The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019, Volume 137 #746 (magazine review).

I was hoping that spending the last seven months working from home would have given me more time to read. Unfortunately, the opposite has been the case, which is why I’m only now getting round to reviewing the issue of ,The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, from November/December 2019. The mag includes five novelettes, six short stories, eight non-fiction columns and a poem. I’ll review a selection of them below.

The cover of this issue is a tremendously energetic painting by Bob Eggleton. Called ‘The Sky House’, it shows a castle and the small lump of rock on which it was built, flying through the sky above a series of jagged mountains. While the covers of MoF&SF are often commissioned to illustrate a story that has already been accepted by the magazine, this time the situation was reversed. Bob Eggleton’s painting was the inspiration for Charlotte Ashley’s novelette, ‘The Joy In Wounding’, which appears in this issue.

My favourite piece in this issue was Gregor Hartmann’s SF short story, ‘A Hand At The Service Of Darkness’. This is a sequel to the rather excellent ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Bullets’, which featured in the March/April 2019 issue and provides another opportunity for us to get to know Inspector Philippa Song, a police detective on the far-flung planet Zephyr. In this story, she is put in a very uncomfortable position when she is ordered to assist Major Strasser, an internal security agent from Zephyr’s parent planet, Tensen, in locating and neutralising someone that Strasser insists is a terrorist. The evidence that would justify that label is classified, leaving Song unsure whether what they are doing is either morally or legally justifiable.

Hartmann helps us to feel Song’s misgivings in our own stomachs while simultaneously portraying a deeply ambiguous society where right and wrong are very definitely relative concepts. This is a sophisticated and thoroughly enjoyable SF adventure story and I can only hope that Hartmann will reacquaint us with Inspector Song again before too long.

Running Hartmann’s story a close second was Marie Vibbert’s ‘Knit Three, Save Four’, an SF tale about a woman with the nickname of Mouth, whose method of seeing the stars is to stow away on the next cargo-ship going in the right direction. Her discovery by the crew of the ship she’s currently on seems likely to get her thrown out of the airlock, until her favourite hobby becomes a potential solution to the ship’s latest chronic reliability problem. The story made me think of Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’ with its mix of a ‘hit it with a hammer’ approach to spacecraft engineering, a lot of dry humour and a pretty casual disregard for the value of human life. I loved it.

‘A Geas Of The Purple School’ is Matthew Hughes’ latest outing for Baldemar, the former wizard’s henchman now employed by ‘the Eyes and Ears’, the secret police in the city of Vanderoy where he lives. This novelette is the longest piece in the magazine, giving Hughes the time and space to cover a lot of ground. In brief, when Baldemar and his immediate boss, Sub-Commander Vunt, are sent to investigate a murder they are concerned to find that the dead man was in the employ of the Lady Sabaste, daughter of the Duke who rules the city. Worse, he appears to have been killed by assassins. As they try to establish whether there is a plot against the ruling family, they find more bodies and then come under attack themselves.

When they do eventually find a clue, Lady Sabaste’s diary, it has unfortunately been bewitched so that it cannot be read and it’s clear that some people will stop at nothing to get it off them. Will they live long enough to unravel the case? Hughes has crafted another engaging fantasy tale filled with dodgy characters, grungy settings and a plot that would embarrass the Borgias. Baldemar makes an excellent double act with his old friend Vunt, not least because almost everyone else in the story repeatedly underestimates them, assuming they’re stupid coppers, too dull to fathom the deadly court politics at play behind the murder. This is another fantastic story from Hughes’ prolific pen.

James Morrow’s dark fantasy novelette, ‘Bird Thou Never Wert’, is a story within a story. In August 2019, an old lady called Marsha Waszynski writes to the managing editor of a niche publishing house that is about to produce a collectors’ edition of the most famous book by pulp novelist Darko Cromdahl. A former girlfriend of Cromdahl’s some six decades earlier, Marsha explains in her letter how the rich, suave but untalented hack that Cromdahl was when she first met him, at a writer’s group in New York in the early 50s, transformed overnight into the one-man publishing phenomenon he later became.

The story is deeply unsettling but is it the ravings of an elderly lady who has lost her marbles or an accurate recollection of a supernatural event? Morrow’s borrowing from Hindu legends works brilliantly here, providing a mythic depth and richness to the story Marsha tells. The contrast between the quiet and reflective poet Marsha and the impulsive, egotistical narcissist Cromdahl dramatises the eternal question asked of all aspiring artists. What are you prepared to do to achieve success?

‘Shucked’ is Sam J. Miller’s debut piece in this magazine. In it we meet Adney and her boyfriend, Teek. They’re poor American students, holidaying on the coast of Italy. After Teek has an intriguing encounter with a complete stranger, Adney starts to notice changes in his character. Did the stranger do something bad to him or is she just imagining things? This is a thought-provoking story about the extent to which any of us really know the people around us, even our nearest and dearest. Miller builds a strong sense of unease throughout this short story, producing a powerful first appearance in MoF&SF. One to watch, I think.

Turning to the non-fiction, two items stood out. I particularly enjoyed Paul Di Filippo’s ‘Curiosities’ column on the back page, which on this occasion discusses a dystopian novel by the mainstream literary author Clemence Dane, published in 1939. The novel warns of a populist British politician emerging out of a period of European conflict. Sound familiar? I also found Michelle West’s column enlightening, offering in-depth reviews of two SF books by Ted Chiang and Neal Stephenson and a fantasy novel by Julie Czerneda.

I may have taken my time in catching up with the November/December 2019 issue of MoF&SF but the wait was definitely worth it. Proof yet again, if any more were needed, that the genre magazines are a wonderful source of new short fiction. Like so many of us, they’re suffering in these challenging times. So why not treat yourself to a subscription to one or more of them this Christmas?

Patrick Mahon

October 2019

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

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