The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2018, Volume 134 #735.

The trouble with reviewing genre magazines is that they come out as regularly as clockwork, whether or not you’ve finished reading the previous issue. The March/April 2018 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ is already staring at me from the top of my ‘To Be Read’ pile, so I should really get on with this review of its predecessor, the January/February issue. There’s a novella, three novelettes, six short stories, two poems and all the usual non-fiction, so here goes.

The novella, ‘Jewel Of The Heart’, is the third instalment in Matthew Hughes latest fantasy series featuring Baldemar, the resourceful and honourable henchman who works for Thelerion, an arrogant wizard. Last time out, Baldemar stole the magical, sentient Helm of Sagacity and the matching Shield Impenetrable for his master, seriously upsetting the two wizards who had been their previous owners in the process. When these two find out that Thelerion is responsible, he and all his servants are suddenly in big trouble. Baldemar persuades the Helm, which seems to have a soft spot for him, to save their bacon in return for his help in finding something it has lost.

Baldemar finds himself launched on a quest which takes him to a parallel dimension where nothing is as it seems. Can he find whatever it is that the Helm has lost and thus save his master and all his fellow servants? As always with Hughes, this is an easy and extremely enjoyable read. Baldemar is an engaging lead character, as he is fundamentally a good person but has no special powers. So when he gets into trouble, you know that he’ll have to use his intellect and cunning to get out again and you cheer him on from the sidelines. The challenge he faces in this story is intriguing and unusual, with several elements derived from fairytales. I thought the resolution worked very well, bringing an entertaining story to a highly satisfying conclusion.

Turning to the three novelettes, the first is ‘Widdam’, an SF story which represents a busman’s holiday for the author, climate scientist Vandana Singh, focused as it is on the impacts of climate change in India and the United States. The main protagonist is Dinesh, an Indian who writes for an anti-government newspaper. In his spare time, he gathers whatever evidence he can in order to expose what he sees as a huge capitalist conspiracy to destroy the world, using huge semi-autonomous robots which roam coastal areas across the globe, searching for hydrocarbon deposits they can mine for their corporate owners.

However, some of these robots occasionally go rogue, breaking free from their programming and either running amok or running away. Dinesh is trying to find out how and why this happens, at the same time as trying to do something about the way his life is slowly going down the pan. I must admit that I struggled with this story. It should have appealed to me, given that it combines two of my interests, robotics and climate change. However, I found the politics of the piece over-simplistic and the plot didn’t hang together very convincingly, while very few of the characters demonstrated any engaging characteristics at all.

Nick Wolven’s SF novelette ‘Galatea In Utopia’ is the inspiration for the magazine’s striking cover image. The story is set in New York in the mid-term future, in a society where almost everyone has their own sex-change machine at home, enabling them to change their gender and body image at will, as frequently as they like. The protagonist is Rick, a man who takes full advantage of this freedom, totally changing his/her look almost every weekend. That is, until the time when he decides to transform himself into the quintessential blonde bimbo for a laugh.

He goes to his usual club and meets there a rather plain, unattractive guy called Alan, with whom he instantly clicks. Alan is a rarity, someone who is unable to change his body image due to a genetic disorder he first suffered from as a child. Over the following weekends, Rick finds himself repeatedly transforming into the same blonde bimbo to please his new boyfriend, until Alan questions who is trying to please whom. I admire Wolven’s writing style, which makes the story rattle along effortlessly, but I’m afraid I have no interest in spending another moment in the company of the vacuous, self-interested airheads that populate this piece. If this represents the future of our image-obsessed, superficial society, which demands instant choice in absolutely everything, regardless of the consequences, then I’ll happily cash in my chips now.

The final novelette is ‘The Donner Party’ by Dale Bailey, a Victorian fantasy set in England and premised on a rigidly class-based social structure where the elite demonstrate their superiority over the masses through an annual feast which includes human flesh as the highlight of the meal. Alice Breen is a woman who has managed to marry her way into this elite but whose pride quickly leads to a fall from grace. How far is Alice prepared to go to regain her former elevated position? I enjoyed this piece a great deal. It dramatises the issue of class relations in an original and fascinating way and includes a wide and varied cast of convincing characters. The ending is ambiguous but potentially very chilling, in a way that is entirely appropriate to the seriousness of the subject at hand.

Moving on to the short stories, the first is Lisa Mason’s dark fantasy ‘Aurelia’. Set in contemporary San Francisco, it concerns the relationship between an ambitious, avaricious and sex-mad lawyer called Robert Morgan and his strange new client, Aurelia, who turns up at his office one day in a beautiful dress that is covered in filth, asking for his help with a land dispute. Aurelia is oddly captivating and Robert soon finds himself doing whatever she wants. As he gets to know her better, though, he starts to realise that she’s keeping secrets from him and, when he tries to find out what they are, things quickly spiral out of control. Mason has penned an effective and atmospheric story here, even if it is pretty far out there at times.

It’s always a pleasure to see SF anthologist extraordinaire Gardner Dozois’ name against a piece of fiction and his SF short story ‘Neanderthals’ doesn’t disappoint. The two key elements are a Neanderthal man and a time traveller and Dozois makes an original and highly entertaining morsel out of these limited ingredients.

Steven Fischer’s ‘A List Of Forty-Nine Lies’ represents his debut in ‘MoF&SF’. This flash fiction piece concerns a civilian, caught under the yoke of a totalitarian government, who has finally decided to fight back. The concept is interesting and Fischer makes effective use of the limited space available to him.

Robert Reed is one of the most prolific contributors to the genre magazines and his stories always repay re-reading. ‘An Equation Of State’ takes us to an interstellar war between two hugely advanced, non-human species. When one of them decides to set a trap for the other, the star system chosen happens to be our own, some centuries ago. The trap is prepared, but not sprung and, as the aliens wait for their opponents to arrive, one of their diplomats decides to while away the time by heading down to Earth in disguise to study the indigenous life-forms. Unlike in ‘Star Trek’, though, these aliens don’t appear to have a Prime Directive, so the diplomat soon starts to change the direction of world history, with interesting results. This is a slow-moving, philosophical story about the nature of war but it packs a huge amount into a mere eleven pages.

J.D. Moyer explains, in the introduction to his SF story ‘The Equationist’, that the protagonist was inspired by a minor character who appeared in Poul Anderson’s 1954 novel, ‘Brain Wave’, which a clearly precocious Moyer read when he was only ten! His piece follows the fortunes of Niall Skinner, a maths prodigy who decides early in life that everyone’s broad personality type and habits can be described by an equation. For example, his brother is a circle because he regularly repeats the same mistakes. Niall can’t, however, work out what his own equation is and this challenge preoccupies him throughout his life. I loved this story, although since my first degree was in maths and physics I may be biased. Even if you have no interest in mathematics, though, Moyer has told an emotionally affecting and thought-provoking tale.

The final short story, ‘A Feather In Her Cap’, by Mary Robinette Kowal, is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure featuring a wonderful lead character called Biantera who is an assassin by night and a milliner by day! I found this alt-history story, set in renaissance Venice, hugely entertaining and loved its vibrant characters, energetic action sequences and the comedic anti-establishment vibe.

In this issue, there are not one but two poems. Neal Wilgus’ ‘This Way’ provides a timely warning for would-be adventurers everywhere, while Mary Soon Lee’s ‘Dear Creator’ gives humorous feedback on the pros and cons of a deity’s efforts.

The five non-fiction articles include the usual two book review columns, which are as thoughtful and interesting as ever, an insightful review of Darren Aronofsky’s rather odd recent film ‘Mother!’, one of Paul Di Filippo’s irregular ‘Plumage From Pegasus’ pieces and the regular ‘Curiosities’ column, this time about a 1931 British pulp novel by E. Phillips Oppenheim which prefigures much of the plot of ‘Goldfinger’, the James Bond book published some 28 years later.

I may be a little behind with my reading of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ but it’s certainly nothing to do with the quality. Although I wasn’t too keen on two out of the three novelettes, others may view them differently. As for the rest, I enjoyed it all, with Matthew Hughes’ novella being a personal highlight. Here’s hoping the rest of 2018’s issues are just as good.

Patrick Mahon

April 2018

(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 8.99 (US), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISSN: 1095-8258)

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