Jay Barnson presents us with this story of a gateway linking turn of the twentieth century earth with a far flung alien world populated by almost humans. Our hero, Jesse, had been marooned on a small island somewhere in the British Empire and survived for six months by sheltering within a small village on the alien side of the gateway. His forcible exile from earth ends when a British ship happens past the island, but his rescue only complicates his life. The brash and cocksure British Naval officers do what comes naturally and assume that the alien world is ready for British intervention, which triggers a confrontation with the local powers. Those powers consist of a forbidden temple operated by a secretive and cocksure priesthood.
Two decades of exposure to historically illiterate fiction and literary criticism has taught me to raise shields whenever British officers show up in a new world scenario like this. Barnson plays with the reader for a bit, setting up the standard, “British colonials learn their lesson,” style tale, but at the last moment, he surprises you by presenting the British as stoic and heroic in their own fashion. They might be arrogant, but not without reason, and their arrogance is leavened with more than a touch of humanity.
If the story has one weakness, it’s that the alien world feels small. For all that the story takes place millions of light years away from earth and contains alien splendors and threats, in the end it amounts to nothing more than two villages and a temple. Understandably for a short story, these are all that are required for a short story, but Barnson misses a number of chances to make the world feel much larger with a few simple additions – nothing big, just a reference here, a hint at the larger world there, and it would have made the alien planet feel more like a full world. Barnson has the chops for this – his description of the world’s skies and flora and fauna are brief, but they convey a depth and feel of alien beauty that is as touching as it is terse.
The Last Dues Owed
Ancient Egypt stands as a much underserved fantasy setting. As the cradle of Western Civilization, its ways are just familiar enough to need no explanation. Readers know of the centuries long cycles of their histories, the roles of cats in their mythology, and the importance of the Nile as life-bringer. At the same time, the millennia that separates us means that all of these things bear slight twists that provide a newness and oddness that evokes a mystery and magic all of its own.
Christine Lucas takes full advantage of this strange yet familiar setting in The Last Dues Owed. In it, a battle between assassins dispatched by rival priesthoods opens up into something far more meaningful than a simple back-alley brawl. In a brilliant display of writing, Lucas uses the fight to show the character of the combatants and slowly reveal their long backstory. At the fight’s conclusion, the tale shifts to a rescue mission that takes on greater import thanks to the patience and restraint Lucas uses in allowing the story to unfold at its own pace.
A fight. A rescue. Some magic and mystery. A satisfying (if not entirely happy) ending. The world needs more stories like The Last Dues Owed.