The best story in the May/June issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is the novella, “”Maze of Shadows” by Fred Chappell. And isn’t it lovely that a man who has won numerous literary prizes, is known for his poetry and essays, and was the poet laureate of North Carolina, is writing fantasy? And writing it beautifully, as well. The novella is one of his series about Falco, who is training to become a shadow master under the tutelage of Maestro Astolfo. A shadow master is one who works with shadows belonging to people and animals to create traps for the eyes, to harm and to help. The commission at issue in this story is one received from a baron, who wishes to have a chateau booby-trapped to protect his most precious possession. Falco does not know what this treasure is, but he creates a masterpiece of misdirection, one certain to lead any thief to his certain death. But a blind man easily defeats the maze, returning with Astolfo’s test treasure with no difficulty. Falco becomes interested in the blind man, whose guide, a young woman, seems to have some special ability attached to her shadow, suggesting that perhaps shadows have some independent intelligence or instinct, as well as the mystery of the baron, whose treasure seems to be the nubs of candles. There is also an intriguing subplot involving Falco’s fellow apprentice, Mutano, whose voice has been switched with that of a cat, Sunbolt. The story is beautifully plotted and written, and is a joy to read.
“City League” by Matthew Corradi is a moving short story about a shy young man whose best memories are of a childhood spent loving, playing and watching baseball with his father, after his mother dies when he is only eleven months old. The first-person narrator is employed as a low-level memory technician, handling small insurance claims and law firm depositions — no more tedious questioning with the possibility that a witness is lying; you merely grab the memory directly from the brain and check for tampering. While working a routine case, though, the narrator discovers that one of his own memories is false. He confronts his father, also a memory technician, and what has previously seemed like a story about the dangers of technology becomes a story about a broken heart and a broken childhood. It is a sentimental story, but not mawkish, and it will resonate in your own memory for a long time.
Naomi Kritzer’s “Liberty’s Daughter” is a fine story about an archipelago of islands governed by libertarian principals, to one degree or another. The islands are not your usual masses of land, but are derelict cruise ships ocean freighters as well as man-made islands and open platforms. The first person narrator, Beck Garrison, is the daughter of a very important man on the island nation of New Minerva, which is about 220 miles west from Los Angeles. Beck’s father’s occupation is never spelled out, but he seems to be either a criminal, a hugely wealthy influence wielder, or a highly placed politician. At any rate, Beck has a degree of protection, and a degree of surveillance, that most would not, making her life simultaneously harder and easier. She seems to be about high school age, too young to have one of the top jobs that PhDs hold, and too free and rich to be a bonded laborer, as are just about all of those who do the scut work (the maintenance, the cooking, and so on). She has found a job as a finder — one who scours the island to make swaps for people searching for something not easily found (it’s not like there’s a Macy’s on every street corner). So, for instance, someone might be willing to swap a pair of sparkly high-heeled sandals for information about what’s happened to her sister. And thereby hangs a tale about this island’s politics, bonded labor that approaches slavery, and power. I’m hoping it’s but the first in a series, as the set-up is intriguing, Beck is a fascinating character, and I want to know more about just what her father is getting up to.
Teenagers are something of a theme in this issue, making me wonder if perhaps it’s time for me to give my nephew a subscription as a gift. “The Children’s Crusade” by Michael Alexander is about another first person narrator, William, who is titled a “dork,” meaning, apparently, anyone who is underage. William is the first person who meets Peter, addressed as Frem and apparently meaning something along the lines of “free man,” one who is not affiliated with any town or religion in particular. Peter seems to have more skill than your average tramp, and he has some ideas for William on how to treat his father, who is rapidly succumbing to the planet’s disease, a degeneration of the nervous system that makes movement impossible. Peter has a lot of ideas about a lot of things, in fact, and a tense face-off with the local preacher changes William’s life.
“Taking the Low Road” by Pat MacEwen reminds me of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton and other folks famous for being famous. Jeanne has taken drastic steps to get away from her twin sister, who was her partner in a business that sold — well, just about everything that they ever touched or used, from perfume to a brain shunt that supposedly improved the quality of one’s orgasm, but instead had an unfortunate tendency to cause brain damage in its users. Jeanne has used up her considerable fortune to float through a wormhole to a distant planet and begin anew, in a life with some meaning, only to find that her sister has tracked her down and come on the same, very dangerous, trip with the intention of starting all over with her sister at the other end. The wormhole has different ideas, though, and the make-believe physics of the trip are at least as fascinating as the battle between the sisters.
Albert E. Cowdrey writes enjoyable ghost stories, and “Asylum” is no exception. It’s a silly tale, set in New Orleans, about Willy, who inherits some money and decides to use it to become a full-time ghost hunter. Chris Willrich’s “Grand Tour” is too short to fairly describe the future in which he has set his coming-of-age tale, and the denouement makes no real sense in any future. “Necrosis,” by Dale Bailey, is a story that reaches for the tradition of the weird tale, but falls short when it fails to inspire any sort of emotional reaction from the reader. Andy Stewart’s “Typhoid Jack” is another story that does not fulfill its promise, again being too short to fully elaborate on the future in which androids have apparently taken over the government for the safety of the citizens, who proved incapable of governing themselves.
The “Departments,” as they are called, are always quite good in F&SF. I’m not as fond of Charles de Lint’s “Books to Look For” as I am of the regular book column by a rotating cast of reviewers, this month by James Sallis, but both columns added books to my list of books I’d like to read. Paul Di Filippo’s “Plumage From Pegasus,” a regular column devoted to commentary on contemporary political and social issues by rewriting them into silliness in the future, is about copyright protection this time, and the ending is one any reasonable reader should have had in mind from the very beginning. Kathi Maio’s film column is a sensitive write-up of “The Woman in Black,” among other films, most of which I had not heard of — and so my Netflix queue has grown as well.
It’s a strong issue of a magazine that has been growing stronger over the last several years. Grab it before it’s gone; it’s on newsstands until July 2.