"Fable From a Cage" by Tim Pratt
"Stegosaurus Boy" by Steve Popkes
"A Hunter's Ode to his Bait" by Carrie Vaughn
"Return Stores" by Karen Traviss
"Here After Life" by Devon Monk
Novelette "A Fable From a Cage" by Tim Pratt is a mesmerizing tale, structured with a framing story of a caged thief being fed by owls and taunting the local boys as they taunt him. His fable to the boys is a cautionary story of a greedy thief who gets tangled with a faerie witch, come to retrieve her mistress' bauble; she has need of a thief. Wielding a bit of necromancy, the faerie brings the thief back to his roots, where the stories play out, coming full circle to the thief caught in the cage. All in all, a wonderful story, marred in spots by two logical flaws which may well be the result of the unreliable and amoral narrator. Excellent.
In Steve Popkes' novelette "Stegosaurus Boy," dinosaur bones, rockets, and lycanthropy are mixed together, which is always a recipe for the perfect summer for a thirteen-year-old boy in 1964 Alabama. Popkes destroys the idyll by placing our narrator against a backdrop of racial tension and puberty. Disappointingly, this story runs on far too long; the build-up is slow and, frankly, unnecessary. I think the story would have benefited from a 50% cut, but alas we are left with an interesting premise, bogged down with slow narrative.
Carrie Vaughn's "A Hunter's Ode to His Bait," a short story marred most by its abysmal title, sets three pieces upon the tableau - the unicorn, the virgin, and the hunter - and inexorably leads the reader to the end that can not be avoided. Though there are moments of fiercely smart description, these poor characters fail to rise above their parts in this clockwork tale.
"Return Stores" by Karen Traviss is a moving story about a grandson's cathartic reckoning with his grandfather's life and foibles: his job at the shipyards and his dismissal for a theft he denies. This short story is strongly written with a poignant ending. Traviss has done a wonderful job here, though this story is technically not fantastical at all.
"Here After Life" by Devon Monk is a short story about a very unlucky fellow who has almost died five times, and each time a bit of him has broken off to be a ghost. The fifth ghost, victim of a car crash, joins his other selves on the hospital lawn for a bit of introspection as they come to realize it might be the real thing this time. This is an interesting premise which resolves as a simple tale with a lack of tension and a weak finale.
The star of this issue is the Pratt story, though the Traviss story is a close second for its emotional strength. The others are less appealing, but pleasant enough, making this a sound, but not stellar issue.
Paul Melko is the author of a number of speculative fiction stories. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and works as an IT consultant doing computer stuff... you know, stuff.