Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of August/September issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Toward the beginning of the month, I saw a note on Twitter about reviewing an issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science-Fiction, and I immediately went over to the magazine's site to volunteer. A free copy of a major genre magazine in return for sharing my opinions? What's not to like?

When my review copy arrived, I was startled. I knew the magazine had gone to a bimonthly schedule and had increased their page count in the process, but I wasn't expecting the full-length paperback in my mailbox -- 256 pages. (I think they count it as 260, counting the front cover as page 1; I'm only counting the pages between the covers.) Wow.

Not every story was to my taste, but I wouldn't have expected to enjoy them all equally. If I were picking this issue up in a store and started at the beginning, not knowing any of the authors, just starting at the beginning, I probably wouldn't have finished reading. However, having read the entire issue, I found more to enjoy than otherwise, and I recommend picking up a copy.

The seven novelettes, three short stories, two reprints, one poem, and various departments and cartoons cut a wide slice across the genres, in length, style, and sub-genre. The tales cover everything from magical realism to exploration of a foreign planet to traditional fantasy with wizards battling for a kingdom. Most people will find something in these pages that resonates with them.

Herewith, my commentary on the various stories:

"The Art of the Dragon" by Sean McMullen starts vividly, with a two-mile-long dragon eating the Eiffel Tower. The writing was beautiful, and the story developed well -- until we got to the climax. To me, it felt like the start of a dystopian world, and the narrator saying, "understanding what the dragon wants is not the same as agreeing with it" does not make the idea of the story any more palatable to me. (I realize a story does not necessarily reflect an author's views. I know that some people prefer stories that make them uncomfortable or that espouse ideas in conflict with their own. Knowing these things also does not help me to appreciate this story.)

The second story, "You Are Such a One" by Nancy Springer, is a bit of magical realism, lushly depicted in second-person present, that left me at the end saying, "So what?" By this point in reading the magazine, I was feeling disappointed -- two for two on good stories where the ending fell flat to my sensibilities. This is the point I might have given up.

I'm glad I didn't. Melinda M. Snodgrass's "A Token of a Better Age" captivated me. (Who says frame stories don't work?) It took a minute for the last line to penetrate, but once I got it, I laughed out loud. THAT was a story with a complete arc and satisfactory ending. I immediately put Ms. Snodgrass's Edge books on my list of things to look for. I want more by this author, in this world.

"Obsolete Theories" is a lovely poem that recaptures the spirit of "Some say the world will end in fire . . . " yet is original. Kudos to Sophie M. White!

Matthew Hughes' "Hunchster" is short -- possibly the shortest story in the magazine. I wouldn't say the prose is beautiful ("You'd think I'd remember the kid's name, but I never could" is how it starts.), but the voice is true throughout, and there's a completeness in its shortness.

There are two reprint stories -- one introduced by Gordon Van Gelder, one by Harlan Ellison -- and both are clearly memorable. "The Goddamned Tooth Fairy," by Tina Kuzminski, presents a wonderful view of scars and pasts and history and moving on. As someone with my own set of highly visible scars, I found this story resonated with me, even if I still hold on a bit tighter than I should to the past. "Snowfall," by Jessie Thompson, is vivid, poignant, perfectly crafted, and very horrifying. I can see why Mr. Ellison found it memorable; I don't believe I shall forget it, either.

Yoon Ha Lee created a singular world of necromancy and zombies in "The Bones of Giants." In many ways, it strikes me as classic fantasy, with undertones of fairy tales, but it moves beyond those boundaries. I enjoyed my time in Tamim's world.

Another story where the ending left me disappointed and feeling a complete lack of resolution was "Icarus Saved from the Skies" ("Icare sauvé des cieux") by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, tranlated by Edward Gauvin. The writing was beautiful, but I got to the end and said, "That whole build-up was for that? What's the point?"

"The Others," by Lawrence C. Connolly is, the introduction says, a direct sequel to "Daughters of Prime," which will be available on their Website (but was not yet when I looked, presumably because it's still June and this issue is supposed to be on the shelves in two months). I found this very engaging adventurous SF, with the caveat that I want to read a longer piece, as the story was complete but entirely new questions had arisen at the end. Wanting to read more of an author's work is far from the worst reaction a reader can have. This is, perhaps, the only story in the magazine where I hesitated at the end but felt unquestionably that I would read more by the author when given the opportunity.

The next novelette, "Three Leaves of Aloe" by Rand B. Lee, immerses the reader in an India of the future, yet one immediately recognizable to the people of today -- call centers purportedly in the United States, bullies at work and at school, a driving need to get ahead in life. This is a moving SF story. I don't know if I'll be on the lookout for more of Mr. Lee's work per se, but if given the opportunity to read it, I expect to enjoy it.

Albert E. Cowdrey's "The Private Eye" is filled with a strong narrative voice that brings small-town Louisiana of Jimmy John Link to life. This was another story that had me laughing -- and I plan to hit the local bookstore to get the June/July issue of the magazine before the end of this month, as it has another, but far different, tale by Cowdrey in it.

The best was definitely saved for last: "Esoteric City" by Bruce Sterling. Set in a Turin of Black and White magic, this story features an Egyptian mummy, a major automotive company, and a visit to hell. Entirely captivating, this story is going to stay with me for a while.

The Departments are also worth a mention: the books reviewed by Charles de Lint have given me a couple of items to add to my ever-growing TBR pile, while Elizabeth Hand's analyses gave me more to think about. I found Lucius Shepard's analysis of the movie Watchman patronizing with his assumption that all superhero comics have a "vision of history and . . . take on human relationships [that] are adolescent and simplistic." This is not the place for a long discussion of the pros and cons of superhero comics, but if a reviewer feels the need to make comments little different from "It's not bad for what it is," maybe he should find a different genre to review.

Also, there are comics scattered throughout. They vary in quality (I've seen much better Harris cartoons than the one on page 192), but they are all welcome breaks. (My favorite appears on page 212.)

Overall, I found three stories with endings that left me cold, a couple new authors whom I won't seek out but might enjoy seeing again, and a handful of stories, both fantasy and science fiction, that earned high marks all around. The true mark of how much I enjoyed this issue? I'm currently waiting on a check for a freelance job, and as soon as it arrives, I'm subscribing to the magazine. I want to see what their 60th anniversary issue holds, and I want to see where they go from there.


Merrilee said...

Thanks for that review. It's been a long time since I picked up a mag, which is a pity because I love short stories. I'll be keeping an eye out for this one.

Anonymous said...

Great review - thanks Erin!