The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/Jun 2018, Volume 134 #737 (magazine review).

I’m a bit behind with my reviews of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’, so this time I’ll focus in on my highlights from the May/June issue, rather than covering everything as I usually do. For the sake of completeness, though, this issue included five novelettes, six short stories and eight articles.

Before I get to any of the stories, I’ll start with a shout-out for this issue’s cover image by Alan Clark, which brilliantly illustrates the storyline underpinning Stephanie Feldman’s novelette ‘The Barrens’. This is one of the most effective covers I’ve seen on MoF&SF for some time, and an excellent reminder of the ability that visual artists have of broadening readers’ experience of genre fiction.

My favourite story was ‘Crash Site’ by Brian Trent, a hard SF novelette which forms a sequel to a story by Trent that appeared in MoF&SF exactly a year ago. Umerah Javed and Harris Alexander Pope are two agents for The Order Of Stone, the side which was victorious in a recent interstellar conflict. They’ve come to the planet Osiris to catch a geographer called Tel-Silag, who has become an unlikely murderer, gunning down a local hoodlum and his bodyguards in cold blood.

However, they’re less interested in why he did it and more in the weapon he used, a piece of unusual alien tech that could be of great interest to those opposed to the dominance of The Order Of Stone. It’s no surprise to find, therefore, that others are after Tel-Silag, too. Who will get to him first? I enjoyed this story for the vividness of the world-building, particularly of the technologies, the aliens and the planet Osiris itself. Trent’s manipulation of parallel storylines and the skilful way in which he makes them gradually converge also made this piece stand out from the crowd. I would be very happy to read more tales set in this story universe in future.

Running ‘Crash Site’ a close second was ‘Unstoppable’, which may have the sad distinction of being Gardner Dozois’ last published piece in MoF&SF, given that the legendary author, editor and anthologist died in late May. This short fantasy story tells the tale of Kalgrin, a gifted but ruthlessly single-minded member of Teranasia’s royal family, who commits his first murder at the tender age of eight. This is the starting point for his ascension through the ranks.

Power, though, is not his ultimate objective. When we find out what that is, things get far more interesting! I’ve hugely enjoyed Dozois’ recent run of short stories in MoF&SF and this final offering doesn’t disappoint. It’s an original and sharp-eyed look at the trope of royal power struggles, which benefits hugely from Dozois’ brand of dry and razor-sharp humour throughout. If this is his last story for the magazine, it’s a fitting way in which to bow out. RIP Gardner Dozois (23 July 1947-27 May 2018).

There were another four stories that were almost on the same level as the previous two. The magazine’s opening piece, Amman Sabet’s ‘Tender Loving Plastics’, is a poignant short story about Issa, an orphan who is fostered by a robot mother in a near future world where this is practically necessary but not socially accepted. Sabet poses a classic SF ‘what if’ question here, looking at the current mismatch between the number of children needing adoption or fostering and the number of families able to take them and investigating a different solution. The result is a fascinating and immersive story which doesn’t pull its punches and which I personally found quite upsetting, which is a tribute to Sabet’s ability to make us care about her characters.

‘Argent And Sable’ is the latest instalment in Matthew Hughes’ series of tales about the adventures of Baldemar, likeable henchman to the unlikeable wizard Thelerion. Last time out, Baldemar stole a magical artefact, the Helm of Sagacity, for his master. The Helm was so impressed by Baldemar that it gave him the gift of luck. This story starts with Baldemar testing this out in the local casino. Unsurprisingly, the casino’s owners aren’t too happy about him winning every game he plays. Rescued from arrest by his master, Baldemar is sent off once more, this time in pursuit of another artefact, the Gantlets of Enduring Grasp. These gauntlets (despite their spelling) were forged by a powerful wizard, centuries earlier.

They have been lost ever since their original maker used them to grab a demon from another dimension. Although the Gantlets worked as planned, keeping hold of the demon whenever it attempts to escape, they provided the wizard with no protection when the angry demon decided to tear strips from him, literally, and eat him alive. In his usual dismissive style, Thelerion sends Baldemar to where the Gantlets are now supposed to be hidden, having ordered him to retrieve them but given him no instructions on how to deal with the attached demon. Can his new-found luck get his through this latest challenge in one piece? As ever, reading a Matthew Hughes story is an unalloyed pleasure. The most minor of characters steps out of the page as a distinct entity, while Baldemar himself continues to learn and grow as each story progresses, giving him complexity and new interest every time. The plot this time round is intriguing and leads to a fascinating climax to the story which I did not anticipate. Thoroughly good fun.

Turning from fantasy to SF, Lisa Mason’s ‘The Bicycle Whisperer’ takes the issue of autonomous vehicles and asks what might happen if the vehicles in question were not cars but bikes? What follows is an entertaining and original piece which explores the occasionally emotional relationship between a cyclist and their equipment and what might happen if the bicycle could answer back. You’ll never look at a mountain bike in the same way again!

‘Behold The Child’ is an urban fantasy novelette from MoF&SF stalwart Albert E. Cowdrey. Set in New Orleans, the story is about a five year-old called Tommy who has extremely powerful telekinetic abilities. His parents, Ned and Erin, are having a tough time controlling him, as the temper tantrums which every small child is subject to often lead, in his case, to a barrage of household objects directed at whoever is telling Tommy off. At the point, when Ned and Erin are about to get divorced, a local lawyer with questionable principles decides to step in on Erin’s side, seeing an opportunity to use Tommy’s powers for his own benefit.

Can anyone stop him? I thought this story was extremely well-constructed, slowly uncovering more of the plot, piece by piece, so that the reader doesn’t fully understand what was going on until quite late in the tale. Cowdrey uses specific details to great effect, focusing on the routine and every day experience of the characters, so that his understated references to the use of telekinesis and other mental powers have even more impact when they occur. At the heart of this story is the question of the culpability or not of a small child whose powers make him capable of acts of great harm. Cowdrey explores the issue with sensitivity, although the conclusion of the story does not give us any easy answers.

My final shout-out is for James Sallis’ book review column, which this time round discusses the recent increase in the blurring of genre boundaries, with genre authors and novels gaining mainstream recognition, while authors of literary novels increasingly adopt genre tropes, some with greater success than others. Is this a development to be welcomed or criticised? Sallis discusses the issues with calm detachment, recognising both sides of the debate but refusing to get dragged in by one or the other. This is the kind of piece that I enjoy reading on genre blogs and websites and it’s great to see such a vivid example appearing in the pages of MoF&SF.

I may be running a little behind with my reading of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ but it’s never a mistake to make some time to open an issue. This one contained several excellent stories and articles across both SF and fantasy. Now to get on to the next one.

Patrick Mahon

August 2018

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

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