Thursday, May 24, 2018

Quick Sips - Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Q36

The second issue of the year has dropped at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, featuring three stories (2 shorts and 1 novelette) and three poems. And it’s an issue that definitely walks a fine line between darkness and hope, between violence and justice. The stories feature characters who are struggling with their choices, their paths. For many of them, they want to reach a place beyond the corruption that is holding them down, that is hurting them and those around them. For some of them, this means taking arms against a sea of trouble, and for others it means striving to consume and become that sea of trouble. But whether trying to break down or co-opt corruption and injustice, the stories show how close the two can be, and what might tip people toward one or the other. It’s a very strong issue of fantasy short stories and poetry, and it’s time to get to the reviews!

Art by Jereme Peabody


“More Blood Than Bone” by E.K. Wagner (5614 words)

No Spoilers: Tierence is a scholar and a bit of an adventurer, caught by her heritage between the magical aristocracy of the Aevern and the seafaring danger of Ngimbia, who hunt monsters called haukins for to gather their maigcally potent bones and teeth. Tierence has been writing guides and books, however, that challenge this old arrangement, pointing out that as the Ngimbians are those taking the greatest risks, they should also share more equally in the spoils. Books possess a magic of their own, though, and in this world magic is supposed to be sole domain of the Aevern. When the two worlds collide for Tierance, blood and choice become suddenly very important. Tightly paced and splitting time between the sea and the shore, the piece manages a good bit of action as well as a deeper meaning that touches on inequality, exploitation, and self-determination.
Keywords: Sea Monsters, Magic, Inequality, Teeth, Printing, Family
Review: There are actually three different threads in this story—that of Tierence as she takes part in a haukfin hunt and learns first hand the danger and cost of them, that of a printer named Quires who is Tierence’s agent on land, and excerpts from Tierence’s book, with her notes on the haukfin as well as the injustice of what’s going on at a political level. And each section helps to draw out the world and the ways that this situation is broken, and why Tierence, as someone born of both sides, is uniquely able to see what’s going on and try to push back against it. She’s someone willing to go to the sea and take part in a haukfin hunt. She loses people, and yet she doesn’t brush off the death as the cost of doing business. Instead, she channels her anger and frustration into books that both educate people so that they can stay safer as they pursue these sea monsters, and also planet the seeds of rebellion in them, reminding them that this system everyone has more or less accepted isn’t the only way it could be. That without the Ngimbians, the Aevern wouldn’t have the tools of magic that they then use to exploit and keep the Ngimbians down. When she starts to publish, though, she draws some unwanted and dangerous attention that arrives to remind her of her blood, which is half Aevern and, if she refuses to play along, can be spilled easily enough by those powerful in magic and killing. And I love that Tierence refuses to play along, refuses despite how the Aevern seem now willing to accept her into their power structure. Tierence seems to know that no compromise will actually benefit her, and any capitulation will just mean more death, more exploitation, more injustice. She fights, and the story does a great job with the action and the stakes, making for a rather thrilling and excellent read!

“The Lady and the Dwarf” by Rebecca Brinker (7546 words)

No Spoilers: This story is something of a prequel to a version of the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It certainly unfolds as a fairy tale, heavy on cycles and repetition, with a single dwarf and a single woman at first, and slowly building up a path back toward the situation probably much more familiar to readers. The story looks primarily at greed and love, at the relationship between the dwarf and the woman, at first rather happy and then growing more and more turbulent as the two find out more of what lives in the other’s heart. It’s a story with a slowly growing darkness, a sense of corruption and taint that spreads steadilly and blooms into the beginning of a different story. This one, though, stays grounded in the tragedy of what happens with these people, tracing their woes back to the reasons for their union and the feelings it evoked in both of them.
Keywords: Fairy Tales, Mirrors, Marriage, Corruption, Love
Review: This is a dark and rather complicated story, because it might be easy to say that it shows just how the villain of Snow White got so evil, I feel like what the story explores more is greed and desire. The story is built on cycles, and the first cycle is the question that the woman asks the dwarf, her husband. Of how much he loves her. And his answers show theat his love is touched by darkness, too, is a consuming thing for which he would allow anything. He sees her greed and her hunger and he feeds it, and from that the story keeps returning to appetites and to desire. And it builds up this world that becomes more and more familiar, though bent by a new lens. Above I called it something of a prequel because I feel the story does do a good job of exploring the origins of what might have been the beginning of Snow White. Not the traditional story, exactly, but knowing how that story works gives this one an added frame, so that as readers we can start to see how that story would look, how it would be different, if this story came first. And I like that the story stops before really spelling out what happens then, leaves the reader with an unsettling feeling of having seen all of this and knowing how it’s likely to go and having that heavier sense of tragedy, that there were so many points when this all could have been avoided. That the sadness and loss could have been stopped, if just this relationship had ended. If the two people could have seen just how unhealthy they were for each other. It makes for a compelling and interesting read, though, especially for fans of dark fairy tales.

“Canvas Tears” by Steve Rodgers (6399 words)

No Spoilers: Amis is a man on a mission, following leads to where one of three famous traitors has run off to—the other two have already been dealt with. On one level, this is a revenge story, Amis seeking to punish those who sold out their homeland and continue to be a source of violence and misery in the world. To do that, he’s come up with a plan. Which is where the second layer of the story comes in, where Amis is an agent not of revenge, but justice, working through his own guilt and grief in order to try and stop the wrongs that these traitors continue to spread across the world. It’s not a pretty story, either, though its moments of beauty definitely rise above the ugliness of the pain and degradation that Amis puts himself through. And it’s a rather fun and classic story about recovery and doing the right thing.
Keywords: Magic, Songs, Betrayal, Fire, Loss, Revenge
Review: This story takes on some dark themes but in a rather light manner, thanks in large part (in my opinion) to Amis and where he is in his journey. He’s a man who has lost a lot, and who has been through a lot in trying to kill those who betrayed him and his people. And he has a plan to kill this last one, after which he might actually be able to move on. For me, there’s something so real about the place that he’s at, still so willing to put his life and his body on the line, to suffer because of the guilt he carries at not having prevented the tragedy. He’s internalized that in a way that drives him toward revenge, but at this point it isn’t a fresh wound. He lives with his grief, but he’s not running from it or repressing it. Every day he’s expressing it, engaging with it. And that’s probably what I love most about the story, that he does feel like someone who isn’t using revenge as an excuse to run from his own emotions. Instead, he seems like he’s ready to move on, but can’t so long as this former-comrade is out there hurting people. His motivation feels less like he just wants to punish someone who wronged him than that he wants to prevent this person from hurting anyone else again. And it makes the story, as gritty as it can seem with slavery, branding, conflagrations, and corruption, feel a lot more hopeful. There does seem to be the feeling like he’s reaching toward a better place, that he’s actually recovering, and that this is the final ghost to exorcise. It’s a story that balances its action well against the more emotional arc of Amis and it’s definitely worth checking out!


“The Great Bear God” by Gary Every

This poem mixes faith and magic and human history, following an archeologist at a dig at something of a holy site. The piece returns to this place, to the rituals that might have been performed, the age of the songs and the artifacts. There is a feeling that here the archeologist is peeling back not only time but a kind of blanket that has been put over an older and wilder world, one where magic was common and danger came in different ways than people think it does now. And I love the creeping dread of the piece, the way it doesn’t really overwhelm with horror so much as it offers up something that blooms with terror the more it’s examined. There are touches of it, the feeling of age and that there is something about the place that comes from outside the modern world, that is still lurking just unseen. On the surface there is just this archeologist who is trying to understand the past, and stumbles across something of a mystery. Underneath that, and underneath us all, is a reality much weirder and much darker than we want to acknowledge. One that teh shaman of the poem knows quite well and gives him comfort because no matter how the world progresses, beneath it the bear god is waiting with hungry jaws. It gets at a sort of discomfort that people can feel about being in a place that almost seems alien despite it being very human. A place that isn’t designed around humanity, but something beyond humanity, inspiring the awe and sublime nature of what might be. And it makes for a fine read!

“Chase of the Blue Blood” by S.K. Naus

This poem tells the story of Majesta and Joplin, to members of a family that has been marked for death by a bunch of dark sorcerers. Which sucks, because these dark sorcerers can transform into (or just are) winged creatures hoping to cap off a night of carnage with two more deaths. The poem leans on some rather classic imagery, too, literally unfolding on a dark and stormy night. The poem is structured as one stanza, though reading it on the screen makes each line seem to almost stand on its own for me. Which I feel gives the piece more of a feeling of urgency, a sort of beat to it where each line is punctuated by lightning, by thunder, by the pounding of hooves, by the pounding of hearts. The piece moves but seems to force that breath after each line, making everything tense, like it might all come apart. And the real hero of the piece, let’s be honest, is Victory, the horse, who is all sorts of badass and just handles like a champ out there, bringing Majesta and Joplin to safety despite the storm, the villains, and the speed required. Things get pretty dicey there for a while, but with Victory leading the way, there’s the feeling that everything’s going to be just fine. And I just like the movement of the poem, the flow of it, the pacing. It works, telling this story and celebrating this, well, this victory in the face of a coming darkness. A fun read!

“What You’ve Become” by Gretchen Tessmer

This poem speaks of darkness to me, and the sadness and anger that comes from seeing someone that you’ve cared about become something much different than you’d hoped. Here it comes to the brother of the narrator of the poem, a man who started out bright and noble in his dealings and his questings. He slayed dragons, and hoped to make the world a better place through his deeds. And yet along the way that began to change. The narrator doesn’t assign the blame to any one incident or challenge, but rather to the way that adventuring, that living in this world, can effect people. Can make them vain because of the victories. Can lead to them not valuing the same noble ideals that they did when they were young. Suddenly it’s not the quest that motivates them, but the reward. It’s not the injustice that they want to fight, but the prize they want to win. And the difference is great, because the ideals protected him and protected others from him, by giving him something to measure his deeds against. Without that, with only the ends to judge himself by, the means become less important, and I got the feeling from the poem that the brother has done things that people don’t want to see because he’s still viewed by some as a hero. And yet the poem also explores how these things happen many times, where one generation’s heroes might turn into the next generation’s monsters. And when you live by the sword, you might well die by the sword. It’s a piece that carries with it a heavy weight for me, too, because it’s told by the sister of this man, someone who can see just what he is and is so disappointed, because his promise meant something to her, meant that he might turn out better than the monsters that came before, but instead he’s slipped into the same trap. And that there really isn’t any saving him, just enduring him until someone finishes the job his own apathy started. It’s a complex and rewarding read, and an excellent way to close out the issue!


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