Douglas Cohen (douglascohen) wrote,
Douglas Cohen

Realms of Fantasy: February 2003 (Issue 51)

Part fifty-one in my ongoing retrospective as I read the fiction in the back issues of Realms of Fantasy and offer my thoughts, right up to the present.  This time around I'll be discussing the February 2003 issue.

The cover to this issue features another photograph from the LOTR movies, the second cover to do so.  It also marks the fourth media cover RoF has used.

A rundown of this issue's nonfiction is as follows:

In the movie/TV column, Resa Nelson covers Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; in the folkroots column, Heinz Insu Fenkl writes about fortune cookies; in the adult books column, Gahan Wilson reviews Hauntings by Vernon Lee, assembled by David G. Rowlands, Things That Never Happen by M. John Harrison, Blood Song: A Silent Ballad by Eric Drooker, and Paul Witcover reviews The Lady of the Sorrows by Cecila Dart-Thornton and The Scar by China Mieville; in the artist gallery, Karen Haber writes about the art of Darrel Anderson; and in the games column, Eric T. Baker reviews The Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game, The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game from Decipher Games, Icewind Dale II for the PC, Kingdom Hearts for PlayStation 2, and The Mark of Kri for the PlayStaton 2.

On to the fiction ...     

The lead story is "Fable from a Cage" by Tim Pratt, which marks his second appearance in the magazine.  As the title notes, this one is a fable, though far from a traditional one (something that is noted in the story).  There are really two stories taking place in this one.  There is the story of a thief who becomes ensnared by a fey to help her complete her ancient mission.  There is also a secondary story--told in quick scenes--that features the man telling the primary story.  How these stories intersect is rather interesting, and leads to a dark and satisfying conclusion.  Others must have thought so too, since it was selected for inclusion in Year's Best Fantasy 4, edited by David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer.  Art to this one was provided by Lori Koefoed, which marks her fourth illustration in the magazine.

Next up we have "Stegosaurus Boy" by Steven Popkes, which marks his fourth appearance in the magazine.  This tale combines a number of different elements into what can only be termed as a literary stew.  Picture a white boy of 13, just entering the throes of adolescence.  This boy has a major fascination with dinosaurs, Stegosaurus being his favorite extinct beastie.  Now let's set the story down in Alabama in the 1960s, right in the throes of the Civil Rights movement.  Our protagonist is at that age where he starts thinking for himself about weighty subjects, race among them.  His mother is gone, so with just one parent his father's views and opinions hold all the more weight.  And his father's views are complex.  He walks the fine and tricky line of racism, sometimes seeming to sympathize with black people while other times seeming quite content with the status quo.  One of their cousins is a member of the KKK, and when the boy asks his father why he never joined the KKK, his basic response is "I was never asked."  But we're shown it's really more complicated than this; refusing such a request can be dangerous to one's health.  As if all this isn't complicated enough, let's factor in that each year there is family reunion, and one branch of the family is black, a result of some slavemasters raping their slaves back in the days of slavery.  But wait, there's more.  The boy wakes up one night during the full moon and discovers that he's a stegosaurus.  It turns out this is a special form of lycanthropy that runs through the entire family, as in all the branches.  The change manifests itself during adolescence, and each person in the family will change into whatever animal s/he took a special liking to during his/her formative years.  Dad is an allosaurus, for example, and their cousin in the KKK (who was also at the family reunion) is a wolf.  This is a story about change and acceptance, of right vs. wrong, of family loyalties and the many shades of black & white (no pun intended) during times of social upheaval.  It's also one hell of a juggling act on the part of the author.  Art to this one was provided by Chris Cocozza.

Following this we have "A Hunter's Ode to His Bait" by Carrie Vaughn, which marks her third appearance in the magazine.  I must admit that ever since I started this retrospective project, I've been anticipating reading this one.  You see, this piece has a bit of a reputation infamous one.  Long before I started working at ROF, I knew about this story.  At first I knew about it because Carrie and I are both graduates of the Odyssey Fantasy & Science Fiction Writing Workshop, so I learned something of the tale's content through these channels.  But then I heard about this story again ...and again ...and yet again.  I actually knew the ending to this one in advance, as over the years I've been exposed to a number of conversations about this very tale, in particular its ending.  Let's just say that if you don't know the ending going in, it might shock you.  I've spoken to some who like this ending (and for the record I'm among them), and others who found the ending so offensive they stopped reading the magazine.  And no, I'm not just making this up.  Given this, even though I still have a few issues left to read in this project before I've read everything (eight issues and change), I have no qualms over awarding this tale the unofficial title of "Realms of Fantasy's Most Controversial Story."  Considering the content of the previous story, I also find this tremendously ironic.  As to the story itself, I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will relate a bit of the premise.  It takes place in medieval Britain but gives off a high fantasy vibe.  A unicorn hunter purchases a young virginal girl from her mother and proceeds to use the child as bait to lure unicorns out of hiding.  To those unfamilair with traditional unicorn mythology, female virgins attract unicorns.  Anyway, the operation proves a smashing success, as the hunter amasses bundles of loot, killing unicorn after trusting unicorn.  Years pass, and as the virginal girl grows older she starts attracting older and more illustrious unicorns, which are far more valuable.  Along the way, she's also become quite fetching.  And the hunter finds himself conflicted, battling between his love of the hunt and his growing attraction toward this unblemished beauty.  I'll stop right here before I risk giving away the ending.  And don't worry, even if you think you've figured it out, you haven't!  Instead, I'll share with you what Shawna said to me when I mentioned to her that this story has a bit of an infamous reputation and raised some reading hackles: "That's one of the things I loved about it--the unicorn is the sacred cow of fantasy."  Art to this one was provided by Stephen Johnson, which marks his fourth illustration in the magazine.

Then we have "Return Stores" by Karen Traviss.  This one delves into an area you don't read much about in fantasy: dockyards.  In this piece we're introduced to a young man whose grandfather had been a welder in the Navy dockyards.  It turns out he was fired for stealing from the dockyards, but until his dying day he proclaimed his innocence.  When the young man finds his grandfather's old bugle and several other items from his Navy days, it prompts him to seek out his grandfather's surviving friends.  This in turn leads to an investigation to learn the truth about his grandad's thefts, and in the bargain he learns about an old legend and a mysterious song on the bugle that, if played, could reveal the truth about his grandfather.  One problem: no one seems to know how the song goes.  Art to this one was provided by John Berkey, which marks his ninth illustration in the magazine. 

Last but not least we have "Here After Life" by Devon Monk, which marks her fifth appearance in the magazine.  In this one we meet a man on the verge of death.  Or to put it more accurately, we meet several versions of the man.  While Jim clings to comatose life in a hospital bed, we're introduced to five projections of himself of varying age, from newborn infant right up to his current 38 years.  These  various projections hold a bit of discourse about how to proceed, and being as Jim has changed quite a bit over the years, he has quite a bit of difficulty agreeing with himself.  But an agreement must be reached while Jim's body is still alive, and time is running out.  Of course, given the story's content, it begs the question of whether there is truly a fantastical tale.  After all, this could just be dream, right?  It's a fair argument if this occurs to you as you're reading this, but come the end of the tale the author answers this possible question in resounding fashion.  Not that I'm going to tell you how she answers it or what that answer is. ;)  Art to this one was provided by Patrick Arrasmith, which marks his tenth illustration in the magazine.

So that wraps up this issue.  And my favorite story?  I had to give this one more thought than usual (many worthy candidates!), but in the end I'm going with "Stegosaurus Boy" by Stephen Popkes.  And my favorite artwork?  Lori Koefoed's illustration to "Fable from a Cage" by Tim Pratt.  Next time around I'll discuss the April 2003 issue.  Until then ...            



Tags: rof retrospectives
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