Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 14

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

SCHEHERAZADE #29

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Named after the storyteller of The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade has been a part of the Small Press scene for over fifteen years now, delivering a diet of stories that span the length and breadth of the fantasy genre, from the darkly gothic to the airier expanses of faery, all parcelled in an attractively produced A4 package. Changes are afoot, and editors Elizabeth and Deirdre Counihan plan to step down after #30, but in the meantime they have ‘piled the plate high with goodies’.

And the first item on that plate is The Storyteller, written and illustrated by Beth Webb. The eponymous narrator works at a historical attraction, in costume and in character, guiding round groups of children and entertaining them with stories of a bygone age. Only her tales of the Black Death are so real that she can actually cross over into that lost time, and does so in the hope of rescuing a doomed child. It’s a fascinating idea and Webb plays it straight, rejecting ambiguity and questions about her heroine’s mental state, instead giving us the strong contrast between the happy go lucky life of a modern child and the terrors faced by their Dark Ages counterpart, both strands of the story vivid and beguiling, the whole ending on a note that introduces yet other possibilities. It’s a strong opening for the issue.

Beautifully written, The Eye by Alexander Glass touches upon Greek mythology, with a young prince visiting a cave in which live three women who share a single eye, but then gives the story a more modern spin with suggestions of mental illness and child abuse, so that the reader is constantly wrong footed and forced to revise his understanding of this clever and provocative story. Mention should be made of the story’s presentation, white text on a black background and with two mouth watering illustrations by Sue Mason that bring to mind the work of Alphonse Mucha.

Cherith Baldry’s A Teacher for Tassie is somewhat more conventional fare, the tale of a young girl who has supernatural abilities (or psychic talent, if you prefer), the full scope of which are only realised when she and her healer mother are confronted by evil. The story is eminently readable, with the relationship between mother and daughter handled especially well, characterisation only falling apart near the end with a villain so clichéd you expect him to twirl his long moustache and tie our heroine to a railway track, but ultimately the tale holds no surprises, is no more than a competent reworking of familiar material. The artwork is by Julia Sexton (every story in Scheherazade is illustrated), drawings, perhaps charcoal originally, that bring the story to life and also reinforce my impression that the bad guy is really Uncle Abanazar.

Water, Fire & Ice by Anna Brock has an Amerindian feel to it, complete with a portentous and mythologizing introduction that segues into the story of twins Kat and Wolf, and the strange people they encounter while out hunting a deer. At six pages, and with minimalist illustration by Mark Concannon, this is one of the longest stories in the magazine, but I could never quite get a hold on the characters and what was taking place. There was always the feeling that you had stepped into the middle of a much larger story, that this was only an excerpt from something longer, one that didn’t quite stand on its own, with no clear cut resolution.

So what happens after the fairy tale ends? Do the prince and his beloved really live happily ever after? It’s a question that’s been asked many times before, but seldom as provocatively as in Cinderella’s New Shoes in which the in-laws visit to discuss fall out from the big night. Julia Hawkes-Moore fuses the classic tale with Shakespearian nomenclature and Imelda Marcos style OCD; the end result is witty and knowing, sexy and slightly sinister, as if Perrault had been asked to write the script for an episode of Sex and the City and make it macabre. It’s undoubtedly one of the highlights of the magazine, with some of Gerald Gaubert’s wonderfully decadent artwork to delight the jaded palate.

Tony Richards is another writer attempting to put a new spin on an old tale, this time that of Dracula. His story, By a Dark Canal, is set in Amsterdam, the tale of a young and dissolute student called Van Helsing who has an encounter with a prostitute which foreshadows the career of his later years. There’s nothing especially exciting or original here, but Richards makes a good fist of telling his story, with convincing characterisation and atmosphere, and a twist at the end which I didn’t, but really should have seen coming. Deirdre Counihan’s silhouette style illustrations perfectly complement the text.

Jennifer Dayne’s Still Yesterday has a young woman probing into the history of a famous artists’ commune of which her mother was once a member, in the hope of learning the truth about her parentage, but finding something entirely unexpected. This is an intriguing story, one where you get the sense that the author knows far more than she is prepared to reveal, and that is all to the good. The artistic impulse and temperament are well portrayed, as is the bittersweet relationship Fran has with her mother, and at the story’s heart is an original monster, a vampire of sorts that feeds on artistic talent. It’s an excellent tale, and the illustrations by Shani Bean, with their suggestions of linocut, capture its feel perfectly.

Fairy Pipes by Gus Smith introduces a touch of humour into the proceedings, as a feisty fairy queen turns up on a building site and recruits Bob to come back and fix the plumbing in fairyland. It’s a tongue in cheek tale, but with a serious point being made as to who takes care of the day to day things in the land of the lotus eaters. The story is informed by a delightful sense of whimsy and there is an agreeable twist at the end, while Sue Mason returns for a second stint as artist, providing some appropriately ethereal imagery.

Science Fiction vies with absurdity in the novel Food for Thought by Glenn Stevens, when a man awakes to find himself in a world where people incubate their own food. It’s a bizarre concept, and the author shows considerable chutzpah in his attempts to make all of this credible, maintaining a deadpan tone throughout, and ending on a sombre note with the narrator’s realisation that his ‘actual’ life back in the ‘real’ world was every bit as absurd. By way of illustration, Veronique St Juste provides a frieze of comestibles.

Last in to bat, and another highlight of the magazine, is The Baby With The Golden Eyes by Martin McGrath, in which an elderly couple have their desire for a child granted by the discovery of a baby under a bush, but of course the child has to be returned to its rightful parents. On the surface of it, there’s not much to this story, but it scores through the matter of fact narration that treats the miraculous as if such things are everyday occurrences and the keenness of the emotions felt by the two leads, Maire and Seamus, their longing for a child and the realisation that, of necessity, the happiness it brings is ephemeral. Julia Sexton’s illustrations are just right for the family album.

On the non-fiction side of things, there’s an interview with author Robin Hobb that is informative and entertaining, incorporating a personal retrospective of Hobb’s career by interviewer Mary O’Keefe, albeit I always get a bit wary when some of the answers in interviews are longer than the questions, as happens here at least once.

In conclusion, Scheherazade is a beautifully produced magazine that lays on a fine selection of dishes for the reader to devour, and if not everything is to your taste there should certainly be enough to satisfy the appetite.

Scheherazade edited by Elizabeth Counihan,  A4, 64pp, £3.50.

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