Speculative Fiction Reviews
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Realms of Fantasy, October 2004

Realms of Fantasy makes its way slowly across the Atlantic, so this review is probably appearing just as the magazine disappears from US shops. Nonetheless.

Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven, by Tom Gerencer

I hadn’t come across Tom Gerencer before reading Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven, but I’m certainly going to be looking out for more of his stories. Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven is a delight to read. The narrator of the story, Bill, is somewhat put out when, one morning, he opens his door to a man who walks straight in and makes himself at home. The intruder is not just any intruder, he is a god, the god of hors d’oeuvres (except sushi). This visitor is just the first of many.

There have been quite a lot of stories about “small gods” in recent years, gods of the mundane and everyday, a reversion in a way to the small-scale polytheism of some pagan religions. This story nicely skewers them all. There are some great moments, such as:

“You don’t,” I said, “by any chance know the goddess of full-body massage, do you?” I asked them.

“Actually, it’s a god,” said Ida.

“Never mind,” I told her.

Even though this is a very short story, it is hard not to laugh out loud several times. Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven is an excellent opener for the issue.

Embers, by Rudi Dornemann

Next up is Rudi Dornemann’s impressive Embers. In this alternative history, a clockwork man appears, curled up and lifeless in the corner of a courtyard in a small town. His power has run down, out in the rain. Sophie, the protagonist of this tale, and her father bring him in and revive him in a fire. What follows is a touching examination of fear, love, and xenophobia in a small community.

I last came across Dornemann’s work in Flytrap with his fascinating The Labyrinth Tourist. Embers is no less interesting in its conception. This is a past where dragons are real and their fire is used to drive technology and to bring the clockwork men alive. The town that the clockwork man, ironically called Arturo St. George, finds himself in is a rural one that is both suspicious and resistant to the new technology and the railways that Arturo’s company will bring, and this leads, inevitably, to Arturo’s fate.

Embers is a powerfully imagined story, and the writing is flawless, so much so that it left me cowed. If there are any criticisms to be made of Embers, they would be that little that is unexpected occurs and so the end is somewhat flat compared to the early parts of the story. These are minor criticisms, however, and Dornemann’s story is certainly a contender for the best-of-issue.

They are Girls, Green Girls, by Ian McDowell

Ian McDowell’s They are Girls, Green Girls is the longest story of this issue, and unfortunately it is also the weakest. In a small town in North Carolina, a disaffected teenager, Rachel, makes friends with a new girl, a Chinese-American called Lily, who is distinguished by her green hair.

Lily, of course, isn’t fully human. Her grandmother was a Chinese forest spirit or goddess, and Grandmother Forest wants her grandchild back.

There are some wonderful descriptive lines in the story, such as the description of the stars as “winking like fireflies that had been blown into a dark creek”. But where the story falls down is in McDowell’s portrayal of the teenagers, and particularly the narrator. Most distracting was the narrator’s voice. It seemed to slip between Buffy-esque dialogue and a rather nondescript adult voice, as though the author only occasionally remembered that he was writing from a teenaged point of view. The teenagers themselves suffer from an overwhelming jumble of social ills--violence, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, disaffection--that is both depressing and reactionary, rather than realistic. In this, they appear two dimensional. In addition, the story sagged to an unconvincing ending.

I’ve liked what I’ve read of McDowell’s before, but despite the interesting mythology he draws on and some great passages of writing, this story didn’t hang together for me on several levels.

The Old Woman and the Moon, by Steven Popkes

Steven Popkes’s The Old Woman and the Moon tells what happens when a magician who has brought down the moon to be his companion eventually dies. Nichiva, a female messenger, exhiled from her own village and from the city in which she has since worked, is summoned by the dying magician to return the moon to the sky.

Both the conception of the story and its setting (a pre-history Central/South America) are reasonably original for fantasy. Despite this, until the end, this is a fairly slow, flat story. Although the protagonist moves from event to event--a hurtful reunion with her mother, interactions with the magician and then a developing relationship with the woman who is the moon--little engages on a fundamental level. Perhaps because of this--or perhaps the causality is the other way around--the ending is remarkably effective. In a few simple sentences, Popkes evokes a great weight of sadness.

As a myth (whether a retold one or Popkes’s own, I didn’t know), this carries the resonant depth of the most effective myths when it is done.

Popkes is a regular contributor to Realms of Fantasy. This isn’t his strongest contribution, but it is far from being weak.

King Orfeigh, by Ruth Nestvold

In King Orfeigh, Ruth Nestvold might almost have been going out of her way to prove that the “rules” many new writers hold to are unnecessary. Second person narration is rare in genre fiction--perhaps suitably--but Nestvold shows here that it need not be feared. If anything, it lends additional weight and poignancy to this story.

King Orfeigh is a retelling of the Middle English Breton Lay, Sir Orfeo, and thus is a version of the Hellenic Orpheus story. Nestvold’s version of this story is a fairly straight retelling of Sir Orfeo, somewhat Celtified to fit the predominant modern fantasy idea of fairy, simplified and shortened, and given a modern spin in allowing Orfeigh’s wife say in her own destiny. In the story, Orfeigh’s wife has been charmed away by the King of the Sidhe. None of Orfeigh’s kingly might can bring her back, so he has let himself be reduced to a beggar with a harp, and determines to win her back with his heart expressed through the harp’s music.

The end of the story was, like several of the stories in this issue, rather predictable, even without knowing the story being retold, but the telling was beautiful.

The Beast, by Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers’ The Beast is the shortest of this month’s offerings. The author appears to have moving increasingly to shorter works recently, distilling the essential elements of his stories into more and more concentrated, spare tellings. In The Beast, set, like The Old Woman and the Moon in a pre-history South America, a man has caught a beast that, when mistreated, produces healing spittle. All the beast desires is its freedom, but the man and his descendents refuse to give the beast up.

The story begins well. It is both sad and sympathetic. But the end fades rather, and I was left wondering what the point of the story had been. The author’s craft in reducing the story to essential elements is admirable and a pleasure to observe, but in doing so he may have robbed it of the impact it could have had.

In a Glass Casket, by Tim Pratt

The issue ends strongly with Tim Pratt’s In a Glass Casket. A boy whose father has left intersects with the ongoing conflict between a twisted magician (?) and his daughter. Repeatedly, the daughter has tried to escape her father’s vicious, over-protective embrace. When the story begins, he has locked her in a sealed cask casket, but she has once again escaped, casket and all, and that is how the protagonist, Billy finds her.

Although the story and the choice the boy has to make are familiar ones in their essential form and the ending inevitable, the strength of Pratt’s story lies in the impressive imagination he brings to bear upon it and the sometimes painful originality of his conception of the magic. Pratt is clever enough not bring about absolute resolution to either the story of the magician and his daughter nor to the stories of the boy and his mother and the boy and his absent father. The stories, we know, will go on in their separate ways, long after this intersection has occurred and this story is over.

Don’t expect anything original to be said in In a Glass Casket about relationships between children and their parents, but do expect to be caught up in an original fantasy.


This issue of Realms of Fantasy is generally a strong one, with a good variety of styles and types of story. Perhaps the strongest story is Rudi Dornemann’s Embers, with the stories by Tim Pratt and Tom Gerencer close behind.

--Patrick Samphire, 13 October 2004

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