|Art by Jereme Peabody|
November brings a new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, this time featuring three short stories, one novelette, and two poems. So there’s a lot of heroic fantasy to get to! And the pieces do a nice job of exploring certain themes. Second chances, for one, or the lack of them. Aging, for another, and the way that age has of teaching people lessons that are much harder to get any other way. The works are grim at times but not overly so, giving the characters some adventures, some chances to revisit things from their past. For most of them, there is hope to be taken away, even if it tastes bittersweet. And there’s just a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in to the reviews!
“A Night in the Library” by Robert Zoltan (8512 words)
No Spoilers: Dareon is a poet swordsman who, a year previous, broke off an engagement to Kora Dervan. Shortly after, Kora also lost her father, and from the twin griefs spun a dark desire for revenge, one that seemed to fall within reach thanks to a magic tome and a special mirror. What follows is a rather alarming adventure as Dareon finds himself...short on time and in a special kind of nightmare made real, while his friends seek a way to find and save him from this attack. It’s a rather madcap adventure, full of danger and daring-do, nicely paced and with a cast of interesting characters.
Keywords: Breakups, Revenge, Transformations, Mirrors, Cats, Rats
Review: I appreciate that this story knows what it’s doing and gets it done with a sense of energy and fun. And for me it’s a piece that might have felt a lot different if it had taken more time with the back story, because as is it’s hard to argue that Dareon is anything but the asshole of this situation. Breaking off his engagement might have been the best thing to do, but he does seem to have been a giant dick about it, and so it’s sort of his own fault when this woman who he completely blew off comes back into his life to try and kill him. And, I mean, I’m not a huge fan of revenge stories, but I think here that issue is sidestepped because Dareon becomes the main character, where Kora gets to have her anger and her power and gets to express herself, even if the whole being driven to magical obsession over a dude isn’t precisely a great look. For me, it’s important that, though Dareon is able to escape in the end, the implication isn’t that Kora (or Scyell) is further punished for trapping him in a mirror, shrinking him, and trying to get him eaten by rats. The magic doesn’t reflect back on her or otherwise show that Dareon is right and she is wrong. And it doesn’t close the door on her revenge, which she can still seek, and given how she seemed probably will. And when that happens I feel it will be a trickier moment, because that kind of a resolution is messy. But here the story keeps the stakes immediate, and while Kora “loses” by not killing Dareon, she also wins in scaring the fuck out of him, and might succeed in getting him to think a bit more about his flippant actions, though maybe that’s not a lesson he’s ready for. Whatever the case, it’s a fun read featuring some strange magic. The world building is solid and while the characters are perhaps a little archetypal for the genre, they are entertaining and there’s even a cat! A great read!
“Echo of the Siren” by Richard Zwicker (1294 words)
No Spoilers: This story finds Odysseus as a much older man, but still haunted in many ways by the song of the Sirens. It still calls to him, and it seems that, unlike the rest of him, it’s only getting stronger with time. Hoping that it’s just the memory and not the actual thing that has grown more powerful, though, he resolves to revisit the island and test himself against the song once more, hoping that time has dulled the keen edge of its effects on him. The piece explores aging and desire, nostalgia and ability, and comes to a rather complex conclusion about it all.
Keywords: Greek Mythology, Sirens, Songs, Aging, Temptation
Review: I do like the almost simple math that Odysseus does when it comes to hoping that the Sirens’ song will have less effect on him now, and that it’s 1. booze is less effective and 2. his hearing is going. And I think I like it because both are totally wishful thinking and probably not rooted in logic, but at the same time they make a lot of sense because they feed into the part of the story that it takes him a long time to face—that his most vigorous days are behind him. In some ways the song becomes his own lust for battle and glory. That, it turns out, is what the song is, what it does. It strokes his ego, and as a young man that was the greatest rush, the thing that he wanted most, to catch all the things he so desperately wanted, the glory and the fame and all of that. But, older now, he finds that it’s not just his hearing that has dulled, but his ambitions as well. He doesn’t want as much, mostly because he’s had a life of plenty. He’s more content, more settled, and while there’s the song that draws him back to adventure, it’s a ghost haunting him. It’s that golden sense of nostalgia, and it’s a credit really that he goes back to face it, both hoping and fearing that he can’t have that same reaction anymore. For me it really gets at some of the realities of aging that fantasy stories rarely get at, which is that with the decreased physical ability there is often less of a drive to do the things that seemed so important as a youth. Especially for those who did them, who got the chance and accomplished what they set out to do. I mean, it’s a rather privileged old age that Odysseus has, but it’s still very interesting to see this hero facing that it’s basically okay to pass off the adventures to the next generation. Not that they’re all the worst, but that they’re actually the best able to go and have the adventures, because their fires are still burning bright. And Odysseus, who has begun to smoulder, seems ready at last to let them. It’s a fascinating read, and definitely a story to spend some time with!
“We Who Are About To Die” by Michael W. Cho (4089 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this piece has spent his life at odds with the Roman Empire. Which has sort of come home to roost when the king he’s been working for for the past six years decides to throw in with Rome. And what has been a place he’s enjoyed calling home becomes instead a tightening noose as he has to figure out how to evade the men sent to kill him. Good thing he’s good at plans and strategy. Bad thing that age and betrayal make even the best laid plans null and void. It’s a rather tense read, full of suspense and danger and, well, death. The identity of the narrator is something of a mystery as well, or at least is held back until the very end, which makes for an extra layer to this rather action packed tale.
Keywords: History, Bounties, Assassins, Betrayal, CW- Death of Pets (Dogs)
Review: This story builds nicely on the last in that it sort of looks at age and aging heroes. Hannibal is a legend here, a bogeyman that Rome wants finally ended. And in some ways I get the feeling that he’s nearly worn all the way away by the constant moving, the constant battles, the never getting a break. He was comfortable in this place and he’s so tired because he’s not allowed to be. Because he’s hunted, and is never safe. And I think personally that kind of tired really rings true, because it comes from the knowledge that people want him dead, that he has to be basically perfect all the time. That he has to out plan and out perform his enemies to stay alive and here he seems to question just a bit the why of it. Why is he fighting so hard if all he has to look forward to is more struggle, more running, more pain and death? And I do quite like the way the story shows him as almost done. As having suffered and suffered and lost everything and nearly broken by this last loss, this last betrayal. And yet he doesn’t give up, doesn’t give into the pain or the pressure. Perhaps out of pure stubborn will but also perhaps because even with what he loses, his spirit is not broken. He hasn’t given up fully, still has some hope left in him despite the bitterness and the cynicism that would infect most in his situation. He’s practical, and he’s not dead, and at the end of the day he doesn’t want to die. So he doesn’t. Which makes for a rather action-packed and enjoyable read!
“Fellscorpe and the Wishing Well” by Katherine Quevedo (931 words)
No Spoilers: Fellscorpe stands at a wishing well, something he feels a little embarrassed about seeing as how he’s been the scourge of numerous countries, rival to dark sorcerers, conqueror of lands. But his luck is terrible, and everything he gains he loses, in a cycle that turns again and again. He wants to wish for treasure, something that he can salvage from his last coin. He wants to make good on his life of crime. Only something goes wrong, and he ends up with something very different from what he wanted to ask for. The piece is charming, cute and fun and balanced well, where Fellscorpe is both a man defined by and cursed by something that happened a long time ago.
Keywords: Wishes, Wishing Wells, Coins, Curses
Review: This is a short but really fun story that could be seen as a “Be Careful What You Wish For” fable but for me has a much different impact. Because yes, the story features a wish “gone wrong” where Fellscorpe makes a wish and it’s interpreted much different than he intended. At the same time, though, this interpretation isn’t something that dooms or damns him. Quite the opposite, in fact, and it seems to maybe be linked to the moment he “turned evil” as it were, when he took a cursed treasure that meant that everything he would gain he would lose. So that despite being feared and infamous, every victory ends up slipping through his fingers. Which is a sort of hell, and maybe one that he deserves for stealing the treasure in the first place. Or maybe it’s a lesson that was just taking a long time to set itself up, that was working not to punish him for the path he chose, but make it so that he could have a second chance. Because it seems like the curse was what caused him to fumble the coin, which in turn made him fumble the wish, which in turn made it so that he never took that path in the first place. So maybe the entire thing was just a way of informing him of what that choice would mean, and giving him the tools to make that decision with wisdom rather than greed. And I like how it informs what he’s going to do, the freedom that undoing that one action affords him. Again, it’s a fun piece, short but with a definite impact and twist that makes for some great reading!
“The Book of Ruins” by Jennifer Crow
This poem speaks to me of time and devastation and neglect. Of someone coming upon a place and feeling the lingering trace of...something. Some presence, some touch that raises gooseflesh. And, of course, because I’m a writer, the piece also speaks to me like a manuscript that’s been abandoned speaking to its author from a dusty pile or forgotten corner, a world half-built but empty and ravaged by time. An author who returns to find a work that they’d left behind so long ago that they’ve almost forgotten but can still feel something from it, can still find traces of what they were doing and what they had intended. At least that reading of the piece occurs to me given the way the poem twists a bit toward the ending, the way that the landscape seems to take on a voice, seems to step into the role of the narrator of the poem rather than just an omniscient view of the landscape and ruin. The narrator actually takes on a voice, and begins to address a second person you, which might be a more vague reader but for the fact that you walked away, which implies that there is a relationship between the narrator and you. For me, that really speaks to a kind of personifying of a manuscript or creator, one that really isn’t super happy about being left. Which makes the ending for me about a manuscript that knows not only that it’s not going to be finished, but that it’s a ruin in part because the author here didn’t do a great job. For me, it’s like coming on that old draft and seeing the spark of something there but also so many flaws. Finding the whole thing is a ruin, is a sort of waste. That it can’t be repaired, but also that repair isn’t really the point. That the point might be that making this ruin, for all that it will never become something more, is part of the process of making other worlds that will see life and fulfillment. Of course, there are other readings, too, and I see a religious angle to a lot of the word choice, as well. It’s quite possible that I’m getting in the way of a different reading, but whatever the case I do like where the poem goes, and how it changes from being a description to really being more about this relationship between the narrator and you. A wonderful read!
“The Cave of Glowing Skulls” by Gary Every
This is a rather strange and haunting (or at least haunted) poem about a burial site and the spirits still lingering there. About a history that has been largely erased, battered and bruised, but that still arises, a memory of a memory, and comes back through the cultural artifacts and stories that survive. The piece is set in the titular cave, full of bones, a sort of forgotten reliquary for a time that is still shrouded in mystery. In some ways I feel like it takes an archaeological view of the site, making metaphor the power the bones have to bring the past alive and cast light on the ways that people lived, played, and worshipped. It finds a king who played a ball game that would decide the course of history. Who was venerated and adored because of his skill at that sacred ritual game. And who bears the scars from playing, shattered bones that didn’t stop him from rising to the top. And so he’s been placed into this cave in a place of honor, each night rising and doing the rounds, basking in the chattering bones of people still applauding him for his triumphs. And whether that is literal and the place is haunted by ghosts or whether it is more figurative and the bones have managed to bring back the feeling of those times to a new generation finding them, I think the impact is still that the past is not full dead. Even when there was a concerted effort to destroy it and wipe it away. It remains, in the bones and the artifacts that have been saved, that allow the dead to walk once more. And it has a power and a beauty even as the history it reveals has a rather sharp and brutal edge to it. And it’s a piece that’s well worth spending some time with, and it’s a great way to close out the issue!