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It may seem distasteful for someone who has never been published to review the fiction of others.  Even I’m feeling rather antsy about it.  but I feel I have to start somewhere.  Fantasy & Science Fiction’s July/August issue contained, among other things which I would like to review or at least respond to, a little story by Rick Norwood entitled “Brothers of the River”.

F&SF usually, at least since I got a subscription, carries primarily quality work.  Of course, I’m in what I suspect is the minority who adores Ramsey Shehadeh’s “Epidapheles” stories (which I will review at a later date or hour!), so maybe I’m not the best universal judge of such things.  Then again, what is universal about taste in fiction?  Oh look there I go getting rhetorical.  The original intent of this paragraph was to say that, while the stories in F&SF are usually pretty awesome, or at least at the best end of mediocre, this one was at the worst end of mediocre.  I hesitate to say awful, because the writing itself was fairly skillful, though nothing to write home about.  Nothing to especially write a blog about, either, so that’s likely to be the last I’ll mention it.

The problem is that the story itself is so tepid and derivative.  It’s the story — not to spoil anyone on this gripping, wild story! — of two brothers who lived “[m]any thousands of years before the flood.”  They are twins with individual personalities; both good people but in different ways!  Tiger’s exceedingly kind (“if he had two honeycakes, he would give them both away to a stranger”) but also very vengeful; Shallow is “a shrewd trader,” rather selfish but also always keeping his word.  They have a perpetual rivalry, but a friendly one.  Everyone thinks they totally rock, and even moreso once they gain the “old magics.”    Later, they challenge each other to a race!

Norwood is clearly attempting to establish his own little corner of a myth cycle here.  The problem is that it feels so much like every other myth cycle ever that there’s no point.  Two brothers, become godlike, help people all over the world just because.   The only time the story nearly becomes interesting is when the brothers stop in a couple towns to help people out.  First, Tiger helps a small beggar boy with magic bread made of mud!  Then he hears rumors of a terrible winged lion, so he slays it and hands the credit to the same child.  Or, rather, hands the credit for being the one who watched Tiger slay the beast to the same child.  Okay, that wasn’t interesting.  Shallow hangs out in the same town with some prostitutes.  Still boring, for a god-like character.  But in the next city, Shallow gambles away all his money, then gets it back by telling them to become a casino city, so as to outdo their nearby Religious city which has super-hot temple prostitutes.  Are they Sodom and Gomorrah, maybe?  Who knows, because absolutely no character, location, or entity in the story is named save the brothers.  Which is a nice touch.  And this was almost a nice touch too, this event; it was an interesting little plot point, which was then moved on from within half a page of its introduction.

There is never any tension in the story.  Although I am sure that Norwood meant for the climax to be exciting and nervewracking, wherein the “Old Dark Gods” decide to punish the boys (at the end of their race) for thinking that they were on par with gods, it comes nowhere near.  Oh no.  How ever will Shallow stop being a dung beetle.  I can’t wait for this climax to be over in less than a page.  I was actually excited by the presence of “Old Dark Gods,” since I adore H.P. Lovecraft and thought that I was about to see something cool.  but the creepiest element of these hooded figures is that they (gasp!) spoke without their mouths moving!  Oh and they can turn god-like men into beetles.  Scaaaaaaaary!  Tiger arrives after Shallow and immediately figures out what has happened.  I half-expected him to just zap the nasty mean ol’ gods with his super powers before they could turn him into a beetle.  But no, Norwood opts for something even more tedious: Deux Ex Machina.  Tiger sees the situation and immediately…  prays.  He calls upon the “Young Bright Gods!” (oh my god uuuuuuuuugh) who….  come out of nowhere with absolutely no description and obliterate the Old Dark Gods and turn Shallow back into a guy.  How…  Exciting.  I sure am glad you didn’t put me on the edge of my seat, Norwood, because the whiplash from the shock of that solution would have given me cause to sue you.  Because wow, that was….  yeah, really exciting.  So exciting I lost my exclamation point key.

KJ Hannah Greenberg says in her review of  the entire issue for Tangent Online, “I experienced ‘Brothers of The River,’ as a chewy bit flavored by exquisite settings and wondrous actions, and as an intellectually nutritious morsel able to posit our needs to conquer our inner worlds. Well written to a word, this story delivers an important message.”  I would like very well to know what that message is, and how these boys conquered their inner worlds.  All they did was run around, help some people, and then ask the “young bright gods” (did I already say UUUGH?) to kill the “old dark gods”.  Then they turned into rivers.  What in the world is the message?  Pray to solve your problems?  Gambling is awesome when you have something that you can use to win back your losses, especially if that’s more gambling?  Brothers rock?  Rivers rock?  Were the dark old gods supposed to represent our inner worlds?  And for Shallow’s sake, how the Tiger did anyone in the story conquer their INNER worlds?

I am going to look for some other works by Norwood though.  I have this indefinite sense that there is a broader world behind Tiger and Shallow.  Plus, his writing style suggests that he could do some good things.  He just needs better stories and more tension.  Maybe he’s had such before; I don’t know!

(On another note, I’m noticing that a lot of responses for this issue of F&SF are from about a month ago.  Yet I just received my copy this week.  I’ll go ahead and assume that these are all from advance copies, but I’ve come across a small number of amateur reviews like mine as well.  Shall I forever be nearly a month behind on this magazine?  Oh, the drama!)