|Art by Jereme Peabody|
There’s a new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly out, featuring three new short stories, one novelette, and one poem. And the works cover a nice range of fantasy, from much more historical stories with only touches of maybe-magic, to full blown second world affairs filled with strange magics. From mythological rewrites to strange myth-like tales of talking animals and walking Nightmares. It’s a wonderful issue, with spills, chills, mysteries, and even a spot of romance, and I’ll get right to my reviews!
“Assailing the Garden of Pleasure” by Daniel Ausema (5410 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story was an adept, a student of magic under the Master, who is a teacher but also the owner of a special pleasure garden that everyone wants an invitation to. Except that the path to the gardens is tricky, and requires supplicants to split themselves into two parts. They’re supposed to be joined up again in the garden, to enjoy the pleasures there, but for the narrator, and a number of other people it turns out, that part...never happens, and the split is permanent, a show of power for the Master and...perhaps something more. Flung out into the city half a person and magically influenced to not be able to fight back or seek the Master out again, the narrator thinks begging is the only fate for them. until they meet someone else like them, and stumble into a movement larger than just one person. It’s an interesting story, well built and with a great payoff.
Keywords: Magic, Gardens, Splitting, Silence, Community
Review: I like that the greatest power the Master has is to keep people quite. That for all that he gets from splitting these people, most it has to be reinvested in making sure that they don’t talk about what happened. That they don’t join together. That they don’t form a community. Because it recognizes that community is the most dangerous this for a corrupt power such as his. The narrator is drawn to resistance, though, is new enough that it seems possible, and slowly they begin to gather with other people who want to do something about their situation. Who want...well, at first just to be reunited with their other halves. Now, it’s a grim moment when they learn that’s not possible, and I like that it comes because someone else is able to find out what’s going on, a student who, like them, could have just not seen what was happening, but instead did notice and decided to act. And through the action has found a way to organize with those who have been split and form something of a plan. Despite the power keeping them separate, despite the ways the Master has tried to keep them from each other, keep them from seeking him out. And there’s certainly an element of revenge in it at that point, but I think even that isn’t wholly the reason people are able to stand up and overcome the Master’s power. I think it has more to do with...with no longer being able to think that maybe their other half is in some better place. Once they learn that their other halves are just dead...then they are able to act. Not to avenge their halves, but to make sure that it stops. To prevent it from happening to anyone else. And the result is this strange kind of resistance, this motley crew of former adepts helping each other, teaching each other how to survive, how to retain what they can, and how to tear down the system that created them, so that no one else will have to know the pain of being split in two. It’s a strange read, but a powerful one, and definitely worth checking out!
“Fox Hunt” by Rebecca Buchanan (5583 words)
No Spoilers: Ashaenie is a fox, and as much as he normally doesn’t have much to do with humans, a chilling discovery sends him to them in search of aid. There are Nightmares on the loose, and only human iron can drive them back into the infernal realm. The only human nearby who is able to help, though, is an old woman named Kihara, who is a bit past her prime. That doesn’t mean she’s not ready and willing to travel out to meet this threat. And so with a fox at her side, she does just that. It’s a fun piece that balances action and quieter character moments, building a world where humans are part of a larger system, not dominant but different, the rest of the animals with their own thoughts and beliefs as to how things work. And it’s a fun read, heartwarming and charming.
Keywords: Foxes, Nightmares, Rituals, Hunts, Iron
Review: It’s an easy way to score points with me to have a story starring an animal, with cats and foxes being high on my list. And this one is a lot of fun, a fantasy set in a world where every group of animals has their own organization and their own creation myths. For all that, some of them still get along, and humans and foxes find ways to help each other when they can. Here they do some cooperative hunting to try and ride the forest of a threat to all of them, Nightmares come up from an infernal realm and able to spread fear and prey on people, creating shells the fear can live in. And I like that Ashaenie is completely okay going out with this grandma, despite her family having reservations. She’s the one in charge, though, the one with the knowledge and the one with the resolve to do what needs to be done. Not that the fox doesn’t help. It’s a wonderful, action-packed sequence as human and fox work together, and I like the progression, the one-two punch of encounters that they have. The first straightforward and difficult enough. But still, not difficult to the point that they maybe don’t slide into hoping that it’s going to be no more difficult. And oh boy is it. The pacing here is very well built, and I just love the way it unfolds, the fights, the blood, the aftermath. it’s clever and charming and sweet, a great look at these two unlikely companions as they get down to business to protect those they care about. It’s got notes of humor and horror in balanced mix, and it’s just a super fun story and a great read!
“Instrument of Vengeance” by Howard Andrew Jones (8005 words)
No Spoilers: In a twist on the consulting detective trope, Dabir and Asim take on mysteries far outside the shadowed streets of London, in Mosul, and in this adventure they are tasked with tracking down the oud of a musician come to the city for a festival and competition. The instrument was his father’s, and there are rumors that it was cursed, though the curse only seems to work on those who freely accept the oud, something the current owner sidestepped when his father died without bequeathing it to anyone. It was taken, something that becomes a theme as Dabir and Asim try and track it down, finding bodies and violence in its wake. The piece is well constructed, an efficient and entertaining mystery in a well built historical setting that might have touches of magic but then again, might not. Either way, it’s a lot of fun.
Keywords: Instruments, Music, Theft, Curses, Family
Review: I like the setting here and the feeling, a mystery set well outside the “traditional” confines of the consulting detective genre and about something that seems at first rather mundane. I mean, the theft of the oud itself might not be the most usual of crimes, but neither does it seem to be the most sinister, either. Only as the duo investigate do they find the web of hurt and hate behind it all, and find their way through. And I absolutely love that the resolution here doesn’t really come because of them. Yes, they discover the context for why this is happening, and they manage to bring some people to justice, but it’s not them who really are the heroes. It’s the owner of the oud, the man who asked for their help. A thoughtful and considerate man who has a complicated relationship with the memories of his father. Who, when faced with this wrong that his father did, reaches out with compassion and tries to make right something that can’t be. But at least he tries, and at least he does manage to bring some comfort and relief to someone who has suffered a lot in life. Not that the mystery itself is a slouch, either, and I like the twists and turns it takes, the way that from the start it’s set up and how it all pays off in the end. It really is a very well constructed mystery, one that manages to complicate things without reinventing the wheel. It honors the legacy of the genre, of the trope, while doing some new and interesting things. And it’s a fun adventure that doesn’t (like many in the style/genre) get too bogged down by detail or slow pacing. It’s brisk, the characters defined enough that they’re familiar and unique all at once. And while I wouldn’t have minded a little more of their story, that’s not really the point. The point is the mystery, and it’s a solid, thoroughly enjoyable experience. Another wonderful read!
“Apples of the Gods” by Jane Dougherty (3972 words)
No Spoilers: This story retells and recontexualizes a Norse myth, one that in most iterations is about but also completely marginalizes Idunn, the goddess who keeps the apples of immortality. Here, though, hers is the perspective the piece unfolds from, and in that it takes on a decidedly different tone and focus, one that shows how women are often treated in these mythological stories, how Idunn throughout is never given a choice, never consulted. She is a prize, stolen and then stolen back, and through the shape of the myth is the same as its traditional interpretation, the impact is much different, giving Idunn finally a voice in her own story while addressing her lack of agency and consent throughout all of it. The piece is full of longing and violence, and for me is very much about how mythology has been traditionally translated and framed through history and how to complicate and challenge that now.
Keywords: Gods, Asgard, Mythology, Apples, Immortality, Desire
Review: I do like the way the story refocuses the myth, making a statement much more about choice and how these myths have been passed down, how they have become this very narrow and rather constraining way ofnot just imagining the past, but applying the mythology of the past to more modern contexts. It’s easy to see the ways the story has been reworked to center Idunn, the character most often literally objectified in the myth. She’s a thing to be taken and taken back, and that’s not changed. What is changed is that when she’s taken the first time, she’s brought to a place where she’s more valued than in Asgard. Away from a negligent husband and to a lover who does care for what she wants, for all that, ultimately, he still doesn’t want to give her a free choice about going or staying. There is no real great place for Idunn, a choice between degrees, and even that is taken from her, in the end, her old home destroying her new one, forcing her back into the role that she had already found rather unfulfilling. It’s familiar in that way, all her choices coming down to what a man is willing to give her, though here at least she gets a small reminder that she has power. In what’s probably the most buried part of the story, Idunn is told that it’s her to keeps the apples alive. Not just her tending, but something about her. She’s the one with that power, and for all it makes her a target, it also is something that she can leverage, at least a bit. Enough to put her would-be abductor’s eyes in the sky as stars, so that she can look at them and remember. So that she can hold in her heart the knowledge that even those who hold, who assume themselves immortal, will end. Will come to dust and ruin. And it’s a rather heartbreaking story because of the constraints of the original myth, because it doesn’t break away from that. But it does give it a wonderful new context, a frame that adds depth, that makes especially Idunn and her giant, all the more wrenching and real. For fans of mythology and retellings, it’s a sharply drawn story that nails the source material and brings something new to the discussion. A fine way to close out the fiction of the issue!
“Owain the Red at Castell Dolbadarn” by Nicole Rain Sellers
This piece speaks to me of time, of imprisonment, of a man mourning a lot about his life and, more specifically, where it has brought him. The poem seems to be a historical fiction, following an actual imprisoned man who had tried and ultimately failed to take control of his country. Imprisoned by his brother, he was kept for a long time out of the way so that he couldn’t mount another attempt to take the throne. The poem captures in haunting depth the feeling of that, of being bound, of having only the view out the narrow windows of a lonely tower, for twenty years. I really like the imagery of the poem, the quiet of it, the rattle of chains and locks, the sense of isolation, of this person having so long with the same landscape, the same memories. The same regrets and longings. The piece works for me to capture this moment in time, this situation, without delving into the complicated politics of what’s happened. And I like that the narrator, Owain, is caught in both the love and hate of his brother, the feeling of being so reduced. And formally there’s something of a rhyme to it, though not to my ears an exact one (though, given that the poem takes place in Wales I’m not capturing the dialect that would make the sounds allign more). Still, it flows nicely, and it resolves in something like a promise, something like a curse. And all of it a wish. For release, for freedom, for something as simple as tasting the berries outside the gate, to walking free of chains. It peers into the messy relationship between brothers divided by ambitions and politics, by dealing with foreign entanglement and meddling. It looks at a time and place that I’m not used to seeing, and it does so with some compassion and beauty. It’s a lovely poem, and definitely worth spending some time with!