Short Stories 365/239

“Year of the Fox” By Eugie Foster from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction (Lethe Press 2009). Edited by Steve Berman.

This is going to be a hard one to write. The reason I bought this anthology is because last month the author of this story died. She was much too young, only forty-two. She spent the last not-quite-one-year of her life battling cancer, and documented the whole experience on her blog.

I knew her name because she was a colleague of many of the writers I admire, but I’d never read her work because until recently I didn’t read science fiction or fantasy, and speculative fiction was her forte. She won a Nebula award for her work in 2009 and was a finalist that year for the Hugo and BSFA awards. This volume was on the short list of nominees for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award.

Her husband stated that instead of flowers for a memorial service what he wanted was for people to buy and read her books, or to buy them as gifts for friends. I decided to answer that call, so I bought a copy of this anthology and set about with this set of reviews.

I can’t imagine a more fitting introduction to her work than this story, given all I’ve just said. This is a powerful coming of age tale that deals with mortality and how, through enlightenment, one may escape being reborn on the Wheel of Life.

Mei and Jin are fox cubs and more, they are huli jing, fox spirits, capable of shape shifting. They still live with and are almost entirely dependent upon their mother. She tries to tell them about the importance of enlightenment, but they are too young, too restless and unruly, so she gives up and goes off in search of food. They cavort around their den, oblivious to the dangers of the woods or to the fact that the hour has grown very late. Only the sharp hunger pangs they feel clue them in that something is amiss.

They go in search of their mother and find her body caught in a hunter’s trap. She was murdered for her beautiful tail, which is missing. That’s the point at which the story truly begins, for it’s about how each fox cub responds to such a terrible loss. In the heat of the moment Mei and Jin swear to exact revenge on humankind, but will they be consumed and destroyed by their anger, or will they manage to resist that temptation and find salvation through loving something other than themselves?

There are lines in this story that will rip your heart out, because of the bigger picture. “No, she cannot be dead,” Jin says. “Just this night she was lively and spry.” At its core, though, this is a very hopeful story, and it contains an uplifting message:

Nothing is permanent in this world, and it is a place of suffering. But if we live the best we can, one day we will achieve bliss and end our time on the eternal circle of rebirth…Do not cry. Did not Buddha teach us that life is a dream of walking? I am going home.

Short Stories 365/238

“Mr Seeley” by Melissa Scott from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction (Lethe Press 2009). Edited by Steve Berman.

Tully Swann’s a bootlegger who does jobs for various bosses. He boards with one of his employers, Joe Farr, the owner of a local flower shop who supplements his regular business by selling liquor to some of his customers. We’re told that Tully is “more welcome (in Joe’s home) than a mere employee ought to be”. If you didn’t gather from that that there’s a relationship between the two men then the fact that Joe’s nickname is “Sister Farr” should clue you in.

So far, so good. Tully returns from a job only to find an empty house. Right after that he’s visited by an adult little person he briefly mistakes for a boy. That’s fine, but even after he realize his error, because of the other man’s stature and also the color of his skin, Tully continues to refer to him as “boy”. I appreciate the argument the author introduces with that choice. Tully would likely chafe if someone discounted his humanity because of one inherent aspect of his personality, his attraction to other men, but he fails to see that he does the same sort of thing to other people.

At any rate, the second man, Cal, reveals that he has come there to deliver a note from Joe, informing Tully that he’s up on Irish Mountain with the mysterious Mr. Seeley from the story’s title. It’s understood that he is not there of his own accord. Tully is tasked with doing a job for Mr. Seeley, who is described as a higher-level bootlegger, in order to secure Joe’s freedom.

From there the story is unabashed fun. The connection Tully meets in a foggy clearing is named Mr. Tamlin. This is not the first story in the collection to draw on that particular folktale. It does so with a knowing wink. Tully arrives at Mr. Seeley’s estate on Irish Mountain to find a party already in full swing, attended by gorgeous, well-dressed men and women. He’s offered food and drink by the host. In anyone who has paid attention up to this point in the anthology that invitation will ignite a delightful dread. The author takes full advantage of it.

I’d expected a chase scene toward the start of Tully’s mission to rescue Joe. When it finally came, I was so riveted I could not breathe. A 2012 interview with the author revealed she was expanding this story into a novel. I haven’t yet been able to determine if that happened. I hope so.

Short Stories 365/237

“Laura Left a Rotten Apple and Came Not to Regret the Cold of the Yukon” by Lynn Jamneck from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction (Lethe Press 2009). Edited by Steve Berman.

The placement of this piece in the anthology is perfect. This story is precisely what is needed after the brutality of the last one.

I didn’t realize until reading this just how fuzzy I was on details concerning the Yukon Territory. After I stopped reading to correct that situation, I realized why I’ve never paid it much mind: I’m from Chicago, and as much as I loved almost everything about growing up there, I hated the cold. It was a big part of the reason I chose to go to college 300 miles south of my hometown, and why I re-located due east of there. The Yukon? Heck no. Besides, I never, ever want to be that close to Sarah Palin. Brrr!

I loved main character Laura’s forthright voice and bold attitude. She’s a best-selling, Manhattan-based author who has hit a wall, creatively, so she chucks everything and trudges off to the Yukon in search of fresh head space. You have to admire that. Right off she meets Sergeant Gwen Morrigan and sparks fly. I liked the sergeant’s self-assured, calm demeanor and the hints that, underneath, she had a playful side.

My brain tried to make something out of the similarity of the sergeant’s name to characters in the Arthur legend, and then out of the comment that Esther, the proprietor of the local general supply, makes about Laura’s destination being “like Brigadoon” during a blizzard, but neither reference seemed to pan out. Laura uses the desolation of the Poniwok to re-gain her focus for work and makes headway on a new novel. Sergeant Gwen goes about her own business. Whenever they cross paths the conversation is layered with other meanings. Gwen seizes an opportunity to invite Laura to accompany her while she makes her rounds looking for game poachers. While they are out and about an incident happens that, frankly, I’m not sure I understood. It seems magic comes into play, and there are more hints of something magical at work after that. I couldn’t quite put it all together, but I enjoyed the interactions between all these characters so much that the fact that I wasn’t sure what made it possible simply didn’t matter. Laura left the “rotten apple”, re-found her voice and found Gwen. That’s good enough for me.

Short Stories 365/236

“Exiles” by Sean Meriwether from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction (Lethe Press, 2009). Edited by Steve Berman.

This story was disarming. First, it distracted me because it was written in the second person present tense, ala Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Then it introduced the concept of the main character, you, being someone for whom all the stars had just aligned: new boyfriend, place in the city, first novel about to be released. The picture was so rosy I knew something bad had to happen, but still, the brutality of what did was shocking. Because of the “first novel” bit and the extremely believable way the viewpoint character processes the story events, I found myself tensed with horror, wondering “This didn’t really happen, did it?”

The irony being, of course, things like the one described happen every day. They’ve happened to people I know. Yes, people, plural. What I meant to ask was “Did this really happen to the author of this piece?”

The viewpoint character struggles to find a way to move forward after being attacked. He spirals down into despair and self-pity, until strange things begin to happen. He senses an otherworldly being in his midst, and goes to investigate.

I tell you, I have never been so relieved as I was with this story to spy a word coming up ahead in the text and remember “Oh right, this is spec fiction. There’s magic.”  It was so realistic to that point, I’d forgotten.

Go on this journey, you won’t be sorry. Yes, the beginning is jarring, but the ending is hopeful. Go.

Short Stories 365/235

“The Faerie Cony-Catcher” by Delia Sherman from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction (Lethe Press, 2009). Edited by Steve Berman.

This is me, on my feet, clapping madly and yelling “Bravo!”

This story is written in the language of Shakespeare’s time. I’ve mentioned here that my family used to attend the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, every year. We’d see a matinee and an evening performance every day for three days, then journey on to Toronto, except for one year, when we went to Montreal and Quebec instead.

As much as I enjoy stories like this, I can’t imagine trying to write something original this way.

Bravo! Bravo!

Nick is an ambitious young man, a journeyman jeweler and goldsmith. Determined to leave the big city behind and make a name for himself in the country, he strikes out on his own, with all his worldly possessions. Very quickly he meets a maid, Peasecod, who he’s quite taken with, and shortly after that finds himself unexpectedly having an audience with the faerie queen. He manages to keep his wits about him, but leaves the court tasked with a test of sorts. If he passes the test, his future happiness is all but assured. If he doesn’t, it will be disaster for him as well as for Peasecod.

Bravo!