|Art by Jereme Peabody|
The latest from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly brings two short stories, a novelette, and two poems that celebrate fantasy. Now, that celebration is a bit...dark this issue, thanks to a focus on some grim themes of redemption, debts, and revenge. Each of the stories features characters trying to make up for events in their pasts, trying to seek something like atonement, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. Not all of them are exactly successful. But in looking at their struggles the stories reveal settings dipped in corruption and prejudice, full of hungry jaws waiting for a moment’s weakness. To the reviews!
“Low Tide” by Conor DiViesti (6584 words)
No Spoilers: Horace is barely a crab hunter on the distant fringes of empire. But after a disastrous stint as captain of the royal flagship, he’s mostly just lucky to be alive. Something that can’t be said for almost everyone who served under his command. Everyone except Desmond, who also helped Horace escape custody following the loss of their ship. Years later, and it’s Horace’s skills that are required. Not as a captain but as a kind of psychic, as the possessor of a ken that allows him to find things. It’s a gift that betrayed him at a key moment in the past, but now it might be the key to finding an incredible treasure—one that will allow both men to retire as something more than poor wretches. Only what they find when they go looking for their fortune is not what they expected. The piece is heavy with regret and yearning for redemption, and mixes some striking action with a bit of strange, crab-infused horror.
Keywords: Ships, Crabs, Navies, Officers, Loyalty, Birth, Visions
Review: I like how this story handles the quasi-redemption arc of Horace, disgraced and grumpy after failing so hugely. Which for me speaks to him coming out of his...affluenza, I guess. Because he really did have everything, had a gift that made winning easy for him, and gave him not only confidence but arrogance. That made him think he was more important than the men serving under him. So that he misunderstood the meaning of the motto he was supposed to live by, the idea and ideal of loyalty. Which he seemed to always interpret as people being loyal to him when it should have been the other way around. That he owed his loyalty to the people who served him, and he broke that. And I like that here he’s given the chance to kind of make up for that, though mainly (at first) he seems just as interested in saving himself and getting those riches. But it does become clear as he discovers what’s really going on, as he finds out what is at stake and what he’s stepped in the middle of, that this isn’t as simple as he thought, and shouldn’t be about only his personal gain. And I like that once he sort of accepts that he needs to be the one to take responsibility, he’s able to act and able to save people. Not just his remaining crew, but also people who he might not have otherwise been indebted to. And he can begin to maybe make up for how badly he failed in the past by putting his life to good use, and helping to bring people together rather than just focusing his gifts on warfare. It’s a fun story, with a nice sense of the world and the culture surrounding these men and some creepy bits of horror mixed in as well, lending the world a sense of hidden depths and magic that exploitation and empire are in danger of wiping out. A great read!
“Five Days to Dragonhaul” by Evan Marcroft (11195 words)
No Spoilers: Etlin is a debt collector sent to the inhospitable frozen mountains to collect on a man who hasn’t exactly had a flush of luck. The man is an airship captain struggling through the years, never seeming able to raise enough to reach his dreams. But he might have one last shot, a dragonhaul that crashed into the snow and ice. Valuable for the flesh that can be salvaged, for all manner of alchemical products and practices. A single trip could make him a rich, rich man. But Etlin’s not about to let the captain traipse off into unknown danger...at least not without making sure he can oversee his client’s investment. Things go from bad to worse, though, as the expedition must contend with rival groups as well as creatures that live in the wastes. It’s a story that opens with a rather classic fantasy feel and then pulls it in some weird and horrifying directly, to great result.
Keywords: Debt, Dragons, Snow, Airships, Parasites, Robots
Review: The world building of the story is rather stunning, creating this second world fantasy where not only can animals be grown in vats with technology that is much closer to 1900 than to today, but there’s a mix of classic fantasy, steampunk, and cosmic horror that really works here. There’s plenty of grit, and yet the story isn’t dominated by it, even taking place as it does on the fringes of the world, in the arctic cold, on a rusty airship searching for the immense and ruined corpse of a space-faring dragon. A lot of that is because the narrator is crisp and driven, their voice no-nonsense and focused on the task at hand. There’s even perhaps a sense of wonder that carries through, just a hint that there is a beauty tucked into the vastness of the cold. That is, before the zombie-things show up and everything gets immediate, deadly, and weird. And I really like that the story is willing to go there, that it mixes its elements to include an enormous infected mammoth Thing that is trying to kill them, that they have to use all the tools at their disposal to best. And, after all of that, I like that the most dangerous adversary is still human greed. Because that’s the palpable tragedy here. They overcome their opponents and the strange monsters of the cold mountains, only to find that it’s not enough to save them from the captain turning on the narrator. And it’s a visceral, bloody story, one might not revel in the gore and spray of it, but that doesn’t shy away from it, either. Mostly, there is a certain calm tiredness with which the narrator approaches everything, which with he deals with the complications in his mission. Because he knows something the captain doesn’t, knows why this debt is being called in now, and there might be a part of him that is hoping that this will all turn out for the best, that it won’t slip into...well, exactly what it slips into. And it’s a sharp, well executed story about family, about cycles, about greed. And about a semi-doomed expedition to a stinking dragon corpse. It’s not exactly a fun read, but it’s thrilling, tightly paced, and dovetails into a statement on debt, and repayment. A wonderful story!
“The Beast in the Woods” by Peter Fugazzotto (4377 words)
No Spoilers: Hwaeth is a half-orc in a country that has long fought against orcs. He’s now a scout in their army, treated poorly, not allowed a weapon. His unit is set to engage the enemy, but Hwaeth has some reservations about that. Not because he’s being mistreated, but because he can sense something out there. Something unnatural. When he’s ignored, though, it begins a series of events that might just snap whatever brittle hope he had of one day being accepted by his fellows. The piece is gritty and tense, with Hwaeth struggling with the weight of the prejudice against him, trying not to think about the pain he’s already suffered, the loss, but finding that maybe these aren’t things he can avoid just by closing his eyes to them.
Keywords: War, Beasts, Betrayal, Racism/Prejudice, Orcs
Review: This story goes to some rather dark places, and while I appreciate that it largely does so carefully, there’s a certain amount of hesitation I have in general about stories that ultimately embrace revenge and where people end up deciding that worrying about collateral damage is foolish. Not to say that Hwaeth hasn’t dealt with Some Shit, and the story placing him as someone trying to ingratiate himself to the people responsible for his pain is interesting and complex. And I like the battle, the beast, the fear it evokes and also the fact that Hwaeth could escape. Out of everyone, he could get away and save himself, but holds back because he doesn’t want to escape alone. And yet when it comes down to it, he’s betrayed, attacked (literally hamstrung), and left for dead. And yet he doesn’t give in, doesn’t stop fighting to survive. And, ultimately, it’s something that pushes him over a line. A line where he believed that he and the humans of his homeland could be anything other than enemies. Which is a difficult thing to deal with, though it does seem to be the case where even “the good ones” aren’t going to save him if it means risking themselves. And I wish that he had taken that and just left, gone to make a life for himself somewhere. Not that it doesn’t make a certain amount of sense that he might want revenge, but that he not only crosses this line of knowing he won’t be accepted to crossing another line where he becomes a murderer. Which is tragic to me, because it doesn’t really leave him his own space, just changes his role within the one he doesn’t fit well in. Instead of trying to do good, he commits to doing bad, and deepening the damage and the scars between the two halves of his heritage. It’s a piece where I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending, but overall still feel like it’s well worth spending some time with. Go check it out and see what you think.
“The Priestess’ Daughter” by Jennifer Blackford
This piece takes Greek myth to put a narrator whose mother is a priestess as Delphi, whose father is—was, a soldier from a foreign land. Who thought that she would grow and marry her best friend. But who lost her father, who lost her friend, and whose anger and grief were so powerful that she sort of transformed. The piece weds well with Greek myth, the way a mortal can be so overcome with emotion that they can essentially change what they are. A person becomes a flower, a river, a demigod. And there’s such a nice feel to the piece, the way that the gentle joy of the narrator’s life is destroyed by these two events, both of them essentially caused by the gods, by the mystical (one by inaction, by the gods not wanting to heal the father because he was desired to walk in the afterlife and one by nymphs taking an interest in a mortal to his death). The daughter of a priestess, it doesn’t feel to me so much like it’s a moment when her faith is shattered so much as it’s the moment that her faith shifts, becomes active. She enters into the world of gods and nymphs not as a supplicant but with demands, with recriminations. And it earns her a place in that world, where time doesn’t work quite the same, and maybe she can have the space she needs to heal. Mixed into that, though, is the fickle nature of the gods, the way that they hurt carelessly, and so even that has a sadness to it, because there’s a sense I get at least that time might indeed pass differently, and while the narrator is on this throne with the nymphs, her mother is grieving for her as well, equally undone, equally hurt, but the two kept separate by their pain, by their inability to comfort each other. It’s a poem that tells a strong story, one of loss and sorrow, and one tinged with magic and the divine. A great read!
“Jumble” by Mary Soon Lee
This is another poem in the life of King Xau, who has something of a thing for having the people around him, the people he cares about, die in front of him. It’s a tragic shock of a piece, the story the poem tells detailing how the narrator, Tsung, wanted to speak with the king alone. And how they were ambushed by seven men. Who they managed to fight off, but not without a cost. And Tsung, struck, dying, his own desire to step down as the king’s guard captain a decision that has inadvertently killed him. And the piece focuses on the intense emotions swirling around because of this. The denial and desperation of the king, who at this point might not be the hardened man he becomes. Who might not have lost someone this close before (he will again, if I remember what comes later...unless this takes place after those other poems, in which case it definitely shows that this doesn’t get easier for him—that death is not something he’s ever easy about). As always, the poem is intense and wrenching, Xau as a person defined by these loses. Or...no, that’s not quite right. For me, it’s not the loses that define him, but rather the loves the ground those loses, that give them weight. Xau loves with a power that is striking, and it’s what makes him a good man, a good ruler. That he is never hardened to the point where something like this wouldn’t move him, wouldn’t effect him. He’s not a man who wants to be aloof, who wants to direct things from afar. He wants to be among people, wants to know them, wants to be close with them. Here he’s faced with losing the man who has helped to raise him, who has protected him, taught him, sheltered him. And it’s touching and hard watching that dawning for him. At the same time, it’s a way for the narrator to see that he hasn’t failed, that Xau has grown into someone to be proud of, and that the narrator helped to make that possible, helped to shape that. It’s a beautiful and tender moment, a wound that will likely never heal, and definitely a poem to check out. I should at some point figure out the chronology of this world (or hope that there’s a chapbook in the offing), but really, these poems have some lovely moments, and it’s a great way to close out the issue!