REVIEWS: RIVERDALE and FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION (Jan-Feb 2017) 

Figure 1 – Archie Andrews

Archie Andrews (Archie from the comics, Figure 1) is even older than I am; he first appeared in PEP Comics in 1941 (at least, according to Wikipedia). The Archie comic books have been a staple since then; I still see them in digest size at the grocery stores. Yes, I used to read them when I was younger—they’re inoffensive (especially if you’re white middle-class), have simple plotlines and pretty consistent characters. Of course, when I was much younger, I also used to read Little Lulu and a bunch of other non-superhero comics; because my mother was pretty much dead set against comics (“Batman and Robin are queer (sic), and Superman is promoting the Nazi “Ubermensch” idea,” was a common theme when comics were brought up in the Fahnestalk household. When I hit junior high, I think it was, I was allowed some comics, inoffensive ones, which accounts for my reading matter when it comes to what Eastern Canadians call “bandes dessinées”; then I think she gave up caring. Of course, it was a different time—the world has changed a lot, and some of those attitudes belong in the junkheap of history. A common topic in junior high was “which one is hotter, Betty or Veronica?” The cast of characters was pretty stable: you had Archie Andrews, redhead; Betty Cooper, blonde; Veronica Lodge, black-haired; Jughead (who had a long nose and wore a silly hat); Reggie, Archie’s nemesis; Moose, giant football player; and a host of supporting characters. Later, long after I stopped reading, they added Kevin, gay friend, and the Blossom Twins, Cheryl and Jason. Oh, yeah, and Josie and the Pussycats, musicians. Aside from knowing that, I totally lost touch with the Archie world; I didn’t even know that one of the comics actually killed Archie off! (I should have expected it; even Superman has died. They don’t make death like they used to, I guess.)

Figure 2 – Riverdale Cast (from left) Veronica, Betty, Josie, Jughead, Cheryl, Archie

Riverdale is promised to be edgy and a bit dark; the central focus (at least, so far) is not, as you might think, the relationships among Archie, Betty and Veronica, but on the unsolved murder of one of the comic’s characters. (I won’t say whom at this point.) They’ve made Mr. Lodge a bad guy (at least for now), and his wife and daughter have taken refuge from him in Riverdale—in the comics the whole family lives there; in the series, the wife and daughter move to Riverdale from New York. Reggie Mantle, Archie’s nemesis, is now Asian—which is fine; the comic was pretty much lily-white; since I haven’t read it for years I’m not sure whether Josie was originally Black, but she is now. (Wasn’t there a movie not terribly long ago? Was she white then?) The comic book, as I remember, revolved around the shifting relationships among Archie, Betty and Veronica—with Reggie occasionally popping into the dynamic—in a high-school context. In the TV series, the relationships seem to have shifted a bit; Veronica—rather than being a rival for Archie’s affection—seems to be pushing him towards Betty; Archie is involved with someone else at the school, and that leads into the mystery part of the series. I wasn’t particularly taken with it; that’s probably because I’m older and was never terribly involved with the comic. Cheryl, the so-called Queen Bee of the school, is annoying—but then I think she’s supposed to be; she reminds me of nothing so much as someone from the spoof series Scream Queens. You might find it cool and watchable; I’m not that impressed. I have too many better series to watch—anyone seen Tom Hardy in Taboo? Wow!—but a teenage soap-opera murder mystery might just be up your alley. I can say I didn’t really dislike it. I’d give it a couple of ¤’s. Rating: ¤¤.

Figure 3 – Jan-Feb 2017 F&SF cover by Charles Vess

Once again I’m privileged to review the bimonthly Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by C.C. Finlay; this is the January-February issue. The cover is by Charles Vess, illustrating Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s story, “Vinegar and Cinnamon.” Next year will mark 25 years that Nina’s been appearing in F&SF, and this story holds up her reputation. It’s a tale of a magical transformation. Often in a Hoffman story or book, the protagonist has some kind of magic; she (usually, but not always) belongs to a magical family or clan that hides in plain sight among the unmagic folk. This particular story gives us glimpses of a world where magic is commonplace; where a farm might grow bounceback, spellstarter, stingweed or dragon brain; where a younger sister—like Maura, in this story—might accidentally cast a spell on Sam, the protagonist, who has no magic of his own, and turn him into a rat. Part of the charm of Nina’s writing, for me, is that she examines just about every facet of Sam’s being a rat, from the way his whiskers give him a 3-D brain picture of what they touch, to the way his ears, nose and whiskers help give him a complete sense of his surroundings, complete with scents (of vinegar and cinnamon, for example.) What Sam encounters as a rat, during the time his family—except for his guilty sister—doesn’t know he is one, is delightfully delineated. A fun story, and recommended. Rating: 4 thingies: ¤¤¤¤.

In “Homecoming,” Rachel Pollack brings us her fourth, and longest, Jack Shade story in F&SF—the previous ones were published in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Jack Shade is a private investigator, occultist, and shaman; I can’t remember having read one before. When Jack gives his business card to someone and they return it with a request for help, Jack is bound to help them, through what he calls a “Guest,” but which sounds like a geas to me. A woman, Carole Acker, comes to Jack to tell him she feels as if part of her soul is missing, and she wants to hire him to help her. Because of the “Guest,” Jack is compelled to acquiesce, and begins tracing the missing part. Several times during the quest, Jack is told by those he encounters that he must stop; that he doesn’t know what he’s doing—but because of the Guest, he has to continue, and eventually brings Carole the missing part. It is then revealed that he shouldn’t have done that… the nay-sayers were right. Jack has three days to undo what he has done, or something extremely bad will happen. Pollack has created a world behind a world; in a New York that sounds just like our New York, there are shamans, night creatures and gangsters of this world and that one. Without being anything like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, this reminds me of that type of fiction. I enjoyed it. Rating: a solid ¤¤¤ plus.

“Kingship,” by Mary Soon Lee, is a very short poem. I liked it, but I’m not sure I really got the point. I’m not really qualified to judge poetry, I think. So I won’t rate it.

“The Regression Test,” by Wole Talabi, is about AIs; Talabi is an engineer whose work in fluid dynamics has sparked this idea of human dynamics. His descriptions are very nice; I can’t help shuddering as I think of a room furnished in SlatTex, something designed to make the walls and furniture integrated, but looking like “white leper skin.” Ugh. The story’s well written, but I found it—except for the African-ness of it; the names (I really like African names) used—fairly predictable. But maybe that’s my experience talking. I’d rate it a solid ¤¤ plus.

Marc Laidlaw, in “Wetherfell’s Reef Runics,” has created a fictional bookstore, (but not one of SF/F’s favourite things: a magical  one) on the fictional Hawaiian island of Taui. It’s not the bookstore that’s magical, it’s what comes into the bookstore… a book, if you haven’t already guessed that. Laidlaw overlays this story with a certain amount of Hawaiian jargon—pau (done); aloha (hello/goodbye); mahalo (thanks); and so on. What follows is, in some senses, absolutely Lovecraftian, although couched in modern language with no appearances of the words “eldritch” or “squamous” or any other of HPL’s favourites. I think you’ll like this one if you’re at all interested in that sort of thing. Rating: ¤¤¤ plus.

“There Used to be Olive Trees,” by Rich Larson, is a tale of Andalusia—but not the familiar southern part of Spain. This Andalusia is in the future—and the majority of the population lives in Towns, while out on the campo live the wilders, amid the scuttling scorpions—while the gods thunder overhead. Valentin wants to be a Prophet—one who talks to the machines (the gods)—but he’s failed the Test three times, and may not live through a fourth test. He has the implant that lets him talk to the gods, but they don’t necessarily want to talk back. Because of the test, Valentin is escaping from the Town, but when he falls asleep he is captured by a wilder. I liked the setting and the characters, and thought this one was well written. Rating: A solid ¤¤¤ plus.

“On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies,” by Debbie Urbanski (Whew! A mouthful of a title!) takes a familiar fantasy trope and turns it into something she’s quite familiar with as the parent of an autistic child, namely a bureaucratic reaction. What do you do if your child is replaced by a “fairy child”? There is a government pamphlet on this; it may or may not help. Because it’s well written, I’ll give it a ¤¤¤ minus. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it—it left me a bit depressed, is all.)

Robert Reed, author of “Dunnage for the Soul,” is someone I met at the one of the first Writers of the Future get-togethers at Norwescon, back in ’86 or so; he’d just become the first Grand Prize winner, if memory serves. He has since written lots and lots and garnered much acclaim, including a Hugo. What is “dunnage,” you ask? According to Reed, dunnage is “…[c]racked plywood, warped timber, or that knotty board rescued from the trash heap. That’s dunnage, the waste used to protect whatever is precious….”; in the case of this story, we’re talking about PES, or Persistent Electrical Signatures, or (for short)—“souls,” and the people who are born without them. The head is a shell, to protect the PES, and those who have none, are dunnage. The rest of the story flows from there. I can’t say too much, but it’s logical, if rather dismaying. Well written, but not a pleasant story. Maybe you’ll like it better than I did; maybe it’s a better story than I thought it was—after all, my reviews are based (mostly) on personal taste, not whether something is a tale for the ages. Rating: ¤¤¤.

There’s more in this issue; it’s a good one. But as always, I like to leave a little something for you, the reader, to discover. My overall rating—not determined mathematically, but just by me—for this issue is a solid three-plus doohickeys: ¤¤¤ plus!

If you have any comment on this week’s column, you can comment here, or you can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Whether you liked this column or not, your comments are all welcome. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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