The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2015, Volume 128 # 721 (magazine review)

I’m still a bit behind with my reviews of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’, so I’ll get straight down to business. This issue contains one novella, four novelettes, five short stories and a poem, along with the usual assortment of non-fiction articles. So, how do they stack up?

First, a shout out for the gorgeous cover image by Cory and Catska Ench, which accompanies the lead novella, ‘The Lord Of Ragnarök’ by Albert E. Cowdrey. The cover shows an imposing dragon poised on a rocky outcrop jutting out of a violent, heaving sea. There’s a sense of barely contained power and threat surging from the picture which made me want to turn to the novella immediately.


Cowdrey has been rather busy. ‘The Lord Of Ragnarök’ is his third story in the magazine this year, following on from a contemporary fantasy novelette and a Science Fiction short story, both of which I enjoyed. This time out, as the accompanying cover image might suggest, he’s written an epic fantasy tale. It follows the exploits of Sir Richard de Coudray, a Crusades era knight who works his way slowly up from the peasantry to a position of importance in his locality through hard work and common sense. However, there is something strange about Drango, the Lord of the Mount, and it is only when Richard gains his complete trust and is asked to accompany him on a voyage to the ‘Hidden Isles’, where Drango’s father lives, that he finds out what. Cowdrey is a strong writer and Sir Richard is a humble and engaging lead character whose many exploits I enjoyed reading about. My only caveat would be that the fantasy element of the story did not make its presence known until three-quarters of the way in, which seemed a little late to me. Nonetheless, an excellent story to lead with.

‘We’re So Very Sorry For Your Recent Tragic Loss’, Nick Wolven’s SF novelette, takes us into a near future world where thirty-five year-old Meg is struggling to get a permanent job despite excellent qualifications. Her multi-year internship is coming to an end and she’s desperate to make a success of her final work assignment. So when she wakes up to find all her friends, family and even domestic appliances sending her messages of condolence over a bereavement she’s not even aware of, it’s a hassle and a mystery she could well do without. Nobody seems to be able to tell her who has died but neither will they accept that perhaps it’s all a mistake. I enjoyed Wolven’s witty extrapolation of the challenges faced by the Facebook generation but was ultimately left wondering why I should care, given that Meg is a pleasant but not particularly interesting person and most of the other characters seem to be self-obsessed narcissists.

David Gerrold’s ‘Monsieur’ is a fantasy novelette which also functions as the opening section of his new novel, ‘Jacob’. The lead character, Murray, is an aspiring author who takes an extract from his latest project, a vampire novel, to his writers’ group. He gets pretty good feedback but, after the rest of the group have gone home, their pale and rather sickly-looking new member, Jacob, adds his opinion, suggesting that the writing is naïve and has completely missed the mark. When Murray asks him to justify this view, Jacob makes an astounding claim for the validity of his insights, before proceeding to recount his own history in detail. Gerrold has been a prolific contributor to MF&SF recently, having had four stories published in the last seven issues. The others were mostly comic in tone, so this serious dark fantasy is an interesting departure. As is to be expected, given his pedigree, the story is very well told with both Murray and Jacob coming across as interesting and engaging characters. The novelette is filled with fascinating details and incidents and was a pleasure to read. I hope to get hold of the novel in due course.

Next up is ‘The Adventure Of The Clockwork Men’, a steampunk novelette which forms the third outing in MF&SF for Ron Goulart’s Victorian sleuth Harry Challenge. It’s April 1903 and Harry’s friend and would-be love interest, journalist Jennie Barr, has disappeared. When a fellow journalist on his way to discuss the case with Harry is shot and killed, Harry correctly guesses that his arch-nemesis, Doctor Grimshaw, must be involved and pulls out all the stops to find and rescue Jennie. This fantastical steampunk story is told with a slightly ironic and knowingly self-aware mock-pulp style which I rather liked. It’s bold and silly and jolly good fun.

Richard Bowes’ ‘Rascal Saturday’ is part of his ‘Big Arena’ cycle, the last instalment of which was shortlisted for a Nebula Award. It is set in a climate change-damaged USA in 2070 and follows the adventures of twenty-three-year old Janina Dinsen, a member of a powerful family who can use a magical dance to transport themselves into a parallel world where they run a city called Naxos as their private fiefdom. Janina isn’t happy with this abuse of power and decides to rebel. Can she succeed? I loved the premise of this story but I found most of the characters unsympathetic and I’m sorry to admit that I got so confused by the complexities of the twin storylines that I ultimately lost interest in what was going on.

Turning to the five short stories, the first is ‘Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water’, Marissa Lingen’s debut story in MF&SF, which tells us of the lengths that one young witch will go to to keep practising her magic when the outbreak of plague makes it difficult to get hold of spell ingredients. The scenario was interesting but I didn’t feel that Lingen made enough of it and was left a little underwhelmed.

‘A Hot Day’s Night’ by award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi is set in the same world as his latest novel, ‘The Water Knife’. The story follows a journalist called Lucy as she shadows Charlene, a thief who steals solar cells from abandoned rooftops. Though the plot is pretty limited, the interplay between these two characters is strong and the drought-affected world is well presented.

Bo Balder’s ‘A House Of Her Own’ is her first pro-sale in English, although she has won awards for stories written in her native Dutch. The story examines what can go wrong when a party of largely male astronauts arrives on an alien planet, intent on rescuing a group of women whose ancestors ended up there generations before and who have learned to live in harmony with the intelligent non-humanoid aliens that are native to the planet. The writing is naturalistic and engaging but there is no attempt at subtlety in ramming the moral of the story down the reader’s throat, ending with a disappointing conclusion which appears to condone cold-blooded murder.

‘Don’t Move’ by Dennis Etchison is a contemporary supernatural tale of a man trying to escape the authorities and a mysterious woman who keep on popping up and disappearing again. I enjoyed the prose but had no idea what was going on. The final short story in this issue and my undoubted favourite is Elizabeth Bear’s ‘The Bone War’, a hugely enjoyable steampunk fantasy set in the universe of her ‘Eternal Sky’ trilogy that exposes the world of academic rivalries to a bitingly satirical critique through the words and actions of the wise and talented heroine, Bijou the Artificer. Bear presents a great deal of story in a mere fifteen pages and I look forward to reading more of her fiction in future.

This issue also includes a single short poem called ‘Energy Matters’ by Sophie White. I couldn’t make much of it but, as I’ve said before, I’m afraid SF poetry isn’t my strong suit.

In addition to all the fiction above, there are two book review columns, an excellent review of the SF film ‘Ex Machina’ and the usual Curiosities column, which this time looks at a utopian novel of the future written in 1904 by Edward A. Johnson, the first African-American former slave to be elected to the New York legislature.

I’d have to say that I enjoyed the fiction in this issue rather less than I have for the last few copies, with roughly half of the stories failing to excite me very much. Having said that, I had a lot of fun with the other five stories and it’s inevitable that any single reader isn’t going to like everything in every issue. Other readers may feel very differently about the stories I didn’t like. In any case, the really great thing is that the next issue is downstairs, just waiting for me to pick it up. That’s ultimately what I love about reading the genre magazines. There’s always something new to get stuck into. I’m off to do just that.

Patrick Mahon

December 2015

(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)

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