Review: Strange Horizons, March 4, 2019

Review: Strange Horizons, March 4, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, March 5, 2019

“The Skinwalkers Ball” by Hammond Diehl

I’ll admit, the beginning of “The Skinwalkers Ball” by Hammond Diehl is confusing. I was a few paragraphs in when I started thinking this review was going to be terrible, but Diehl’s beautiful imagery and vivid descriptions kept me reading. I can say without a doubt, I’m glad I did.

Diehl crafts a tale that, at its heart, is a story of revenge. Set during the course of a mystical creature fashion show where contestants wear discarded bits of other beasts, “The Skinwalkers Ball” tells the story of an alchemist searching for the person who is murdering his children.

The narrator, trustworthy or not, is interesting and the near disinterest threaded through it all is reminiscent of, say, a cat who decided to record the events of a sunny day. There’s a tension Diehl pulls on as the story progresses, tightening the focus and the net until you’re left reading the end in a rush. By the time you finish the story, you’re either impressed by Diehl’s plotting and ability to tease you through with tiny nuggets of information or you’re frustrated and annoyed by it. I count myself amongst the former.

Overall, a great story, despite the early confusion.

From Earth, With Love

From Earth, With Love

Background: “From Earth, With Love” was written specifically for a call for submissions looking for Terry Pratchett-style humor. I popped this story out and submitted it only to receive a rejection. Since then, I’ve tried submitting it to other magazines, but the weird humor in it doesn’t make it a good fit for most SF/F mags.

As such, I’m officially taking it out of circulation and posting it here! Enjoy my attempt at humor. I’m sure it’s horrible.

— Mike


This is my story and isn’t being given away; i.e. all ideas are mine unless otherwise noted. See my copyright page for details.

If my cat hadn’t died when my house fell into the ocean, I wouldn’t be trudging through chest-high sludge on this poor excuse for a colony.

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Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, April 30, 2018

Table of Contents
“How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” by Alexander Jablokov
“The Esteemed” by Robert Reed
“Ventiforms” by Sean Monaghan
“Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer
“Credit to my Nation” by Sandra McDonald
“Written in Mud” by William F. Wu
“All the Difference” by Leah Cypess
“The Gorgon” by Jay O’Connell
“Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood
“Neom” by Lavie Tidhar

Alexander Jablokov‘s “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” starts like chapter two in a book. World-building Terminology is tossed around you’re expected to know or intuit and, many times, that’s difficult since phrases and faces pop up quickly and repeatedly as the story progresses. Even the ending is tied to a major character from another tale and their inclusion here feels weird and wrong when taking the story as a standalone piece.

I did a little research and it looks like Asimov’s has published several of Jablokov’s stories, including another story about the main character, Sere. I have to imagine I’d appreciate the piece more if I’d read that story before jumping into this one.

All that aside, it’s a decent detective story with a fully developed setting and strong writing. It’s worth a read, but I think you’ll probably enjoy it more if you read “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry” in Asimov’s July/August 2017 issue.

“The Esteemed” by Robert Reed is a long, sometimes confusing story that follows a time traveler named Mahlon and his time-manipulating travels across the 20th century. This story has dozens of twists and turns, with a narrative style that periodically throws alternate futures into random asides in the middle of dialog passages in a way I found disengaging and, sometimes, confounding.

Despite that, “The Esteemed” is an interesting take on time travel and the psychology of the travelers who take part. It’s worth a read but be ready to be misled by the narration.

Sean Monaghan‘s”Ventiforms” is, at its core, a sweet tale of a mother trying to find her son. Monaghan does a great job setting the stage for the Tailé’s quest. The descriptions of the planet Zephierre and its “ventiforms” is both entrancing and beautiful. It’s easy to understand, by the end, why her son, Brandon, is doing what he’s doing. I’m not sure many of us would choose otherwise.

“Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer takes a little while to get used to—it’s not often you find stories in second-person out in the wild—but once you do it flows well from beginning to end. Palmer takes this idea of Icarus flying close to the sun, sets it in the far future, and brings it home into a satisfying conclusion. While there isn’t much in the form of real tension, the world-building and pacing is tight and well executed. Definitely worth a read.

“Credit to my Nation” by Sandra McDonald is an interesting story about our narrator, Unity, trying to find meaning in an otherwise dark life. The narrative tool for this journey comes in the form of a sort of personal time-travel, where a person is able to dig through their past and future using their DNA. The mechanic is reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed Animus, though there’s no interaction between the person and the memory; it’s simply a display. It’s an unoriginal idea tweaked expertly into a narrative device that feels extremely personal and vulnerable.

“Written in Mud” by William F. Wu is a hilarious trip into a dystopian future. It’s filled with rapid-fire Gilmore Girls-style dialog that’s biting and witty and drives the plot forward with quip after quip. Oh, and there’s a talking fish. It’s a fun story and well worth a read.

“All the Difference” by Leah Cypess is a fantastically introspective story that follows our unnamed narrator as she uses a time travel system to explore alternate timelines to see if she’s made the right decisions in her otherwise mundane life. If you’re looking for a high-prose literary piece, this isn’t it. If you want a perfectly accessible, well-written story, this is for you.

The majority of the story is inner monologue and it’s rich with indecision and nearly neurotic chains of thought that resonated deeply with my own reflections. The ending is great, if more terrifying than expected.

Jay O’Connell‘s”The Gorgon” is an interesting story. Essentially, it follows a near-sociopath (he goes out of his way to show he’s not one, obviously) as they stumble across a massive plot by an artificial intelligence that hasn’t been built yet, but is interfering with the present through some sort of time travel mind-reading… thing. The concept is interesting and the narrator, while wholly unlikable, drags you along while you wonder “what the hell is this control freak going to do next?” The ending happens kind of all at once and, personally, was a little unfulfilling. I felt like it should have exhibited more action and consequence there, so, for me, it fell just a little short.

“Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood sets the stage for a final showdown between an old, abandoned mining colony and their returning corporate overlords. The plot is simple: ruthless taskmaster returns to a colony that’s developed its own culture and bonded with local aliens; the locals stymie that effort through trickery and deceit. There’s nothing wrong with “Salting the Mine,” but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough conflict and failure in the story to be truly engaging. Even the small romantic side-plot just kind of “works out.” Wood’s writing is great, the dialog is tight, and the description is vivid, but the story just doesn’t do it for me.

“Neom” by Lavie Tidhar is a lovely world-building tale. We follow Mariam as she goes about a usual day for her in the city of Neom, a geek-topia setup on the Arabian Peninsula. Mariam is a house-cleaner, so we get her lower class view of this otherwise high-and-mighty city, replete with all its victories and faults. As someone who grew up in a poor household with many parallels to Mariam’s life, I felt connected in a real way to the narrative style.

That said, I can’t say there’s much of a story here, in the traditional sense. It feels like the first chapter of a larger book and the ending—or non-ending, as it were—reinforces this feeling.

I’d love to see this expanded into a larger story with risks and consequences; I think it’d be fantastic. As it is, this iteration falls short of my expectations.

Review: Flash Fiction Online #62, November 2018

Review: Flash Fiction Online #62, November 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, November 19, 2018

Table of Contents
“Trinkets” by Joe Parker
“Ivy” by Melissa Goodrich

Joe Parker‘s “Trinkets” is a short piece, as you’d expect on Flash Fiction Online, but that doesn’t limit the quality of writing despite the weirdness threaded throughout. In “Trinkets,” the narrator gets little gifts from a seemingly bereaved woman. As he takes each one, his life starts to change for the better. Strokes of random good luck for him and his family. The ending, while somewhat expected, is an interesting and satisfying conclusion. Worth a read.

“Ivy” by Melissa Goodrich is… interesting. I’ve re-read the story a few times now, but I feel like I’m still missing some integral metaphor that makes this story suddenly make sense. As it is, “Ivy” tells the story of a girl who literally sprouts ivy from her hands in the days (years?) following her mother’s miscarriage. There’s some deep hints of child abuse and emotional abuse throughout the story, though the only explicit piece is when the girl’s aunt arrives and forcibly trims the ivy from her hands with shears.

“Ivy” ends with a satisfactory bit of revenge, though I feel like the missing metaphor connection really muffled the impact for me. It’s a shame because Goodrich writes quite beautifully, I wish I could see what the author is trying to show me.

Review: Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Review: Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, October 3, 2018

Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Table of Contents
“What I Understand Now” by Lauren Ferebee
“Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C. Baker
“Three is a Sacred Number” by Carrie Cadwallader (reprint, not reviewed)
“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm

Lauren Ferebee‘s “What I Understand Now” feels like a modern fable. In this story, the unnamed narrator stands in for Millennials and Generation Z (I believe) while Molly, her affluent friend who opens the story knowing she’s already dead, represents something of an idealized life. A typical southern belle who did all the things the narrator dreamed of, who thenbecame the thing she felt she should be even though she doesn’t want it. And, beyond all that, there’s this feeling of loss tied to forgotten memories and lost chances. I may be reading too much into it (probably), but it’s a quick read that’s well worth your time.

“Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C. Baker is a fun story with a neat little twist at the end. Told through the eyes of “Doctress Death,” the story is essentially her rambling monologue to her frenemy, “The Paleontologist.” It’s simple and feels loosely based on Jonathan Coulton’s “Nemeses,” but it’s a fun story. And, like I mentioned earlier, the ending is a nice twist.

“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm is a surprisingly tight story for one where the premise is about extradimensional gorillas appearing one day to follow people around wherever they go. The story really gains traction when the narrator’s daughter is born and, unlike everyone else on the planet, she doesn’t have a gorilla. I just re-read that and it seems ridiculous, but by the third paragraph McKimm manages to make the gorillas seem quite blasé and normal. They fade into the background and let the real story, the one that dragged sudden tears from me as I read the ending, blossom and shine. In short: I cried at the end of a story about extradimensional gorillas.

Review: Weirdbook #40, August 2018

Review: Weirdbook #40, August 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, September 22, 2018

Weirdbook #40, August 2018

Table of Contents
“Iconoclasm” by Adrian Cole
“Have a Crappy Halloween” by Franklyn Searight
“The Dollhouse” by Glynn Owen Barrass
“Early Snow” by Samson Stormcrow Hayes
“Elle a Vu un Loup” by Loren Rhoads
“Bringing the Bodies Home” by Christian Riley
“Restored” by Marlane Quade Cook
“Nameless and Named” by David M. Hoenig
“Playing A Starring Role” by Paul Lubaczewksi
“And the Living is Easy” by Mike Chinn
“The Prague Relic” by Paul StJohn Mackintosh
“The Circle” by Matt Sullivan
“Sanctuary” by John Linwood Grant
“The Giving of Gifts” by Matt Neil Hill
“The Santa Anna” by Jack Lothian
“The Dread Fishermen” by Kevin Henry
“Blind Vision” by Andrew Darlington
“The Thirteenth Step” by William Tea
“This Godless Apprenticeship” by Clint Smith
“Waiting” by John W. Dennehy
“Pouring Whiskey In My Soul” by Paul R. McNamee
“True Blue” by Darrell Schweitzer
“The Treadmill” by Rohit Sawant
“The Veiled Isle” by W. D. Clifton

Weirdbook #40 is loaded to the gills with twenty-four stories ranging from science-fiction to generic fantasy to modern historical fantasy. There’s a heavy lean in this collection toward Lovecraftian horror that I didn’t always appreciate. Many of these stories just seem to stop short of providing what I’d usually consider the requisite emotional punch of a successful piece and even more are so close to being really good that it’s almost depressing when they fall a hair short.

Some of this failing may be due to some rather glaring editing mistakes throughout. From missing capitalization in the From the Editor’s Tower note to complete missing phrases in several stories, the mistakes are rampant enough to draw a sigh and amuttered, “well, there’s another one.”

That said, there are stories in this collection that’re well worth the purchase. Case in point: out of the twenty-four pieces in this collection, I’ve added seven to my recommendation list.

“Iconoclasm” by Adrian Cole is an interesting psychological trip. Much like the title suggests, we follow the disillusioned Father of a local church as he goes through an intense supernatural crisis of faith. When a mysterious stranger arrives and challenges his view of God, our unnamed Father ends up stumbling into a series of events that end with him in the hospital and his church burned. Overall, it’s an interesting story. At times, the suspense is palpable and clinging and you find yourself reading rapidly to try and figure out just what is going on. While a typical trope in thrillers, I do find it interesting that the Father has very little impact on the story. It seems like he’s along for the ride with little to no control of the direction of things. In that respect, the story reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone… then again, that’s probably the point.

“Have a Crappy Halloween” by Franklyn Searight follows ten-year-old Robbie on his favorite holiday, Halloween. The story didn’t work entirely for me, in part due to some of the editing issues noted in the opening remarks. That said, I really wanted to love it. There seems to be an attempt to tell the story like a child would, with stream of consciousness switches in narrator focus and, in that, I’d say Searight succeeds. However, this storytelling style, combined with the looseness of the plot and the open-endedness of the conclusion, left me unfulfilled.

“Early Snow” by Samson Stormcrow Hayes is a pretty straightforward ghost-visits-person-after-death story. It’s not unpleasant, but it also doesn’t feel very inspired. That said, Hayes’s description and pacing is spot on; I just wish there was more to it.

In “The Dollhouse” by Glynn Owen Barrass, we get to know Concubine, a synthetic human on the run from an alien matriarch as she explores an old display town for other synthetic models. When she discovers a way to update the programming of all the synths in town, Concubine decides to enhance herself in a very literal way. Barrass really shines in his battle descriptions and I wish there was more of that. The ending of the story, like much of this anthology, is open-ended, though not unpleasant.

“Elle a Vu un Loup” by Loren Rhoads is a well-crafted Lovecraftian-style horror story. Just like some of the best Lovecraft, just as you start to get bored of the constant description, Rhoads hooks you again with a bit of mystery and drags you on.

“Bringing the Bodies Home” by Christian Riley tells the story of Otis as his plane carrying the infected bodies of eight soldiers crash lands in the middle of a galactic war. Riley masterfully crafts his world within a few short sentences while simultaneously hooking you into the fate of this rather distasteful pilot. My only concern may come from my read of the story: the plotting and pacing was such that I wrongly assumed this was a hardcore SF piece, but the ending clearly indicates horror. Honestly, this would make a fantastic first chapter in a future book (and I hope there is one!).

“Restored” by Marlane Quade Cook is a quick story about a vampiric painting. I’m unsure if this is another formatting issue or a style choice, but the story starts with a massive first paragraph that encompasses nearly half the story. The result threw me off despite some of the tight description in that paragraph. Overall, the highlight of the story for me was the ending since Cook has a knack for describing people in horrific pain.

“Nameless and Named” by David M. Hoenig digs into the Cthulhu mythos with this creepy tale. Much like other Lovecraftian horror, the story is written with lofty dialog and nearly purple prose, but it works for the overall tale. Altogether, it’s a pleasantly uncomfortable jaunt into one of the Great Old Ones’ temples.

“Playing A Starring Role” by Paul Lubaczewski falls victim to some of the editing issues of the issue. The opening starts off repetitive, with various grammar issues, and is riddled with tense shifts that made it hard to keep reading. One redeeming quality of the story comes in Lubaczewski’s dialog. It flows effortlessly and is used to define and round out each character in a way the description and story do not.

“And the Living is Easy” by Mike Chinn tells the story of Ash and Ama, two gods who, through some perversion of our sun, struggle through each day either confronting or avoiding its poisoned rays. I rather liked this story. The dialog between Ash and Ama was rich and full of character and each minute detail fit the overall narrative. Well worth a read.

“The Prague Relic” by Paul StJohn Mackintosh is a wonderful story with a realistic ending that I very much disliked (and isn’t a bad thing). Set primarily in World War II Prague, it follows the story of a trio of men set on finding an ancient relic, as the title suggests. I won’t spoil any more, but, suffice to say, the characters are magnificent, the magic is fantastic, the fight scenes are well-described, and the ending, as apt as it is, makes you want to throw the book with a howl. Well done, Mackintosh.

“The Circle” by Matt Sullivan is a wonderful (to use a word I feel would find a good place in this story) mindfuck. It starts as a basic fantasy getaway story with a, um, determined protagonist and ends with some multi-dimensional SF. Definitely a highlight in this issue.

“Sanctuary” by John Linwood Grant has the feel of an old tale told ’round the fire with a mug of ale and a grinning old storyteller. It details the events around a young woman fleeing the finmen—a race of mermen/mermaid-ish people—as she integrates into the community of Gorse Muttering. The almost blasé way most of the characters interact with the fantastic elements of the story are absolutely charming and hooked me over and over again. I think most of us are meant to relate deeply with Reverend Ralph, the latest transplant to the village, and I think it’s a device that works nicely in this modern fantasy tale.

“The Giving of Gifts” by Matt Neil Hill is, at its core, a story about caregiving. It digs into the stress and mental toll of caring for a dying loved one, while providing a tangible representation of the benefits. In this story our narrator, Richard, is caring for his catatonic brother, David. As the story progresses, we find that David somehow regurgitates small things for Richard—jewelry, drugs, and even old photographs. This conceit, while a bit unsavory, leads to a brilliant conclusion.

Jack Lothian successfully translates the horror of being lost and alone on the open seas in “The Santa Anna.” It starts with foreboding, sets the stakes high, then slowly and steadily tears you apart, just like the fog does here. Well done.

“The Dread Fishermen” by Kevin Henry is another Lovecraftian story for this issue. In this one Janet, with the help of an old salt, Noddy, tries to save her son’s soul from beasts in another dimension. While none of the Old Ones are called out by name, the descriptions throughout tie it into the mythos. Overall, it’s a pleasant read, though I didn’t feel the anxiety as much as I would’ve liked, especially since that seems to be Henry’s primary goal in this piece.

“Blind Vision” by Andrew Darlington is an interesting story. Darlington switches between first- and third-person and past/present tense throughout the story in a way that, I think, just works. The story itself begins as a believable romp through the Greek countryside and ends with a rather confusing deus ex machina. Despite that, Darlington’s use of metaphor and simile were pleasing and imaginative, making this worth a read.

“The Thirteenth Step” by William Tea has the feel of another Lovecraftian story… until it doesn’t. Our narrator, Jacob, heads home after his father’s death from the inexorable pull of his OCD, agoraphobic mother and, upon climbing the stairs, finds an extra step. This discovery starts a chain reaction that leads to an unexpected and wonderfully morose ending.

“This Godless Apprenticeship” by Clint Smith is written in an 18th century style, so it might not be as palatable to some as others written in a more contemporary style. That said, I have a soft spot for pieces like this and really enjoyed the lofty prose on top of a good old Victorian tale of terror. The ending is well done and, while heavily foreshadowed, unexpected. Great story.

“Waiting” by John W. Dennehy is a haunting story rooted in a tale about two boys left alone in a car while their mother goes into a bar. It has a very slow start and, honestly, I was confused where it was going until it all settled into place. The first half seemed too long, overall, but the ending landed well.

The story “Pouring Whiskey In My Soul” by Paul R. McNamee sets itself up in post-Independence America immediately following the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s interesting enough, with historically accurate depictions of characters and events, but the main plot—reanimated “zumbis” defeated by a surprisingly knowledgeable narrator—fell flat for me.

Okay. “True Blue” by Darrell Schweitzer is about sentient cars, overwhelmingly understanding and calm human beings, a finger bone in a trunk, and an incredibly strong marriage. It’s silly, weird, and funny. Inexplicably, I really enjoyed it.

“The Treadmill” by Rohit Sawant is a story I think anyone who has ever run on a treadmill can sympathize with. It’s good fun and worth reading so you can live vicariously through the narrator as he does something we’ve all wanted to do, but don’t expect a life-altering message here.

“The Veiled Isle” by W. D. Clifton is a fantasy story that reads like an evening of D&D. The main character is a hulking orc that can’t be beaten in battle, a beautiful temptress, and the helpless, yet still beautiful, slave. Some of the description is nice, but, if I’m to be honest, there’s not a lot here to like.

Review: Diabolical Plots #42, August 2018

Review: Diabolical Plots #42, August 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, August 20, 2018

Diabolical Plots #42, August 2018

Table of Contents
“Medium Matters” by R.K. Duncan
“The Vegan Apocalypse: 50 Years Later” by Ryan Dull

August’s issue gives us two science-fiction stories, but both break the traditional mold in favor of humor.

Ever wonder what it’d be like if an advice columnist gave out strangely apt life advice under the guise of paranormal conflict resolution? Well, you’re in luck because R.K. Duncan‘s “Medium Matters” is just that.

While the story begins with a pleading letter from “Cursed, in Kansas City,” the rest of the story is ultimately about the columnist, one Marissa Matters. There’s a consistent thread of humor throughout, which is fantastic because the reality hidden just behind the explanation that spirits are restrained by man-made laws (and, thus, can be issued a Restraining Order) isn’t at all. It’s a commentary on sexual harassment, abuse, and obsessive possessiveness that trails women throughout their daily lives.

There’s a chance I’m reading into the story too much, but I don’t think so. Overall, an interesting read with neat voicing that digs into an important topic.

Ryan Dull‘s “The Vegan Apocalypse: 50 Years Later” is essentially a piece of corporate meat-market propaganda detailing the ascendance of a relatively large part of the human population (the Beloved BillionTM plus almost a billion vegans… but they don’t count in the announcement).

In another time, where our current socio-environmental-economic situation doesn’t inspire a high level of anxiety and paranoia, I’d probably be laughing my way through the story. Ryan Dull has a way of taking corporate talking points and morphing them into a format that showcases just how ridiculous they are (i.e. McFactTM).

At the risk of forcing my own politics into this narrative, the way the story is written and the style with which Dull employs doublespeak tactics really struck a nerve as I considered it inside the U.S.’s current political/cultural narrative. If that’s the point of the story—and I believe it is—Dull is very successful in teasing out those anxieties and concerns with corny trademarked phrases and protein cubes.

The one major criticism I have for this story is it seems to stretch on for longer than I would’ve liked. As I neared the end of section four I realized there were five subsections and I hadn’t even begun that part.

Overall, worth swinging by and reading. Just don’t eat a burger while doing so.