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.
First off, some background about this story. It was written because one of his fans in Belgium wanted a story by Mr. Hughes, that the fan could then commissioned to be illustrated and bound for his private collection.
A Note On Patronage:
This is awesome. More people who love fiction and love a specific writer should do this same thing. So many masterpieces have been created because of patronage. It’s what drove the Italian Renaissance, as well as many other great painters, scultors, writers, et al. This is awesome.
As a young boy Alphronz discovers that if he goes out into the streets and cries people will give him money. Begins to swindle people of their hard earned cash in this way until he realizes he has become too old. He then begins to set up elaborate and laborious cons that strip wealthy people of their money by offering them fake, high stake investments. But when he tries a new con, one that he can only do with the help of a wizard, his ambitions grow far too large.
Alphronz is clever and interesting and insightful. Despite his con man profession, he is still rather endearing due to the fact that he understands what drives people to make foolish decisions with their money. Often it is pain, other times it is fear. People will pay almost anything to make pain and/or fear to go away.
The world is an intriguing one, which I think is the best you can hope for in a short piece like this. I thought the world building was quite good and the magic that was being thrown around didn’t need to be explained because Alphronz never understands it either.
A fun read for anyone who likes con man stories. It also does double duty for people who like magical worlds in which there isn’t really a bad guy, but nor is there a good guy. (C+)
I’m of the opinion of the opinion that if a technology or magic system is not integral to the plot, then a piece is likely more effective if it is not written in genre.
This story is one of those. It’s space opera, but at the core, this story is about a detective retrieving or trying to retrieve a man-child who’s run away from home with his sweetheart.
This story could have just as easily been told in the current day, on the current world we live on, but instead, it took place on a fictional planet with a bunch of high tech gadgets that could have been other real gadgets. The character development was lacking and in its place were lengthy explanations about the worlds and the cultures on them.
While the title of the piece may sound philosophical, and I think the piece is certainly meant to be so, this falls short again, as the concept is only brought up twice and not applied with conviction to the situation.
Simply put, there just wasn’t enough thought and interest put into this piece and it relied on aspects of storytelling that could be found in any genre. The most interesting parts of F&SF are those things that can’t be found anywhere else, and sadly this piece missed this. (D)