Sunday, May 1, 2011

Realms of Fantasy: A Review of the April 2011 Issue

Realms of Fantasy,  April 2011 Issue
81 p., $6.99

I don't know if this issue was late or if the distributor at the local chain box store simply drug its feet, but I just saw this issue a couple of days ago.  I know it wasn't in the store a week prior to that. 

It doesn't really matter, either.  The important thing is that the issue is there.  After last year's cancellation of the magazine, it's good to see it back on the stands. The usual slew of columns are basically intact:  book reviews, movie reviews, a special in-depth look at the Addams Family on Broadway.  Theodora Goss devotes her Folkroots column to vampires, something we've examined a time or two here in the last few weeks. The Artist Gallery, always one of the high points of the magazine, looks at Brom this month. 

Which brings me to a negative point.  The cover stock used by the new publisher is of a lower quality than what was used in the past.  I was halfway through reading the issue when I noticed that the ink was coming off on my fingers.  Now I prefer my reading material to melt in my mind, not in my hands.  I understand the need to economize and that the new publisher, Damnation Books, is in business to make a profit.  But at seven bucks a pop, it wouldn't hurt to invest in the cover a little  more.

All that aside, the fiction is the backbone of the magazine, even though it tries to cover every aspect of the fantasy field.  So the question is, how does the fiction in this issue hold up?

Since this issue is a special dark fantasy issue, I was doubtful there would be much pure sword and sorcery to be found.  I was right in that assumption, but that's okay.  Realms of Fantasy has never been strong on S&S, and seeing how the editor is the same, I don't really expect that to change.  There are five pieces of fiction of varying length, by names both new and familiar to me.  I'll take them in order. 

"A Witch's Heart" by Randy Henderson:  This is a feminist deconstruction of Hansel and Gretel.  Instead of trying to eat both children, the witch convinces Gretel to become her apprentice (although that word isn't used), telling her that women have power and all men, including her father and her brother, are jealous of that power and so try to oppress women.  This type of thing is nothing new; we've seen this sort of approach a number of times before, most notably in the Datlow and Windling fairy tale anthologies that began in the 90s.   Although the story is well written, it really doesn't break any new ground.  I suspect if you like this kind of thing, you'll like the story; if you don't, you won't.  That said, the story was well written enough that I would probably read something else by this author.

"The Sacrifice" by Michelle M. Welch:  One of the longer stories in the magazine, this one concerns two law clerks and a mysterious woman, alleged victim of a crime, who rises to become a feared military leader.  The emphasis here is on the changing relationship between the clerks and the role the woman plays in that change, with little to no focus on the several battles that take place.  It also looks at sacrifice and the cost of achieving your goals.

"Little Vampires" by Lisa Goldstein:  A layered and complex take on family, commitment, sacrifice, and vampires, this is one of the shortest items in the fiction, but powerful and moving nonetheless.  There are stories within stories in this one, and Goldstein's handling of them shows why she's one of the more critically acclaimed authors of the past few decades.  And that bit with the candles was truly creepy.

"By Shackle and Lash" by Euan Harvey:  A disgraced soldier is demoted to assistant gaoler and given the task of emptying the slop buckets of the prisoners.  It turns out there's a cell that isn't always there, and its occupant has been imprisoned a really long time.  Those to whom she chooses to appear are changed.  The author implies the story takes place in the far future, when oceans are mostly gone and the population has moved into the sea bottoms because the formerly occupied land areas are no longer inhabitable.  This, along with "The Sacrifice", is one of the two longest tales in the issue, and my favorite.  It is the closest to sword and sorcery that's to be found here.

"The Strange Case of Madeleine H. Marsh (Age 14 1/2)" by Von Carr:  A tongue-in-cheek look at what happens when a young teenage girl discovers the C'thulhu Mythos has manifested in the basement when her parents are away on an extended trip.  I really enjoyed the humor in this one, and what kept it from being my favorite of the issue is the apparent breakdown of chronology at the end.  The girl's friends come over one evening and from what I could tell, Madeleine starts calling exterminators after they leave, which would be fairly late at night.  Other than the author not making the timeline clear, this was a superior piece of fiction.  Humor is hard to do well, and Carr, a writer new to me, does it well.

And that's it for the fiction.  Nothing really outstanding, but all of the stories were well written with four out of five stories enjoyable to a greater or lesser degree.  At least for me.  Your mileage may vary.  In all, a solid issue with a decent variety of dark fantasy.  The stories varied in their level of darkness, in my opinion, with only the humor piece being questionable as far as whether it should be considered dark fantasy.  There should be something here for most readers, although I'm hoping the sword and sorcery content increases in the future.  Oh, and that they go to a different cover stock.

Whether Realms of Fantasy will succeed in this incarnation remains to be seen.  I hope it does, but given the price is now $6.99, they can't afford to have too many mediocre stories.  The June issue will be the 100th issue, with 100 pages.  I'm looking forward to seeing what they'll do with that one.

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