Air of the Overworld is a fantasy novelet published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2020, issue. It focuses on a reoccurring character that Hughes has written about for years; a wizard’s henchman named Baldemar.
If you haven’t read the other (mis)adventures of Baldemar, this specific tale may be difficult to connect with that first. There are minor characters who regular readers have gotten to know in prior installments, as well as references to events in the past that would surely feel more important if you’d read about them. Me, I’ve read one other story about Baldemar, so I at least understood the type of magical world he lives in. I think the barrier to access may be–thicker, so to speak, if I had not.
Air of the Overworld is a retelling of a classic tale. It could be equated to the story of Icaris–that foolish man who made wings of wax and flew to close to the sun, or it could take on a more biblical feel–it really depends on the connection the reader makes. Baldemar is basically the test subject of a powerful wizard–not the one he is employed by, but a different one–though how he got there I never really was sure. This powerful wizard wants to ascend to the high plane–the fourth plane, and experiments on Baldemar, sending him to this plane of perfect existence in an attempt to learn what he can from the air Baldemar traps in a golden bladder. The wizard is certain he can ascend if only he can learn enough, perform the correct spells, etc.
While Baldemar shows clear ingenuity to help himself out of a difficult situation in which his very being is altered due to his visits to the Overworld, the stakes, at least for me, never really felt so urgent that I was compelled to keep reading. It’s a story with all those fictional elements, character development, and agency, a person, in a place, with a problem–that is then fixed by that character or not, though what is most important is that they seem to have the ability to help themselves. And Baldemar does. But still, something felt amiss. I think it may be chalked up to nothing more than being thrust into a story that is the latest in a serialization, and while I wanted to know what would happen, it felt as though I lacked some context for it to be truly fulfilling.