The first is “The Sorrow of Rain” by Richard Parks, one of his Lord Yamada stories. Lord Yamada is a demon hunter in medieval Japan who tells his stories in the first person. On this occasion, he has been asked to stop incessant, late season rains; if the rains do not stop long enough to allow for a harvest within the next three days, the rice will spoil in the fields, leading to famine. Yamada sees a rain spirit almost as soon as he arrives, but she is neither a ghost nor a demon, and doesn’t seem to be the source of the rain. And the headman isn’t telling him everything. Parks tells gentle stories full of an ancient culture, usually involving a mystery, as here. His gentleness usually has a soft sting in the tail, though, a lesson about life that the characters have forgotten and about which Parks reminds us. A Lord Yamada story is always a welcome sight.
The second story is by the ever-entertaining K.J. Parker, and you could tell it was him/her (no one knows) by the end of the first page if you’re at all familiar with the author’s work: Parker has a very distinctive voice, and his or her first person narrators all have the same sort of ironic, ruefully funny tone. “Heaven Thunders the Truth” is no different. The first person narrator here is a short of wizard, chosen for the task by a snake that invaded his brain when he was a boy — not much younger than he is now — and orders him about and tells him things he couldn’t otherwise know. A fairly commonplace commission with the father of a wayward girl leads him to a new job for the king, who wants to know whether he really has a nephew, the son of his dead brother. And if the boy exists, the king wants him found, presumably to put him to death. As is usual with a K.J. Parker story, the narrative bends back over itself time and again, turning it into a tight spiral where everything gets sewn up neatly in the end, though perhaps not in the way we originally expected. The fun is in riding that spiral all the way through, whooping with pleasure at new discoveries by the narrator and enjoying the way he manages to stay alive despite all manner of threats. This is vintage Parker; great fun.
Aliette de Bodard gives us a delicious tale of revenge in “The Moon Over Red Trees.” It takes place during the French occupation of Vietnam. Clarisse is the mistress of a Frenchman who treats her fairly well, for a mistress; his wife is back in France. But Clarisse is in his home and his bed on a mission, looking for certain items that Raoul took from her people, from her family. Despite her mission, Clarisse feels a flutter of love for Raoul, which makes things all the more difficult. Clarisse does what she must. It’s a sad, romantic tale of a culture foreign to most Americans, making it all the more heartrending to read. If you hear echoes of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” you are not alone — though de Bodard’s heroine has a much different sort of strength than does Puccini’s.
The final short tale is “Butterfly House” by Gwendolyn Clare. Yinghua is a butterfly keeper, having been chosen by the Scarlet Longwing butterfly, which alighted on her shoulder almost as soon as she stepped into the glass-walled garens of Empress Jiaxen’s butterfly house. Now she has a task: to find the Corpsewing butterflies on a field of battle. They are found only in such places, because they feed on human flesh. Yinghua finds the pupae, and ultimately the chrysalises once they’ve gorged themselves. But a choice faces her now. Why does the Empress wish to add this particular type of butterfly to her collection? What do they represent? Yinghua must interpret her dreams to figure out the machinations of power that surround her, and decide what she must do to be in the right. The story is delicately told, despite the setting (a battlefield crowded with the obscenely dead), and Yinghua is a charming character.
The sixth anniversary edition reminds me why I find this magazine indispensable. The stories take me away from this world for the length of time I am reading, and I am in another culture, another world, immersed in magic and accompanied by strong characters. If you enjoy fantasy adventure, this is the periodical for you — and more so as time goes by, because it is becoming stronger and stronger.