TTBA: Review by Ika

 

I. THE ZINE - CONCEPT, PRESENTATION, ART, ETC

A very well-thought-through attempt at that rare beastie, the mixed zine. The impassioned editorial sets out the reasoning behind Tavia's decision to resist the traditional adult-slash-gen division with eloquence and conviction, and the format of the zine carries it through well. There's a double contents page, with title/author only at the front and a guide to sex and violence ratings at the back. (Warning to anyone whose slash or het barrier is very low: implied or past relationships are not signalled, which I think is great, but you may find yourself taken by surprise.)

The colour front cover by Val Westall - beautifully and moodily pencilled, and well reproduced - confused me with a slightly "fantasy" feel, but now I think it may originally have been an illustration for Firerose's Ash Wednesday. It's beautiful - particularly the haunted-looking Avon - but I don't think it reflects the mood of the zine as a whole. Non-fantasy fans (like me!) don't be put off. Internal art is a nice mix of Firerose's grainy-inked faces, well-chosen pale-grey frame grabs, and Penny Dreadful's strong and individual figures, which remind me a bit of Stanley Spencer. I think my favourites are the insidious and indescribable (for fear of spoilers) picture on p. 27, and the lovely Blake frontispiece which captures his mix of wistfulness and strength.

Binding is nice and sturdy, with a plastic cover which is handy for reading in the bath. Typesetting and layout are fine, I'm not really sensitive to that sort of thing.

 

II. CONTENT

Mixed in more ways than one! It seems there are as many "Blake's 7 universes" as there are individual fic writers, and this zine demonstrates the sheer range of Things To Do With Canon (And Fanon), from Belatrix's and Airan Wilkinson's takes on fanon staples, through Hades' and Hafren's dark and ingenious reinterpretations of canon ("so *that's* why..."), Penny Dreadful's and Judith Proctor's stunningly detailed expansion on "offscreen" moments in the journeys of Travis II and Blake, to Una McCormack's cleverly bleak what-if AU set post-Star One (I think). Similarly, the characters inhabit a broad range of settings, from Jackie's - which puts the "sci" back into sci-fi - through Una's greyscale world of political compromise, Penny's detailed and gritty sci-fi universe, and Firerose's "primitive planet" setting, through to Executrix's spin into a universe next door to our own, filtering the B7 characters and canon through more familiar settings. A very broad range of styles and tones, then, and also a good mix of characters and seasons (I did a rough table, and PWBs and PGPs predominate slightly, with all four seasons about equally represented: characterwise it seems to go Avon, Blake, Vila, Tarrant, then Travis, Servalan, Soolin, with the rest trailing. Orac does better than Gan, strangely).

No poetry, and very little primarily-humorous material, although there's some good lighter moments in many of the stories, some cracking one-liners, and a lot of black comedy from Belatrix Carter. Some explicit sex, but no PWPs. Apart from some lovely flashes of emotionally-charged eroticism from Executrix and Nova (slash) and Firerose (het), the sex is generally non-explicit or, in one case, nonconsensual (neither of which titillates me greatly - on a purely physical level, at least), and all of it adds to the overall feel of the zine as character-driven.

I found the zine had quite a slashy feel, but that's because I interpret intense emotional interaction through my slash blinkers as often as possible, and I was quite surprised when I was rereading it for this review by how much less "actual" slash there was in it than I'd remembered. Despite being someone who sets the maximum m/f level on the Hermit library form down from "kissing" to "none, no, take it away, not even hand-holding, not even implied, ewwww, nasty het", I found myself enjoying the het stories too.

 

III. THE INDIVIDUAL STORIES

1. Honesty: A Question of Policy - Belatrix Carter (1 page)
The first of seven short pieces by Belatrix Carter, inspired by a Freedom City themed story challenge, "The Seven Deadly Virtues." I suppose you don't really need to know that, but I think they work better if you do. I'm not sure how well Tavia's decision to split them up and distribute them throughout the zine works, but on the other hand reading them all together might have been a bit much. Hmmm.

Anyway, this is a nice twist on one of my favourite themes, and it's great to see Jenna kick some arse for once.

2. The Last Days of Roj Blake - Una McCormack (6-7pp)
I'm coming to rely rather on Una for politically-savvy Blake stories, and this is a great take on the "President of the Refederation" theme. It's one of those stories that demands a few minutes' break after reading to let your head resettle after its unnerving effect. Well-written, thoughtful, and great characterization - each section is written in first-person POV of a different character. They all work, but I particularly liked the Vila voice. It managed to avoid the fanfic trap of two-dimensional Vila characterization (alcoholic + thief = Vila), while incorporating his own slightly overplayed self-presentation as... alcoholic and thief. Strong, dark plot with the emotional and political consequences of the action thoroughly explored in the dialogue. Even though I adamantly reject the idea that Blake would accept Presidency after the revolution, this story convinced me - at least until I finished it and rearranged my head. An added bonus is Una's Cally, one of those fanfic Callys who's simultaneously recognizable and much cooler than Canon Cally.

3. Awake And Find No - Ika (4pp)
I wrote this, so I won't say much about it, except... I wrote it as Servalan angst (an under-represented genre) for a Servalanophile friend's birthday. And Una McCormack told me it made her cry, and I was pleased, because I'm nasty.

4. Courage - Nickey Barnard (1 page)
Nickey, you bastard. Vila GP/PGP vignette, a punch in the guts, with a couple of the best lines in the zine ("the whole world portrayed in leather and polish"): dark, gory, plausible and harsh. Loved it.

5. Courage - Belatrix Carter (1/2 page)
Short Vila Seven Deadly Virtues vignette: moving exploration of Vila's take on heroism.

6. The Killer of Dole Nu Lin - Penny Dreadful (10pp)
Quite simply one of the best B7 stories ever written: probably worth the price of the zine alone. It relies heavily on Penny's very successful experiment with writing style to explore "mutoid subjectivity". It also triumphantly pulls together the very incoherent canonical accounts of Travis's journey from Trial to Star One, the Space Command structure, and how mutoids work, to create a tough, psychologically and socially plausible, realistic, hard-ish SF universe where the canonical characters fit in (how hard is that to do?). I always appreciate Penny's focus on physical and bodily detail - and this carries through into the violence, moving away from the cartoonish violence of canon into a much more realistic, effective style (not for the more squeamish reader!). Oh - and a thoughtful Travis II portrayal, giving him much-needed depth and coherence - but for those who know Penny's work, that goes without saying! Great Servalan cameos, too.

7. Purity - Belatrix Carter (1 1/2 pp)
Wickedly funny take on fanon (the "diplomatic mission to gay planet" scenario) and canon (why *do* they address each other loudly and publicly by their real and notorious names?) with an ending that manages to be both harsh and touching.

8. Not Our Kind, Darling - Executrix (7 1/2 pp)
Executrix's "Avoniad" universe: the College Years. Avon meets Jenna. An exploration of the class system and religious repression with a contemporary-type feel which throws up surprising new insights into canon. I find Executrix's writing style extremely dense and sometimes hard going - but in a good way: things aren't spelt out, but alluded to, and I was a bit dizzy by the end of the story, which was a fun feeling, and cheaper than drugs. Lovely detailed milieu, with perfect little descriptive/ physical details. Clearly driven by Executrix's great love of and sympathy for Avon, this just avoids descending into slavering Avon-worship (but I'm a Blake girl myself and I may be biassed, as I don't think Avon is as self-aware or competent as Executrix does). I love the Avon family: upwardly-mobile Betas with all-too-plausible sibling dynamics of love/hate (or maybe loyalty/dislike). As ever, the fireworks of the writing and the only-just-SF take on the universe spin delicately round the darkness of the themes and the depth of characterisation.

9. Four Years After - Ika (1 page)
I wrote this one as my contribution to the President of the Refederation theme, but it doesn't work as well as I'd hoped. Oh well.

10. Benediction - Morrigan (21pp)
A fantastic rendition of a harder, colder, GP-era Blake, with a good balance between solid plot, psychological elaboration, and detailed explication of the setup on GP. The wealth of OCs is a little confusing at first but they're fully enough drawn that they're easily sorted out once you get used to them. The real strength of this story for me is the characterisation - Dayna is particularly good - and the A-B dynamics, which are unimpeachably gen, but I still think of this as a slash story. Non-slash readers (and, in fact, the author!) would disagree, though. Another triumph is that Morrigan manages to get Blake (and - to a lesser extent, of course - Avon) to talk things through, and to end on a relatively upbeat note, without straining the characterization too far, which is dead hard in a PGP. I also love the theme of Blake-the-actor, faking personae in response to situations until even he's not sure which is the "real" Blake - if there is one.

11. Charity - Belatrix Carter (1 page)
Short Avon-Cally 7 Deadly Virtues piece, with great snarling from Avon and great deadpan teasing from Cally. Funny and sweet.

12. Purple Haze - Executrix (4pp)
1960's-ish student agitation on the University of the Federation/Federation Engineering Academy campus. Great revolutionary rhetoric, nice cameos from a variety of canonical characters (including the offbeat but somehow immediately convincing pairing of Hal Mellonby/Kasabi), and a dark, harsh denouement, in Executrix's rollercoaster style. (Una called it "an iron fist in a velvet glove".) The Avon-focussed plot is the peg on which all this hangs, and I'm probably entirely unique in that it awakens in me a small desire to slap Avon for being all superior. Oh - I liked the attention to childcare details - never seen that in fanfic before.

13. All The Gin Joints - Executrix (3pp)
A/B sequel to the above. "Heart-wrenching eroticism" is a phrase which would never have made sense to me until I read Executrix. The switches in POV narrator work well, and this is one of Executrix's most sympathetic (and therefore, to me, plausible) Blakes. Again, although I personally found the premise (Avon's boyfriend from Purple Haze still carries a torch for him, rather than wanting to slap him - see above for declaration of bias) a touch implausible, the precision and depth of the character dynamics are enough to suspend my disbelief even against my will, and this is a great story with a "bonus" of lovely Vila-voice narration.

14. Humility - Belatrix Carter (1 page)
Short Gan 7 Deadly Virtues piece, set at the end of Pressure Point. This works well for me as a thoughtful, three-dimensional expansion of "I'm not worth dying for" which doesn't turn Gan into a wholly selfless martyr-type. The slight twist at the end, and particularly the penultimate paragraph, are really, really moving.

15. Privilege - Susan Cutter (10pp)
A cracking story with a very sympathetic and plausible take on a teenage Tarrant. I found the Delta voices wobbled slightly with occasional "lapses" into correct grammar and educated vocabulary, and the prose style as a whole was slightly clumsy, but plot, characterization, attention to physical detail, and an impressive view of Federation social structure more than made up for it.

I "collect" rape scenes, and I'm not entirely sure how I stand on this particular one. It didn't annoy me, but I felt there was a slight tension between the victim POV and the authorial overview which made it a bit less effective than it could have been - but then I'm always very picky about portrayals of rape. This scene was pretty graphic, but not all that disturbing (to me, but then it's quite hard to disturb me).

The 'privilege' theme is very well handled and interesting, and the point where Susan Cutter ends allows for endless speculation about what happened between the end of the story and Power Play. So, despite some minor reservations, I still think this is top quality fanfic, opening up a range of questions to think about which would never have occurred to me if I hadn't read this.

16. Nightmare - Jenner (2pp)
A very, very bleak and absolutely wonderful A/B story. Like Nova (except depressing), Jenner takes our heroes into new ways of relating - I've never seen their relationship portrayed along quite these lines - while remaining absolutely true to both of them and to canon. The scene with Blake alone in his cabin is just extraordinary, in terms of the writing and of the emotional impact.

17. Ghost in the Machine - Jackie (4pp)
This felt to me like reading Bryn Lantry, I think because of the sustained word-by-word attention it demands. Otherwise, it couldn't be more different from Bryn: a hard-ish SF story with the lengthy theory and explication filtered skilfully through a charming Avon-Orac relationship. I'm ashamed to admit I still don't understand quite what's going on, but I think that's more my fault than Jackie's. Luckily, the overall plot was clear enough, and the writing and pace so enjoyable, that it didn't matter much. Interesting, original - and for some reason really hard to review.

18. Inga - Judith Proctor (2pp)
After reading "The Way Forward: Crusades of Blake" I am keenly aware of just how difficult it is to write a plausible account of Blake's politicization, and my hat is off to Judith for this one: a thoughtful, wonderful and seamless pulling-together of hints and moments from canon. As ever from Judith Proctor, great, hear-able Blake voice (I'm honestly not sure whether or not the last line is a quote from canon because I can hear it so clearly), and impressive attention to canonical details which in other hands might just have been throwaway jokes (why are there birch trees on every planet the Liberator visits?). If I had to make a criticism, it would be that the dramatic setting - Blake is talking to Vila - fades out during the course of the story, but actually that doesn't bother me.

19. Before the Fall - Airan Wilkinson (3-4pp)
A depressing take on Blake's reliance on his "followers", reworking the reality/illusion theme which runs through canon: it takes off from what is, for me, probably the most upsetting single speech in canon (Servalan's "Blake is dead" speech from Terminal). I found the style slightly maudlin, but then I'm not sure how Airan could have avoided that given the tone and theme. Moving and emotionally disturbing, with a particularly haunting cameo from a child Cally.

20. Fidelity - Belatrix Carter (1/2 page)
I don't know how she does it. Once again, a Seven Deadly Virtues piece which takes a premise which is so far-fetched it's almost silly, and then spins a moving and characteristic vignette out of it. So good I'll forgive her for using "blood-red" for Servalan's lipstick (something I have a knee-jerk prejudice against).

21. Ash Wednesday - Firerose (32pp)
I generally don't like B7 fanfic with a fantasy feel - I'm more of a Space Command, domes, hi-tech imperialism sort of a girl - but this had a nasty little twist which reconciled me to the "primitive planet" setting. I was also chuffed by the wonderfully intense, complex A-B dynamics which underpin this story of Avon's acceptance of his survival of Gauda Prime. We get a very interesting insight into the Avon/Anna relationship along the way, too.

Very good Orac, and a lovely, weary, S5 Avon: the other characters are all OCs, but they're likeable and believable. The plot intertwines perfectly with the emotional developments in and between Avon and Zenia. The Avon-Raznan subplot is moving and fascinating to me, as someone who's obsessed with the Blake/not-Blake theme in canon. The writing style occasionally pushed my too-many-long-words-in-one-sentence button, but then it *is* Avon POV....

As I was typing this up I realised I still wasn't sure why it was called Ash Wednesday. I'm assuming it's a TS Eliot reference, but then what do I know.

22. Some Questions Best Unanswered - Firerose (1 page)
A short, sad ... um, A/B or A-B... piece. Firerose has their voices particularly well, particularly Avon's. I think she might be overwriting a little for Blake's POV - he doesn't seem to me to be much given to metaphor. But there are some really wonderful lines, a lovely, wistful tone, and good strong A-B dynamics.

23. Hombres. Sailors. Comrades. - Ika (4-5pp)
Well, I tried my hardest, and there were extensive rewrites after negotiations with the Tarrant Nostra. It still might not be a favourite among Tarrant fans, though: I didn't give him much to do and the plot might have pushed him out of character a bit. That'll teach me to write plot.

24. Diligence - Belatrix Carter (1 page)
A flash of insight into the workings of Zen, which I'd never thought about before, underpins a bouncily humorous piece. Great stuff.

25. Take My Breath Away - Executrix (6pp)
A sharp, moving story with a strong queer sensibility (something I for one cheer loudly). Another showcase for Executrix's ability to supercharge details with emotion and eroticism: it takes my breath away. Another well-drawn teenage Tarrant, too, this one at the FSA and so full of bravado, confusion, self-confidence and na´ve enthusiasm that I rather fell in love with him myself. Some beautiful lines, and slightly less dense than many of Executrix's stories.

I did feel that Avon was a bit too close to acting as a Voice of Morality or something - he has a few speeches that felt to me a bit like a Beginner's Guide to Queer Politics - but then his love of infodumping is one of his most endearing canonical traits, so I shouldn't grumble when he puts it to a good cause.

26. The Sleep of the Dead - Hades (5pp)
I was really confused at the beginning of this story, which seemed to be in flagrant violation of canon and sticking really close to it all at the same time, but by the end it came triumphantly and shockingly clear. A devious, ingenious gem from the twisted mind of Hades, clever and punchily written.

27. Obituaries: Roj Blake - Ika (1-2pp)
This is just silly. I wrote it just after I first saw Blake last year, so it's already served its therapeutic purpose, and if anyone else is amused that's a bonus. It's a PGP - meaning Post Gay Pride.

28. Fetch - Hafren (3pp)
My comment on Freedom City after reading this was "Hafren, you *bastard*!" and I stand by that. This is a chilling, terrifying riff on Avon's progress through Series 4. It's like the few HP Lovecraft stories I've read, it gets under your skin - and stays there. Blimey. Just... amazing.

29. Unfinished Business - Nova (12pp)
Another one which is probably worth the zine price just on its own. A beautiful, happy-ending PGP which manages to combine a tricksy plot with incredibly affecting, bitter-sweet and spot-on A/B dynamics without seeming contrived. Other highlights are a thoroughly enjoyable cameo from Carnell and a Vila/Tarrant relationship - probably my personal Least Plausible Pairing - which didn't interrupt my suspension of disbelief and was actually really, really sweet. The sex (and snogging) scenes are erotic, in-character, and so beautiful I could drown in them. I cried.


13 March 2001

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