Realms of Fantasy, February 2006

Sunday, 18 December 2005 20:53 Scott M. Sandridge
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“Messages” by Brett Alexander Savory
“Swansdown” by Deborah Roggie
“The Road’s End” by James Van Pelt
“Uncle Vernon’s Lie” by Patrick Samphire
“Dead Letters” by Christopher Barzak
“The Land of Reeds” by Patrick Samphire

I always find the cover art on Realms of Fantasy to be breathtaking and inspirational, and the artwork within to be no less so. This issue’s cover has “Lancelot and Guinevere” by Donato Giancola. Of course, cover art might sell copies, but it’s the quality of the fiction that keeps people subscribing. So let’s see what they have on that front.

After three non-fiction articles, the first story you come to is “Messages” by Brett Alexander Savory. In it, certain writers enter into a mysterious fugue state and write manuscripts that either predict or influence future events. Two branches of the U.S. government seek these manuscripts out: one to preserve the messages in their original form and send them to respective leaders, and the other to “edit” the manuscripts to influence events in a way that better fits their agenda. To preserve national security, the writers, of course, are killed. Emma Philson works for the side who wishes to preserve the messages, but she’s fed up with all the killing and decides this next job will be her last. But “the man in the blue suit” works for the other side, and while Emma seeks one manuscript, the blue-suited man follows another writer who happens to be Emma’s brother.

(Spoiler Ahead) The writing quality was excellent, and the story kept my interest up until the end. Unfortunately, the ending left me wondering why I bothered to read it. This is sad, for it had much potential. It could’ve been about something but ended up being about nothing. Nobody’s actions and choices mattered, and the whole entire mystery over the manuscripts was simply left a mystery. If Savory’s goal was to disguise a literary story with “fantasy” window-dressing, then he succeeded. But if his goal was to create a series of clever plot twists, then he didn't succeed as well. Others may see something in "Messages" that I failed to, and I truly hope that’s the case.

“Swansdown” by Deborah Roggie is a romantic and tragic “love-triangle” with magic swan skins. At least that’s what it appears on the surface. But it’s also about what it means to be human as well as what it means to not be. Goran and Doura steal magic swan skins from Doura’s husband, the wizard Camir. The feathers turn them into swans, and they fly off together. Meanwhile, Camir is determined to hunt down Doura and kill her, but he can only locate her if she returns to human form. Realizing that staying as swans will eventually eliminate their humanity, Goran returns to human form, but Doura refuses to and flies off. Though the ending is predictable, it is no less touching, and the romantic “fairytale” is a worthy addition to the fantasy genre.

In “The Road’s End” by James Van Pelt, the “traveler” comes to the end of his journey only to find that the journey never ends. While the theme is worthy, and the linear plot makes it less irksome than “Messages,” I found it difficult to maintain interest. Reading through the last half of this story felt like more of a chore than enjoyment, but it had more to do with the story itself than the writing quality. Van Pelt is a fine writer, and for that reason I wanted to like this story. Others might find this one to their taste, but it just didn’t work for me.

“Uncle Vernon’s Lie” by Patrick Samphire is a modern day fairytale. Benji is sent to stay with his Uncle Vernon for the summer. His dad warns him that his uncle will tell him only one lie his whole life and to “Watch out for it.” But which part is the lie: the little men wrapped inside the tea leaf, the children getting swept away by the stars, owls that suck out your breath and peck your eyes and feed your soul to things in the dark, or something else? This story teaches that truth is in the belief and that “growing up” has nothing to do with losing your childhood but with learning to face your fears. And, of course, that magic and miracles are everywhere. This tale will grab you, touch you emotionally, and leave you thinking about it long after you’ve read it.

“Dead Letters” by Christopher Barzak delivers in emotion, with a revelatory twist that enhances its impact. Alice Likely has come back to life in a body she can’t recognize, with only scant memories of her past. She discovers that Sarah Hartford, her childhood friend, is dead. Refusing to believe she’s gone, Alice writes letters to her in the hopes that she will respond. The story switches back and forth from expositions in the form of the letters to scenes and action, and has the occasional flashback or two. But Barzak handles it all with great skill. This tale of childhood friendship and the pain of separation is deeply touching.

Patrick Samphire graces us with two stories in this issue, his second being an Ancient Egyptian-style piece of dark fantasy titled “The Land of Reeds.” Amenemhet has been murdered and now his ka wanders the Land of the Dead, except the underworld is no longer what it used to be. Re no longer travels through each night, and the Land of Reeds can no longer be found. Amenemhet’s murderer, Djau, conspires to take Amenemhet’s wife as his own and murder their son. And since the dead can no longer be seen and heard by the living, Amenemhet feels helpless to stop his murderer’s plans. Worse still, his ka is forgetting his life among the living, and his will is slowly ebbing away. Only through the help of a mysterious child ghost will Amenemhet have a chance to find the missing Path of Reeds and save his family, but is his ka already too far gone?

This one kept me turning the page without pause, with its natural pace and flow of words, good characterization, and skillful plot build-up. Samphire’s writing skill is matched only by his knowledge of Ancient Egyptian culture and mythology. It explores the question, “Is there love beyond death?” While not an original theme for a ghost story, it is no less powerful, and is worth exploring again and again.

While two of the stories didn’t hold so well, overall this is an issue worth adding to your collection, and is a testament to Shawna McCarthy's skill as an editor. Also check out this issue’s “Folk Roots” and “Gallery” departments and gaze at all the lovely artwork!