F&SF March 2009

Somehow, despite the rain, allergy season has begun, which is relevant here because I’m trying out Zirtec, and I’m afraid its side effects (“may cause drowsiness”) are a bit strong. The antihistimine fuzzy-headedness kept me from really getting in to this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

First up is “The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights” by Daniel Abraham. A young man brings his fiance home to meet the family, a little nervous that his family might not accept her, since she’s from a much different background. But, instead of passing judgement, an uncle chooses to tell a few stories. Abraham packs a lot of storytelling (at first and second-hand) into this relatively short piece, and then ties it all together with a moral that, even though it’s stated directly, manages not to seem trite. This is the story that I most regret reading under pharmaceutical influences.

Yoon Ha Lee‘s “The Unstrung Zither” is the most conventional story plotline in the magazine, revolving around a musician in a militaristic state, who’s asked to assist in the interrogation of five deadly young infiltrators from the enemy planets. The conventional story works, though, because of its well-developed and novel setting. Lee manages to develop what seems to be the flavor-of-the year, the Chinese-dominated future society, considerately, and without leaning on outdated cliche’s (though there are a few present-day stereotypes sprinkled throughout) as in Harry Turtledove’s work in the latest Asimov’s.

This month’s classic reprint is “That Hell-bound Train”, by Robert Bloch, first published in 1959, with an introduction by William Tenn, the F&SF editor who published it originally. The story ages amazingly well compared to near-contemporaries I’ve been reading lately, reading much like recent work from, for example, Jack Skillingstead, if I’m remembering a few of his stories accurately.

Next is “Quickstone” by Marc Laidlaw, a new installment in a series about a bard with a gargoyle’s right hand. Laidlaw makes an interesting style choice early in the story, mixing very contemporary language in an introductory dialog with archaic fantasy style in the narration; but this is soon left behind and the main characters settle down to addressing each other as golems and bards ought to. For a series story, this one holds up well on its own, with significant plot developments reached wholly within the story at hand. On the other hand, at some point I got lost in the details of a long underground cavern travel sequence; but that could have been the Zirtec leading me astray.

The final story is Robert Reed‘s “Shadow-Below”, again an installment in an ongoing series of stories about a Lakota who left a secret band who live as their ancestors did to join the modern (or near-future) world. This is the one story in the magazine I really got engaged with. The writing is professional and polished, and the characters are carefully painted and believable. Unfortunately what’s printed here reads as a mere episode in a longer story, with little development to the plot. Tensions develop, for example between the main character, Shadow-Below, and a woman in the survival class he’s teaching, who approaches him flirtatiously despite her husband being in the class as well, but then dissipate without effect. The real action seems to be in the relationship between Shadow-Below, his nephew Raven Dream, and the wealthy daughter of a mysterious businessman; but without the context of three earlier stories in the series (only one of which I’ve read, and that was two years ago) it’s hard to make sense of the story behind the story.

Update: 2009/02/18 Gordon van Gelder noticed this post, and linked it from the sfsite forums, resulting in the most readers I’ve ever seen on the blog. (Thanks!) John E. Rogers seemed to misunderstand my comments on Yun Ha Lee’s story, so I tried to clarify. I  think I’m trying to say roughly the same thing as he did in an earlier post at sfsite, the plot of the story is not unique — but the setting sure is.

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