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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Strange Horizons, December 2006

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“Love Among the Talus” by Elizabeth Bear
“Heroic Measures” by Matthew Johnson

“Isolde, Shea, and the Donkey Brea” by Ursula Pflug is, on the surface, a heartwarming tale with a magic system that draws heavily on the Feminine Principle of Wicca. Isolde and Shea have dealt with five years of war and foreign occupation. With Isolde’s daughter, Bree, turned into a donkey by an evil sorcerer (or so Isolde claims), they set off to find the library built by their predecessors to house their greatest mystical lore. Along the way, they must hide from the soldiers. Finding help from an innkeeper’s daughter, they begin to discover some of their lost art during the journey while gaining more insights into the relationships they have for each other. But will they find the library, and will the donkey, Brea, get changed back to Isolde’s daughter, Bree?

The strength of the story is in the relationships among Isolde, Shea, and Brea. Pflug’s writing is well done; although, there was a bit of infodump-itis a time or two. The plot twist and reveal at the end, however, is an enlightening one while also a bit of a tearjerker. I also liked how the magic system borrowed heavily on the Maiden, Mother, and Crone aspect of Wicca and its concept of three being a symbol of power. A well told tale and worth a read.

In “Love Among the Talus” by Elizabeth Bear, Princess Nilufer, daughter of Hoelun Khatun, is heir to the Khatun throne. But she can only gain the throne if she marries. The Khagan wishes to marry her to Toghrul Khanzadeh, one of his sons, to insure his control over the Khatun’s lands, and her mother wishes her to marry the bandit prince, Temel, her mortal enemy but also an enemy to the Khagan. Nilufer sees neither of the two as suitable. So what is a headstrong warrior princess to do in a situation like this? Something amazing in its cunning intrigue, of course.

The story is written in much the same tradition as the fairy tales of old, so prepare for a little bit of infodumping and telling instead of showing. But as with Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, Bear handles the style superbly and in a manner that keeps you reading—a feat few writers today can pull off.  The characters were well-rounded and stood out in their own ways. Unfortunately, I could only sympathize with Temel, perhaps because he was the only male in the story I felt I could relate to. The protagonist, Nilufer, acted more like an antiheroine than a heroine, but in many ways, that’s what makes her stand out above all the other heroines in the stories I’ve read.

“Heroic Measures” by Matthew Johnson could possibly be considered trademark infringement if certain names had been mentioned (but I’m no lawyer, so don’t take my opinion as a legal declaration). But the main characters go nameless—although, it’s easy for fans of a certain comic book to know who they are. A certain radioactive rock goes nameless as well. The story uses a superhero icon as a conduit for dipping into the “pro-life/pro-death” arguments that have been raging for years to craft a heartfelt tale that leaves you saddened. All-in-all a good read.