|Art by Jereme Peabody
“The Paladin of Golota” by P. Djèlí Clark (9462 words)
No Spoilers: Teffe is a picker, a person who goes around the field of the dead at Golota and takes from the dead. He’s also a little small for his age, but fierce when it comes to protecting himself and his small dream of some day escaping his city and finding a better life. He meets Zahrea at work, meaning she’s a body that he’s claimed. Except that she’s not dead, and has a mission she’s not done with. The piece looks very closely at faith and devotion. Teffe is a skeptic, not caring about Zahrea’s beliefs or gods and fairly certain that any gods who require their adherents die in order to join a battle in the afterlife aren’t gods worth his time. But the story does a great job of exploring how his relationship to her faith changes as the events of the story grow more tense, more violent, and more magical.
Keywords: Battle, Worms, Death, Religion, Gods
Review: Okay so one of my favorite parts of this story is that these two very different people are having a religious discussion in a field of death, when one of them at least knows she’s going to be dead soon. Teffe is something who...well, who doesn’t have a lot of faith of any sort because faith requires trust and in his life trust has only gotten him hurt. Zahrea comes from a completely different background, and so maybe in that her trust is more understandable, but more, she’s completely willing and even eager to die so that her adventure can continue. She’s sure of the afterlife, sure of her dream, and it’s that I see finding connection and lighting something inside Teffe. Because she gives him a chance to name his desire, his want. She gets him to acknowledge that there is something that he wants, and if he’s going to get it he needs to believe in it, needs to believe that it’s possible. And maybe it’s a rather shallow come-to-jesus moment when she shows him that his dream is not only within his grasp, but that she’ll give him it. If only he helps. And there he’s put into her roll, where there is a reward that he desires and he matches his actions to try and get it. And through that one action he can suddenly see the pattern, and see how it makes sense, and through Zahrea’s eyes can see everything sort of click into place, like a viral religious experience. And not viral in a bad way, but in a way that allows Teffe to realize that not all trust is abused. Not all hope is a weakness. And it’s a well paced and nicely grotesque story (giant worms = pretty fucked up but awesome), and the relationship between Teffe and Zahrea is great, that she proves herself right. That heroes inspire people. That she can reach her reward. And through her example Teffe sees that he can reach for his as well, and change his life completely. A great read!
“The Forest of Bones” by Christopher Chupik (5541 words)
No Spoilers: Okay we’re batting one hundred for genital violence so far this issue (wince). Otherwise, this is the story of Lucan, one of the Companions of King Artos, and his mission to kill a giant who has been terrorizing some villagers. This adventure (though it’s hard to call it that, as the story points out) takes him into a forest of bones and into the home of a completely-not-creepy maybe-wizard. The piece is gritty and tense, and Lucan remains a definite figure of Might for Right, weilding his blade in service of Britain and in the hopes of ending the horror of what the giant has been doing. Tucked into that there’s also a bit of commentary on the nature of legends and stories and how they become sterilized for mass appeal, all the nasty bits hidden away out of sight. Which certainly doesn’t happen in this blood-soaked tale.
Keywords: Knights, Giants, Magic, Bones, Legends
Review: This is another story that works for me primarily on two levels. The first is the pure plot of it, which is compelling and violent and gritty. Lucan is on a quest and it sounds like it’s not the first, the Companion used to doing the dirty work to keep the newly solidified kingdom safe. He’s clever as well as strong, and virtuous to boot, being able to spot the deceptions of the kinda-wizard who wanted to turn him into giant food thanks in large part to his discomfort at the presence of the man’s slave. And Lucan is rather no-nonsense, knowing what it takes to get things done and knowing that it means that there aren’t too many stories about him. He’s not the glorious knight traipsing off to battle and fame, but rather the work horse who tries his best to get things done, even if it leads right through a trail of corpses. Woo. And that’s where I feel the story comments on the neatness of legends, how they get cleaned up of all of the blood and death and shit, made to be something that people can feel good about. But really most of the time there’s a lot of confusion, nearly dying, and blood. Still, Lucan handles all of that, even the philosophy, in a practical matter, eyes on the prize of getting back to court with a job well done, ready to go back again because that’s what’s required of him. The world building is fun, the Arthurian nods a great touch, and overall I think it’s a solid action fantasy and a fine read!
“The Blitz of Din Barham” by Cameron Johnston (6977 words)
No Spoilers: Kyna is the apprentice magician to her grandfather, Maccus, in a city that has been decimated by continuing and escalating dragon attacks. The city has a fairly robuts andvaried magical community, from loremasters to magicians to necromancers, and yet the magical authorities who could possibly stop the dragons are unwulling to disclose their knowledge for the betterment of everyone. Jealous of their power, they instead bicker and argue about the best course of action while holding back the knowledge that they have that might have a better chance of being effective. For Kyna, this kind of secrecy looks like willful neglect of a terrible situation, allowing people to die for the sake of pride and stubborn fear. When she comes across a non-magical tool that seems powerful enough to fight back against the dragons, she finally seems to have the leverage required to get everyone working toward the same goal, even if it ends up costing her personally more than she thought.
Keywords: Magic, Dragons, Destruction, Cooperation, Fire
Review: My favorite part of this story is the intense frustration that Kyna feels when the magicians in the city can’t get along. Because the dragons are the largest threat they have ever known, and each day brings new death and destruction that there is no running away from. People seemed doomed but for the incomplete protection that the magicians can offer, but that sort of protection is not a solution to the dragons. The problem becomes not the violence or power of the dragons, then, but the prejudice and reluctance of those with power, of those who have used that power for their own good to this point, to share what they know and so risk losing their edge. It speaks of certain kinds of power that exists, to things like patent laws that might indeed be necessary in a capitalist society in order to protect people’s ability to make money, but which does nothing to promote a common good or progress in order to fight back against the dragons that are already at our doors. And it reminds us that when the priority is put on maintaining individual or systemic power structures instead of striving to help people live better and safer lives, that’s not a system that’s healthy or working. The world building of the piece is strong, the character work more classic and loose but the piece as a whole telling a compelling and entertaining story about dragons, magic, and cooperation. A great read!
“What Clev Yun Would Want to Tell” by Adrian Simmons (1481 words)
No Spoilers: Clev-Yun is a prisoner a long long way from home, and with just about all of his time free he spends much of it imagining what he would say to his family and friends if he ever returned. How would he explain the kind of people he had lived among? And his explanation comes in the form of a story that these people, the Dwanul, told of one of their earliest years. And what it reveals about them, and what his telling reveals about Clev-Yun, is what the piece explores. It’s a strange story, told in maybe a light dialect, and focusing on mythology, especially from an outside perspective, one that doesn’t exactly appreciate the lesson that’s trying to be conveyed. Or rather, one that’s trying to wrap its head around both a deep prejudice and grudging admiration.
Keywords: Imprisonment, Invasion, Weaving, Winter, Preparation
Review: So for me a lot of the humor and the impact of the story comes from the perspective of Clev-Yun, who is an outsider amoung the Dwamul and used to looking down at the people who he’s lived among for a while. To him, at least as I read it, they lack organization and structure, lack the things that make empire possible. And yet they have pushed back invasions from “superior” forces, and have managed to survive despite not really being suited to the land they fled to from the mysterious oppressive land of their origin. For Clev-Yun, these are a people who are chaotic, messy, and unwilling really to cooperate beyond a basic level. He seems almost surprised that they are still around, and yet he’s also sitting in their prison, having to bow to the fact that they have bested him as much as they’ve bested other “suprior” forces who have sought to invade. So he tells this story to try and explain why, or to explain who these people are, and what he reveals is complicated and interesting. Because this is a story of these people, and yet when he tells it he enfuses some of his own perspective into it. His own bewilderment at a people who do not structure themselves as he expects but who are still strong, stubborn, and adaptable. Who can’t be bullied or coerced into supporting a system that would see them oppressed. Who would rather die than have to make certain sacrifices. And as much as Clev-Yun seems disgusted by that, I like how it’s portrayed, that it’s a strength of these people that they won’t fall in line, even if it might be in their best interest, because that’s how corruption and tyranny can start. With need. And as that need gets twisted, tragedy can happen. Instead, these people might allow for a different sort of tragedy, but avoid giving any one person too much power, and the result is interesting and deep and rather funny. Which sums up this story nicely!
“Threads of Gold” by Adele Gardner
This poem revisits the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth, shifting the focus away from the men of the story and squarely onto the woman, the girl, the daughter who has been kept as prize but not prized. To me, this poem is all about her experience, her role in the story much more active now, disassembling the fine chains that her father put on her in the form of the golden clothing she was made to wear. Fashioning from that a weapon, though not a traditional one. I like that the poem builds up such a draining and desolate vision of this situation as seen from Ariadne’s perspective. She must sit there and witness the parade of people who are fed to the labyrinth because they’ve come seeking here. It’s nothing that she asked for, and yet she is unable to get any distance from these deaths, from this grisly ritual. So instead of running away entirely she seeks to reclaim her agency and her life, crafting for herself first an escape, then negotiating her way to a truer freedom, ending the tyranny of her father and the practice that has dominated her life for so long. It’s not the most perfect of solutions, as with nothing all she can negotiate with are the chains that she was bound with and her body. But given the situation it’s a way for her to own at least the situation and her own actions, and hold to the knowledge that, having escaped one captivity, she might be able to escape more in the future. And I like that no one else in the piece gets named aside from Ariadne. While in other version this is about men and the possession of women, here it’s been turned, so that hers is the most important voice—the only voice, really. And it makes for a fascinating read. A great poem that for me is about myth, survival, and escape!
"When the Legions Went” by David Barber
This poem is a sort of nested narrative. On the outermost skin, there’s a darkness that some number of people are trying to keep at bay, and their method of choice is stories. One of them, Alba, is the speaker but not the narrator of the piece, and tells of how he got a Roman sword. The piece looks at warriors, at battle, at violence and death. Alba is an old man in the story, but he still sounds like a warrior, raised from a young age by a father who reveled in death, refused to wear armor, and had many opinions about the worth of people. For Alba, this meant that he was constantly being judged based on a brutal rubric, and that brings the reader into the second layer of the nested piece, where Alba and his father and family set about stripping a Roman base and end up fighting a sentry who stayed behind after the Romans were supposed to have pulled out of the area. And it’s here that the poem seems to linger on its point, that people stay with what’s familiar, even when they know it’s bad. For Alba, it means following in his father’s footsteps despite his father being a cruel man, and clinging to that lifestyle because it’s what Alba knows. It’s familiar, and in that it feels more safe than doing something that would actually be more safe. Safer than being a warrior and living by his sword. And that blade becomes a reminder of what he’s gone through and who he is. A warrior, for better or worse, defined by his enemies. Defined by the sword he carries, which once belonged to someone who he helped kill. It’s a gritty and interested read very much worth spending some time with!
“The Necromancer” by Ngo Binh Anh Khoa
This is another poem about battle, and about death. But where the last looked at the carnage from the eyes of an old survivor, this piece looks more at the fallen. A necromancer, as the title might imply, takes center stage, but it’s not the typical practicer of the dark arts that comes clear as the poem progresses. The legions of the dead who fought and fell in a great battle are not turned into a new undead horde. They are brought back...to talk. And that’s what I love about this poem, that it takes the bringing back of the dead, so often portrayed as an evil and insideous action, and makes into something compassionate and kind. The necromancer isn’t out for power, but rather wants to listen to and record the last wishes of the dead so that she can go around to the families of the fallen and tell them what happened to their loved ones. To me at least the poem is about peace more than it is about war. About healing more than it is about corruption. The necromancer is someone who is trying to either make up for something that she has done or is trapped in a role that she can’t seem to escape. The listening to the dead and bearing their burdens back home becomes an attempt at either atonement or release. And the language of the poem is flowing, using mostly alternating rhyming but with some couplets tucked into the larger work. For me it helps to build to the moment when the necromancer takes the direction away from darkness, away from terror. Because the rhyming to me evokes a more traditional form, the fact that the necromancer breaks their traditional role is even more important and emphasized, and I loved the way the poem defied expectations in that way. It’s a fun and rewarding read, and a wonderful way to close out the issue!