My first reaction as I read "The Hand of Afaz" by Euan Harvey was Wow. It is well told, tightly written, and it held my attention from the opening scene to the last.
Farid found the murderer huddled close to a small fire at the base of a scrawny tree. Firelight winked through the reeds, and Farid poled his raft in slowly, silent as a gar gliding through the water below.For whatever reason, when I read "silent as a gar", I knew this was going to be good. Harvey handles his words skillfully, and his hero goes through a journey of conscience that many in the real world fail because they lose sight of truth. There is a price to pay for each choice we make. Awesome story.
The next piece is "Monster in the Mountains" by William Gerke. There is more than one monster in the mountains, but not all look monstrous. As with the previous story, right and wrong lie in the choices the characters make; evil circumstances are no excuse for evil behavior. But, evil aside, I knew I was going to like this tale when the dogs arrived:
On foot he would have been lost and devoured by the elements — if it weren’t for the dogs.
They came to him in the wilderness, as they had many times before. A greyhound pressed against Gowther’s right thigh; always the first to appear, with its yellow eyes and graceful stride, it had drawn close even as the pace of the storm quickened. On his left stalked a huge wolfhound, its thick, coarse fur matted and tangled. He had never seen it before but did not question its appearance. The greyhound had appeared with many different pack mates in the years since it first came to him.
Some of our family dogs came to us in similar fashion, showing up from nowhere, sometimes bringing friends.
In Gerke's story are fights and beasts, mystery and myth. An all-around solid tale.
Joshua Hampton's The Lay of Cuthred King is an homage to Anglo-Saxon poetry:
Now told is the tale of
Cuthred King of Keenland,
East away, across field, fen and whale-road,
where none dare pass in these grim years.
From his castle keep, all timbered tall
of aged oak and elm,
he ruled with wit and wisdom
bolstered by his cruel-edged axe,
and loved was he
by lords and laborers the same.
The emphasis in such poetry is not rhyme but alliteration, rhythm, imagery and, of course, story. This tale reads like legend -- there was a King Cuthred who fought the Welsh in the 700s -- but it also brings to mind the Biblical story of Aaron and Hur holding up the arms of Moses (as long as they did so, Joshua and the Israelites gained against the Amalakites; let his arms drop, though, and the enemy gained). "The Lay of Cuthred" is a tale of loyalty and sacrifice and mystery, and could have been told a thousand years ago. Well done.
"Courage" by Teel James Glenn is another poem in the epic vein, but is more a prayer than a story. Though it employs a certain rhythm and vocabulary that lend it an ancient air, there's a modern structure to it that is visually annoying (single-word lines, and each line beginning with a capital letter), and "Give me half of a chance" is more modern language than perhaps is fitting for such a poem. If I were rating this the way we rate submissions to the magazine for which I work, I'd give it 7 bones out of 10 -- not overwhelming applause, but still a good round of clapping.
Hervor splashed through the cold surf onto the rocks of the beach, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. By now the ship would be underway again, putting out to sea as fast as it could. How she would get off the island was a problem for later, assuming they hadn’t just put her off at random. She pushed such thoughts out of her mind. She was lucky to have come through so much already.
A piece of heroic fantasy starring a woman is a nice surprise; this one is also a ghost story. As with "The Hand of Afaz", a weighty choice lies at the core of the action, and the reader is left with a story that is only just beginning, and is yet complete. Well done.
Don’t just be good enough. Be excellent.
At Adam Callaway's blog, The Weirdside, he recently hosted an interesting little contest that I entered on a whim: Write a strange story, but it can't be longer than three sentences. Well, I contemplated that for a second or two, and in about five minutes composed an entry that -- I thought -- wasn't really all that strange, but it was sideways.
Turns out that it narrowly squeaked ahead of the other entries, and won me a copy of The Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers. Never read Moers, so I'm looking forward to it.
Oh, yeah, here's the crazy little tale:
And th-th-th-that's all, folks.Dinner drips from my fingers, grease mingling with the blood on my boots, and I am weary from the hunt, but the cook has ruined his last meal; despite his weeping protestations, despite my wife's admonition not to bite the hands that feed us, I will have new meat for roasting.
Resigned, she sends one of the servants with a cauldron to capture the fat for rendering, and wonders aloud if the skewer will bend to breaking with such a load as it now bears.
"It's his own fault"—I kick aside his apron and bloody clothes—"for letting that annoying miniature Englishman up the beanstalk."