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

On Spec #79 -- Winter 2009/2010

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“Orchids” by Christopher Johnstone
“Carter Hall Judges the Lines” by Marissa Lingen
“Commonplace Sacrifices” by L.L. Hannett
“For Simple Coin” by Fraser Ronald
“The Meditation Machine” by Jamie Mason
“The Deer's Thorn” by Esther Rochon (translated by Jean-Louis Trudel)
“Perfect Day” by Chris Wroblewski

Reviewed by Daniel Woods

“Orchids” by Christopher Johnstone

Abramelin da Viadro is a “student of the philosophical secrets of nature,” and is writing his first book: Lusus Naturae. A codex of the unnatural and grotesque, it will be an essential guide to all the world's “whims of nature.” Unfortunately, monsters and mythical creatures seem to be in short supply these days; the triton at Lastmarkt was a fake, the harpy at Eisenfeld just an especially ugly bird, etc. Still, when he reaches the small village of Hamamelido, Abremalin hits upon his first real discovery: a dryad, one of many living in the nearby forest, and the locals are only too happy to take him up there to see it. Bringing the creature back to court, however, will be another matter entirely.

Johnstone's tale is set in a kind of three musketeers, 17-1800s France or Italy world (a “gentleman's sabre” dangling from every hip, grotty tavernas filled with local rapscallions around every corner, and so on). I think it's written as a kind of memoir; the young Abremalin is largely naïve of the world, particularly about sex, and I suppose the story is really about his first taste of reality. The dryad is a highly sexual creature who comes very close to corrupting Abremalin's “philosophical curiosity.” It's all pretty tame stuff though, until the time comes to take the dryad from the forest. Then things get a little more stimulating. The main issue surrounding the dryad is whether or not “she” is a sentient creature (as opposed to an extremely complicated plant with no real awareness): how do you tell a mimicry of life from the real thing? The villagers use dead dryads for pig food, for example, and using human-like corpses for animal feed creates an image that is awkward to reconcile. Abremalin's observations lead to a slightly odd, speculative conclusion on the subject, and by the end I found the piece quite entertaining.

I should warn you, the whole thing is written like this: “So I there I was, off chasing another rumour of a shadow of yestereve's tales.” The opening is particularly overblown, which might put some readers off right from the start. But, once you settle into it, the story itself isn't too bad.

“Carter Hall Judges the Lines” by Marissa Lingen

Carter Hall, like everybody else in Bemidji Minnesota, lives and breathes for ice-hockey. Cruel and unusual are the parents who don't teach their kids to skate as soon as they can walk. But, since the magic appeared in Bemidji six months ago (and Carter nearly lost his roommate to an evil fairy queen), nothing has been quite the same. Now, in Marissa Lingen's latest tale, Carter's normal and fantastical lives are about to come crashing together again. When three suspiciously beautiful peewee hockey moms turn up in Bemidji, Carter must be careful with every word he says. A wrong answer to their loaded questions could spell disaster for the town.

This is very much the third story in a series, and Lingen makes no bones about it. I was completely unaware of the previous tales (all published in On Spec), so it took me a while to cotton to this one. If you can, I'd advise looking over the other two pieces (“Carter Hall Sweeps a Path,” and “Carter Hall Recovers a Puck”) before attempting it. But, I am happy to report that it is possible to enjoy this story without all the background info. In her piece, Lingen plays with the Iliad – an epic poem about the Trojan war, and the roles that three Greek goddesses had to play in it (Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite). In short, it seems the ladies are back, and bent on causing the same kinds of trouble all over again. It's a simple idea, and the story is quite self-contained: Carter's life is complicated by myth and magic, and he has to put things to rights. It's an entertaining read though, and Lingen is really quite funny at times (“Tif was apparently not one of those girls who felt the need to fill every minute with an inane observation about how pretty everything is, pretty pretty pretty, until you’re ready to kick the next pine tree just for being pretty.”). If I had to say one thing about “Carter Hall Judges the Lines,” it would be that it's bonkers, but good. Give this one a go even if you're new to Carter Hall like I was – I think you'll enjoy it.

“Commonplace Sacrifices” by L.L. Hannett

“In the end, it was a fingernail that saved you.”

You know you're in good hands with an opening line like that, and L.L. Hannett doesn't fail to deliver with her latest piece. “Commonplace Sacrifices” is a wrenching portrayal of a woman (Sal) trapped in an abusive relationship, who absorbs the hurt quietly to shield her son from it.

This is an excellent story, one of two particularly good pieces in the issue, and one I wish I'd known about in time for the Tangent Recommended Reading List for 2009.* It is told from the perspective of a miniature demon, who watches over Sal without her knowing it. The opening is fascinating, with the mystery of the fingernail teased out just long enough to intrigue but not frustrate, and the rest of the piece is incredibly compelling. You are on Sal and the demon's side all the way through, and the story builds to a tense and satisfying conclusion. The demon itself is very original; it casts its spells by picking off parts of its own body, which puts an interesting slant on the idea of “sacrificing” for someone. Indeed, with regards to the title, the story works on two levels – we watch Sal's commonplace sacrifices as she protects her son James, and we see those of her little guardian imp as it tries its hardest to help her. The result is a rich tale that keeps you hooked right to the end.

Any in-depth discussion of the plot would ruin it, so I am simply left with this: the writing is very good, the characters all have depth and believability, and my interest never wavered. This one is a must-read.

*[Editor’s note: while the cover proclaims this the “Winter 2009” issue, it is also listed at the website as the “Winter 2010” issue, therefore all stories herein can be considered as being published in 2010, so close to the new year did this issue see print.]

“For Simple Coin” by Fraser Ronald

Caspan Trey is hired muscle – a bodyguard to whoever's paying, which is about all you're good for in the Hadrapole when you're not a wizard. His current client is Elnya, a beautiful charm-seller who works down in the Old Bazaar; the Witch-Finders are always on the lookout for new victims, and she needs protection. When Caspan comes home one night to find his shack broken into, he is ambushed by two assassins. It seems obvious that Elnya has been taken, and he has to get to her quickly before she is killed. That is, assuming he can survive this attack first.

Ronald's piece is is a classic bit of fantasy, but one that is choc-full of familiar archetypes and concepts. He uses a time-honoured plot (get to the girl before time runs out), but unfortunately that makes the story quite predictable. Add to that the gong at sunset, the blind old wizard (haggard but improbably strong, who aids the magicless hero), the grubby tavern, the rough and drunken locals, the city behind the “Gates of the Empire,” the damsel in distress... and you have a whole lot of clichés in one place. That doesn't automatically make it a bad piece – the combat scenes are quite lively, for example – but for me this was a bland story with an unremarkable ending. That said, Ronald himself admits his writing is “workmanlike” - that he is “more a craftsman than an artist.” Essentially, I think “For Simple Coin” is the product of a man writing what he enjoys, with no apologies for it. Indeed, it is worth noting that On Spec interviewed him quite extensively in this issue. He has attempted to incorporate aspects of Film Noir into the story (with some success), and it would be unfair to simply discount his work. I just think his piece was too familiar for my taste, and I suspect that will be true for many fantasy readers.

“The Meditation Machine” by Jamie Mason

Janice has some apologies to make, and she knows it. Of course, “I really am a good person, even if I [...] was responsible for starting this war. Everyone makes mistakes, and I’m no different” doesn't quite seem to cover it, but at least she gets points for trying. In a letter to her fiancé sent from a refugee camp, Janice explains how she accidentally plunged Thousand Worlds, an interplanetary civilisation, into unprecedented conflict. Apparently, when the entire empire is managed by an AI computer and you're its psychiatrist, keeping the damn thing happy puts the fate of millions on your shoulders.

This story is a bit of an attack on all things new-age, if we're honest. Yoga, meditation, and all that jazz, are held directly responsible for the downfall of society. Specifically, the practice of Zen Buddhism leads to bloodshed and chaos, which is a contradiction that made me giggle; to get over its depression, the AI (RAMSES-2) tries meditation, and becomes so introspective that it doesn't want to manage the empire any more: in his own words, “my continuing to compensate for the lack of human initiative was detrimental to the spiritual growth of the people.” The whole setup is quite entertaining, and anyone who’s read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and enjoyed Marvin, for example, will like Mason's own depressed AI.

That said, there are a couple of plausibility hiccoughs that niggled at me. Janice claims to have written her entire letter in twelve minutes, for example, and it's a bloody big letter. Equally unlikely, the actual start of the war is blamed on a two-day food shortage in one of the outlying colonies (caused when RAMSES-2 stops coordinating the supply ships). I think the whole story is meant to be quite extravagant and caricatured, but accepting everything Mason throws at you can become quite a stretch.

Normally I don't normally like stories-told-as-letters. It's so easy to lose a sense of the characters and lapse into a big fat expository ramble, and unfortunately this one is no different. But, the basic idea is entertaining enough to get you through that. I should also point out that the ego of Janice is extraordinary, and thus quite funny to read. I guess the whole scenario is a little ridiculous, and that's what gives “The Meditation Machine” its charm – this is a silly SF story that is meant to entertain, not inform or expound upon bigger issues.

“The Deer's Thorn” by Esther Rochon (translated by Jean-Louis Trudel)

“I could feel around me an unfurling of marvels.”

Award-winning author Esther Rochon's “The Deer's Thorn” is a wonderfully written tale about bohemian ideals and the creative process, submitted to On Spec as part of a “story swap” with the Canadian magazine Solaris. When the narrator moves to Québec with her cat Mimi, she finds she has a little time to spare before starting her new job, and uses it to explore her artistic abilities. She spends the days writing, painting, singing, and with every passing moment feels more relaxed and at home with herself. But, after a brief visit to her old home, she returns one night to find a second cat in her apartment. As time goes on, the city itself starts to look different, and soon it becomes apparent that exploring her artistic side is having an effect on the world at large.

This is the second of two particularly good pieces in this issue, and one that I recommend to everybody. It is about the idea of the “interstice” – a space in-between the lines of reality where people can exist in peace, free to pursue their creativity. Essentially, the narrator becomes so involved in her art that she slips out of real life, and finds a group of others who have done the same thing. The idea here is not escapism – it is more like “taking a breather” from life, for the sake of art.

The story is written in such a way that, by the act of reading about it, we too enter into this interstice, and so the whole experience of the piece is quite cathartic. Indeed, the best thing about it is probably the writing itself. Rochon's language is very ornate (doubtless thanks to the original French), and aesthetically speaking, it's more like wrought iron than a canvass painting: sturdy and functional, but still elegant. There is a kind of hard beauty to it that I very much enjoyed (cold, solid spirals of metal; no delicate sweeping brush-strokes). In essence, this is more a piece of art than a story – very little actually happens – but it is no less enjoyable for that. The intricate metaphors and allegories running through Rochon's prose are quite though-provoking, and part of the fun for me was picking them apart.

I was very struck by this piece, and I could go on about it for ages. The translation is very well accomplished, so credit is also due to Jean-Louis Trudel. Still, some readers will take this piece as philosophising, arty-farty waffle. I think that's unavoidable. But, if you don't mind that aspect of it, “The Deer's Thorn” is a beautifully written look at the creative process, and a real treat to read.

“Perfect Day” by Chris Wroblewski

Derik and Maria are wandering the ruined planet in a post-apocalyptic future, scavenging for food and shelter where they can. They haven't seen anyone else alive for weeks, even months. When they come across some fresh clothes and a little food in an abandoned house, the cinnamon smell of the place calls up memories of the world before its destruction. Still, the rumbling of a firestorm on the horizon undermines the illusion, and the couple spend the day trying to exist between the past and the present.

This is a very short piece, but one that has a lot of impact. Post-apocalyptic stories are nothing new, of course, but a very subtle twist in the plot at the halfway point really grabs reader attention. The hopelessness of the situation hits home, and we are left wondering whether Derik and Maria commit suicide or not. I'm not sure this piece is really “about” anything as such, and there is no overarching storyline. It is a snapshot of a brief moment of happiness found in clean socks and a familiar smell. That these mundane things give Derik and Maria a “perfect day” is what gives the piece a great poignancy, and I think you should definitely give this one a look. It is by no means a happy piece, but it's stayed in my mind since I read it.

On Spec can be found here.