REVIEW: “The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey

Review of Dale Bailey, “The Donner Party,” Fantasy & Science Fiction 134, 1-2 (2018): 228-256 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Standback.

“The Donner Party” is amply clear about its subject material from its title, and from its first line:

Lady Donner was in ascendance the first time Mrs. Breen tasted human flesh.

In this dark Victorian story, those at the apex of high society, at the most elevated of occasions, will eat human meat — “ensouled flesh” — and thus celebrate “the divinely ordained social order.” The horror of the story is far less in the gore of genteel cannibalism itself, although that’s definitely there too. Far more, it’s in the readiness with which Mrs. Breen, and others trying to touch that apex, are willing to accept, pursue and defend the practice — assuming themselves, of course, to be considered among the cannibals, and not the cannibalized.

This is definitely not a story for the squeamish. But if you’d like to read something that will make you squirm uncontrollably, “The Donner Party” is sharp and powerful. Its tone and characters are spot on; plausibly unconscionable, resplendent in their cruel self-aggrandizement.

The story’s conclusion is not unexpected; I don’t think it’s meant to be. Rather, it’s expertly built up to — and then served alongside a final twist of the knife. Recommended.

REVIEW: “A Feather In Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review of Mary Robinette Kowal, “Jewel of the Heart,” Fantasy & Science Fiction 134, 1-2 (2018): 216-227 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Standback.

A quick, delightful caper.

Biantera was once a gentlewoman, now reduced a humble milliner — which she’d mind a whole lot less if not for her mother’s constant complaints. We immediately discover Biantera wears more than one hat:

She made damn good money as an assassin, but if her mother was upset about the supposed millinery business, Biantera could only imagine what she’d have to say about the Other job.

The constant juxtaposition between hatmaking and murder makes for great roguish fun, and Biantera’s methods are clever and refreshing. Recommended.

REVIEW: “Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes

Review of Matthew Hughes, “Jewel of the Heart,” Fantasy & Science Fiction 134, 1-2 (2018): 86-144 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Standback.

Matthew Hughes’ stories are usually colorful, pulpy, and a lot of fun. Previously, he’s written tales of Henghis Hapthorn, the sardonic discriminator; Raffalon, the overconfident rogue; and others. In his last few stories for F&SF, Hughes has been developing a new character, Baldemar, a wizard’s henchman who’s far more level-headed than the wizard he serves. Baldemar’s watchwords are caution, keen observation, and always paying what he owes.

Baldemar’s previous outing won him the attention of a powerful sentient artifact — who, in this story, plucks Baldemar away from his master, and sets him on a mission in a dream-like plane, operating on fairy-tale logic. His goal is unclear, but he is instructed to mind the difference between story and dream, and to follow his instincts.

The story is full of fun and vivid scenes — from the overbearing Helm whisking Baldemar to and fro as it pleases, to the odd, unsettling doll that becomes his companion for the quest.

That being said, it also has a very aimless feel to it. The quest is, fairly explicitly, an arbitrary one; it’s a “test” Baldemar needs to “pass,” and there isn’t really any potential for outcomes or repercussions more interesting than “pass” vs. “fail.” The dream logic is definitely dream-like, but that leaves the story feeling like a sequence of random events, with no sense of progression or significance. I found it fun and goofy and entertaining, but I just didn’t stay excited for it at full novella length.

Perhaps most disappointing, I don’t feel Hughes has found his feet with Baldemar as a character yet. I love Baldemar’s extreme soberness whenever it makes an appearance:

“I don’t suppose,” Baldemar said, “that the way out is to ask you to bring back the door?”

“No, but it’s good not to limit your thinking.”

But those instances feel few. Far more often, Baldemar is called upon to “trust his instincts,” a fairly vague instruction, which mostly winds up meaning “do some arbitrary thing that advances the plot, when the author chooses.” I’m sure that an entertainingly sober character is more challenging to write than an entertainingly flamboyant one. Hughes has managed it marvelously in previous stories, particularly in Baldemar’s introduction, “Ten Half-Pennies”. I’m sorry this one doesn’t reach the same heights, and I look forward to seeing more of Baldemar.