A stowaway, demons, Cupid, high priests, bees that aren’t really bees, and a gecko are just a few of the characters you’ll find in the stories in the first half of my jam-packed February review. I’ve scoured some of the most popular science fiction and fantasy magazines available online and these are my thoughts. (Possible spoilers ahead!)
Issue #93 — Feb. 2017
The line “She doesn’t taste like anything” opens “The Bells” by Lyndsie Manusos, and it doesn’t get any less uncomfortable after that. Mary has been transformed into a marionette by her erstwhile lover cum captor, Bishop, who rents her out to other men for their entertainment. It’s not ever explained how Bishop made her into this toy, or even why exactly. One of the recurring johns sings a ditty to Mary that hints at a bet and a lost soul, but you’ll just have to take author’s word for it otherwise. In all, it’s a beautifully written, yet disturbing, tale. The ending will have you squirming, if you weren’t already, and “The Bells” are sure to be ringing in your head for sometime afterward.
I haven’t read Nisi Shawl before “Queen of Dirt,” but now I want to find more. I was familiar with the name because I’ve seen it on SFF websites, particularly on the Fantastic Stories site where she will be editing their final issue, POC Take Over Fantastic Stories. That said, “Queen of Dirt” was reason enough to spark an interest in her other work (not to mention that I’m always compelled to support a local artist!).
We follow Brit Williams, an instructor at Experience Outreach, a sort of camp for kids “about connecting art with the environment.” She’s also a Visioner, so dubbed by a fellow teacher at the camp, which means that she can detect “non-physical entities” as something more tangible. (In one instance, she reconfigures a certain group of entities into giant tent worms and defeats them in that physical state.) Brit’s preparing her group of kids to present their Martial Arts performance. The kids elect to practice among old military bunkers and gun emplacements where there have been a pattern of suicides, so it’s no surprise that Brit’s been receiving bad vibes from their direction. What happens next sees Brit put into a sticky situation, and her mettle will determine how successful she will be at protecting her new brood of artists.
Shawl tells a good story and her characters are sharply defined. Brit, for instance, is not just a Visioner for the sake of this story—she’s a smart teenager (and reads Delany!). She may be aromantic, but she’s not too concerned with figuring it out just yet, and she’s critical of others’ motivations (the way she views fellow teachers Mr. Crofutt and Mrs. Plowden tells us more about her than it does about them). Shawl’s splashes of description are on the nose every time—even the simplest details paid to the scenery such as “fluttering, silver-leaved poplars” and how the “rustle of the blue plastic tarp rose and fell” are enough to anchor the reader in this living world. Events progress rapidly, but logically, and she never patronizes the reader by slowing down to hold their hand through the difficult parts. She charges ahead and knows that we’ll be able to keep up. It all coalesces into this splendid tale about growth and leadership, as well as about being a kid that not everyone’s going to understand. A must read for February.
BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES
Issue #218 — Feb. 2, 2017
Winter is coming to the world in “Men of the Ashen Morrow,” but only if said company of men can successfully summon Hulokk, an old god that freezes the earth. If he cannot be summoned, the bright monsters of the west will be left unchecked and wreak havoc. There’s a catch: Hulokk requires sacrifice, and more often than not the sacrifice comes from within the company. Sal, the veteran of the group, has her doubts, however, and after too many losses within her cadre of god-summoners, she refuses to summon him. Margaret Killjoy’s story about Sal raised a few questions for me, but probably not the ones she intended to. Why did it take Sal so long to shake her sense of duty, even while still uttering the “live free, die free” mantra? If the last two summers have resulted in zero deaths within her company, what’s the inciting event that led her to refuse the summoning? Still, the message about sacrifice was delivered, albeit a bit precariously.
The final regular issue of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination gives us a parting gift of two original stories and three reprints. Of the three shortest, I found “Human Through and Through” by Karen Rochnik to be the strongest. (Evil Girlfriend Media 2016 reprint.) It carried the most compelling message and delivered it in a clever and colorful package. LaShawn M. Wanak’s mouthful of a title “The Summation of EvilCorp Subsidies HR Meeting Agenda Minutes, Compiled by Olivia Washington“, originally from PodCastle, 2015, looked appetizing at first but in all was too airy to leave me satisfied. Likewise, “The Scars that Made Me” by Tamoha Sengupta set itself up with an intriguing premise but left no lasting impressions.
Wendy Nikel gave us a short story called “A Song to Charm the Beasts” about a wild west pied piper of sorts named Ofira. She’s traveled forty days to a tavern in the desert to free her husband from the man-who-was-perhaps-not-a-man with her magical fiddle. “She took one last breath of dusty air, one last glance at the golden band on her finger, one last moment to gather her courage before stepping inside to strike a deal with the devil who dwelled within.” (With that hint of gold, fiddle playing, and the note about the devil, I’m guessing this story takes place down in Georgia.) Anyway, it’s an imaginative tale, but it’s too focused on just that: the imagery. It also deals heavily in expositional dialog; space that could have been used to flesh out the plot was spent on the lavish details and abstractions instead.
Lastly, the longest piece in Fantastic Stories comes from Mike Resnick. “Down Memory Lane” (Asimov’s reprint from 2005) has the fixings of a great story, as one should expect from a storyteller as accomplished as Resnick. This one follows Paul as he navigates the frightening process of caring for his wife of 60 years as she decays to dementia. It’s uncluttered, the characters work, and the conflict is simmering throughout. It also hit me in the feels, as I’ve lost two grandparents to dementia. (In one scene in particular, Gwendolyn, the sufferer, remarks “What a pretty car […] Whose is it?” about her and her husband’s Ford, resurfacing flashbacks of when my grandfather kicked the tires of my dad’s car while visiting from California and offered to buy it.) The ending, however, was not how I expected it to go, considering the principles Paul had established for himself after buying that handgun, making his decision to risk the operation too big a hurdle for me to get over.
Issue #81 — Feb. 2017
Lightspeed kicks off February with a strong science fiction story by Ian R. MacLeod. Originally published in Asimov’s, in 1995, “Starship Day” is a smart novelette that gives itself away in the opening lines, but you wouldn’t know that unless you’ve read the whole story.
We trail Owen through his daily regimen in this picturesque seaside town, except it’s no typical day (or is it?) for residents of Danous. Today is Starship Day, a special holiday when a long-awaited correspondence from the first ship to leave Earth will relay their latest discovery. Whether that is another habitable planet or just a nearly-bare solar system filled with cosmic rubble is the question on everyone’s minds. Except for Owen, who would rather sidestep the starship obsession altogether and go to work. “I can’t just cancel appointments just because there’s some message coming through the stars.” In his attempts to downplay the hullabaloo surrounding the special day, however, Owen will make a larger impact on his world than any message coming through the stars that evening.
Starship Day is a story about waiting and the quiet, dark moments people must face when staring down the precipice of a life-changing event. MacLeod’s clean narrative and snappy plotting made Starship Day a joy to read, and like in the story itself, had me wanting to start everything all over again.
An eleven year old is swept away to another land, revealed to be the chosen one, and sent back home through a portal to wait for the high priests to return at a better time to install her as their ruler. There’s one catch, however: she cannot move from the portal’s location in her kitchen, or at least not very far, no matter how long she awaits their return.
It’s too bad that “Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill never manages to catch up to that premise, because the premise is a good one. Rather, the plot and characterization are eschewed in favor of the title’s gimmick, generating a story that’s supposed to read like a series of disappointing events, but they never feel consequential. Characters do things that just aren’t logical in order to preserve the central conceit of Is she? Isn’t she?. In particular, the main character Corrina’s fixation with the cupboard in her kitchen is played for spoofs instead of having serious ramifications for her. It’s not until the end when her predicament actually matters, and instead of her progressing as a character, Corrina makes the decision of her eleven-year-old self. In a world where I can believe in Zonnier hordes, high priests, and magical portals, it’s a shame I can’t believe in the actions of the supposedly, probably Chosen One.
“Later, Let’s Tear Up The Inner Sanctum” was the second story by A. Merc Rustad I read by the time of this review, the other being their story “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” in the January/February 2017 issue of Uncanny. I enjoyed this one more. It’s a tale about superheroes and villains spread out across blog posts, news reports, security camera footage, emails, and two interview transcripts. Not only is its composition unconventional, but its contents are too. The heart of the story is one of revenge, and the twist at the end is satisfying. Some parts of the world Rustad created felt too at odds with each other in order to be fully believable, however. (Would the press still care that much about a female superhero’s costume when there’s a female president and first lady?) Regardless, Rustad paints a refreshing picture of an alternative future.
Feb. 6, 2017
The first issue of Strange Horizons for February features a sad ghost story by Kay Chronister about the Cambodian ap (sometimes ahp), a glowing, floating woman’s head with some of her organs still attached. Ap feed on blood and other less savory things (viscera and fetuses among them) and will wipe their bloody mouths on any clothes left outside overnight. “The Lights We Carried Home” tells the story of twenty-seven year old Dara whose village is being visited by not just the terrifying, murderous ap, but also another group of irritants: foreign filmmakers. But this isn’t a spook story about the terrors of globalization and exploitation—though you can still draw inferences from that. Rather, it’s a lesson that sometimes even the scariest things can happen in our own backyard, and the way we make do is what will come to define us.
Apparently in Thai folklore, a falling gecko can mean good or bad fortune depending on which side it falls. In Ploy Pirapokin’s “The Greenest Gecko,” a common house gecko falls on the President of Bankim’s lap. While initially appearing to be a symbol of good fortune for the ailing president, the gecko-as-a-harbinger motif may not be so cut-and-dry by story’s end. “Gecko” has a heavy dose of whimsy and a cast of eccentric characters (and had me seeing flashbacks of Jedediah Berry’s “A Window or a Small Box”, Tor.com 2013). It’s told in a light mood while still being respectful of heavier themes such as a woman’s role in society, using propaganda to control our perceptions of our government, and karma. The trouble with the final act is it’s easy to see coming, though that’s to be expected when one is writing about gecko cannons. However, it had me wondering how such a smart woman up until now could end up being so gullible.
(☆) I haven’t read any of Lavie Tidhar’s novels, but I did give one of them, Central Station (Tachyon Publications 2016), to a friend for his birthday last October. After reading “The Old Dispensation,” however, I’m tempted to ask if I can borrow the novel for a weekend. This story on Tor is so strange, so engrossing that I was hooked immediately even though I knew basically nothing about what was happening. Reading “Dispensation” was like learning a new language, and it really is for anyone unfamiliar with Exilarchs, Treif, and Ma’ariv. I appreciated Tidhar for telling the story how it needed to be told, however, and not worrying if things were confusing at first. Eventually I adapted to the narration and was able to tease out the meaning of the unfamiliar words. This was no different than the typical science fiction story that pelts its audience with techno-gobbledegook, except this time the foreign words were grounded in reality, and exploring their meaning through the text was challenging and informative at the same time.
Now the plot. An adjudicator by the name Shemesh is recalled to speak before the Exilarch to explain what transpired during his mission on the planet Kadesh where he was to apprehend a particularly heretical android. Still following? He’s intercepted by a pair of Goliaths and a very unhappy angel with a flaming sword. Here we get a great action scene and a fantastic description of the angel’s weapon: “It was a horrible little blade, made of bio-hazardous nanowire filaments woven together: its very whisper through the air could kill.” The story is rife with other such spellbinding sequences, such as when later, within the fight scene involving the Goliaths and the angel, we see Shemesh kill a Goliath in one of the most gruesome and original deaths I’ve read in a long time. There are times when the tangential excerpts on this assassin or that historic debate, while interesting, become too distracting, especially when they’re plopped down in the middle of the action. There are also instances when, because of my own ignorance, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take a Jewish term literally or figuratively or assume it’s being repurposed into something else entirely. (Was Shayol supposed to be an “A Planet Named Shayol” homage or literally Sheol? Luckily it wasn’t integral to the plot.)
I found the whole thing enthralling, even when I was stumbling into undiscovered territory. But that’s what I like about science fiction—discovery. Expect to find this one in a Best of anthology at some point, but read it now on Tor first.
Issue #14 — Jan.-Feb. 2017
Theodora Goss has a prescient tale about aliens in the February half of Uncanny’s first release of 2017. “To Budapest, with Love” is an easy read told in first person by Dóra (or Dora), a Hungarian immigrant, as she goes back and forth between Budapest and this other, new world she inhabits called America. As an outsider, she makes wry observations of everything from Star Trek (“The Borg Queen says, ‘You will be assimilated,’ and I think, yes. That’s exactly how it happens,”) to Alien (“I sympathize with the alien. She’s a mother, after all. She’s only trying to protect her children,”) to Hungary’s otherness (“[Hungarian] sounds like something made up for a television show, like Klingon. Except I think Klingon is probably easier to learn.”) The story only counts as science fiction if you take it literally, however, but that’s mostly the point. Dóra certainly does. Besides that, it’s also a love story about the eponymous city and its country, which Dóra feels, like herself, is a place that just doesn’t quite fit in.
(Side note: my writer friend, Jess Flarity, is attending the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine where Theodora Goss teaches and was fortunate enough to sit in on a live reading of the story!)
“Some Cupids Kill With Arrows” by Tansy Rayner Roberts invoked more of a carnal stir than an emotional one—or maybe it was meant to—but regardless, the story is lighthearted and airy. Main character Meg goes speed dating with a coworker where she meets Cupid, among his other pantheonic bros. She decides to help Cupid get out of his matchmaking slump. You can probably guess what happens after that. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is a fun addition to the classical deities living in contemporary society trope.
(☆) When I started the first section of “The Thule Stowaway” by Maria Dahvana Headley, I was worried I was in for a long, slow slog. Fortunately, the story picks up with the main narrator, Mrs. MacFarlane, who has come to Providence to see a daguerreotypist. It seems the thing she’s carrying—the titular stowaway—can be exorcised by the process of transferring images to silver-plated mirrors. Originally I wasn’t familiar with the concept of Thule, but after reading up on it I can see it was the perfect choice for this blending of the real and the unreal. The story takes on a dreamlike narration, which is no surprise considering the character’s predicament. You’ll have to read it to know what I’m talking about. (Really, go read it.) Likewise, the apropos daguerreotype theme is handled skillfully by Headley, who plays off the image’s physical dualities to masterful effect. It’s encapsulated well in the following passage near the end:
That is one way to look at a photo of a ghost. Another way is to look at both figures, this portrait, this imaginary kingdom and its creator flickering in and out of the light, and see it as a record of more than one event, the moment when a poet’s soul was removed, the moment when a man counted down the seconds remaining in his life.
It can be tedious in some places and heavy with description and observation, but I liked those qualities, and the narrator’s sharp, strong voice never teeters on superfluous. Mrs. MacFarlane evoked an adult Mattie Ross of True Grit—she’s a no-nonsense, self-sufficient character, and she drives this story with a coachman’s whip. Admittedly, there were places in the story that had me bewildered, whether from the author’s show of language to the elements of the plot itself. It’s still a marvelous tale and a must read for any dark fantasy enthusiasts. I highly recommend it.