Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review - Realms of Fantasy (June 2011) edited by Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy

Stories included:
The Ground Whereon She Stands by Leah Bobet
Escaping Salvation by Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson
The Economy of Powerful Emotion by Sharon Mock
The Good Husband by Thea Hutcheson
The Equation by Patrick Samphire
Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy by Euan Harvey
The Tides of the Heart by David D. Levine

Poems included:
Distance by Ursula K. Le Guin
Mendenhall Glacier by Ursula K. Le Guin

Full review: Hindsight can be painful. The June 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy was the one hundredth issue of the troubled publication. The magazine was just coming off being declared dead not once, but two times, and each time being saved at the eleventh hour by an unexpected white knight investor. To commemorate the milestone, this issue was expanded to one hundred pages with an extended letters section full of messages extending congratulations and expressing the hope that the magazine would reach two hundred issues. But looking back, we know the harsh reality that will dash those hopes: Realms of Fantasy would only publish a couple more issues and then finally fold for good. This issue, however, is a strong one, with plenty of good fantasy fiction, an interesting Folkroots article about faeries, and a pair of very moving poems by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The first story in the volume is The Ground Whereon She Stands by Leah Bobet, an enchanted love story gone slightly awry. Set near the border of Idaho and Canada, the story sits in that fairy tale land on the corner of our reality where it could just possibly actually exist. Alice, a somewhat reclusive and not very socially skilled hedgewoman, apparently has a crush on her neighbor Lizzie, and casts a spell to deliver her flowers. But like Alice, the spell doesn't communicate her intentions very well, and Lizzie ends up with far more flowers than Alice intended. The story is told from Lizzie's perspective as she tries to deal with the flowers that cover her kitchen floor, grow through her shower drain, and sprout from her boots all the while attempting to get Alice to remove the enchantment. The stress of dealing with her feelings eventually overwhelms Alice and the story comes to a climax in a scene involving far too many roses and a little bit of blood. The story is a strange, off-kilter romance that is ultimately endearing. A second love story in the volume is The Economy of Powerful Emotion by Sharon Mock, a fairy tale involving a princess who is "blessed" with the ability to cry diamonds. She is loved by her father, but it is a possessive kind of love that exists only to exploit her for her unusual gift and the wealth that it brings. Three princes from a neighboring and impoverished country seek out her hand, but only the third makes it to her, where the story takes a fairly conventional turn as the prince woos her, but he does so in an unusual way. Though the story does involve the prince saving the princess, she also saves him. The entire story is told in little snippets - thirty-eight chapters in four pages, giving the story a staccato feel that serves it well.

A third romance of sorts, The Good Husband by Thea Hutcheson, takes place in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War in some corner of rural America where an older woman named Keeler struggles to keep her farm going. A handsome and kindly stranger damaged by war and calling himself Jody shows up at her door and offers to help work the farm in exchange for room and board. In relatively short order the two become lovers, and then husband and wife, but in the process Keeler becomes younger and healthier and her farm becomes more bountiful. It is soon apparent even to Jody that something is odd, and Keeler reveals that she is a nature spirit of some sort, tied to the land, and both her and the land can only thrive with a husband to tend them. The deal takes its toll, but eventually Jody becomes reconciled to the trade-off that will age him, but heal the psychic scars of war in the process. Coming in the same issue as Theodora Goss' Folkroots about fairies, this seems particularly apropos. Of all of the romances in the issue, this one seems the most real despite the prominent fantastical element. Another off-kilter romance in the issue is The Equation by Patrick Samphire, a story that starts off as the end of a conflict, and ends as the beginning of a love affair. Cameron is a young man returning to his high school neighborhood who runs into an old crush named Rachel in a coffee shop. They sit and have the sort of conversation that old schoolmates have, until Rachel starts warning Cameron that if he continues along the path he's chosen she and the rest of his former classmates, acting under the direction of their old teacher Miss Haversham, will stop him. It seems that Cameron has been traveling the world trying to collect, and presumably preserve, the remaining bits of magic in the world, while Miss Haversham and his former classmates have been trying to eliminate it by reducing magic to nothing more than equations. The central conceit of the story is that magic is what makes cultures around the world unique, and eliminating magic will have the beneficial effect of eliminating strife and conflict, but at the cost of eliminating the diversity and beauty of human culture. The story wraps up a bit too quickly and a bit too easily, but it is interesting.

The biggest, and most unusual romance in the book is The Tides of the Heart by David D. Levine. Louise Hartmann is a plumber with a string of failed relationships and a secret: She is part of a mysterious guild of artisans who work hard to keep the denizens of the "other world" from wracking too much havoc on the ordinary mortals of our world. The story opens as Lou takes care of an emergency client unknowingly has a problem with an annoyed nixie, but soon shifts to a demolition site where she has been contracted to remove antique plumbing from some houses before they are torn down to make way for the gentrification of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, one of the houses is occupied by an unhappy undine that has been trapped inside for more than a century and a half. As the project is on a schedule, and simply destroying the house with the undine inside will apparently wreck the local economy, Lou tries increasingly desperate measures to release the water creature from its mystical imprisonment. Eventually, Lou makes a grand sweeping and somewhat foolhardy measure, testing whether the distinction between marriage and same-sex domestic partnerships has meaning for creatures from the other world. And it seems the distinction may matter, but not in the way that the characters expected. In the end, the story is an enjoyable combination of dangerous magic and daring risks taken in pursuit of madcap romance.

After all of the fantasies centered on romantic relationships in the issue, one would think a story with a title like Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy would be more of the same. But instead, the Euan Harvey tale is a story about power, revenge, and death. Set in a fantasy version of China, the story is actually a story within an story within a story, each nested one within the other. The initial part of the story is attributed to Zheng Chao, a court official sending a report to the Lord Cheng Heng concerning the Baron Nie of Minyue and his actions during a recent attempt to overthrow King Luo Yushan. Zheng relates the Baron's story, telling it as the Baron's Tale, who presents his conundrum concerning the request from the Duke of Shu to rise up against their unpopular sovereign despite the fact that he believes that this would upset the natural order due to the Emperor appearing to hold the mandate of Heaven. While he is contemplating his options, the Baron finds an old man at the foot of a hill covered with an enormous cemetery. The tale then shifts to the story the old man recounts for the Baron in which he encountered a mysterious stranger who had predicted his death, leading to a climatic confrontation with death itself. Having telescoped in through three layers of storytellers, the story now backs out, one layer at a time, explaining how the old man's encounter with death itself shaped the old man's life, Baron Nie's life, Zheng Chao's life, and prospectively Cheng Heng's life. One would think that a story that tells a story within a story within a story wouldn't work very well, but in the case of Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy, it appears that there really could be no other way to tell this story, and it turns out brilliantly.

A fantasy story tinged with a bit of horror, Escaping Salvation by Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson takes place in a post-apocalyptic American southwest that has been transformed into an even harsher desert than it is now. And because this is a fantasy story, the dust storms that swirl through this wasteland give rise to dirt angels, animated out of the very sand and dirt of the maelstrom. Lizzy and Roe, two angel hunters, run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and desperately seek shelter in a tent city called Salvation led by a slightly creepy young woman named Ganj. To pay for their accommodations, Lizzy agrees to hunt a dirt angel and recover its eyes and tongue for Ganj's younger sister Bea. The story gets progressively creepier as the layers of ignorance and deception are peeled away until Bea is restored and everything is revealed. The story does a great job of giving just enough background information to establish the setting, but the horror seems to accelerate a little too quickly to allow for a substantial build up of tension. Overall, the story is interesting enough and well-written enough to be worthwhile reading.

In a way, the issue is symbolized by the second of the Le Guin poems, Mendenhall Glacier, which regards a glacier as a metaphorical dragon dying a slow, cold death. And in a way, Realms of Fantasy was like that glacier: A beautiful artifact, frozen in time, quietly limping its way to oblivion. But along the way, they published beautiful stories of fantasy fiction, leaving behind a legacy of issues like this one that we can still benefit from.

Previous issue reviewed: April 2011
Subsequent issue reviewed: August 2011

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


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