Zooscape: an e-zine of fantastic furry fiction, ed. Mary E. Lowd. Issue 6 (March 2020). Online at zooscape-zine.com.Reviewed by Lisa Timpf
“The Hedgehog and the Pine Cone” by Gwynne Garfinkle is one of the stories that leans toward the fantastic. The key characters are a pair of hedgehogs named Purple and Green who like to tell each other stories. One day Green turns into a pine cone, and refuses to respond to any of Purple’s questions. Uncertain whether Green is even still alive, Purple wanders, wrapped in sorrow, until she reaches “an unfamiliar part of the forest. Instead of leaves and fruit, the trees all sprouted books.” Reality shifts further when the hedgehog selects one of the books for a closer look: “Purple climbed inside and pulled the pages shut. She wandered the forest of letters, black trees against an off-white sky.” The story is likeable for its lyrical prose. Leavened with a sense of the surreal, the tale has, at the same time, elements the reader can anchor to: friendship, loyalty, and the healing power of stories among them.
Stella B. James’s story “Dragon Child” by also has its charms. At the outset, a young princess named Esmerelda is surrendered to a dragon for safekeeping. Esmerelda, or Esme as the dragon refers to her, self-identifies as a dragon, painting her scales on herself and asking disappointedly why she can’t fly. Perhaps inevitably, the child returns to her human roots, leaving the dragon with a sense of loss. Though the dragon longs to rescue her, she forbears, leaving it up to Esme to choose for herself where her loyalties lie.
The protagonist of “The Bone Poet and God” by Matt Dovey is a bear named Ursula. The bear is also a “bone poet,” possessing a magical ability to summon forces of nature through her poetry, which is expressed by how she arranges bones with runes written on them. Ursula embarks on a quest to find God, in order to ask her a question. In the course of her journey, she encounters a family of badgers, and is forced to battle a “bonethief.” When Ursula finally meets God, her quest is fulfilled, although not in the manner she envisioned. As was the case with many of the other stories, Dovey’s tale contains sections of lyrical prose, such as the one below:
There was so much to say, such an entwined web of emotion and expectation and duty and hope and thought and fear that she couldn’t possibly order it anymore, couldn’t untangle it to find the starting thread, couldn’t do more than hold the whole concept of what she needed in her head at once, complete and connected and indivisible.
A. Katherine Black’s “As If Waiting” also deals with the quest for identity, although with more of a science fiction flair. Again, there are interesting descriptions, and the depiction of a unique culture. The fact that there are four moons makes it clear that the setting for this story is a different planet from ours. In this story, the protagonist Aainah is a member of a furred people called the Onaphi. Though the species is not specified in the text, the mental image I developed, rightly or wrongly, was of a cat-like entity. While most of the Onaphi are content with their daily lives, Aainah is restless, seeking something more from life. Accompanied by another Onaphi named Jwartan, she goes to in search of the semi-mythical Oracle. Though Aainah has half-convinced herself there is in reality no such thing as the Oracle, she discovers that the old stories are true. As Aainah and Jwartan cross a hill, they encounter the serpent oracle, “still as stone, impossibly dark.” Still not certain whether to believe or not, Aainah tests the Oracle with her senses. “Pressing a full hand to the serpent’s side, Aainah felt an absence of cold, and an absence of warmth. It was like touching emptiness in solid form.” Though Jwartan tries to be supportive, Aainah realizes his patience is limited: “. . . his posture said as much as his silence. Said all she needed to know. Come back different, it said, or don’t come back.” Pressured by the expectations of others, yet driven by her internal certainties, Aainah is forced to make a difficult choice, and in the process, arrives at some unexpected realizations.
My favorite story of the six was “The Adventures of WaterBear and Moss Piglet” by Sandy Parsons. The protagonists of this story are a pair of tardigrades, which are eight-legged micro-animals. Parsons’ story blends science with whimsy. For example, tardigrades are sometimes referred to as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” and the story deals with typical tardigrade behavior, such as the tendency to form a “tun” when stressed, and other aspects of the tardigrade nutrition and behaviour. On the whimsical side, the author plays on tardigrade nicknames by actually naming her protagonists WaterBear and Moss Piglet, and weaves in humorous parallels to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books. The researcher’s name is Crystal Robin, and the WaterBear tardigrade shares Winnie the Pooh’s a tendency toward tubbiness and affinity for sweets. The story’s poignancy is enhanced by the fact that the tardigrades have a limited understanding of the experiments being performed on them (they think the centrifuge is a ride intended for their amusement), and the ultimate goal of those experiments, which is to send them out into space.
Rounding out the list of stories is “Double Helix” by Lucia Iglesias. I only had a few small quibbles with the stories. One seemed more of a vignette, although its short length might account for that. I also felt that the second half of “As If Waiting” meandered a bit, and could have benefited from streamlining. I’ve traditionally found hard copies of books and magazines more convenient to read than virtual versions, but the online format worked for these short stories, although the need to scroll down to reach the start of each story (because of the site’s main image filling most of the screen at the top) was a trifle cumbersome.
Aside from that, though, there was a lot to like about the six tales contained in the issue. Smatterings of sly humor, and a strange and sometimes mind-bending otherness added to the interest level of the tales. Contemplative, though not without conflict, they carried us on inner and outer journeys in unique and fantastic settings. Each story has accompanying artwork, which is a nice touch. While four of the stories are new, two have been previously published. This wasn’t an issue for me, as I hadn’t encountered either of them before.
The March 2020 issue, like the five that preceded it, can be accessed for free online at Zooscape’s web site. An interesting read, and well worth a look.