|Art by Ashley Dotson|
“In Memory of Jianhong, Snake-Devil” by Richard Parks (5979 words)
This is a fun and rather clever story about a father and daughter seeking to slay a snake-demon at the request of a governor who is tired of having his soldiers (and delicious, valuable goats) devoured whenever the creature becomes hungry. What begins as a rather straightforward mission, however, turns out to be quite a bit more complex, and dangerous, than they thought at first. The thing that strikes me first about the story and what keeps a lot of the narrative momentum going even though the story is mostly free of demon-slaying battles and such, is the dynamic between the characters, between Jing and her father Pan Bao. It’s one of grudging respect and mutual annoyance, with Pan Boa firmly entrenched in the misogyny of his time and place and profession and yet also very much surrounded by and in-some-ways supportive of powerful women. At least, he seems to care for his daughter, for all his bluster, and seems to have cared a great deal for her mother, though she’s dead now. It’s a small act of fridging that is a little disappointing because it wades into a territory where his heavy drinking and emotional pain is mostly caught up with a dead woman, but at the same time I don’t see it as the worst offender of this overused trope. Indeed, I do like the relationship between the pair because it’s complex and filled with the ways that they dance around their shared hurt and loss. I also like the way the story handles the snake-demon Mei Li, and how the piece seeks to move forward not through a violent confrontation but in such a way that everyone is served and happy. Or happy enough. And in many ways the story feels to me about trying to do better by other people, trying to understand their motivations and their lives and not rushing to judgement or violence. Plus Jing has an interesting voice and a rather fun personality, salty and put-upon by having to work with her flake of a dad but also committed to the work and committed to him. It’s a fun and pleasant read!
“Whatever Knight Comes” by Ryan Row (6574 words)
This is a rather wrenching story about knights and about curses, about tropes and traditions and stories. This is also the second story I’ve read lately that has treated with the idea of the Black Knight and his purpose and the cyclic nature of his mission. This story builds up around this black knight who also, thanks to a liberal use of second person narrating, becomes you, becomes the reader. And transports the reader into the curse, where he is a very skilled swordsman but stuck in a role. The villain. The foil. And in that role he never wins. He is always just enough to push whatever knight to their limits, but never to push beyond that. And he’s stuck reliving the same story over and over again, always killed and always robbed and always...but then, the story is rather careful not to make him too sympathetic, too much the victim in all of this. Because the story has other victims as well, maidens whom the black knight kidnaps and imprisons in his castle and whom the knights come to rescue. For them there really is no choice in all of this, and though he is forced to love them and lose them there is no real tragedy in his part of this cycle because the real losers here, the real victims, are those who are treated as property, who are taken and then given away and all the black knight cares about is his own pain in this exchange. This is something he never really has to face until he abducts a woman who actually wants to go, who wants to learn swordplay and so becomes his student. And who comes to love him in some ways and love the life she can have thanks to him. Of course, things still aren’t easy or simple and the story does a very nice job of displaying the weight of the stories that everyone is trapped in and how the curse effecting all of them erases so much else of their lives and nuance. What remains is archetypal and cyclical and the story subverts this not by breaking the cycle completely but by altering it and making it work in a different way, in a way that might allow the people involved to finally move on and be free. It’s a dark and moving story and you should definitely check it out!