fantasy magazine review (july)

This review would have appeared in Pinoy Pop over at POC, but it wasn’t uploaded before the deadline. So I’m posting this here.

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Readers are in for a treat with these four excellent stories from the July issue of Fantasy Magazine. Helmed by Cat Rambo and Sean Wallace, Fantasy Magazine is an online weekly featuring original fiction in the field of fantasy – “[h]igh fantasy, contemporary and urban tales, surrealism, magical realism, science fantasy, and folktales”. The magazine also publishes non-fiction articles – interviews, commentary, personal essays, and reviews – about the genre.

I’ve always admired the stories published in Fantasy for their depth and language. Let’s take a look at the magazine’s tales for the month of July.

Perhaps this is Kushi’s Story by Swapna Kishore

The story opens with a younger twin bullying her older twin. Older Sister is a picture of peace and calm, shaping a sand city on the shore. Younger Sister dreams of war and ruling people, and kicks whatever Older Sister creates to destruction. The Tribemother calls them and tells them a story. In the story, a bright purple feather falls from a sky torn open, and a girl named Kushi is filled with excitement. The gods send feathers to select leaders whenever the tribe was in trouble. But Kushi becomes disturbed when the feather goes to Bataar, a “disobedient, stubborn pest”. Kushi sees Bataar hurting a squirrel, and the feather seems to approve.

Later, much later, a second feather appears.

The practices and beliefs of a make-believe culture drive me to read fantasy stories. And what a story this is, with a fascinating myth about the “feather-chosen”, and an exploration of moral conflict. If the gods tell you to murder someone to stem evil, will you do it? What if you’re talking to the wrong gods?

“How would you end the story?” Tribemother asks, and Older Sister and Younger Sister pitch in. The final scene is a pleasant surprise.

Violets for Lee by Desirina Boskovich

“Like all stories of loss and being lost, this one begins with something empty. Specifically, a glass canister,” says our protagonist, who, in the beginning, prepares candied violets from the first blooms of March, and bakes a cake. Or at least tries to. She realizes that she has run out of sugar for her frosting, and ventures out to borrow sugar from her neighbors. One of the neighbors let her in, and suddenly asks her about “the heart”. “It just landed there. A while back now,” the old woman said.

Boskovich offers a gentle balance of the real and the surreal, grabbing my attention with the very banal, very normal scene of a woman making candies from flowers, and surprising me with a fantastic twist. This is a display of good writing, and gives searing insights about grief and regret. Nicely done.

The Seal of Sulaymaan by Tracy Canfield

At the center of Tracy Canfield’s story is a jinn on a mission. Twenty miles out of Agadir in Morocco, the jinn, who speaks Arabic instead of Berber and looks like a female tourist, examines the argan tree, the argan fruit yielding oil, and the goats feeding in its shade. Her quarry is feral, and goat-like. She hopes to learn something from the animals. She looks at the oil and gets an idea.

From here we follow this hilariously bitter jinn as he/she/it assumes various forms to visit perfume shops, the suuqs of Fes, the bath places of Asni, until she shares an afternoon tea with a shepherd. I love this character. I am amused by her (I’ll stick with the jinn’s first gender in the story) curses against Sulaymaan (“may they build a halaal McDonalds on his grave”, “may diabetic dogs discover an affection for his tombstone”), who kept her his prisoner for many years, and her reluctant praise of Mohammad (“peace be upon him, though I’m under no particular compunction to say so”). I loved the humor, the lush language, the details, the story’s immersive quality.

I have also never before read a story with a jinn as the main character (and I don’t come across Middle Eastern fantasy often, if at all), so this was a treat for me.

The Stable Master’s Tale by Rachel Swirsky

George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire screams at me as I read the words of Rachel Swirsky, but I didn’t think this was a good thing at first. I was bored for several paragraphs, waiting for something to happen, something that I haven’t read about in other fantasy stories written in this vein.  Our female protagonist enters the services of the kingdom of Thelden doing menial work, even though she is a noblewoman, the daughter of a baron. The year she is appointed the stable master, her native kingdom is attacked, and her family is killed. She is left with nothing but a memory of dragons seen from the distance with her brother.

Enter the Thelden knights from a dragon’s lair (hello there, Beowulf), enter a baby dragon adopted as a pet by the child princess. I remained unconvinced. I was still wary. Then in the story, the baby dragon, named Precious, or Ember (it depends on who you ask), is force-fed by the princess and suffers from indigestion. The dragon emits flames as she throws up, scaring the princess and anyone standing near. The kingdom deliberates. If they wish to keep the dragon as a pet of the princess, they can cut the dragon’s talons and burn her wings. Our protagonist says, “You should have her killed.” But the king decrees they mutilate the dragon, and here the story bears its heart, and regains my attention. The tale ends in violence and absolution, an emotional note that I found stunning and refreshing, and which I did not expect at all from a story with a seemingly tired plot. I love surprises.

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