OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
LACKINGTON’S magazine – issue #20, Fall 2019.
Publisher: Lackington Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Editor: Ranylt Richildis
Cover Art: Kat Weaver.
Interior Art: Patricia Bingham, Carrion House, Diana M. Chien, Grace P. Fong, Michelle MB, Pear Nuallak, Paula Arwen Owen, Gregory St. John, Richard Wagner, Carol Wellart, and P. Emerson Williams.
Note: “Birds” is the theme of this issue. I am fatally allergic to birds. I like birds. I just can’t go near them. Have to keep my distance. Let’s see if that helps in writing this review.
The Water-Bearer and the Hawk-King – by H. Pueyo
The mountain-top kingdom of Zaltana is ruled by a were-Hawk king named Cauno. His palace is an eyrie of windswept marble pillars. Growing ill from a black sickness within, he becomes dependant on the medicinal water flowing from the skin of Gaíra, a male/female healer-witch.
The king is a sort of Caligula type, given to exulting in his power over others and satisfying his every whim. On reading his name I immediately dubbed him King Guano. Not sure this is what the author intended or anticipated, but it seems appropriate.
Gaíra is possibly a hermaphrodite, or just bi-gender. It is a bit disconcerting that Gaíra is often referred to as ”he” and “she” in the same sentence, but I don’t think sexuality enters into it (depends on the reader, I suppose). To me the male/female aspect of the character is strictly symbolic of the life-giving forces of nature (which is why gay shamans are important in a number of cultures) upon which the Hawk-King’s ego feeds. In an emotional sense King Cauno is an apex-predator, and Gaíra represents his subjects, his prey.
So, to my mind, a political metaphor disguised as a beautifully written poetic fable. The essential dilemma posed? How can you live with yourself while serving a glorious leader? A very modern question.
A Map to a Future Unlike Any Past – by Karolina Fedyk
The scholar’s job is to identify witches for the King. She knows it doesn’t matter if they are innocent. The King lives in terror of the consequences of his affair with a witch he later had burned. His solution is to kill all living witches. A witch a day keeps his fate away. His need is greater than the number of available witches. But when the scholar impulsively shelters an exhausted vagabond new possibilities open up.
Difficult to describe how Birds figure in this story without revealing too much. I’ll just say birds represent a magical element which can tip the balance of the scholar’s duty to her King and her dreams of a better future. It can go either way but neither choice is free from danger. This adds paranoia but also more meaning to her life. An uncomfortable yet exhilarating situation. How best to resolve it?
Heavy Reprises of a Dark Berceuse – by Priya Sridhar
Vidame Shrike, an evil sorceress, rules the land. Her pet-Warlord Tanager is sent to bring the composer Starling to the court. Since terror is so important a bonding agent, Tanager has his fire birds destroy the venerable old music school and everyone within it. This is the price Starling pays for winning a court audition. From now on every fresh composition must be equally pleasing to the Queen. The pressure is on.
This is the third story in a row dealing with abuse of power by absolute rulers. Makes me wonder if the notorious “pecking order” common to all birds subconsciously influenced all the writers submitting stories for this issue. Another element in common with all three stories is the conundrum of successful servitude. The price of failure can be death. But the better you serve, the more precarious your position. For instance, Stalin was particularly keen on purging those who had proved their loyalty. No fool he. The same applies in a fantasy kingdom (which is pretty much what real dictatorships actually are, now that I think about it).
However, Tanager is no Beria to Shrike’s Stalin. Instead of an NKVD he employs a legion of magical firebirds which, while equally deadly, is far more beautiful and poetic a concept. I have the impression Shrike and Tanager are addicted to the beauty of the destruction they unleash. An intriguing concept. Possibly the whole point of the story.
(By the way, a berceuse is a gentle, soothing lullaby.)
Report on the Wren Queen’s Dementia – by Rhonda Eikamp
A bird as big as a human lives with every person. At night they crawl upon their human and share their dreams which, for the human, becomes a compulsion. No matter what the goal, you have to at least try to accomplish it. Maybe you are instructed to write a novel. Maybe to become a serial killer. Always you must obey.
In this story one woman longs to break away from her lover’s compulsions. Another is horrified to learn her brilliant, well-adjusted son has been ordered to do something against his nature. Both frantically seek solutions.
This story is about servitude of a different sort, about being victimized by psychological disorders which compel behaviour beyond rational logic. It doesn’t explore the “why?” of the matter. After all, the nature of the mind and how easily it betrays itself remains an arena of neverending debate and argument with no resolution in sight. I see this story as being about the “what” of self-victimization, an overwhelming portrait of inevitable and uncontrollable impulse. How do you defeat such a thing? About as easily as stopping a large eagle clawing its way up the length of your paralysed body.
Bit of a downer this one. The previous three stories describe the nightmarish nature of extreme politics (in my opinion). This one explores the nature of nightmare itself. The phrase “Monsters from the Id” springs to mind. I once saw Forbidden Planet projected at U.B.C. and the hip and cool students in the classroom laughed at the concept. Live long enough, and you learn all about your personal monsters at first hand sooner or later. In the context of this story we all have a giant bird standing in a corner somewhere in our house. Obey it, placate it, distract it, or ignore it, are pretty much the only options in life. So much depends on our choice of action. And no matter what choice you make, results are never guaranteed. I guess that’s why the story is sub headed “Content warning for suicide.” Not for the vulnerable.
Powerful story, impactful, but I wouldn’t call it entertaining. Avoid it if you’re not in an objective frame of mind. (And now I’m thinking my allergy to birds is a useful thing.)
The House of the Camphor – by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh
A three-legged crow who cannot be ignored leads Tsubomi and her young daughter Tomie to the House of Camphor, a place of refuge for orphaned children rescued from the misery of bomb-dead Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of the war’s end.
The children have led a hardened, cruel life almost impossible to imagine. Their hearts are filled with anger and hatred. In the midst of the house is a fire-blackened stump of a Camphor tree to which they nail their curses and memories. An act of contrition or catharsis? Or something worse?
There is some very fine and meaningful poems included in the text. A very Japanese method of conveying subtle yet important points as in, for example, the travel diary The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho, my favourite Japanese Poet.
In the story a resident Mynah bird speaks with the voices of the dead. Not as cheerful as it sounds. The Japanese people suffered terribly in the later stages of the war, and the suffering, mostly poverty and hunger, persisted for years afterward. This story reflects that suffering, and the associated bitterness. Nothing to do with the larger picture so cheerfully argued over by armchair theorists even today, it focuses on the direct experiences of a small number of people.
The resolution of this story is profoundly spiritual, no doubt dependent on aspects of Japanese folklore unknown to me, or it can be interpreted in psychological terms. Either way it is deeply disturbing. One point clearly made. War is not kind to anyone, least of all children.
The Capacity to Serve – by Simon Christiansen
It is the future. A young chap has a grandmother who owns two Emperor Penguins named Martin and Copernicus. They shuffle about searching for fish. The young fellow finds them useless and boring, so he majors in bio-modification and converts them into useful servants. His fortune is made.
As usual, technological development produces unexpected consequences. At one level this is a light-hearted parody of the difficulties in finding adequate hired help. At another, a reflection of Seneca’s warning that slaves are not just mute furniture. Lesson to be learned? Never take any employee for granted, even if they are not human. An amusing story in welcome contrast to the poetic but dark tale preceding it.
The Litany of Feathers – by Sharon J. Gochenour
Birds have awakened to memories of former greatness. They prey on humans and build temples of human bones. Some, like Thunderbolt the Great Turkey, simply burst from the bushes to attack and dismember unwary cyclists. Others, perhaps more clever, open stores in abandoned malls that attract credulous humans with fantastic deals. Everywhere humans are sacrificed to the twelve Great Eggs brought by the prophet Cassowarius. Then the Great Eggs begin to hatch.
Obviously this is fantasy leaning towards fable, I guess. Being literal-minded, I have some difficulty trying to figure out what is going on other than “shoe is on the other foot” entertainment. Given that many human victims stare helplessly like birds transfixed by the sight of a snake it could be there is some message about our tendency to be unable to solve our problems unless we snap out of our self-pity, but that’s probably reaching too far. Could be a piece of whimsy for its own sake like the drawings of animals performing human tasks which some ancient Egyptian artists drew on handy pottery shards. Or maybe it is inspired by early cartoon animation from the 1920s. Certainly the story would make a great animated cartoon, though rather nastier than the more modern Claymation Chicken Run of 2,000. I don’t know. It’s kinda fun in a macabre way, whatever its intent. Interesting read.
Wite Cro – by Natasha C. Calder
Every “darc o’tha nu moon” the birds hold “a parlyamen” in “tha Haf-Wuds” in “tha rustid bones o metal beests tha had longsins gon gon gon fram th’earth.” They take turns speaking, and the winner receives tribute from all. The white crow has never won. He’s very frustrated.
Definitely a story where technique overwhelms. Very much the stained-glass school of writing. I prefer the plain-glass style where you see clear through the technique to the story beyond. An entire story in simplified spelling is quite an obstacle at first. However, I found that reading the story out loud rendered the story easily comprehensible. It is the kind of fable which should be read out loud. Not a surprise to learn the author has a M.Phil in Medieval literature. Actually, the story feels quite ancient, as old as Aesop’s Fables. The story is that iconic. And dark. Sad, too. Ultimately reads like a genuine piece of folklore. Impressive. Once the reader gets past the technique.
Shaman – by Damien Mckeating
The Raven people are being led by an elderly woman shaman through bitter cold and snow and ice toward a promised land she can see clearly when her spirit flies ahead as a Raven. But with every step closer the storm of winter grows wilder and more and more members of the tribe succumb to the cold. Unfortunately, the strongest warrior has the most doubts about her ability to lead.
Clues in the text indicate this is a prehistoric tribe struggling across the ice-age land bridge from Continental Europe to what would ultimately become the British Isles. No matter. The story is apropos to any northern prehistoric wandering. What intrigues me is an aspect of Shamanism I was previously unaware of. Is it something original to the author or a subtle detail of tradition not normally included in Shaman fiction? I don’t know. But it makes for a consistent and tidy story where everything falls into place for an unexpected ending. Neat trick.
Kairo’s Flock – by Avra Margariti
Kairo is a winged man given to overgrooming his feathers. Much like the depressed flock of Falcons he keeps. And the Bull-Man keeps taunting him, threatening him. He feels stuck in a hopeless rut. How to escape? Can he?
This dream-like fantasy appears to combine H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau with the Greek legends of Daedalus and Icarus, and the Minotaur within his labyrinth. Someday it might be viewed as science fiction, given future possibilities of inter-species body modification, but really it is a classic exercise in the price of hubris. An ancient theme, but forever topical and relevant. I always enjoy a fresh take on Greek myths and this story is quite original. Makes me feel a bit itchy though. Keep thinking I need to scratch my shoulders. One shouldn’t identify too closely with a Bird-Man. Messier than your average bachelor. Nothing to do with the story, but I do wind up wondering about the grooming habits of Angels. Feathers be a lot of work.
City of Wings and Song – by Sara Norja
The city of Mereveh is renowned for its Market of Wings where literally thousands of songbirds are for sale. Allegedly they sing in praise of King Reia. The city’s magic, by the King’s order, is used exclusively to attract and imprison birds, and no longer to control flood waters or ensure prosperity. The city suffers, though the rich do not. The birds suffer, all of them, and demand a songwalker come and save them. Thus the poet Bright Talirr enters the city. The moment they open their mouth they are thrown in prison. Not an auspicious start.
The plight of the birds strikes me as the most important problem to solve, and throwing in questions of social inequality among men seems an unnecessary distraction. Then again, authoritarian regimes tend to keep people in cages of one kind or another, so perhaps the birds and the lower orders of people, all being victims of royal whim and abuse, are simply two sides of the same coin. How do you get tyrants to stop being tyrants? It’s a bit like trying to get a gambler to stop gambling, or an alcoholic to give up drinking. Being a tyrant is highly addictive. Talirr has a formidable problem to deal with.
Over-the-top villains are always fun in movies and literature. In real life tyrants are no fun at all. The cynic in me notes they tend to stay in power, quite contentedly abusing people and destroying their dreams, until overthrown, forced into exile, or killed. I can’t think of a single tyrant, apart from Sulla, who voluntarily retired. The task facing Talirr strikes me as unachievable.
Then again, the prospect of thousands of cages being thrown open, their occupants suddenly free to escape, is immensely appealing to just about every sane person. As an exercise in symbolism and metaphor concerning the desire for freedom, the story works. The reader wants Talirr to succeed. But as a practical matter in the real world of politics, a conflict of magic against magic amounts to little more than wish fulfillment fantasy. But hey, that’s what this story is all about, so okay. No problem. Good for what it is.
This double-issue experiment works quite well. Not only is the quality of writing quite high, all the art is rather splendid and striking. The concept of inserting an appropriate full page colour piece in each story is fully justified. None of them are mere fillos as each is outstanding in its own way as per the technique and style of the individual artists. Art lovers can look forward to issues of the magazine as much as the readers. In that respect Lackington’s is unique. Very high standards indeed.
Check it out at: < Lackington’s issue 20 >