I'm adding a new publication to my review pile this month with the twenty-eighth issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. It's a publication that I've admired from afar for a while and provides both fantasy fiction and poetry. This issue is a bit of a difficult one to approach, though, as two of the pieces are continuations of stories that began in the last issue. And one of those is technically the second half of the third story in a series of stories. So, without the context to feel fully comfortable jumping into it, I'm not going to be looking at "." but I certainly encourage to check it out and see what they think. Because I'm skipping that one, though, I will be looking at the entirety of the other 2-parter. Confused yet? I swear next issue will hopefully be hiccup-free. As for this issue, it presents a nice mix of fantasy tales, from fairy tales to fantasy horrors to near-grimdark military pieces. But each piece captures or complicates the idea of the title, the idea of heroic fantasy. To the reivews!
|Art by Jereme Peabody|
"Curse of Beauty" by Marlena Frank (4247 words)
This is a story told as a fairy tale with a few modern twists, a story about voice and about monsters and about power. It features Catherine, a young woman who had to grow up alone after her mother disappeared. A young woman who has never been able to sing freely since then. Because she has a power, a curse and a gift. For song and for a beauty she is unsure of. At the very least, she is hunted by men who seek to kill her, only to fall in love with her when they see her. And, finally, who try to kill her when she rebukes them. It's a wrenching situation and one that nicely parallels a lot of the abuse that women face, both hated and desired for how they look and how men perceive them, unsafe for being women. And the story takes that idea and complicates it nicely, showing Catherine as independent and intelligent, more than a match for the men who pursue her. When a man arrives who is…a bit different, though, she thinks maybe things might change. [SPOILERS] And I quite enjoyed that Catherine experiences that part of herself that she doesn't allow herself to enjoy. That she opens up and discovers that, yes, there is only more abuse and fear to come. I would have loved if the revelation hadn't come because of prompting from a suitor because it still seems to focus on romantic love and it would have been interesting to see how she might have reacted to a non-romantic friend (perhaps even another woman), but as it is I do still like the ending, the way that it doesn't strip Catherine of her power of write her into a princess. The way that it does essentially show that the way she has power is to embrace the aspects of herself that people hate, to essentially embrace being alone if it comes with the power to protect herself. It's certainly not a happy solution, but the story does take the form of a fairy tale, just one that's been nicely subverted. A fine story!
"Brotherhood of the Book" by M.R. Timson (5043 words)
Well all right then. This is a rather classic-feeling fantasy horror told as journal entries about a man going to work at a monastery where the written word is venerated and there's something…not quite right going on. The main character is a promising scribe who just wants to earn some money but quickly finds himself pulled into the deepest mysteries of the brotherhood and comes to participate in the great project being conducted, the copying of a strange book of unknown make and purpose. The voice of the piece is well crafted and compelling, just curious enough and just clueless enough to fall into the web of intrigues and instantly be over his head. His choices are hardly his own and he lets himself be drawn around by first one person, then another, then another. It's that aspect of his character that really sells the story for me, and that gives it some depth and weight, that he is constantly letting himself be led, that he doesn't stop to really make his own mind up about anything that he sees. It makes him desirable to everyone as a pawn, as someone to manipulate, and he gets passed around for just that reason. His lack of self-examination is what leads to the horror that is unleashed, to the tragedy of the piece and to his own ultimate doom. It's a striking piece, an older style voice and form and an interesting world with some neat flourishes (the time-keeping was a nice touch). Things aren't quite what they seem and everything moves well and with a great sense of building dread. Another good read!
"The Siege, the Gums, and the Blue" by Adrian Simmons (17,310 words)
So if the previous entries this issue have been a sort of fairy tale and a fantasy horror, this last piece of fiction falls firmly into military fantasy and, yes, grimdark territory. Not that it exists completely without hope but it shows a long and brutal siege progress from its first desperate days to its last. The action focuses on two people amid the many effected by the war—Izydor, a young farmer-turned-soldier, and Gizela, princess-turned-queen of the city-state being attacked by a large, foreign power. The story is a long one, and pointedly so, spanning a long siege and giving the feeling of a slow grinding decline. The action and the plot of the story move well, showcasing hard decisions and the ebb and flow of fortunes in battle. Izydor takes part in bloody raids and bloody defenses and bloody traps. The story is, to me, about attrition. The two sides are rather evenly met, posses bravery and skill and numbers and planning and cunning. They are determined to destroy each other. And the story makes very good use of that device, showing the dwindling resources but the resolve not to stop, to use more. It shows the cost of such determination. And it asks what is best. Is there an alternative? And it shows how material attrition can lead to a sort of moral attrition, both sides taking more and more desperate steps to win, when winning really isn't a victory. When surviving means being broken, being destroyed anyway. It's a bit of a difficult story to read because of its slow slide down into ruin. But it's an interesting piece and especially for fans of military fantasy and grimdark it's nicely drawn and an appropriate pit of despair. Hurrah!
"Inheritance" by Mary Soon Lee
I love the sense of story untold by this poem, which features a king bringing his young son to meet a dragon. To be warned by a dragon of a particular rite of ascension to the throne. The poem is told simple with rather short and rather consistent stanzas, presenting a moment of time, a scene. And yet through the interaction of the characters, king and prince and dragon, the poem manages a lot of world building, a lot of depth that remains just unseen, just an outline of something larger and mysterious. There's a fine sense of magic, of history, of personal growth. There is also a sense of time, the dragon ageless and the king certainly not, both of them hiding a certain pain at that, a certain expectation of pain. I love the way they regard each other, with such an ease and with enough slight nods that their past seems rich and interesting, filled with adventures and dangers and a mutual respect. It's almost like they have been friends for so long that neither wants to fully face the fact that the dragon will outlive the king by many, many years. That pain, that waiting trap of affection, sits between them but doesn't push them apart. It's a poem filled with a sadness and also a hope. That in some way their friendship will go on through the generational shift, different but still, perhaps, intact. The action of poem is rather straight-forward, but there's a great depth to it, and by the end I found myself smiling broadly, a seed of hope in my chest. A great read!
"The Allfather's Ravens" by David Sklar
This poem takes a look at Odin's ravens, Memory and Thought, and twists things a bit, looking at the gifts they were given and not so much at what Odin received when he lost his eye. Because, of course, sacrifices mean that there is something given in both directions, and the poem does a great job of depicting the bargain, the deal made. For knowledge. For Memory and Thought. And how it wasn't quite complete. How, in this case, Memory gained more from the bargain and Thought is not quite satisfied, is still hungry. And the poem does a nice job with the idea of hunger. For knowledge. For flesh. These two things become linked. That Odin thought to trade so evenly, thinking everything settled when it might not be, when everyone might not be satisfied and willing to go without. In that it's also about power, which Odin was seeking in his quest for knowledge. And which he feels he paid a good price for. Only that it puts him in the position where, with one move, all the knowledge in the universe could not unblind him. It's a poem that captures that moment of want and waiting, memory and thought and power. The images are sharp, steeped in the mythology they come out of, and provide a darkly compelling scene. A great way to close out the issue!