|Art by Rengin Tumer|
There’s a new Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and this issue brings three short stories (two just shy of novelettes) and two poems. Each of them explores a different world, even if those worlds are also kind of our own. They also deal a lot with religion, with faith in the face of prejudice and the threat of violence. The characters are caught at times between what they’ve been taught or are expected to believe and the reality that they observe. But as the publication promises, these are largely fantasy stories that deal with heroics, or perhaps anti-heroics, as people fight, love, and make sweet art amidst danger, intrigue, and betrayal. To the reviews!
“Heart of Vengeance, A Tale of Azatlán” by Gregory D. Mele (7349 words)
No Spoilers: Helomon is the young lord of Jaakhára, betrayed by his own kin and chased out of his palace and city, near despair when even the last of his guards abandon him to his face. Luckily for him, he’s found by a priestess of the god of death, who helps him to reach the main temple of the dead in a distant city where he might receive a boon from that lonely god. The piece follows that quest, taking place over a great many years and through the ups and downs of war and rule for Helomon. It’s not exactly a grimdark for me, though there are certainly shadows to it and it doesn’t shy away from certain kinds of brutality. The point I feel it’s trying to make, though, isn’t really about grittiness so much as it’s about the cost of revenge, showing the huge toll such an undertaking can charge, both physically and spiritually.
Keywords: Betrayal, Bargains, Revenge, CW- Torture, Poison, Gods
Review: This story introduces an interesting setting full of noble houses vying for power and a pantheon of gods who occasionally take interest in the goings on of humans. Of them all, the god of the dead normally stays well out of things, but something about Helomon’s situation inspires him to act, to offer to help. To weave a web of death that will welcome a great many into his realm. Why he does this isn’t entirely certain, but part of it must be that he might enjoy a good tragedy, with plenty of bodies on the floor. Not in search of sacrifice, but to remind people of the power of death. To show those hungry for power how that often ends. Everyone involved meats a bad end, and ultimately what started as some people trying to gain power by betraying their family ends up destroying the family entirely. For me it’s a lesson in bargains, and paying a price by your actions. Not even Helomon, chosen in some ways by the god, gets to escape what happens, as part of the price he pays to get his revenge is to die for it. He knows it going in, and he pays it willingly, and it all reflects back to the ways that he was betrayed, the stain that leaves that only eradication seems able to clear away. And I like the relationship between him and the priestess who helps him, their chemistry real, their love complicated but compelling. It’s not a happy story, really, and it gets a bit into torture more than I’m personally a fan of, but really it’s a straight forward and entertaining piece, one that shows the scope and scale of what’s happening and wraps it all up in a rather satisfying manner, showing what exactly the god of death meant when he said that Helomon had to refuse to kill someone to really have his full revenge. A fine read!
“The Whispering Healer” by Larisa Walk (5252 words)
No Spoilers: Anisia is brought to her door late one evening by a strange caller with a small bundle in need of her healing gift. And though wary of the danger he could possess, she isn’t willing to turn away from the child. Inviting them into her home might turn out to be a mistake, though, when she discovers that one of the callers isn’t what they seem. Neither, though, are they what she expects when the truth is revealed. The piece looks at magic and prejudice, at a woman who thinks of the world as it fits into the frame of her faith, and who finds that things might not be so black and white. And it’s a tense and moving story in some ways about finding a decent man and wanting to everything possible not to lose him.
Keywords: Healing, Babies, Mer-people, Demons, Religion, CW- Abuse
Review: There is a part of me who reads this story and just laughs because in trying to summarize it I kept coming up against the idea that Anisia is shaken almost as much at finding out that the man at her door, Foma, is decent and kind as she is about him being, well, a half-fish “demon” with magical powers. And part of that is she’s not exactly had much good experience with men. The roles that people are supposed to fit into are rather rigid, so when this strange man shows up at her door she’s pretty sure he’s after something bad. And yet everything he does seems to underline that he’s just trying to do the right thing, and not interested in hurting anyone. And despite the fact that she sees him as a monster when he is first revealed as part fish, it’s the realization that he might be good, that he might be genuine in trying to help, that stands out as more remarkable. Which is a sad statement on men in general but not, I think, wholly unfair. And it makes for this interesting complication of her faith and her world view. If men in general can be decent, then surely demons might not be unholy. Surely her own powers might not be as simple as she assumed. And I just like the direction that takes her, the determination she gets to not lose this one man who doesn’t disappoint her, who doesn’t want to hurt her. The ending is sweet even as most of the story flits across this line of life and death, and I like the ending and the promise of it, the way that the two seem to bridge so much between them, healer and “demon,” water and wind, man and woman. It’s a fun piece and definitely worth checking out!
“Do Not Fear, For The Work Will Be Pure” by Michael Johnstone (7331 words)
No Spoilers: This story finds Deonoro, a sculpture of some fame and renown, sent along with a guard, Kig, to sketch Grothag the Unmerciful, a kind of ruler of a band of people who have given into their temak, a kind of deformity that is said to be caused by surrendering to the Darkness. What temak means in the kingdom, though, is quite different for each social class, and it manifests in very different ways. Deonoro’s journey is a kind of punishment, too, one perhaps not expected to be successful, because the chances that he won’t be killed by Grothag are slim. But she turns out to be something of a surprise, and forces Deonoro to revise what he thought he was working on, and dig into some deeper truths instead.
Keywords: Sculpting, Politics, Deformity, Religion, Punishments
Review: I really like the world building of this story, for all that it can get dicey fast to tie something like deformity, which has a long and complicated history in the real world, to a magical system that seems to make it a divine punishment for sin. But then, that’s not exactly what it is, despite the fact that an entire religion has evolved around that belief. And despite the fact that those with the most serious temak are violent and ruthless, those things twisting them physically as it must also twist them emotionally, fueling that is the prejudice and intolerance, the mistreatment that leads them to further and further acts of frustrated violence to try and push back against the crushing weight of how people see them. And I like that Deonoro can see the complex reality of temak, not only because he has some himself, but because he can see past it and to the conflicting and hurt emotions of even those who try to embrace the horror and fear they represent in society. And I like how the piece moves, how Deonoro is taken into Grothag’s camp and how he spends time with her, talks to her, gets to know her some even as he hides himself away, until he can’t any longer, and has to reveal himself in order to be able to reveal her. It’s a wonderful way of showing an artist in the process of creating, of envisioning what he’ll do with this project that was obviously meant to be one thing, and he’s trying to shift it to be something much more compex and meaningful. The sculpture might supposed to be about the horrors of the Darkness, a warning and condemnation, and it ends up becoming something much more compassionate, taking aim at the very value system that decides anyone with temak is something less than fully human. A great read!
“Ford” by Mary Soon Lee
This piece once again checks in on King Xau, who has an awful lot of adventures involving rivers, and horses, and desperate crossings. It’s a neat cycle, a foreshadowing and an echo, and here he’s trying to help another ruler, King Memnor, who is trying to get a bunch of his people across a river to the relative safety of the other side. What exactly has happened to make this happen is uncertain to me, but it definitely seems like there’s a lot of people made refugees, and the storm that might have caused this exodus is still raging, the river needing to be crossed high and angry. Further enhancing the cyclical nature of the poem (and the larger cycle of poems) is the refrain that runs through mud, water, wind, and rain, acting as a kind of breath to mark the passage of time, to transition from scene to scene as Xau attempts a rather miraculous solution to the problem, putting himself in danger in order to convince the collected horses there to form a kind of living rope that people can use to cross the treacherous waters. Even as they all work, though, there is more to do, and the piece captures the exhausting work that is done, the way that they push as hard as they can to save as many as they can, but it’s not enough. And that is what I think I like most about the piece, that for all that they manage to do, for all that they do something miraculous and amazing...there is work left to do that they can’t get done. People will die. And that is a burden of rulership, something that King Xau still has to struggle with. Something that Memnor, who is perhaps older and a bit more seasoned, has already come to terms with. Is not happy about, as the final stanza does a great job showing, but he’s practical and knows that even with a miracle, some battles cannot be won. And no amount of self-sacrifice will change that. It’s a lesson that Xau will have to learn again and again, which is partly why he’s so refreshing and great, because he always wants to believe that there’s something to do, because he’s never going to accept a bad outcome, even as that makes him vulnerable, makes him prone to heartbreak. So his heart will break. But he will have tried everything, exhausted everything, and maybe saved some people who otherwise would have died. A wonderful read!
“The Demon in the Jar” by Cullen Groves
This poem tells the story of a ship bound to try and retrieve treasures from a sunken ship, among them hopefully a crown that would give the wearer dominion over a great number pf spirits and monsters. Of course what starts as a fairly auspicious trip, with the ship’s wizard finding the wreck, the ship’s pilot following the course successfully, and the captain diving down to the depths to find gold and silver waiting, things aren’t fated to go easy. The piece is highly narrative, telling the story is poetic verse but without much in the way of abstraction. The action here is in description and in dialogue, and there’s plenty of action and magic once things get really started. And for me the piece is largely about the greed that the quest represents, the wizard especially seeking a crown that has been sunk to the bottom of the sea probably for a reason, given that the gods here seem to be much more present and able to make their displeasure known. This kinda becomes obvious when a creature attacks and the storms kick up and the crew has to decide what to do, especially when the wizard seems to stand at odds with the pilot. It’s a bit of a messy confrontation, lively and full of twists and turns and an ending that shows that the captain is wise enough to know that there’s no spending treasure if you’re dead. The piece is fun and fast, well imagined and rendered. It’s entertaining and does a nice job of world building in poetic form, which certainly isn’t an easy task. It mixes historical fantasy with elements that seem wholly new, where gods and monsters mix and mingle and a rough and tumble crew gets a chance to touch something huge and dangerous and still escape with their skins. It’s not a short read, really, but it’s a complete story and satisfying, and it makes for a a nice way to close out the issue!