Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran
Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year. Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror. That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy. Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.
Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste. In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements. She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.
This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem. Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield. Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls. Will history repeat?
The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee. A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before. They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them. In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how targeted the weapon.
Some stories I particularly liked:
“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them. This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.
“Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions. The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to. She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules. Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night. So simple. But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery. Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.
One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story. There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.
Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented. If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.
Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1 by Kore Yamazaki
Chise Hatori has had a rough life. Her father ran off with her little brother, her mother committed suicide (probably), and her ability to see magical creatures got her bullied and abandoned. She was on the verge of suicide when Chise was approached by a black market auctioneer who explained that she was actually special, and valuable under the right circumstances. He convinced her to allow him to sell her into slavery.
It’s probably fortunate that the high bidder is Elias Ainsworth, a not quite human mage from Britain. He removes Chise’s chains and whisks her to his home to become Elias’ apprentice. Oh, and eventually his bride.
This shounen (boys’) fantasy manga is now getting an anime adaptation, and has been generally well-received.
Elias explains some, but not all, of what’s going on. Chise is what mages call a sleigh beggy, a powerful natural mage that attracts other supernatural beings. Children with magical talent have become rare in the modern world, especially as many of their possible progenitors were slain in “the last great war”, but sleigh beggy are one in a generation. Elias is anxious to teach her how to control her powers.
Chise also meets some Ariels, who are of the Fair Folk. They don’t like the term “fairies”, perhaps “neighbors” is a good word? They can be helpful, but also very dangerous as their idea of “help” is not always what humans would think of that way.
In the next chapter, Chise meets Silky. She’s a “neighbor” who acts as Elias’ housekeeper, and does not speak. As well, Elias takes Chise to meet Angelica, an artificer specializing in magical jewelry. Angelica explains some of the basic rules of magic, and notes the difference between mages (who bend the world’s energy to their will) and alchemists (who use a more scientific approach.)
Then Simon Cullum shows up. He works for “the Church” though it’s unclear if that means Catholic or Anglican. Simon is supposed to be keeping watch on Elias, but is hands-off in exchange for the mage taking care of magical matters that the Church should not be handling.
First off, there’s an ancient dragon dying in Iceland, the last known dragon sanctuary. A bit sad, but not the tragedy you might have expected.
Then it’s off to Ulthar, where it is a crime to kill a cat. (See also H.P. Lovecraft on this subject.) Long ago, a resident was driven to despair and broke this law, killing many cats in cruel ways. He was…dealt with. But his unclean spirit still remains, and has grown dangerous again.
Elias’ magic is not suited to the task of banishing the spirit, but Chise’s might be. Untrained, this will be her first true test. But before Chise can begin the ritual, she’s ambushed by a mysterious pair that have other motives, and a grudge against Elias!
This early part of the story is heavy on the sense of wonder as Chise learns more about the world of magic and her own potential, but maintains an undercurrent of menace. Even the friendliest of “neighbors” can lead you astray. It’s clear that Elias has a past that has not always been on the straight and narrow.
And many questions are raised. Why did Chise’s father abandon her? Are any of her relatives still alive? If her gifts are so powerful, why did no one contact her until now? What, precisely, is Elias, with his animal skull head? Why does the Church have a watch on him? (Some of these, at least, will get answered.)
The slavery thing is icky, though Elias and Chise’s relationship quickly drops those terms for “apprentice” and “bride.” The latter might also be rather icky, depending on what that actually means in a mage relationship.
There’s also bits of humor, such as Elias crafting his “human” disguise after Simon as he was under the impression that man was handsome. (Chise finds the face “sketchy.”) The overall art style is good, and Elias manages to be expressive despite his immobile features.
Chise is rather passive in these chapters, more concerned with being safe than expressing her own opinion, but does show flashes of personality. She can be rather blunt when need be.
Elias seems pleasant most of the time, but exhibits a lack of understanding of human society and emotions from time to time.
This is a promising beginning which should work well for young adult fantasy fans.
With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain. Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think. Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.
That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense. Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin. And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life. What if he is of noble birth? What if he is truly a peasant? Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?
Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage. So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva. There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret. They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.
Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.
This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology. (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.) The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.
Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems. But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.
Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief. But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath. Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.
The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end. (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.) It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.
I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.
Magazine Review: Galaxy Science Fiction July 1951 edited by H.L. Gold
Galaxy lasted from 1950 to 1980 as a digest-sized science fiction magazine. Originally published by an Italian firm trying to break into the American market, the magazine was noted for its emphasis on stories about social issues and its comparatively sedate covers. (“Fourth of July on Titan” is by Willer.) Editor H.L. Gold offered up to three times the usual pay per word, allowing him to get first crack at superior work by noted authors.
“Getting Personal” is the opening editorial by H.L. Gold himself; it proposes a uniform for writers so they can be easily spotted and honored/shunned. This is in contrast to the potted bios of the authors appearing in the issue, which are widely varied. Mildly amusing.
“Venus is a Man’s World” by William Tenn takes place after the mass die-off of male humans in the Third Atomic War convinced women enough was enough already, and they voted themselves in charge. The lack of a Fourth Atomic War seems to have shown the wisdom of this approach.
However, women on Earth still vastly outnumber men, and the remaining terrestrial males aren’t much to write home about. Thus it is that young Ferdinand Sparling is hauled along with his adult sister Evelyn on a ship to Venus. That frontier world is heavily tilted in the opposite direction, with lots of virile, untamed men and few women. A great place to find a husband, right?
Ferdinand (who swiftly adopts the nickname “Ford”) is exploring the ship when he discovers a stowaway, Venusian rouster Alberta “Butt” Lee Brown. Butt had come to Earth to look for a wife, but fell foul of the law and had to escape.
The story ends about as you’d expect it to in the 1950s, with the wily men outfoxing the officious women. The stereotypes are so thick that it may circle around to be funny again for some readers.
“Common Denominator” by John D. Macdonald (perhaps best known for his Travis McGee crime novels) is a chiller involving first contact with an alien species. The Argonauts seem friendly and peaceful, and in a major twist, they actually are. They’ve licked the problems of violent crime and war and have eight thousand years of peace and quiet to show for it. One Earthman, chief of the Bureau of Racial Maturity (“wait, we have one of those?”), decides he should find out how they did that. He does. Warning for suicide. My pick for the best story in the issue.
“Syndrome Johnny” by Charles Dye takes place after two successive epidemics of previously unknown diseases have ravaged humanity. The good news is that the much reduced population has world peace. The bad news is that the survivors have been genetically modified by the diseases. Or is that bad news? One government agent figures out that the mythical Syndrome Johnny (we’d say “Patient Zero”) is a real person, and conditions are right for a third epidemic that will wipe out human beings as we know them. The fate of humanity is left up to one scientist who is also a father.
“Mars Child” by Cyril Judd (pen name of C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merrill) is the second half of a serial. Sun Lake is unusual among Mars colonies in that it’s not corporate-owned, but the collective property of its inhabitants. (More libertarian than Communist.) It’s financially struggling, but if they can keep things together just a few more years, Sun Lake will be self-sufficient and a viable alternative to living on the environmentally ruined Earth.
Bad news hits when a nearby pharmaceutical company owner claims that several kilograms of the highly addictive drug marcaine have gone missing from his factory. The trail leads to Sun Lake, he claims. Not only does Hugo Brenner have Mars’ top cop, Commissioner Bell, in his pocket, but he’s also the only supplier of Ox-En, a substance needed for all but the hardiest of humans to breathe on Mars. Either Sun Lake turns over the marcaine (which as far as the colonists know they don’t have) within a week, or Brenner will ruin them by one of a number of technically legal methods.
Meanwhile, Tony Hellman, Sun Lake’s sole doctor, has many other problems on his plate. Sunny, the first baby born in the colony, refuses to suckle, and isn’t keen on other feeding methods. Sunny’s mother is dealing with severe post-partum depression, and hallucinating the presence of the mythical “Brownies”, supposed natives of Mars. A woman from a nearby mining operation dies of (among other things) a botched attempt to give herself an abortion. Plus numerous other sick and injured people. Oh, and Tony is beginning to notice how attractive his nurse is.
Into all this mess comes Graham, a top-notch journalist from Earth, who wants to report the true conditions on Mars. His story could save Sun Lake–if he doesn’t decide to write a hit piece instead!
Naturally, it turns out that all the plot threads are more closely connected than anyone realized. Part of the resolution comes from psychic powers out of left field, and part from some dubious genetics. This novel was published in book form as Outpost Mars in 1952 and reprinted as Sin in Space in 1961.
“Galaxy’s Five Star Shelf” by Groff Conklin is their book review column. Despite the name, not all the books are treated as stellar. Mr. Conklin does recommend Eric Frank Russell’s Dreadful Sanctuary and Fred Hoyle’s The Nature of the Universe. (With the caveat for the latter that Mr. Hoyle is a little too certain he’s got it right this time.)
“Pen Pal” by Milton Lesser concerns Matilda Penshaws, a woman who is determined to find a husband. But she’s picky, and none of the local fellows will do. (Which is why she’s still single on the far side of thirty.) She sees a personal ad in the pen pal column from Haron Gorka, whose advertisement promises he’s something different from the usual stamp collectors and radio hams that put out such ads.
Matilda decides to steal a march on other prospects and drives to the next state to meet him in person. Except that no one in that town seems to have ever heard of Mr. Gorka. Except, as it turns out, the town librarian, who knows him well and is not impressed. Directions in hand, Matilda finally meets Haron, to discover he is both less and more than the advertisement promised. The ending is rather telegraphed, and there’s some tired “battle of the sexes” stuff.
The issue ends with Fritz Leiber’s “Appointment in Tomorrow.” It is the end of the Twentieth Century, a few years after World War Three turned Washington D.C. into green glass and did similar things to other cities across the globe. The American government has fallen under the power of the Thinkers, a group whose methods have produced scientific miracles, despite their philosophy sounding like a bunch of malarkey to anyone who has actual science training.
As you might guess, the Thinkers are charlatans ala Dianetics. But one of them is in fact a true believer, which leads him to a collision course with tragedy. This story has a particularly strong final line, and a surprisingly good female character.
“Common Denominator” can be read on Project Gutenberg here. “Appointment in Tomorrow” is likewise here. Other than those, you’ll have to track down this issue yourself.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.