Neither the man nor the woman ever get names, we don't find out what made him famous, the magic never comes into play. Perhaps the central question is whether death has meaning when you've already been estranged, but this piece seems to be more about tone and atmosphere. The writing is, as always with Priest, beautifully crafted. However, it's all so vague that there's nothing to permanently attach it to one's memory.
Next up is the winner of the James White Award, an award in honor of Ireland's premier genre short fiction writer. This year's winner is "The Faces of My Friends" by Jennifer Harwood-Smith, and her story seems quite worthy. It is set in a world where a certain group of people are forced to wear masks, stay silent and never express themselves, on pain of arbitrary death by any higher class person or mob that happens to be around. These oppressed people try to keep the memories of the dead, but with all expression forbidden it is difficult.
Harwood-Smith writes with genuine intensity, and the story is emotionally quite moving. The only quibble I have is that towards the end, we learn the identity of the oppressed group, what it is that sets them apart. The story would have been more powerful if their minority status were generic; then we could all fill in the blanks as it moved us. As it is, I had been imagining various alternatives, and I didn't like her group as much as my own, which made them less sympathetic. There is sometimes real power in keeping things generic, or perhaps universal would be a better term.
Finishing out the fiction in this issue is the long story "The Scent of Their Arrival" by Mercurio D. Rivera. This is a brilliant story, told in two alternating strands. In one, a human survivor tells the story of the destruction of Earth, documenting its overrun by vampiric creatures from another dimension. It is a bleak and hopeless tale. In the other, two alien scientists try to decipher the transmissions from a ship sitting in orbit over their planet. It's been sitting there broadcasting for quite some time, but they can't make any sense of the communication. They've isolated the pictures and displayed them, but without a scent track it is unintelligible to them, since their primary form of communication is through chemical scents.
While I'm sure scent-based communication has been done before in the literature (in fact it popped up recently in Paul Melko's excellent novel Singularity's Ring), this story is very well done. The relationship between the two alien researchers and the world building of their planet and culture are first-rate. The tonal shift between their straight-forward first-contact narrative and the bleak defeatism of the human narration is striking. The ending packs quite a punch as we realize how the threads tie together. The only small criticism I'd have is that the ending's impact is more intellectual than emotional; it would've been a bit better if the reader were so emotionally involved with the aliens that we'd be really shocked and dismayed at their fate instead of going "Wow, so that's how it all ties together. That's gonna suck." As it is however, this is another story that I'll keep in mind come award-nominating time.