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    Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:17am

Byzarium Swords, by Daniel Blackston

originally published 2/16/2006
Byzarium Swords! 

It's no accident that the title of this month's column is reminiscent of a catch-phrase you might hear around a medieval-fantasy marketplace. With the lineup of excellent fiction profiled this month, there's no more appropriate way to start things off. Within this installment, you'll find everything from goblin thugs to far-future apocalypses. And every bit of the fiction this month is free for the taking! 

But before you scroll down to the reviews, please take a moment to click through the following link for info on a very special collection of short-fiction, one which I recommend quite highly but am not at liberty to review: 

Pitch Black Books 

Our first stop this month is The Sword Review an e-zine published by Double-Edged Publishing. The layout of the e-zine is standard-utilitarian with a click-thru Photoshop-ed cover for each issue and an annotated table of contents with links to the individual pieces. I found TSR's html option for navigation somewhat frustrating in that when one clicks on a link to a story, article, or review, one is then routed to an excerpt of the piece, (I'm not a fan of this particular online practice), and then another link takes you to the complete work. However, when this last click is made, one is routed to a page where the cover image of the issue is repeated, with the body of text (not immediately visible) below, and this threatened to put me in an "infinite loop." 

TSR touts an expressed interest in "quality fiction, valuable reviews, and meaningful exposition, all in a means that respects traditional values and Christian principles." While I possess something rather short of a thorough familiarity with the content at TSR, the content I have read has impressed me as being in keeping with the editorial mandate without allowing said mandate to become in any way obtrusive. This, alone, is a commendable accomplishment for any pub with such a specific and yet sparsely defined Prime Directive. 

Issue #11, the February 2006 issue, leads off with a fantasy story, "The Stains of the Past," by J. Kathleen Cheney. While enjoyable on many levels, particularly for its emotional depth and juxtaposition of erotic power and empathy, this story bogs down a bit during its rising action due to a preponderance of dialogue. While the romantic and philosophical dynamic between the story's narrator: a courtesan-empath, and her unlikely suitor: a clairvoyant nobleman, is both poignant and intriguing, I never felt the stakes were high enough in this story to adequately identify with either of the primary characters. However, I rather suspect this had more to do with the story's slow pace, which seemed intensified by Cheney's imaginative central conceit. An inspired, but only partially successful, tale. 

"The Engines of Peace" by Douglas Kolacki is a real showstopper of a science-fiction story and one that is so well-crafted that its baroque plotting and complex back-story seemed only negligibly distractive. More distractive are the frequent leaps from one character's point of view to another's -- and this with many of the characters being, at root, hard to tell apart. Granted, this can be a serious liability, especially in a story which attempts so much, but in the long run, Kolacki's narrative skills are up to the task and the result is a thought-provoking blend of social-religious irony, hard sci-fi, alternate history, morality fiction, and bracing satire. Prepare yourself for the coming of the Messiah, (or at least something close enough for rock and roll!) and beware. This time he's not offering parables and aphorisms -- he's giving away wonder-technologies and nobody is looking to crucify him. Kolacki's vision of 1905 Ohio, swarming with flying machines, "telectroscopes," horseless carriages, and universal power-sourcing is a wonder to behold and experience. This inspired piece gains my enthusiastic thumbs-up; however, Kolacki earns a regrettable thumb's-down for his stiff and largely forgettable characters. 

Another enjoyable science-fiction story from issue #11 is Mirta Ana Schultz's "Voices from the Void." This story, the winner of TSR's 2005 fiction contest, also falls victim to a nebulous back-story and the inclusion of too much direct exposition via a 1st person narrator. By the third paragraph of this story I was convinced I was reading a possible gem -- by the story's close, however, I felt a twinge of disappointment at Schultz's inability to articulate the events of her story through engaging action, rather than relying purely on her admittedly fluent imagination to hold reader-interest. The story's characters: a "holoflik producer," a "young monk,"a politician's daughter, an "exobotanist," a "missionarian" and the narrator are together on an intergalactic journey under the auspices of a cosmic "Matcher." The characters function allegorically, creating a social-microcosm. Some of the philosophical exchanges between the characters are quite inventive and thought-provoking, not to mention exceedingly well suited to Schultz's thematic thrust. 

Also interesting is Schultz's fusion of satirical pop-psychology with the conception of deep space as a medium for cosmic catharsis. If this story and "The Engines of Peace" are any indication of where TSR plans to take Christian-inspired science-fiction, I think we may all be due for a big surprise -- in that the stories for all their avowed ties to "traditional values"-- are startlingly original, and run on complex, "big" ideas, something encountered too rarely in short science fiction these days. 

My favorite story from issue #11 is Sean T. M. Stiennon's "Old Steelfist." I haven't made much of a secret of my strong support of young Mr. Stiennon's fiction. I firmly believe he is a writer of significant talent and remarkable self-discipline. "Old Steelfist" was Runner Up in the TSR 2005 fiction contest, but to my mind, it is the best and most well-crafted story from issue #11. 

Featuring yet another "unreliable" 1st person narrator, (a common thread throughout issue #8's fiction selections), Stiennon's witty and dramatic tale of goblins and "gang" loyalty easily steals the show. Of the 1st person narrators featured in this issue of TSR, Stiennon's "Klor" is the most fully realized and memorable. "Old Steelfist" is also the only story in TSR #11 that actually fulfills the zine's titular manifesto, featuring some deftly-scribed sword-slinging, as well as colorful dialogue and humor. There is a campy, "Clockwork Orange-ish" feeling to the whole story, with Klan and his gang of "slashers" trekking to their married-with-children mate's farm to convince him to go out on another raid and finding he has more interest in growing vegetables. What sets this piece above the others in the issue is Stiennon's absolute understanding of his characters, plot, and narrative pace. While "Old Steelfist" may, on the surface, seem to lack the big ideas associated with issue #8's other stories, this is purely an illusion generated by the skill of the author, whose gift for writing engaging scenes and dialogue all but sugarcoats the poignant themes and sub-text of the story's action. To those who have opined their belief that nothing original, deep, or satisfying can come from "Dungeons and Dragons" style fantasy, "Old Steelfist" is like a polite kick in the teeth. That is, Stiennon's tale refutes mediocrity, as well as blind-obedience to literary fashion, and does so with enviable technical aplomb and imagination. A must-read story by a must-read author of notable skill and talent. 

TSR also features speculative poetry, articles, and reviews, as well as a running blog/column on writerly subjects in left-hand navigation on the table of contents page. This latter feature is particularly fun and informative. TSR is a pleasurable place to surf and a good source of entertaining speculative fiction. Click over right away and sample some of what's on offer; I have the feeling TSR is just getting started. 

I'm quite enthusiastic about the next pub up for review, Byzarium, an e-zine edited and published by Aileen McAleer and Leigh Dragoon. This pub is smartly constructed, streamlined, and infused with a palpable matriarchal magic which, if it straddles the dark side from time to time, is fecund with creativity and energy. The format of the e-zine is no-frills (along the lines of Ideomancer) and is easy to surf. The January 2006 issue provides cool icons beside each of the featured pieces to indicate genre: horror, science-fiction, fantasy, or non-fiction article. The fiction selections diverge wildly not only in style and subject but in overall quality as well. 

The lead-off piece, "Job Interview," by Philip Roberts, failed to make a lasting impression on me, but it's premise: that of a man being interviewed for a mysterious job, where the interview questions insinuate nasty things about the interviewee is bound to send tingles down a few spines. Much depends upon the twist-ending, which to many readers, will simply feel inevitable and therefore is bound to lose a bit of its sting. 

"Anything Like Her Photo,"by Jarrah Moore, is a spirited romance-fantasy told in fugue form. Setting the classic knight-rescues-princess theme against the backdrop of Internet Spam and online dating, Moore manages to wrest tragedy out of her enviably compressed narrative and thereby accomplish a memorable irony with sanguine intimations for the present-day. 

"Sunsets and Hamburgers," by Gareth Lyn Powell is an excellent far-future apocalypse with an immediately grabbing opening and a grandly successful denouement. Told episodically in numbered diary entries, the story combines a hatful of familiar SF-nal conceits such as: suspended animation, galactic "drift," the end of the universe, the extinction of the human race, genetic engineering, forced breeding. That all of this and more is accomplished in a short-short -- without sacrificing character depth or world-building -- is just amazing. Powell's narrative voice is precise, giving needed details, sparing superfluous digressions, lengthy exposition, or wooden dialogue. In fact, "Sunsets and Hamburgers" moves so quickly and so effectively toward its profound and unforgettable climax that it is easy to forget that this little gem of a science-fiction story has more concepts invested in it than many door-stopper sci-fi novels. Simply a magnificent short-short, one which I wholeheartedly give my highest recommendation. 

Byzarium offers compelling articles for writers, as well. I personally found Leigh Dragoon's article, "Writer's Block," exceptionally cathartic and would like to thank her for the inclusion of the link to the coolest online Tarot program I've yet encountered. Edward O' Toole's article "Trolls and Critics" should be mandatory reading for self-published or first-time published novelists who may have a hankering to Spam. If you'd like some good alternatives to getting run off of discussion boards for self-promotion, take a good look at this very informative and useful article. 

Byzarium is a dynamic, modern, entertaining and creatively rich pub. The stories and articles are exactly the right length and depth for online fare and -- if venues like SCI FICTION -- are going to continue to close down, I hope more venues like Byzarium will emerge to fill the gap. I can only imagine what these two editors could pull-off if they had funding to offer a SCI FICTION comparable pay-rate to their authors. As it is, this is definitely an e-zine to watch. 

Last in line for review this month is Dreams and Nightmares 73, which happens to be the twentieth anniversary issue for this desk-top-published SF poetry zine. Edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, the pub has a definite garage-days feel to it and within the erratically formatted pages lies a wide-range of SF poetry, most of which seems to represent the poets at their most loose and fun-loving. The standout poems from the issue were Leah Bobet's "Into Salt Sea-Foam," Bruce Boston's "Stray Vegetable Lads," and Jessica Langer's "Dirge." 

Bobet's poem, while suffering from arbitrary (largely missing) punctuation, boasts some memorable lines: 

"The alarm is raised; the prince is dead
Thick outrage stains the morning sky" 


"It is too late to go back for your childhood toys
It is too late to steal one last cold kiss." 

And the poem's theme: of a princess longing to be a mermaid, is forceful enough to merit the poem's majestic, fairy-tale diction. 

Bruce Boston's "Stray Vegetable Lads" is a deeply imaginative offering, wherein the poet envisions anthropomorphic field-plants by moonlight that uproot themselves to perform hermetic occupations. Graceful, yet sinister lines, bring Boston's Dali-esque conception to fruition: 

"Once dusk is complete, one by one, they tear themselves
free from the soil. With tendrils trailing patches of
loam, they traipse off into the dark. We don't know
where they go or what they do in the breadth of the
night, but we are not without imagination." 

Of note in the above stanza is the wonderful break into dynamic syllabalism at the stanza's close where "imagination" subsumes the primarily monosyllabic body of the stanza, devoted to describing the uprooted plants' unknown doing's, whilst the complex and dynamic word "imagination" states clearly the narrator's occupations, but infers they are more manifold and mysterious than those unknown occupations of the plant-men. 

"Dirge," by Jessica Langer, is dreamy and romantic with a vision of the afterlife of bones. Solid lines such as: 

"Bones, broken like masts in a storm
groan and sway in the vast soil sea." 

help this rather one-dimensional piece attain a greater complexity than its theme would overtly admit. Langer's diction is quite in keeping with the sound of sea, of rats, of rotting bones. A nicely turned lyric, which deserves special commendation for its restraint and tasteful scansion, given what could be, in the hands of a lesser poet, simply a maudlin and stereotypical effort. 

All in all, the 20th anniversary issue of Dreams and Nightmares 73 seems a fitting celebration of the endurance of this intrepid pub. I encourage you to support the proliferation of SF poetry by ordering a copy or subscription today. 

This month's Great Fiction Brand Award goes to Gareth Lyn Powell for "Sunsets and Hamburgers." Congratulations Gareth! We hope to encounter more of your fiction soon! 

I sure hope you will stop by our discussion forums to keep up on the latest SF happenings and offer your own thoughts, questions, and views! 

Until Next Time, 

Daniel E. Blackston
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