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I think I read this somewhere in the interval of 1993-2004, and I think it was in an issue of an SF/Fantasy magazine which was new on the stands at the time. As opposed to being a back issue from the 1980s which I'd picked up at a sale, for instance. At any rate, I'm sure I read this fantasy story in a magazine, rather than a book. Which is not to say it couldn't have been reprinted later on. The story was definitely in English.

I am almost certain that it had the byline of Esther M. Friesner, but a quick look at her ISFDB Bibliography (linked to her name) shows she had many short stories published during the timeframe in question, and none of their titles leap out at me as obviously being a great fit. To forestall an obvious guess: My understanding is that anything printed in any volume of the Friesner-edited Chicks in Chainmail series of fantasy anthologies is guaranteed to be a previously unpublished story, so nothing in any of those would have first caught my eye in a magazine.

Elements of Style and Plot

  1. I am almost certain that this story drew upon the trappings of Arthurian Mythology, although I'm not sure how many characters from the old legends actually appeared onstage. I seem to recall that the first character to speak any dialogue in the tale was a queen with magic powers -- possibly, but not necessarily, "Morgan le Fay" or "Morgaine Le Fey" or some other variation of that legendary figure who is often described as Arthur's half-sister. (At any rate, the character who spoke first in this story definitely was not some variation of Arthur's wife, "Queen Guinevere.")

  2. The story was not set "in modern times." (Unlike, for example, Peter David's Knight Life or Roger Zelazny's "The Last Defender of Camelot," or anything else which uses some pretext to justify the author's desire to have famous characters from the Arthurian legends running around in the streets of a modern city.) The characters seemed to inhabit a "medieval fantasy" setting with knights riding around in suits of armor, and so forth. I think there may have been mention of elves.

  3. There is a sharp dichotomy of literary styles running through the text. I shall try to illustrate. Be warned that this is not even close to being a word-for-word quote, but it's loosely based upon what I think I remember about the first jarring moment when styles shift within the early lines of the story.

The sun was setting behind the verdant hills to the west of the castle, and the lengthening shadows of the trees pointed toward the elegant turrets atop an enchanted palace, from whence the dulcet tones of the Queen of the Fairies could be heard through an open window as she voiced her reaction to the latest news despatch to arrive in her domain.

"Whoa! They did what, now? I am, like, totally freaked out!"

The rest of it proceeds along similar lines. Narrative prose full of elaborate sentences, in sharp contrast to how the spoken dialogue was based upon how a stereotypical "Valley Girl" would express herself in certain circumstances. (Not that anyone in Arthurian Britain had ever so much as heard of the San Fernando Valley.) Wikipedia tells me that this type of dialogue is called "Valleyspeak" or "Valspeak" nowadays. I don't think the Queen (Morgan, or whoever she was) was the only person to express herself in that style. (Although I could be wrong; it's been a long time.)

  1. As you must have guessed, that contrast of styles is the main reason the story has stuck in my mind at all. I can't remember exactly what the Queen (the protagonist of the entire story, I think) actually ended up doing in reaction to whatever shocking news she had just received about someone else's bad behavior, although I think there was some sort of ironic twist in the ending. And, as I said, I think I remember seeing Esther Friesner's name attached to the story.

So! Does anyone think this sounds familiar? I'd like to refresh my memory, if possible, and see whether or not I now think that style-switching was a success, overall -- or just annoying after the first humorous shock wore off.

  • 1
    FWIW, Friesner wrote an Arthurian story named "Wake-up Call" where the gimmick was that it's a conversation about how it was not yet time for Arthur to return. It was published in a 2000 Asimov anthology named Camelot if I understand correctly. It did also appear in "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, December 1988" – FuzzyBoots Jun 28 at 20:57
  • Did all the characters use valspeak or just one? George Alec Effinger did a series of short stories featuring a character called Maureen Birnbaum, one of which was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1996. – DavidW Jun 28 at 21:02
  • @FuzzyBoots 1988 sounds a little early. Also, "not yet time for Arthur to return" -- does that mean the story was set in "modern times" (late 20th Century)? If so, I don't think it could be the one I'm remembering. – Lorendiac Jun 28 at 21:14
  • @DavidW I've seen at least a few of the Maureen Birnbaum stories, although not for a long time. As I recall: 1) Maureen narrates them in the first person. 2) Maureen is from the modern USA, and thus might reasonably be expected to speak that way. In the story I'm remembering, it was definitely third-person, and the main gimmick was that the characters were people who logically had no business sounding like Valley girls of modern times. (That contrast between our natural expectations and what we actually got was supposed to be the funny thing.) – Lorendiac Jun 28 at 21:16
6
+50

"Totally Camelot", a short story by Esther M. Friesner in Asimov's Science Fiction, August 1998, available at the Internet Archive.

Beneath the great elf-mound all was revelry, but joy and wanton merry-making both ceased in an instant at the sound of hard-soled boots upon the stones. Wild song and wilder dance died outright at the coming of the messenger from the kingdoms of men who strode into the great hall and proclaimed in a voice of heartbreak, "Arthur is slain!"

And in the awful silence that followed, great Morgan looked up from the adoring eyes of the young elfin bard who had been wooing her with songs of courtly love. Her face was stricken white as bone, her eyes two darkened moons made both bright and tender with astonishment and grief, and the flower of her mouth opened to cry out in the heart's deepest pain:

"No way!"

"Aye, milady." The messenger knelt upon the rich silk carpets that bestrewed the hidden palace. "Way."

"Oh wow," said the Queen of Air and Darkness. "If you're yanking my chain, you are so majorly toast when I get back." And she summoned up her dragon-drawn chariot and, whisking the cloak of night about her shoulders, she burst from the elf-mound back into the kingdoms of men.

She was not gone longer than it took for her subjects to fall into a dozen different clusters, each abuzz with dire speculations, their terrified whispers filling the high, tapestry-hung hall. She was back among them in a flash of flame less devastating than the look of utter rage and despair in her eyes.

"So 'kay, he is dead," she announced. "Well, not totally dead yet but, like, you know, close enough for jazz. Bummer."

An elf-maid of surpassing beauty, even among the Fair Folk, came forward to kneel before her liege lady. "Your Majesty, how came this calamity to pass?"

Great Morgan scowled. "Bug off, Betty; I don't wanna talk about it."

The elf-maid slowly arose to her feet and called her courage to her, armor puissant albeit invisible. Daring more than death, she reached out one slim hand and rested it upon great Morgan's shoulder. "I feel your pain, but if you don't verbalize your trauma, you're going to internalize it and the resulting neurosis can’t help but disalign your chakras."

The Queen of Air and Darkness glowered at her handmaiden and out of her parlous anguish and woeful torment of soul rejoined, "Hey Betty, go fuck yourself, 'kay?"

  • 2
    Really no room for doubt that you found it. A Queen is at her headquarters when she receives a shocking piece of news . . . it's set many centuries ago . . . the Queen in question is, in fact, King Arthur's sister Morgan (I wasn't sure about that part) . . . she sounds like a Valley girl when she reacts, but the non-dialogue prose is written in a more elegant style . . . elves are mentioned . . . it was published in a magazine near the middle of the timeframe I estimated I'd read it in . . . and it was, in fact, penned by Esther Friesner. Case closed! – Lorendiac Jul 4 at 4:01
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I suspect that you are indeed thinking of Esther Friesner's "Wake-up Call". It's Arthurian fiction, published in Asimov's 2000 collection, Camelot, as well as Up the Wall and it does involve modern speaking patterns. It was published in a magazine, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, December 1988

Image from the Google Books presentation of the story

Possibly of use to your recollection, Arthur still speaks in an archaic manner.

enter image description here

This also fits with you believing the story opens with Morgan le Fey speaking.

  • 3
    I followed your Google Books link and read the story. No bells ringing -- I don't think I had ever read it before. And as I said earlier, the humorous contrast in what I remember was that it made no sense for Arthurian characters in Arthurian times to be talking with modern slang, etc. For people living in modern times and playing a card game -- even if all of them are many centuries old -- it's far less humorous and surprising to see them speaking that way. – Lorendiac Jun 28 at 21:42

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