REVIEW SUMMARY: Editor C.C. Finlay takes readers of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, issue March/April 2015, on a satisfying outing through wondrous worlds. Some are welcoming, others hostile.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, issue March/April 2015, contains a novella translated from Chinese, two novelettes and nine short stories, which make for substantial reading across science fiction and fantasy.
PROS: Great stories obviously. C.C. Finlay goes for a balanced table of contents with a near perfect split between fantasy and science fiction, women and men, and there’s an excellent mix of varied stories that complement each other.
CONS: I can’t pinpoint a single con. Reading magazines, anthologies and collections comes with the caveat that you’re going to encounter duds, whether they’re the wrong choice for the project, in conflict with your reading taste or simply on the dull side in comparison to the big, bright stories that enamor the reader completely. There were some stories that I forgot almost as soon as I read them, but even they were competent stories.
BOTTOM LINE: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, issue March/April 2015, is a strong issue and I would not be surprised if some of the stories go on to be nominated or have a long life as reprints.
Writing this introductory paragraph has involved more effort than the entire review for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, issue March/April 2015. How does one introduce an issue without finding purchase on an overarching theme? I guess saying an issue doesn’t need to have one central conversation built in its table of contents should suffice. What I do want to do is praise is C.C. Finlay’s editorial instincts and taste, as the stories featured differ wildly in both subject and genre, but work well as a whole and offer a cohesive reading experience.
Female autonomy surfaces as a topic with two skillful writers dissecting the subject from counter angles. The surreal and downright sinister “Little Girls in Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce is a chilling, but logical progression on the idea of the female body as object of beauty, status and decoration. Bruce is unflinching when depicting the process behind the making of bone knots: the practice of aesthetic self-mutilation women undertake in their desire to attain ultimate beauty and as a result, turn into immobile husks dependent on the care of others to sustain their existence.
Beauty is pain. Beauty is crippling. These are lessons repeated to women, when they aren’t enforced, and within Bruce’s realm of extremes (extreme agony for extreme celebration and admiration) one such bone knot, Piedra, examines the tradeoff and its legacy with clarity once her novelty expires. After all, beauty fades is just another lesson women have to learn the hard way in their lifetime. What happens when you become obsolete? What happens to the women who displease? What happens to the women who are actually men?
They end up in Alice Sola Kim’s “A Residence for Friendless Ladies”, where the residence in question is described as ‘a homeless shelter for femininity’ – a strange chimera of finishing school, dorm, substitute retirement home, occasional haven, but certainly a prison sentence in a fashion. After all, the friendless ladies in the residence aren’t friendless by their own fault or incapability to form relationships, but are castoffs and trimmings society has no intention to ever keep in its fold. This side commentary comes into stark illumination by the narrator’s hellish experience in the residence as the person furthest away from abiding the expectations of womanhood and isn’t a woman in the first place. He’s punished by his grandmother for daring to live life truthfully as a man rather than adhere to what’s expected of him as a her – a challenging undertaking considering he’s had to do this in a hostile environment. Kim doesn’t shy back from the psychological distress the narrator experiences at having his true identity erased and forced to live a false reality. It’s an experience that eats at the self, destroys and maddens. The surreal mechanics of the residence with its mysterious knocking at night that should never be answered and doors that best be left alone smear reality nicely and leave you shaken up.
To counterpoint these heavy works, you have the joyous and adventurous “La Héron” by Charlotte Ashley that tips its hat to Dumas and the witchy feel-good revenge story “A Users Guide to Increments of Time” by Kat Howard. The eponymous La Héron, swordswoman extraordinaire, and Sister Louise-Alexandrine, a nun with a penchant for violence and her newly appointed second in an illegal tournament, make for an entertaining duo as they win match after match and face the fairy lord Herlechin of the Wild Hunt himself, who wants new souls to join him. Fast-paced, bold and with sword fighting that’s actually enjoyable to read unfold, Ashley hits the sweet spot between high stakes and lightheartedness.
Howard also portrays a woman in a duel against a powerful adversary and here the price is her time. “A Users Guide to Increments of Time” focuses on the push-and-pull between two magic practitioners with the gift to control time. The story swings like a pendulum from Finn and Siobhan’s relationship to the trickery and complex methods, with which each steals time from each other, culminating in an imaginative showoff. I appreciate how Howard uses the characters’ wildly different approaches to time magic as a tool to develop their character, but apart from being a fun creative exercise (at least that is how I read it), the story is insular and there’s not enough meat to flesh out Siobhan and Finn as they exist only within the frame of their relationship and breakup.
Henry Lien’s “Bilingual”, a Blackfish-but-for-dolphins story, examines other forms of intelligence and consciousness already present on our planet and through its whirlwind of Tweets questions our treatment thereof. Lien constructs a narrative from social media posts with spot-on teen angst and links (here for an online version of the story with working links), which provide an immersive reading rooted entirely in reality and achieve a splendid effect where unfolding events feel strange and displaced from this world. I appreciate the creative use of form, but also question whether it will stand on its own once Twitter becomes a relic and the links are no longer supported. As a reader, I seek out stories with explicit elements of the fantastic or futuristic and I didn’t feel as though I read an explicitly speculative tale, which threw me off in terms as to how to interpret this story.
Bao Shu’s excellent “What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear” – the longest piece in the issue – offers particularly interesting nuance to alternative history as he moves the timeline of recent historical events that shook the world such as the Second World War and the Cultural Revolution in China. I’m not a history a buff, but I know enough about the sequence of events to the point every detail made me work to reconcile what I know to have happened with Shu’s rearrangement of their sequence. At its heart, though, this quietly told novella treks the rather cruel love story of the novella’s protagonist, Xie Baosheng, and his beloved Zhao Qi, or Qiqi as he calls her. It’s dramatic without it crossing into melodrama and accurately portrays how oppressing political regimes separate people from their loved ones. This is mostly due to the fact that Xie Baosheng feels as though he’s sitting beside you and telling his story; in itself an intimate, truthful act. Credit certainly must go to Ken Liu, who’s done a marvelous job translating the novella from Chinese.
Since I’ve already rambled too long, I’ll keep the rest of my commentary brief, but rest assured the stories are entertaining. Jay O’Connell takes academic talent scouting in the not-so-distant future to Michael Bay proportions in “Things Worth Knowing”, where companies and corporations are not above using military grade weaponry to make their point across. But if it’s explosions and annihilations you seek, Brian Dolton gives you all in “This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang” – a whodunit murder mystery with godlike AI entities that are the sole beings in the entire universe after all life has died off.
Nik Constantine’s “Last Transaction” – a science fiction story about a man on the run from the law on a colony – fits rather well into the fearful vision of the distant future as one of full automation and arbitrary systems in place for achieving proficiency, which are devoid of any nuance when dishing judgment. I appreciate the decision to depersonify the protagonist, but at the same time, I found it more or less forgettable in the same fashion I did Jenn Reese’s “How to Masquerade as a Human before the Invasion”, whose title clearly communicates enough so I won’t go in further detail. There’s nothing wrong with either but the issue has much more memorable pieces.
I think the same of Paul M. Berger’s “The Mantis Tattoo”, which is a straightforward folk tale set in the savannahs. The young hero, Nadur, takes on a task from the mantis, which is a most dangerous mission, but through his actions he’ll be responsible for the protection of his people. It’s a very by-the-numbers coming-of-age tale. Nadur thinks himself not suitable to be marked by the cunning, trickster mantis only to discover those traits and emerges as a hero. It is a well-constructed story. It’s also a well-told story, but it does little build upon and add new elements to this type of storytelling.
The one story I couldn’t read to the end is Jonathan L. Howard’s “A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell”, which simply didn’t click with its slow burning approach and three pages in, I gave up with the clear realization even if I did finish, I wouldn’t have anything insightful to say. But that’s one story I found lacking out of twelve works, which should be a sufficient indicator as to the strength of the issue.