A new issue of Fantasy Scroll has dropped and this issue seems to me to be all about frustrated simplicity. Thinking something will be simple, will be easy, only to find that when you start pulling it apart there's all this…mess. All these angles that weren't considered and situations that weren't foreseen. Things go from bad to worse in some, from bad to better-but-not-great in others, from bad to still-rather-bad, and even from not-all-that-bad to oh-fuck-no!!!! These stories (and graphic story) around about having something in your grasp and then finding there's no ground beneath your feet, and either learning to fall well or trying to fly. Lots to look at, too, so I'm going to jump right in!
|Art by Jonathan Gragg|
"Mother Salt and Her Sisters" by J. R. Troughton (6490 words)
To me this story speaks of servitude and longing, salt air and blood and the threat of something dark. In some ways it's about paying debts, too, and keeping to your word. The story reveals a group of siren-sisters, pairs of sirens all bound by a sea hag and used to try and give said hag brief moments of clarity with former husbands. It's an interesting premise and the mood is dark and vivid and excellently done. There is a hunger to it, a hunger that drives all the characters. For freedom. For the past. And Kelsa and Shaye, the main pair, navigate their enslavement, their crushing need both for freedom and for flesh. They are subject to the sea hag's whims, but they are also subject to their natures. They are still violent, predatory, dangerous. But, unlike the sea hag, they keep their word. And there is the sense I got from the story that what ultimately [SPOILERS] doomed the hag was that she did not keep her word. If she had perhaps things would have played out differently, but I felt that what the story was getting at was that people kept without hope of release cannot be blamed for fighting back however they can. That slaves owe no loyalty to slavers. Which, while not exactly a controversial theme, is very nicely and darkly rendered here, effective in its weight and mythology. As clear as bloody salt water and with a nice sense of action and inevitability, the story kept my interest and drew me deeper and deeper into the world, the setting. It's creepy and it's a great read!
"Prosperity's Shadow" by Jason Hine (4589 words)
This is an interesting story about safety and torture and the means by which people are kept safe. About facing violence and hatred and creating violence and hatred. About legacy and about atonement. To me, at least. The story shows Vicar, a Caster who is able to summon the hungry dead to punish those implicated in crimes. It's not exactly difficult to liken the setting of the story to real-world instances of using torture to root out plots, terrorists, etc., but I don't think the transparency of the allusions really takes away from what is a well crafted take on what it means to use torture as a means to an end. What it means to use terrorism to fight terrorism. How it keeps the cycle of violence and fear and retaliation going, how it doesn't leave a way out. And yes, I thought maybe Vicar got a little tunnel-vision-y when thinking about his son. Sadly, it is a way that many people get motivated to want change. For their children. And if that's what it takes, okay. I just keep vaguely uncomfortable when children are the prime motivator and focus. Still, I quite enjoyed the creepy aspects of the story, as the methods of violence here as literally hungry and there's the ending which I felt was complicated and dark as hell (if I'm reading it correctly). Because [SPOILERS!!!] as I read it the ending twists things nicely, not allowing Vicar the victory he thought. I like the implication that he did much more than just free the souls of the innocent when smashed the weapons he had used, and that he ended up as something…different. It does give the feeling that things aren't even as simple as the rather complex vision Vicar had of the situation, and that action without thought can often lead to…well, some bad shit. It leaves things at a tense moment of question without answer and it feels like the first part of something. I don't think it feels incomplete, though, rather that it opens questions that have no easy answers and leaves the reader to sort out what might happen next. A fine read!
"My So-Called Life in Reruns" by James Aquilone (1492 words)
Fans of old sci fi shows, rejoice. Here is a story that takes a rather measured look at television and in particular the science fiction trope of a human becoming a living zoo exhibit. Or education exhibit at any rate. Also the idea that human entertainment is the greatest in the universe and poses a great risk to any advanced culture that puts order and productivity above all else. And if I had a complaint, it's that television _can_ act as a tool of oppression just as much as it can a tool of equality (yes, even "classic" sci fi). But I do firmly believe in the power of storytelling and television is just a way to tell stories so I like the way this story builds up the situation, the aliens threatened by essentially cultural colonialism and taking a very hard line against it (to put it mildly). And I like the voice of the main character, a stereotype of a television nerd but also a victim looking for any way out of his situation. And relying (or trying to rely) on television to inspire actual innovation. Which it can do. It deftly lampoons anyone who would look at television and dismiss it out of hand as immoral, as leading to delinquency, as inherently bad. It looks to what people can learn from television (though perhaps it does put old sci fi programs up on a bit of a pedestal). It's entertaining and bleak with just a sliver of hope. [SPOILERS] At least I hope that there's a sliver of hope, the idea that this guy can be inspired, can find a way to innovate, using the plots of old sci fi shows. Because if he can't then this is a very depressing story about looking to stories to inspire and failing. About how people think stories have value but are really just avoiding doing actual work. And as this is a story itself I very much doubt that's the intent. I want to and do see the ending as ultimately hopeful and optimistic, even as it walks a fine line around an abyss. Definitely a story worth spending some time with!
"Apprentice" by James Van Pelt (5276 words)
Ah, here's a rather neat fantasy story that mixes some classic ideas with a few twists to set the stage for an imminently enjoyable read. Wedge is a mage's apprentice who starts to suspect that Some Shit Ain't Right with the whole mage-apprentice setup when he witnesses his master to a solid for the king of the realm and the story does a nice job of setting all its dominoes in place and then tips them over. There's just something rather fun about watching it all come together. And while the bigger who what when where how wasn't exactly ever in question (there is no real twist in the story because hands are tipped rather early on), the execution is solid, showing a mind for narrative construction and giving Wedge a mind just quick enough to stay ahead of certain death. I really do have to give him credit—he knows his strengths and never really gives in. And the world building is nice rendered, the creepier bits fitting nicely next to the nearly-saccharine ending. This is very much a good guy v bad guy sort of story, but it neither soaks itself in blood not puts on airs about its own cleverness. It simply sets out to tell an entertaining story and an entertaining story is what it achieves, with tension and action and magic and a satisfying resolution. A fine fantasy read!
"What Was Meant to Be Buried" by Carla E. Dash (1441 words)
Well yeah, this is a deepy creepy and disturbing story about death and pain and…fruit? Trigger warnings for implied sexual assault of a minor and murder (though the murder's probably not all that triggering, given the first trigger warning…). It's short and it centers on a woman who faces strong urges toward violence. Toward revenge. Her life is a rather stark and brutal one that sees her assaulted and not believed, sees her live consumed by a smothering mother, by the fruitless hope that she can find some measure of acceptance or understanding. The story is rather careful not to claim the assault is the cause of the violence of the piece—it's obvious from the text that the main character was preoccupied with violence even before, and while the event had a profound impact it only focused what was already there. And it's an effective piece, short but incredibly dark, about the power of violence and the draw but also the toxicity, the sickness, the pain that results, especially from the main character who knows what it's like to be a victim. There is something rotten about it, something sharp and lurking that the story explores. And the ending is an interesting wrinkle, a confrontation and also a recognition, the presence of two predators that gives the main character more of a leave to let herself indulge in her desires, or fall victim to the desires of others. It's uncomfortable and creepy with a subtle magic that helps it all come together. A difficult story, but one well worth reading.
"Boo's Daddy" by Anna Yeatts (4304 words)
Oh-kay then. This story blends Western trappings with a heaping helping of horror, magic, and humor, and the result is…well, the result is a story equal parts charming and repulsive, rollickingly fun and disquietingly dark. The main character, Clyde, is an easy man to hate. He's slimy and completely irredeemable. And that's rather what made the story work for me, that Clyde remains this contemptible bastard who only happens to do good, who only incidentally saves the day because he needs to in order to save his own skin (ba-zing!). He's got a great voice, one that made me as a reader feel dirty reading his thoughts, and it works because the story does [SPOILERS?] not reward him. He doesn't get to be the hero, really. He succeeds, but the joy of the story is watching him wade through the terrible shit. Bad things happen to him all the time and while he finds a way to sleaze his way along it's so satisfying to see him essentially punished for being such a terrible person. Or at the least not rewarded. Not exactly. Not the way that he could be if this story did what many other stories have with such a character, which is to make him actually always right and actually the best at everything. I don't think anyone will think that Clyde is good at much aside from being awful, and while this is a setting (like the actual Old West) that sort of rewards that, Clyde is delightfully suffering through most of the story. He doesn't get the girl or ride off into the sunset. There is no feeling that he's going to do well and settle down. There's the near-certainty that in a week or two he'll be running again, angry and violent people hot on his heels. Which is what he deserves. A fun read and a fine way to close out the original fiction!
"Skies of Sand and Steel" by Jeremy Szal (5997 words)
Mixing steampunk elements with a desert wasteland aesthetic, this story tells a rather classic and straightforward "boy in trouble" tale, complete with betrayal, counter-betrayal, loss, and good ol' fashioned gumption. It features Ruben, a boy just old enough to leave his home city and apparently also just old enough to stumble across a dangerous plot against his uncle, one that gets him kidnapped and sold to slavers. The steam elements of the story mix well with the strange genetic manipulations and general feel of a setting that is science fiction going on fantasy. The plot moves, fueled by Ruben's rather YA worldview and his drive to get out of his situation. The story is populated by strong characters, or at least strong personalities, running over some classic tropes in planning Ruben's escape. And really to me it's more of a prison-break story, tightly and quickly told, than anything else, detailing how Ruben makes friends among the doomed and how, together, they make their desperate attempt at getting out. And in that it works nicely, flows and has a soft humor to it while really focusing on being entertaining and driven. It's not precisely a surprising story to me, but for those wanting to dip their toes into a classicly-inspired SFF prison break, it hits all its marks and takes it bow. A fine story!
"Shamrock #7 - Shadows" by Josh Brown and Alberto Hernandez
There is a "Ninja! Vanish!" line is this comic and orcs (basically) and flashbacks and things are looking pretty grim by the end but this is a much faster and action-packed chapter than the last few. Training gets a bit truncated as things break down into an old fashioned ninja fight and then everything levels up as the baddies get a bit more competent and Shamrock finds herself in a rather dire situation. This series continues to be a fun and rather nostalgic romp, filled with some tropes and conventions pulled out of older video games, comics, and television shows. I continue to love each new addition and the melding of all the various elements into one story, one setting. There are twists galore, and certain things that I almost hope are twists because it would make for a great scene later on but I guess I have to wait for that. Reading this comic in installments is an interesting experience, too. Each chapter reveals a little bit more of the world and of the backstory while pushing forward with the main quest and visiting a number of different locations and ideas. There's certainly video game logic to a lot of what's going on (or perhaps I should amend that to there's a toy franchise feel to a lot of what's going on), with new villains and allies popping up. The next level might be all water and mermaids and evil paranha men or an air level with bird people and sentient winds (though I suspect the actual next level will be gladiator themed given the hint of the fighting pits). But it's an aesthetic and logic that works, that's familiar and yet leaves room for great original visuals and ideas. As always, the comic is both the first thing I read when a new Fantasy Scroll issue drop sas well as what I reread at the end. Definitely a series to invest in!