The April 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy is identified as a “Special Dark Fantasy Issue.” The nifty cover illustration by Brom fits the theme perfectly. And there’s lots more Brom inside, including an interview by Karen Haber and a considerable number of examples of his work. This is a man who must use up his blue, gray, red and black paints with considerable speed — but he never seems to use up his imagination.
The best story in this issue is about the Cthulhu Mythos, which has really been enjoying a renaissance these days. “The Strange Case of Madelein H. March (Ages 14-1/4)” by Von Carr is that rarity in fantasy, a story intended to be funny that actually will make you laugh. Maddie has been left in charge of the family home while her parents and her elder sister go on a trip to visit potential colleges, and wouldn’t you know it, the Elder Gods take this opportunity to manifest themselves in the basement. Maddie knows that if she can’t get rid of them, her parents will never let her hear the end of it. After a number of hilarious attempts to solve her problem, Maddie finally comes upon the proper metafictional solution. While it’s not exactly dark fantasy, it’s about dark fantasy — it mocks dark fantasy in a loving way, actually — and it’s great fun.
The other stories are more of what you’d expect from a dark fantasy issue. Randy Henderson’s retelling of the Grimm Brothers tale of Hansel and Gretel in “A Witch’s Heart” reveals a sibling rivalry not previously included in the tale. It also casts an entirely new light on the relationship between the witch and Gretel. The two powerful women in this tale are temporarily defeated by the only male, but it is clear that the tale is not over when Henderson is done with the telling. While the idea behind this story is not entirely original, it is a good retelling.
“The Sacrifice,” by Michelle M. Welch, deceptively begins as yet another fantasy tale set in yet another medieval fantasy world filled with knights and wars. The names of the characters are clearly intended to set the reader thinking that she has seen this world before: two young knights, Anders and Gilien, are apprenticed to the judges in one of King Harald’s villages. They are assigned to investigate the case of a woman who has clearly been gang-raped and beaten, but who refuses to speak of what was done to her, even to accuse her assailants. In this kingdom, the absence of a criminal means that there is no crime. Anders confidently predicts that the woman will herself be tried one day soon for strangling her child once it is born, for, he reasons, she must be pregnant.
Obeying an impulse he does not understand, Gilien hides the woman, keeping her warm and fed and trying to offer her his support. One day she is not where Gilien has hidden her. Gilien breaks his silence and tells Anders what he has been doing, so distraught is he at her disappearance. Anders carefully explains that there is nowhere for the woman to go save to destroy herself: her father wouldn’t take her back, no man would marry her, and so on. Perhaps, the two men conclude, she is seeking out magicians to make her a virgin again. But the woman has something else in mind, as we learn when war comes to the village. “The Sacrifice” does not proceed as you would expect it to. This original tale is well-written and captivating.
Lisa Goldstein’s story, “Little Vampires,” is an interesting take on family life, and especially the bonds between a mother and her daughter. I don’t want to say more because the sting of this story would be drawn by any discussion; it’s short and sharp and, ultimately, lovely.
“The Shackle and Lash,” by Euan Harvey, is another in a recent series of fantasy short stories and novels to take advantage of the rich culture of Arabia for a setting and a magic system. In this tale, two members of the Mukhabarat are demoted to prison duty when they run from a Hand of Afaz. We are told little about the Hands, or why these brave men fled; that adventure is merely the starting point for a tale of a mysterious blue-eyed prisoner who abides in unspeakable filth but carries in her eyes cloudless summer skies and the smell of hay. What this prisoner does to the two men makes a story worth reading.
This issue of Realms of Fantasy also contains a “Folkroots” column by Theodora Goss on “Vampires in Folkore and Literature.” It is a fine piece of popular scholarship about the history of this literary trope. It’s good to know that Goss doesn’t like sparkly vampires, and good to know, too, that she knows their background in literature through and through. I learned only recently that Goss is a lawyer as well as a writer, and now that I know, I can see it in her nonfiction writing: she is organized, precise, carefully presenting evidence to support each statement. Literature’s gain is law’s loss.
Realms has always paid close attention to quality book reviews, and this issue is no exception. Paul Witcover and Elizabeth Bear write well-considered reviews of all sorts of fantasy, giving a reader a good idea of whether the book under discussion is worth picking up. Bear’s reviews of paranormal romance and urban fantasy give attention to a corner of the field that gets relatively little attention from reviewers despite its popularity, making them especially helpful. Michael Jones writes short reviews of young adult fiction that can serve as a good guide for any parent or friend of a young person who loves to read — not to mention that so much young adult fiction these days makes some of the best reading for adults as well. Finally, Andrew Wheeler writes about graphic novels, another area that is under-reviewed. These pages at the back of the book are very valuable for the fantasy aficionado.