|Art by Jereme Peabody|
“Between Sea and Flame” by Evan Dicken (10550 words)
I do appreciate that HFQ takes chances when it comes to interpreting what’s fantasy and what’s not. I’ve been quite enjoying the more Lovecraftian pieces that the publication has come out with, and this is another looking at the time of the early European invasion of the Americas. The story stars Hummingbird, the last member of an elite Mexica fighting force, one destroyed by the forces of the Sea People, who worship Dagon and Hydra and bring with them a dark and twisted magic. Hummingbird begins the story on the run, waging her own war against the people who took her home from her. It brings her to the attention of one of the Sea People, a man named Hernández who is trying to stop his direct superior from attracting the attention of a being far beyond the powers of their gods. The story does a nice job of building this world and this conflict through the lens of Hummingbird, who is driven and competent and haunted by what has happened. She’s someone who has lost some measure of hope because of her loss, and who is consumed with this desire to make up for having lived. As the story moves, however, she begins to find a new meaning in the fight, a new prospect that she hadn’t really allowed herself—that she might find new comrades, new friends and allies. Where this seemed a betrayal in the past, she begins to see that in order to fight against the Sea People, against the tide that destroyed her people, she has to move beyond the desire to punish herself, that she has to seek to punish those truly responsible. And I like the horror and action of the piece as well. It moves and moves very well, the pacing tight and the stakes very clear. The character work is great and I love that the story doesn’t shy away from either sensuality or angst. It’s a fun story, mostly, with a great tension and creepiness and an ending that is full of hope and blood and light, despite the encroaching darkness. For a Lovecraftian story I like that it’s not incredibly bleak nor incredibly simple, but complex enough to be satisfying and complete. A great read!
“I am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds” by Raphael Ordoñez (10357 words)
Well, I suppose when I spoke about appreciating the last story, I could have waited and found out that there’s a reason it reminded me of another story HFQ published before. Because, in a round-about manner, they share a setting. The story the previous one reminded me of was "Heart of Tashyas," and it turns out that this story is a semi-direct sequel that also shares a setting with the last piece to create an interesting shared-universe feel. This one finds Carvajal after his adventures in “Heart of Tashyas,” a rather changed man from the strangeness he experienced there. The story doesn’t start with him, though. It begins with a sort of clown, and then with Pi Tigua, a woman who is being courted by the Destroyer, by a creature that seems to devour worlds, that wants her for some unknown reason. Instead of giving in, she seeks the advice of the Corn Maidens, who lead her to Carvajal, who is in full penitence mode, trying to make amends for the path his life had led, for the harm he’s done, for the greed and arrogance that motivated him. He’s a wandered now, accompanied by Papagallo, his large riding bird who is rather adorable. The story again mixes Lovecraftian horror with a setting impacted by the early invasion of the Americas. Where the last story was in South America, though, this one takes place in North America, in what is now the American Southwest. Carvajal is brought in to fight back against the Destroyer, and in so doing ends up in the middle of something much larger. I love the way that the two stories play off each other, how they inform each other. The characters are very different but I will admit to nerding out a bit when they actually interact, and both are similar in that they deal with magic and invasion, resistance and identity. Carvajal is a man without a home, without a world, and yet it allows him to join in others’ causes. He is an outsider, which means that he is an invader himself. I like how the story faces that, regardless of how benign he might seem, any foreign intrusion into these lands changes them. Carvajal does harm, but at the same time he doesn’t seem to consume, at least any more. He puts himself against the Destroyer, against that invasion, as he seeks to bring at least as much as he breaks as he travels. It’s an interesting and complex situation and I like how it plays out. The action is intense, the tone a mix of horror, fantasy, and humor, and the ending a bit muted and gray. Things change, but that doesn’t mean that everything is destroyed. Another great read!
“Rakefire” by Jason Carney (6125 words)
This is a fast and action-packed story that finds a sorcerer known as Rakefire trying to track down a sometimes-lover and former teacher turned renegade sorcerer. They’re working mostly for themself, for answers, but are also bound by a certain obligation to take care of problems that crop up in their path. Problems, in this case, that their quarry, Qwayas, has left for them in the form of another rogue sorcerer, a young slave who has learned magic to escape his situation, and whose raw talent means that he’s a very real danger to everyone around him. The world building here is broad strokes but very interesting, the magic dark and much of it about creating twisted creatures to serve the sorcerers and their wills. Rakefire is a compelling character, driven not only to catch up with the person who might have wronged them, but to fix the damage that he’s doing. They’re competent but also rushed, hoping for an easy diversion and finding anything but. They care, for the most part, about the people around them, those more innocent of the conflict that might destroy them, and yet when pressed they are ruthless and efficient. Similarly, their relationship with Qwayas is both at the heart of the story and an absence. It obviously shapes so much of what’s going on, and why he’s done what he’s done, but the story doesn’t really give a solid feel of what the relationship was like. Probably not exactly...stable, given everything on display here. The action is gripping and bloody and the denizens of this world that the sorcerers use as pawns and guards and weapons are strange and rather creepy. The story definitely has a vague D&D feel to it, but in a good way, bringing some classic sword and sorcery out to play while pushing forward a plot that implies a much larger story. It’s an interesting read, and it definitely makes me interested to find out what comes next. Another fine story!
“Colder Than Mars” by Andrew Crabtree
This poem speaks to the tradition of war and warriors, specifically evoking the Roman legions and their devotion to the god of war. And the piece does a good job of capturing both the hungry nature of war and the numbness that can come along with it. Here we see the march of war, and it’s the passionate cry that are much more common when it comes to talking about war and its characteristics. Here there’s definitely something more muted about the language, not about the hot hate or glory of battle but of the cold calm and professional distance of a soldier who has known battle, who goes about the business of war. And I like that interpretation of Mars, the coldness and the sort of dull march. War is often not about the constant battle or the moments of blood but of the long stretches between, and the point seems to me to be that soldiers don’t live in the frenzy of battle but rather in the numb prospect of violence, in the shadow of it, the winter of it. Because it stretches on and on, this feeling that the war never ends, just moves places, and that really there is no difference in where the war is waged, just a string of battlefields and graveyards. And I like how the poem positions war and death so close, just points along a spectrum, really, where Death is the terminus and war is the next step removed, and always moving in that direction. Choosing Rome seems fitting there not because of the military prowess but more because it’s the origin in the West of the professional soldier, of people who only went to war, who were devotees of Mars and nothing more. An interesting and complex piece!
“The Pirate Queen Ching Shih Confronts Her Doppelganger” by Kendall Evans
This is a longer and rather action-orienting poem about Ching Shih, the leader of a great pirate fleet, being confronted by her own demonic double who is bent on killing her and replacing her. The poem is a rather swift story, setting the stage and then watching it play out, telling of this epic and personal conflict between Ching Shih and...herself. Kind of. The mood of the poem moves from adventurous to humorous to darkly mysterious, mixing magic and swords, pirates and monkeys. It’s a fun poem, though I have reasons for not liking the “he is really a she” thing that the poem does. Still, it leans on the older histories that used to be written, that treated the supernatural as mostly fact, especially in histories detailing things that happened a long way away from where those histories were sold. A lot of it was about selling this vision of a magic other place, here the South China Sea, where there are doppelgangers and pirate queens and things more outlandish yet! But yeah, the action of the poem works well, selling the grueling and evenly-matched nature of the conflict and really setting up that final line, the uncertainty of what “really happened.” It makes the reader have to make up an ending, not giving the satisfaction of revealing everything. And it makes for a rather charming poem, not quite horror and not quite humor but definitely fantasy. Certainly a poem to check out!
“The Dolmen” by Michael Tilbury
Well this is a nicely creepy poem about a place of power, one that people are warned away from, and how a group of young people go regardless, as the young are wont to do, and what they find there. It’s a very short poem, with rather short lines, and I like how that ups the tension, giving the piece a feeling of anticipation, that there is all this space where things aren’t being said, that we as readers must fill in the blank. And what’s there is dark and brooding, the implication that these young people have come across something that they weren’t meant to find. Which is a rather classic concept, that these young people didn’t know to heed the warnings, that for them it was just like every other warning, likely as not to be told not to keep them safe but to spare their parents extra work. And so, bored, they go. And it turns out that the warnings weren’t just hot air, that there really is something dark and magical there, and the narrator of the poem is drawn to it. The language of the poem also does a great job conjuring up something of indefinite shape, a presence and a darkness that isn’t quite clear. It’s like the power of the place has made the terror so intense that the narrator can’t quite bring themself to describe it fully. That part of it’s horror is that it’s unknown, nebulous. It paints a very unsettling picture and makes for a great way to close out the issue!