Friday, September 10, 2010

Review - Realms of Fantasy (October 2010) edited by Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy

Stories included:
Cutter in the Underverse by Daniel Hood
Middle by Eilis O'Neal
The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake
Saint's-Paw by Alan Smale
Halloween: Comprising a Cautionary Acrostic of Nine Bedtime Stories for Reading to the Tiresome or Disobedient Child by Euan Harvey

Full review: A genre magazine that has seriously struggled of late (although almost all of the genre magazines seem to have struggled at least some over the last couple years), Realms of Fantasy closed up shop briefly and reopened under new management. Though the format has not changed since the relaunch, subsequent issues seem to have been hobbled with a creeping malaise as the magazine's quality slowly drains away. The October 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy seems to have halted that downward trend, but whether subsequent issues can reverse it remains to be seen.

Cutter in the Underverse by Daniel Hood is a decent ghost story about a New York City cop who can see the ghostly world that exists underneath the normal world. The story also throws in a couple of ghostly gangsters seeking to even the score that they left unbalanced in life, giving the story something of a noir feel. The story manages to be gritty while giving the feel of an ethereal version of a 1940s gangster movie.

Middle by Eilis O'Neal, depicting the travails of a more or less forgotten middle child, is what I would imagine Jan Brady's story would be like if she lived in a world where fantasy was real. And Marcia went to sleep for days on end. And Marcia's dreams were visible to everyone. In this story the middle child's name is Jenny, her sleeping sister is Addy, and their younger brother Jake has an invisible were-llama named Clyde for a best friend. Despite the layering of winged puppies, businesses that sell time travel trips, and dreamcatchers, Jenny's problems are the same as any adolescent girl struggling to find her own way in the shadow of her pretty and popular sister. Even asleep, Addy dominates her parent's attention, and Jenny engages in more and more extreme behavior, seemingly hoping to claim at least some of her family's time away from her dormant sibling. Despite the somewhat silly trappings, the story is serious and strong.

The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake is a story of cultural conformity and the need to break those constraints set in a world that sits at the intersection of fantasy and science fiction. A culture of human refugees, seemingly lost on a hostile shore beneath the beautiful creations of their ancestors is content to scrape out an existence on the edge of a deadly sea. Hassan, the protagonist of the story, adopts his deceased grandfather's dream to seek more, and builds a boat using his grandfather's notes as a guide and his grandfather's bones as building material. Hassan's obsession with building his boat and sailing the deadly sea to presumed immortality disturbs his neighbors, who want him to settle down, get married, and become a productive member of their society. The story carefully avoids opining on whether Hassan's assumptions about the profit to be gained from his intended voyage are true or not, allowing the reader to focus on the idea that unfettered ambition is worthwhile in and of itself, despite the consternation it may cause in those around him.

Of all the stories in the issue, Saint's-Paw by Alan Smale is probably the one that follows the most traditional fantasy format. In the story, a curious young girl named Rachel is accused of witchcraft when she decides to see how human bodies work by dissecting her dead father. She seeks sanctuary in a church dedicated to a martyred saint whose only remaining body part is a severed hand kept as a holy relic. As soldiers lay in wait outside, Rachel tries to explain herself to the resident priest, who is, as one might expect, horrified. After he leaves her to her fate, the soldiers try to claim their prize. Rachel, with some unexpected supernatural assistance, has other ideas. Despite its conventional setting, the story deals with the struggle between superstition and knowledge, and the place women should hold in society. Through most of the story it seemed to be almost a paint-by-numbers style fantasy, but by the end it turned out to be much more than that.

The last story in the issue, Halloween: Comprising a Cautionary Acrostic of Nine Bedtime Stories for Reading to the Tiresome or Disobedient Child by Euan Harvey is a series of interconnected horror stories, all involving children or teenagers with names starting with letters that spell the word "Halloween". The individual stories are all quite short, but are all individually fairly scary, drawing upon some fairly standard (and effective) horror tropes. Together they add up to a more or less cohesive narrative that reminded me of a Edward Gorey painting crossed with a George Romero movie.

This issue's installment in the ongoing feature Folkroots is titled Mad, Bad & Dangerous: The Androgyne, dealing with gender ambiguous characters in myth and fantasy. The subject seems like one that could have formed the basis for an interesting article, but unfortunately this is not that article. Seemingly spending about half of its space on the travails of being gender ambiguous in the modern world, and the other half jumping from one example to the other, the article lacks focus, and never gives anything more than a very shallow examination of the androgynous character in folklore. The other feature article in the issue is a bio piece about artist Tiffany Prothero, titled The Magic Is in the Details. I was unfamiliar with her work before seeing this issue, and even after reading the very brief article, I'm still not really that familiar with it, and not sure if I there is any reason to rectify that situation. Of all the elements of Realms of Fantasy that have suffered since the change in ownership, the one that has suffered the most has been the non-fiction feature articles and this issue continues that depressing trend.

With some good fiction, some bad feature articles, and competent movie and book reviews, the October 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy is a reasonably good magazine, but not as good an issue as the publication used to turn out. While it seems like the downward trend in quality that the magazine had suffered in the last several issues has been halted, at least temporarily, the jury is still out on whether this situation can be reversed. As, in my opinion, there can never be too many good genre magazines being published, I hope that this marks the turnaround for the magazine, and we will be able to enjoy a revived and reinvigorated Realms of Fantasy in the future.

Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2010.

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


No comments:

Post a Comment