Prime's Fantasy Magazine was launched in late 2005. In prospect it was incredibly enticing: a regular print venue for the quirkier, more self-consciously lyrical end of the short fiction market, for the magic realism and twice-told tales that are less in evidence in the bigger zines. For, above all, that loose group of mostly young, mostly female writers who revel in style for its own sake: those whose stories have found homes in the likes of Alchemy, or Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. The first issue fulfilled much of this promise, and for a while the standard remained high, but the last few issues have been somehow lacklustre, a great many of their stories tonally a little too similar: earnest and dreamy, lacking in punch or much in the way of humour. This new anthology is not a "best of" the magazine, but rather sets out to showcase "short fiction of the type that can be found" (p. 7) in it. In other words, the stories have not previously been published in the magazine, although some of the authors have. We are promised "sophisticated, literate tales" that push imaginative boundaries using original styles. Inevitably, this is truer of some contributions than others.
The editors studiously avoid defining fantasy in their introduction, and who can blame them. Happily, the blog for the magazine has in the past been less circumspect: "High fantasy, contemporary and urban tales, surrealism, magical realism, science fantasy, and folktales can all be found in our pages," we are told. Perhaps unavoidably, given the short-story form, high fantasy has not been much in evidence during the magazine's run. Peter Beagle's "Salt Wine," in #3, was a (splendid) exception, but most stories—and certainly all of the ones in this anthology, although a case might be made for Cat Rambo's "Sugar"—belong in the other categories, insofar as it is possible to draw clear lines between them or their subgenres. The bulk of Fantasy's fantasy, both here and in the past, can be filed under the headings of contemporary/urban or folktale, in both cases heavily magical realist. Four of the eleven stories here re-tell familiar fairytales and myths: Baba Yaga, the Lady of Shallot, the Goose Girl, and the inevitable selkie all put in appearances. This is actually a higher ratio than the most recent issue of the magazine I have read (#5)—in which only really Alaya Johnson's "Among Their Bright Eyes," an interesting but waywardly structured take on Frankenstein's monster (or rather, his "bride"), really qualifies as a twice-told tale—but is otherwise characteristic. Four might be called contemporary. Only two—unless we count the fairytales—are set in secondary worlds, although one (Holly Phillips's) is magical realist before it is anything else. The remaining one is surrealist, within a sort-of contemporary setting. All but one, incidentally, are by women.
Sarah Monette is clearly among the best of the writers on display here, and her entry is a stand-out. The choice of a selkie tale ("Somewhere Beneath Those Waves Was Her Home") might seem at odds with her rather formal storytelling style and so, at first, it proves; but it is, on balance, turned into a strength. The narrative point-of-view switches between two women, both of whom are, for different (if thematically-related) reasons, trapped in the same sleepy coastal town. The brisk, bitter perspective of the selkie is all in present tense and filled with slang and contractions ("It would've been nice if the artist fucked as pretty as he talks" [p. 32] is how her first scene concludes); alternating with this is the quietly desperate voice of a woman named Magda Fenton, whose first-person, past-tense restraint reads much closer to the drawing-room diction seen elsewhere in Monette's work. At one stage she is "startled nearly out of [her] wits by a man's voice" (p. 34); elsewhere she alludes to The Tempest, and responds to the news that her husband is cheating on her with a weary, "'That explains a great deal.'" (p. 42). The emotional weight of the story is also very much with Magda's less dramatic, but equally stifling, situation. The contrasts between the two women, and the way in which they find a mutually-liberating common ground, make for an interesting and unusual take on this (currently very popular) old story. In combining all this with an attention to sensory detail, in some neat descriptive touches ("I pushed open the door, and pushed hard, for like all the doors in this town it was balky and swollen with the breath of the sea." [p. 32]), Monette produces an affecting piece that is also markedly well-crafted.
The other stand-out comes at the opposite end of the collection, in the shape of Holly Phillips's "Brother of the Moon." It concerns a man—referred to throughout only as "our hero"—on that most conventionally fantastical of journeys: a perilous quest to transform a war-torn world. This story shares many of its strengths with Monette's, notably the evocation of physical sensation, which effectively grounds (and intensifies) the essentially spiritual and emotional journey of the protagonist.
Walking in the sunshine intensifies his hangover thirst. He feels gritty and unkempt, with a sour gut and a spike through his temples, but his worn army boots hug his feet like old friends, and it is good to be on the move. (p. 155)
The image of the boots, here, points to a technique used throughout; Phillips's similes constantly draw their comparisons from our hero's interiority, from his memories and experiences and longings (later, we get the wonderful, "The sky is as far as heaven, and blue as his sister's eyes." [p. 163]). All of this—together with the machine-gun placements dotting his route, and the too-young soldiers in flak jackets that he encounters—makes our hero's quest a much more visceral one than it otherwise might be. Phillips takes a familiar fantasy trope and makes it new and vital.
Other stories are told in a more conventionally fantastical register. Margaret Ronald's "Goosegirl" opens with a paragraph of striking immediacy ("I stumble into the city at the back of the princess' entourage, clutching the Red Book to my chest. By the time someone notices me, I can almost speak again." [p. 9]), but overall the tone tends towards the earnest rather than the urgent or experimental. It is a solidly-told tale with some nice touches, but it is never really surprising. We have, after all, seen a great many of these first-person retellings of fairytales; the reconfigured emotional beats (the heroine has to find her true self as well as true love) are familiar. (Much the same may be said of "Bear Lake," Ronald's piece in #5, another well-written but unremarkable redemption story.)
Rather more interesting in both idea and execution is Samantha Henderson's "Shallot," in which the conceit is that the Lady of Shallot is in fact an alien on a seeding mission, whose ship crash-landed by Camelot. The alien uses the ideas and images of chivalric songs to lure people (or "brainmeats," as she thinks of them) to her, then controls their minds and uses them as hosts for her eggs. It's darkly funny and over too quickly, yet is still painted with just enough brushstrokes to suggest a much larger canvas, of both world(s) and characters' lives, behind the snapshot episodes explored directly. Great fun.
Tonal and structural variety are both in evidence elsewhere in the collection. Ekaterina Sedia's "Zombie Lenin" overplays its mythological touchstones and never quite lives up to the promise of its title, but its brief sentences, snippets of taciturn dialogue, and fractured structure work well for this study of systemic alienation and emotional dislocation in Russia. ("'Dead are objects,' I tell him. 'Don't you know that? Some would rather become zombies than objects.'" [pp. 102-3]). In "Bone Mother," meanwhile, Maura McHugh re-does Baba Yaga at a refreshingly brisk pace and with suitably gruesome attention to detail:
Through the open door I stared at the night sky. The moon was the shape of an ox skull's horns.
I would spear the Wallachian prince upon them. I would girdle my home with his entrails and wash its walls with his pulp. (pp. 70-1)
Two of the stories in the anthology would not be out of place in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet—perhaps a little too much so, indeed. Becca De La Rosa's "All the Growing Time" is a charming, absurdist tale of a mismatched pair of characters with the power to control time (My Lord Yesterday cultivates it in his garden, while Isolde Martial "eats lost time […] like cotton candy. It melts away to nothing in her mouth." [p. 24]). A feud between them disrupts the flow of time in the world, in a manner akin to a Terry Pratchett novel:
Time grew bolder, and began to play tricks on the world. Once it stayed Monday for seventeen days in a row. Midnight began to come right after dawn, which came right after four in the afternoon. (p. 26)
De La Rosa conjures up many a delightful turn of phrase ("My Lord Yesterday […] bakes poetry in his oven to eat for his supper. My Lord Yesterday does not smile very often, but when he does, it is like sunrise in Venice." [p. 22]). Often, however, she sounds more Kelly Link than Kelly Link does, all second-person address to her audience and evasions that draw attention to themselves:
Isolde Martial lost an eye in Finland; she left it on her bedside table at night, and when she woke up in the morning it was gone. Isolde Martial believes a magpie took it. This is only one of the reasons for her ongoing feud with the magpies. I do not know the other. (p. 22)
The other LCRW-ish tale, Jeremiah Tolbert's "The Yeti Behind You," seemed to this reviewer—perhaps unfairly, and certainly unfortunately—like a more light-hearted but much paler reflection of Will McIntosh's "Followed" (LCRW #18). In McIntosh's story, those who don't tread sufficiently lightly on the Earth are followed around by the silent corpses of those whose lives their thoughtless consumerism has ruined—the sweatshop labourers, the starving, the people directly affected by climate change caused elsewhere in the world. In Tolbert's, meanwhile, people are followed around by equally mute extinct animals. The treatment of this device certainly differs; McIntosh is melancholy, Tolbert, at first, largely deadpan ("…the yeti straightens up to its full and impressive height, and stretches its arms up above its head. Michael hopes that it won't try to fit into his car." [p. 108]). But where McIntosh wrings considerable pathos from the concept, Tolbert does not—despite, as the story progresses, apparently aiming for a similar emotional note, the sense of lives lost and feelings forever beyond reach: "They're all here for the same reason; all watching for the moments they will never have again" (p. 118).
Likeable but unremarkable sums up the rest of the anthology. The best of the rest is Lisa Mantchev's "The Greats Come A-Callin'," about a young woman who is nonplussed to find that her portion of the recently divided-up family heirlooms consists of a brick—and still more so when said brick brings forth the interfering spirits of a horde of Great Aunts, who proceed to remake her house, walls included. It is full of humour and charm and cheerfully unflappable women, but feels rather slight compared with some of the other stories. (It does, however, make an interesting contrast with Erzebet YellowBoy's excellent "At the Core" in #5 of the magazine, which has a similar starting-point—the distribution of effects from a venerable family house—but takes it to much darker emotional places). Cat Rambo's "Sugar," about a pirate, a sorceress, and her dying lover, is fine but the mixture of adventure, romantic, and tragic elements never quite sit well together. Finally, "The Salvation Game," by Amanda Downum, is a muddled attempt to mingle sibling bonds, suicidal tendencies, and a vaguely vampiric eastern European cult. The prose is pretty, but edges on the purple ("Blood spills black as ink, a rush of liquid shadows, and the smell of sweet pennies fills the air." [pp. 132-3]), and the whole thing feels melodramatic rather than moving.
A sophisticated and literate anthology, then? Certainly. Pushing imaginative and stylistic boundaries? Somewhat less so. Like the magazine, Fantasy is frequently interesting, sometimes inspired, but—ultimately—only occasionally ground-breaking in the way it initially promised to be. Furthermore, the absence of authors (and Fantasy Magazine alumni) like Theodora Goss, Catherynne Valente, or Jeff VanderMeer in this collection—surely all flagship writers for the kind of lucid, challenging fiction that Fantasy champions—hurts its depth and overall quality. There is a lot to appreciate, and the budget price will undoubtedly help sales, but there is also too much that is forgettable; in the final analysis, it could have been much more.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, UK, where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
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