|Art by Anton Ninov|
“Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories” by R.K. Duncan (6002 words)
No Spoilers: Jack and Rowland are friends, despite Jack being a peasant and Rowland being the son of a lord. They are inseparable, though, and so Jack is brought up mostly alongside Rowland, educated with him and socialized with him. Their closeness undergoes a challenge, though, when at fourteen Rowland is married to a woman ten years his senior. A woman whose inadvertent goaded causes a problem that Jack isn’t sure any of them can fix. But he’s clever, and if not all that brave he is devoted, and the story looks at his adventure in trying to win the day and his friend back from fairyland. It’s a sweet a knightly story that acknowledges the power of stories and fairy tales as warnings and guides through uncertain territories and situations.
Keywords: Fairies, Stories, Bargains, Love, CW- Arranged Marriage, Transformation
Review: I love the way this story combines fairy tales and a kind of chivalric love (one that I am very tempted to read as queer but also one I’m rather familiar with as a fan of stories of knights and a more brotherly/fraternal love) that makes Jack and Rowland loyal and devoted friends. Friends who have to deal with the realities of the world, which includes the expectation that Rowland marry and carry on the line. And I like what the story does with that, casting his wife as an older woman, one who is not a fan of the arrangement but is shrewd and knows that her power now rests in a boy who is almost half her age. And though she can be a little cruel, it seems mostly because of her own hurt, her own powerlessness and fear that prompts it. And she’s no fool, helping out and trying her best despite the fact that her heart isn’t really in it. But Jack’s is, and I love the way the story twists the old stories, having Jack be the one to hold his friend while he transforms, while he becomes all manner of dangerous things. And I just love the way the story captures fairyland, the magic and the danger all together, the way that the stories of the land act as guides and maps, more reliable than something drawn in lines and symbols. The stories are the secrets he needs to know, the patterns that will allow him to win back his friend, even if there’s still a price to pay. And I just like the way the story comes together, the strong bond between Jack and Rowland and how they are able to return from certain death because of the power of their love. And Mary Anne, Rowland’s wife...well, I like that the story recognizes the position she’s in and gives her something of a choice, even as it doesn’t seem to be a very good one. Still, it’s hers to make and there’s nothing to say it has to end in tragedy for her. In some ways it’s a bow to the fact that her options are so limited because of the nature of these stories, because they trap people in gender roles that might not fit, and that are rather unfair. And ultimately it’s a fun adventure, a rescue mission into the heart of fairyland, and it’s a fantastic and heartwarming read!
“The Honey of the World and the Queen of Crows”’ by Dimitra Nikolaidou (3791 words)
No Spoilers: This story follows first Leandros, a soldier who has just died, or is dying, or...something. He comes to in a bar, where a woman in a white habit offers him a deal. A bargain. To turn back time and save himself, and save the man he loves, and maybe get away from war. But what’s her price? Part of it, at least, is to listen to a story, and the piece does a nice job of nesting its narratives, moving from perspective to perspective, inward into all of their stories, giving shape and meaning to their decisions, their choices, and their bargains. It’s a wrenching piece about the senselessness of war, the needless violence and the tragic death, and holds onto a thin hope that sometimes people can escape their fates, slip free from the chains of war, and reach for peace, for themselves and for others.
Keywords: Bargains, Death, Gods, War, Love, Queer Characters
Review: I do love the way this story moves through these people so deeply effected by war, their loves torn apart, their futures turned to ash and blood. For Leandros, he’s suddenly in a place he doesn’t know, given a bargain he doesn’t want to believe in because he’s been taught about devils and bargains. He expects the price of life, of saving himself and the man he seems to love, is horrible. The reality, though, is that war is horrible, and the bargain being made is being made knowing that. Viscerally, deeply, knowing that war is destruction, and giving people the chance to escape death as long as they put down their weapons and run. Which is rather beautiful, really, because throughout the piece that decision, to walk away from war, is the thing that people (and really especially the men) grapple with, assuming that they can’t because it will mark them traitors. Despite the horrors they witness and inflict. Despite how they want to turn back, to just have the love they find fulfilling and affirming without the killing. Still they hesitate. Still they doubt. But the story shows that as a step, a step toward walking away, and while none of them can exactly erase what they’ve done, the piece does imagine and make space for them to do something else. To try and make a different way. And it does that not by punishing them, not by requiring them to suffer, but by reaching out with compassion and kindness. By gifting them a chance to escape. And for some, that’s more than enough. And the piece is haunting, the characters scarred by their experiences but not overcome by them. They can still have choices that can take them toward a better system, one where someone offering assistance isn’t immediately viewed as a poison fruit. A wonderful read!
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