Saturday, August 1, 2009

Realms of Fantasy Relaunch Review (2 of 2)

From here on, I can really only comment on issue-specific content so this may or may not be useful or relevant. I’ve already said that I thought the internal art could have been a lot better and that several of the ads detracted from the professional look of the magazine.

The book reviews left me flat too, mostly because the books that were reviewed were the same books that everyone else reviews and so, as a reader, I didn’t gain anything I couldn’t have found somewhere else or even free on the web. There was little said about the actual execution of the books, and the overwhelming bulk of the reviews were plot recaps of the work. (The review of the graphic novel is an exception to this; it does address technical merit.)

I thought the game reviews were pretty, sharp once you got past the obligatory look at the latest D&D sourcebook.

The artist highlight was enjoyable and I’d have liked to see his work spread throughout the magazine instead of all lumped up in one spot.

The movie review was a waste of space. My apologies to Resa Nelson—it’s nothing personal and her review was well written and the use of sidebars to cover specific characters was an innovative touch—I just cannot think of a movie less in need of review than the next Harry Potter film. It’s deep in a series based on a series of books. The reader already has their mind made up and either they’re going to go see it or not, regardless of what a reviewer says. To me, this is five pages of wasted content space. Hopefully in the future, the movies covered will be more obscure.

I mentioned music reviews earlier and now I must expand on that. It’s not actually a music review. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I didn’t do enough drugs in the sixties. The section is listed as a department (Folkroots) as if this is to be a recurring feature. The actual content is a rambling essay about music history. So, what does that mean for the next issue and the magazine in the long run? I hope it means that this abstruse essay is an introduction to the kind of material that will be reviewed in the future, but who can say? More annoying, I read the essay three times trying to find an answer and it’s not there. The essay is the kind of beat rant that’s full of references but lacking enough context for these references to give the reader meaningful information; the kind of essay whose real point is not to inform but to impress the reader with how smart the writer is. To me, seven more pages of wasted content. On the other hand, I think music reviews are a great idea. On this ‘department’ I say give it three issues. If the word ‘filk’ hasn’t been mentioned, start complaining to the editors. If Wild Mercy’s latest album isn’t reviewed in the next six, cancel your subscription. But that’s a personal thing. If you like to dress in black and snap your fingers while some guy rants in a coffee shop, you’ll love this.

What of the stories themselves? Despite Shawna’s editorial promoting the magazine as an incubator for new authors, this issue wasn’t. Tanith Lee headlines and the other three authors aren’t exactly new faces. (On the other hand, for a relaunch, this is a bit of a necessity.) I liked two of the stories, hated one, and thought that the Tanith Lee work was not up to her usual standards. I appreciate and support the goal of promoting new authors in RoF but the cold realities of magazine publishing and marketing mean that, with only 4 spots to work with, at best only two of those can be risked on new talent and that’s not great odds.

So, in the end, what do I think? I think it’s not as good as I’d hoped and I hate to have to say bad things about it. For all intents and purposes, it’s the same old RoF, back again. That’s good and bad. The old fan base will be happy, but I don’t see anything here that will draw in new readers or subscribers. The old fan base is loyal but they weren’t enough to support the old RoF. I expect that the magazine will continue on at a slightly reduced production value, and will probably drop their pay rates for freelancers within the year. (Please don’t let me be right about that.)

Did I mention that I want them to succeed? By all means and please, prove me wrong.

[Postscript: After I prepared this review, I was fortunate enough to exchange emails with Doug Cohen at RoF. He explained to me that FolkRoots was not music reviews. It is an ongoing series of essays about music. This gives me a better understanding of the department but no greater liking for it. I would rather that they have music reviews--if there is any area where it is almost impossible to find good talent, it is the folk and filk community. (There's lots of talent out there; they are just really hard to find other than word of mouth.) He also assured me that the style guide is being standarized as we speak and that the copy-editing quality will improve. Many of the problems I identified as first issue issues seem to be exactly that. This is good news and I pass it on to you.]

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Realms of Fantasy Relaunch Review (1 of 2)

On the newsstands right now you should find the August issue of Realms of Fantasy magazine. This is a relaunch of the magazine under a new publisher and I was given the privilege of reviewing the new, resurrected magazine.

Now, to be honest, I have a real interest in seeing the magazine succeed. Not only is it a market for my work but, more importantly, it’s a short story market and the industry desperately needs these markets. The fiction editor (Shawna McCarthy) expounds on this importance in her editorial in the magazine but, in this, she’s late to the party. John Scalzi and I were discussing the importance of the short fiction magazines as a proving ground for the next generation of authors years ago.

Well, the magazine is out and it’s time for all the people who lamented its demise to put their money where their mouths have been and support it. I have my own opinions on the ‘new’ RoF and I’ll share them but my job here is to tell you what the magazine is and let you know if it’s of use and interest to you.

When I first got my copy in the mail, my first thought was that there had been a mistake and I’d received a catalogue for self-published and small press POD paranormal romance books instead. The magazine is ad heavy (about one-third advertisements). Of 84 pages (including the covers), roughly 24 of these are ads plus big pull-out envelope of stuff in the middle. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not opposed to advertising in a magazine. These ads are part of what a magazine offers, letting me know what the market is doing and keeping me abreast of new titles hitting the shelves. In this case, however, I was distressed to see that the production value of some of the ads was extremely low—so low, in fact, that I think they hurt the overall appeal and professional look of the magazine. A bad ad makes the magazine looks bad. I understand the financial side of magazine publishing and the difficulties involved here, especially when bringing a magazine back from oblivion, but I do hope that this is a problem that will be solved in the future as RoF can become more selective and demand a certain minimum level of production value in its advertisers.

I also wasn’t thrilled with the quality of the magazine itself (specifically, pages started falling out of the middle) but this is not the publishers fault. My copy came through a PO box and the big envelope of advertising stuff was pulling the staples out and putting undue strain on the spine. No big deal, but not an auspicious beginning.

Before I get further into specifics, let me give you an overview of what the magazine is and who it’s written for. (Yeah, yeah, I know: “For whom it is written”.) If you like the old RoF, you’ll be right at home—there hasn’t been much change. If you’re not familiar with the old one, let me see if I can give an honest overview.

RoF is not purely a magazine of fantasy fiction. It’s better classified as a magazine generally covering all things fantasy—movies, games, music, art, etc.—with a few short stories thrown in as well. By my count, in this issue, 53% of the actual content (after ads) took the form of reviews of one sort or another and only 37% was made up of fiction (four stories). Further, it doesn’t address all types of fantasy (fantasy is a pretty broad category). It focuses more on mermaids, fuzzy dragons and cats, “Goddess Ripper” genre of stuff. Again, that’s not a complaint but if you’re looking for noir sword-and-sorcery or space opera, this is not the magazine for it.

I would describe (rather tongue in cheek) the demographic of RoF as young women ages 14 to 40 with unicorn posters on the wall and a firm belief that purple is the bestest color in the world. (Which it is, by the way.) Take a look at the spines on your bookshelf and add up the various publisher logos. Mostly Avon/Eos? Subscribe now. Tor? You’ll probably like it. Daw? Definitely worth a look and you’ll at least want to pick up the occasional issue that has an author who interests you. Baen? Don’t bother. Golden Eagle? Walk away slowly; there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt over a magazine. If Tanith Lee and Charles deLint are as gods to you and you cried for days when MZB died, this is your kind of stuff.

Let’s crunch some numbers on this issue: 84 pages for a cover price of $6.99. 24 pages of ads, 3 pages of editorial necessities like the Table of Contents, and 57 pages of actual content. Of this, 5 full page pieces of art (one is the cover), 5 pages of game reviews, 5 reviewing a movie, 7 devoted to music (I think; more on this later), 8 pages of book reviews including YA and graphic novel, a 6-page spread highlighting artist Michael Hague and showing his art, and, finally, about 21 pages of fiction. Put a different way, that’s $2.59 for the stories, $3.71 for reviews, and $0.69 for the artist. Is that worth your money? Depends on what you’re looking for; I’m the wrong person to ask. Personally, I’m a story kind of guy and for this kind of money I could buy an entire book. Still, if you wanted a book, you wouldn’t be in the magazine section so the question you have to answer is: Is this ratio one that satisfies you?

The execution of the magazine is a bit on the soft side—copy-editing goofs, the quality of the internal art is low, page layouts could be better, the font changes sizes at times—there is a list of things I could nitpick, but it boils down to the fact that the magazine needs to develop and employ a consistent style guide, and I expect they will. This is, after all, a first issue of sorts. One of these nits looms large to me though. Some (but not all) of the reviewers get a bio at the end of their piece, but none of the authors do. That, to me, is unacceptable and must be corrected.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Brief History of Staff (4 of 4)

Chaos was a pampered only-cat for a few years until my wife walked into the backyard one day and found a bird. Apparently, this was some kind of special bird (too small to eat, that’s all I could tell by looking—birds aren’t my kind of pets). Well, we couldn’t keep a bird but her sister had just taken in a stray cat and they though it would be a fair trade. “She’s a sweet little thing and growing really quick.” Yeah, really quick because she was pregnant. Once again a swarm of kittens was inflicted on my quiet home. And the mother was, at best, an incompetent monster. Not only was it her first litter but she also hated them and wanted nothing to do with them. Chaos stepped up and became their parental figure, master of the guild, trainer and mentor. Their mother escaped the house and never looked back as soon as they were weaned after a few unsuccessful attempts to eat them. Of this litter, we kept three: Zeno, Chucky, and Whiskey. Zeno I have spoken of before. Chucky is sadly much like her mother—a true cat—but she also fell head-over-heels in love with Chaos and remains with us still, trying as best she can to be domestic (and failing). And Whiskey? Well therein lies quite the story.

The more observant (and Celtic) might observe that I’m spelling Whiskey’s name wrong. That’s deliberate. Water Horses are strong enough without helping them along with the magic of naming.

When the horrid cat had her kittens, she gave birth to four that lived…and Whiskey. I tampered with the natural order and received a changeling in return. She was born dead in a placental sac that didn’t break open. I gnawed through it with my teeth (the only tool handy), sucked the mucous from her nose and mouth, and made her live. She was brain damaged, prone to seizures, lacking in coordination and depth perception, and, well, rather simple at times but she was also a rare and wonderful fey treasure.

I have never known an animal filled with more joy, more raw pleasure at the simplest events of daily life, more in love with the experience of just being alive. Oh, she was a pooka, a prankster that lived just outside of the normal world and saw everything just a little off from the rest. She didn’t cry or mew, she trilled. Emblematic of her behavior and her problems was her love of swirling her humans’ legs. Ducking her head, she’d charge forward—and miss. Realizing her error, she would stop and throw her hips sideways in order to finally make contact then circle around for another try.

It’s not really surprising that she didn’t die. One day she disappeared, back into the fairy realm she’d come to visit from. Very sad, but appropriate.

I could go on—almost two decades of cats makes for a lot of stories—but I believe this will suffice for my purpose: a brief history of the staff this far.