|Art by Toe Keen|
Four stories and three poems anchor a new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly that seems to linger on feeling trapped. Because most of the pieces build up a situation where the characters are either physically confined or philosophically confined. Either they find themselves on a raft at see, or in a vault deep in a keep, and they must try to find their way out of a situation with ever-narrowing options, or else they are in a situation where change seems impossible, where disaster and war seem inevitable. The stories and poems all show people fighting back against the gravity of corruption and violence and greed and finding that often times there is no winning there. That the best they can hope for is to delay the final crushing blow. But fighting against that weight isn’t useless. Isn’t pointless. Sometimes, it’s all a person has. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!
“Prerogative of Gods” by Nathanael Green (2997 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has seen some shit. A war between the gods, with vast armies of humans as the fuel for the fire burning across the nations of the world. Chosen by the god of justice, one of the Twelve, the gods who walk among mortals, they are tasked with being a sword of order and righteousness. Even as they fight for what they believe in, what their god believes in, their faith is shaken the more battlefields they soak with blood. Until something has to break. The piece is told with a oral style, at a distance and covering a good deal of time. The narrator is a soldier, but a reluctant one. A sword, but not one thirsty for blood. And the pieces does a nice job examining the idea of gods and wars and justice.
Keywords: Gods, Justice, War, Famine, Death, Swords
Review: I like how the story begins with the narrator in this place where they love the god of justice, in part because he seems like the best option out of the Twelve. He wants order an fairness, and there’s a lot about him that speaks of compassion and hospitality. And yet as the story goes on it becomes more and more clear that for all that he’s still corrupted by power, ruthless in his pursuit and punishment of his siblings. It’s he, after all, who kicks off the true final war, breaking a law that was supposed to be inviolate—do not kill the gods. And the narrator through all of this just wants the wars to end and begins first that it’s possible through the will and strength of the gods. Then it shifts and he seems to think that it will happen if all of the gods are gone. And finally he’s forced to see that with or without the gods, wars continue. That the gods weren’t forcing things on mortals, but merely reflection of what was already there. What has always been there. And what isn’t going away just because the permission granted by the gods to go and kill has been lifted. More it points to the idea that, without gods, some mortals will just deputize themselves, and still find the same conflicts over and over again. An interesting read!
“Raft of Conquistadors” by Raphael Ordoñez (9542 words)
No Spoilers: Carvajal is back. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Carvajal is featured in this story that seems to pick up before the first of his adventures that I’ve read. Here we find how he came to the New World and what horrors he immediately found here. It’s a piece that sees him as part of a rather doomed expedition, on a raft with seven others that represent all who survived a storm and a wreck. Forced to eat human flesh to survive, it’s almost a promise that quasi-cannibalism is the least of the horrors that he’ll find on this new continent. Keeping with the cosmic horror of the series but getting back to a character still much more motivated by gold than he will become, it’s a dark and rather thrilling ride as Carvajal and his fellows discover this new land not quite so welcoming and easy to conquer as they’d hoped.
Keywords: Cosmic Horror, Alt-History, Colonization, Shipwrecks, Possession
Review: This installment in the Carvajal saga is especially notable because of the cast, which is eclectic and interesting. My main disappointment is not that they’re all present, but that given what we’ve learned from earlier stories, none of them are making it. And, well, with a story that centers a cosmic horror, that’s not exactly a surprise, but it’s just a bit extra sad. Which is to say that the story does a good job in a relatively small amount of time of populating the situation with people who you don’t really want to see die. Well, mostly. They are all, after all, a ship of conquerors come to impose their will and their king’s sovereignty onto a place that decidedly doesn’t want them. But most of them seem to have no real choice in the matter, brought along because of their use or their skills or their desperation. I like seeing an earlier iteration of Carvajal here, still very much motivated by his desire for gold and still very much in negotiation with his gods to try and make a deal where he can get it. What he gets instead is a trip full of horror and death and strangeness. And it’s a rather fun ride, building up a landscape that seems rather cursed and picking off the party one by one until only Carvajal remains. Which, I mean, really his surviving was through no fault of his own, which cut back on a bit of the tension at the end, where he’s essentially let go at one point when it seems like it would have been easier to kill him, but I do like where it goes with everything and the message it builds that warns against the desire of purity, and especially a diverse purity, knowing that centering only “pure” examples of diversity while ignoring all the messy examples is overlooking a lot. Which this entity does and then learns to regret it, because not taking Carvajal because he’s mixed means that he’s able to help undo everything, helped in the end by messy versions of his companions, their purity jumbled by the attempt to also blend them into a seamless whole. The story seems to champion a wonderful mix, but not really a melting pot. A place where each person can be different in their own way without having to lose what makes them unique so that whole will be more homogeneous. It’s a neat fantasy story and a great chapter in Carvajal’s larger arc, and it’s very much worth checking out. A great read!
“The Bells of Bel-hazir” by Michelle Muenzler (683 words)
No Spoilers: In the city of Bel-hazir there are monstrous bells that toll at dawn, noon, and dusk. They toll in hope, and also in dark warning. For the city, even in brightest and hottest light, rests in the shadow of its ruler. Of the Gray Empress. And what that means, and the true purpose of the bells, comes more into focus as the this very short story progresses. Lyrical and evoking a rhythmic clashing of sound and fury, the prose builds the setting well, creating a rather dark and rather terrifying place where something has gone deadly wrong, and with each night that passes, the desperation grows.
Keywords: Bells, Sleep, Dreams, Cities, Darkness, Death
Review: I love the language of this piece and how it starts off with a mood that could almost be triumphant. The ringing of bells is often something that goes with a celebration. And yet there’s an edge to it. A sense that they are too loud—a sort of manic quality to the noise that sets the stage for something to be seriously wrong in the city. Something with the Gray Empress, who is supposed to dream of the best future for her people so that she can guide them all into prosperity. And whose dreams have instead turned to nightmares. Which speaks to so much, perhaps stemming from the heat that oppresses the city during the day, where no one dares to go out. Which matches the stalk of the Gray Empress at night, where she roams the streets transformed into some sort of monsters who preys on those she finds, who drains those who seek to end her reign with violence. There’s the feeling for me of a kind of magical prosperity that has not only been lost but perverted, twisted into something horrifying, and there’s really no way people see out. Because there might not be a way out. Because all futures might have narrowed to one bleak conclusion. Whatever the case, the bells, which might have once been something happier, are now a dire warning marking when it’s safe to come out, and when people should certainly hide. And it’s a beautifully rendered and imagined story very much worth checking out. Go read it!
“The Vault of Sowdek” by Seth Skorkowsky (4942 words)
No Spoilers: Split between two perspectives, this story follows Ahren, a theif intent on breaking into one of the most secure locations in the nation, and Dothren, a guard who has had a series of misfortunes, and is desperate enough to do something he shouldn’t. The action centers on a tower with a secret, and a disease with a cure common enough if you know where to look, though severely restricted by trade limitations. Ahren, posing as a doctor, has a cure to a deadly disease that hits each of Dothren’s family in turn. At first he wants nothing in return, until Dothren himself contracts the illness. Then things change. The piece is a heist, with Ahren acting as the gentleman thief trying to pull off the perfect score—breaking into a secret vault without anyone being the wiser. Of course, things don’t go quite to plan, and one desperate turn leads to another.
Keywords: Heist, Illness, Climbing, Healing, Deals, Family
Review: This story moves quickly, throwing up obstacle after obstacle in what might have been a meticulously planned heist but which kinda falls apart in execution. It’s not that Ahren isn’t prepared, exactly, but rather that with something like a secret vault there’s only so much you can plan for. Once things start to get out of control they go bad and they go fast, and it’s rather thrilling to see play out. I like how the story builds up the two viewpoints, too, revealing a thief who tries to do okay by people and a guard who’s been pushed into a corner. And it shows just how fragile loyalty can be when it doesn’t bring security, when Dothren can’t get the cures necessary for his family. And when push comes to shove, his loyalty is not toward his employer, but to those who have actually helped his family when they didn’t need to. Which means Ahren. And while there is a nagging part of me that doesn’t wonder a bit if Ahren didn’t maybe give Dothren and his family the plague, the story really doesn’t go into that, and so Ahren escapes seeming definitely the lesser of two evils here. Yes, he’s a thief, but basically so is Dothren’s employer if they’re willing to take his labor and not compensate him enough to live. And okay, this probably isn’t about the inherent thievery of wages. What it probably is about is having fun with a bit of subterfuge and skullduggery, and in that the story is quite successful. A fun read!
“Blossom” by Deborah Davitt
CW- pregnancy. This is a rather sensual poem that does a great job of capturing a rather drowsy, almost dreamlike quality. It follows the narrator, who sleeps under the shade of a tree, and who hears a voice speaking to them of love. The piece flows around the idea that the narrator accepts those words, consents to what happens next, without realizing who is speaking. It becomes wrapped up in a dream, in the feeling of a dream where pleasure and security mingle. It features a rather intimate and sensual portrayal of sex with this tree, or tree person, and yet there’s also a sort of...well, not doomed quality exactly. But more of a sense that the magic of the moment is fleeting. The narrator and the tree meet really only on the borders of dream and waking. They don’t get to go on walks or enjoy much more than the presence of each other, and it’s something that winds down with the year and the approach of winter, that promises to split the lovers apart, at least for a time. There’s a quiet longing I read in the language, in the way the piece focuses on brevity and sleep. But there’s a hope, too, a rejuvenation and a magic of renewal that comes with the spring and new life. And it brings the narrator to a place where she is blossoming, is blooming in a way that feels joyous and fulfilling. For them it seems a way to stay connected, like a myth, where the seasons might bring them apart but they are always waiting for those times to be together, for the spring, even if they always seem too short, they are enough. A lovely poem!
“Between Battles” by Mary Soon Lee
This poem further explores the setting grounded by King Xau, now abroad in another land, fighting a war that isn’t exactly his, but has become his. Grieving for the loss of a friend who in another poem I’ve read in this setting died. And feeling very much the grind of time, the tick tock of routine. The story has a very even feel to me, metered and regular. There’s a distance that wasn’t as present in the earlier works, where for me it’s clear to see that Xau is still in shock. He goes about his business, and does his duties with skill and poise, but it’s obvious that he’s not over what’s happened, that losing Atun has cut him deeper than he’s allowed to show. Because of the time and the place and what he’s supposed to be doing, he cannot grieve the way he would. The way that would allow him to really heal. So instead he moves around with this wound, with this absence that plagues him. And it gets him to notice things more, to see when the sick boy disappears from the makeshift hospital. The piece is very much Xau taking in the damage, despite the gains that he’s won, the victories that he fought so hard for. The title evokes this feeling of between-ness, this feeling of being almost suspended. Caught in time. There’s been a blow here but all the pain of it, all the crushing weight of it, is being delayed. It will hit at some point, whether or not Xau is ready for it, but for now it’s something that he can avoid by putting his head into the business of soldiering. By losing himself in the logistics of the war and the coming battles. By weighing odds and moods of everyone else, because his own has been stripped away. And it’s a beautifully understated poem, all waiting, all tension and sadness that is placed behind a wall, a dam that is showing a few minor leaks but so far holding despite the raging water on the other side. And it’s a great moment in this series, wrenching and real and very much worth checking out. A great read!
“Unseen Warrior” by Marlane Quade Cook
This poem speaks to me of the way that certain people are erased. The way that the narrator, a woman, is kept out of the place that she wants to inhabit. To me it speaks of spheres and of belonging, where the narrator seems to want to have a place among the male warriors she sees but who don’t see her. And I do feel that this speaks to a desire to compete and be seen in predominantly male spaces. There’s a line in the piece about not being seen by women, either, and for whatever reason it puts me to mind of the difference between women who want to compete in women-only spaces and those who would rather push to compete in traditionally man-only spaces. She’s caught on the outside of that, feels pushed to accept a different role, to be something else, and yet doesn’t want to. Refuses to bend to the pressure of other people’s expectations. And yet at the same time there’s a deep dissatisfaction that she has because of that, because despite her efforts and her skills and her victories she’s not being seen. That even as she is competing with the men and doing better than many of them, perhaps most of them, she’s not receiving the recognition. She’s being crushed by apathy and something more than that, a sort of willful ignoring of her, knowing that if they can ignore her long enough she’ll be erased and it will be like she was never there. It’s an interesting poem, and one that recognizes that the power here isn’t really all with the narrator, but rather has a lot to do with these men. And without any of them recognizing her achievements, and without any of them seeing her, she won’t be able to reach what she wants. It’s a poem filled with longing, for a feeling of belonging that the narrator feels will only come if she can stand alongside the male warriors and be seen as their equal. An interesting read and a nice way to close out the issue!