There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.
“One Last, Great Adventure” tells the story of the Hero, who is looking for one last heroic exploit before he retires from hero-ing. He gets a job killing a monster that, if he is successful, will get him a princess for a wife and a kingdom for an inheritance, allowing him to retire in comfort and wealth. He goes, with his friend Reynard, but the princess he’s been promised is not what he expected. Neither are the monsters.
The action in this story, told in present tense, is exciting and fun, and the friendship between Reynard and the Hero is nicely drawn. Ellen Kushner and Ysabeau Wilce make good use of the archetypes of a story like this, such as the idea that “there always is” a Bazaar. I especially liked how they subverted my expectations of the Hero, by making him shallow and vain, ready for an easy way out and happy to marry anyone who will bring him riches. Reynard is not so simple. For readers familiar with the folkloric character of Reynard the Fox, Kushner and Wilce are making good use of that trope here. The ending out-foxed me and the Hero; I did not see it coming, but it felt earned and quietly lovely. ~Kate Lechler
Louisa lives in a world where “rabbit holes” — means of entry into other worlds ― are apparently rife, popping up all over the place and seemingly tailored to individuals. At least, those lucky enough to have found or been summoned by their rabbit hole, which Louisa has not been, despite how much she yearns for such an escape into the type of world she’s spent her life reading about. As her world begins filling up with “Others” (non-humans from other worlds: centaurs, satyrs, dragons, etc.), she starts working at a law firm, her hiring made easier by lots of jobs opening up thanks to people disappearing down their rabbit holes. Despite this, her world is not changing for the better, and as she tries to deal with the ramifications of all this, and her own disappointment, she’s pointed at the end toward a choice.
To be honest, Jeremiah Tolbert had me at the title, which is just great. The opening scene, when a portal opens up and for a brief moment Laura thinks it just might be for her, is also wonderful, grabbing me immediately. Tolbert builds on this strong opening piece by piece, detail by detail: the effect on businesses thanks to people leaving Earth, the way we start to see the impact of two-way travel (such as her landlord — no longer a human — switching her rent from dollars to gold crowns), Louisa’s jealousy and envy, her dismay at finding that her own sister has left for another world, and the various types of portals Louisa keeps track of in a running journal (file cabinets, dumpsters, etc.).
Alongside these strong elements, I did have some problems. The plot ties itself up a bit too neatly for my liking, unnecessarily so I’d say, and I would have liked a bit more sense of the people who leave for their portal worlds (we do get a character who discusses their experience, but apparently more an outlier type and it would have been nice to see the others), and more understanding of why Others are coming to Earth. And while I liked the choice or realization Louisa faces at the very end, it seems there should have been some sense of that realization earlier, or at least movement toward it.
So the story did have its issues, but in comparison to my enjoyment of the premise, the details, and the character portrayal, the problems really didn’t amount to much. Recommended. ~Bill Capossere
In Naomi Novik’s “Vici,” a satirical romp set in ancient Rome, young and dissolute Antonius is being sentenced for having massive unpaid debts as well as the murder of another Roman. Since Anthony is the son of a senator, the magistrate gives him the option, in lieu of execution, to single-handedly try to slay a particularly problematic dragon that has moved into northern Italy ― it being understood that death is virtually certain, but at least it’s an honorable death, and the attempt will clear his sentence. Anthony accepts, thinking he might manage to sneak away somehow, but several unsympathetic guards escort him to the ravine where the enormous dragon is living with its hoard, hand him a spear and a wooden (!) shield, and shove him into the ravine.
The story gets even more amusing from there. I don’t want to give too much away, but Anthony eventually discovers that that a life of dissipation isn’t as fun as he always thought it would be … and that dragon eggs may unexpectedly hatch dragons that can speak (“I think I have worked out how to breathe fire, Antony. Would you like to see?”). Both the orgies and the dragon make Anthony a particularly unwelcome neighbor.
The dragon Vincitatus, called Vici for short (an amusing reference to the Latin “Veni, vidi, vici” ― “I came; I saw; I conquered”) has a lively personality, and is a good foil to the jaded, superficial Anthony. “Vici” is a prequel of sorts to Novik’s TEMERAIRE dragon fantasy series, which is set much later, during Napoleonic times. This humorous story has a far different tone and style than Novik’s more recent Uprooted, but it’s an entertaining (dragon) ride. ~Tadiana Jones
This is a collection of ― hardly even short stories ― more like brief vignettes, for the most part just a few paragraphs in length, by Lord Dunsany, an Irish baron who wrote fantasy in the first half of the 20th century. He is one of the earlier authors to write fantastical literature and is considered an influence on J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, among other respected twentieth century fantasy authors.
These fantastical tales, first published in 1915, are mostly written with a foreboding, portentous voice, and tend to be gloomy in tone. Dunsany liked to personify abstract things like Death and Winter, talk about the foolishness and temporariness of modern civilization, and start most of his sentences with the word “And”.
I didn’t think most of this collection was particularly memorable, but there are several gems among the group, including “The Hen” and “The Sphinx in Thebes (Massachusetts).” In one striking story, “The Raft-Builders,” Lord Dunsany compares authors to “sailors hastily making rafts upon doomed ships.”
When we break up under the heavy years and go down into eternity with all that is ours our thoughts like small lost rafts float on awhile upon Oblivion’s sea. They will not carry much over those tides, our names and a phrase or two and little else…
Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.
There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen.
Jo Walton aptly stated about Lord Dunsany, “What he could do, what he did better than anyone, was to take poetic images and airy tissues of imagination and weight them down at the corners with perfect details to craft a net to catch dreams in.” These tales may be best appreciated in small doses, and aren’t always remarkable, but as a part of the early history of the fantasy genre, they’re worth checking out. ~Tadiana Jones
This is a typical time-travel love story where the constraints of how time travel works tragically affect the love story. And it’s that typicality — of story, character, and even language ― that made this story unsuccessful for me. We’ve just seen all this before: the frustration of being able to only see each other briefly and over years, the tragic only-one-of-us-ages realization, the child. And due to its brevity, the characterization is so minimal that not only did I not care about the two lovers but I never bought that they were actually in love.
The language and images suffer from issues of same-old as well, with phrases or images like, “and their eyes meet,” “a feeling overcomes her,” a doctor yelling “dammit, dammit!” over a body whose bleeding can’t be stopped, a woman beating her fists against a man’s chest yelling “I hate you!” and so on. With such a worked-over premise, an author needs to make the story stand out by language and/or character, and neither serves here. Two good elements are the explanation of time travel and a poem inside the story, but that just wasn’t enough. ~Bill Capossere