Design wise, Storyhack continues to set a high bar. Full illustrations grace every story, with additional small cartoons interspersed within the stories. The full-sized layout of the magazine is a good choice, as is the double columns, leaving room for the designer to call out specific passages. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I wish the crime-based stories had a bit more edge to them, but then I’ve been spoiled by the likes of SWITCHBLADE and PULP MODERN. There is definitely more than enough here for a reader to sink their teeth into, and yeah, you might get a bit of pulp stuck between your teeth.
Claws of the Puma by Paul R. McNamee – A jungle adventure where an American journalist is investigating the struggle of local rubber famers against ruthless loggers in Brazil. The wild card in this case is the Puma, local wilderness hero. The Puma is heavily implied to be of European descent, though the how and why he decided to drop off the grid and hide out in the jungle is never fully explored. The biggest fantasy element is probably that there are still media outlets in the USA that would pay for a reporter to actually engage in investigative journalism… on her own. While the story was engaging, there were more than a few moments where I wondered how much more effective it would be from the point of view of the Puma, as opposed to the waifish blonde reporter.
Shoot First by Jay Barnson – A fine bit of urban fantasy involving a magical artifact and a double-cross. Barnson does a great job of developing the details of his setting without infodumping. The details with the magical bracelet is well done, as well as the twist as to how its side effects work. I feel there was a bit of a spoiler in the description where a fairly big part of the twist of the story is divulged. That said, the story was a fine bit of urban fantasy though more in line with the style of Charlie Stross’ THE LAUNDRY series as opposed to Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES.
Inside the Demon’s Eye by JD Cowan- a fantasy story about a man on a quest, though he cannot fully remember the details. In my opinion, the story decides to lean a bit too heavily on the NOTCatholic elements and would have been a better story if the writer had decided instead to make it an explicitly Catholic fantasy or had done more to make the religious aspects distinctly not Catholic. By trying to straddle the line between the two pieces, it ends up reading like a watered down version of both. Also, a chunk of the action happens off screen and it would have added to the narrative tension if there had been a shift in perspective to the secondary character.
Get to the River by Luke Foster – A park ranger is convinced there is drug smuggling going on in her park, but fails to convince her partner. Foster does a good job building the tension in this piece by alternating the current action with the events that led up to the current events of the story. As well, the twist of the story didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, though the red herring was implemented well. There was a sense of real danger in the piece, and there was an excellent sense of place with the nature park acting as much as an antagonist as any of the human characters.
Scourges, Spells and Serenades by Joanna Maciejewska – Easily my favorite story in this collection, it follows an archanist (one who derives magic through a pact with a demon) who teams up with a high mage to take down a local cult. To add to the drama, the archanist’s cousin is involved with the cult. The action in this is well done with the stakes suitably high. This is a setting I would love to see more of and expanded on, where even the side characters feel suitably deep and not mere cardboard stock trotted out to give the main characters someone to talk to. The setting also avoided the trap of seeming derivative, a common problem in fantasy stories.
Showdown at Stone Ridge by Jason McCuiston – A Weird Western tale incorporating both magic and steampunk elements. A veteran soldier slated to be hung for desertion is offered a pardon if he’ll investigate what’s going on at local mining town. Instead of being given a regular complement of soldiers, however it’s a contingent of captured enemy soldiers he’s forced to work with. Oh, and there’s the matter of the explosive device that’s been implanted in their heads to ensure compliance. Again the action is well done in the piece, but there’s a real sense that the only good people here are the ones without any real power, the ones that are being moved around a board by people far beyond their reach. This is another story I wouldn’t mind seeing further developed given where McCuiston leaves his characters at the end.
Master of Thieves by Aaron Zimmerman – Two thieves in a fantasy setting are challenged by a woman to see who is the best thief between the two of them. The two characters are different kinds of thieves, and Zimmerman does an excellent job highlighting both their approaches to the larceny as well as developing intriguing puzzles for them to solve. There is an excellent sort of rivalry and the overall story is reminiscent of Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar stories, albeit lighter in tone than those.
The Dealer’s Tale by Jon Mollison – A woman is a blackjack dealer at an underground club. Her lover is the federal agent trying to bring down the organized crime ring that’s running the racket. The basic premise seemed a little off to me given that the agent is willing to put his lover (a civilian) in harm’s way. Her motivation also struck me as a bit too selfless, but there was a decent amount of tension building (will the plot be discovered, will her boss realize what’s she’s up to, will the local vamp throw a monkey wrench into the whole plan), to keep the reader engaged.
Full disclosure: Storyhack has previously published editor Matthew X. Gomez before in its second issue. You can find it here.