Hello, my darklings!
The best-laid plans, eh? I had wanted to have this particular review finished and posted by September 7 but that (obviously) did not happen. Suffice it to say that I’m a bit late getting this up and, for that, I sincerely apologize.
Still, it’s a good day here in Texas. I’m sitting here in the living room with my laptop, cup of coffee in hand (yes, I know it’s the middle of the afternoon…don’t judge me), while a beautiful storm rages outside. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about reading (or, in this case, writing about) fantasy and science fiction while lightning arcs across the sky just beyond the window glass.
On the downside, the dogs don’t share my enthusiasm for the storm. The thunder has all four of them packed around me and my lap desk like sardines right now. Then again, it’s three Chihuahuas and a Miniature Pinscher and they don’t take up much room.
Not to mention, it just feels good to be back in the swing of things again. I’ve spent so much time concentrating on getting through my last few classes and making sure I had satisfied all of my degree requirements that it’s nice to be able to concentrate on writing reviews again—or just writing for fun in general. True, I’d still been doing it for Tangent Online but, because I was really stretched thin, I completely neglected this blog and the website as a whole. Of course, that’s all going to change now that I’ve got some breathing room.
Anyway! On to the reason we’re all here!
For your reading pleasure this week, I’ll be reviewing Cirsova Magazine’s 2019 Winter issue as promised. There are eleven stories to go through—ten shorts and one novella. I’m going to open with Marie Brennan’s novella since that’s how it’s presented in the table of contents.
Well, that and anytime an editor uses the words “chilling” and “strange horror” to describe a work, it’s guaranteed to be the first thing I gravitate toward. Seriously, I am all about that life, folks.
(PS – As unprofessional as this may seem, I’m still working on finding images for every story. I’ll add them as I find them to pretty things up a bit!)
“La Molejera” by Marie Brennan
Anita is a cultural anthropologist working in Veracruz. More specifically, she’s documenting the religious traditions of her grandmother’s people, the Macehualli, in the village of Chalchihuitlan. She’d heard stories about La Molejera, or the Grinding One, but the villagers simply won’t talk about her. Fascinated, Anita wants to know more about the old woman incessantly grinding what appear to be stones with her mano y metate (a mortar and large, flat stone used for grinding things like grains) in the forest near the village. As the villagers begin to accept her and she gets to see more of their practices, she finally gets her wish, for better or for worse.
For people reading this post who may not have read my reviews on Tangent Online or elsewhere, I’m an anthropologist myself. I specialized in archaeology, actually, and, as a result, I absolutely adore stories that take me into other cultures. Brennan’s story really hits that mark for me in that regard. The inclusion of snippets of the Aztec creation myth in which Quetzalcóatl takes bones from Mictlán and gives them to Cihuacóatl to create humans was fantastic.
Honestly, aside from a few oddly structured sentences here and there, Brennan’s story is on point. While I wouldn’t call it outright horrifying (but, then again, I’m pretty desensitized), there is definitely a feeling of foreboding that permeates the tale. As a reader, I could feel the tension that Anita felt herself. I mean, I’ve been on archaeological digs before but I’ve never entered another culture and experienced that feeling of “otherness” that a cultural anthropologist often gets when they have to insert themselves into unfamiliar environments like this. I thought Brennan got that sensation across quite well. The dark mystery surrounding La Molejera that develops as we get further into the story compounds that feeling, which played well into the big reveal near the end.
“A Little Human Ingenuity” by William Huggins
Years after surviving a war with hive-minded aliens known as the Grish, the Rake is one of the few veterans still alive to play the Game. Much like the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome, the Game is a to-the-death recreation of those battles played out in various cities across a crowded future Earth. Much like the audience, though, the Rake has grown bored with the new, lesser-skilled competitors entering the arena and wants to retire to Mars with his lover Keller. To do so, however, he has to fight in one last battle, this time against the Grish themselves.
Overall, Huggins’s story was quite entertaining. The history behind the Game was well-done for the most part; it wasn’t info-dumped or anything but was instead sprinkled throughout the narrative in appropriate spots. The action was well-paced and I understood the Rake’s motivations for wanting out of the sport. After all, you can’t win all the time, right?
That being said, there were a couple of things that weren’t quite clear that would have gone a ways towards setting the scene, and both points are somewhat related. The first is that there are several references to it being hard to believe that anyone could find love. What has happened to humans that made that so difficult? It’s never explained why it’s so unusual or what, if anything, it had to do with the war with the Grish. The second is why the Game had to be played to the death. If this is a sports arena style recreation of the war with the Grish (which I would assume could happen again or even from a different alien threat), why are humans so eager to see each other killed? Now, one could ask the same regarding the gladiatorial spectators of Ancient Rome or even argue that it’s human nature (and, to a point, I’d agree) but there comes a time where self-preservation, or even the realization that future attacks were a definite possibility, would kick in. Wouldn’t the residents of Earth (or Terra, in this case) be caught with their pants down so to speak if a new threat arose but most of the trained or willing fighters had been killed in the Game?
“The Burning Fish” by Jim Breyfogle
Kat and Mangos are once again out and about in the name of adventure. This time, they’re on a quest for the Baron Endelhorn to obtain a Burning Fish, a creature from his family crest. Upon arriving at the lake, however, instead of an empty shore, they find a group of acolytes in service to the goddess of the lake but no fish. After a rather rude welcome, it soon becomes clear that something’s “fishy” about this group of worshippers.
When I first started reading the story, I couldn’t help but feel as though I’d met Kat and Mangos before. The characters seemed so familiar and I knew I had to have read something by Breyfogle in the past—I just couldn’t remember what. After a bit of digging, it turned out that my only other experience with the author and his daring duo was in my first-ever review of Cirsova back in June 2018! It took me a bit to find it but there they were in a story called “Brandy and Dye.” I loved the pair of adventurers in this story as much as I had in the first, which tells me I really need to read Breyfogle’s other stuff, considering that the pair were that memorable to me more than a year later.
Just like then, one of the things that really appeals to me with Breyfogle’s short stories featuring Kat and Mango is that they aren’t exactly grand, spectacular adventures. They feel like the kind of day-to-day “I-gotta-make-a-living” sort of activities for which any adventurer could be conscripted. It’s not extraordinary—it’s just life in a fantasy world. And that ramps up the realism and believability (not to mention enjoyment) for me.
“For I have Felt a Fire in the Head” by Adrian Simmons
Prince Maenach MacScannal of Ireland and his soldiers are locked in battle against the invading Danes. They’ve been fighting for who knows how long, myriad lives have been lost, and Maenach is exhausted. But just when he thinks he can fight no longer, as he waits for an enemy axe to split his skull in two, something rushes through him, giving him the strength to fight on.
There were so many things that caught my attention in Simmons’ story, aside from it just being a great tale. One is that the events all take place in the span of just a few minutes. It’s a snapshot of one man’s experience in the heat of a medieval battle and it was wonderfully done. The imagery, the action, the choreography all seemed, to me, to be so vivid. I could almost hear the sounds of the clash of weapons as I read and feel that strange stretching of time that Maenach experienced when he realized he was about to meet his end.
Above all, though, what really, truly impressed me was the mixture of paganism and Christianity in Maenach’s belief. He considers himself a Christian—that much is clear—but he still holds true to Lugh, Danu, and the other Celtic deities. The reason this left me so captivated is that it demonstrates an accurate understanding of history and cultural melding, especially during the time of the early Anglo-Saxons. I find that, all too often in literary circles, there is an assumption that Christianity simply supplanted paganism overnight everywhere it went; that the monks showed up and everyone just threw up their hands, like, “Yeah, no problem. We’ll just worship your god now.” I’ve run into this a lot in discussions of Early Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Literature and it is incredibly maddening.
Frankly, it simply didn’t happen that way. There was a period where the two religions mixed in the minds of the people, coexisting side by side. During that time, just as Simmons portrays in this story, one might call on Christ in the same breath that he’d call on Lugh. When writing historical fantasy set in this period (or even when simply discussing Norman, Anglo-Saxon, or even Medieval Literature) that’s an important detail that is often overlooked or simply not understood. The author has my sincerest gratitude for taking that into consideration.
“Pale Moon’s Bride” by Ville Meriläinen
Corinne Dubois, a wealthy French socialite in the middle of World War II, has seen much hardship in her life. When she was little, her older brother and sister committed suicide, driving her mother and father both mad. One evening, while trying to escape the cacophony of a party her parents were throwing, Corinne notices a shadow on the moon. Moments later, unseen fingers stroke her cheek. But is it her imagination or something else?
I have to say, this was a fascinating story, even with its few flaws in narrative logic (and they are only few). It almost had the feel of a Gothic horror, a genre I certainly appreciate, and Meriläinen did a fantastic job setting the stage for this rather unsettling tale. From the start, it has an ominous atmosphere that increases as the tension builds. What I don’t quite get, though, is the doctor’s involvement in the situation. He provides a few useful tidbits about Corinne’s mother and her late siblings (and I realize that’s his purpose) but he seems rather superfluous, for the most part. It seems like he could have delivered those tiny revelations in his first (and only) in-person conversation with Corinne, as the phone call seemed somewhat unnecessary. It didn’t really help build mystery or tension.
Still, overall it’s a very nice little horror tale!
“Pawn to the Queen” by Christine Lucas
The High Priest of Anubis, Ankhu, is faced with righting a wrong committed decades ago by his mentor, Merykare. The voices of spirits and gods alike howl in his ears as he, an instrument of divine justice, sets out to find his blasphemous friend’s two accomplices, regardless of whether they are dead or still alive, to make them atone for their sins.
Lucas’ Egyptian horror/fantasy story was, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much on point. Seriously, it was just good and I highly recommend you read it.
“People of Fire” by Jennifer Povey
Geologist Peri is investigating the appearance of sinkholes in Siberia with the rest of her research team. As she and her friend Makar discuss the situation, a new hole opens up beneath them. Peri wakes some time later, only to find herself trapped in an underground cave system. Surprised that she managed to survive, she begins to look for a way back to the surface, only to stumble across a hidden civilization.
Unfortunately, this story did not do it for me. There were simply far too many issues. To start, while the opening sentence was good, the one immediately following seemed a little lacking in comparison. There needed to be more there, maybe to pull us in a little more or set the scene a bit better or…well, just something more before Peri pulls her parka closer. There’s just something about the way they’re written that reads awkwardly.
And, sadly, “awkward” sort of sums up the entire story in a nutshell, from the boring (often illogical) way it’s written to the attempts at humor. The balrog joke, for example, or when the main character is contemplating what she could have done to land herself in Hell…well, they just don’t hit the mark for me.
This pervasive clumsiness, however, could be a forgivable sin if the protagonist, Peri, wasn’t so forgettable. She comes across as completely uninteresting and two-dimensional. At no time does she express any solid, believable reaction to what’s happening to her. For example, she wakes up being tended by a red-skinned woman named Rora, and, aside from a nonchalant contemplation of Rora’s appearance (which she then decides she’s not quite up for), Peri’s reaction is pretty dull. And she never livens up throughout the story.
I mean, if I fell into a sinkhole of unknown depth, woke up an indeterminable amount of time later (something Peri also never mentions), only to find an entire civilization living in a cave surrounded by fire, I guarantee my reaction would not be this dispassionate. Neither would most people’s reaction, I wouldn’t think.
None of the above is helped by the fact that we are told nothing about Peri. For example, I’m calling her a geologist but I’m only guessing at that based on the editor’s intro summary stating that she was part of a research expedition. If not for that, I’d have had no idea why she was staring at a sinkhole with Makar. There needs to be some form of character establishment in the story so readers can get to know the person they’re reading about, and that was very much lacking here.
“Blue-Like-The-Sky” by Spencer E. Hart
Slayer-of-Wolf and his hunting party are carrying home their prize, an elk, when they spot two strange objects making a fiery descent from the sky. Thinking this may be some sign from the gods, Slayer-of-Wolf journeys alone to the location where the objects fell. What he finds leaves him with more questions than answers.
For the most part, Hart’s story is genuinely good. The story arc and setting were well-developed and it succeeded in holding my interest through to the end. I certainly found myself wanted to see how the story turned out. The only issue was in the way the character development is presented. That’s the area where I felt it could have been improved.
We’re certainly given enough insight into Slayer-of-Wolf to begin to sympathize with him and get to know him, but the way it is done feels slightly forced and unnatural to the story’s flow. For example, the conversation between him and Strong-Like-Bear is off.
Don’t get me wrong—I fully believe that Strong-Like-Bear would have faith that Slayer-of-Wolf would come back because of being a great hunter and that he’d say as much. However, the details the two reveal about how Slayer-of Wolf got his name are unnecessary (in this spot only) and it’s clear they’re only included to provide background information on the hero. At least, that’s how it reads to me.
I can’t remember the particular term used to describe this common writing mistake but the gist is that two people wouldn’t talk like that in normal conversation, especially since both of them know those details and they hold no bearing on the actual events taking place. It would have been more natural for those details about his first hunt to be revealed in a small flashback when he is attacked by wolves later in the story. It’s easy to imagine that he would think about the first kill that gave him his name at that point. But in the conversation with Strong-Like-Bear, it ends up reading like forced dialogue written only to provide a backstory detail.
Now, don’t take that to mean that the details aren’t good. They are! Hart definitely has the right idea when it comes to developing Slayer-of-Wolf’s character. They just need to be presented in a more natural way that provides some depth to the character. As currently written, these personality and personal history details about Slayer-of-Wolf make him seem naïve and childlike. He doesn’t feel like a capable and seasoned hunter, which is the opposite of what I think Hart is trying to communicate.
For another example of what I mean, when Slayer-of-Wolf discovers the woman, the color of her garb inspires a line of internal dialogue about his dead wife. The way it’s written feels unnatural and lacks depth of feeling. This would have been a great opportunity to dig into that aspect of his character.
To me, it would have read better if the italicized thought was omitted and the lines had read something more like the following:
“…the shade reminded him briefly of Golden-Flower’s hair. Slayer-of-Wolf felt a pang of sorrow prick his heart at the memory of his beloved wife, taken from him too early during an ill-fated birthing before the first snows of winter…”
Now, I’m not saying that my version there is an example of top-notch prose by any means; I’m just trying to provide an example of what I’m trying to explain.
I hope that makes sense…
Either way, it’s a good story.
“Doomsday Shard” by Ken McGrath
On the return trip from a successful mission to retrieve the Doomsday Shard on behalf of the True Government, Serenity and her employer, Shun, are double-crossed by their partner, Belladonna. The pair must find a way to track down their wayward teammate and recover the shard before Petronella, mad despot and the shard’s former owner, catches up with them.
McGrath’s was a great story overall. There’s really not too much to say here, honestly, other than that. The tale is quite richly imagined with a James Bond-style feel that’s filled with action, excitement, and an unexpected ending. I am honestly very much intrigued by the splinter-group government factions vs. what McGrath calls the True Government. It feels like a world on the verge of massive upheaval and conflict, which really caught my attention.
“Titan” by Rebecca DeVendra
Originally a prison colony of prison inmates used as slaves to mine ore, the people living on Saturn’s moon, Titan, are now organized into rival groups. Cut off from Earth, they share the planet with sentient insects like the peaceful Cicadas and terrifying Wasps. After a pair of Cicadas informs her that a couple of humans need help, Sakiya, a member of Team Delta, sets off to find them. She’s able to rescue one of them and discovers, much to her surprise, that he’s been sent by representatives from Earth. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled with their arrival.
DeVendra’s story is very good. I adored the references and influences from Greek mythology and the story of the titan Prometheus, especially there at the end (**nudge nudge, wink wink** I see what you did there, DeVendra). Character development was great—we get a solid understanding of Sakiya, both in terms of her motivations and her personality. Yeah, really good story here—highly recommended!
“The Handover of the Scepter of the Greatest Regret” by Hal Y. Zhang
After generations of genocide, the time has finally come for peace between humans and Kevorkians. To seal her people’s commitment to this endeavor, the Queen has organized a live event, during which she intends to present the Scepter of Greatest Regret to the Kevorkian ambassador in a grand gesture of atonement for the atrocities committed by her ancestors. Sadly, just hours before the ceremony is set to begin, the ambassador is found dead, leaving the event planner to figure out a way to prevent the start of another war.
I won’t lie. Zhang’s story is not at all what I expected it to be. Given the rest of the tales in this issue, I had anticipated something more serious but was surprised by something genuinely funny. I mean, I know well that particular bit of crunch (and no, I can’t type “crunch” without scenes from an episode of The Mighty Boosh dancing through my head, either). I’ve lived through situations at work that, at the time, felt so very similar to this, both in terms of absurdity and magnitude. Never mind that the future of two civilizations weren’t hanging in the balance, alright? Just trust me. I’ve been there. And, as a result, I giggled like a schoolgirl as the event crew scrambled for solutions to their diplomatic disaster. Seriously, it’s an excellent story and very much recommended.
Well, there you have it! That’s the Winter Issue of Cirsova.
As always, there are some great stories on offer in this issue. You can purchase it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or so I understand, should you care to pick up a copy. Like I’ve said before, though, this magazine is a favorite of mine because of the stories they tend to choose so I’m always thrilled to write up a review on it. In fact, I’m already looking forward to the next issue!
So, how about you? If you’ve had a chance to read this latest Cirsova, what’d you think? Feel free to sound off in the comments!
- Wild Stars IV by Michael Tierney
- Rose Blood: The Phantasmagoriad Book 1 by Peter G. Blacklock
- Maledictions (Warhammer Horror) by Various Authors