Though I spent much of August traveling, sipping drinks in distant lands (South Carolina), and taking a break from swords & sorcery, I still found time for my monthly dose of short fiction. Over the years I’ve really come to feel that it’s my obligation to get the word out to the S&S reading population about what’s going on in the land of short stories (and the occasional novella).
Swords and Sorcery Magazine #43 presented a strong issue this past month. Its two tales are by authors unknown to me, but for whom I will keep an eye open in the future.
The first, “Stragglers in the Cold,” is by Connor Perry. Theor Stormcrow is a skinchanger, refugee from the last survivors of a lost cause, and is dying of starvation. Stormcrow and his kind do not actually change into different creatures, but instead send their minds into them. Now, near death and fearing it, he has decided to commit the gravest crime of his kind: to steal the body of another skinchanger.
In a mere 3,000 words, Perry creates a complex and violent universe. As in the better S&S short fiction, “Stragglers” alludes to events outside the narrow confines of its first and last paragraphs, giving context to its characters and building atmosphere. In this case the context is a lost war, and the atmosphere is one of desperation.
In “Thorncandle House,” a nice creepy tale by Sandra Unerman, kidnap victim Brenan warns his captors to avoid any offers of hospitality when they return him to his sister. In his hometown of Michindrum the houses, not the people, are the source of danger.
Some houses are inhabited by invisible beings called indwellers that take a liking to certain people and prevent them from ever leaving.
‘What’s an indweller?’
‘The presence that inhabits a truehouse.’ Brenan tossed the rest of his drink on the fire and stood up. The wind cut at his skin as soon as he moved and he dragged on his damp clothes as fast as he could. But he kept talking. ‘Each one is different but nobody has ever got away from one after it has taken a fancy to them.’
Brenan’s refusal to submit to his fate as a resident of Thorncandle House, and the consequent trouble the house’s indweller has caused for the town has led to his family’s ostracism. Only his return will satisfy the town and, more importantly, the house.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #179 brings an end to Therese Arkenberg’s story of Aniver’s and Semira’s quest to restore to existence the magically lost Polean Cities. The tale began in “The Storms in Arisbat” (BCS #110) and continued in “For Lost Time” (BCS #165), which I reviewed favorably earlier this year. Like its two previous parts, this story’s plot is exceedingly complex. Without having read them, I’m afraid readers of this one would be completely at sea. Sadly, I found this concluding installment less enthralling than the previous ones. Too much time is spent in conversation that lulls rather than intrigues.
BCS #180 opens with a tremendous bang. “Fire Rises,” Alec Austin’s story of satellites, powerful magic, and revenge is a wild ride. Li is a sorcerous spy sent by the Regime to kill one of the Five, a group of powerful wizards. Decades ago, the Regime launched a war that ended in its reduction to weak, minor nation status when the Five fought back with scorched earth tactics. Now the Regime is attempting to restore its position.
Li had learned the story at her grandmother’s knee. How the Regime’s geosynchronous satellites had risen over the Annexation and spread to the surrounding lands, making minor pyromancers mighty and masters into gods of death. How her great-uncle — the first soldier from the Annexation to achieve flag rank under the Cho — had led the Regime’s armies into the Gorod Federation.
And how the Five had ruined him.
“They cracked open the heavens rather than admit defeat,” Li’s grandmother said. “They made their homeland a frozen waste, where the sun and moon never shone, nor the stars.” Every time, her voice shook with fury. “And because they were too proud to kneel, our family was humiliated and my brother took his own life.”
The other Great Powers, reeling from what the An-Astrae had done, forced the Regime to sign the Broken Sky Accords, surrendering most of its conquests and banning geo-synchronous satellites. In accordance with the treaty, the Regime had detonated the original Firestars. Its prestige had never recovered.
Austin has written a satisfying mix of magic, Cold War-style espionage, and revenge. It also gives the lie to an article in The Guardian from a few months back about how short stories don’t really allow for the development of the sort of settings fantasy fiction requires. There’s more original worldbuilding in “Fire Rises” than a shelf full of doorstoppers I can think of right now. Austin’s one of the writers I only discovered by reading new short fantasy fiction, and has become someone whose name I look forward to seeing in the table of contents.
The second story in BCS #180 is a decidedly oddball one, and I give its author great credit for that. “Defy the Grey Kings” by Jason Fischer posits a world ruled by elephants (bedecked in plate armor and wielding weapons) with humans as their slaves. It’s brutal and gory, with elephants fighting one another, torturing recalcitrant slaves, and being murdered. All that should make the story an unqualified win for me, but it’s not. I know elephants are huge and can be pretty ferocious if driven to it, but I found it too easy to just picture them as fairly docile herbivores trumpeting around the veldt. Sometimes my disbelief refuses to be suspended.
The final story up for review is “The Curse of the Myrmelon” by Matthew Hughes, from the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it’s the best find of the month. Another author I’ve only encountered because of reading magazines, Hughes is a master at creating Vancian-style stories featuring the thief, Raffalon.
The last Raffalon story in F&SF was “Prisoner of Pandarius.” In it, Raffalon was hired by the wizard Cascor to stop another wizard from ruining his reputation (reviewed here at BG). In “Curse,” Cascor has become a discriminator — a sort of private eye. When he is hired by an accountant who believes he has been laid under a curse, Cascor once again turns to Raffalon to help him out. Like the preceding stories, this one is filled with humorous turns of phrase, clever plot twists, and a vividly colorful setting.
That’s all for this month’s roundup, folks. Next month I’ll take at look at what Fantasy Scroll Magazine’s been up to as well as all the usual suspects. So until next time, keep reading.
Fletcher Vredenburgh is Black Gate‘s short fiction reviewer (among other things). See his July Short Story Roundup here.