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

Realms of Fantasy -- June 2010

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“Desaparecidos” by Aliette de Bodard
“Sultana Lena's Gift” by Shweta Narayan
“The Well of Forgetting” by Meredith Simmons
“The Hearts of Men” by T. L. Morganfield
“Fallen” by Bruce Holland Rogers

Reviewed by Daniel Woods

“Desaparecidos” by Aliette de Bodard

Acamba Valley was a happy, vibrant place. The people were friendly, and the city of El Águila was a bustling tourist attraction, only 15 kilometres away from the Caldera de los Angeles: the Crater of the Angels. Then the junta came. The Caldera is still there, and just as beautiful as ever, but the valley is a desolate place now, choked to death by the military occupation. On the night of their tenth anniversary, Patricia keeps an old promise to her long-missing lover Tomás, and returns to the Caldera. The junta took him so many years ago, and she doesn't even know if he is still alive. Probably not. But, the Caldera is a strange place, and when Patricia picks up a pluma de ángel (an angel's feather), the answers she has sought for so long suddenly seem a little closer.

“Desaparecidos” is the first of two “angel stories” in this issue. It never touches on religion (for which I was thankful), but instead focuses on earthier themes like grief and abandonment. On the surface, this story is about Patricia's search for closure. Patricia is a particularly believable character, and Bodard does a good job of making her anguish “real” right from the outset; until she knows what happened to Tomás, Patricia can't “move on” with her life. By the end, though, the message seems to be that “there is always a chance for redemption until you give up hope.” Tomás had an angel watching over him, but once he gave up hope the angel was powerless to help. It's quite a nice sentiment, found in an otherwise bleak story.

The piece is written in sections, and Bodard has prefaced each section with an extract from A Traveler's Guide to the Acamba Valley. The extracts describe Acamba Valley as it “used to be,” in idealised guidebook snapshots. As well as providing a past/present contrast, the extracts give us little thematic cues for interpreting the story as it unfolds; Bodard subtly lets us know what to pay attention to, and this gets you more involved when reading the story. As with an intriguing chapter title in a book, I liked having an inkling about what was coming next – a little mystery to solve with each section.

There is a lot that is familiar in “Desaparecidos” - blood, ghosts and angels, and a “this world is Hell” outlook, for example. But, Bodard seems to be aware of this, and does her best to create something original from a set of tried-and-tested tropes. For the most part, her story is both well told and entertaining, and there is a nice plot twist at the halfway point (look out for the character Miguel) that does a good job of taking “Desaparecidos” in an unexpected direction. Still, while a satisfying read, it is not a ground-breaking piece. It is definitely one of the better stories in this issue, but don't expect to see anything fundamentally new when you read it.

“Sultana Lena's Gift” by Shweta Narayan

Akbar, Shah-en-Shah, the King of Kings, has a problem. At Sarangpur, Akbar's foster brother (Adham) appears to have seized the maharajah's standing clockwork army, instead of destroying it. Such a show of defiance from a general is unthinkable! The easy solution, of course, would be to scour him from existence, but who knows what that would do to their mother, Maham Anga. And of course, there is no proof yet that Adlam's intentions are hostile. With the Artificer bird (a “mechanical”) as his chief adviser, Akbar must ride to Sarangpur and deal with the situation swiftly, before his seat of power is undermined.

Shweta Narayan's piece is half steampunk, half myth. The title refers to an old tale that the Artificer bird tells Akbar on their journey to Sarangpur; we are given two stories at once, mixed together. Ultimately, both stories are about manipulation. Lena is born with a special power that grants the wishes of any man near her (whether she wants them granted or not), and she must manipulate the men around her to gain control of her own life. Akbar, on the other hand, must manipulate his circumstances to gain control of the clockwork army and not lose his throne. The interesting thing here is that each story has a fundamental effect on the other. I can't discuss it fully without ruining the overall plot, but there is a pretty clever allegory going on whereby Lena's story foreshadows a plot-twist in Akbar's. It's quite satisfying when you figure it out. But, with so much plot to keep track of, it sometimes gets hard to keep up with everything. I was downright confused at one point.

Lena and Akbar's worlds are completely different, and I liked both of them. Lena lives in a time of legend and fantasy, while Akbar presides over a world of living clockwork machines. It's a good mix of genres, and all the characters seem “real” enough. I just think the central plot thread got rather lost in the weave of Narayan's story. At times, “Sultana Lena's Gift” felt more like two ideas jammed awkwardly together than a cohesive whole. If you decide to read it, be prepared to put your thinking cap on.

“The Well of Forgetting” by Meredith Simmons

Meredith Simmons' “The Well of Forgetting” is a dark tale about dirty consciences, and the ugly consequences of dumping your deepest evils onto somebody else. Hepta is a shunned child. Her dreams grow steadily more depraved as she ages, full of murder and sin. Nobody will go near her. At the age of five, her parents take her to the Well of Forgetting, and plead with the acolytes to extract the evils plaguing her mind. Shocked by the scale of her corruption, they agree, and for a time Hepta grows up happy and beautiful. Eventually, however, the darkness returns, and on her second visit to the Well of Forgetting, Hepta loses much more than her bad dreams.

This is a story about mental and physical rape. Hepta is a “Living Well” who absorbs all of the foulness from those around her. Eventually, people realise that her ability (as well as her body) can be sold at an almost unlimited premium, and the plot revolves around Hepta's efforts to escape what is essentially a life of prostitution. Through Hepta and the people who visit her, Simmons makes some interesting arguments about repentance and memory. There is a strange dichotomy, in that having bad memories does none of the characters any good, but trying to get rid of those memories makes things even worse. Perhaps the idea here is that suffering is a necessary part of life. Regardless, Hepta is a most satisfying character to encounter. You are “rooting for her” from the outset, and Simmons did an especially good job of portraying someone whose head has been emptied – Hepta is blank and servile, but still intelligent enough to realise that she is being abused (even though she remembers no other life).

“The Well of Forgetting” does what it says on the tin: there is a magical shrine that can purge your bad memories, and the story explores the negative aspect of this. If I have one criticism, it's that the ending is a little too neat for my taste, but otherwise I found this a very satisfying read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys some mild dark fantasy.

“The Hearts of Men” by T. L. Morganfield

The Left-Handed Hummingbird is a god with many names (not that he can remember any of them at the moment). Méxtli, Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird of the South – all of these names will come back to him in time, but for now he must decide what to do next. Remembering nothing before this moment, he finds himself surrounded by corpses, and feels a curious desire to cut out and eat all their hearts. When a small boy (Timacoz) approaches unafraid and heralds him as a saviour, Méxtli realises he must have a task to do. Timacoz thinks he has come to return the moon to the sky, and Méxtli can only follow (painfully aware of the delicious beating of the boy's heart) in the hope of rediscovering his identity.

I was pleasantly surprised by this story. It is based on Aztec mythology, which is something I have never seen before. As far as I can tell, Méxtli is the god to whom the Aztecs sacrificed their hearts, and Morganfield plays with this fact by placing him in a story about struggling against one's nature. In her world, all gods are drawn to “the cycles of destiny” (with Méxtli's destiny being that he turn once more into a selfish, bloodthirsty deity), and in his amnesic state, Méxtli decides he doesn't want to repeat that pattern any more. The story itself is also very engaging. The ever-increasing danger that Méxtli might snap and rip out young Timacoz's heart keeps the tension high. Timacoz is a typical wide-eyed, trusting lad, who has complete unshakable faith in Méxtli – the last thing we want to see is for him to get hurt. It is compelling to watch as the two of them battle the Tzizimime monsters and try to reclaim the moon, with Méxtli struggling to protect Timacoz all the while. In the end, it is Timacoz's faith that aids Méxtli the most, and the result is a heart-warming (if somewhat preachy) tale of redemption.

It is not so uncommon to find fantasy stories based in the mythology or religions of other cultures, but more often than not this is restricted to Ancient Greece, Native America, etc. – the “familiar” ones. I enjoyed this piece because I have never seen the Aztec beliefs used for a story, and it caught my attention straight away. It may not be an outstanding tale, but “The Hearts of Men” is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale genre.

“Fallen” by Bruce Holland Rogers

“Everyone has a theory about the falling angels.” Just theories, though – nobody really knows why the angels are coming down to Earth. Whenever one hits the ground, it starts a fire nearby, and if the conditions are right that fire can grow and spread into something deadly. When it's your job to put out those fires and you've lost half your crew in only a year, you'll do just about anything to change your luck.

This is a really short piece, just two pages long, and the second of the “angel stories” in this issue.  It is told from the perspective of an unnamed “smoke jumper” (a kind of parachuting fire-fighter). Essentially, Rogers plays with the idea of the “guardian angel,” in that when the angels fall, bad stuff starts to happen. It's a simple premise, but the scale of the world's reaction to the angels helps lend a little weight to the idea. The real meat of the story though (if you'll excuse the pun) is in the treatment of angel flesh. I won't spoil it, but the narrator's actions bring some very disturbing overtones to the story, and I suspect that this is where the deeper content lies. Unfortunately, I have no idea what that content is, and so my enjoyment of the piece was somewhat stunted. I was left feeling empty, like I'd missed something pivotal.

This is not a bad piece, and it'll only take about five minutes to read. The main character is believable enough, and “parachuting fire-fighters with fallen angels” is certainly a setting I've not come across before. But, there isn't usually time to become invested in pieces that are so short like this. To have any impact there has to be some sort of glaring point to them – something that makes you stop and say “ah!”. I think the final line (“But I feel lucky”) is meant to be very telling, but whatever point Rogers was making, it went right by me. I think this piece will ultimately be enjoyed far more by the people who “get” it; for the rest of us, it just cuts out without explanation.