him but because he has a reputation to think about. And it all works, the action and the creepy atmosphere, the ritual and the history. The banter is effective and the bullshitery that Heath engages in is rather cute and funny. The story holds up well, creates a world and a logic and sticks to it, puts Heath is a hell of a difficult situation and lets him fight his way free. It's a fun, pulse-pounding read, with a laugh and a smile at the end and a hint of darkness just concealed beneath the more jovial tone of the story. A great read!
"The Opening of the Bayou Saint John" by Shawn Scarber (3885 words)
This story captures a great sense of magic and power, loss and letting go. The action follows a gondolier, a sort-of-woman whose duty it is to ferry people out onto the bayou to deliver their gifts to beyond. The story excels as a historical urban fantasy, mixing Fae festivals with magic just as old and just as strange but vastly different. The gondolier, the narrator, is a part of that world, a servant of a power most are two afraid to go to. But for desperate people sometimes it is the only option. [LIGHT SPOILERS] So when a woman boards the gondola with a stillborn child the scene and the mood is set. It is a dark story, and a rather haunting story, the movement on the water slow and flowing but with a momentum. The story plays out as a series of tests, really, tests of the woman's conviction. She's dealing with powers that are dangerous and seductive, and she is tempted again and again to walk away in exchange for something. And I love that about the story, that what's being examined is cost. The woman is offered things but not for free, and she sees with a clarity what each departure would cost her. She is set, determined, facing down the magic and the temptations offered up by the night. There's a strong parallel between the passenger and the gondolier, a shared history and two sides of a single choice, neither wrong but very different, with different costs and different outcomes. It's an elegant story, beautifully rendered and powerful in its imagery and pacing. Definitely one to check out!
"The Hawk-Woman's Prophecy" by Kavitha Rath
This is a poem that has a nice mythic feel to it, a sense of transformation and conflict and inevitability. The narrator is a hawk that turns into a woman, or perhaps becomes a woman when she drinks of a well that seems to be a sort of magic. There is a conflict at the heart of the poem, though, which reads almost like a creation myth, warrior and warrior, love and death and hate twining around each other, actions that don't seem to have clear motivators except that the characters are acting according to their natures, their roles. The poem cycles nicely, furthering the story of this confrontation and retreat and also establishing the stakes and outlining the rules. And there seems to me also a pointing to an essential violence present in people, the urge to fight and the nature of love, both tender and destructive. If this is a creation story, a myth to explain people, then it is also a tragic one, to reveal the pain inherent in living and the knowledge that there is another way, one that is inevitable, that will eventually win out, even if it takes time and tragedy to get there. A very nice poem!
"The Fantasy of Hans Christian Andersen" by KH van Berkum
You know I look for spec poetry to sort of leave me with an expression of apprehension and terror stuck on my face, the very picture of cautionary tales parents tell their children about not making faces lest they freeze that way. And this poem does just that, provides shocking imagery to accompany growing revelations about how authors work their own repressions into their work, or perhaps how people in general heap their own frustrations onto women, make them the focus and blame of their own blunted lust, and how damaging that can be. How oppressive that repression is, ultimately, when men make their stories around it, create characters and plots around it, make a world where the woman is the victim and the villain, saint and slut. The poem is difficult, complex, interstitial in how it tackles fairy tales and authorial intent. How it proves the dark recesses of sexuality and repression and projection and all of that, in a poem that is disturbing and deep and very, very good. The form slowly reveals the depths of the message, the shocking truth of the situation, bringing the reader from bar scene to something much...more intense. I just…really, you'll need to read this one. Go on now.
"Plesiosauria" by D. Eric Parkison
I admit it, I will probably like most poems that I think are about cryptozoological creations. And this one seems to be about living, breathing lake monsters. Or sea monsters, though the language seems to imply that the focus is more on the creatures like Nessie, creatures that feel like they've living in isolation and in some ways in impossible situations. That any water is basically connected to some mystery that exists all around us, our species fascination with water, with bodies of water, our fear of drowning and what might lurk beneath the surface but also a recognition that we can from there, that we are all related to sea and the waters, that it's in our blood and bones and eyes. It's a great poem for capturing all of that, the wonder and the seeking, the wanting to find something magical just out of sight, just beneath the surface, the puddle that is suddenly something much, much deeper and more grand, perhaps dangerous but awe-inspiring and giving us humans a sense of perspective. The poem keeps its stanzas short, giving that sense of shallowness that is obscuring something else, that we are just at the surface and one of these lines might break us through into something deep and dark and ancient. Definitely a piece to have some fun with!
"Me and Science Fiction" by Eleanor Arnason
Given…certain discussions surrounding visions of SF that have come up just recently, this is a nicely balanced article with a more historical view of the changing face of a genre from someone who has lived through it (I mean, the recommendations alone are worth the price of admission). And whose SF I really want to read more of (I *might* be receiving two of her novels for Bookmas at the end of the year…if I'm good, because To the Resurrection Station was amazing and everyone should read it). But it's an interesting read because it has an eye toward a history that I personally know almost nothing about. There is something of a disconnect for me with anyone who grew up before Reagan. Being born in 86, I was there for only two years of Reagan, and I wasn't exactly sentient for those years. Even my experience with "older" SF is veiled in the push of newer SF and fantasy. It's been a slow process of discovering just what I've missed and what the landscape is today. But I find the perspective the article brings to SFF "nowadays" rather interesting, the same sort of vacillating voice that I think many people (myself included) have about the future. What it will look like and if it will exist at all. A sort of looking at things with fresh eyes and realizing that people are writing, and writing damn well, challenging convention and blazing trails and working toward producing damn fine work. And where there is damn fine work there is hope. Anyway, it's an interesting read so be sure to check it out.