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

Realms of Fantasy, April 2005

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"The Vampire Kiss" by Gene Wolfe
"The Wooden Baby" by Graham Edwards
"Death, the Devil, and the Lady in White" by Richard Parks
"The Language of Moths" by Christopher Barzak
"Blackthorn and Nettles" by Liz Williams
"Dancing in the Light of Giants" by Jay Lake
"Christmas Apples" by Margaret Ronald

ImageThe first thing I have to comment on for the April 2005 issue of Realms of Fantasy is the cover art.  The cover, by Kinuko Craft, is beautiful and a nice departure from the "fantasy babe" covers that have graced Realms of Fantasy in the past.  In recent months I've noticed more variety in cover art, and it is appreciated.  However, this is supposed to be a review of the fiction, so I'll get to it.  Overall, the April issue is a solid read, with a nice variety of fantasy styles.

First up is a historical fantasy by Gene Wolfe, titled "The Vampire Kiss."  When I first saw a piece of vampire fiction positioned as the lead story, I was intrigued. "The Vampire Kiss" did not disappoint.  It is a quiet story with subtle allusions to Dickens.  The plot is fairly straightforward.  Fagin, the leader of the orphan boys from Oliver Twist, shares the story of Tommy, a young boy that fell in with Fagin's gang of pickpockets. 

In the boy's story, a female vampire pays nightly visits to his family.  She gradually drains his father, then his mother.  In an attempt to save his mother, Tommy searches for the vampire's grave, intending to drive a stake through its heart.  When he finds her, he loses his nerve.

I liked the tale's Dickensian touches.  Wolfe deftly avoids the clich├ęs of vampire fiction by bringing the focus back to the victim.  Tommy is a true victim.  Even the vampire pities him. 

"The Wooden Baby" by Graham Edwards was one of the stand-outs of the issue.  If I had to classify it, I'd call it fairy tale noir.  In a classic noir opening, a beautiful woman wanders into a detective's office without quite knowing how she got there.  The woman, Beth Henson, is a young mother whose baby has turned to wood. 

The detective escorts Beth back to her house.  After securing his payment, he inspects the baby and recognizes it as a changeling.  He looks around and Beth tells him about her ex-husband, who immediately makes an appearance.  Beth's ex holds the key to the mystery and the baby's salvation.

Edwards balances classic pulp elements with the traditional elements of changeling stories.  The result is a piece that's lighthearted and serious at the same time.  The fusion of pulp and fairy tale fiction was fun and engaging.  Edwards doesn't have a bio included on the contributor's page, but I plan on keeping an eye out for more of his stories in the future.

"Death, the Devil, and the Lady in White" by Richard Parks starts out with an interesting premise.  A young man named John Alby falls in love with the siren-like Lady in White.  Approaching her means death, but he can't seem to stay away.  He hangs around on the edge of safety, waiting for her to appear and warning off as many of her victims as he can. 

Halfway through the story, Death appears and spontaneously offers to help John woo the Lady safely, but refuses to reveal his motive for doing so.  John takes him up on the offer.  He follows Death's instructions and seems to be making headway in spite of the Lady's protests. 

The story wraps up amid betrayal and disappointment, both John's and mine.  Vital information is kept from both John and the reader until the very end and it annoyed me.  I enjoyed most of the story and was mostly disappointed because I felt it was so close to satisfying.

Christopher Barzak's "The Language of Moths" is told from two alternating points of view:  Eliot Carroll and his sister, Dawn.  Eliot is a boy on the verge of becoming a man, and this story follows that transformation.  But it is just as much a transformation for Dawn, who learns to make connections with her brother in spite of being autistic.

The Carroll family comes to a cabin in the Allegheny Mountains in search of an undiscovered moth that Dr. Carroll, an entomologist, saw in his childhood while staying in the cabin.  The Carroll's are ill-equipped for life in such a rural environment.  They are not used to dealing with each other in such close quarters, with so few distractions.  Eliot is put in charge of watching after Dawn.  He thinks of her as a burden.  For her part, Dawn views her younger brother as a crotchety old man who's always grouching at her.

Eliot goes though a sexual, and more importantly, an emotional awakening.  Through this, he comes to view his sister with new eyes.  She is no longer his burden, but a treasure to protect.

The fantasy element manifests itself in Dawn's ability to communicate with insects.  She's able to speak to them without the distance that is a consequence of her disability.  She asks her insect friends to help her in her father's quest to find the moth, and they help her begin to cross the chasm between her and her family.

Barzak takes us into both narrators' minds with equal ease.  I have read a few of Barzak's previously published storys and I just plain like his writing.  I really think we'll be hearing more from him soon.

The next piece, "Blackthorn and Nettles" by Liz Williams, is another strong story.  Williams uses the myths surrounding the court of Math the Ancient to tell a poignant tale of the intimacy of enemies. 

"Blackthorn and Nettles" takes place after Math banishes his nephews, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, for the rape of his footholder, Goewyn.  The story's protagonist is Goewyn's replacement, a young woman named Creirwy.   Gwydion's banishment soon ends and he returns to Math's court.  Immediately he sets out to seduce Creirwy, and mostly succeeds, except she must retain her physical virginity to hold her position. 

The two carry on a quiet affair until Gwydion's sister, Arian, comes to the court.  Gwydion warns Creirwy that Arian is possessive of him.  Williams hints at the incest that is a part of the source material.  Arian and Creirwy are left to wage a subtle rivalry that Gwydion tacitly encourages.

A scandalous pregnancy drives both women from Math's court.  The truth is wrapped in vengeance, a grudging camaraderie, and an underlying sisterhood among women.   Gwydion's manipulation of his sister and his lover leads the women into darkness.  There is a hinted promise that their friendship will lead them to light.

It seems you can't pick up a magazine these days without seeing a story by Jay Lake, and this issue of Realms of Fantasy is no different, including the flash piece, "Dancing in the Light of Giants."

The narrator, a girl on the verge of womanhood, is ritually dancing for her ancestors, who have grown into giants.   It was beautiful.  I felt like I was missing something, which happens quite a bit when I read flash fiction, but it in no way diminished my enjoyment of the piece.

The final story in the issue is "Christmas Apples" by Margaret Ronald.  This story effectively evokes the goodwill of the holidays, though it is a little out of season.  Like "The Wooden Baby," "Christmas Apples" starts out with an otherworldly detective.  Unlike the unnamed P.I. from "The Wooden Baby," Genevieve Scelan is all too human, but she has a knack for finding things. 

On Christmas Eve, a man Genevieve calls Charlie tracks her down and asks her to take him home.  She quickly justifies accepting the job, blowing off her boyfriend and father.  Charlie and Genevieve travel increasingly treacherous roads.  She is taking him home and running away from the difficult relationships in her life.

During the trip, Genevieve confesses that when she was a child, her father was an abusive alcoholic.  The Christmas of her sixth year, her mother bundled her into the car and they drove all night to escape.  Her father let them go, and later was able to dry out.  By the time he found them again, Genevieve's mother was dead.

Genevieve finds what Charlie's looking for and learns that going home again doesn't have to be difficult or painful.  The story is better the second time.  There is a nice metaphor regarding the grafting of apple trees onto healthy roots that resonates powerfully all the way to the end.  If this story had run in December, it may have been lost among the "feel good" stories of the holiday season.  Holding it for a time of year when the novelty of snow has worn off reinforces Genevieve's ambivalence toward Christmas.  This was a great story that worked on all levels.