Even as many mourn the apparent passing of the age of print, it seems that more and more speculative fiction periodicals are coming into being. When I first heard of Fantastique Unfettered, I was certain that it must be an internet-only publication. Yet as far as I can tell, it isn’t even available in electronic format. Instead, it’s a traditional magazine, full-size (as opposed to the digest-size of Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF), and chock-full of black and white illustrations. The stories are fantastical in the best sense of the word: strange and marvelous, full of the inexplicable.
My favorite story in this issue is “The City at Night” by Jeremy Schliewe. Ben is a young man who discovers, as he is attempting to sleep one night, that a glow is emanating from the corner of his bedroom, almost as if there is a night light where he knows one could not exist. He gets out of bed to investigate, and finds a miniature skyscraper, wholly alight but empty. It is translucent, immaterial and very odd indeed. But things get progressively odder and more wonderful, as each night the city grows, and then gains a suburb, and then fades into country complete with a mountain. The beauty of it keeps Ben awake longer and longer each night, making him less and less productive at work. It doesn’t impede his developing romance with Janeane, but it shortly becomes apparent that Janeane can’t see the city at all. What is this city? A figment of his imagination? A mysterious visitation? A random bit of beauty intruding on his otherwise rather dull life? It’s a lovely story that reminds me forcefully of Steven Millhauser’s work. I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye out for more from Schliewe.
“Twelve Days of Dragons,” by Mari Ness, is another tale of mysterious visitations. It’s Christmastime, and the unnamed protagonist is alone and unemployed. He has nowhere to be and no one to be with, and he is feeling quite sorry for himself. That night he hears something brushing at his door, and opens it to find someone has left a small gift-wrapped box. He finds a glass dragon inside. No note, no card, no call to tell him who sent him a gift. Just the glass dragon, which is oddly warm to the touch. The next night he finds two packages, each one containing a glass dragon. The next night, three, and one of them seems to have moved from one shelf to another, to join the other two. This calls for some medication, and the protagonist proceeds to get very drunk on very sweet liquor, an overly sweet assortment sent by a relative. He doesn’t even open the three packages, but they seem to get opened anyway. As the days go by, each bringing more dragons, his life is changed; it’s like reading about the return of joy to a lonely man’s life.
“First Born,” by Samantha Kymmell-Harvey, is a retelling of the fairy tale generally known as “Bluebeard,” one that used to thrill me with fright when I was small. First Born is Bluebeard’s child, who tries to warn each successive wife of the fate that awaits her, even as she is ignored and unloved. Only the last wife loves her, and always will.
“Two Steps Forward” is a story I’d probably label New Weird. Sandra Odell tells the story of Kinsey, who awakens in a world completely different from the one in which he went to sleep. This world seems to contain nothing that is completely human any longer, except himself; all the humans have been strangely transformed in one way or another. But then Kinsey meets Brahn, another human pretty much like him. The two travel together, exploring the Way, fending off danger and dealing with the strange new world in which they find themselves. But soon Kinsey learns that Brahn is not completely like him. And the world keeps getting stranger. And the world gets more dangerous.
Beth Cato’s “A Spectacular Display” may be the most conventional story in the magazine. A revenge tale with a twist, it will do every woman’s heart good. May is the object of Kendall’s affections, and he is an amazing catch. But some women don’t want to catch even the biggest fish.
Amir is a child who needs a friend in Julia Rios’s “The Lesson of the Phoenix.” Evangeline – Geli – is a young woman with a broken heart whom Amir’s fancy has lighted upon, and he visits her in her dreams. Together they learn to fly.
“The Jelly Fish Queen,” by Jaelithe Ingold, is the story of two high school girls who are friends, but one of whom seems to be outgrowing the other. The question is which is which. Cordelia is a strange girl, an object of derision for her schoolmates. Kate is bound to Cordelia by years of friendship, but now she’s interested in Jason Crawford, who’s on the swim team. Cordelia, on the other hand, is interested only in jellyfish. In fact, Cordelia is so interested in jellyfish that, when she gives a report on them to her biology class, she forgets to be properly submissive to the most popular boy in school, with predictable results. But Cordelia is no longer prepared to simply endure the bad treatment. It all sounds so straightforward, unless you pay special attention to the behavior of the jellyfish at the aquarium – and at the swim meet.
“The Singularity of Puppies” by Michael Furlong did not appeal to me, but that is simply a matter of taste. I can’t argue that it isn’t well-written, well-imagined, well-plotted, only that stories with talking animals are not to my liking. That applies even when the talking puppy is evil. Or dead. Or both.
“First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” by Zen Cho deals with an unusual minority in a country that is seemingly made up of dozens of minorities. It reminds us that there is more to the world than we know. And it also reminds us that we’re never too old for romance.
The poetry in this issue seems mostly to be trying too hard for allusions that it could not reach. “Blodeuedd, or, The Maiden of Flowers” by Robert E. Stutts, is the most successful of the poems, though that may be because Stutts first explains the Welsh legend from which it springs. Stutts’s second poem in this issue, “The Cartographer’s Ache,” is a nice extended metaphor. “Green Rushes” by J.S. Watts is lovely, but seems to refer to a myth or legend that I can’t place; it would feel richer if I knew what it was meant to refer to. “In Defense of Sleek-Armed Androids” by Lisa M. Bradley is depressing without any gorgeous language or mesmerizing imagery to save it. Bruce Boston, who usually writes excellent speculative poetry, misses the mark completely with “Relative Weights and Measures,” stringing together six stanzas that seem to have nothing in common but numbers.
The nonfiction in Fantastique Unfettered includes something so rare that I genuinely can’t remember ever seeing an example of it before: a review of a book of speculative poetry. Alexandra Seidel writes about Hal Duncan’s new collection, Songs for the Devil and Death, in a way that will really let the reader know whether she wants to read more of Duncan’s work, using examples well. There is also an interview with Mike Allen and extended contributors’ notes.
The description Fantastique Unfettered claims for itself is “A Periodical of Liberated Literature.” Fortunately, it does not seek liberation from the standards of good stories, well told. This magazine is worth seeking out.