Thursday, May 24, 2012

Long Looks at Short Fiction: "Maze of Shadows" by Fred Chappell

"Maze of Shadows"
Fred Chappell
Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2012
258 pgs., $7.50

This story got the cover of the current issue of F&SF, which gives the impression that it's a sword and sorcery tale.  Turns out it's a high fantasy set in a Renaissance style world much like Italy.  It's also part of a series.  I've not read the other installments, but since I have a complete run of the magazine going back to the early 70s, I'll look them up.  Time constraints have kept me from reading every story in every issue for the last few years, something I'm trying to correct.

But I digress.  "Maze of Shadows" was not quite what I thought it was, but it was still an enjoyable tale, a complex mystery that should not be read near bedtime or when you're tired.  You'll need to be alert for this one.  That's a good thing.

The story concerns one Falco, an apprentice shadow master.  He and his fellow apprentice Mutano had been set the task of creating an shadow maze in a small mansion owned by a nobleman.  The nobleman wants to protect something of great value, and the shadow maze is supposed to do just that.  The way it works is the shadows make things appear different than they are.  For instance, what appears to be a stairwell hides a precipitous drop.  In order to test the maze, Falco's master, Maestro Astolfo, had him leave a ring on a table in one of the inner rooms.  The story opens with Maestro Astolfo giving Falco the ring and introducing him to a blind healer named Veuglio, who was the person who retrieved the ring with the aid of a young girl called by the name of his daughter, Sybilla.

Of course, there is more going on here than is visible on the surface, much more.  Relationships exist between Maestro Astolfo, Veuglio, Sybilla, and the nobleman that Falco is unaware of.  As he tries to piece things together, he realizes there are hidden depths to Maestro Astolfo.

One of the subplots, which will turn out to be intricately entwined with the main plot is that concerning Mutano's voice.  It's been stolen by a cat, so that the cat now speaks with Mutano's voice, and he with the cat's.  This may have happened in a previous installment of the series.  Like I said, I've not read any of them. 

Now I am not a fan of the subgenre of cat stories, wherein cats solve crimes, combat wizards, or take over the world (they've already done the latter).  So this part of the story was a bit of a challenge for me to buy into.  However, once I thought about the setting (a pseudo-medieval Italy or something very like it), and the types of stories and folktales that would have been common in the real medieval Italy, I found that it actually fit.  There could have been a little less emphasis on the cat subplot for my taste, but it did turn out to be crucial to the story.

This was a dense mystery, with much misdirection and seemingly unrelated details scattered throughout, key word being "seemingly".  Falco says in the opening scene that "Shadow mazes are designed to deceive the eyes."  Chappell has created a literary shadow maze, with much deception.  While it may not be for everyone, if you have the patience, it's worth the read.

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