The Portal Archive: Fantasy Magazine, November 2010

The November issue of Fantasy is moody, melancholy and perfectly suited for a crisp fall afternoon. The stories touch on life and death and what comes after, focusing on what haunts the living left behind when the dead can’t quite let go. The stories also explore familial obligation, the idea of transformation, and the accompanying endings and new beginnings. This is heady stuff, and the authors in question mine these themes for all they are worth. Each story is imbued with strong emotions that make fine work out of love, loss and necessary co-dependencies. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every offering. I only wish that there was a bit more hope and less resignation and grim determination involved.

“From the Countries of Her Dreams” by Jay Lake and Shannon Page takes place in a reality where women’s lives are held in very low regard and religion is something that ebbs and flows but never actually goes out of vogue. Protagonist Laris is a priestess by day and prostitute by night. Even with two fulltime occupations, she is barely getting by. If that wasn’t enough, her sister’s ghost haunts her dreams. What’s a woman to do except find the source of her dead sibling’s restlessness. In Lake and Page’s capable hands, Laris and her troubling world spring vividly to life.

I think what I liked best about “From the Countries of Her Dreams” are all the tiny details. When you read about Laris, you can feel the chill of winter and taste her fear. This is world-building at its best. I also really appreciate that that there are no true heroes in this story. Everyone, from Laris, to her sister’s lover Radko, to Neela from the mission, is fairly ordinary. They are simply doing what they need to make it to another day. The character of Laris has human failings as well. A line that illustrates this is, “She didn’t seek out Radko that day. Knowing and doing were not the same thing. Her years before the altar had taught her much about the difference.” Real people don’t always do things they know are good for them. Somehow, that level of detail makes the characters more real and helps Lake and Page’s characterizations really ring true.

There is a good deal of spirituality in this story. It’s not something I dwell on much myself, so I won’t explore it in depth here other than to say it is through her work as a priestess that Laris has an opportunity to really shine and show that she is something greater than just some woman on the street. It’s an interesting and pivotal aspect of the story that connects to some of Lake’s earlier work. In fact, if you enjoyed this story, “From the Countries of Her Dreams” is based on an earlier short story entitled “The Daughters of Desire”, and the death of Laris’ sister is chronicled in Lake’s novel Endurance.

The underlying premise of “Mortis Persona” by Barbara A. Barnett is that there are special masks that capture a person’s soul, allowing the wealthy and their departed loved ones to be present at family occasions, including their own funeral. In this world, actors are hired to don the masks and bring the dead briefly back to life, sharing their bodies and consciousness in the process. When put in those simple terms, a story like “Mortis Persona” might not sound heart-wrenching or romantic. Yet, that is exactly what the story becomes when young actor Caldus is forced by circumstance and family obligation to risk his sanity and wear the mask of his dead lover Aper. From that point, “Mortis Persona” is an exploration of what can happen when a love that seemed lost forever is suddenly found again, and once found, what the true cost of preserving that love might be.

This is one of the loveliest stories I’ve read in a long time. Initially, I really liked having such a vivid window into another world. Getting to know Caldus, his dedication to his family and his consuming passion for his former love was fascinating, and I could easily picture a vaguely Roman world where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is vast and almost insurmountable. But what made the story work for me were the underlying ideas and the questions raised about love, what happens when we die, and whether having the ability to do something, in this case capture some level of a person’s consciousness, means we should even consider it. In other words, I though “Mortis Persona” was wonderful because it made me think (big thoughts) and reflect. I really didn’t have any complaints. Part of me really wished there was more about the present or about Caldus and his lover’s shared past, but, upon further reflection, I realized that the passage of time that takes place is vital. Time makes the depths of Caldus’ devotion, and in turn, the story in its entirety—truly haunting and beautiful.

The aptly titled “Liminal” by E. Catherine Tobler starts with a bridge and a train. Both of those things imply crossing from one place to the next, marking transitions and changes, making them the perfect place for a haunting. And what a haunting it is. Honna was one of three very special sisters, and though she is dead, she is neither gone nor forgotten. In fact, at times Honna can see through both her sister’s eyes and feel with their hands. It’s a difficult state at best, and one the story sets out to explain and put to rights in its own fashion.

“Liminal” is pensive and dark, and at times deeply disturbing, but always fascinating. Honna is a captivating narrator. As a reader, you want to know her story and you feel for her and her two surviving siblings, Sombra and Gemma. It’s also full of surprises. “Liminal” starts off being about doing what we must in order to persevere, and ends up being about transformation. This story relies less on world-building that the others in this issue. Instead, “Liminal” capitalizes on the images of circuses and freak shows that many of us already have fixed in our minds thanks to popular culture. I thought the other characters in the story, all male, were a bit two dimensional, and in the end I didn’t completely understand their motivation. Still, the language and lush imagery kept me transfixed. All in all, “Liminal” was an enjoyable read.

“Mademoiselle and the Chevalier” by Mari Ness is a tale of roses, a mysterious and beautiful young woman who knows how to generate good buzz, her home, her jewels, her rather large family, her gargoyles, her potential suitors, most notably the Chevalier d’_____________, and most notably, strange love addictions. The story is vivid, engaging and sad all at once.

I have to admit that I was really fascinated by “Mademoiselle” from the start. I’ve been a sucker for a classic fairy tale since before I can remember, and that’s exactly how “Mademoiselle” reads. The language is formal, but not inaccessible, and the story strikes that perfect balance between the beautiful (the roses!) and the horrific (all those gargoyles!) that keeps readers enthralled and wondering what could possibly come next. Author Ness also finds a good balance between the modern and the classic. Even though her style remains true to a classic fairy tale or Regency romance, certain elements of the story, particularly the narration, reminded me of Perez Hilton and today’s gossip rags. I kept picturing a woman snooping around with a mini cassette recorder trying to capture conversations from a clever version of Paris Hilton or an Angelina Jolie in long skirts with powdered hair and a beauty mark. Another element that sets “Mademoiselle” apart is the way it delves into the magical and makes it seem like the everyday, even though it’s not.

Although this story has its roots in the classics, I never would have suspected that it is based in part on “Beauty and the Beast” without reading the author interview and re-reading the closing line. I have to admit that in my first reading, I didn’t really see it. I see it now. “Mademoiselle and the Chevalier” is all about transformation and perception. Now, I’ve always thought the best part of “Beauty” was that it centered on love’s ability to bring about redemption. There are no morals to be had, and salvation doesn’t really play a part in this modern fairy tale, but that’s okay. Not having easy answers or a guaranteed happy ending is what helps keeps it captivating.


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