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The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2020, Volume 139 #752 (magazine review).

December 26, 2020 | By | Reply More

For years, if not decades to come, 2020 is likely to be known worldwide as the year of Covid-19. As I write this, the news media is full of speculation about the speed with which vaccines can be rolled out in different countries, while here in the UK lockdown restrictions continue to be tightened due to the rapid rise in infections. Hopefully, 2021 will be the year of widespread vaccinations and we will be able to put this awful experience behind us. Hopefully.

In the meantime, reading for pleasure continues to be a wonderful antidote to the news, for me at least. I’ve just finished the November/December 2020 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ and it has yet again reminded me of the enjoyment to be had from reading new works of fiction that have only just seen the light of day. If you share my love for reading newly published stories, do yourself a favour and subscribe to one of the genre magazines for 2021. You won’t regret it.

Before I get into the detail of the stories in this issue, I want to take a moment to pay tribute to the magazine’s current editor, C.C. Finlay, who has announced that he will step down after six years in the role, with effect from the second issue of 2021, in order to focus more on his own writing. Charlie has been the editor for almost the whole time I’ve been reviewing MoF&SF for SFCrowsnest and I’ve come to trust him to select a wide variety of interesting stories to fill its pages.

I like some stories more than others but then taste is subjective. Another reader would make different choices. What is constant is the excellent quality of the pieces selected to appear. I’m very sorry to see Charlie go but would like to thank him for the amazing job he has done for the magazine and its readers. I look forward to seeing where his successor, the writer and editor Sheree Renée Thomas, takes the mag next.

So to the current issue, which includes six novelettes, four short stories, three poems and eight columns. I’ll review a cross-section of them here, starting with the cover image by renowned space artist David A. Hardy, which illustrates Amman Sabet’s SF short story ‘Skipping Stones In The Dark’. It’s an intriguing picture, juxtaposing a portrait of a rather dour-faced young woman and an external shot of the generation ship that is her home. There’s also a body floating in the interstellar void, a detail sufficiently interesting to make me read that piece first even though it was right at the end of the magazine. As newscaster Kirsty Wark might say, ‘more on that story later.’

The longest piece in this issue is Matthew Hughes’ fantasy novelette ‘The Glooms’. This is the seventh and final outing for Baldemar, the rather unusual wizard’s henchman and follows on from ‘Air Of The Overworld’ which appeared in the Jan/Feb edition of the magazine. After many adventures, Baldemar has now retired from service and moved to a large house on the coast, where he is enjoying his retirement by sailing and fishing. When his former colleague Oldo, senior henchman to the wizard Thelerion arrives unexpectedly at his house, Baldemar’s initial pleasure at seeing an old friend is short-lived. Oldo explains that their former master is dead and two of his greatest rivals, Audelanz the Formidable and Addabast the Phenomenal, are keen to regain powerful magical items that Thelerion had stolen from them.

They believe that Baldemar may know of the items’ whereabouts and are now searching for him. Baldemar immediately shuts up his house and flees with Oldo, hoping that anonymity will keep him safe until he thinks of a longer-term answer to this potentially terminal problem. Unfortunately, for both he and Oldo, they run almost immediately into a highway robbery and are taken captive. Has Baldemar’s famed good luck finally run out? Yet again, Matthew Hughes has produced a story that transports you to a classic secondary world setting, filled with realistic but interesting people and throws his hero into a seemingly desperate situation with little hope of coming out on top.

As ever, it is the greatest of pleasures to see how Baldemar, an ordinary man albeit magically gifted with a lot of luck, outplays his supposed superiors, largely through the application of empathy for others, humility and a large dollop of common-sense. If this is indeed the last time we will see Baldemar, it provides a suitably positive conclusion to his story. I do hope Hughes returns to the pages of the magazine with a new hero and new adventures very soon, though.

The story that appears first in the magazine is a debut piece from Nadia Afifi, who writes about the country of her birth in the SF novelette ‘The Bahrain Underground Bazaar’. Here we meet Zahra, an older woman undergoing painful daily chemotherapy for a brain tumour, who spends her free time visiting the futuristic bazaar of the title, where you can plug your brain into their network and experience other people’s lives and memories, as digitally captured by the near-ubiquitous NeuroLync implants. Zahra likes to divert herself from her own likely terminal illness by experiencing the deaths of other people, whether peaceful, violent, accidental or deliberate.

On this particular day, the dying memory she plugs into is so shocking that she decides to travel to the place where it happened. Will she be able to find out more and, if so, will it help her to come to terms with her own fate? I thought this was an amazing debut story, taking a relatively familiar SF invention and using it to explore some very deep issues around life, love and loss in a sensitive, understated way through the voice of the beautifully realised central character Zahra. I look forward to reading more from Nadia Afifi in future.

‘A Tale Of Two Witches’ is the latest fantasy novelette from the pen of MoF&SF stalwart Albert E. Cowdrey. Ex-US Army nurse Rosie Merckel is trying to find out what has happened to her seven year-old great-nephew, David, who went missing a month ago. She suspects his disappearance is connected to a recent, very brutal murder-suicide in this otherwise generally quiet corner of Maryland. Rosie thinks she may be able to find out more than the police have managed because she has a psychic gift and can sense spirits. When she visits the murder scene, her gift does indeed come in handy but what she senses is not what she was expecting or hoping for.

Does she have the stomach to follow the supernatural clues to their logical destination? Cowdrey has written a powerful piece here, exploring real-world issues around the exploitation of children through the lens of an unsettling fantasy story. Rosie is exactly the kind of lead character you want in such a story. She has a psychic gift but uses it only reluctantly and is in every other way extremely down-to-earth. My only regret is that I would have liked to get to know Rosie better than I did, so that I was fully emotionally invested in the journey she was on.

Sarina Dorie’s comic horror novelette is brilliantly summed up in its title, ‘A Civilised And Orderly Zombie Apocalypse Per School Regulations’. Informed by Dorie’s 17 years as a public school teacher in America and the horror of having to train your students for what to do in the event that an armed lunatic targets your school, Dorie takes a darkly comic look at how such training might or might not prove useful if the attack comes from zombies instead. The story is utterly brilliant, pitch perfect and brings a very welcome slice of comedy to the mix.

Moving on to the short stories, ‘The Homestake Project’ is Cylin Busby’s debut in the magazine. Her SF story follows an unnamed female geology postdoc as she is sent down a deep mine in South Dakota, searching for a tiny nematode worm that can live in the extreme environment to be found two miles underground. NASA are hoping that the creature may provide an analogue for any potential life to be found under the surface of Mars. What our post-doc does find, though, is not what she or anyone at NASA was expecting. This is a really confident, accomplished story which delivers perfectly on its premise.

To return to the beginning, I started by commenting on David A. Hardy’s excellent cover art. What about the SF short story it illustrates? Amman Sabet’s ‘Skipping Stones In The Dark’ is an interesting thought experiment, exploring the question that often forms the core of stories about starships that will travel for hundreds of years before reaching their destination. What’s the right balance between individual freedom and communal rules when you’re in a situation where a serious mistake could kill everyone? The story explores this conundrum dramatically but I found it difficult to sympathise with either of the main characters in conflict, so I’m afraid their lengthy journey left me where I started.

Somewhat unusually, this issue included three poems. Of the three I particularly enjoyed Beth Cato’s ‘Space Isn’t Like In The Vids’, which tells a highly dramatic SF story in a few evocative lines covering less than a page. I’ve re-read this piece many times in the last two months and I still find it powerful and fresh.

Turning to the non-fiction, Charles de Lint’s book review column is as excellent as always, providing insightful but also sympathetic commentary on seven new titles that you may want to investigate. Jerry Oltion outdoes himself in his ‘Science’ column, discussing the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics. His musings took me all the way back to my first year as an undergraduate in maths and physics, fully one-third of a century ago, when the excitement of wrestling with some of these conundrums made me realise just how right I’d been in my choice, of course. If that makes me sound like a nerd, it’s because I am. By the way, if you aren’t a subscriber to MoF&SF and want to see if the mag might appeal to you, you can read all the non-fiction columns on the website for free.

So here we are, at the end of one of the worst years I can remember. The act of reading has allowed me to escape from this reality, if only for a few minutes or hours at a time, and the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ has been a deeply rewarding companion over the last two months. Highly recommended.

If you’ve got this far, thank you for your perseverance! I wish everyone as merry a Christmas as it will be possible to have under current circumstances and I hope that the New Year brings all of us better fortune. I think we’ve earned it.

Patrick Mahon

December 2020

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

check out website: www.fandsf.com

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Category: Fantasy, Magazines, Scifi

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