Review: Semaphore Anthology 2009, ed. Marie Hodgkinson

semaphore 2009 cover copy

(Semaphore Magazine 2009: ISSN: 1174-2283)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, May 2010)

Semaphore Magazine is a quarterly speculative fiction webzine from New Zealand, featuring both local and overseas authors. Now in its third year, the webzine also releases an annual print anthology, in paperback, containing some of the previous year’s online content. The anthology, like the magazine, is stylishly assembled – editor Marie Hodgkinson, who shares story selection duties with two associates, has an evident flair for graphic design. I could quibble about the layout of text – in which the spacing between paragraphs can give some pages, particularly those dominated by dialogue, a very sparse appearance – but it would be very difficult to fault other aspects of the package. The anthology, like the magazine is produced on a limited budget, but with a painstaking eye to detail and design.

So much for the look of the thing. The 2009 anthology contains three poems, on which I don’t feel competent to comment in a meaningful fashion (except to note that Camille Alexa’s ‘Dear Zombie” is a triumph), and thirteen stories.

‘Corrigan’s Exchange’ by Ripley Patton sees Marty, a young mother struggling with a baby who’s difficult to love, turning in desperation to a radical psychologist, Dr Corrigan French, for help. Marty’s plight is delicately handled, the tension implicit in the situation – for Dr French’s ‘therapy’ may well see Marty lose her infant son – builds naturally. It’s a satisfying, somewhat provocative story.

Where Patton’s story hints at, and makes play with, the tropes of Faerie, Janni Lee Simner’s ‘Lost or Forgotten’ embraces them more wholeheartedly. It’s a story distanced somewhat from the reader by its interleaving of alternating timelines, and this for me lessened its impact. But it resonates, and hits several of the right notes, closing with an appropriately bittersweet resolution.

Robert S. Tyler’s ‘The Sideways Man’ bears some parallels with the preceding story: the deliberate jumbling of sequences, the sense of an inevitable, mysterious, impending loss. Simon and Janelle are in love, but it cannot last forever, because Simon is fated to experience the world in a quite different way to Janelle. One of the anthology’s longest stories, Tyler’s contribution is a definite highlight.

‘Dick Whittington’s Blues’, by Grant Stone, gives us a reworking of sorts of the feline-themed pantomime hinted by the title. Richard, a kiwi on OE in London, has fallen on hard times – he’s broken up with Sarah, is out of work, and almost out of money. But when his luck improves, there’s nonetheless something about the transformation that doesn’t sit right with him. Stone is one of the most promising emerging voices in NZ speculative fiction, and this story provides a good illustration of his talents.

‘On The Road to Catmanduel’, by S. Arthur Yeats, continues the feline theme, but less successfully. There are several interesting touches to this story, but they don’t properly gel: and while I generally appreciate playfulness in a storyline, this tale of hitchikerly animosity (so to speak) felt somewhat inconsequential and confused.

Kevin Brown’s ‘Invisible Bullets’ is a brutalist brawl of a story, accreted from punch and counterpunch of disappointment, struggle, and personal betrayal in the hinted backstory of once-were-orphans Warren and his friend. It’s not a story that invites warmth, and the voice of the first-person narrator had, to my mind, a quite distancing effect. It’s vivid, a little muddled, and distinctly unsettling.

‘To Find a Princess’, by Michelle Fee, returns us to traditionalist fairy-tales, but with a modernist and mordant edge. Calvin and his fox companion Belvedere seek a princess, a purpose, a sense of meaning: do they find them? In a sense, they do, but it’s not the discovery that Calvin at least had been expecting.

Kate Smith’s ‘Bombshell’ opens with some wonderfully-composed scene setting and delicious characterisation, but appears to stumble with the introduction of plot: the delineation of crucial background information through dialogue feels, to my mind, stilted. Which is a shame, because the story itself is solid, and Smith’s writing (for the most part) has a marvellous wry fluency: having not felt exactly satisfied by some aspects of this story, I nonetheless feel motivated to seek out other examples of her work.

‘A Madder Scientist’, by Stuart Sharp, is a carelessly whimsical poke at the more clichéd conventions of Frankenstein and his colleagues. Edwin stands to inherit his mad uncle’s wealth, but only if he can complete the old man’s unfinished Great Work. There are few surprises here, but I don’t think that’s a shortcoming: it’s a bubbly and warmly amusing story, with some enviably funny remarks woven into the mix, and a satisfying denouement.

Therese Arkenberg’s ‘The Gallows Wife’ again returns us to the tropes of traditional fantasy. Rosemarie is doomed to suffer a loveless marriage to the repulsive Lord Rhoven, unless she can persuade her father to look upon the arrangement with disfavour … or unless she places her dilemma in the hands of the local witch-woman. But magical solutions, however effective they may be, are seldom straightforward, and Rosemarie struggles with the consequences of her actions in a solid and rewarding story.

‘Swipe’, by Rachel Zakuta, is the anthology’s longest work, and one of the best. I have a particular fondness for noir-tinged SF/detection crossovers, and ‘Swipe’ is an excellent example of the subgenre, as two mid-22nd century detectives strive to piece together the events leading up to the memory-swiping of a middle-aged journalist. There are echoes of Larry Niven’s Gil Hamilton future-detection stories in this piece, but Zakuta’s story very definitely stands on its own merits, with the painstaking unveiling of a well-thought-out and plausible crime. With crisp plotting and some utterly marvellous worldbuilding, this is very probably my favourite story in the anthology.

‘Long Way Home’, by K. C. Shaw, offers more SF, this time within a contemporary setting, as film-buff uni students Pierce and William discover a mysterious artefact with the ability to ‘remember’ forgotten movie images. The artefact has fallen, innocently enough, into their hands, but what should they do with it?

Stuart Sharp returns to close out the anthology with ‘The Apocalypse Factor’. Not the volume’s strongest story – Sharp’s other tale here, ‘A Madder Scientist’, is to my mind a better illustration of his abilities – ‘Factor’ nonetheless provides an entirely fitting conclusion to the book, dealing as it does with an audition where the focus is very much on Last Things of one form or another.

As a representation of Semaphore Magazine‘s content, this anthology suggests a slant towards fantasy themes, ranging from the traditional to the contemporary in setting. There’s some SF as well (I personally would have liked more, but tastes differ), and while not every story has ‘Winner’ written all over it, there’s a general distribution from the competent to the compelling. My major criticism of the anthology’s (and by extension, the magazine’s) content is not with the stories themselves, but in the frustrating lack of biographical details on the assembled authors. Several of the writers within the anthology were entirely new to me, and I would have welcomed indications of their publication histories, websites, and the like. It seems to me that one of the most useful purposes of short-fiction anthologies and magazines is to introduce writers to a new audience, but the introduction just isn’t complete without some useful background detail.

But please don’t let the lack of biographical context put you off. As one of the few outlets for short speculative fiction within the Land of the Long White Cloud, Semaphore is definitely worthy of support; more than that, most of the stories in the anthology are definitely worth reading. If you haven’t yet taken the time to check out Semaphore, I’d recommend you rectify that. Check out www.semaphoremagazine.com.

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2010)

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