|Art by Jordan Grimmer|
“Deathspeaker” by Stephan Case (13163 words)
This is a story of power and magic and love, about names and about the power of life and death. The story frames a great, high fantasy struggle between two opposed forces. The first, and the one that gets the most attention, is the Empress, the Deathspeaker of the title. She has the power to kill a person by speaking their name. Long held as a weapon by a tyrant king, the main character of the story, an old scribe and scholar, set her free and has helped her seize the kingdom for herself. She inspires fear because of her power, and yet she is also defined in relation to the other power, the Bone King, who has a very similar but rather opposite power, to make it so those he names cannot die. And I like how the story twists expectations in that way, making the person with the power of death the “good” option where the person with the power over life is much more “evil.” And the scholar, the Keeper, in the middle of it all, understanding the death and discord on all sides and trying to do what he can to prevent the worst atrocities from happening. Of course, he’s motivated as well by his love of the Empress, and through his loyalty he might miss that replacing one magical power with another doesn’t really fix things. But it’s an interesting story and one that captures a large scope, as the Empress and Bone King are well matched and the Scholar a neat choice for main character. It’s a story that has a great weariness to it, after all, that in many ways expresses the violence and darkness of life for one who is courting death, who wants the final embrace to come because of his weariness, because of what he’s seen and done, and yet also wants to live long enough to know that his love is secure. It’s a rather long piece but it fills the space well, and the confrontation between the two sides is suitably epic and complex, even if the more standard good versus evil loomed a bit in the background. I think it manages to avoid most of the more troublesome tropes of that, though, and it’s certainly worth spending some time with. Indeed!
“The Broken Karwaneer” by Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis (6795 words)
This is a story of death and hurt and scarcity in a world that has been torn apart by disaster, and is being further damaged by those who use the wounds that already exist to justify adding new ones. Orha is a member of a travelling karwan, and is the lead hunter and defender of those who traveler under the guidance of Brighteye, a man able to use magic. Orha is an optimist even in the face of the ugliness of the world, the waste that people must navigate to survive, the constant violence and threats of violence that plague those who eek out a living in the harsh places. The story opens as Orha and the karwan have come across a village destroyed by a different kind of hunting group, one who cares only about profit, who moves through the area like a plague, leaving death behind them and kidnapping children for to use as bait to draw in monsters. Orha, despite her optimism and belief that things can get better, is increasingly angry at a world that allows and even rewards such cruelty, and so decides to follow this group of butchers to find her own sort of vengeance. The action of the piece is elegant and fast and the central conflict is complicated and centered on Orha’s sense of possibility and hope. For her, the world is supposed to be a place of justice, where joy and progress are possible. In that it’s a very relevant story, because it captures for me so much of what a lot of people have been feeling in a world that seems gearing toward dystopia and disaster and fascism. In the face of that, how to stay positive enough to believe that progress is possible? It becomes a source of great pain for Orha but also a strength as well. Not because she finds a super positive answer, but because she decides that regardless of what the answer is, she’s going to move forward, and nurture compassion, and punish cruelty. And she’s going to do it with whatever power she has. It’s a compelling and interesting look at that side of morality and hope in a mire of pain and corruption and hate. And it makes for a great story!