Fantasy Magazine tells you what it’s about right there in the masthead: “From modern mythcraft to magic surrealism.” No ambiguous names, no hunting around to get a feel for the sort of stories they publish. They feature a new piece of fiction every week and publish regular non-fiction articles focusing things of interest to fans of fantasy, from reviews of contemporary films and books, to interviews with their authors and features on pieces of the genre which have been around for years, but not necessarily noticed or looked at with the eyes of a fan of fantasy. I’m sure there are those out there who can convince you that it is, indeed, a magazine when everything can be read on their website and there’s no physical copy you can hold in your hand; I’ve always liked something I can hold, but I’m still dubious of the label “magazine TV shows” so you probably shouldn’t worry too much. For a little under five dollars, you can buy a copy of Fantasy Magazine Issue #4, but from the date on the cover it seems they switched to digital format a while ago. The fiction is easily accessible under its own tab in the main navigation bar, and is brought from the authors at a pro-rate of 5c a word. This review will be looking at the four stories published in January 2011.
The first story of the Gregorian New Year, published on the 3rd of January, is “As We Report to Gabriel,” by Tina Connolly. The story is organised under headings which make little sense to someone reading it for the first time: “Fred;” “Fred, with Some Input from Linnie’s Shimmer” and the poetic “Ten Motes on Aileen’s Earring.” However, rather than playing obtuse and annoying games with the reader, dancing around the subject without ever making it clear what it’s talking about, the story introduces us to Jonah and Linnie, two children in what I was left assuming was a middle-class household sometime after the popularisation of the motorcar and before mobile phones took over the world. It’s a time and place which never really existed, an impression of the past we would like to remember from our childhood. A good world, then, for fairies to exist in.
We’re told in the first few paragraphs that this is a story about the children, and about the fairy they find. What we’re not told is the nature of the fairy, or its identity. Those two questions drive the story and kept me reading. Instead of being irritated at being kept deliberately in the dark, I read on to find out about the nature of fairies in this world, and the nature of the relationship they have to the family. There’s something in the past, something that’s not spoken about because it’s still too painful for the adults. The children, though, in their quest to find themselves and own the world they’re living in–because, as I’m sure we all remember, a child is the centre of the world, as far as the child is concerned–are breaking the lock which holds the secret tight.
Although it’s not hard for someone as old and cynical as me to work out what the secret is, that’s fine, because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about love and childhood and bringing something new to an idea as old as the Fey. On those terms, it succeeds very well indeed.
“Ghost Girl,” by Lauren Beukes (published on the 10th January) plays right into my desire to know what’s happening in a story from the get-go. No keeping me in the dark, and no games. A student is walking to an exhibition of work by an architect he admires, a girl drops out a tree and starts following him. “’I'm attaching,’” she tells him. “’It’s what ghosts do when they get lonely.’” So now we know who we are and where we are, we can get on with the story.
The narrative is told from the first-person perspective, and the voice comes across strong and individual, so that the story reads like someone talking instead of the writer writing. The narrator is a young architect student in an on-off relationship with a girl who’s just the wrong side of wild, so there’s a slight superiority to his tone. But then, I know I was certainly guilty of the same superiority when I was a young student. Despite that, and despite the narrator never really realising it himself, Lauren manages to present him as flawed and not fully aware of everyone and everything. The combination makes for a human and sympathetic narrator.
The ghost girl, whose name we never learn, is similarly flawed, human and loveable if she’s your type. She’s playful with the truth, inventing romantic stories of her death to create an alternate history for herself which would give her short life meaning.
The relationship develops between narrator and ghost slowly, with false starts and false endings. It’s believable and real. There are, though, long sections of dialogue where I lost who was speaking.
I find it a shame that the story didn’t really deliver. I had no particular ending I was hoping for, but the one in the story seemed a bit flat. There was another ending to the story, I felt, one in which both ghost and narrator cross over the threshold to the kind of self-knowledge which marks the difference between adults and adolescents. Instead they seem to remain teenagers and the story stalls on the very last corner.
I’m not sure where to start with Priya Sharma‘s “Lebkuchen” (17th January). It’s winter in the story and our main character, who again is a first-person narrator, is skating and talking to the crows who have come to watch her. The other children of the small village she lives find her and start to bully her, calling her dirty, smelly and a witch. She freely admits to being the last one. So, it’s pretty clear that our narrator is not reliable and we can’t take everything she says at face value. Perhaps she is a witch; perhaps she’s a loner who has trouble socialising, and has decided the best way to fight back is to be the thing she’s accused of.
There’s little doubt that she has trouble socialising. The question running through the story is just how real is the world that she’s living in. Her mother is waiting for her at home, surrounded by cook books and spell books. The narrator–Lebkuchen–reminds her mother that she’s a snow baby, made by her mother from the first snow fall of a new moon. But the story is interrupted when a troll breaks into their house… only it’s no troll, it’s Lebkuchen’s father. Despite being “just a man,” he’s described like a mythological creature, filling the door frame, protected by a magic amulet and being put into a rage which has undertones of supernatural power and strength.
The voice of the narrator is consistent and seductive. It’s not long before, regardless of the truth of the matter, you want to believe in the world she lives in. It’s a world where home is safe and warm, where the outside world needs to be kept at bay by charms and amulets. If it wasn’t Lebkuchen’s mother’s insubstantiality and her father’s intrusions, bringing with him the unspoken realities of the world, it would be a place I would be happy to believe in. What do I mean by Lebkuchen’s mother being insubstantial? Well, it’s almost as if she only exists as a character in Lebkuchen’s mind, someone who winks out of existence when Lebkuchen leaves the room.
All is revealed in the end, of course, and it gave me the satisfaction I thought was lacking in “Ghost Girl.” The world of childhood doesn’t have to end, doesn’t have to be destroyed by boring jobs and hire-purchase agreements on fuel-efficient cars. No, that’s not what I want. I want the characters to understand themselves and the world they live in, to learn to find joy and peace in the world. By the end of the story, Lebkuchen has taken the first step on that long road.
The last story of January is “News Right Fresh From Heaven,” by Darby Harn, published on the 24th. Another story narrated by a first-person main character, and another where it’s not too clear how far we should trust them. The story opens with three short vignettes, under the headings of “Soon,” “Now” and “Then,” each one raising more questions than it answers. I found that a little annoying–you may have noticed, I don’t like being kept in the dark when I’m trying to enjoy a story. The story then settles into “Now,” and the confusion continues.
Our narrator, Sophie, is nurturing a little girl, Lily, who grew on an apple tree in her garden and fell to the ground as a baby. Sophie brought her inside, and is doing her best to care for her and keep her from the unforgiving outside world. Sophie is an introspective, socially awkward person. Her only real human contact seems to be with her brother, Adam, and the two don’t get on. They meet up and they pass the time, but they never talk about anything important, never spend the time to get to know each other. There’s skeletons in the closet neither wants to disturb.
So, what are we to make of Lily, the girl who grew on the apple tree and who seems to be the only person in the world who has any genuine affection for Sophie?
The only clue I found to Lily’s true nature and psychology was Walt Whitman. Lily seems obsessed with Whitman’s poetry, almost unable to communicate at all without quoting him. If this was a clue, it was unfortunately one which passed me by. The only thing I really know about either Mister Whitman or his poetry is that the phrase, “Oh Captain, my Captain”–made famous by the film Dead Poets Society–is one of his. Perhaps someone with a firmer grasp of American literature will be able to decipher that one.
That aside, the relationships between Sophie, Adam, and Adam’s wife, Tanya, are very well presented, each character being a rounded whole instead of a foil. There’s conflict and disagreement and common ground that none of them seem to be able–or willing–to find. It’s that conflict, that inability to see eye-to-eye, which brings Tanya and Sophie’s respective worlds together and reveals some of the truth of Lily.
If it wasn’t for the nagging feeling that my ignorance of Walt Whitman has left only reading half the story which was written, I’d have enjoyed this tender-yet-tragic story and its vaguely unsettling twist. There are stretches of unbroken dialogue which again almost lost me and a beginning which tried to confuse me, but the relationships between all the characters–and it’s the relationships which really drive the story–more than compensate for those sins.
The one thing I must make the time and space to praise is the lack of white, American, male, middle-class, able-bodied, straight characters and the worlds which they create in these January stories. “News Right Fresh From Heaven” is set in the US but lacks the exclusivity of the US experience of life and the world seen through US eyes; “Ghost Girl” is set in South Africa; “As We Report to Gabriel” takes place in a small town that could be in Europe or the US; and “Lebkuchen” has the feel of somewhere in Scandinavia. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but as someone who’s lived their whole life in Britain I never once rolled my eyes at yet another US-centric story that I couldn’t relate to. Perhaps not so surprising, as Priya Sharma and Lauren Beukes live in the UK and South Africa respectively, but praise is certainly due to the editors for the international appeal of the stories they’ve chosen to publish.
A good start to the year for Fantasy Magazine, in my opinion. The fiction has its flaws, but it’s worth taking the time to read and promises a good eleven months to come.