In 2009, fans of Realms of Fantasy, a full-size slick magazine, were dismayed to learn that its publisher, Sovereign Media, was shutting it down. Just not enough subscribers, Sovereign said; we can’t afford to keep going. But a savior came along in the form of Publisher Warren Lapine of Tir Na Nog Press, who purchased the magazine and kept it going with the same wonderful staff (including long-time editor Shawna McCarthy). Readers were delighted. Magazines are hardly ever saved, and even if they’re revived years later, they’re normally only shadows of their former selves. It was great to know that Realms of Fantasy would continue publishing. I’m sure I wasn’t the only hopeful who started writing stories in the sincere belief that someday I’d see my name on the Realms of Fantasy cover.
But things started looking shaky in mid-2010 or so, when Lapine issued a letter to subscribers begging them to renew in order to insert some cash into the venture. And no one was too surprised when in October 2010, Lapine announced that Realms would, after all, be closing down. Lapine announced: “As things stand, I would need to invest another large amount of money simply to continue publishing the magazine at its current level — an investment that I do not believe would have any chance of ever repaying itself…. Should there be any interest in purchasing the magazine I will gladly sell Realms to a responsible party for $1.00 and give them the finished files for the December issue.” As one of the subscribers who had gladly renewed my subscription long before a renewal was due in response to Lapine’s plea, I waved goodbye to my hard-earned dollars.
But Realms of Fantasy simply won’t stay dead. In November 2010, Damnation Books LLC announced that it had purchased Realms of Fantasy, which would keep publishing, both digitally and in hard copy. Plans are already in place for a festive 100th issue in June 2011. It’s incredible — Realms of Fantasy just keeps coming back, continuously publishing even after the wake was held and the coffin lowered into the ground. Here’s to its continued health!
The four stories in the December 2010 issue — the one intended to be its last — are of sufficient quality to warrant the resurrection of the magazine. Two of the stories are so good that it’s hard to say which is my favorite. “The Banjo Singer” by Dennis Danvers is a sort of fairy tale set in the last century, when radios and wax cylinders still represented the epitome of technology. Marie, the heroine, wants to sing, but her father insists that she learn to play an instrument instead, and gives her a banjo with mother-of-pearl hummingbirds inlaid on the fret board and headboard. She soon becomes sufficiently proficient that her teacher, Garver Williams, puts her in a band with six other of his students. The band is mildly successful until one day Garver (who had once heard Marie singing when she thought she was alone) decides Marie should sing while the others play. The result is a sensation, but Marie’s father objects violently, and forbids her to sing another note. But Marie finds a way — she must sing — and with the help of the hummingbirds, who turn out to be magical, she fights her father over the years and throughout the world. The plot is perfectly tuned to the story, and the writing has exactly the right tone. My only complaint is that Marie is not very likable — no Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty innocent, but as cruel to her father, in her way, as he is to her, and unspeakably cruel to her husband. But perhaps it is really Marie’s voice that is the protagonist here, using her and her father equally. Indeed, I’m even tempted to say that the hummingbirds use all the humans in the story to their advantage. Certainly, it’s a story that is worth reading — and I’d love to know what you think about it.
The second story I most enjoyed was “Maiden, Mother, Crone” by Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky. This story, of a time when witches are being hunted by the priests of the Solitary God, is not set on our world, but certainly on a close analog. The tale is of a witch, Marjan, who has hidden her nature for all her life – something fairly difficult to do, as a physical mark sets her apart. Now that she is pregnant with a daughter, she is in even greater danger – and, indeed, so is that daughter. The desperation of the woman, alone in a harsh environment when she goes into labor, is written so well that one can feel the cold, the pain, and the loneliness. The story is written with immediacy and yet is also elegantly told.
Also worth reading is “Tools of the Devil” by Jerry Oltion, a “deal with the devil” story. We’ve all read so many of those that you have to know that this wouldn’t be publishable unless there was a twist — and this particular twist is one that brought a big grin to my face, as well as a wince to my muscles. There’s a reason that Dante’s Paradiso isn’t nearly as interesting as The Inferno, and why Satan is a much more interesting character than God in Milton’s epic. Oltion plays a nice change on this classic trope.
“Queen of the Kanguellas” by Scott Dalrymple is the longest story in this issue, and the weakest. While the protagonist’s exploration of Portuguese West Africa is told brightly, with great detail and wonderful dialogue, little happens for a very long time. And when the protagonist’s secret is revealed, it comes as no shock — not because it is expected, but because we never knew that there was a mystery that had to be resolved. I wanted to like this story because of its dark setting, but it is ultimately not successful on its own terms.
No print magazine these days contains only fiction. Resa Nelson’s report on the last two Harry Potter movies is old news by now, and the article seems mere filler. Karen Haber’s interview of Terese Nielsen, a fantasy artist, is interesting enough to make me happy that this is a regular feature of the magazine. The book reviews, by Paul Witcover and Elizabeth Bear, are well-written and thoughtful, and caused an extra few books to make their way onto my “to be read” list — which, given the present length of that list, is something of an accomplishment. These features round out the magazine nicely. If you don’t subscribe to Realms of Fantasy yet, you should do it now. And yes, a PDF version is now available.
Subterranean Online publishes an online-only magazine each month, a few stories at a time. As far as I can tell, this is a separate venture from Subterranean Magazine, which has thus far published eight issues in hardcover ($80) and softcover ($6) both. The first two issues are sold out entirely. Were I rich, I’d probably want to collect these in hardcover, but alas, I’m not. So I make do with Subterranean Online, which presently has two stories up for the opening salvo of its Winter 2011 issue.
“A Long Walk Home” by Jay Lake is a superior science fiction story. While it deals with a venerable story line — the last man on earth — it makes it new in that it doesn’t take place on earth, and the protagonist isn’t exactly a man. Aeschylus Sforza is an entity known as a “Howard,” a human who has been altered in a way not explicitly detailed, but explicitly so that he has an enormously long lifespan; he is nearly 800 years old when the story opens. He is apparently equipped with some form of brain technology as well: “He consulted his telemetry. One advantage of being a Howard was all the hardware you could carry in your head. Literally as well as figuratively.” Wow, I want to know more about this! But Lake is something of a tease; he doesn’t give us much more about how Ask (as he is known to his friends) has been altered, or why.
While Ask is exploring a cave system in the Fayerweather Mountains on the planet Redghost, every bit of technology on the planet is fried except for what Ask carries in his brain, apparently missing him only because he was far underground. Ask is the only living human — or sort of human — left on the planet. Humans have been spirited away; there are no bodies, no blood, no sign of conflict. The only bodies Ask finds are those of people who have been in some way caged or confined, as, for instance, a prisoner on a transport plane owned by the judicial system. Prisons, though, have open doors and no bodies; someone, or something, freed them in the apocalypse (if indeed, “apocalypse” is an appropriate term to use).
Ask spends years, then decades, then centuries exploring his barren world, confirming that there is no other living soul. What he does find, though, is ultimately even more interesting, and more curiosity-provoking. When you reach the end of this story, you will either sit back with a satisfied smile or fling your laptop across the room. I did both. I would be utterly delighted to find that this is but a fragment of a forthcoming novel, but one never knows exactly what Lake has up his sleeve. Clever guy.
Marc Laidlaw’s “The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft” is nicely told, but it’s not science fiction, fantasy or horror; it is biographical fiction of a sort, telling us something about Lovecraft that we may not have known before. It is told through the eyes of Douglas, a young boy who adores his collection of Weird Tales despite the disapproval of the aunts who are raising him — and who especially loves the stories written by Lovecraft. It’s hard to believe that a child who measures his age in single digits would actually be attracted to Lovecraft’s turgid fiction. But there are mysteries in this child’s upbringing that even he can’t solve, and so he is attracted to tales of the unknown and unknowable. Then one day Douglas discovers that he and Lovecraft live in the same town, and tries to meet his idol. All idols have clay feet, though, and the way Douglas discovers this about his own is sad, scarring — and, I fear, trite.
Subterranean Online is entirely free. Check it out sometime.