Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Review - Realms of Fantasy (August 2011) by Douglas Cohen (editor) and Shawna McCarthy (fiction editor)
The Progress of Solstice and Chance by Richard Bowes
Isabella's Garden by Naomi Kritzer
Collateral Damage by Kate Riedel
Snake in the Grass by W.R. Thompson
Leap of Faith by Alan Smale
Full review: After the emotional high of the June 2011 issue, there was a certain inevitability to the let down represented by the August 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy. The June issue was the publication's one hundredth, and there were high hopes that the financial troubles of the magazine were behind it. But with this issue, the ugly reality began to show through. The fiction became an uneven collection ranging from average to quite good. Instead of focusing on a featured artist, the issue provided a broad but fairly superficial article about women in fantasy art. After the in depth Folkroots article about fairies from the June issue, the follow up Folkroots article on monsters seems shallow. Perhaps the most foreboding sign is the notation in the upper right hand corner of the cover advertising the "new lower price" for the magazine. In general, a publication that is counting on a reduced sales price to stay afloat is a publication that is in trouble.
The strongest story in the issue is Isabella's Garden by Naomi Kritzer, a mother's tale about her precocious daughter's increasingly disturbing talent for gardening. One wouldn't think a preschool aged child loving to plant things in the backyard could be creepy and somewhat terrifying, but Kritzer manages to make it so. The story starts off feeling mundane - a mother and her child planting turnips and cabbages in the backyard, and then becomes more and more unsettling as time goes by. First Isabella plants jelly bean in the backyard, which wouldn't be cause for concern except that it grows into a jelly bean plant. Then she plants a quarter. And then she decides that she wants a little sister and concocts a plan to overcome her mother's infertility. By the end of the story, what had seemed so innocent and sweet is transformed into something that is innocent and threatening.
The other two strong stories in the volume are both Biblically-inspired fantasies, each approaching the idea of the end of the world from a different direction. Alan Smale's Leap of Faith takes on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, twisting the tale to make Levi the central character as God's engineer. As the tale opens, Levi is returning to his home after working away to keep creation stitched together, and after picking up a pair of wayward angels, makes his way to his unhappy wife Rebekah, his teenage daughter Deborah, and his younger daughter Leah. All three women are upset by Levi's long absences, and each makes her displeasure known in a different manner. The story focuses in on Levi's relationship with Deborah, who turns out to be something of an engineer herself. Alongside this family conflict, Levi has to deal with his two angelic guests and the anger of his neighbors. If this story sounds a bit jumbled up compared to the story from Genesis, it is, and the a certain extent, that is the point. But the greater theme of the story is the power of creativity, and the fact that creativity cannot be subservient, but must be allowed to run free in order to be able to be expressed. The other Bible-based story in the issue is Snake in the Grass by W.R. Thompson, a darkly humorous and satirical piece about the Satan, the Antichrist, and the impending end of the world. As the story opens Fred Larabie is an accountant who has just buried his father. Larabie's only real intent is to get drunk and stew over the fact that he could never seem to measure up to his father's expectations, but is interrupted by Satan who offers him a lifetime of happiness in exchange for his soul. Larabie accepts and soon finds Satan arranging his life, moving Larabie into a house in an undesirable neighborhood, requisitioning an apple tree for the backyard, eliminating the nearby biker gang and meth lab, arranging for Larabie to fall into a relationship with his landscaper, a muscular but innocent woman named Cheryl. Before too long, Satan has Larabie involved in a scheme to acquire some real estate and start a business and it becomes clear that Satan actually doesn't have Larabie's happiness as his goal. Satan, it turns out, has some issues of his own with his father, and it falls to Larabie and Cheryl to save both their future child and the world itself from Satan's fit of pique. I thought this story was slightly better than Leap of Faith, but only because I tend to prefer satirical fiction, and Snake in the Grass is loaded with heaping spoonfuls of satire.
Somewhat less effective is Collateral Damage by Kate Riedel, which seems to me to have been an interesting idea let down by somewhat flawed execution. Martha is the wife of a retired farmer whose long-lost sister Peggy walks out of a blizzard fifty years after she disappeared into one. This doesn't really surprised Martha, as her husband Robert was originally from the Civil War era and stumbled into the same time warping phenomenon before walking out onto her parents' farm when she was a young woman. The story focuses on Martha and Robert's efforts to figure out how to integrate Peggy into the modern world without raising suspicions about the teenage girl who suddenly showed up in their home. As the story goes on, long kept secrets are revealed and long held grudges come to the fore, until in the end Martha makes a decision that will change the remainder of her life. The only trouble is that the story is written in a way that feels almost disjointed at times. I suspect that this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, and is supposed to make the reader feel some of the dislocation experienced by the characters in the story, but instead it makes the reader feel like they are missing some critical part of the narrative when the story skips forward abruptly.
The weakest story in the issue is The Progress of Solstice and Chance by Richard Bowes, a story that attempts to be big and sweeping, and ends up being much too big and sweeping, resulting in characters that are simply too big to be relatable for the reader. In the opening paragraph the King of Winter marries the Queen of Summer, a union arranged by Cronus to keep the King of Winter from dallying with the Lady of Death, wife of the Lord of Life. Shortly thereafter, King Winter and Queen Summer have a child that they name Solstice who grows up shuttling back and forth between the abodes of her parents until the King of Winter's infatuation with the Lady of Death ruins the marriage. Eventually Solstice falls in love with Chance, the years pass, humans forget about these iconic beings, and Solstice pines for the old days when people would line up to see her travel from her father's house to her mother's home every year. The trouble with the story is that the characters are so abstract that I simply didn't care what happened to any of them. We are told that the King of Winter was in love with Lady Death, but we never see why this might be so. We never learn why the Queen of Summer agreed to marry a man who was widely known to be in love with someone else, which makes her rage when she discovers his affair with Lady Death somewhat less than convincing. The story attempts to convey a mythic feel, but paints the characters as representations of natural forces so broadly that they lose their humanity and the story simply falls flat.
By the August 2011 issue, Realms of Fantasy was a magazine desperately fighting for its life. And yet, the issue doesn't feel like a magazine fighting for its life, but rather a magazine that seemed to have been taking an almost lackadaisical approach. The fiction presented was decidedly uneven, and included two Old Testament based stories. Granted, the two Old Testament based stories are among the better pieces of fiction in the volume, but including two so thematically similar stories seems almost lazy. This, coupled with the somewhat underwhelming array of articles and reviews, makes this issue decent, but not particularly notable.
Previous issue reviewed: June 2011
Subsequent issue reviewed: October 2011
Realms of Fantasy Douglas Cohen Shawna McCarthy Magazine Reviews