Review: Nightmare #83, August 2019

Review: Nightmare #83, August 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, August 23, 2019

“The Skin of a Teenage Boy Is Not Alive” by Senaa Ahmad
“The Bleeding Maze: A Visitor’s Guide” by Kurt Fawver

“The Skin of a Teenage Boy Is Not Alive” by Senaa Ahmad is a hauntingly beautiful story of teenage angst and discontent. Generally, it follows Parveen and the semester before high school graduation when the demon cult kids manage to get one of their classmates possessed.

The story can be a bit confusing at times as Ahmad hops heads, and timelines, often. In one scene we see Benny get possessed, then the demon throws them from the roof. Immediately after that, Ahmad is discussing the cult kids growing up, getting old, etc.

The uniting theme I see here is in the parallels between Parveen and the demon. Both want the same thing, freedom, and are driven by similar emotions and needs, which, the demon irritably notes, is why he keeps getting summoned by teenagers.

Overall, a really interesting tale with some fantastic description and metaphor usage. Even if you can’t catch the storyline, it’s worth reading solely for Ahmad’s descriptive talent.

Kurt Fawver‘s “The Bleeding Maze: A Visitor’s Guide” is an interesting story. The unnamed narrator tells about an unbreakable, terrifying maze in their town, a maze they send their kids into when they get old enough. From there, it digs into a series of firsthand accounts, some good, some horrific, from various citizens.

There’s definitely a decent amount here to like, but I wasn’t particularly wooed by the format. I think I’d have enjoyed a deeper dive into one of these trips into the maze rather than the detached way they were presented, almost like a reporter writing a story. Fawver tries to capture some of that tension at the end, but I don’t think it was successful. Great ideas, but the execution wasn’t quite there for me.

Review: Black Static #70, July/August 2019

Review: Black Static #70, July/August 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, July 31, 2019

“I Write Your Name” by Ralph Robert Moore
“A Crown of Leaves” by Kristi DeMeester
“Pendulum” by Steven J. Dines
“Glass Eyes in Porcelain Faces” by Jack Westlake
“Massaging the Monster” by Cody Goodfellow
“The Touch of Her” by Steven Sheil
“The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Saved” by Natalia Theodoridou

“I Write Your Name” by Ralph Robert Moore is a wandering story. Generally speaking, it follows the tale of Roger and Mia, two people who meet, very briefly, when Roger is fourteen and Mia is a newborn. They meet again thirty years later, get married, Roger gets dementia, dies, turns into a dog (?), accidentally gets Mia killed, then spends his remaining days at her grave begging her forgiveness.

I’m honestly not sure I followed the story properly by the end. Every hook or dangling bit of angst either doesn’t resolve or twists into a weird, not-quite-explained story angle that evolves into something even weirder; i.e., he changes into a dog. Also, the opening hook, with Roger looking at a baby and the author saying they fell in love, is creepily reminiscent of Lolita.

If you’re looking for something creepy, just pure creepy in a not-scary-just-super-weird sort of way, then this story is for you.

Kristi DeMeester‘s “A Crown of Leaves” follows Opal as she’s driven to the childhood home she was taken from as a child by her sister Maribel. As children, Opal and her sister were taken to the woods by their seemingly crazy mother and forced to wear crowns of leaves under an insane tree with glass leaves.

The tension build in this is pretty good. Opal’s sister slowly but steadily seems to lose her mind as the story goes on and is limned with rather terrifying memories from Opal’s childhood. As they get closer to the house, it gets worse, with Maribel turning off the lights and driving through a forest in the dark.

As we hit the climax, I was astounded by how disturbing DeMeester gets while staying true to the spirit she established at the beginning of the piece. Definitely worth a read.

“Pendulum” by Steven J. Dines. Phew. Dines presents this story in a non-linear way through the birth and death of the Milly’s son, Jack. It’s a terrifying story, though not much happens, contextually, just a constant slow build as Dines uses the metaphor and imagery of a pendulum to repeatedly amplify the worst parts of the tale. It’s a great story about a terrible thing.

“Glass Eyes in Porcelain Faces” by Jack Westlake is about how Darren’s life falls apart after he starts seeing people walking around with porcelain faces.

As the story progresses, it’s clear Darren has a history of mental illness. As his symptoms get worse and more people have these porcelain faces, he tries to hide his symptoms until, finally, he breaks down and orders two porcelain masks for himself and his girlfriend. Everything comes to a head when he goes out in public, finally feeling like he’s blending in with everyone else. The ending is apt, terrifying, and made me shudder.

Overall, it’s a great horror story. The pacing is spot on; the tension build, well written. And the ending is horrible with an apt twist that still makes me cringe. Very well done.

“Massaging the Monster” by Cody Goodfellow tells the story of Jocasta, a woman who has been through a hell unlike anything I can imagine and finds herself at a massage house as a masseuse who can see the sins of men in their skin. When the man who murdered her mother and father arrives, she decides to channel an ancestral massage style to get her revenge on him.

At its core, “Massaging the Monster” isn’t an original concept, even down to the idea of mystical energies helping someone get revenge. What really makes this story special is the execution. Goodfellow does a great job with the minutiae of the story, lending us such detail in the art of the massage that when it turns to the speculative element, it’s easy to accept what’s happening. Great story with quite the rush at the conclusion.

In Steven Sheil’s “The Touch of Her,” we’re put into the head of Mark, a man obsessed with a barista, Hannah. It’s a disturbing dive into his thoughts as he obsesses over Hannah and demonizes another admirer of hers, an overweight man known only as The Toad. The first huge chunk of this story is Mark rationalizing his crazed thoughts about Hannah until, after waiting for Hannah to leave work, he tries to follow her home. He ends up finding Hannah in a car with The Toad, then proceeds to go absolutely nuts.

I think the majority of what makes this story a success is the constant, pressing horror of how unstable and violent Mark might be.

That said, the ending is a little off for me, and not just because it’s the first evidence we’ve had of a speculative element in the entire story. There’s this change in the environment after Mark kills The Toad and hurts a little girl during his flight that, I believe, is supposed to be because social media and the like is grabbing onto his actions and turning the world against him. The speculative piece is the entire world turns into a single, focused being, all looking at him as he’s trapped in the subway.

I think the reason I’m having issues with the ending has less to do with the setup and more the message. Is it a critique of callout culture? Is it a celebration of it? I don’t know, and, as such, I can’t say for certain if the author is excusing Mark’s actions or criticizing them and that, in and of itself, terrifies me the most.

“The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Saved” by Natalia Theodoridou is written perfectly for the story. The main character, known only as Cherry girl, narrates, hinting at everything, but showing nothing. What she does reveal is her husband as some sort of supernatural being, possibly a vampire, whose mood impacts the world around him in very real ways, both good and bad.

I like the distance the narrator puts between herself and the reader. There’s this allusion to dark actions and past murders, but Cherry girl glosses over them in a haze, like she can’t see the demon in front of her, which, as we find out later, she probably can’t. It’s an intriguing story and worth a read even if it’s only to explore the great use of an unreliable narrator in telling a deep story that never says anything straight.

Review: Deep Magic #65, Summer 2019

Review: Deep Magic #65, Summer 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, June 18, 2019

“His Lady’s Favor” by K.D. Julicher
“Expectation of Privacy” by L.B. Spillers
“The Greatest Knife Wielder” by Django Mathijsen
“Lutwidge Ranch” by Daniel Welker
“Hall of the Diamond Queen” by Anthony Ryan

“His Lady’s Favor” by K.D. Julicher is set in a somewhat traditional fantasy world where mages draw runes into armor and squires and knights fight in a semblance of gladiatorial combat. Rina is a mage who has just lost her position as a runesmith after a knight gets injured while wearing her latest armor. In a rush of panic, she goes to her old lover, Edrick, a great warrior who retired after accidentally killing an opponent in a tournament. Together, they work to get Rina’s talents observed by patrons so she can grow to become the greatest runesmith the world has known. But, in order to achieve this, they must face their individual fear of loss. For Edrick, this is tackling his guilt over killing a man; for Rina, it’s overcoming Edrick’s disappearance following the accident.

Overall, “His Lady’s Favor” is, at its core, a sweet story about two young lovers and the trials that tear them apart. The magic system and world-building are well done and feels organic when displayed. That said, I felt like the stakes weren’t super high here, leading to a lot of pseudo-tense moments that happened to work out for the better. The story, while worth a read, is sadly a little too predictable.

L.B. Spillers‘ “Expectation of Privacy” is a story that always feels like it’s a hair away from greatness. The protagonist, Veli, works in a far future world where a network of AIs known as Certified Surveillance watch over a super advanced New York City, which is referred to as the “City.” Veli is working his way through college in the hopes of becoming a doctor, but when he’s not accepted into med school because of an ambiguous “social score,” he gives up a bit and starts moving black market goods outside of the City. Throughout all this, an AI, known as the Administrator, is present in his mind. Added to this is the fact thatVeli’s sister is on the losing side of a cancer battle, which drives him farther into the seedier side of the courier trade.

All this changes when the Administrator starts confiding in Veli that the AI is monitoring him even when it’s not supposed to under the guise of caring for its staff. This leads to a series of incidents resulting in Veli making a choice: trust the Administrator or run away.

I really wanted to enjoy this story. There’s a ton here to love, from world-building to interesting secondary characters, to this subjective “social score” I got the impression was similar to The Orville‘s “Majority Rule” episode, but all of these things stop a hair earlier than I felt they needed to land right. For example, Veli’s sister, Izzy, is an amazing, powerful character, but we only see her a couple times and rarely as anything but window dressing to add stakes. The same goes for this “social score;” it’s trotted out early on, then when he doesn’t get into med school, it’s then discarded.

I wish there was a little more here; if it was a tad deeper or I could connect to Veli a little more—he reads rather flat to me—I’d be ecstatic. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, though it does end with a nice little callback joke that made me smile.

Is ego more important than love? If Django Mathijsen‘s “The Greatest Knife Wielder” is any indication, then yes. In this story, a man, Master Marso, adopts two kids as his assistants, then trains them in his miraculous knife throwing act. As they grow up, Master Marso starts teaching the young boy, Remald, how to use a magic pendant to control the direction of his throwing knives, eventually leading to the two doing collaborative tricks.

As Remald gets older, he starts wanting some recognition, which ultimately leads to Master Marso’s jealousy getting out of hand.

“The Greatest Knife Wielder” really shines in the way it deals with the psychology of a child as they grow up in the spotlight. Beyond that, it fell a bit flat for me. Mathijsen takes a “less is more” approach to description later in the story that didn’t resonate with me. Many times, it left me feeling like the action was taking place in a white room. Additionally, Alleira, the other adopted child, feels like a one-dimensional prop for Remald rather than a companion. Overall, it’s a sweet story, but don’t expect anything earth shattering.

“Lutwidge Ranch” by Daniel Welker isn’t at all what I expected. We follow Robbyn as he goes about his daily life managing the Lutwidge Ranch like his grandfather, the aging warrior Timber. When the mythical Jabberwock arrives to torment the town, Robbyn takes his next step toward becoming the man he wants to be.

Most of the plot revolves around Robbyn’s love of his childhood sweetheart, Hannah. It’s written in such a true, endearing way I found it hard not to smile as Robbyn stumbles through the motions of courtship. When Robbyn eventually offers an off-the-cuff proposal and Hannah accepts, I spent several minutes snickering to myself.

It’s easy to try and import deeper meaning to this story than it has. At its core is this idea of growing up and what that means when you’re the last person left in your family. There’s not a whole lot of tension here as it reads like a middle-grade or children’s story. Then again, it doesn’t pretend to be deeper than it is, which I must grudgingly accept as admirable.

In the end, I think the message is doing what you need to do for those you love and, if anything, I can say that’s not a bad way to live.

“Hall of the Diamond Queen” by Anthony Ryan tells the tale of Sharrow-met, the Wraith-Queen, and commander of the armies of a dark force known as The Voice. When Sharrow-met finally takes the final city on the continent, she’s forced to confront her own humanity as well as a past that’s been hidden from her for her entire life.

This story felt simple until I got about halfway through, at which point most of my assumptions were tossed in the trash. Ryan does a great job setting the reader up to think Sharrow-met is someone she’s not and when the reveal happens, I was emotionally shocked, even if I’d started suspecting the hook by then. Like many of the other stories in this issue, there doesn’t seem to be any deeper meanings or life lessons hidden within the text, but I don’t think it needs it. It’s a fun tale with a nice twist in the middle.

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #278, May 23, 2019

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #278, May 23, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, May 23, 2019

The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne
Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case

“The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne is a story steeped with beautiful social and narrative metaphors. At its most basic, “The Two-Bullet War” is a story about royal succession following the death of the queen. The main character, Mila, is the queen’s chosen Gun, a sort of Justiciar for the kingdom. Mila is also one of the “Mountain folk,” whom were once viewed as subhuman until the queen changed that view and opened their borders. When the queen dies, one of her sons, Karstan, decides to challenge his brother’s claim for the throne. Karstan is an isolationist and racist, while his brother, Alidar, wants to maintain the regime his mother built.

The twist here is that instead of fighting a full civil war, the two princes choose champions to fight for them with the loser dying along with the defeated champion. Karstan chooses Mila due to her skill and Alidar chooses Mila’s secret lover/husband.

The conflict setup is as complex as the social structure Osborne creates. From the first word, there’s barely a moment to breathe. There are a few times it feels like the story is about to spiral out of control as Osborne threads in yet another subplot, but she manages it skillfully, ending the story with a few sentences that somehow wrap up every plot thread introduced. In short, it’s a great story and well worth a read. Also, it’s Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ Audio Podcast story for this issue and the reader does the story justice.

“Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case is told through the point of view of Madam Gray, a blind actuary who uses magical ink to write insurance policies for soldiers going off to a losing war. Her employee, Magdalena, employs a different type of magic to predict the future of those looking for insurance; she’s a Taster and reads a person’s fate by drinking blood from their lips. When one of the king’s generals shows up at Madam Gray’s home, she’s faced with making a choice: maintain her honor and reputation or lie to the king and stop the war.

Case’s descriptions and world-building throughout are splendid. He somehow manages to weave a wonderfully complex vision for a character without sight in a way that lets us enjoy the story visually. It’s a challenge, but it’s one he’s managed wonderfully. Honestly, it’s probably as challenging as crafting an engaging tale about an insurance salesperson. Overall, a great story and worth your time.

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, May 9, 2019

The Bone Flute Quartet” by K.J. Kabza
The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat” by R.K. Duncan

“The Bone Flute Quartet” by K.J. Kabza is a story with the pacing of a tale told round a fire to a group of children. Our narrator, Bretchen, is a youth who wants to be a witch like Myrra Ferrinn, an ancient sorceress who was drawn and quartered for her dark magic. Bretchen’s grandmother, or Ommama, feeds this interest despite her mother’s protestations. After finishing her primary schooling at age eleven, Bretchen is given a choice: go to a knittery and learn that trade or try and apprentice to a witch. When she takes the path of a witch, it’s no surprise.

However, what is surprising is after Bretchen’s trials and tribulations with magic during her adventure, she still chooses to become a witch at the end of the story. Since this read as a child’s tale, I assumed there’d be a lesson of power/corruption, etc., but at the end Bretchen chooses to continue down her previously chosen path, though with open eyes. It’s an interesting choice I’m not entirely sure if I enjoy, but it certainly works.

R.K. Duncan‘s “The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat” is a story centered around the idea that severed hands tossed into a river by an ancient tyrant hold mystical properties. Navid’s family takes these ancient hands and molds them into talismans, which they sell to commoners and nobles alike. When a high lord arrives and demands a 3,800 bone coat, Navid, the diver of the family, is in a race against time to find the hands so his family can craft the coat. When he runs out of time, Navid makes a choice to defile a temple in order to increase his chances of gathering the bones they need in time.

The story itself is interesting and engaging, but the ending wrapped up a bit too nicely for my taste. I kept expecting something horrible to happen to Navid after the temple scene, but nothing does. There seems to be no consequence to his action, so I felt let down at the end, like I missed something.

At the very least, he could’ve lost his hands.

Review: Diabolical Plots #50, April 2019

Review: Diabolical Plots #50, April 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, April 19, 2019

Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” by Matt Dovey
One Part Per Billion” by Samantha Mills

“Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” by Matt Dovey is a satirical look at how Millennials are ruining everything. The story reads like an article you might find on the front page of the New York Times, if the majority of humanity worshiped the Elder Dark whilst going about their otherwise mundane lives. It’s witty, funny, and ends with a Millennial thrusting his erect penis toward the sky in obeisance while his father watches from the crowd, proud tears blurring his vision. Seriously, you have to read it.

Samantha Mills‘ “One Part Per Billion” takes the idea of an alien race giving us space travel in exchange for long term observation on the first vessel created and turns it into a reflection of humanity, specifically as it pertains to the unique aspects within each of us. The story ends with the main character, and sole female on the ship, Irene Boswell, as she tries to fix an alien observation device after a mad crewmember busts it up with a wrench. The resulting damage creates a field where Irene slowly breaks apart into the most distinct parts of her, giving us a glimpse into this heroic woman’s fears and dreams, hopes and losses.

It’s a remarkably deep story told with a wry grin that ends on a humorous uptick that works. Give this one a read, for sure.

Poll: I Rewrote Immortal, How Should I Publish It?

Poll: I Rewrote Immortal, How Should I Publish It?

Hi everyone,Long time, no speak. I’d like to ask you all a question, but first, a little backstory:About a year ago, I pulled Immortal off the shelves and rewrote it, almost entirely. The resulting book is titled Fallen Gods and is a standalone book, rather than the first in a series.  I tried pitching it to agents, thinking maybe I could take this book through traditional publishing avenues, but no one I’d like to work with in that field seems willing to take a “previously self-published” book. 

So, here we are. I’d like to release this as a “new” book, but don’t want to piss everyone off.

I have to ask: would you prefer I release it as new because of how different it is, or should I update the old manuscript and push it out that way, possibly confusing people because it has a different title, pacing, etc.?

Review: Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Review: Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, March 13, 2019

Table of Contents
“But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
“When Home, No Need to Cry” by Erin K. Wagner
“Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson
“Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris
“Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson
“The Thing With the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (reprint, not reviewed)
“The Future is Blue” by Catherynne M. Valente (reprint, not reviewed)

“But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires is heartfelt and utterly disturbing. We join the narrator, Dengwen, as she recovers from the latest in a long string of miscarriages. The feeling of loss from that event permeates the story in a palpable way. Spires weaves that pain into the fabric of a tale about finding alien life on another planet and the world sending a team to find them in the hopes of saving the Earth.

The initial plot itself is worn—the Earth is dying, only the aliens can save us—but it’s not the point. The purpose of the story seems to be to highlight the loss of Dengwen and, ultimately, the lengths she’ll go to create life.

“But, Still, I Smile” is a fine example of emotional resonance. Be prepared to tear up at least once.

Erin K. Wagner‘s “When Home, No Need to Cry” is a hauntingly beautiful tale of an astronaut grounded because she has cancer and her fight to get back to the stars. It’s vulnerable and raw and I get the feeling I’ll wake up in a month thinking about this story. There’s not much more to say; Wagner knocked it out of the park with this story.

“Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson isn’t the story you think it’ll be. The story starts with us following Maya, an Apex Air salesman in the undefined future, as she goes about her day slinging designer air to the choking populace of her city. When she sees Dima walking to the same sleepstack, the story takes a romantic turn that, honestly, makes the story more fulfilling, if less action-oriented.

Larson manages to flesh out a dirty, hopeless world while showing that not all is lost because, with love, even the most horrible of places can be beautiful.

“Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris is an interesting concept for a story. Our narrator, Raneka, is an heiress trying to lie low as a war simmers in the background. After finding out she’s been getting mind wiped for years, Raneka decides to join the resistance and, instead of avoiding the war, start the fight.

There’s a ton of world-building threaded through this story. Harris adds bits of lore in almost every sentence, from hinting at socio-economic ties via a fabric store to defining a crystal magic system with a chest freezer analog.

It’s because of this I found myself re-reading many sentences in order to understand the content. Additionally, I felt Harris’s focus on world-building was done at the expense of character development. My perception of who Raneka is at the beginning of the story and the end doesn’t change much; it’s just her memories that evolve.

Overall, “Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” is an interesting story with a well-fleshed out world, but the story itself didn’t really do it for me.

In Kai Hudson‘s”Treasure Diving,”we follow Ilana as she dives to some ruins deep in the ocean looking for treasure in the days following her mother’s death in the hopes of distracting her sister from the loss. What Ilana finds in the deep is both terrifying and life-changing.

Hudson nails the pacing, especially during the action scenes, and does a great job threading emotional tension throughout. Kai’s description of the senses from the perspective of someone who breathes underwater is incredibly well done. It’s a great read, even if you guess at some of the plotting throughout.

“The Thing With the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun is extremely entertaining. Set in a world where alien invaders will only talk to people dressed like they’re about to jump into a roller derby ring, the only thing that can save the world are fifteen magic roller derby helmets and the Smash Sisters.

Trying to explain the loops Skaftun goes through to make this story seem matter-of-fact would be difficult. Suffice to say, it’s fun, periodically violent, and overwhelmingly approachable. Great story!

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.