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Fantasy & Science Fiction - February 2005
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The Stories
"Inner Huff" - by Matthew Hughes (novelet) 31 pages
"From Above" - by Robert Reed (short story) 20 pages
"Queen of the Balts" - by R. Garcia y Robertson (novelet) 40 pages
"Proboscis" - by Laird Barron (novelet) 24 pages
"Dutch" - by Richard Mueller (short story) 17 pages

The February issue is better than the January issue, but it's still not up to the wonderful standards that it had last summer. There are five stories in this issue, and three of them are quite good. There is one that didn't do anything for me ("Proboscis") and on that was flawed but still kind of entertaining ("From Above"). I was very surprised at how neutral the movie review was, compared to past issues. While it is ultimately negative, Skal does a good job of pointing out the strengths of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It's very entertaining to read. The highlight of the issue has to be the return of Matthew Hughes, though. While "Dutch" is quite good, Hughes gives us another adventure for that explorer of the human condition Guth Bandar. This time, it's a bit more porcine than usual, but that's our Guth! While it hasn't been a strong start to the year, things are definitely starting to look up.

The stories
"Inner Huff" - by Matthew Hughes
This is another tale in Old Earth, most recently visited in Hughes' entertaining novel, Black Brillion. Guth Bandar, adjunct scholar at the Institute for Historical Inquiry and explorer of "The Commons" (the area of myth and archetypes created by the group consciousness of all humanity), is trying to catalog all of the songs of the Loreleis, those she-creatures with enchanting singing voices. He has to be very careful not to succumb to their charms himself. However, when reciting one so that he can add it to his collection (and entranced with the image of besting his rival at the Institute), he is set upon by an enchantress and turned into a pig. Thus follows an adventure throughout the commons as he tries desperately to not only be turned back into a human but to avoid becoming some wicked woman's pork roast. Hughes explores a few myths and nursery stories (the myth of the enchantress Circe as well as the three little pigs story are played to great amusement here) all the while giving us a better look at Bandar's personality. Hughes has an interesting way of writing that is quite amusing and light but not laugh-out-loud funny (which I don't think was his intention anyway). Bandar is an interesting protagonist, which is a good thing as Hughes doesn't really give us any other characters in this story. Just a lot of funny animals, including Bandar unintentionally teaching the big bad wolf just how to avoid his usual pitfall. All in all an entertaining read.

"From Above" - by Robert Reed
A group of Cub Scouts are exploring a forest around town when they happen upon a balloon. The balloon starts talking to them, insulting them ("you stupid stupid stupid sacks of water") and speaking of events that no one could know about. Manny, a nine-year-old boy who has been elevated in school to the same level as the eleven-year-olds, is the only one who even has a clue what's going on, but the actions of one boy forces everybody else to run. Jonah Klast, the most brilliant scientist around (except if you ask his mother, who still gives him an inferiority complex), sees the commotion and hurries to investigate. The police cordon off the area, but he's determined to take a look, and only Manny seems to understand Jonah's complex explanation of what's going on. When they find out what the balloon is, it will have catastrophic results for a large part of the world. Except for Jonah, that is. This is a story of dimensions, and what would happen if something from a higher dimension interacted with our 5-D environment (don't forget space and time). The balloon is like the circle that something living on a piece of paper would see if a stick was poked through it, and thus can see the past, the future, and everything in between. The balloon is arrogant, insulting everything that it sees, revealing truths that make people fight each other (one cop finds out his wife is sleeping with his partner) and generally making mischief. Unfortunately, I didn't really buy Klast's character as much as I could have. I know it's thoroughly possible for a parent's insults to affect a child (or the adult he grows into) self-esteem, but he's acknowledged to be an arrogant prick everywhere else and I didn't quite believe that personality. Reed is obviously relating the balloon and his mother (they're both insulting and mean to everything around them) except that the balloon recognizes his genius while to the mother he's never good enough. However, he just rang false. Also ringing a bit false is the amount of responsibility for what happens Manny takes upon himself. It's an interesting story, but these issues rob it of some of its impact.

"Queen of the Balts" - by R. Garcia y Robertson (warning: this story has sexual content)
Another tale Robertson's "Markovy" fantasy universe (which is almost an alternate-Europe, as Germany and Poland exist in this world), this is a story of Princess Annya, a Valkyrie and princess of Zilvinas. It begins with the funeral of her stepfather, the only father she's ever really known and the regent of the kingdom. She commits him to her fellow Valkyries and then returns to the task before her: saving Zilvinas from the rampaging Knights of the Sword. She comes up with a clever, if very dangerous plan to enlist the aid of Markovy, especially Prince Nikolas. She will present a marriage bargain to him, but first she has to convince him that the Knights of the Sword are not his allies, despite the fact that they are both working their way through Zilvinas. But first, she must reach him. I found Annya to be an interesting character to read about and I liked her outlook on the world. She's a pagan princess, a valkyrie, and yet still devoted to her people. She's kind enough to give her Polish mercenary captain and his men leave to join her enemy in order that they might be saved, despite the fact that they will now be on opposite sides. She's the only fully-rounded character in the story, but Robertson gives us enough about the others (especially Nikolas and Jakosz) that they don't seem flat. Annya is a very passionate woman, and there is some strong sexual content (one scene and some other allusions), but that seems to come from her personality and does not seem gratuitous. I did find the real-world names and places a bit distracting, but that's the only real problem with it.

"Proboscis" - by Laird Barron
A duo of bounty hunters (Cruz & Hart) and the narrator (Ray, a former actor), who is thinking of writing a book about his experiences, have just finished up a job in British Columbia that didn't go down very well. They were almost arrested and they were basically thrown out of Canada. On the trip back down I-5, strange events start happening. First, they visit a bluegrass festival and Ray starts feeling very odd. Then, Cruz insists on visiting the Mima Mounds, which isn't far off of their path. First, they stop off at a run-down diner, and on the television Ray notices a picture of their car with some sort of weird creature in it. Then things get stranger, the world starts turning into an incredibly bad simulation, until a confrontation at Mima Mounds forces Ray to rethink every thing he knows about his bounty hunter friends. This story just completely failed to grab me, being almost too weird for any clear understanding. There's a nice scene between Ray and a farmer who picks him up while he's hitchhiking, where they get into a discussion about the assassin bug and how it blends into its surroundings to sneak up and kill other bugs. Obviously that's what's going on in the story, but none of the characters were very interesting and it seemed to be weirdness for weirdness' sake. The imagery is cool, especially when the world starts turning into a badly faked production of the world (the only things missing are the wires and the zippers), but ultimately the story just falls flat.

"Dutch" - by Richard Mueller
This is a story of forgiveness and redemption. Red has always lived for the trains, and when he gets out of 'Nam, that's where he wants to go. He begins a career driving the trains all around the country. Inevitably, he encounters Dutch, a quiet old man who rides the rails aimlessly, just going from one part of the country to another. He seems a fixture on the tracks, and Red meets him many times over the years. Nobody seems to know much about him. One day, Red meets his now-retired supervisor, who hands him a newspaper clipping that Dutch had dropped last time he stayed with the boss, starting Red on a quest to discover what really happened to force Dutch to this seemingly empty life. There's a reason within the story that the character is called "Dutch," and in hindsight it's quite obvious, though I admit I missed it the first time. There's not really much SF in this, though there is a little bit. Still, it's an interesting story with wonderful characterization, spanning about twenty-five years or so. The characters age realistically, their personalities going through the slight transformations that life brings us. Red becomes a journalism student and then retires to try his hand at journalism, which also becomes important to the plot. Overall, though, what's good about this story is the emotional aspect. When we find out Dutch's secret, it's quite poignant without being too overwrought. We discover a man who has panicked and has had to live with that for a long time now. A man who had tasted love and thought he had lost it all. The story has a beautiful coda as well, ending on just the right note. Sentimental, but not too sentimental. Who cares if it's not quite SF? It's close enough.

The Articles:
"Books to Look For" - by Charles de Lint
Good Girl Wants it Bad - by Scott Bradfield
Through Violet Eyes - by Stephen Woodworth
Fantasy Life and Animal Life - by Mario Milosevic

"Musings on Books" - by Michelle West
Going Postal - by Terry Pratchett
Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War - by Clive Barker
The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Runes of Earth - by Stephen R. Donaldson

"Films" - by David J. Skal
A remarkably even-handed, though still negative, review of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

"Plumage From Pegasus" - by Paul di Filippo The Marching Models, where Penguin books enlists sexy models to walk the streets, corral men who are carrying books published by Penguin, and give them cash prizes up to $1800. Unfortunately, this begins to have a bad effect on the modeling industry as the girls start falling in love with these dweebs and marrying them, causing a shortage of models. The ultimate SF geek wish-fulfillment.

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