By Gillian Daniels
“Backgame” By Lev Mirov, (Published: 2016), Myriad Lands Volume 2: Beyond the Edge ed. David Stokes, Guardbridge Books
I’ve had a hankering for stories of building relationships and maintaining connections. I think that comes out very clearly in this column’s choices. This first story is of two people connecting, not necessarily romantically, in a dark, lived-in world.
A soldier agrees to a mission that means his demise and a necromancer has been asked to bring him back. They bond over backgammon, which is so simple I was immediately charmed. They seem like an unlikely duo, and yet the portrait this story draws is warm. It also features people doing what anyone would do if your world fell apart around you with “enemy snow” and the dead walking among you in a fallen city: continue on, do the best you can.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the millennial experience and the pervasive themes of the apocalypse in fiction, lately. Post-apocalyptic fiction seems intimately connected to the economic crash of 2008 and its debt-ridden fall-out. In the years devoted to rebuilding the economy, post-apocalyptic has developed and changed. At some point, “the end of the world” genre began to involve “now let’s figure out how to put it back together as something else.” When there’s nothing left, people get to choose what to rebuild and who to rebuild it with. Endings mean new beginnings, etc, etc, insert platitude of choice here.
The soldier narrator is a trans man, born into a body that has always felt wrong with a dire fortune attached to it at birth. The necromancer, a black woman who draws a white skeleton over her skin to perform rituals, brings him back quickly after his death. He demands to know why as she nurses him to full health with honeyed wine in a new, better fitting body. She says she missed him and explains in aching detail.
Myriad Lands Volume 2: Beyond the Edge credits itself as a collection of unique fantasy “beyond the traditional medieval European basis.” I’m not sure how this book is super different from a lot of fantasy, though, unless you’re only reading Lord of the Rings and books set in largely identical worlds. It just doesn’t feel particularly weird or “beyond” much of an edge. Still, the collection is interesting, especially the reprint short story, “I Bring You Forever” by Tanith Lee. Beautiful cover art, too. I look forward to finding more from Guardbridge Books.
Another story of war and two souls connecting, this time veterans who have to deal with the fall-out. The beginning is deceptive, starting like full throttle pulp fiction. A mushroom creature menaces a man who calls for help and then runs to warn his neighbor, a Dog, or genetically modified, weaponized person named M’ling.
Slowly, perfectly, pieces fall into place. We realize that a second Civil War has turned the United States into the Christian States of America, that prayer is now the reigning form of medicine, and atheists, people of color, and even Dogs are subjugated and often killed. This is a nightmare country and our main characters realize they are easy prey in it.
This is a tale of veteran status in the vein of “A Good Home” by Karin Lowachee which I reviewed for my July-August column, but with bloodier stakes. There’s a layer of Real here, too, the sense not just of trauma but indescribable alienation from civilian life. The development of the relationship is strange due to the narrator’s own admission that some think of developing a relationship with a Dog as bestiality. Their story is well drawn, and ends gently, bittersweetly. Much like “Backgame,” there is dire change, but a sliver of hope.
A dead woman, who escaped into and then perished inside a cavern, wakes to find herself reforming into a new body. Except she’s not a part of that body. Mostly. She watches this ghost, this being that is both her and other than her, slowly gain sentience and smoke the same cigarette that was in her pocket when she died.
This story would be cool and disaffected and nothing else if there wasn’t such a deep well of intimacy between this former person and the echo of her that has taken her shape.
It’s a curious piece and an enthralling one. Time passes differently for someone who’s dead. Years are marked off by Fourth of July fireworks. Even though very little seems to happen, the mood is sustained by Machado’s spotless prose. No word is out of place or wasted. Much like “Mothers” and “The Husband Stitch,” I feel I’ll return to it often to study and tease out its meaning further.
“Dreamgirl” By Michael Botur (Published: August 2016) takahē magazine
Thomas is in the midst of a mid-life and marriage crisis. He has frequent dreams of a girl who is physically intimate with him and bursts with juice or breathes out steam. He is frustrated with his marriage to the professional, often cutting Suna. Like many men who fall in the trope of “Hollywood Mid-Life Crisis,” Thomas lacks a sense of vitality, feels less successful than his wife, and openly tells characters in a meandering, dorky, professor-way that he’s considering cheating. But they tell him no, he isn’t. He won’t. Because that’s not what this is really about.
This piece has moments of explicit content that feel intimate largely because the main character is so vulnerable. He’s annoyed at his own shortcomings and the vibrant, almost stereotypical youth of the girl, Polly, that he keeps finding in his dreams.
Botur saves his story from cliché with self-awareness. He gives Suna humanity, hurt, and happiness when he could have just created a one-dimensional shrew. Even Joe, their adult son, and his friends feel like flesh and blood. They accept Thomas’ clumsy expression of his needs and don’t accept his initial conclusions of his marriage. It’s funny, a little sad, but the ending was exactly what I wanted to read at exactly the right time.
takahē magazine is a Aotearoa New Zealand-centric magazine founded in 1989 that publishes short stories, poetry, and art. It’s largely a “lit fic” magazine with forays into fantasy. I was pleased to find it this month and look forward to reading the next issue.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.