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Shimmer Issue 46, by E. Catherine Tobler (editor)

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After thirteen years of publication, Shimmer is closing. They’ve consistently delivered high-quality speculative fiction, and they pulled out all the stops for their final year. Gabriela Damián Mirvete won the Tiptree Award for “They Will Dream in the Garden”, and the magazine as a whole has been nominated for a Hugo Award.

Shimmer’s final issue, #46, was included in the Hugo voters’ packet. As one would expect, there are some great stories in here, and I would be hard pressed to choose a single favorite. If I did have to choose, I would probably go with Cory Skerry’s “Antumbra,” since I’m a sucker for a good changeling story. Honestly, this one is worthy of a Hugo nomination in its own right. One extra bit of icing on the cake is that the piece taught me a new word: “antumbra” refers to one of the three parts of a shadow (and it makes perfect sense as a title, once you learn a bit about the main characters and their relationship to each other).

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Rust and Bone” could also be read as a changeling story, though not as directly. While there was some wonderfully vivid imagery, the story was less engaging than it could have been because we never really find out why the main character’s mother gave her up to Grandmother or what she got in return. (We’re also never told clearly what Grandmother is, though the line about her rocking chair being made of iron suggests that if this is a take on the changeling myth, the traditional role of the species is reversed.)

“40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was” by Alex Acks is another strong story. The list format can be hit-or-miss, but Acks does a great job of relating a coherent tale with very brief vignettes.

I also enjoyed Steve Toase’s “Streuobstweise.” The title is a German word for “orchard,” which is a central location in the story. The piece is filled with evocative imagery, particularly some drawing on senses other than sight. It’s an unsettling, claustrophobic story that straddles the line between fantasy and horror.

One thing that surprised me about the issue was how many stories had a science fictional premise, since Shimmer has tended to lean heavily toward contemporary fantasy. A.C. Wise’s “The Time Traveler’s Husband” and Leonie Skye’s “Tryannocora Regina” both deal with time travel or alternate timelines. “The Time Traveler’s Husband,” in particular, is an engaging and complex story. Readers familiar with Audrey Niffinegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” may get something extra out of it, since Wise has stated that her piece is a direct response to that novel. Wren Wallis’s “Ghosts of Bari” is another sci-fi story, this one more in a space opera vein. It’s notable for being the last story published by Shimmer.

While I’m sad to see Shimmer end, I appreciate that they’re going out on a high note. There’s a variety of stories here, most of them strong. It’s a worthy Hugo nominee, and a tribute to all the work Shimmer has done over the years.

Shimmer, E. Catherine Tobler (editor), July 2016

Questions of identity take center stage in this issue of Shimmer. Nicasio Andres Reed’s “Painted Grassy Mire” uses a similar concept to the selkie stories that have enjoyed a recent surge of popularity, but distinguishes itself by making use of a very unconventional creature. The main character’s quest to discover who (and what) she truly is mirrors the immigrant community in which she lives, full of men who have built a new life for themselves but still remember their former home.

K.L. Morris’s “The Wombly” was my favorite story in the issue—it drew me into the world it built and made me want to know more about how things came to be the way they are. Both here and in Avi Naftali’s “glam-grandma,” the idea of transformation is vital. The characters in these stories become something other than what they were at the beginning, and these changes affect their relationships with the people around them. In both cases, the reader is prompted to contemplate what happens to those left behind in the wake of such a transformation.

The final piece, Natalia Theodoridou’s “The Singing Soldier,” addresses the theme of identity on a larger scale. Here, it’s not the identity of a person we must question, but the identity of a land itself. Can a place truly be said to have an identity of its own, or is it always determined by the people who live there? What happens when a piece of land changes hands—peacefully or otherwise? How intertwined can a person’s sense of self become with the place they live in?

Editor E. Catherine Tobler has skillfully chosen four stories that, while very different in style, are bound together by a common theme. Each of these pieces is well worth reading on its own, but placed side-by-side, they form a coherent and intriguing whole.

“Shadows and Tall Trees Vol. 6” by Michael Kelly (editor)

This volume, the last one published before Shadows and Tall Trees went on hiatus, features stories from some prominent writers of horror and weird fiction. While they’re very different from each other in style and subject matter, all of them feature some element of the macabre or unsettling.

V. H. Leslie’s “The Quiet Room” was one of my favorite stories in the collection. The main character is living with his daughter for the first time in years, shortly after the death of his ex-wife, who previously had custody. As he struggles with the challenges of raising a recently-bereaved teenager, he also has to deal with a succession of odd happenings connected to the piano that his daughter loves to play. The steadily-building weirdness of the story kept me entranced, and I loved the bit of folklore that Leslie incorporated.

“The Space Between,” by Ray Cluley and Ralph Robert Moore, is another standout. A man discovers that the apartment building he’s moved into (a converted house), has a network of secret passages within the walls that can be accessed by small doors in some of the apartments. Over time, he becomes more and more obsessed with watching what his neighbors are doing. The piece presents a vivid picture of obsession, and I liked that in some scenes, it wasn’t immediately obvious who the main character was watching.

“Death’s Door Café” features a café in which all the doors were taken from rooms or buildings in which someone died. Its owner is capable of providing a unique service for selected patrons…at a price, of course. It’s an intriguing story, and I was happy to discover that the author, Kaaron Warren, has published several novels and short story collections.

I have a copy of Christopher Harman’s The Heaven Tree and Other Stories, so I was excited to see a story by him in this volume. “Apple Pie and Sulphur” creates a hallucinatory atmosphere that truly belongs in an anthology of weird fiction.

“Vrangr” features a trope that I have a bit of a weakness for: the small town that doesn’t appear on any maps and may not be entirely within our world. This was C. M. Muller’s first published story, and he puts a new spin on this old concept. (Interestingly, “vrangr” is a Norse word meaning “unjust” or “perverse.”)

Robert Shearman is perhaps best known for writing “Dalek,” the episode of the new Doctor Who series in which the eponymous alien race reappears. I enjoyed that episode greatly, and until reading this volume was unaware that Shearman also writes prose. His story in this anthology, “It Flows from the Mouth,” is deeply creepy, and not just because of the possible supernatural goings-on.

As with any collection, there were a couple of stories that didn’t work for me. I had read Charles Wilkinson’s “Hidden in the Alphabet” in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2, and while I liked it better on a second reading, it still wasn’t as strong as most of the other pieces collected here. And while Alison Moore’s “Summerside” was a wonderful beginning to a story, it felt incomplete.

Between this and Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol.2, I’m definitely appreciative of Michael Kelly’s editing skills. Hopefully we’ll see more anthologies put together by him in the future.

Nightmare, John Joseph Adams (editor), July 2015

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This issue of Nightmare opens up with Alison Littlewood’s “Wolves and Witches and Bears.” I will admit that at first, I didn’t have high expectations for this story, because it seems to revolve around a classic trope (maybe even a cliché) of horror: a couple of clueless hikers who get lost in the wilderness. But Littlewood won me over with two things.  The first is a story element that one doesn’t often see in these kinds of stories. The second—and, I think, the more important one—is her mastery of atmosphere. The sense of building frustration, dread, and hopelessness that the main character experiences is vividly rendered, and the setting is given such detail that you almost feel like you’re out there with her.

The next story, Lisa Tuttle’s “Replacements,” is a reprint, having been originally written in 1992. I had read this story previously (although I don’t remember where), and the resulting sense of déjà vu as I started the story added to the unsettling atmosphere. One aspect of the story that I had somehow managed to miss in that first reading is the way Jenny’s adoption of the creature that the plot is centered on represents having and raising a child. The strain that this adoption places on their relationship—particularly the decrease in physical intimacy and Stuart’s insecurity that Jenny may love the creature more than she loves him—mirrors what some couples may go through after the birth of their first child. One could almost read it as an allegory for post-partum depression (though in the story, it’s the male partner who experiences those feelings).

One of the things I love about Stephen King’s older novels (Salem’s Lot, Needful Things) is that they’re just as much about small towns and the people who inhabit them as they are about the supernatural goings-on.  Nate Southard’s “The Cork Won’t Stay” is a story in the same vein: it’s just as much about coping (or not coping) with loss as it is about the narrator’s supernatural power.

The last fiction piece in this issue is “Under Cover of Night” by Christopher Golden (his novel Snowblind is on my ever-expanding “to read” list). It’s a well-written riff on the Mexican folktale of el chupacabra.

This issue of Nightmare also includes several nonfiction pieces. Paul Tremblay’s “The H Word: The Politics of Horror” gives an interesting perspective on the resolution (or lack thereof) of a horror story and how it ties into the progressive/conservative dichotomy. There were also two interviews: one with tattooist and horror artist Dennis Carlsson, and one with Kc Wayland and David Cummings, who run horror-themed podcasts. I was impressed by the insightfulness of the questions and the depth of the answers (particularly for the interview with Wayland and Cummings).

Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams (editor), July 2015

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The first story in this issue, Carrie Vaughn’s “Crazy Rhythm,” might be classed as a science-fictional equivalent to magical realism. It’s just barely possible that the machine created by one of the main characters could have been built out of spare parts by a single man…and yet it’s improbable enough to make you wonder. While I do like stories where the speculative element is uncertain or understated, I found it too slight here. It’s an excellent tale—and one that, despite being set in the 1920’s, is highly relevant to today’s world—but it felt like one that could have been published in a mainstream literary journal.

In “Life on the Moon,” Tony Daniel does something quite impressive: he pairs a great story with several great poems. Several sections of the piece are headed by poems written by one of the main characters—and they’re evocative, lyrical poetry that could easily be published on their own. While poems often tell a story, they do so in a much different way than prose, and in my experience it’s rare to find an author who’s so skilled at both forms.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Consciousness Problem” is a surreal, creepy sci-fi story that keeps the reader guessing about the true nature of what’s going on. The main character, Elise, is recovering from a traumatic brain injury that has left her prone to hallucinations. Her husband Myung, meanwhile, has just cloned himself as part of a scientific project. There are several moments throughout the story where it’s not clear whether the clone has replaced the original or if Elise is hallucinating. The questions Elise faces about herself as she tries to cope with the changes to her thoughts, memories, and perceptions echo the questions about the nature of the self that are raised by the clone. It’s an interesting twist on an old sci-fi trope.

“Adventures in the Ghost Trade,” by Liz Williams, is a fun story, mingling urban fantasy with a traditional detective yarn. I was happy to see in the author interview that Williams has written other stories about the main character and his investigations.

I loved William Alexander’s novelette, “Ana’s Tag.” Like “Adventures in the Ghost Trade,” this piece has a fun, adventure-story feel to it. My one quibble is that I expected Ana’s wandering backpack to play more of a pivotal role in the climax of the story than it did.

Eleanor Arnason’s novella “Dapple” stands alongside “The Consciousness Problem” as one of my favorite stories in this issue. The author does a great job of creating a vibrant, detailed culture. Ahl/Dapple was an interesting protagonist, and I found myself engaged with her quest to become an actor.

The issue’s fiction selection is rounded off by two novel excerpts, from Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall and Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit. Wylding Hall seems to have an interesting format: it alternates between the points-of-view of several band members and their manager, hinting at mysterious happenings during a summer-long retreat to write and record an album. The excerpt from Dark Orbit presents an interesting sci-fi setting with a character I wanted to read more about.

Finally, the issue contains several interviews and book reviews. These provide interesting insights into the creative process of writers and artists in the speculative fiction field, as well as introductions to recently-published works.

Overall, this is a great issue with a wide variety of interesting content. My one complaint is about the balance between new work and reprints: of the eight complete stories in this issue, five are reprints. I would have preferred a greater emphasis on new work.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, C. C. Finlay (editor), July/August 2015

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The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is one of the giants of the speculative fiction world, having published such seminal works as Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It’s been in publication since 1949 and is currently edited by C. C. Finlay.

The July/August issue includes a good mix of pieces, with one novella, three novelettes, six short stories, and seven nonfiction articles. The novella, Rachel Pollack’s “Johnny Rev,” is an urban fantasy story in the same general vein as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. The main character, Jack Shade, is a thaumaturge who earns a living by solving mysteries and resolving problems for other people who are involved with the world of magic. As a side effect of a tragedy in his past, this profession goes beyond choice—he’s magically compelled to accept a commission from anyone who presents him with his business card. This becomes a serious problem when a mysterious stranger hires him to defeat an unnamed enemy who turns out to be Jack himself.

The characters in the story were well-rounded and likeable, and I was kept interested as Jack searches for a way out of his dilemma. I did feel as though many different aspects (prominent people/organizations, magical mechanics, etc.) of a complex setting were thrown at the reader very quickly. This piece could benefit from expansion into a novel that covers more of Jack’s life (his training, the aforementioned tragedy, and so on). This would allow the reader to be introduced to details of the setting at a less breakneck pace and allow for fuller exploration of them.

Tamsyn Muir’s novelette “The Deepwater Bride” gives us an interesting juxtaposition of Lovecraftian horror and a coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Hester Blake is the latest in a line of seers who have an ancient pact with creatures similar to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. In exchange for documenting the omens and events of the Old Ones’ occasional incursions into the mortal world, they are protected from the madness and death that typically accompany such incursions. Despite her exceptional upbringing, Hester faces many of the typical experiences of a modern teenager—she feels that the adult members of her family don’t understand her, she doesn’t fit in with the other kids at her school—and these are skillfully interwoven with the more eldritch goings-on. The ending is unexpectedly poignant.

Van Aaron Hughes’s “The Body Pirate” presents us with a civilization in which an avian race has developed a symbiotic relationship with a humanoid one. Because the humanoids can’t process the full range of thoughts, emotions, and memories in the absence of the avian symbiont, the avians refer to themselves as “souls” and the humanoids as “bodies.” Because the souls can leave their bodies temporarily, some sections of the story feature pages that are divided down the middle, with the soul’s actions described on one side and the body’s on the other. In addition to this interesting format, the piece uses small details to add realism to the setting. For example, one character describes how some people think she’s been “coasting in [another character’s] slipstream”—an analogue to the expression “riding his/her coattails” that makes perfect sense for a flying species. Similarly, a tantrum-throwing child yells at a currently un-souled parent, “You’re not my real mother! You’re just a body…” At the time the story opens, a relatively recent technological advancement has allowed souls to switch between multiple bodies, and in the tradition of classic sci-fi, Hughes does an excellent job of exploring what effect this new technology has on society, interpersonal relationships, and fundamental questions of identity.

I often find that the speculative fiction I enjoy most is able to put realistic concerns front-and-center even if the story also includes spaceships, aliens, wizards, vampires, and so on. Richard Chwedyk’s short story “Dixon’s Road” possesses this quality. It also points out some of the disruptive effects that space travel could have on relationships between friends and family members.

Oliver Buckram’s “This Quintessence of Dust” was interesting to me because it turns the old sci-fi trope of robots rising up against humanity on its head. In this story, the robots are still loyal to humans—in fact, caring for us is their entire purpose in life. So what happens when a plague wipes out the human race?

Naomi Kritzer’s “The Silicon Curtain” is part of her ongoing Seastead series. The introductory blurb for the story suggests that it’s a good starting point for readers who are new to the series, but I found it hard to connect to the characters when I didn’t know much about their backstory. I also felt that the main character overcame the major challenges in the story too easily.

The regular “Books to Look For” column is written by Charles de Lint (whose urban fantasy collection Dreams Underfoot is excellent, by the way). In this particular installment, he reviews not only several books, but also a CD inspired by one of the books under review. This theme of a story being transformed into different media continues in Kathi Maio’s film review column, in which she discusses various adaptations of the Cinderella fairy tale.

After serving as editor for several special issues of the magazine, C. C. Finlay took over as permanent editor this year from Gordon Van Gelder, who had been the editor since 1997. With so many immersive, engaging stories in this issue, it’s clear he’s getting off to a strong start.