Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Realms of Fantasy: A Review of the June 2011 Issue (Plus a Small Suggestion)

Realms of Fantasy, June 2011
$6.99 print, $3.99 pdf

I'm not sure why, but I can't seem to find copies of this magazine until the month after the one printed on the cover.  With all other publications of a monthly or less frequent nature, the date on the cover is always in advance of the month it hits the stands.  Which is all besides the point.

What is the point is the fiction.  But before I get to that, I do want to thank the publisher for going to a different cover stock.  Unlike the previous issue, the ink on this one didn't rub off on my hands.  (Now to start lobbying for an epub format...)

This is the one-hundredth issue, which makes it something special, especially since it's been canceled twice in the last few years.  To celebrate, this issue has one hundred pages.  (One hundred two actually, but why quibble?)

There are the usual columns:  Folkroots, Gaming Reviews, Movies, Artists Gallery (a gorgeous spread featuring Petar Meselkzija, with whom I was not familiar), Graphic Novels, and three book review columns, with one devoted to general fantasy, one to YA, and one to paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  There's also a letters column devoted to the anniversary, a list of facts about the magazine, and an editorial by Shawna McCarthy, which I'll comment on later.  A new feature, of which I heartily approve, is the poetry.  The inaugural poems were by Ursula K. LeGuin, who will be hard act to follow for whoever has the poetry in the next issue.

Well over half the magazine (54 pages if my arithmetic is correct) is fiction.  So how does it stack up?

There are seven stories of varying length.  Leah Bobet leads off with "The Ground Whereon She Stands", in which a park ranger in Idaho wakes up one morning to discover plants growing from wherever she puts her feet.  I'm not spoiling anything when I say the hedge witch she goes to for help turns out to be the cause of the problem.  Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson gives us a protagonist who survives in a post-apocalyptic world by hunting dust angels in "Escaping Salvation", which is a place, not a spiritual condition.  This one could almost have been science fiction, but the authors do give enough information about the apocalypse to set it firmly in fantasy territory.  Sharon Mock's poignant fairy tale is the cover story, "The Economy of Powerful Emotion", which in a way reminded me of the story of the King Midas and his golden touch.  Thea Hutcheson describes "The Good Husband".  Patrick Samphire's "The Equation" pits those who use science against those who feel the magic.  Euan Harvey goes to ancient China to tell a tale within a tale within a tale, all wrapped up in a nasty little knot at the end that's "Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy".  Wrapping up the issue, David D. Levine tells of a woman plumber who must free an undine trapped in a condemned house before it's destroyed.

That's a quick synopsis of the contents.  Here's my take on them.

"The Ground" was the most literary of the contents, with lots of lush description, bordering at times on being overwritten.  One thing I found annoying was the never-ending litany of different plants growing from the protagonist's feet.  It was almost as though the author were showing off her botanical knowledge.  Not being familiar with many of them, I had no idea what they should look like or if there was any particular symbolism associated with them.  I also found the way the characters responded to the situation to be a bit casual and relaxed.

"Escaping Salvation" was the longest and also the most violent story.  Dust angels are hostile and form during sandstorms.  If you can kill them (before they kill you) and cut them up before they fall apart, their limbs have commercial value since they can be grafted onto human flesh.  The story moved at a good pace, balancing action and character development, with a nasty human villain.  I found the ending to be a bit bleak for my taste, but it was one of the more enjoyable stories for me.

"Economy" was brief and consisted of 38 chapters, most only a few paragraphs.  RoF is known for being fairy-tale centric, and while that can become wearing, this was one of the better fairy tale treatments I've seen in a while.  Not based on any fairy tale I'm aware of, the story starts off with the curse being laid on a princess, that her tears will always be diamonds. Much of the story concerns the prince who saves her.

"The Good Husband" contained some effective writing, which is probably why I finished it.  The viewpoint character is a female land spirit with human form who needs a man to husband her, and in doing so, husband the land.  She finds him in a drifter who is sent to the farm by the neighboring women.  (They know the score; if the spirit's farm prospers, so does everyone else's.)  Too much of the story was about the spirit pining for the dirfter to take and ravish her and was concerned mostly with her emotions.  This sort of thing might appeal to some readers (I suspect mainly women), but it didn't do much for me.

"The Equation" was a first person narrative which consisted of mostly dialogue or the protagonist's thoughts.  It used the old trope of science versus magic, but it didn't really break any new ground.  According to the brief bio included, the author's work is available on his website.  I might check it out because he isn't bad as far as style and construction goes and has been published in some professional markets.

Euan Harvey's "Wisteria" was the highlight of the issue for me, and not just for the great illustration.  It was the closest thing to sword and sorcery in the magazine, and one of the few where the action wasn't solely emotional or internal.  The structure of the story, with nested narratives, will require attention, so I don't recommend this one right before turning out the light at bedtime.  Harvey had a story in the previous issue, and I have to wonder if he's going to go for a hat trick and get one in the next issue.  I hope so, because his stories seem to be more to my taste than most of the other stories in the two issues he's been in. 

"The Tides of the Heart" was entirely predictable and somewhat contrived, with the conclusion wrapping up all the problems so neatly.  Two of the three columns on the first page really didn't have anything to do with the main plot, just served to introduce the character, which probably could have been done more concisely.  I've enjoyed some of Levine's other work, so this one was a bit of a disappointment for me.

So of the seven stories in this issue, I liked three of them, which is less than 50%.  Unfortunately the contents of this issue were very much what I think of when I think of a typical issue of RoF.  A lot of stories which deal with emotion, usually from a feminine perspective, or stories where the style of the writing is emphasized as much as the story itself, or a combination of both.  I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but I look for other things when I read fantasy.  I don't really care if the viewpoint is male or female, but tales of action, adventure, and the threat of physical danger appeal to me more than stories that are mostly in-depth looks at the emotional lives of the characters. 

I realize that an editor does two things when she or he selects the contents of an issue of a fiction magazine.  First, editors choose stories they think will appeal to as many readers as possible.  Second, to a greater or lesser degree, they choose stories they like and that resonate with their own personal tastes and biases.  Both of these things are done with the goal of attracting new readers, thereby increasing circulation and the accompanying revenue.  If an editor has been at a publication long enough, and there are enough readers whose tastes are compatible with the editor's, then the second item (the editor choosing stories he/she likes) will often set a tone for the publication which would be different from the tone if the magazine hadn't yet attracted a core audience.  And that tone and the associated content won't be to every potential reader's taste.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

Shawna McCarthy edited Asimov's back when I was in high school.  As a courtesy to Ms. McCarthy, I won't say how many decades years ago that was.  I realized back then that her tastes and mine would probably diverge more than they converged.  Again, nothing wrong with that.  I'm sure there are some reviewers who will absolutely love this issue and think it's one of the best, and I'm sure a number of the people who read it (and this review) would agree with that assessment.  I'm not of that opinion.  There just wasn't that much here for me.  I prefer the previous issue to this one. 

In her editorial, Shawna McCarthy asked what the readers wanted to see more of, but then followed the question with "Don't say sword-and-sorcery - we would publish more of it [if] we received better submissions in this vein, believe us."  For now I will believe her, although I have to wonder if her idea of better submissions and mine would have much in common.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough.  My purpose is not to bash RoF or Ms. McCarthy, but to provide enough of a description of what did and didn't work for me and why that someone reading this review will have a good idea as to whether he/she would enjoy the issue.  Let me make the Small Suggestion alluded to in the title.  If Ms. McCarthy wants to see better sword-and-sorcery, let's give it to her.   From the way she worded her statement, I suspect she gets a lot of requests for more S&S or has been catching flak for not including enough.  I'd like to see RoF succeed with the new publisher, but if I'm going to continue buying it, I want to see more issues like the previous and fewer like the current at the very least.  Even that won't guarantee I'll keep reading.  More heroic adventure fantasy, sword and sorcery, call it what you will, that will guarantee my paying my money to read it.  So let's see if we can send her some so good she'll have to buy it.

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