fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Empress of Mars is a new quarterly production of Dreadnought Press. The inaugural issue of January 2012 is a lovely glossy magazine with good art, starting with the cover image of a trio of idealized spaceships by Martin Rotherham. Alas, the fiction within rarely matches the promise of the cover. And the magazine desperately needs a copy editor, one who can fix the run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and the many instances where “it’s” was used when “its” was meant. Perhaps, as with many magazines, these are merely labor pains, and future issues will be better; heck, I’m old enough to remember the inaugural issues of Asimov’s, which were almost equally wanting.

The magazine starts on a grim note, with “Obituary,” a paragraph written by Alexandra Wolfe about the death of a 13-year-old boy killed by his own DNA when he committed yet another act of stupidity. Apparently the humorous Darwin Awards have been codified in this world, so that the Statute of Evolution gives you only so many chances before you explode. This take-off on the notion that stupidity resulting in one’s death prevents breeding, thus ensuring survival of the fittest, might have worked if the victim were not a child guilty of nothing but drawing graffiti. As it is, I found nothing funny in the short tale of a child’s gruesome death.

Things improve with “The Green Planet” by Stuart Sharp. Giles Chuzzlewit is a fabulously expensive public relations consultant, the sort of fellow called in when every other ploy has failed to properly position a client’s product. It doesn’t much surprise Giles when he is called in by the inhabitants of Mars, who are complaining that their tourism industry has been destroyed by Earth’s constant pronouncements that there is no life on that planet. The Martians’ complaints are long and varied, with the catalog including references to some of the best SF writing about Mars for the experienced reader to pick up and chortle over. Giles tries everything until he finally comes up with a drastic solution. There’s a twist at the end, too.

“Carousel Seven,” by Bren MacDibble, is one of the two best stories in this issue of the magazine. Donna, a middle-aged tax consultant, is suffering through yet another business trip when someone walks off with her luggage at the airport. It’s late, and the security office is closed, so Donna does the only thing she can think to do: she takes someone else’s luggage. The effect of this small theft isn’t what she expects:  she is addressed as “Miss Sabine” and dragged off to sing at a club. When she gets a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she’s astonished to see that her rather clunky accountant’s body has become sleek and lovely – and addicted to heroin. Donna finds herself in a situation she has no experience dealing with, but she’s going to handle it, by God, and vanquish the villains and save the salvageable. It’s a fun story.

“Snailam’s Watch,” by Mark J. Howard, is the other good story in this issue. A soldier returning from World War I makes a trip to visit the man who saved his life on the battlefield, Captain Snailam, and to return the watch that Snailam lent to him. The captain had told him it was a magic watch, one that would prevent him from dying despite his wounds, and indeed, the soldier makes it from behind enemy lines back to a British unit, losing an arm but keeping his life. Who is Captain Snailam? That’s the real question behind this story, which plays out nicely.

“Delicacy” by Bren MacDibble is a funny story about protocol and aliens. When an upstart young officer thinks he knows better than the ambassador who has been in place for years, he learns a lesson in anthropology he won’t soon forget.

Life isn’t easy for a video game hero, as Stuart Sharp illustrates in “Squired Up.” One might very well choose to be just a squire – at least until one’s knight shows himself to be so incompetent that the squire can’t help but step in. The characters do not always behave consistently. For instance, the supposedly smart squire puts a sword that will cut through anything into a bag to haul it around, with predictable results. The means by which and the reasons why one moves from a modern life into this videogame setting isn’t explained, though it seems apparent that this life is an invented one instead of the normal course of things. The story would have benefitted from a thorough rewrite.

Alexandra Wolfe’s “Twist of Fate” is a short short story based on a Greek myth. The first person narrator sees her thread of life cut and begs for more time. It’s an interesting play on the notion of dying people seeing a tunnel of light. Do those from different religious backgrounds see different things when they’re dying? Wolfe’s third piece in this issue (if one doesn’t count the editorial; that would make it the fourth) “Finley’s Last Chapter,” concerns an alien invasion and how the heroine saves the world. It feels unfinished and unpolished. There is more to the tale than is told here, it seems – a recurring problem for many of the writers. The stories are decent first attempts, but require further drafts and significant editing.

Mark J. Howard’s “Kissed by Venus” is a fragment of military science fiction that piques the interest; it is to be continued in the next issue. Unfortunately, it’s so full of clichés that it reads like a parody of military SF rather than the real thing. Maybe it will improve in further installments.

Howard’s third story in this issue, “In the Wink of an Eye,” poses an interesting physics discovery in the nature of a new element with unusual properties. Howard doesn’t seem to have figured out what to do with this neat idea, though. The story doesn’t so much develop and explore the idea as set it out and wrap up the tale.

I’ve noted before that writing poetry is difficult to begin with, but writing good fantasy poetry is almost impossible. “Sleeping with the Fishes” is a decent fantasy poem by Tracie Mcbride. It has some nice imagery. “Tastes Like Chicken,” another Mcbride poem, is macabre. Mcbride also has a story in this issue, “Last Chance to See,” about a society in which one can come back from the dead for 24 hours following one’s death to bid farewell to one’s family and wrap up unfinished business, like signing a will. Mcbride has a bigger idea than she has story to tell, but it’s a fairly interesting treatment of a very complicated setup.

An interview with fantasy writer Gregory Frost rounds out the issue. The questions are not particularly original, and there’s no indication that the questions asked were particular to this author and his works – which is a shame, as Frost is a heck of a writer who is not widely enough read. But Frost is clever enough to use the standard questions to tell a tale of his own career, as well as to discuss many of his books.

Ultimately, this magazine is lovingly produced and beautifully illustrated. The stories strike me as needing more work to make them truly worth reading. The Empress of Mars reads like a group of amateur writers got together and decided to put on their own show, so to speak. The group would do well to seek out professional editing, and to keep writing.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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