Fantasy & Science Fiction

August/September 2009

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 117, No. 1 & 2
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 258

In the book review columns of this issue, Elizabeth Hand reviews Cheek by Jowl, a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin that I very much want to read, and Laura Miller's The Magician's Book (a non-fiction look at Narnia and children's reading), and then goes on to review Lev Grossman's The Magicians in the light of both of them. I love this format for a review column. It matches the way I tend to read the genre, mixing analysis with fiction and enjoyment. I'd like to see more like this!

The movie review column in this issue is mostly an extremely negative review of Watchman by Lucius Shepard, which reinforces my feeling that Shepard looks for something much different in movies than I do. But Shepard also apparently disliked the graphic novels, and it's true that if one didn't like the source material, the movie would have no hope.

"The Art of the Dragon" by Sean McMullen: This is the cover story for this issue. A giant metal dragon appears from nowhere, an impossible creature that shouldn't be able to fly, and proceeds to seek out and destroy or devour the world's most famous art while wearing a goofy grin. The story follows an art history Ph.D. (who hadn't been able to find a job in that field) who was lucky enough to take the closest pictures of the dragon when it ate the Eiffel Tower and therefore gets sucked into the government attempts to stop the dragon. This story could have gone many places, including a bizarre alien invasion, but McMullen turns it into a more psychological and fantastic story about people's reactions to disruptive events. The end caught me by surprise and was somewhat unsatisfying, but I kept thinking about it afterwards. (7)

"You Are Such a One" by Nancy Springer: This is one of the rare stories written in second person present. I normally find that annoying and distracting, but I think it worked here. It breaks down the separation between the reader and the middle-aged bank teller who's the protagonist. The story opens with her encountering a house that she'd only previously seen in recurring dreams, and then with the discovery that the custodian of the house is convinced she's a ghost. The rest of the story plays with the meaning of ghost and the effect of making an impact on another person. The end of the story is a disturbing inversion that left me with lingering thoughts about invisible work and seeing others as people. A strange story, but a good one. (7)

"A Token of a Better Age" by Melinda M. Snodgrass: This is a Roman-era fantasy story with a twist: the dragon-slaying at the center of the story is actually of a more Lovecraftian adversary, and Snodgrass blends in an amusing alternative history of Christianity. The best part of the story is the interplay between the storyteller and his listener — stories with their own built-in critical commentary are some of my favorites — but the tweaked background also adds interest. It stays mostly a traditional sword and sorcery adventure in the end, and the closing pun is worth a smile at best, but it works as entertainment. (7)

"Hunchster" by Matthew Hughes: This strange, short story about an intuitive scientific genius and a group of card players lives in the surprise ending, so there's not much I can say without ruining it. It's hard to find a new take on time travel, and even this one has probably been done, but I don't remember seeing it. Definitely a change of pace from Hughes's normal fiction. (6)

"The Goddamned Tooth Fairy" by Tina Kuzminski: This is one of two classic reprints in this issue and the reprint chosen by the current editor, Gordon van Gelder. As you might expect, it's an excellent story. It's a very domestic story, following a windower with a young daughter into a new relationship that he's not sure he can take a chance on. The fantastic element is lightly played in the tradition of mysterious advice from a stranger. It all sounds very stock and the resolution is predictable, and yet it still won my heart. Even the oldest story patterns, when well-told and full of heart, can be surprisingly moving. This is one of those. Well worth reading. (8)

"The Bones of Giants" by Yoon Ha Lee: I was thrilled to see a story by Yoon Ha Lee in this issue, and while I would have been even happier with something else set in the world of "The Unstrung Zither", I'll take an atmospheric fantasy with an unexpected wise teacher. This story opens with Tamim on the edge of the region known as the Pit, preparing to kill himself. He's interrupted by a necromancer riding the bones of a giant who recruits him to fight the sorcerer who rules the area. The story moves into one of training mingled with a growing relationship that takes a surprise twist. It's sword and sorcery, but deep for it and set against a rich world background. While I won't spoil the twist, long-time fantasy readers of certain preferences will get a thrill out of one revealed identity. Yoon Ha Lee is an excellent writer, and I hope we'll see even more by her. (8)

"Icarus Saved from the Skies" by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud: This story was written in French, originally titled "Icare sauvé des cieux," and was translated by Edward Gauvin. I approve of F&SF publishing some translated non-English fiction, but sadly I didn't enjoy this particular story. It's about a man who has wings, through some sort of mutation or genetic fluke, and his relationship with his girlfriend and wife who is deeply enamoured of the wings. He, on the other hand, considers them a curse and keeps considering having them cut off. Their relationship is borderline abusive, and the ending is nasty and left me with a bad taste in my mouth about the entire story. (3)

"The Others" by Lawrence C. Connolly: From sword and sorcery, this issue moves to planetary exploration SF. Cara is one of a mission team to a planet with native hunter-gatherer tribes, injured in a fight with a native predator. The twist is that the whole mission team are copies of herself, and normally they're all in constant contact and serve as additional hands and bodies for complex missions. But Cara, due to her injuries, has been cut off from that communication, and her other selves also seem to be diverging and developing separate personalities.

It's an interesting setup, but I don't think Connolly ever took it far enough or to a unique enough place. Most of the story is tense action in the dark, occasionally exciting but not that memorable. The ending reaches a conclusion of a sort, but not a very satisfying one. (6)

"Three Leaves of Aloe" by Rand B. Lee: I think this is the best story of the issue. It's set in a future India and centers on a woman who works in an outsourced call center, trying to support her family and particularly her daughter. Her daughter runs into bullies at school while borrowing her mother's cell phone (from work) and the phone is destroyed, which sets off problems at both work and, more centrally, with the school. The school wants to implant a "nanny chip" in her daughter to control her aggression and anger.

As you might expect from that introduction, this is a story of family drama and of understandings and misunderstandings between mother and daughter. Not unusual, but the emotional tone is spot-on and the ending is deeply satisfying. That mixes with a solid cautionary tale of messing with people's emotions in the name of making them more tractable (which I tended to read as criticism of over-medicating children). It's a beautiful story of resilience and family and the hard choices of child-raising. (9)

"The Private Eye" by Albert E. Cowdrey: This story returns to Cowdrey's favorite haunt of Louisiana, this time to follow JJ, an unlikely psychic. He's called in by the local Sheriff to solve a kidnapping of the daughter of a very rich bank CEO. JJ discovers he can do more with his abilities than read cards and eventually solves the mystery, which leads to further humorous complications in Cowdrey's normal laid-back style. One of Cowdrey's strengths is putting the reader in the head of not particularly bright protagonists and pulling the reader into the story with a combination of light-hearted humor and drama. This is a typical entry in the middle of that pack. (6)

"Snowfall" by Jessie Thompson: This is the second classic reprint of the issue, this time introduced by Harlan Ellison. The introduction is Ellison at his worst: egotistical, intrusive, excessive, and making one feel a bit sorry for Thompson and Ellison's interest in her. Thankfully, one need not hold that against the story.

The story itself is very short, very sharp, and very stark. It's about abuse, and it's likely to be full of triggers for some, so read with caution if that sort of thing bothers you. It's a fantasy of reclaiming personal identity in a broken and desperate way, and it carries a lot of emotional impact. There isn't much story, and there isn't much closure. It's more of a punch in the gut than a narrative. I prefer stories with more narrative, but I can see why Ellison chose this one. (6)

"Esoteric City" by Bruce Sterling: Sterling takes a stock fantastic premise (a deal with a devil of sorts) and twists it towards a look at modern capitalism. The protagonist is a venture capitalist and a necromancer, by which Sterling means someone supported by the oil industry. He made a deal with a damned spirit, a dead Egyptian priest. At the start of the story, he's taken to Hell to meet with the grand Signore of industry, particularly the car industry, and warned he'll be confronting Satan. But at the very end of the story, it takes a subtle twist into a commentary on compromise and the role of money in social change. Mostly light humor, but with a bit of a punch at the end. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-08-29

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