THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION #753 (January/February 2021) Edited by C.C. Finlay


An overall solid issue to mark the final issue under the six-year editorial tenure of Charles Coleman (CC) Finlay. While I didn’t remotely dislike this last editorial era, there didn’t seem to be as many stories falling in as favorites for me as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction previously had. There are likely more stories purchased by Finlay still slated to appear in upcoming issues, but I am excited to see how this beloved genre outlet evolves under Sheree Renée Thomas. I also have liked Finlay’s fiction a lot in the past, so I’ll be please to see him return to more of it.

“The Dark Ride” by John Kessel — A blend of history, fiction, and SciFi Fantasy, this relates the assassination of President McKinley by the Anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo New York. Beside the historical narrative is an alternate version of events where Czolgosz travels to the moon and becomes a resistance leader against the oppressive.y ruling moon people. As the novella progresses, the two histories begin to blend together, highlighting the similarities of the social and political ideals that Czolgosz holds on the two worlds. And contrasting the failure that the assassination was in bringing larger change, compared to the hero he becomes on the moon. The SF moon world here is styled after the SF of the early 1900s when the story is set. Though it had some interesting aspects to it, those didn’t need a novella to be accomplished.

“Interludes with the Gunwright” by Jonathan L. Howard — One of my favorite stories in the issue, a touching tale of passions: of love between two characters, and a devotion to one’s chosen craft. A soldier visits a gunwright to secure new weapons, and without money instead leaves a valuable gun in her possession for study/reference as payment. The gunwright is pleased to see the soldier one day return alive, and the two find themselves craving time spent together in life despite their professions tied to destruction and violence.

“Bible Stories for Adults, No. 51: The Great Fish” by James Morrow — I have yet to enjoy or even appreciate any of the stories from this series by Morrow. For this one I gave up trying and stopped reading halfway.

“Integral Nothings” by Robert Reed — Though a series of vignettes, Reed relates how things on Earth have been altered by unknown, alien forces with a step-wise series of “Blessings” that appear to help preserve the planet and its populations. Each section focuses on one particular human representative point-of-view, but written with an omniscient, distant voice that playfully describes the human as the epitome of some trait (most intelligent, most wealthy, etc.) while contrasting that with an anecdote that shows how little and insignificant humans are in the scheme of the cosmos. They style works well to tell a story – whose heart is pretty familiar to the SF field – in a fresh, fun way.

“The Diamond Family Glitters” by H. Pueyo — The grandmother and matriarch of a family is dying. Each of her children and grandchildren has inherited some sort of unique supernatural ability, and they wonder whether that magic that helps keep them spiritually connected and unified will vanish with her passing. Well written and touching story of the symbolic magic that passes between generations and how that can be kept alive.

“A Little Knife Music” by Jenn Reese — Another powerful short story around the symbolism of weapons in this issue. This one explores the nature of using a dangerous gift or talent, and devotion to mentors and friends. An assassin gifted by the Goddess of Music with a deadly, cutting voice becomes conflicted when she is ordered to kill a friend. Superbly written.

“N-raptured” by Justin C. Key — Unseen aliens have converted racists on Earth into rats, and anyone who has used used the n-word has a tick mark scar appear suddenly on their forehead for each infraction as warning to not go too far like those turned. Six scar marks, and you become a rat. Those not so ‘raptured’ away have been left to carefully consider and watch their language and interactions, but Carl finds it hard, even though he only used the n-word when singing lyrics to a song. Well, and that one other time… But that doesn’t make him racist, right? Thought-provoking satire on race relations, language, perceptions, and the socially ingrained.

“Hard!” by Van Aaron Hughes — A SF story revolving around the sport of curling. The intro mentions how this is surely the best written of such stories (perhaps the only?) Nonetheless it is enjoyable, light-hearted fare featuring a warm father/son relationship. Makes sense to me that aliens would be a fan of curling.

“Litter Witch” by Susan Palwick — A lovely parable or fairy tale type story about resilience and strengthening over bullying. A young girl who dreams of being a witch is made fun of at school, but uses those injuries to build a home in the woods, to be in a place where years later another young girl arrives who needs some of that strength to survive.

“Wild Geese” by Lavie Tidhar — Nothing about the plot really engaged me with this story, but the far future cyberpunk and blend of cultures made for a fascinating atmosphere/setting that feels very real even within a short story, albeit mysterious. Tidhar also writes it with a flowing beauty. I wish there were more here in the terms of plot or even themes that I could have found to grasp onto. But it may also be one to reread.

“The Piper” by Karen Joy Fowler — A young man follows a friend in joining the army to fight for the King, but changes his mind about the decision after their departure and learning a possible other path. Relatively short (though not flash fiction length), it’s a good spin on familiar tropes (as the intro to the story promises).

“You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” by Paul Di Filippo — Published within the “Plumage from Pegasus” feature that Di Filippo writes each issue, this is still short fiction, so I find it odd that the feature is so rarely mentioned in other reviews that cover every other story. They are usually humorous and/or satirical and/or farcical and/or etc in tone. They’re rarely earth-shatteringly deep, but they are usually clever and entertaining. This one plays well with the seemingly ever-expanding “Best of…” collections in the genre and the fragmentary sub-genre niches of SFF.

The issue also features the poem “Annabel Digs Her Own Grave” by Gretchen Tessmer, book reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand, game reviews by Marc Laidlaw, film reviews by Karin Lowachee, and the science article “How Fast Are We Going?” by Jerry Oltion. With “Coming Attractions”, and “Curiosities” by Thomas Kaufsek. Cartoons by Ali Solomon, Arthur Masear, and Kendra Allenby; cover art by Kent Bash.


Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“Wonderwall”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Kronia”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“Echo”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol, by Elizabeth Hand

Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol,
by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00GM742EA
144 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
(Original Publ: 2001)
Source: NetGalley

A perfect little holiday season tale that blends a combination of inspirations including nostalgic memories of magical childhood entertainers, the frustrations and difficulties with raising autistic children, and of course Dickens’ classic Christmas tale.

This novella may be considered a fantasy, but only subtly so, in fact it is far more realistic than Dickens’, but just as powerful. The plot is simple and endearing, but builds slowly and purposefully throughout. What gives Hand’s a particular punch of soul to Hand’s story is the cast of strongly drawn characters, beautifully complete and human, good-hearted and resilient despite their flaws, both the ones they were born with or the ones that their environment has given them.

If you are looking for a nice quick read during the Christmas season in addition to, or in place of some classic tale, then consider picking this up.

Notably, proceeds of its sale go to the charity Autism Speaks in memory of a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Four Stars out of Five

Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00CHW66E8
324 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2013 (original publ. 1998)
Source: NetGalley

I know Hand’s name and writing primarily from her book review column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Prior to this collection I had only read one short story of hers, and I can’t say I remember anything of it. I guess her first short story collection is a good place to start, and I hope now that I’ll see more of her fiction in the magazines I subscribe to. It would be curious to see how similar or different her writing is now to this.

The story from which this book takes its title is the first and my personal favorite of the bunch. It is also one of the brighter and more uplifting pieces here, though that is by no means why I enjoyed it most. But that opening story seems to best capture the best of Hand’s ability, to tell a captivating story that explores archetypical human themes and emotions in rich, poetic language. She does this without fearing or hesitating to enter into heavy, traumatic, and emotionally crippling directions. In this first story, and in some of the others that follow, Hand manages to do this all with supreme subtlety, and for that I find the first story the most successful and resonant with readers.

At other times, however, her stories deal with traumatic and heavy themes with unforgiving brutality. This honesty has made some of the stories unpalatable to editors, and even it seems unpopular with some readers. Even those that get darkest, though, it is hard to ignore their absolute beauty and the elegance of her prose. Dark or light, horror or fantasy, or even science fiction – her stories are all magical. Suffused with close ties to history and mythology they have that classical feel of the fairy tale, but made modern, feminist, and given a personal twist born from Hand’s own unfortunate experiences of psychological and physical trauma.

Even though I loved the writing throughout, some of the stories just failed to capture my interest on the emotional or plot level. And (as is the case with one story that she explains being written while working in a particularly bad office job) Hand sometimes writes in obvious emotional reaction to some experience in her own life, so transparently that it becomes too little about the characters, and more like a personal venting of the author’s that feel the need to hear, thereby taking you of the story.

Each story is followed by an all-too-brief note from Hand related to the story, and the close of the book includes personal photos and captions and biographical/bibliographical information. On the whole it worked as an effective introduction to Hand for me, and I’m intrigued to see what her later work – short or novel-length showed for her growth.

Four  Stars out of Five