SFM: Brackett, Vo, Vernon, Bachus, Abercrombie

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsEnchantress of Venus by Leigh Brackett (1949, $0.99 at Amazon)

The world celebrated what would have been the 100th birthday of Leigh Brackett on December 7, 2015, and to celebrate the centennial of the so-called “Queen of Space Opera” in my own way, I have resolved to finally read five novels featuring her most famous character, Eric John Stark. My only previous acquaintance with the Earth-born, Mercury-raised Conan of the spaceways was via the classic novella Enchantress of Venus, which I’d read around 40 years back as part of the wonderful Ballantine collection The Best of Leigh Brackett. This story originally appeared in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories magazine, and was actually the second of three Stark tales to appear in that publication. The first, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” from the Summer ’49 issue, and the third, “Black Amazon of Mars” from the March ’51 issue, have been virtually impossible to find in modern times. However, Brackett later expanded both these tales to novel length, to create The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman, respectively, and I HAVE been able to find both of them, combined in one of those cute little “Ace doubles” from 1964. But before proceeding on to those unread tales, I decided to have another look at Enchantress of Venus, a 70-page stunner of Golden Age sci-fi, and the story turns out to be just as terrific as I had recalled.

In it, Stark ventures into the brigand town of Shuruun, a muddy, sullen den of sin on the shoreline of Venus’ Red Sea. He has come looking for his vanished friend Helvi, and first makes inquiries at the castle of Shuruun’s rulers, the Lhari, a septet of haughty oddballs who Edmond Hamilton, in his introduction to the Best of collection, oh-so-rightly calls “demoniac oligarchs.” Stark is ultimately made a slave of the Lhari and goes on to lead a revolt against the town’s rulers in a furious climactic battle. But a capsule synopsis can in no way convey the manifold wonders that Brackett manages to cram into her story. Combining the best elements of space opera (discussions of other worlds, weapons of superscience, alien technology) and fantasy (for example, Venusian dragons!), the result comes off like an amalgam of sci-fi and sword & sorcery. Brackett writes with the rip-roaring, red-blooded gusto of a Robert E. Howard in places, especially during her gory battle scenes, balanced with beautifully written, descriptive prose in others. She makes all her characters, even the minor ones, interesting (especially the Lhari), and invests her tale with a great deal of mystery and escalating tension. Small wonder that this novella has been oft anthologized since its initial publication 66 years ago, most recently in the upcoming deluxe Haffner Press volume entitled The Book of Stark, which WILL feature those hard-to-find short stories mentioned up top, in addition to the Stark trilogy of the 1970s: The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith.

One final word about Enchantress of Venus. Perhaps the single greatest, most memorable aspect of this novella is its setting: the Red Sea. As opposed to Earth’s Red Sea, which consists of salt water, the Red Sea of Venus is composed of gases; red, sparkling gases that eddy and swirl with the vagaries of the wayward currents. These gases are breathable, and it is Stark’s ― and his fellow slaves’ ― lot to toil at the bottom of this sea, removing the stones of a collapsed temple for purposes that only the Lhari can reveal. It is a dreamlike, psychedelic, phantasmagoric backdrop for Brackett’s tale, and one that should surely stay with the reader. This gaseous sea has somehow preserved and embalmed what were once entire forests, and in one hugely atmospheric sequence, Stark explores this “undersea” flora:

They had not mummified, nor turned to stone. They were pliable, and their colors were very bright. Simply, they had ceased to live, and the gases of the sea had preserved them by some chemical magic, so perfectly that barely a leaf had fallen…

Action packed and deliciously written, Enchantress of Venus is a true classic of the early space opera genre. I am so glad to have reacquainted myself with it, before proceeding on to the next adventures of Eric John Stark. Long live the Queen of Space Opera, Leigh Brackett! ~Sandy Ferber


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Lotus Face and the Fox” Nghi Vo (2016, free at Uncanny Magazine)

“Lotus Face and the Fox” is a story about the reality of grief in a city of wonders. Nghi Vo creates a city of thieves and guards, festivals and magical towers, and in the center of it an orphan girl whose sister has been caught and hung on the city walls for stealing. The protagonist — whom we only know as “the fox,” indicating the mask she wears — goes to see Lotus Face, an alchemist who is said to grant wishes. She wants to forget her sister, to wish away her grief. But, as in many fairy tales, her wish comes with an unforeseen price.

The gorgeously-described Asian setting of this story was a delight. I also liked the main character, who is fierce and strong and sad. And, as far as I can tell, Vo withholds the real names of almost all of the characters in the story, except for the dead sister, a bit of authorial concealment that feels of-a-piece with the story’s mask motif. The ending didn’t surprise me, but I marveled at Vo’s delicacy and technique in revealing it. ~Kate Lechler


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon (2016, free at Apex Magazine)

Ursula Vernon has just published a sequel to “Jackalope Wives,” her Nebula-award-winning short story. Now that Grandma Harken’s troublesome grandson has been shipped back east, she can relax in her desert home and enjoy ripe tomatoes from her garden in peace … or not. Her prized tomatoes start disappearing from the vine, with no footprints or signs to show who or what is the thief. Grandma Harken grabs her rocking chair and her shotgun and sits out on the porch, waiting for the thief. It takes a few nights and some creativity to evade the sleep spell that strikes her each night, but eventually she sees a shapechanging figure picking her beloved tomatoes. But Grandma Harken hides a bit of a soft heart under her gruff exterior, and when the thief turns out to be a victim, Grandma Harken once again takes action to solve another person’s problem.

Like “Jackalope Wives,” The Tomato Thief is told in a folksy voice, and has a Native American-flavored mythology. In this sequel, the mythology is explored further and takes some unexpected turns. My favorites were the train-gods, who woke when the white men built train tracks across the desert, took over the trains, and chose as train-priests some of the laborers who had built the tracks, “[p]eople who had, with toil and tears, earned the gods’ regard.” The railroad magnates, who were furious when their trains developed a mind of their own, tried to take back control with the help of the government’s armies but ― after a couple of regiments were eaten by the train-gods ― they changed their minds. So:

Freight got moved, more or less. Sometimes it wound up in the wrong place or was summarily dumped in the middle of nowhere. The machines were capricious gods. (This was part of the reason for the price of coffee.)

They were very good about letters, though. Anna’s grandson was the current train-priest, and he said that his god thought letters were prayers and moved them as a kind of professional courtesy.

You appreciated that sort of thing in a god.

Grandma Harken is an endearing character, mixing grumpy determination and homespun wisdom. The Tomato Thief is longer and more fragmented than the wonderful “Jackalope Wives,” and didn’t have the same impact on me, but it’s still well worth reading if you liked the first story and want to spend a little more time enjoying Grandma Harken’s company. ~Tadiana Jones


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Pinono Deep” by Kate Bachus (2016, free at Lightspeed Magazine)

Basically a whaling story set on another planet, “Pinono Deep” offers up a frozen wasteland setting and a crew of “pinono” hunters with their ship frozen in the ice. Their situation is bad enough, but when the captain is found dead via a good opening line (“It was Martin Rios who found the captain’s body.”), it appears things might get even worse. Or will they?

The story takes some unexpected turns, and I found it grew more interesting as it continued. Much of it early on felt a bit unfinished, a little rough with its edges not quite smoothed out. I would have liked more of a sense of the frozen setting, more on the pinono, more on why they’re hunted and what the hunt is doing to them if anything, etc. But in one of those unexpected moves, the story began to narrow its focus to Martin, and then to focus more inward. The not-quite-fleshed-out adventure/suspense tale began to fall away, to be replaced by a character story that won me over through its softer, more intimate voice, its redemptive theme, and a quite strong ending. ~Bill Capossere


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Two’s Company by Joe Abercrombie (free at Tor.com)

Two mighty warriors ― Cracknut Whirrun and Javre, the Lioness of Hoskopp, along with Javre’s sidekick, the thief Shevedieh ― are traveling in opposite directions through the uninhabited wilderness of the North. Both are being pursued by implacable enemies. When Javre and Cracknut meet in the middle of a long, narrow hanging bridge, who will give way to the other?

This short story, which is quite reminiscent of Robin Hood’s first meeting with Little John, is a brief episode set in Joe Abercrombie’s First World. Abercrombie comments on his website that “[t]his is one of five stories from my forthcoming collection Sharp Ends that feature my female Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser style thief and warrior odd couple, Shevedieh and Javre, and that form a kind of spine to the whole thing around which the other stories are arranged.”

Abercrombie writes well; for example, his description of the hanging bridge made me shiver:

It was a tangle of fraying rope strung from ancient posts carved with runes and streaked with bird-droppings, rotten-looking slats tied to make a precarious walkway. It sagged deep as Shev’s spirits as it vanished into the vertiginous unknown above the canyon and shifted alarmingly in the wind, planks rattling.

There’s a lot of sexual humor in “Two’s Company.” Shev is a committed lesbian and her comments on men’s anatomy were pretty funny (“I mean, balls. What’s that about? That is one singularly unattractive piece of anatomy. That is just . . . that is bad design, is what that is.”). Overall this story was just too crass and bloody for me, and, as a standalone story, there’s very little point to it. However, fans of Abercrombie and his First World tales will probably approve of it, especially if you already know and like Cracknut Whirrun and are familiar with, or at least interested in, this universe of tales. ~Tadiana Jones


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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4 comments

  1. Either we all need to stop reading such good stuff, or I need to stop sleeping, because there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things I want to read — including all of these stories, which sound interesting.

  2. Sold! on the Brackett!

  3. sandy ferber /

    If I’ve convinced someone to take a look at “Enchantress of Venus,” well, as far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished! I think you will find that it is 99 cents very well spent…at least, guys, I hope so….

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