Edited by Julie E. Czerneda
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
It seems every town has an old woman whose house is discovered to be home to a multitude of cats. Catherine Dybiec Holm looks at this phenomenon from the point of view of a feral cat who seneses something wrong with the home and is able to use limited telepathy in “House of Cats.” Kali Ma, uses her abilities to try to secure the release of all the cats being kept in the house. The story ends with hints of hope, but it seems like the tale should have been told in a more horrific manner than Holm elected to use.
“Mountain Challenge,” by John Mierau is a look at the competing world views of two species, wolves, as represented by Aleyku, and dragons, in the form of Varus. Mierau created a draconic culture which is as solitary as a wolf is a pack animal. In the standoff between Varus and Aleyku, the wolf questions every aspect of dragonkind as he not only attempts to save his own life, but also to make the dragon think about why it does what it does.
Symbiotic pairings are common in fantasy novels, but less common is the scenario explored by Doranna Durgin in “Just Hanah.” Although paired for a significant period of time, Hanah and her canine partner, Sharlie, appear to be unable to communicate in the way symbiotic partners should and Hanah is at the point of despair that Sharlie will ever find her voice. The situation is not quite what Hanah believes it to be, however. Durgin’s story is interesting, but her decision to tell the tale from Hanah’s point of view lacks the tension that should have been pervasive in the story.
As much as any pet, the characters from a beloved book can be someone’s constant companions. Matt Walker uses this idea in “The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake.” On a whim, Michael, a young boy living a lonely life, picks up some old books he had enjoyed when younger. In re-reading them, he not only discovers favorite characters, but also the magic reading presents. Walker manages to capture the feelings engendered by the revisitation to seminal childhood stories.
Jay Lake explores Wanderlust in “Eggs for Dinner.” The men in the Laing family all suffer from it while the women stay behind. Courtenay, a sophomore in high school, sees how staying at home and forming a routine has destroyed her mother and turned her grandmother into a strong believer in Jesus. Courtenay decides neither role is right for her and she would rather follow in her grandfather and father’s footsteps until she comes face to face with a speaking salmon which may be the cause of the Wanderlust.
John C. Bunnell makes use of Native American legend with “Dances with Coyotes,” in which a college prom goes off on a strange tangent as Aaron Morris attends as part of his spirit quest and his date, Elena, learns about it. Aaron’s spirit, Koyoda Speelyi, a version of the Trickster god, tries to play the two off against each other, and use them, to ensure that Aaron’s life goes the way Koyoda desires. Bunnell raises interesting questions about motives and results as neither Aaron or Elena want to do what Koyoda requests, even if they agree with his ultimate goals.
“Riverkin” is a return to the old West by K.D. Wentworth who looks at a recently orphaned boy whose only asset is a potentially worthless mining stake. Befriended by otters, Luke Hamlin finds himself in possession of a large gold nugget, which only adds to the problems for the friendless boy as his ownership is questioned by the people in town and he attracts the attention of robbers. Wentworth does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the period and the helplessness of the young boy, suddenly on his own.
When Eda died, her friend Rezzi acquired Eda’s familiar in Fran LaPlaca’s “Wings to Fly.” Although the bird reminds Rezzi of her late friend, she has no interest in having a familiar until the bird, who she names Sanchez, begins to show Rezzi the knowledge that Eda had acquired and is her true legacy. LaPlaca’s set up is interesting, but could have been a stronger story if she had fleshed it out a little more.
In “Last of Her Kind,” Janny Wurts attempts an interesting style of story telling. Saddling herself with a touched, perhaps mute, protagonist, the story is told from the points of view of other characters as Katlynne moves through their lives. Each of these characters imbues Katlynne’s actions with their own expectations, which eventually causes her final narrator, Lui, to learn the dangers of projections as well as a surprise about his own fate. Wurts manages to pull the style off well, although it isn’t clear how much of the first part of the story was really necessary.
Sara Jane Elliott’s “Blood Ties” is the longest story in Fantastic Companions and still feels like it is merely the backstory for a much longer work, either a novel or a series of linked stories. Elliott sets a variety of narrative hooks throughout her story of Princess Kayla Cestril Aliyah t’Meladon. The basic scenario is of a princess who doesn’t quite fit in with her family. The youngest of numerous children, she desires to learn swordplay and also has an interest in some aspects of her family history. In contrast to those traits, she isn’t studious and has a pacifistic streak which is at odds with her family, her times, and her desire to learn to use a sword. Elliott makes little attempt to square away these dichotomies and the Princess’s modern sensibilities tend to detract from the story. Nevertheless, Elliott’s world as a whole is well-realized and in spite of, or perhaps because of, the contradictions in Kayla’s character the story begs for a continuation.
In “Dragon Time,” Ruth Nestvold looks at a world years after Siegfried failed to defeat Fafnir. Humans live in a strange symbiotic, and uneasy, truce with dragons which neither seems to fully understand. One day when the human wife of the King of the Dragons dies, the King of the Dragons goes insane and breaks the world clock, which is at the heart of the draco-human peace. Kati, a girl who is forbidden to repair clocks, but is permitted to on the sly by her grandfather, is called upon to try to fix the clock, and thereby restore time and peace to the world. Nestvold’s story is interesting and she creates an nicely realized Medieval German village based on the legends of the Nibelungenlied.
Janet Elizabeth Chase injects humor into “Robes and Wands,” the story of Purvis, an apprentice wizard who finds himself without a master but with a familiar. The story is enjoyable, although somewhat predictable, and, as with “Blood Ties” appears to set up either a larger work or a series of stories.
Kent Pollard’s “Uncle Ernie Was a Goat” is the story of a family of shapeshifters. However, while most of the caln remains in human form and takes on the form of black panthers, Ben’s great-uncle Ernie steadfastly remains in the shape of a goat, and has for more than thirty years. This has proven something of an embarrassment to the family. While it is clear that Pollard has worked out the background for his story, he doesn’t always, or fully, provide that background for his readers.
“A Sirius Situation” is a fabulous tale by Daniel Archambault in which the constellations come to Earth and visit Walter and Jill, an amateur astronomer and a veterinarian, respectively. While most of the stories in the book use standard science as the starting point for their fantasy, Archambault completely ignores reality in exchange for a cool idea which he manages to pull off successfully for anyone who is willing to suspends their disbelief.
In “Once Upon a Toad,” Wen Spencer looks at the dangers of taking legends too literally. With a Blight infecting the land, the wizard’s washerwoman, Norrie, goes in search of one of the heroes of yore she has read about. Traveling with Phred, a toad, the symbol of metamorphosis, Norrie learns the hard truth of those ancient stories and heroes. The story is told in the form of a quest through caverns, and Spencer does some nice things with the mountain setting in which Norrie adventures.
Although in some ways, Jane Carol Petrovich’s “The Power of Eight” is a reminder that the old ways shouldn’t necessarily be forgotten and modern ways aren’t necessarily better, the story is perhaps more a lesson that a brief encounter is capable of bringing out qualities and capabilities previously unseen. When Mikhail finds himself face to face with the legendary guardians, he relies on them as both protectors and a crutch until he is forced to make his own way in the world.
Mindy L. Klasky creates a wonderful coming of age ritual in “Darkbeast.” Throughout her childhood, whenever Ariane exhibited signs of a sin, her mother would send her to her darkbeast, as was done with all children in the village. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, it is time for Ariane to come into her womanhood and put her childhood behind her by slaying her darkbeast and ridding herself of childhood fears, rebellions, gluttonies, and other sins. Ariane, however, feels she has formed a bond with the darkbeast which has helped her through much over the years and, despite her desire to be out of her mother’s house, finds the difficulties in severing all her ties to her past.
Jim C. Hines presents an interesting look at a technological battle in “Kitemaster.” In additional to the two armies both needing specialists who can master kites, Hines also looks at the difference between amateurs and professionals and the way that even an amateur can look like a skilled specialist to someone on the outside. Driving the story is Nial, a young girl who is serving as kitemaster to the rebels in order to secure the release, or at least the life, of her brother. Unfortunately, her position winds up pitting her against the most experienced kitemaster in the Emperor’s forces and she has to deal with the rebel leader and his unrealistic expectations of her.
The final story in Fantastic Companions, Devon Monk’s “Singing Down the Sun” takes a look at a difficult part in a relationship. While many of the stories look at the beginning of a relationship, Monk examines a reunion between Jai and Sath, the latter a corn snake who disappeared for a year despite a promise of forever friendship. While Sath’s reappearance helps Jai accomplish her purpose, the sense of betrayal remains and must be addressed.
Catherine Dybiec Holm House of Cats John Mierau Mountain Challenge Doranna Durgin Just Hanah Matt Walker The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake Jay Lake Eggs for Dinner John C. Bunnell Dances with Coyotes K.D. Wentworth Riverkin Fran LaPlaca Wings to Fly Janny Wurts Last of Her Kind Sarah Jane Elliott Blood Ties Ruth Nestvold Dragon Time Janet Elizabeth Crane Robes and Wants Kent Pollard Uncle Ernie Was a Goat Daniel Archambault A Sirius Situation Wen Spencer Once Upon a Toad Jane Carol Petrovich The Power of Eight Mindy L. Klasky Darkbeast Jim C. Hines Kitemaster Devon Monk Singing Down the Sun
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