fibitz (fibitz) wrote,

Review of August '09 Realms of Fantasy

Disclaimer: I normally don’t review magazines; indeed, I normally don’t review at all, but an offer was made to send out gratis the first issue of Realms of Fantasy published under the New Order of Warren Lapine’s ownership to anyone who cared to blog about it, and I succumbed to the Lure of the Freebie. My familiarity with previous issues was sporadic, so there will be little or no comparison with the ancien régime.
Beginning with its cover, the issue has stellar aspects—in sufficient quantity that I have already forked over the dough for a two-year subscription. The cover image itself is absolutely gorgeous, and while it may be the iconic, time-tested marketing ploy of using a supermodel-pretty female face and figure (except for the disquieting, though predictable, absence of nipples), the iridescent effects in the scales and the use of color, especially in the speckled feathers, are spectacularly rich.

The other illustrations in this issue are impressive as well; they are masterfully executed and do the stories justice. Even in the ads that take up close to 30% of the issue (and if that’s what it takes to keep ROF in print, that’s what it takes) most of the images are very attractive, with the exception of a few covers of advertised books. (Trust me, people: the ray-tracing programs that will do human or animal forms—the ones you can afford, anyway—are Not There Yet.)

Michael Hague, whose work I esteem, is the artist discussed in the Gallery, and it’s delightful to see so many fine examples from decades of his illustrations. I hope this section continues as a regular feature.

I also enjoyed the interviews with the young actors who play Luna, Neville, and Draco that were included with the review of the latest Harry Potter movie—fun to have an “inside view” of the character from the POV of the actor playing that part!

An eclectic article on music’s role in global history certainly seems comprehensive, and includes a smattering of information on folk influences, as well as gossip about recent rock and other bands.

The book-and-other-print-media reviews were pleasant and instructive when kept brief. I liked The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, the novel preceding The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist (the novel under review), a good deal more than Paul Witcover apparently did, which makes his unstinting praise for the second volume especially convincing. But the spoiler part is truly annoying for those of us who haven’t gotten the book yet! The initial portion of the review was illuminating, and more than sufficient to persuade me to buy the book, and I would have preferred additional reviews to the lengthy summation that succeeded it. If the remainder of the review had been a perceptive essay discussing technique and deeper layers of meaning, some revelations might have been worthwhile and necessary, but as it is, most of the review is merely a synopsis, which is not only a lazy way of extending one’s word count, but inconsiderate to readers as well.

The other novel reviews by Witcover also include lengthy, unnecessary spoilers, and the cover image of the second book is omitted. A well-written review should not need to synopsize the book under discussion, and I prefer the inclusion of cover images, even as thumbnails. The shorter book reviews by Matt Staggs are infinitely preferable, as is the YA-fantasy-review setup, with short teaser-blurbs and a brief opinion alongside the cover images.

It was disappointing to see only one graphic novel reviewed; the inclusion of two full pages as well as the cover, in the dimensions required for text legibility, must have been thought necessary for some reason. The cover image was unfortunately not designed to be intelligible or attractive in the thumbnail size at which most book covers strive to maintain appeal—I consider this a design flaw that should not be encouraged by lowering the bar for allowed display space.

I won’t discuss the gaming review, as this is a field in which I have no experience or expertise, except to say that, even so, it was kinda fun to read from my perspective as a complete outsider.

Now, for the four stories in this issue (why no flash fiction? why no poetry?):

The best short fiction in this issue, in my opinion, is “Healing Benjamin” by Dennis Danvers. This story has an engaging basic concept—for us cat lovers especially—and a believable and consistent voice. Who among us has not considered their own mortality? The loss of a beloved pet can be more poignant than the idea of one’s own death, but being outlived by a pet may also be a tragedy. Line after line is classic enough to repeat like a mantra—but all of them are spoilers. Except perhaps for “Go forth and lick both beaters, my chosen one,” which is definitely staying in the household lexicon. Gorgeous, unbearably funny, and sad.

“Digging for Paradise” is also excellent; a seamless fusion of techno-sf and fantasy. The selection of names is a small consideration amid the manifold components of a story, but can still completely ruin the effect if done unwisely. All the place and character names that Ian Creasey has used here feel both unobtrusively original and authentic. With subtle humor, the author deals engagingly with a combination of the traditional theme of the narrator’s submission to servitude in order to recover a long-lost love, and the moral issues of unlimited power. I enjoyed the technical details about the headaches involved in drilling through strata deep in the earth. Another byword: “’Magic can do anything,’ he said, ‘That’s why it’s called magic.’” And who could fail to be enchanted by “He made a reverential gesture to his testicles....”? Kudos to (I presume) the author for avoiding common spelling errors in, or misuse of, words like “poring,” “loupe,” and “stratum.” “Niggle” as a noun may be a neologism, but is perfectly comprehensible.

A real fairy tale must seem to be somehow archetypal, but modern writers far too often attempt a story in the fairy-tale style via the use of stale premises and outworn conventions. But “Well and Truly Broken” by Bruce Holland Rogers engaged my interest from the beginning and developed a fairly original premise—then stopped abruptly. Had some junior editor or production assistant forgotten to insert “Continued on page X”? No. Was this piece an nostalgic return to serialization? Apparently not. Whatever it is, it’s not a complete story. Nor is it an enchanting vignette; it’s an exercise in disappointment—which implies, at least, that it is also a successful beginning. I would like to read the rest of the story someday, if Mr. Rogers ever finishes it.

Sadly, the first story, by virtue of placement the presumed headliner, Tanith Lee’s “Our Lady of Scarlet,” did not in any way live up to my expectations, and therefore I deliberately discuss it last. She is certainly the name that I would have recognized, and on whose account I would have purchased the issue. It has been some years since I’ve picked up any of her work—decades, actually; and that may be part of the problem here—but I had read with enjoyment her novels Night’s Master, The Silver Metal Lover, The Black Unicorn, and others, and recall them as skillfully written.

That being said, something’s desperately wrong here—many, many things, in fact. I remember Lee as being a much better writer than is evinced by this story. There is a plethora of grammatical errors, to say nothing of a badly done faux-archaic style that is affected as well as annoyingly redundant. The punctuation, syntactical weirdnesses, and other grammatical and structural blunders are atrociously frequent: I counted three hundred mistakes, mostly punctuation errors—and the story is only six pages long! Where on earth is the proofreading one might expect from a publication of ROF's presumed caliber? To say nothing of the editorial oversight—and I use this word in the sense of “supervision,” as opposed to “failure to take heed.”

The errors are such as to completely overshadow and spoil the story—which is not saying much, as the story itself is a run-of-the-mill pastiche: Student Wizard meets Masque of the Red Death. Even as a first draft inserted by accident (in which case heads should roll), the story is prima facie evidence that Tanith Lee is past her sell-by date. The style is not a matter of deliberate use of the elevated diction complete with occasional inverted syntax that one frequently sees in fantasy, used with the intention of evoking the literary mannerisms of a bygone age; it’s just painfully bad writing. The arcane placement of commas, to say nothing of sundry unnecessary divagations, garbled and incorrect syntax, and horridly phrased passages combine so as to give the impression that English is a recently acquired second language. On top of the punctuation problems, bizarre—by which I mean “awful” rather than “creative”—word choices are intrusive and painful to read. Stilted, awkward—and in many cases, incorrect—verb constructions are used throughout. And what on earth does “feater” mean?—although this appears to be the kind of genuine typo that could happen to anyone. Anyone who didn’t bother to spellcheck, that is. Oddly, only the use of italics (a frequently neglected skill) is consistently correct.

What the hell happened? One does not expect to find this level of editing in what has previously been a top-drawer SF journal. Yes, there are a few typos in the other stories, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and do not intrude as evidence of total meltdown. And the other stories are more complex (except for the Rogers story, for obvious reasons), involving profoundly difficult ethical choices, and are much more compelling. I cannot imagine why a story like “Our Lady of Scarlet” was accepted in the first place, no matter who wrote it; nor, if it had to be accepted, why it was not given the level of editorial assistance that would have raised it to the level of the rest of the writing in the magazine. Besides degrading ROF, the appearance of the story in its current disorderly state is a major disservice to potential Tanith Lee fans. Normally, when I see content this incapable, I put the publication—and the author—on my Do Not Bother To Read Or Submit To list. But this is Realms of Fantasy, newly risen out of its ashes. Don’t let this happen again, guys.

The editorial and publisher’s note were fun (and congratulations on taking up no more than one page in toto). With the astounding exception of the Tanith-Lee-WTF? experience, the issue is mostly a good one, and as both fans and writers we would do well to heed the words of Shawna McCarthy, the editor, regarding why one ought to subscribe to print magazines: “The magazines and publishing houses act, effectively, as gatekeepers. We are your first and last line of defense against the lady down the street who’s always wanted to write if only she had the time.”
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