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

On Spec #108, July 2018

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On Spec #108, July 2018

Medicus” by Robin S. Carson

"Tamarack and the Stone" by Timothy Reynolds
"When You Invite a Maenad to Dinner" by Allison Floyd
"Tide Child" by Sean Robinson
"The Saffron Curse" by Marcelle Dubé
"A Fire Across the World" by David Versace
"Dirty Sheets in the Acreage" by Chris Kuriata
"The Cloaked Lady Butterfly" by Lisa Carreiro

Reviewed by Pedro Silva

This issue of On Spec delivers an eclectic mix of eight stories.

A doctor gets warning of a long-awaited pursuer in Robin S. Carson's "Medicus." Retreating home, the doctor consults first with his wife, then Rufus, an in-house patient and army veteran, and it's clear the doctor has deep roots in the Roman town of Augustula. Soon, the pursuer arrives and reveals himself as David, an old acquaintance of the doctor's. Glimpsing the doctor's onlooking family, David shifts the conversation from Latin to English, continuing in secret parley. He's traveled from the 21st century to deliver the doctor a message: political winds have shifted, and the doctor, now exiled 20 years to the brutalities of early roman life, is welcome home. He would've freely returned, the doctor admits, were he summoned years ago; now he has different ideas.

What follows is an intriguing glimpse at the emotional repercussions of time travel. Carson's swiftly paced dialog fleshes out warm, sympathetic characters, and particularly of note is the dialog's engaging delivery of exposition.

Magic, plague and modern technology blend in Timothy Reynolds's "Tamarack and the Stone." A sorceress, the eponymous Tamarack, has recently transitioned to a female body via a series of spells. Now one final spell requires casting, one that'll complete the series and return her magical abilities. In hopes of securing an artifact magical enough to power this spell, she hazards a meeting with underground, black market sources. There, she's met by news of the encroaching plague, and rushing home, confronts a new dilemma: among the plague's latest hosts is Griff, her son.

From here the story ventures into welcome new ground, and though Griff suffers from some shallow characterization, Tamarack herself shines as a vibrant protagonist. Even more successful is Reynolds's rendition of Chicago, where wizards sport bluetooth earpieces and demons pose as bodyguards.

You and a your best high-school girlfriend host a cross-cultural dinner, in Allison Floyd's "When You Invite a Maenad to Dinner." Your maenad guest cares little for dinner table etiquette, and your girlfriend isn't as forgiving as you, bristling at every faux pas till it's clear a confrontation is inevitable. From here, the plot drives toward a resolution that's equal parts comical and surprising. Also of note is the second-person prose, which borrows the tone of an instructional booklet, and remains engaging throughout.

Cavan, a fisherman's son, returns home from a night at the tavern to his Mam and Da quarreling, and bedsheets in the hearth, in "Tide Child" by Sean Robinson. During heavy storms, the fisherman will leave for the comfort of another woman, accuses Ma. Now Ma is prepared to leave too, but when calling for Cavan to join, Cavan refuses, and Ma treks off alone. Life continues for the fisherman and his son, and Cavan soon learns he too is to be a father. All the while, Cavan suspects the storms are stirring something within his father, hints of a deeper affinity to the sea.

Robinson adeptly explores familial themes, as events unfurl at a leisurely, literary pace. The prose works especially well at highlighting a sympathetic father/son relationship, while always foregrounding the duo's emotional stakes.

Eddie and Amanda, co-owners of a hip new Vancouver restaurant, prepare to receive a prominent critic, in "The Saffron Curse" by Marcelle Dubé. The critic, whose reviews are known to make or break upstarts in Vancouver's culinary scene, orders an off-menu item: Eddie's famous Badaboom monkfish. But among the dish's key ingredients is saffron—a seasoning that, if the building's previous owner is to be believed, is mysteriously responsible for the many fires marring the building's history. Eddie paid heed, locking the saffron in the restaurant safe. Yet, confronted now with the risk of a damaging review, Eddie ignores all warnings, retrieves the saffron and settles into prepping the dish. It's not long before his work is interrupted.

The story's pace and prose bristle with the energy of a crowded kitchen. Quotes from the critic's future review intercut the action, cleverly juxtaposing the kitchen's mayhem against the dining room's practiced, low-key service. Dubé also writes a charming duo in Eddie and Amanda, both sporting complementary personalities—personalities made all the more lively when tested against the curse's more fantastical manifestations.

Colonel Garbutt stows away on a steamer ship in pursuit of an arsonist by the name of Rusanov, in David Versace's "A Fire Across the World." Having tracked his quarry across the globe, Garbutt is surprised to learn the arsonist has a compatriot aboard, a professor and fellow Russian. As the steamer parts for the East China Sea, Garbutt storms the professor's room. After a snappy parlay, tensions escalate when the professor's bodyguard enters. The resulting struggle has Garbutt sailing through a porthole window, but not before intuiting the dark motivations behind Rusanov and the professor's partnership, and the fires sparked in their wake.

Garbutt's quest loosely models a detective procedural, with a sizzling pace that catapults readers toward a final, high-action confrontation. A mid-piece flashback works well to characterize Garbutt as the desperate hound in this chase, and Rusanov in particular succeeds as a menacing villain. Versace's world of steamer ships, Southampton steel and powerful angels feels at once authentic and exotic. It's only slightly disappointing then that the themes touched upon here (i.e., power and its corruptible influence) fall squarely in familiar territory.

Anna walks her acreage amid a seemingly ruined world, in "Dirty Sheets in the Acreage" by Chris Kuriata. She returns from these excursions with snails and bugs nestled in her hair. Worse, her nails have grown to talons, her mane netted tadpoles. In charge of Anna’s bathing and upkeep is her mother, Sheila, who understands the mysterious importance of her daughter’s roaming. But now Sheila’s old age serves as a catalyst for change: Anna must groom herself. It isn’t long before Anna takes to this new responsibility, nor long before the acreage is inundated by visitors. Drawn by Anna’s new scent, a gaggle of young men vie for Anna’s affections.

Kuriata presents a cross-generational tale with a literary bent. Though the nature of the acreage remains largely undefined, as does the state of the world at large, the story succeeds as a well-characterized portrait of a mother/daughter relationship that endures even amid environmental cataclysm.

Edgeworth, a beloved teacher, walks to the gallows in "The Cloaked Lady Butterfly" by Lisa Carreiro. His treatises against the monarchy have earned him his sentence, though he fears his political criticisms will remain overlooked. Despite cries of sympathy from onlookers, Edgeworth pushes forward, convinced his Earthly duties are complete. But a mysterious woman steps forth, seemingly unseen by the crowd and with an offer on hand: Edgeworth is to teach one more student; in exchange, the woman will orchestrate his escape.

The story's single scene manages to convincingly world-build the setting of Graveny and its townspeople. Flashbacks detail the many acts of gratitude performed by Edgeworth's former students, which juxtapose well against Edgeworth's acerbic voice. Most notably, Edgeworth's characterization succeeds as this issue's most emotionally resonant.