- “Thanksgiving” by Jeffrey Ford (fantasy short story)
- “The Lady of Butterflies” by Y. M. Pang (fantasy novelette)
- “Extreme” by Sean McMullen (science fiction short story)
- “The Iconoclasma” by Hanus Seiner (translated 2013 novelette; not reviewed)
- “Overwintering Habits of the North American Mermaid” by Abra Staffin-Wiebe (fantasy short story)
- “Every Color of Invisible” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
- “This Constant Narrowing” by Geoff Ryman (fantasy novelette)
- “Other People’s Dreams” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (science fantasy short story)
- “The Baron and His Floating Daughter” by Nick DiChario (fantasy short story)
- “When We Flew Together Through the Ice” by J. R. Dawson (science fiction short story)
- “The Island and Its Boy” by Bo Balder (fantasy short story)
F&SF‘s final issue for 2018 more or less reverses last issue’s SF tilt with a lean towards fantasy and is also lacking a novella but is packed with stories that are mostly long within their categories (aside from a 122-word “story”). Despite those similarities, this issue is much stronger.
The only story which is hard to see as a story of family or of courtship rites is, naturally, the one about a psychopathic thrillseeker caught up in a conspiracy of rich people up to no good. “Extreme” has vivid first-person narration and may show a good grasp of an outlier mentality but is less convincing when it comes to imagining, not the possible depths, but the required factors of the ultra-rich.
“Invisible” is set among a hidden group of Lakota and focuses on Raven Dream, a boy who similarly gets caught up in a conspiracy of the rich. It spends more than half of its nearly 14,000 words describing the boy being educated by his uncle, the computer, and the TV, with descriptions like, “Television was a slab of glass and plastic, its spine running up to an antenna on top of the trailer. High clouds and no wind meant that the television would let five windows come indoors. But the television was sleeping today.” (Throughout, its science fictional core components and fantasy style have an uneasy co-existence.) Finally, the boy is taken before the rich man and a certain tension develops but this reads more like a random excerpt from a novel (which may turn out to be good) than a fully shaped story. “Ice” involves a cardboard villain of a mother taking her two daughters and running away from her husband by stealing a spaceship (which has a dashboard and on which people shoot bullets). She has the older daughter and our narrator chipped with a mind-controlling “conscience” but, for some reason, doesn’t do the other one. After years (decades, even), this leads to violence. The tale’s monochromatic misery has its power but needs more than that and it contains sometimes ineptly deployed familiar tropes.
Somewhat like “Invisible,” “Dreams” is a blend of fantasy and science fiction but this reads more purely like “science fantasy” in that it’s essentially a fantasy set in space. One orphaned being is apprenticed to another being who has problems with her siblings. They craft dreams for other entities and the crux of the story arrives when the master is called by her sibling to finally sort things out by producing a very special dream. The narrative’s style was sometimes stiff but generally effective and the plot was interesting but not quite enthralling. In the last and best story I’m lumping into this group, one fine “Thanksgiving,” after Uncle Jake has left, a family realizes none of them know whose uncle Jake is. This leads to a family discussion and a climactic next Thanksgiving. The spooky idea and the short story form go together like turkey and stuffing and it’s generally well executed. There are at least a couple of ways such a story could go and the one enhances the effect of the other. There are a couple of minor blemishes, though. Conversation as earthy as having someone “put shit in the oven” and stilted as “[t]he act of putting his jacket on” seeming to “drain” another didn’t mesh and, similarly, the segue from the mainstream to the fantasy parts of the story could have flowed better.
Moving to courtship rites, “Narrowing” is a deeply unpleasant story (the author provides his own trigger warning list after the fashion of Strange Horizons) in which all the women of Earth have followed Mary and disappeared, leaving men to hunt other men, wounding them with gunfire and claiming them as sexual trophies. But, eventually, races and other divisions of men start disappearing piecemeal as well. This seems to be a hodge-podge of the preoccupations of contemporary fiction and is probably saying something about “internet bubbles.” It seems to accidentally switch tenses once before decisively doing so when it also begins addressing the reader as the hunter who is trying to force a wounded narrator to satisfy you. That narrator insists he’s a Latino Californian gangbanger but calls redheads “gingers” and refers to being “in hospital.” “Mermaid” is the 122-word piece in which we get advice regarding mermaids and their winter clothes and what people interested in them might do.
“Island” is a much more interesting tale as it’s not everyday one reads a fantasy about polygamous matriarchal Eskimo-like people on a moving island which orbits the pole until it breaks into more southerly currents and gets replaced by a baby island which serves as the new home of the people. One special boy doesn’t want to leave his familiar home (but is quite willing to explore the unfamiliar otherwise) and he must ally with a handicapped girl to complete his plan of secession. In the end, the plot is more of a deus ex than his own work (though it can all still be seen as a necessary test) and the ending is a bit sentimental or overwritten, but this was a decent tale. Perhaps a step above, “Floating Daughter” deals with a Prince visiting a Baron only to find the Baron’s daughter, Levita, stuck to the ceiling because she’d forgotten to eat the magic apple that keeps her from floating away. The Prince is enchanted by her and vows to succeed where others have failed and solve the problem of the magic tree with the magic fruit so that he can marry her. The Prince, the Baron, and Levita are all initially delightful and the tone is superb and it’s thoroughly enjoyable, Then it takes a surprising and very risky turn which it nearly pulls off but left me with a damaged character and confusion about the theme. It was so intriguing throughout, though, that I have to note it.
Better still, and recommended as the best story in the issue and likely one of the best of the year is “Butterflies.” When the inexplicable, enigmatic, and mostly amnesiac Morieth, apparently a native of a sometimes rival land, shows up on the grounds of the curiosity-collecting Emperor and his First Sword, Lady Rikara, the three find themselves drawn into a triangle of attraction set amidst more general and multi-sided court intrigues. Matters reach an action-packed climax when the king from that rival land arrives to treat with the Emperor and many are set at odds with one another and must make great sacrifices, before those events are followed by an appealing denouement. The Japanese-like fantasy setting is rich, the characters are complex and the bindings and divisions between them are powerful. One of my favorite elements of the story is its style which doesn’t derive from fancy words but uses plain, simple ones and derives its beauty from their arrangement and rhythm which produces a deliberate, but never slow or clotted pace. Similarly, an objection could be made that the Big Reveal isn’t all that surprising and so might be disappointing but, like the style, the plot works for me because it doesn’t rely on sometimes cheap surprise and reversal, but is made out of solid elements arranged well and seems to unfold with a sense of inevitability.