Archives » Fantasy

Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman

And Other Stories, 2019, 245 p.

This novel of adolescent friendship is told in alternating sections from two viewpoints, one written in retrospect by Lorrie who at the book’s start has just moved from further south to live on a Scottish island that is her family’s ancestral home, and the other as extracts from the diary of Sylvie Tyler, who lives in the next door property.

Sylvie’s mother is strict with her and reluctant for her to make friends – with anyone. It is only gradually, through an incident which Lorri witnesses and the episodes Sylvie confides to her diary, that we learn exactly why.

Both strands are well written and capture their character’s viewpoints all but perfectly. That ‘all but’ is one major caveat, which I shall come to.

The island is certainly Scottish. (Lorrie’s grandfather – Grumps – owns the distillery there.) Her observation that, “‘they’re alright’ was the most glowing review I’d heard anyone on the island give anyone. Compliments were spat out as reluctantly as saying the weather looked fine; acknowledging anything was okay was tempting fate,” could not encapsulate the national character of the 1950s (and later) any better.

Sylvie and Lorrie have their ups and downs but at one point as they grow older and boys begin to come into the equation Lorrie is swayed towards the more outgoing and freer spirited Blair Munro as a potential friend. Sylvie is the one who is more sensible, though. Adults and their ways are suitably mysterious.

Two things did not ring true for me. Despite no apparent connection with the place beyond her mother’s correspondence with someone living there and through them introducing tupperware to the island, Sylvie employs US terms such as ‘ain’t’ and ‘assignment’ (for homework) but above all, ‘kinda’. Sylvie also mentions a hound dog – not a traditional Scottish or even British usage – yet has the word fearty in the same sentence. These also bleed into Lorrie’s narrative – raise instead of rise, snuck for sneaked. Jarring. Then we had Lorrie’s mother and a workman, albeit one she’d known in school (and with whom it is obvious both still hold a torch for each other,) sit out one afternoon and sip beers. A woman drinking beer in public on a Scottish island in the 1950s? No. Just no. It wouldn’t have happened.

Though in both strands the writing is resolutely realistic Sylvie’s secret lends an element of the fantastical to the tale. Without it, though, the overall story would have to have been utterly different as it is the catalyst for the novel’s dénouement and Sylvie’s later fabled status on the island.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “two complimentary styles” (complementary.) Otherwise; span (spun,) fit (fitted,) Grumps’ (x 2, Grumps’s,) “agreeing to play for same stakes next week” (for the same stakes,) “tartar sauce” (tartare sauce,) “Sylvie begged Seth to let stay”(let us stay?) “We lay on our bellies” (the rest of the passage is in present tense; so, “We lie on our bellies.) “And none of them are good” (none of them is good,) “for as long possible” (as long as possible,) assignment (homework,) raise (rise,) snuck (x 2, sneaked,) “though they’d never spoke till that day” (spoken,) “take her hand and be lead” (and be led,) bannisters (banisters,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, imbedded (embedded,) lay (laid,) “be furious at me for me for getting her boyfriend in trouble” (no need for that ‘for me’,) “sour plums” (in Scotland these sweets were always ‘soor plooms’.) “Neither of us move” (moves.)

Breathmoss and other exhalations by Ian R MacLeod

Golden Gryphon Press, 2004, 315 p, plus iip Introduction, Big Lies, by the author. First published 1972.

In his introduction to this collection MacLeod says that works of fiction are complex lies and if you’re going to do it well you really ought not to stick to realism so much as make your lies as big as possible in order for readers to recognise something they’ve known all along.

In this book MacLeod’s lies are profound, considered, and each has a sense of inevitability about it, a revealed truth if you like. Not one of them is disappointing in any way.

Title story Breathmoss is set on the planet Habara where men are an extreme rarity – as they are in wider galactic society. Jalila was brought up in the high mountains by her three mothers (only one of them biologically so.) Gateways between the stars allow travel to other worlds in ships piloted by a chosen few tariquas.

The first action of the novella follows Jalila’s journey down from the mountains to the seaside town of Al Janb where after a few days she coughs up from her lungs the breathmoss which had helped her to breathe the rarefied mountain air, spilling it into the sea. From a site across the bay over the horizon rockets rise to the orbiting space station where the local Gateway lies. Macleod’s evocation of the sights and sounds of Al Janb, the society in which Jalila lives, its customs and trappings (dreamtents, tideflowers, that breathmoss) is masterful. Neither is he prepared to rush his story. The accumulation of detail is part of its strength.

One day Jalila notices a strange looking person fishing. The reader immediately knows this is a male, but Jalila has to be told, then her investigations reveal that he, Kalal, is in fact a boy not a man. Their friendship grows but does not develop in the way that the reader might expect. In fact her first lover is the local centre of teenage attention, Nayra. The crucial encounter of her life though is with an aged tariqua in a ruined castle someway out of town.

This is a beautifully told, wise story of coming of age, getting of wisdom, and time (or perhaps relativistic) travel.

In Verglas a lone settler on the planet Korai – always unnamed, though his wife Marion, and children Robbie and Sarah are given due recognition – comes to terms with his existence. It is an odd story, Marion, Robbie and Sarah having transformed into winged predators more suitable to the new world while their bodies remain more or less intact in a mound outside his base. A traverse across country – albeit inside a mechanical device – involves the use of many mountaineering techniques and terms and the inevitable accident provides tension.

The Chop Girl scratches that endless itch in parts of British culture to dredge up stories set in the Second World War. Our unnamed female narrator was a kitchen procurement orderly on a bomber base where she gained a reputation as a chop girl, a witch, a harbinger of death, after several men she had dallied with after a dance or evening together (with her always careful never to go the whole way) did not come back from their next flight. Then Squadron Leader Walt Williams comes to the base, a man with a charmed life, survivor of many freak accidents. She soon senses there is something strange about him, an other-worldliness. MacLeod’s atmosphere of realism blended with spookiness is excellently conjured up.

The Noonday Pool features an ageing composer, Sir Edward, who lives near Worcester and is obviously modelled on Elgar. (An afterword explicitly states that he was, but is in most ways different.) The story is seen through the personas of Peg, a girl seemingly inhabiting the wild, Sir Edward, and his housekeeper Mrs France. Sir Edward is having trouble negotiating his old age and composing any more music. Peg is an enigmatic presence with feral tendencies – and who may even be a werewolf – Mrs France a down-to-earth, practical figure. The Noonday Pool is somewhere in the woods nearby to where Peg takes Sir Edward one day. The story resists explaining itself but like all MacLeod’s work is beautifully written.

New Light on the Drake Equation is the story of Tom Kelly, told from the retrospect of his old age and a last encounter with the love of his life, Terr. Tom’s consuming interest has always been the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, a search in which almost everyone else has lost interest now that no such life has been found elsewhere in the Solar System, not by the (modified) humans who have finally landed on Mars nor by the probe sent to Jupiter’s moon Europa. He still conducts his search from a mountain installation near St Hilaire, a village in the Massif Central of France which is also a centre for the night life of flyers, genetically modified people with wings, taking advantage of the thermals. In this world genetic adaptation is commonplace, even acquisition of a different language is achieved simply, by imbibing a vial of the appropriate serum, though Tom of course prefers the old ways. Replete with mentions of classic SF, in which Tom was enraptured in his youth, and a discussion of both the Drake equation and the Fermi Paradox, it is threnodic in tone and in that last encounter with Terr becomes a ghost story.

Isabel of the Fall recounts a myth, or, rather, is a commentary on one, from the world of Ghezirah. In the aftermath of the War of the Lilies, Isabel, unremarkable, not too intelligent but not dim, not beautiful but not ugly, is taken from her orphaned origins to be an acolyte of the Dawn Church, trained to sing in the light of Sabil in the mornings from her minaret, directing it towards the mirrors that distribute it over her valley of Nashir; and sing it out again at night. A minor fault in mirror 28 leads her to examine the courtyard of the Cathedral of the Word – a vast library – where she sees a young girl, Genya, dancing. Her apology to Genya for the lack of light goes on to become a friendship which is a betrayal of both their churches, and precipitates the fall of the title. Although the tale has aspects of fantasy various bits of high tech are present in the piece and its Science Fictionality is confirmed when we find Ghezirah is a Dyson sphere.

The Summer Isles, an Altered History, has a tonal quality similar to Keith Roberts’s Weihnachtsabend (see part way down this link) except here Britain – aggrandised as Greater Britain and run by the Empire Alliance and its leader John Arthur – has not collaborated with a fascist regime but itself become one. Narrator Griffin Brooke (known by his pen name Geoffrey Brook) is a homosexual whose past links to Arthur from before the Great War (which the Allies lost in 1918 – presumably as a result of the success of the German Spring Offensive) lead to him being embroiled in a plot to remove Arthur from power. The Summer Isles of the title are off the coast in Scotland and a supposed refuge to which ‘filthy Jews’ have been sent for resettlement. Other camps on the Isle of Man have a more sinister character. The usual grace notes of altered history occur, King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis, for example, along with Churchill as Prime Minister in the 1920s and not making a success of it. But in the main this is an extremely well told story about life, regret and loss.

Pedant’s corner:- flashes of lightening (lightning,) sunk (sank.) “The rockets rose and rose in dry crackles of summer lightening” (lightning.) “Jalila span around” (spun,) windowledge (window ledge.) “We’ve only got four kinds of taste receptor on our tongues” (was obviously written before the discovery of umami – [published 1996],) platypi (platypus is from Greek; the plural would be platypodes, I think, but in English platypuses is fine,) sprung (sprang,) sunk (x 2, sank,) “each time I forget” (rest of tale is in past tense; forgot,) maw (used as in ‘mouth’. A maw is a stomach,) “the fluid I’ve been given” (I’d been,) “and I lowering it” (no need for the ‘I’,) outside of (outside. Please,) “this strange new sliver creature” (silver,) cookhouse (kitchen,) WRAF (x 2. In World War 2 the women’s RAF was known as the WAAF, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, not the WRAF. Doubtless this had to be translated for the story’s publication in the US,) “their twenty mission tour” (Bomber Command tours comprised thirty flights, not twenty,) NAFFI (x 10. The correct acronym is NAAFI, for Navy, Army and Air Force Institute,) hangers (x 4, hangars,) “and they’d have been all hell to pay” (and there’d have been,) “a slow and ugly butterfly pined on the needles of half a dozen searchlights” (pinned on the needles?) “Nissan hut(s)” (x 2, these were not Japanese. ‘Nissen hut(s)’,) bousers (bowsers,) “(his) dog ran up her” (ran up to her,) knarled (gnarled,) “her buxom heaving” (bosom.) “Where had it began?” (begun,) “had given up with whatever had once bugged them” (no need for that ‘with’,) “if one was to believe the figure of which was assigned to it” (no need for the ‘of’,) “they skived spare radio telescopy and mainframe processing time” (skive means to avoid, not to procure,) “though the message was going out in any cause” (in any case,) “which would had surprised Salvador Dali” (would have surprised,) “Edgar Rice Burrows” (Burroughs,) “Yate’s Wine Lodge” (Yates’s,) “huge near-stella aggregations of matter” (near-stellar,) “of whatever he’d drank the night before” (drunk,) “my two ex’s” (exes,) unfocussed (unfocused.) “‘Do, don’t they?’” (‘They do, don’t they’,) “until the booze finally wreaks some crucial organ” (wrecks.) “He gazed as the hills in the east” (at the hills,) boujour (bonjour,) “weird costumes and make-ups” (make-up,) “proud of him to” (too,) “a tiny representations” (representation,) interfered (interfered,) “within each their cells” (each of their cells,) “spread it vast roots” (its vast roots,) “the size of small planet” (of a small planet,) smoothes (smooths,) hurrumphs (usually spelled ‘harrumphs’,) “and we’re generally been ‘tolerant’” (we’ve,) “the warmth of this own flesh” (of his own flesh,) “for a week of so” (or so,) “the Cumbernald’s” (It two people called Cumbernald; so Cumbernalds,) “won the George Cross at Ypres” (in our world the George Cross is awarded to civilians, not soldiers,) “a homosexual affaire” (an attempt to glamourise ‘affair’?) Ramsey MacDonald (Ramsay?) “to keep the prols happy” (usually spelled ‘proles’,) newshordings (newshoardings.) “I brought myself an expensive new gramophone” (bought myself,) air raid practise (practice,) “the two PC’s” (PCs.) “A hesitate” (I hesitate.) “Presidents De Gaulle and Von Papen” (von Papen perhaps but in an alternative 1940 de Gaulle would still have been an almost unknown minor army officer,) “with its tall widows” (windows,) “the mossy urns and statutes” (statues,) “lightening blasts of flashbulbs” (although flashbulbs do light – and so lighten – things, I think ‘lightning blasts’ makes more sense and there are previous instances of this error to take account of.) “Still less that real” (less than real makes more sense,) “not waiting him to come out and help me” (not waiting for him.) “I was finally ready for axtive again” (active service again,) “to have made little impression of the world” (on the world,) “quavers that he’s like another” (that he’d like another,) pints of Fullers’ (Fuller’s,) “in the crowds sobbing howls” (crowd’s,) “the fireman’s angry voices” (firemen’s,) the Cumbernald’s (this time it was ‘of the Cumbernalds’, so Cumbernalds’.)

Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman, 2017, 195 p.

This is a fantasy story with a steampunk vibe, as it is set in pseudo-Victorian times. Charlotte Gunn is an artist with a recent success in selling illustrations for a book. She has to keep this success secret from her family for fear of undermining her father’s breadwinning status and from her fiancé for similar reasons. Her biggest secret though is that she is an unregistered magus. (I feel that in her case it should really be spelled ‘maga’.)

The Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts is an all-powerful organisation protecting Queen and Empire through the magical powers of the magi. The earliest scene in the book sees Charlotte and brother Ben witness the tracking down of a baker’s son by the Society’s Enforcers using a magical implement known as the gauntlet which detects clandestine magical ability. Since untrained magi are said to be a danger to the Crown (and public) it is an offence to conceal such abilities. Adepts are routinely taken from their families (who are compensated for their loss on a sliding scale of talent) and trained up as servants of the Crown, though forbidden to marry. Those who conceal adepts are prosecuted. Charlotte feels her situation keenly but Ben’s faint traces of magical talent give her a possibility of masking her own from the investigators when her father calls them in to test Ben as due to a slight error on Charlotte’s part he perceives evidence of magic activity in the house.

Ben is in poor health, and it turns out their father took out a loan to allow Ben to go to University, from which his illness forced him to return. The calling in of the loan leads Charlotte to investigate the lender and thereby to knowledge of a conspiracy against the Society. Magus Thomas Hopkins, one of Ben’s testers, the most beautiful man Charlotte has ever seen, enlists her help to thwart the conspirators.

The tone of all this suggests an intended YA audience. There’s nothing to frighten the horses nor ground-breaking here but it’s entertaining enough, if a little slight.

Pedant’s corner:- span (spun,) “Archie’s hold tightened” (both before and after this no Archie is ever mentioned, but her brother is described as Archie on the book’s back cover,) “but that wouldn’t be for months and now, and Father had only days” (has one ‘and’ too many,) “she returned to Ben’s side who had lit the candle” (this phrase has its syntax severely awry,) bannister (banister,) a missing comma at end of a piece of direct speech where the sentence continued, “the most handsome man Charlotte had even seen” (‘had ever seen’, surely?) sprung (sprang,) “she hadn’t fully taken what he was doing in” (doesn’t need the second ‘in’.)

Feather Stroke by Sydney J van Scyoc

Avon, 1989, 266 p.

Scyoc’s default setting seems to be an agrarian/mediæval social organisation. Feather Stroke shares this with her previous novels but has an added dimension.

Dara is the daughter of a headsman of a village of smallpeople in a society where a generation or so ago people emigrated to a different continent to escape both the influence and domination of the powerful priesthood of the Sun God Tith and the associated suffocating social hierarchies. Local indigenous inhabitants called Ilijhari make occasional trading visits in the form of a man called Te-kia who is always closely accompanied by an eagle-like bird known as a quirri. Since Dara has strange dreams in which she inhabits the bodies of birds we know this to be significant.

Dara’s life is changed when Kels Rinari, an important, self-made trader from the city of Port Calibe, comes mob-handed with uniformed, armed men and a damen-kest to demand the hand in marriage of her sister Mirina in return for “protection.” This assertion of the renounced continent’s privileges is an unwanted harbinger of the old ways coming to the new home. Mirina can either accept the offer, refuse it, or take the third traditional option, suicide, which last would leave Dara to become the object of Rinari’s designs.

Mirina’s suicide leaves their father to take the news of her death to Rinari. On the way he persuades Dara to go to the Ilijhari for safety. Her journey is fraught but she meets and is befriended by Kentith, a renegade priest from the other continent.

Among the Ilijhari she finds she is descended from them, her true mother died in child-birth and she was given to the smallpeople to bring up since one of the village mothers had had a stillbirth around the time. It is with the Ilijhari that Dara’s affinity with birds is confirmed, her ability to inhabit their consciousnesses.

In a sequence which resonates with the history of the Americas in our world, Te-kia tells her, “The land was here, sweet and rich. And there were men and women appointed to guard the land. Wisely, they treated it as a thing of soul, living and aware, to be respected, to be preserved. …. They called themselves its children, but they understood they were its guardians as well. But after a while, others came from far shores who were stronger than the guarding peoples. The intruders were greedy and full of destructive powers. They had stolen from the earth itself and from its surrounding sphere, and they thought that whatever they chose to inflict upon the living earth and its creatures was only their right.”

On finding her father has not returned from Port Calibe Dara resolves to go there and confront Kels Rinari, relying on her Ilijhari nature to put him off marrying her. Kentith, despite the dangers involved for him demands to accompany her. The priests of Tith are anxious to capture him but in any case can bring down fire from the sun and use him as a vessel for that. Mpreover his distinctive priestly eyes make him a target for suspicious locals .

Once in Port Calibe, Dara finds Rinari to be a more complicated character than she had initially assumed and all three determine to undertake the business of combating the influence of Tith’s priests.

Feather Stroke is a pleasing enough fantasy not too demanding on the reader.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘I was only waiting for to ask’” (for you to ask,) “at it center,” (at its center.) “Perhaps the orchard was in some was as much a manifestation” (in some way as much a manifestation,) “two year later” (years,) “before Dara could calm him, before she should orient herself” (before she could orient herself.) “Finally she saw that it would surely dash itself against the walls – and not so harmlessly as Ti-ri-ki had done” (the opposite is the case: the smaller a creature the less likely it is to be damaged in a collision; Newton’s second law, F = ma.)

The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson

Orbit, 2019, 380 p.

This finishes off Thompson Rosewater trilogy (I reviewed the previous instalments here and here) and features many of the characters from before – Kaaro, Femi Alaagomeji, Aminat, Jack Jacques, Oyin Da (the Bicycle Girl,) Lora the construct.

There is still antipathy between Rosewater, the city which grew up around the alien dome which had translated itself from London, and Nigeria, from which the city had gained independence. Here the alien city has begun to move slowly towards the sea. Those unfortunates called reanimates, dead humans whose bodies have been revived by the city’s healing powers, are now found to still have residual consciousness, a fact that causes conflict between Jack Jacques, Rosewater’s mayor, and his wife Hannah, a lawyer who represents the reanimates.

A lot of the scenes though again take place in the xenosphere, that mysterious, hallucinatory realm by which the alien Homians remain in contact with their own planet and the individuals waiting there for Earth to be made suitable for their transfer. That contact is cut off and the plot thereafter more or less revolves around the need to make sure Earth is not further invaded.

Thompson’s grasp of human emotions and motivations and his ability to display them are not in doubt but the multiplicity of character viewpoints, as in the two previous books of the trilogy, again renders this concluding volume bitty. As an imaginatory SF/Fantasy vision the Rosewater trilogy is successful in those terms but the tenuous nature of reality in the xenosphere bears the inherent sense of the unsatisfactory of any setting in which the impossible can happen.

Pedant’s corner:- “there are a multitude of footpaths” (there is a multitude,) Nostradamus’ (Nostradamus’s,) Jack Jacques’ (several times, Jaques’s.) “A series of notifications arrive” (A series … arrives,) “the sole benefactor of Mr Tanmola’s estate” (sole beneficiary,) “building to a crescendo” (no. The crescendo is the build, not its climax,) “when I sprung him from jail” (sprang him.) “A small knot of humans follow her” (A small knot … follows her.) “The family seem to have” (The family seems to have.) “None of my actions are part of that” (None … is part,) “a series of graphs appear” (a series … appears,) “will do in a pinch” (will do at a pinch,) “with some of the aliens perpetuating mass shootings” (perpetrating mass shootings,) “the hoi polloi” (I know this is commonly used but ‘hoi’ means ‘the’ so the phrase ought to be rendered as ‘hoi polloi’, or ‘the polloi’,) “begin to rise to a crescendo” (see comment above,) “washeed up” (washed up.)

The Réparateur of Strasbourg by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2013, 46 p

This is a novella but it packs in a lot in its 44 reasonably small print pages.

Ezekiel Morel is a réparateur, a restorer of paintings, mainly ecclesiastical, in Strasbourg in the late 18th century. On the odd occasion, to cover a space which has been effaced or on a piece of wood which has had to be replaced, he puts in creations of his own. Father Charbonneau recognises his talents and sends work his way. His reasonably comfortable existence leads him gratefully to a wife and a family.

One night in his garret a strange but beautiful woman calling herself Ariadne commissions him to paint her portrait – but as she would appear in twenty years’ time. He accepts and she sits for him but not on the night of a new Moon. He keeps the money but does not spend it.

Twenty years later she appears again and repeats her request. She is still beautiful but this will make the image harsh and repulsive. In the meantime Morel’s son Roland has displayed no tendency to hard work and taken himself off to Paris where revolution is in the air.

The disintegration of French society occasioned by that first overthrow of the existing French state, the shift in attitudes, the upending of the social order are well handled by MacLeod as is Morel’s character and that of his ungrateful, on the make son. Since this is a novella most of the other characters do not have enough space to be fleshed out but are sketched in economically enough. Ariadne is, in all senses, a shadowy figure – suitably enough as she is a creature of the night – but a necessary prop for the story to unfold.

Morel’s closeness to the Church becomes a danger as does his last painting of Ariadne, used to discredit him as the final confrontation with Roland – returned to Strasbourg as a big wheel in revolutionary circles – plays out. It all ends in blood, as revolutions tend to, the collateral damage to individual lives an adjunct to history.

The Réparateur of Strasbourg is atmospheric and evocative. You almost feel you are there in the dark streets of the city and amidst the paraphernalia of an artist’s life, reeling out to its crux.

Pedant’s corner:- “on earth” (Earth,) “higher that ever” (than,) “inside cathedral” (inside the cathedral.) “Her eyebrows her high and arched” (that ‘her’ ought to be a verb of some sort,) “on that that concise” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “the combination of shade with matched her skin” (which matched,) “the shape of those lips, the deep gaze of those well-like eyes, was always close” (surely ‘were always close’?) “didn’t hesitate strike him hard” (to strike him hard,) sat (x 2, seated, or, sitting,) “back to they way they were” (the way they were,) sunk (sank,) “eventually loose their value” (lose,) “were thee seemingly changes” (seeming changes,) “left to loose” (lose,) alter (many times, altar. There was one page where alter and altar, erm, alternated several times over,) “that deface the city” (rest of sentence was in past tense, ‘defaced’,) tumbrel (usually tumbril,) “visions of this family” (his family.) “But she sensed that she knew” (he sensed that she knew,) “like bad genie” (like a bad genie,) “all they found were two tiny indentations” (strictly ‘all’ is singular,) “was ruined mess” (was a ruined mess,) “a world were the light of reason” (where the light,) “what had once been chancel door” (the chancel door,) “‘the men we are expected to down to’” (to bow down to,) grabbled (grabbed,) “all that he held in his arms were a few scraps” (was a few scraps.)

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

Flipped Eye, 2021, 252 p.

Skyward Inn lies towards the edge of the Western Protectorate with a view over the Bristol Channel to Swansea from where the rocket ships rise from the Kissing Gate to make their way into space. The Kissing Gate was discovered fifty years before the events in the novel. The Coalition used it to travel to Qita, but the Western Protectorate disagreed with this action, and with the use of technology inside people’s heads, and so separated themselves from the rest of the world. The Coaliton’s take-over of Qita was complete but odd, as there was little resistance. “Why just move over and let us take it? No battle. No military. Not one voice raised – at least, not theirs.”

Jemima had in the past left her son, Fosse, to travel to Qita where an implant called Coach “bound us altogether in our heads” but now, in the inn, she dispenses Jarrowbrew, which her Qitan partner Isley, (with whom it is not possible for her to have a physical relationship,) prepares in the basement. Fosse has become something of a loner, who seeks solace among the buildings of an abandoned farm.

One day another Qitan, Won, turns up having travelled to Earth alone, but her suit needs a replacement device without which it will not restart. In an attempted bargain with a band of smugglers Jem and Isley lose the Jarrowbrew they had brought as payment for the device and nearly their lives. Meanwhile Fosse has been disturbed at the farm by three incomers who say they are taking it over. After an odd confrontation with the three where their flesh appears to meld together Fosse kills the man and flees to Swansea and takes the Kissing Gate to Qita.

So far, so SF, so good.

But things get stranger. Soil in the local graveyard begins to liquefy and the contagion spreads. Isley and Won get closer – literally. Fosse is taken on a cross-Qitan journey by a local during which he encounters its oddness. Through bodily contact with Isley, Jem is able to access Fosse’s mind but the Inn’s basement is soon filled with locals joining with Isley and Fosse (again literally) at which point SF ceases and we are in fantasy territory. The true nature of Jarrowbrew is revealed. It seems that Qita may not have been conquered after all but is taking revenge of sorts.

As a wordsmith and portrayer of character Whiteley is absolutely fine and presumably the way she takes her story is where she wanted it to go. But the journey, a little like Fosse’s on Qita, takes on an aspect which strays too far from the entirely believable. Sf/fantasy crossovers have a long history in the linked genre (A Voyage to Arcturus springs to mind) but in Skyward Inn I thought the two did not gel at all comfortably.

Pedant’s corner:- “neither of us move” (neither of us moves,) “they were not been welcoming to him” (‘being welcoming to him’ makes more sense,) Klaus’ (x2, Klaus’s.) “at he found he wanted the axe again” (‘and he found he wanted the axe again,) “their shoulder hunched” (shoulders, surely?) a missing full stop, Fosse (x 2, when Isley was meant.) “Every customer forces their laughs and drinks too fast and none of them want to say why” (wants,) “the questions he had been asked about it by his workmates was one of the reasons why he’d kept to himself” (questions is plural so needs were as its verb [though I can see why it would sit awkwardly with ‘one of the reasons’.) “He would not be charge after all.” (in charge?) “when Fosse looked up from the task from negotiating path” (task of negotiating a path.) “‘Let get on it.’” (‘Let’s get on it’.) “He glances at my hands at the sleeve pulled low” (sleeves,) “mowed grass” (mown grass,) “facing him with it arms raised” (its arms,) “to bomb the entire of the Protectorate” (yes it was in dialogue but ‘entire’ should still have been ‘entirety’,) miniscule (minuscule,) “and her saw her hand” (and he saw her hand.)

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1962

Edited by Avram Davidson, British Edition, Atlas Publishing and Distribution by arrangement with Mercury Press, 112 p.

Note: the cover painting shown right is the one on my copy but the contents differ from those listed on the image which was for the US edition for April 1962. The British editions obviously did not match the US ones.

In those days the magazine had no Editorial column nor was the text of its stories – except the title page for Uncle Arly here – laid out in two columns as it would be in later years.

Isaac Asimov’s SCIENCE column was going strong. Here in Hot Stuffa he considers the highest* temperature possible in the universe (the interior of a star about to go supernova.)

Saturn Rising by Arthur C Clarke.1 A veteran of the first two trips to Saturn on a lecture tour is buttonholed by the hotel owner, an enthusiast for that planet, eager for commercial opportunity.

Brown Robert by Terry Carr2 is both SF and a horror story. Arthur Leacock assists young Robert Ernsohn, brown Robert, to make the first trip through time. This is one of the few SF stories to deal with the fact that time travel must also involve space travel.

My Dear Emily by Joanna Russ is a vampire story set in 1880s San Francisco. As well as the Emily of the title another of its characters is named Charlotte; two names obviously chosen to invoke thoughts of the Brontë sisters. Yet the overall effect is far from that template.

The Man Without a Planet by Kate Wilhelm.3 The titular man carried on with a space voyage despite that meaning the death of his companions. The sympathies of the story’s narrator are somewhat like the protagonist of Robert Silverberg’s To See the Invisible Man.

Darfgarth by Vance Aandahl. The titular character is a wandering minstrel whose mandolin has a magical effect on the locals he stops to serenade. Until he goes too far.

Stanley Toothbrush by Carl Brandon.4 One morning, while shaving, viewpoint character Herbert thinks the word ‘shelf’ is ridiculous and all his shelves disappear. Later his girtlfriend teases him about a (non-existent) new boyfriend and he turns up on her doorstep. The have great problems with him – till she imagines him away.

In Uncle Arly by Ron Goulart5 the uncle of an ex-girlfriend has begun to haunt Tim Barnum’s television set, every Tuesday evening for half an hour. He also pops up on the radio.

Subcommittee by Zenna Henderson.6 Talks to end the war between humans and the alien Linjeni are going nowhere. Serena’s husband Thorn is on the talks committee. Their son Splinter finds a way through the fence between the two communities and makes friends with Doovie, a Linjeni child. The rest of the story more or less writes itself but 60 years on it is striking how the cultural assumptions of the time were entrenched even in SF: the Linjeni females in this story are as bound to their families as human women were in those days. Of course it may not have been possible to get anything else past a male editor.

*as known then.

Pedant’s corner:- awave length (now is one word, wavelength.) Centigrade (that unit of temperature is now designated Celsius,) “56 hydrogen nuclei … are converted into 1 helium nuclei” (the nuclei is plural, so the ‘1’ is wrong. Context and the subsequent text suggests ‘14 helium nuclei’.) Later we have 19 helium nuclei where again 14 makes more sense.
1Ingalls’ (Ingalls’s,) “It took me awhile” (a while.) 2Mr Lewis’ assistant (x 2, Lewis’s.) 3zombi-like (zombie-like.) 4focussing (focusing,) “‘An what do you mean’” (And,) a miising full stop at the end of a sentence, a double quote mark at the beginning of a piece of direct speech when elsewhere there are only single ones. 5 “and pointing at the fat man on the set who was singing again. ‘And who’s this guy?’” (is missing a ‘said’ before ‘And who’s this guy?’) “before go to the bank” (before I go to the bank.) “Jean left them” (elsewhere she is Jeanne.) 6 “and felt of the knitting” (and felt the knitting.)

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber and other stories, King Penguin, 1983, 124 p.

The author had previously translated the fairy stories of Charles Perrault and clearly knew the byways of her subject. In this collection she gives us ten reworkings of fairy tales bringing to light the usually buried sexual admonitions embedded within them. All are written with an extreme literary sensibility, each verb is carefully chosen, each simile precise. This collection presents fantasy as high art.

The Bloody Chamber begins with the fretful wedding night train journey to his tidal island castle of a seventeen-year old ingenue just married to a much older man who has gone through three wives already, with the pair in adjoining compartments. Once home he conveys her to a mirror-lined bedchamber filled with lilies, that staining flower, and undresses her like a sacrifice. But the deed is not to be done just yet. “Anticipation is the greater part of pleasure, my little love.” Later, she quotes her husband’s favourite poet, “‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.’” The next morning before leaving on a business trip he entrusts her with his keys – including one to a room she must not enter. This story implies that it is not just marriage but sex itself that is a bloody chamber.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast as a kind of Sleeping Beauty in reverse.

The Tiger’s Bride also reimagines Beauty and the Beast. Beauty is lost to the Beast by her father in a game of cards and at first refuses the Beast’s single request of her, but in the end she strikes a different bargain.

Puss-in-Boots is narrated by the eponymous cat, all-seeing, all-knowing, conniving to ensure his impecunious and lustful master secures the love of his life, the beautiful, young, but closely cloistered, wife of an impotent grasper, fleetingly glimpsed one day as she goes to Mass. In its telling it has a central European quality to it, as befits the darker folk tale.

The Erl-King by contrast has an English feel with its evocations of woodland flora and fauna although it does contain an embedded reference to Little Red Riding Hood. It reads as a warning against the immolating snares of sexual attraction – until its dénouement.

The Snow Child is barely a page long. Out riding with his wife a Count meets the girl of his dreams, skin white as snow, mouth red as blood, hair black as ravens’ feathers. Responding to the Countess’s requests made in order to be rid of her, the girl picks a rose, is pricked and dies. Pricked again by the Count, she melts away, leaving only a bloodstain and the rose, to prick again.

The Lady of the House of Love is Nosferatu’s daughter, the last in a long line of vampires, dressed, like Miss Havisham, in a bridal gown, laying out her Tarot cards in her decaying château in a deserted Transylvanian village. An innocent young Englishman travelling on a bicycle causes her usual ritual to misfire. Early allusions to The Sleeping Beauty are deliberately misleading.

The Werewolf begins, “It is a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts.” In climes like these the supernatural is taken for granted – and easily found in untimely ripened cheeses, a friendly cat, or the marks on an old woman’s skin. The tale that follows can be read as one of a granddaughter discovering her grandmother has been a werewolf all her life or else that Little Red Riding Hood was a conniving little minx scheming to come into her inheritance much earlier than she should.

The more blatant reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, the award winning The Company of Wolves, contains the information, “Before he can become a wolf, the lycanthrope strips stark naked. If you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you.” That second sentence is good advice at any time. As to the wolf, “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.”

Wolf-Alice was abandoned by her mother in the woods as a new-born and suckled by wolves. When she is finally discovered by humans she is feral and, the nuns who first looked after her despairing of the task of civilising her, she is handed over to the care of the local Duke, himself a nocturnal cannibal who scavenges the local graveyards.

Pedant’s corner:- sunk (sank,) Missus’ (x 2, Missus’s, annoyingly rendered as such in a later instance, so no excuse,) rhuematicks (may have been a deliberate ‘olde worlde’ spelling but; rheumatics,) “none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections” (none .. exhibits,) a missing full stop. “Give me two spheres and a straight line and I will show you how far I can take them.” (This was said of a bicycle. Very rarely do these have two spheres. Two circles at a pinch, but more likely two thin cylinders as the wheels do have a measurable cross-section,) “gestured him to begone” (to be gone,) “night and the forest has come into the kitchen” (is either missing a comma after ‘night’ or else requires the plural verb form ‘have’.) “This dazzling, she combed out her hair with her fingers” (needs some sort of expansion.)

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, 2018, 228 p.

When a first person narrator (here the titular Binti) dies halfway through the text it presents something of a problem for the author. How do you carry on? How can the story not finish then and there? Okorafor’s solution here is to switch to third person – at least till the end of the chapter, when Binti comes alive again, (with a bit of authorial hand-waving. Microbes, she is told by her alien companion Okwu, “blended with your genes and repaired you,” in a breathing chamber in a young spaceship called New Fish.) I would submit that this aspect of the book (though there are others too) makes it more of a Fantasy than Science Fiction. Or is that just me being purist? Still, it makes for an interesting read.

Once more (see here for my previous experience of this scenario) her ever dwindling supply of the skin-covering paste called otjize is a constant source of concern for Binti, without it she feels naked and again she makes extensive use of her edan. Her Meduse okuoko (blue tentacles on her head instead of hair) mark her out, though.

There is still a war going on between humans called the Khoush and the alien Meduse. Binti has moved on from Oomza Uni, the first of her Himba people to go there, the first to leave Earth. Now part Meduse, she has an affinity with and ability to use mathematics, calling up currents to “tree”. When stressed she repeats the word “five” to calm herself. She also has a connection to the Enyi Zinariya, twenty-foot-tall slender beings who seemed to be made of molten gold. Accompanied by Mwinyi, a zinariya, she is going back to her homeland to try to broker a peace between the Khoush and the Meduse. Her family produced astrolabes, devices which carry the full record of your entire life. Hers and her father’s were the best in the business. In times of crisis Himba turn inward. Her family did so (into the Root where they lived) when their village was threatened by the Khoush and their Root was burned so Binti thinks they are all dead.

In the run up to the peace meeting she sees once again The Night Masquerade, a spirit previously only appearing to males (but which we later find is not a spirit,) thereby confirming her unique status. During the negotiations something goes wrong (a minion on one side did not like the prospect and opened fire) and Binti gets shot. Her body is taken on board the New Fish and taken to the rings of Saturn about which she had had a premonition. She reflects, “It was so unlike Earth, where wars were fought over and because of differences and most couldn’t relate to anyone unless they were similar.”

It all makes sense in context and Binti is an engaging companion. It is also still refreshing to read SF from beyond the familiar Anglophile template.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” ~(or equivalent) count, 8. Otherwise; zinairya (elsewhere zinariya,) spit (spat,) sunk (several times; sank,) shrunk (shrank.) “Astrolabes were the only object that… (objects,) shined (several times; shone.) “None around me were beathing” (was breathing,) “the feel of the numbers … were such a relief” (the feel … was such a relief.) “I didn’t want to go with.” (I didn’t want to go with him,) accidently (accidentally,) a missing quote mark at the end of a piece of direct speech, “their skin and hair was nearly free of otjize” (were nearly free,) “presented the dress she’s sewn for” (the rest of the sentence was in past tense, ‘she’d sewn’,) “the Roots defenses” (Root’s, [defences],) “off of” (just ‘off’,) “as Mwinyi and Okwu moved went New Fish’s walkway” (I have no idea why that ‘went’ is there. The ‘moved’ is a bit iffy too,) “the far side of the doom” (dome,) two full stops at the end of one sentence.

free hit counter script