The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Mar/Apr 2020, Volume 138 #748 (magazine review).

Every so often, the people at ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ choose a piece of cover art that is so dramatic, it forces you to open the magazine to find out what all the fuss is about. That’s certainly the case with the March/April 2020 issue, which features on the front a stunning painting from Mondolithic Studios called ‘Walkabout’, showing an astronaut walking over a narrow rock bridge across a fiery chasm, with a large planet in the background. Who is the figure and where are they going? The picture made me pick up the mag and start reading, so has done its job.

Inside, this issue includes a novella, four novelettes, seven short stories, two poems and several articles. I’ve covered a cross-section of these below.

The longest piece is Ian Tregillis’ science fantasy novella ‘Come The Revolution’. This is a prequel to his ‘Alchemy War’s trilogy of novels, published by Orbit in 2015 and 2016. The story follows the fortunes of Mab, a female clockwork servitor, in an alternate reality where the Dutch became the pre-eminent empire in the 18th century after finding a way to make intelligent humanoid robots animated by magic. As Mab finds out from her very first day of existence, the robots may be sentient but they are treated by their human masters as dumb slaves, to be used, abused and destroyed on a whim.

Unlike her fellow machines, however, Mab questions the status quo from the start and the older she gets, the more she looks for ways to gain some level of control over her own life. Tregillis brings his alternate history setting to life brilliantly through the continual accumulation of detail, done so well that this fantastical version of the Netherlands felt entirely authentic. Equally, Mab’s early experiences, as she begins to encounter the world around her, are told with brutal simplicity, showing us the everyday cruelty that she, in her innocence, does not initially question. On the basis of this entrancing novella, the ‘Alchemy Wars’ trilogy is now high on my wish list of future reading material.

One of the novelettes I particularly enjoyed this time round was Matthew Hughes’ fantasy piece ‘The Last Legend’. While most of Hughes’ stories for MoF&SF form part of a series, this is a standalone tale. It follows Ardal, an intelligent, bookish child who sees a promising future in the civil service disappear after both his parents drown during a ferry trip. The uncle who becomes his guardian is a workshy alcoholic who fritters away the family savings and sells Ardal into semi-slavery with a local cloth-dying firm. Although Ardal manages to escape one night, he finds himself on the run from the authorities. Can he evade their grasp, prove his innocence and recapture his future?

As he does so often, Hughes has created here a deeply sympathetic protagonist in Ardal. The situation he finds himself in is hugely unfair and we long to see him regain his rightful place in society. The obstacles that are put in his way entertain us while testing him and the journey he embarks on shows us a beautifully realised fantasy setting which I would love to explore further. If you’ve not come across Matthew Hughes’ writing before, this would be an ideal place to start.

The other novelette that caught my fancy was ‘Death On The Nefertem Express’. Brian Trent’s fascinating SF murder mystery pays homage to the little-known fact that Agatha Christie published several supernatural tales in MoF&SF during the 1950s. In this story, Jolene Fort is one of the passengers on a luxury train, the Nefertem Express, which is making its maiden journey across the face of an exoplanet which orbits close to its star, deliberately rushing to stay half an hour ahead of local ‘sunrise’.

This is supposed to make the journey risky and exciting, since local daytime is hot enough to melt the train, and everyone in it. So when the train breaks down, Jolene guesses it’s no accident. Somebody wants one or more of the passengers dead. Can she solve the mystery and fix the fault in the half hour she’s got before they all become a messy puddle on the floor? This is a bold mash-up of the locked-room mystery and Science Fiction and it works brilliantly. Jolene Fort is a strong but sympathetic lead character and the setting is rendered so well that you can almost feel the sweat running down people’s backs as the time ticks down to their imminent fiery deaths. I hope Trent writes more adventures for Ms Fort.

My favourite short story this time was Gregor Hartmann’s ‘A Solitary Crane Circles Cold Mountain’. Lili is a ‘sociophysicist’ in a dystopian future society, tasked by the government with working out what the best social structure should be onboard a large worldship that will take 400 years to reach a nearby exoplanet. All her models end in failure, with the on-ship society falling into ruin and cannibalism well before they reach their destination. Is her inability to solve the problem linked to the constraints of the autocratic society within which she lives? This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking story based around an issue currently being hotly discussed within the interstellar studies community and it’s great to see a live research problem being brought to life through fiction in this way.

Two other short stories particularly caught my eye. ‘The Man I Love’ is a ghost story from James Patrick Kelly. Bar owner Slack opens his tavern once a week on Monday evenings, then waits for his ethereal regulars to arrive. They all have a routine so when the beautiful Ethel, whose dresses are eight decades out of date, does something unexpected, Slack guesses that things are about to change. This story was gently whimsical and heartbreakingly sad at the same time. I adored it.

SL Huang’s debut in MoF&SF, ‘The Million-Mile Sniper’, tells the story of a long-distance political assassination in space but from two very different perspectives. Was it murder or, as originally thought, just an accident? If it was deliberate, how was it done and what was the killer’s motive? This is an assured and confident piece of writing, which covers a lot of ground in its mere five pages. I’ll be looking out for more from Huang in future.

The articles in MoF&SF are always interesting. This time round, I found David J Skal’s film review column particularly worthwhile. In his review of the recent Mike Flanagan screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel ‘Doctor Sleep’, Skal discusses a number of film and TV versions of King stories before concluding that Flanagan’s effort may be one of the few where the film is actually better than the book on which it’s based.

It may have been the cover art that drew me into reading the March/April 2020 issue of MoF&SF but it’s the stories that kept me turning the pages. Another great issue to keep you occupied during lockdown.

Patrick Mahon

August 2020

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

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