Reviewed by Randy Hoyt
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:6 (#347) in June 2011.]
A few months ago, March 2011, Prime Books announced a new format and a new editor for Fantasy Magazine. Each month, the magazine now publishes one issue containing two new short stories, two reprinted stories, and a handful of nonfiction pieces (author interviews, fact articles, etc.). These issues are available for purchase in electronic format at the beginning of each month. (You can get individual issues or an annual subscription in ePub format through their web site, plus you can buy individual issues through the Nook and Kindle stores.) Then, throughout the month, they release one story and one nonfiction piece from that issue for free on the web site; for a majority of the stories, they also release an audio version through a podcast. As this review goes to print early in June, they will have just released Issue 51, the fourth issue in this new format.
John Joseph Adams, the new editor, has included some really great new stories in these first three issues. I confess that I did not keep up with the old web site at all, so I cannot comment on how the change in editor has affected the quality of the stories. But I have been quite impressed so far!
Let me highlight two of the best new stories. Issue 51 included a story called “Study, for Solo Piano” by Genevieve Valentine. It depicts one episode in the travels of the Circus Tresaulti in what appears to be a future time, after long years of global warfare have caused much desolation. The circus includes a music man named Panadrome, the world’s last piano player, who must make a weighty decision when the circus discovers a dilapidated house containing what may be the world’s last piano. The story’s exploration of music and war, of art and savagery, is underscored by Panadrome’s quote, “If you can make something so beautiful, why would you ever stop?”
A nice contrast to that somber story is the laughably-absurd “House of Gears” by Jonathan L. Howard in Issue 50. The main character is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. While necromancy is no doubt a serious topic, Howard manages a light-hearted tone that can be seen in this remark: “Necromancy [...] does [not yet] stretch to professional journals by which the state of the art may be more easily learned: [...] no directories, no friendly associations, no annual dinners.” This search for secret knowledge leads Cabal to a strange house in the hills and a confrontation with its mad-scientist owner. The confrontation begins as an interesting philosophical debate about the nature of life and death, about immortality and longevity and entropy — but it quickly escalates into a dangerous situation that threatens Cabal’s existence.
The reprinted stories cover a wide time range, from stories published in the last couple of years to stories published over thirty years ago. Issue 48 included a story by George R.R. Martin originally published in 1979 called “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr.” I did not know of this story before, but I am glad to have discovered it. It tells the story of Sharra, a girl who could move between the worlds in search of her lost lover Kaydar. It recounts her brief sojourn in one of these many worlds. The story sets itself in a mythic or legendary context right from the start, with these words:
The beginning of [Sharra’s] story is lost to us, with the memory of the world from which she sprang. The end? The end is not yet, and when it comes we shall not know it. We have only the middle, or rather a piece of that middle, the smallest part of the legend, a mere fragment of the quest.
With that atmosphere set, the story mingles memory and song together as it explores these two lofty characters and how they wrestled with feelings of love and sorrow. As Sharra leaves Laren Dorr’s world to continue her quest, the two of them — and the reader, as well — have been changed by their meeting.
I have enjoyed these three stories the most so far. Some of the other stories did not resonate with me as strongly, but that it is to be expected in any collection. Of the twelve stories published in the first three issues, I have found all of them worth reading.
I have been less impressed with the nonfiction pieces. I suppose they suffice as entertaining supplementary content in a magazine primarily devoted to fiction, but I had hoped for something more when I first heard the announcement about the new format. The author interviews are usually fairly interesting. I always enjoy hearing artists talk about their work, though I wish these interviews would go beyond just casual chit-chat and delve more deeply into the authors’ writing processes and their thoughts about their craft. The factual articles discuss topics related to one of the stories in the issue, perhaps a plot device or a theme or a character type. They are amusing or clever enough, but they typically do not explore their topics in much depth or provide insightful analysis. The one noteworthy exception is Helen Pilinovsky’s article on unicorns in Issue 49, an excellent companion piece to Carrie Vaughn’s wonderfully-haunting story “A Hunter’s Ode to His Bait.” Pilinovsky does an excellent job discussing the classical sources of unicorns and tracing their use in fantasy fiction over time. I’d like to see more articles like this.
All things considered, I’d call this a successful re-launch for Fantasy Magazine. Great work, John Joseph Adams! I look forward to more trips with you (to quote John’s introduction on each podcast story) “through the looking glass, to explore the world of fantasy.”