SFcrowsnest

The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/Jun 2017, Volume 132 # 731 (magazine review)

This third issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ for 2017 lacks any novellas but makes up for their absence with four novelettes, seven short stories, a poem and all the usual non-fiction. I’ll start with the novelettes.

‘Witch’s Hour’ is Shannon Connor Winward’s fiction debut in ‘MoF&SF’ and tells the tale of Esmelda, the gifted head cook who runs the kitchens in Castle Lochhunte. Esmelda has two problems to deal with. The old king, who loved her cooking, has just fallen ill and died unexpectedly. His young son and heir, the new King Sutton, is an unknown quantity. Will he object to a cook who is not only a foreigner but a woman to boot? On top of that, the ghost of the last head cook, Ballard, haunts her kitchens and continues to abuse her in just the same way he did up until his untimely death three years earlier. What can she do to ensure she keeps her job and thus the roof over her head and is there any way to exorcise Ballard’s ghost without being accused of witchcraft? This is an excellent debut story, marrying two intriguing and fully realised lead characters to a dark back story, a convincing setting and a fast-moving plot. The story tackles serious issues without ever feeling preachy and, although the ending is far from happy, it has an authentic ring of truth to it.

Richard Bowes has been published in ‘MoF&SF’ for a quarter of a century, with two of these stories winning the World Fantasy Award. ‘Dirty Old Town’ recalls Boston in the 1950s, when the unnamed narrator, then a small boy, first encountered Eddie Mackey. He’s a neighbour who would start as his bully and tormentor but would end up being a very close friend. Both came from poor Irish families, are gay and grew up to be creative outsiders, with the narrator becoming a playwright and Eddie becoming an actor. In addition, our narrator’s Irish grandmother has gifted him with the magical ability to get inside other people’s heads for short periods of time and experience the world from their perspective. This ability gets him into trouble about as often as it gets him out of it, but it does give him superior insight into the motivations of others. As we follow him through his life, from youth to old age, we see how his childhood has impacted on everything he’s done subsequently. Will he ever be able to escape his past? This is a compelling period story which evokes the time and place brilliantly. For me, though, the fantasy element was too thin and, although I thoroughly enjoyed the story as I was reading, it didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me afterwards.

‘The Prognosticant’ is Matthew Hughes second story about Baldemar, the wizard’s henchman, following on seamlessly from ‘Ten Half-Pennies’ in the last issue. It’s also the subject of this issue’s excellent cover art by Maurizio Manzieri, which brilliantly captures an exciting scene at the heart of the story. The tale starts with some amusing intertextuality as Baldemar catches Hughes’ previous series protagonist, Raffalon the thief, at an early stage in his life, prior to the adventures he had in the pages of ‘MoF&SF’ over recent years. Raffalon is here a fifth year apprentice, trying to pass a Thieves’ Guild test by breaking into the house of Baldemar’s master, the aspiring wizard Thelerion. Rather than shop Raffalon to the authorities, Baldemar thinks laterally. In return for his freedom, he takes the opportunity to interrogate Raffalon about what thieves look for when casing a joint, in the process learning several facts of immediate use to him. As a consequence, some months later, when Baldemar and his immediate boss, Oldo, are sent by Thelerion on an urgent mission to steal the impressive-sounding ‘Helm of Sagacity’, Baldemar is better prepared for the challenge than might be expected of the average henchman. Will that be enough to enable him to complete the mission and get home in one piece? Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Matthew Hughes’ relaxed and enjoyable style of storytelling. This latest story reinforces that judgement further. The plot is consistently entertaining and the world-building is extremely accomplished, too. However, the stand-out feature of this story, for me, is the growth in the complexity of Baldemar’s character. Not only does he let Raffalon go free at the start of the story, in return for some insights which he stores up for later use, demonstrating sound independent judgement. For a supposedly ‘hard-as-nails’ henchman, he shows remarkable levels of compassion when his immediate boss Oldo gets badly injured late in the story. Baldemar emerges from this second tale as an interesting, intelligent and thoughtful protagonist. I look forward to his next outing with great anticipation.

The fourth and final novelette, ‘My English Name’, is R.S. Benedict’s first story to be published anywhere, so getting it into ‘MoF&SF’ is an impressive achievement in itself. The story follows an alien creature whose origin and nature is unclear, even to itself, as it tries to survive in the contemporary human world. Rather like the Slitheen in ‘Doctor Who’, it has lived alongside us for many decades hidden inside a succession of flesh suits that enable it to pass for a human being, as long as it is not, for example, subjected to any invasive medical tests. The alien’s current incarnation is as a handsome British ex-pat called Thomas Majors, who is working in China as an English teacher. Since its flesh suits don’t normally last for more than a few years before getting damaged or falling apart, the alien tends to avoid making close friends. When the time comes, it’s easier to disappear without difficult questions being asked by those left behind. But we all get lonely and when one of the other teachers, Daniel Liu, makes friendly overtures, Thomas finds himself reciprocating. The friendship makes him happier than he has been for a long time, up until their relationship gets complicated, right about the same time that Thomas’ current body starts to show serious signs of wear. What should Thomas do now? This is a thoroughly impressive debut story, marrying an interesting SF premise to an authentically realised contemporary setting. I would have welcomes a slightly more eventful plot and a little more detail on the alien nature of the creature that is masquerading as Thomas, but I enjoyed my time with these characters and hope to see more stories from the pen of R.S. Benedict in the near future.

Turning to the seven short stories, Brian Trent’s ‘A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh And Stone’ is a military SF story set in our Solar system in the immediate aftermath of a terrible war. Harris Alexander Pope is a soldier-cum-spy who is looking forward to finally catching up with his brother during some long overdue shore leave. However, just before that happens, he gets dragged into one more mission. Will there ever be an escape from killing for Harris? This is a strong hard SF story packed full of interesting ideas, great action sequences and a protagonist who elicits great sympathy.

Kelly Jennings’ short story ‘The History Of The Invasion Told In Five Dogs’ is an enjoyable dystopian SF tale which does exactly what it says on the tin. Jennings packs a lot of story into a mere seven pages.

‘What The Hands Know’ is another of Gregor Hartmann’s SF stories about his hero Franden, last seen in ‘A Gathering On Gravity’s Shore’ two issues ago. Franden is now working as a scriptwriter on a soap opera. When he goes to a downmarket fight club, in order to get background material for his writing, his plan to meld into the background and observe those around him lasts all of five seconds. The trouble starts soon afterwards. Like all of the Franden stories, this one is tightly plotted and a great deal of fun.

Zach Shephard’s flash fiction piece, ‘The Woman With The Long Black Hair’, is a complex and intriguing morality tale which repays repeated re-readings.

‘The First Day Of Someone Else’s Life’ is John Schoffstall’s debut in ‘MoF&SF’. It takes place in a future USA which has fractured into hundreds of micro-States warring with each other along ethnic, religious and many other lines. Mook Donnel is an intelligence analyst who starts hearing a woman’s voice in his head, trying to persuade him to double-cross his current employer. He also seems to have significant memory loss and has no idea why. What’s a guy to do in a situation like this? Report yourself to your superiors and potentially get retired with extreme prejudice or listen to the voice and see what happens? The stylistic innovation in this story is that it is told from a second person point of view, where the protagonist of the story is referred to as ‘you’, rather than ‘I’ or ‘he’. Normally, this is a choice that quickly proves wearing for the reader but, for once, it actually works well here. Looking beyond stylistic issues, this story combines a fascinating SF scenario with a tight plot. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

‘Neko Brushes’ by Leah Cypess takes us back in time to Imperial Japan and a samurai warrior, Lord Yiromo, who is planning a violent coup and is hoping that some magical paint brushes, if wielded by a talented child artist he’s located, will help it to come to fruition. I loved this fable for its strong narrative, driving plot and intriguing ending.

Finally, Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s ‘Rings’ is a fascinating SF story set in a female-dominated humanoid society, where the only living men are slaves. Aris has been saving up for years to be able to afford one of her own and, as she brings Firen home from the slave auction, wonders if he’ll measure up to all of her needs. The plot of the story is pretty limited but the world-building is excellent and I found myself deeply intrigued by the back stories of both Aris and Firen.

Mary Soon Lee’s short poem ‘The Path To Peace’ tells a clear fantasy story in a page. I enjoyed this poem mainly because, for once, I understood what was going on.

I enjoyed all eight of the non-fiction articles in this issue but I’ll highlight my two favourites. Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty’s science column discusses self-driving cars and asks some very pertinent questions about this topical subject, while also providing an interesting factual contrast to Robert Grossbach’s novelette on the same topic, ‘Driverless’, which was one of my favourite stories in the last issue. David J. Skal’s television column reviews two recent SF adaptations, the first of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film ‘Westworld’ and the second of Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘The Man In The High Castle’. Skal provides a lucid and entertaining explanation for why he was unconvinced by the former but utterly thrilled by the latter.

Once again, ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ provides an entertaining mixture of SF, fantasy and non-fiction. If you’re not yet a subscriber, perhaps the summer holidays may be the ideal time to find out what you’re missing.

Patrick Mahon

July 2017

(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 8.99 (US), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISSN: 1095-8258)

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