Monday, February 26, 2018

Quick Sips - Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Q35

The first issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly has landed and brought with a trio if fantasy novelettes and a trio of poems. The stories are a mix of historical fantasy (with a new Carvajal story and what could be the beginning of a series of Victorian-era investigations) and second-world fun. The poetry is rather narrative, revealing battlefields of various sorts, whether literal or more symbolic. There’s dragons, monsters, demons, and usurpers to deal with, and the pieces as a whole show characters trying to make things right, trying to lead and to follow their own hearts. It’s a nice mix of pieces, and before I give too much away, let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Jereme Peabody


“White Rainbow and Brown Devil” by Raphael Ordoñez (10058 words)

No Spoilers: Carvajal is back again (in the third story of his that I’ve read so far), this story taking place between the two others I have read. On the trail of coyote men but much more interested still in gold and riches, Carvajal is brought to a village that has just had its leader abducted. Reluctant to get involved, the story follows him and he tries to figure out what’s going on and maybe line his pockets. Not that anything really works out for him. Still fun and continuing some solid world building, it expands the mythology of the other two stories, adding new wrinkles, gods, and monsters. I continue to like the mixture of elements and the tone even as Carvajal himself is still a long way from being a character to root for. The story seems to recognize that, though, putting him on a long, painful road to maybe getting better.
Keywords: Historical Fantasy, Gold, Spirit World, Hunted, Rescue
Review: These Carvajal stories for me are quite a bit of fun, exploring a setting I haven’t seen used very often and keeping a very complex and open world building in the face of the horror that’s going on at the time, the colonization of the Americas by the Spanish and others. And Carvajal is just sort of out for himself, trying to pass through these lands to better things, to riches and power. Not having learned quite that his fate is tied to this place now, his role as colonizer and pillager having been reversed. He’s the one who’s been colonized, who has been drawn into something. Though he speaks toward his Christian figures, his Holy Virgin, it’s the gods of the place he walks that answer him back, and rarely in ways that he wants. Which is great for me because it shows that he’s the one trespassing, and yet there is something about him, something nebulous and shifting, that makes him able to help. That makes him a tool of the gods, however uncomfortable that is. He’s crude, he’s selfish, he’s often violent—and yet at the same time he’s someone that others can use for their ends, against forces much more malevolent and toxic. It makes for an interesting read, where he fails forward, always after some larger score but always inadvertently doing the right thing. Another great installment in the series!

“That Sleep of Death” by Mary-Jean Harris (10564 words)

No Spoilers: Edwin and Louis are investigators with an Order that looks into mysteries involving the metaphysical. Set in Victorian England, the piece focuses on a case involving an errant son who has fallen in with a group of...theosophists. What seems at first like a rather innocent if also intellectually fascinating pursuit, though, soon reveals a darker side, and Edwin himself comes under a bit more scrutiny than he likes. Told in a charming voice and building up a fascinating setting and situation, the mystery-lover in me was rather hooked. For me it was a little abrupt at times, and I wish it would have wrapped up a bit more than it did, but it does leave things in want of further exploration, promising a return of the setting and its intrepid investigators.
Keywords: Astral Plane, Projection, Demons, Possession, Investigations
Review: Like the previous story, this one seems to be aiming to unfold over more than just this one installment. At least, there is a lot that the story leaves unanswered, and I can only hope that it returns to circle back to all the things it introduced. For me, that’s a source of some of why I liked the story and also the source of some of my disappointments. I like the voice and the feel of the piece. I’m a sucker for mysteries and a Victorian British mystery involving metaphysics and the strange and unexplained is something I very much appreciate about this piece. The characters perhaps lean on conventions a bit, intellectuals who act as detectives using their wits, observations, and unflappability to succeed, but they’re interesting enough to follow. And the plot itself is captivating, introducing demons, astral projection, and quasi-magical international organizations. But for all the big ideas that the story introduces, it leaves off on really paying off on too many of them. There’s action, and in a sense the mystery introduced at the beginning of the piece is solved. But without the what-happens-next that the ending promises, the result for me ended up feeling incomplete. No doubt this will change when I actually get to read the next part, though, and I hope that comes sooner than later. Indeed!

“Things of Shreds and Patches” by Norman Doege (8777 words)

No Spoilers: Scori, the son of a court jester, is sent to collect a man from his lord’s past in order to set right a great wrong that has befallen a duchy. Kervan never wanted to be a part of court, having escaped it following having been brought up the hostage to a powerful noble family. Except that the son of that family and he became like brothers, and it’s not a call that he can ignore. Full of the gravity of violence and the drive of Kervan to bury the past, I like how the story focuses on the ways that Kervan doesn’t fit in, to show his ability to cut through the problems that plague the nobility he doesn’t belong to. A fun, visceral read.
Keywords: Treason, Courtly Manners, Magic, Brothers, Battle
Review: This story hits a lot of my tough-guy-fantasy feels but in a rather interesting way. Like, I don’t mean that as a dismissive or insulting way (I hope), but rather to say that it leans on the tropes of the tough, stoic guy swinging an axe around and generally Getting Stuff Done. And it’s a great take on that, casting Kervan as a man who was brought up in relative comfort and wealth as a hostage, who became friends with the ruler’s son, but who was never really a person who belonged. Who, really, has nowhere to belong, because of his manners and his preferences. He likes things simple, but at the same time his personal code requires him to act at times that...well, make things complicated. So he’s always moving, and he gets this call from his past, this chance to revisit it and his feelings of rejection and anger at what happened to him. And I like that this is something that motivates him not just because it’s to help his semi-brother, but rather that this is something he’s doing for himself, to prove to himself that he can do this. He’s a warrior, and I like that he considers this world of courtly niceties a battlefield just as deadly (if not more so) than those bloody fields or brawl-filled barrooms. He might not be the best at it, but he can prove to himself that those who thought him worthless because of his upbringing were wrong. And he can show others he can use his words as well as his axe. Right before he buries his axe in their necks. Woo. It’s a violent and cool story about returns and debts, and it’s very much worth checking out for its action, tight pacing, and entertaining flourish. Go read it!


“Washer at the Ford” by James Byers

For me, this poem has a lot to do with death. With mythology. It paints a picture of war, of battle, of warriors being brought down by a tide of violence. And there’s a nice contrast to the piece, the madness of the battle itself and the relative serenity of a crow in flight. An old woman washing. The piece seems to focus on the magic of augury, and especially the premonition of death. And in that focus it captures that feeling of dread and waiting, that knowledge that death is on the way, and everyone must stand ready for that arrival, which moves at the end of the piece. It’s a nicely creepy poem that for me does a nice job of mixing fantasy and horror, monstrosity both human and otherworldly. The piece rhymes, and the stanzas are all four lines, relatively short, and pretty uniform throughout. For me, it gives a feeling of regularity to the piece as a whole, the implication that this is the business of war, flowing and alive like the beating of a heart, but also regular and almost inevitable. For me, it becomes this unstoppable force, the weight of fate and prophecy, the approach of death in all its terrible glory. And I like the language of the piece, the imagery strong and evoking older battlefields, swords and blood in a chaotic mess, the poem imposing order on top of it through the use of myth, through the personification of death. Which makes for a rather dark but stirring read!

“Dragon Mountain” by Mary Soon Lee

A new piece in the long-running series by the author, this piece advances a larger narrative while also settling in on Li, the Captain of King Xau’s guards. It also focuses a new, unknown threat, one that might plunge the realm into conflict. As always, the setting of the poem is interesting, magical, featuring a dragon and a king and their friendship, here witnessed from the outside, from Li, who is really most concerned with protecting Xau. Being confronted by a dragon is a mix of things, in part because while Xau trusts the dragon with his life, Li doesn’t really trust anyone. And what I like about the poem is that Li and the dragon share this moment together, where they both are very interested in protecting Xau, though they have some different ways of doing that. Both are worried about Xau, worried that someone will be able to hurt him, to kill him, and so both caution him not to trust anyone. And yet Xau trusts. He trusts them both, at the very least, and it seems to me that he knows he has to trust others as well, that to be a ruler means taking these risks and essentially hoping that this around him will protect him. Because if he had to give up on trust, he’d become the poorer ruler for it. It’s something that I feel the dragon understands, and why she is able to rest in the end, knowing that there’s someone close to Xau who doesn’t trust anyone, who would fight a dragon unarmed to try and protect Xau. the piece has a great feel for it, building up this fantasy realm and this cast of characters, people trying to play a long game, protecting what they can, ruling as well as possible, knowing that there will be those who want to burn it all down. It’s a piece about rest before the real work begins, of enjoying this small moment of peace, or relative peace, before starting to get ready for something bigger, something more dangerous and loaded. But here, for now, it seems about friendship and care, about working to make their world a better place. A great poem!

“Fire Lover” by Karen Bovenmyer

This poem focuses on fire and love, passion and the thirst for battle. It focuses on a woman locked in a marriage duel with the brother of her betrothed. It’s supposed to be a battle for honor, and yet for the woman, a dragon-rider who rides a fiery beast, it might be something more. Certainly for her dragon, who cannot seem to contain their desire for battle, for blood, for victory, it becomes something much more than a scrimmage to satisfy honor. The piece is told from the point of view of the betrothed, the piece as a whole capturing their fear, the pulling desires between wanting their lover to win and wanting their brother to survive. There’s something brutal about their lover, about their need to fight, to not let a vulnerability pass her by, and it’s a trait shared with her dragon, so in this battle that’s supposed to be for show mostly, things go very wrong. And the lover, who shows just how much the narrator means to her, at the same time loses something very important to her, and perhaps some part of herself in the process, in choosing to settle down with the narrator instead of continuing on as she had been. It makes for a touching moment between the characters, but it also plants this small seed of doubt within this relationship, that the loss is not only with the lover, but with the narrator as well, who didn’t want their lover to have to give up that part of themself. That fire. That burning that the beginning of the poem does such a great job building up. The poem is fun and fast, told in mostly short lines and separated out into stanzas of variable length. It’s a poem about fire and speed, and as such it maintains a solid pace and a good amount of suspense. The battle is tense and action-packed and the poem itself is a mix of tenderness and passion and loss. It’s a complex read but a very fun one, and it’s a wonderful way to close out the issue!


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