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TaleBones, Fall 1999
TaleBones, Fall 1999
Talebones is the quarterly in-house magazine of Fairwood Press, featuring dark science fiction and dark fantasy from established and up-and-coming writers. It is fiction with a dark slant, stories and poems with punch -- sometimes experimental or psychological, sometimes laced with black humour.

TaleBones Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John O'Neill

As we were putting the finishing touches on FictionHome last spring, in celebration of the many new magazines that had joined the SF Site, I took serious stock of the entire short fiction market for the first time in years. Despite the general cloud of gloom that surrounds this topic in fan discussions, the landscape didn't look so bad at all. The industry's flagship publications, such as Asimov's SF and F&SF, were humming along well enough, and there was even a bumper crop of new magazines vying for my attention. In fact there were too many -- most with dangerously erratic publication schedules -- to risk my scant subscription funds on; a fact I lamented to Dave Truesdale, erstwhile editor of Tangent and Tangent Online.

"Have a look at TaleBones," Dave suggested flatly. "You'll change your mind."

I have, and I did. TaleBones is a thoroughly impressive piece of work -- with solid fiction, professional layout and design, and excellent line art. Editors Patrick and Honna Swenson not only know how to assemble top-quality work, they know how to package it: in every respect TaleBones feels professional, with beautiful covers, articulate contributor notes, quality paper, and more. There are even cartoons. Best of all, the Swenson's aren't just in it until the trust fund runs out -- TaleBones is serious business, appearing every quarter for the last half-decade, with 17 issues under their belt already. That alone makes it one of the most successful new genre publications of the last 10 years.

Still, reliable publication isn't the highest criterion for success. What it comes down to are the contributors and the stories, and here TaleBones delivers in spades. In the last few issues it has published terrific original material by Patrick O'Leary (his first published story), Hugh Cook, Bruce Holland Rogers, Robert N. Stephenson, Don D'Ammassa, James Van Pelt, Mark McLaughlin, and many more.

The fiction is an unusual mix, even for a small press 'zine: science fiction and dark fantasy, two genres that I enjoy very much but rarely find in close proximity. The latest issue, Fall 1999 (#17), is a fine example of how well the two blend together.

The issue opens with Beverly Suarez-Beard's "The Myrtlewood Ghost," the tale of a young woman who's finding it tough to warm up to her husband's rich family... and for good reason. As the family matriarch lies dying in her sprawling southern mansion, surrounded by her oddly subdued and frightened clan, ancient secrets finally begin to spill at young Maryam's feet -- secrets that she will come to comprehend more fully than anyone. A chilling and effective tale on multiple levels.

The two shorter tales that follow -- M. Christian's "Orphans" and Vera Searles' "The Boy Who Eats Sunshine" -- are also both effective, though more limited in scope. The first follows a hitch-hiker on a very unusual quest across America, and the second peers into the mind of Alida, still grieving the loss of her mother, as she watches a neighbourhood boy gradually devour all the sunshine in the front yard.

But it's Carrie Vaughn's "The Girl With the Pre-Raphaelite Hair" that really delivers the next wallop. Esther is a psychically gifted teenager whose drug-dealer boyfriend has just checked out in a hail of bullets. When she awakens, she's in the custody of one Doctor Grant at Saint Hilda's School for Profligate Girls... an institution that's been shuttered for decades. Esther isn't the only student at Saint Hilda's -- there's one other, in the basement. Only MIMI isn't human. Doctor Grant is obsessed with MIMI, and it appears Esther is to be part of her education. But Esther is more resourceful than either MIMI or her captors realize, and MIMI's education may well hold more surprises than anyone expects. A tightly-written tale with a powerful ending.

Gene Stewart's "Up the Hill" is perhaps my favourite story of the pack. Nardjhal witnesses his father's ritual suicide without being prepared for it, and suddenly finds himself leader of a small band of humans scrabbling for survival on a lost colony world littered with the decayed relics of an ancient war. On the first night of his reluctant leadership, Nar witnesses strange lights atop the glowing hill where his father perished, and he investigates. Alone and terrified, Nar abruptly finds himself face-to-face with the truth of his people's history. Stories in this tradition are as old as science fiction, but this one holds together so well because of the intriguing and extremely likable central character. Recommended.

Bruce Holland Rogers' "Ghost Fever" is a short supernatural fable ingeniously packaged as a 2-page government report on a plague in a Brazilian village. Sly and understated, this is a tale of mass sexual obsession and its bizarre consequences.

The last fiction piece, Karen Z. Perry's "Patterns of Silence," is set at a bootcamp for troubled youths, the Swehome Academy, where the solitary conditions and cramped living spaces of starships are reproduced to train cadets for a lonely but productive life on the galactic frontier. Jasp, an orphan, is sent here after a series of disciplinary run-ins and a bust for selling brain freeze. But tough as she is, Jasp is not cut out for the loner lifestyle, even in a place where unauthorized communication is punished harshly. Her struggle against the establishment threatens to destroy her until she finds a way to communicate without words -- and more importantly, someone to listen. A thought-provoking tale and a vivid character study.

On top of the fine fiction were numerous interesting columns from reviewers, including ex-Bantam Spectra editor Janna Silverstein, horror novelist Ed Bryant, Duane Wilkins, A.P. McQuiddy, and many others, as well as an interview with Vonda N. McIntyre. I was less impressed with the poetry this issue, but I was glad it was there. There are fewer and fewer outlets for genre poetry (not that there ever were that many to begin with), and I'm pleased to see the editors of TaleBones making the effort.

Finally, I can't end without a few words on the line art, which is extremely impressive. All of the interior artists are good, but the work of a few -- Eric M. Turnmire, Chris Whitlow, Tom Simonton and Keith Boulger in particular -- is exceptional. They add a great deal to the professional look of TaleBones -- and in fact in many cases easily outshine what's being done in magazines with much higher distribution, such as Analog and Asimov's.

For those who (like me) never tire of quality short fiction but have seen too many small press magazines come and go -- often taking your subscription money with them -- I'm happy to give TaleBones an unqualified recommendation. It's a solid publication that is well worth your support. Drop by their website at and subscribe online. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright © 2000 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.

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