Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, No. 3 (March 2009) edited by Gordon van Gelder


Stories included:
The Curandero and the Swede by Daniel Abraham
The Unstrung Zither by Yoon Ha Lee
Quickstone by Marc Laidlaw
Shadow-Below by Robert Reed
That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch

Full review: With a couple of science fiction and fantasy crossover stories, and a couple of southwestern folklore stories, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction seems to have a couple of minor mini-themes. Unfortunately, one of these mini-themes appears to be "stories that wander aimlessly before coming to an abrupt halt". As a result, with the exception of the classic reprint, most of the stories in this issue are readable, but not particularly memorable. As a side note, this is the last monthly issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as the lead editorial notes, the magazine market has shifted to an extent that it had become unfeasable to publish and mail eleven issues per year, and instead the future issues will be larger, bimonthly double issues. As with many things in the magazine industry, this change seems ominous, and I hope it doesn't herald even more substantial changes in the future.

The Curandero and the Swede by Daniel Abraham is a ghost story involving an angry Native American spirit plaguing the Swede (who is actually a black man) who seeks help from a Mexican witch doctor. The story's conceit is that it is being told to the author by an old southern relative relating the tale in an effort to make a point about the author's northern-born fiancee. The Swede in the story is hounded by his own past, and the story wanders and digresses through a couple of other semi-related stories, just like a story told by an old cigar smoking southerner on the front porch at a family gathering might. The story is okay, but I could not figure out how the point it is trying to make flows from the elements of the story.

The Unstrung Zither by Yoon Ha Lee is an Asian-influenced science fiction and fantasy crossover story in which the classic elements of Chinese folklore are used to create an interstellar empire controlled by the Phoenix General. The protagonist is a musician called in to educate captured assassins from planets being conquered by her empire who discovers that what she thought she knew about politics isn't quite what she expected. The story is decent, but neither the individual characters or the fantasy elements are incredibly well-defined so that everything seems to happen more or less by nothing more than fiat. Shadow-Below by Robert Reed is also a science fiction and fantasy mixture, this time melding Native American folklore with a future involving genetically engineered elk and bison and programmable house robots. The title character is a Native American wilderness guide who straddles both the modern world and his native traditions. Like most of the other stories in this issue, it is decent, but has a tendency to wander aimlessly before trailing off and ending.

Quickstone by Marc Laidlaw is also a fantasy involving elemental magic. In this case the protagonist is a bard who, as a result of a cruse, has had his hand replaced with that of a gargoyle's. As the curse makes it impossible to ply his trade - his new hand being unsuitable for playing an instrument - he undertakes a risky pursuit to find the gargoyle who has his hand (and whose hand he now has) and tries to figure out a way to reverse the curse. Along the way he makes an unexpected friend as well as some pretty frightening enemies. This story is quite good, and among the new stories in the volume is probably the best of the bunch.

This issue's installment in the classic reprint series is That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch. It is a story involving a rather shiftless individual making a deal with the devil in which the protagonist ends up negotiating for something that the devil didn't quite expect. The story is darkly humorous, well-written, and, as usual with the classic reprints, excellent. Once again, the classic reprint in the volume overshadows the "normal" stories in the issue.

Overall, this issue is barely adequate and is only truly saved by Quickstone and the very good classic reprint That Hell-Bound Train. Otherwise, most of the remaining stories are really only adequate at best. With a collection of mostly decent but flawed stories punctuated by by few highlights, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction gets only a moderate recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: February 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: April/May 2009

1958 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)
1960 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

1959 Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

1959 Hugo Award Nominees

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