Thursday, April 24, 2014

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

Stories included:
Return to Paraiso by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
The Man Who Made No Mistakes by Scott William Carter
Second Childhood by Jerry Oltion
Sweeping the Hearthstone by Betsy James
Barbie Marries the Jolly Fat Baker by Nick DiChario

Full review: The October 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy was the last for the publication. After being left for dead twice, and revived at the last minute by new ownership twice, the magazine finally gave up the ghost with this issue. From a certain perspective, this issue doesn't feel like the final issue of a magazine - there is no indication on the cover or anywhere else that this issue would be the last, there is no farewell editorial, there are no sad letters lamenting the end of an era, or any other overt signs that this was the end of the line. On the other hand, it seems like the magazine staff knew that their time was running out and they needed to make sure that they finished any projects they had been holding back on doing. So in this issue, Theodora Goss pulled out all of the stops with a Folkroots article about the mythology of Narnia, Elizabeth Bear was brought in to write an informative piece about the history and definition of urban fantasy, and the fiction in the issue all revolved around themes of wish fulfillment fantasies.

The first story in the volume is Return to Paraiso by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, which tells the tale of an oppressed group of native villagers in what seems to be a Central American country ruled by a tyrannical dictator called the Regent. The Regent's occupying forces have superior numbers, guns, trucks, and even tanks, but the villagers have an ace up their sleeve: the waif-like Esme, a young woman held in a cage by the government troops. But the villagers believe Esme is responsible for any good fortune experienced by the village, and invest their hopes in her. Esme strikes up an odd friendship with Captain Lagera, the man assigned to serve as her jailor (and as time passes, her baby's jailor as well), eventually persuading him to her cause, although not before the detachment under his command mysteriously vanishes. Esme seems to bring the village peace and prosperity until Lagera's commanding officer comes to take Esme away for execution. During his brusque interrogation, the commander threatens Esme's child, causing Lagera to take heroic action and unleashing Esme's anger. The way the story plays out is a wish fantasy for everyone who is oppressed by a more powerful enemy - essentially turning the tables on the cruel invaders with magic.

The Man Who Made No Mistakes by Scott William Carter deals with both the ultimate in wish fulfillment and intractable moral quandaries. A mysterious stranger pays a visit to a broken down priest who has lost his faith and tells the incredulous man of the cloth of his strange ability to turn back time and erase his own mistakes. Calling this ability "switch backing", the visitor describes how he used this ability to save his mother's life, get superior grades in high school and college, repeat his way to a career as a running back at Notre Dame, and finally, seduce the daughter of a prominent politician. Well, not really finally, because in an alternate timeline, he kills her instead. And these two divergent timelines provide the dilemma of the story: Can a small but definitively evil act be justified in order to prevent a more horrific, but morally ambiguous consequence down the road? The story resolutely refuses to answer the question, but it raises it in such a stark and pointed manner that either answer is unsettling.

A classic yearning is for the children of deceased parents to see them again, and Second Childhood by Jerry Oltion is a wish fulfillment fantasy built on exactly this premise. Mazie is working in the kitchen when her mother Genevieve shows up, which would not be surprising except that Mazie's mother had been dead for the previous ten years. After the initial shock, Mazie seizes the opportunity to make up for lost time, introducing Genevieve to the granddaughter she never met and trying to spend as much time with her as possible. Mazie's husband Ted is somewhat unhappy about the visit from beyond the grave, but begrudgingly accepts Genevieve's renewed presence in their lives. The mystery of the story is that no one, Genevieve included, knows how or why she returned to life after a decade of being dead. The story wends along for a while, and then a backhanded compliment from Ted sends Genevieve back to wherever she had come from. The story deals with the almost ubiquitous desire of people to see their departed loved ones just one more time, and does so in a light-hearted and humorous manner that gives it an airy and joyous feel.

Another story about returning from the dead, Sweeping the Hearthstone by Betsy James touches on the subject of wish fulfillment from a different angle - that of a young woman who is seeking love, or more likely given the tenor of the story, lust. Corrie is a young woman who had been abandoned by her mother at birth, taken in and raised by the Roadsouls, and then deposited in a job at a tavern under the care of a tough old woman named Neely. And although Corrie seems to like her situation well enough, what she really wants is to experience love and more bluntly, sex. Corries has brief dalliances with some of the boys and men who frequent the inn, but she finds them either unsuitable or unsatisfying, and Neely regards them all with a disapproving glare. Fortunately for Corrie, the solution to her problem is (literally) under her feet, although not necessarily as freshly alive as one might hope. The story ends just as it reaches the point where it could either turn into a delightful fairy tale or lurch into a horrifying nightmare. After all, the question of where the girls who lived with Neely before Corrie arrived was never really answered, leaving open both benevolent and malevolent readings of the story, an ambiguity that makes it that much better.

The final story in the issue, and thus the final story of the publication, is Barbie Marries the Jolly Fat Baker by Nick DiChario. Set in a universe reminiscent of that of Toy Story where toys come to life when humans are not present, the Paladin is the courtly protector of Barbie. Unfortunately for Paladin, Barbie has something of a lusty side and decides to take up with the somewhat lecherous Baker, who can satisfy her needs in a way that the Paladin, by his very nature, cannot. Unwilling to stand by while Barbie takes the Baker as her husband, the Paladin decides to strike out on a quest. After enlisting the family dog to help him, Paladin makes his way out of the "castle", and in the final scene, ventures into the unknown to find a new purpose in his toy life.

And in some ways, this is a fitting finale for Realms of Fantasy itself. After a couple of tumultuous years that included two ownership changes, this issue proved to be the swan song for the publication. There is, however, no explicit reference in the entire issue that this is the terminal installment of the magazine. But it is filled with subtle hints that the staff knew that the end was near, from the expansive Folkroots article to the tenor the the various pieces of fiction included in its pages. And the final metaphor, of a knight riding into the mist, worn and weary, is how I think Realms of Fantasy should be remembered.

Previous issue reviewed: August 2011

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


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