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Review: Clarkesworld #157, October 2019

Review: Clarkesworld #157, October 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, October 23, 2019

“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson
“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby
“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee
“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe
“Song Xiuyun” by A Que, translated by Emily Jin
“How Alike Are We” by Bo-Young Kim, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar

Reviewed by Mike Wyant Jr.

“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson is a wild ride. The story follows Benny, a drug addict-turned alien savior, as he works to reunite a bunch of unnamed and otherwise unknown alien species from a similarly unknown group of people looking to do something even more unknown to them.

Until trying to write a brief synopsis for this story, I didn’t realize just how much isn’t explained. We spend so much time deep in Benny’s tortured psyche that, when the action happens, it just seems like the natural steps for him to take. In a lot of ways, I wonder if this was Larson’s goal, to set up a story where the driving energy simulates a drug addict’s thought process in the search for their next hit. If so, it’s done brilliantly and with such beautiful, yet raw imagery it’s hard not to be impressed by the piece.

My only real critique is the ending is rather abrupt, though it does fit the overall motif of the story in that it starts with an addict searching for their next high and ends with that expected payoff. Definitely give this story a read.

“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby is the story of what happens to a group of bioengineered super soldiers after the war against an alien invasion is over. Mostly, it follows the narrator as he reflects on dead friends, the war he fought, and the reality that he is probably starting to lose it until, suddenly, we realize he isn’t.

The most appealing part of this story is the earnestness of the narration and the voicing. I’ve read various stories and memoirs written by soldiers who’ve seen battle and Furby does a fantastic job capturing the phrasing and style in this piece. The story itself, from the intro to the final scene, is well crafted.

“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee is an interesting tale. Generally, it contains two main parts: Zhou Wenshu fretting about reporting first contact with an alien visitor that’d just come through a transit point (which I took to be some sort of FTL lane) and a transcript of a meeting with the alien. It’s in the transcript we find out the alien is a genetically crafted creature made from an Icelandic astronaut and, apparently, an angel or some fragment of God.

The transcript is written really well, with all the frustration you’d find in a conversation with two interpreters between the subject and the interviewer. The story itself is a slow burn, with an ever-increasing tension as more of the interview comes to light. By the end, it’s easy to understand why Zhou was so uncomfortable in the first section of the story.

That said, the story just kind of ends. It’s not poorly concluded, and I can’t put my finger on why it bugs me so much as it’s clear I’m thinking and feeling what the author wants me to, but it left me feeling unfulfilled.

Definitely worth reading as my dissatisfaction with the ending is entirely a subjective response and the rest of the story is worth the time.

“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe is terrifying. It follows a character we only ever know as the number 704 as she’s sent to a retirement home-esque building for being poor. The catch? She’s there to die in 24 hours.

The main plot revolves around 704 (I hate using that number as a name) as she comes to grips with the fact some prick government presided over by a certain presidential figure that’s far too familiar has outlawed poverty and, as such, will execute her. The ending, though somewhat depressing from an American, fight-to-the-death, point of view is satisfying and fits with the plot. Well worth a read.

“Song Xiuyun” by A Que and translated by Emily Jin is a fantastic story despite some editing and tense issues throughout. “Song Xiuyun” is told through two points of view, one is a futuristic Uber driver, Wu Huang, who controls a smart taxi through an Internet-connected helmet, and the other is the eponymous character, Song Xiuyun. Generally speaking, we follow Ms. Song as she travels to a near future Beijing in search of her son, whom she has found is in failing health. Soon, we find out her son has been using one of these helmets to control a robot designed to look exactly like him in order to fool her about his health. Eventually, from Ms. Song’s perspective, her son comes home for the Chinese New Year and all is well.

The thing that makes this story so interesting is Wu Huang’s perspective. She’s a replacement reader who connects the dots before Song does. During their drive, Wu Huang starts to draw parallels between her life and Song and her son’s, down to the way Wu Huang treats her family and their relationship. It’s an interesting take on modernization and the way it impacts family life and the ending, when it comes, is so simple, yet impactful I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two.

Bo-Young Kim‘s “How Alike Are We,” translated by Jihyun Park and GordSellar, is a fantastic story about a space-faring vessel’s Artificial Intelligence going into a synthetic human body to try and figure out a problem it’s unable to address in its typical, digital brain.

Roughly, the story is a rescue mission. The AI, NOON, at some point intercepted a distress signal on Titan from a mining facility that’s collapsed in on itself. NOON, after being dropped in a synthetic body, promptly forgets exactly why they forced the crew to do this, resulting in a long series of escalating tensions as the crew attacks NOON and the captain, Lee Jin Seo, protects it. Ultimately, as everything spirals out of control, NOON finally realizes the gap in their knowledge is caused by a bureaucrat’s edits to their core programming, but not before a mutiny breaks out amongst the crew, leaving the survival of the colony hanging in the balance.

“How Alike We Are” starts off slowly, mostly due to the lack of knowledge of the narrator and the limited perspective as NOON tries to get their bearings. The first third of it was a bit challenging as I didn’t understand where we were going or why anything was important, but it turned out that was the point. The farther along in the tale you get, the more cohesive, and readable, the story becomes. By the end, you feel the tension and the emotion NOON has embraced to achieve their goal. When the ending finally hits, it ends with a sentence that flies in the face of every assertion NOON has made throughout the story and the pure joy I felt at that was worth the read.

Oh, and the science is really, really tight in this one, though I guess it has to be since the main character is an artificial intelligence.

Review: Interzone #283, September/October

Review: Interzone #283, September/October

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, September 29, 2019

“The Winds and Persecutions of the Sky” by Robert Minto
“Of the Green Spires” by Lucy Harlow
“Jolene” by Fiona Moore
“The Palimpsest Trigger” by David Cleden
“Fix That House!” by John Kessel
“Two Worlds Apart” by Dustin Blair Steinacker (reprint, not reviewed)

Reviewed by Mike Wyant Jr.

“The Winds and Persecutions of the Sky” by Robert Minto takes place in a world where humans have locked themselves away in the decaying remnants of skyscrapers to defend against some sort of ancient chemical warfare. It’s set far enough past the original cause the main character, Sib, doesn’t seem to have any point of reference for his people’s obsession with cleanliness and isolation. The story itself is about Sib leaving the safety of his home to look for his friend, Malmo, whom he is convinced has been abducted by the flying humans outside the walls. To get to Malmo, he makes a deal with Trader, a young woman from outside and takes to the walls.

Overall, I really enjoyed the imagery and the depth of world-building throughout. However, there were a few things that caught my attention a little too much and broke my suspension of disbelief. The first one comes early, but only becomes an issue later. That issue is Trader herself. She’s one of the outsiders, which is made very clear early on, but Sib, the same Sib who only just broke the rules to leave his floor, let alone the building, knows her and somehow barters with her to help him find his friend. That presents a plot hole I couldn’t let go of despite my best efforts.

The second thing was in the ending. Through flashbacks, we see Sib as Malmo’s fawning toady, an assistant who constantly changes himself and his desires to meet whatever Malmo’s current obsession is. With the ending, I expected this to change, to see growth in Sib that showed his motivations were no longer dominated only by Malmo’s passions. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say, I didn’t see the growth I was looking for.

In short, a nicely written story with great world-building, but the plot and character growth didn’t quite land for me.

“Of the Green Spires” by Lucy Harlow is more poetry than prose. It’s a story about a strange plant called starthistle that grows all kinds of fruits, takes over a city, then retreats to create its own replica of portions of that city in the countryside. The (sub)plot has to do with a woman named Katherine who is having deep issues with her sister, only to have them solved, somehow, with the help of the starthistle and its fruits.

As I mentioned, this is a poetic work and Harlow is definitely a poet. I read many of the lines repeatedly just to enjoy their cadence and form. At the very least, it’s worth reading to feel what successful poetic prose can do.

That said, I didn’t have the same reaction to the plot. When I reached the end, I sat back and said, out loud, “Is it really just a story about a plant helping fix a family?” If it is, then I didn’t feel the intensity and importance of it throughout. This may be a reach, but I think the beauty of the language actually detracted from the impact of the plot, because when you’re reading about something so beautiful and miraculous, of course the relationship in question will be salvaged.

In the end, I didn’t like the story, but I really enjoyed reading it. I think you’ll need to give it a look and make your own decision on this one.

Fiona Moore‘s “Jolene” is funny in a twisted country song sort of way. The story follows Noah, a Consultant Autologist, which is like a psychologist for Intelligent Things (capital I and T), but a specialty in intelligent automobiles. The opening hook is in itself a joke: there’s a country singer whose wife, dog, and truck have all left him; the dog is dead, probably can’t do anything about the wife, but maybe the truck thing can be resolved. From this point, Noah speaks with the country singer in question, finds out his former partner on the National Competition circuit, a ruby red pickup named Jolene, has left him to work in a quarry, and won’t speak to him anymore. Yes, there’s a Dolly Parton joke. Yes, it’s funny.

Then the story takes a really dark turn about halfway in. We find out the dog got killed by Jolene, the wife is burnt alive, etc., yet the humorous tone doesn’t waver. By the time the story ends, I was confused by the transition and actually double-checked to make sure I didn’t somehow skip a few pages.

Overall, it’s funny, but the darkness at the end overwhelms it all.

“The Palimpsest Trigger” by David Cleden is dark. Really dark. It follows Marni, a drug addict who caused his sister’s overdose years before, as he works as a makeshift assassin for these monstrous creatures called palimps that can rewrite human memories. The palimps, in addition to rewriting memories, can also implant something called a meme-bomb through the use of their pilla, a nasty cilia-like growth they can remove and send out to their targets. The meme-bomb plants a trigger in the target’s brain which, when the target sees a certain item or symbol, causes the person to die horribly.

The story itself is driven by Marni’s desire to remove his memory of his sister’s death as it’s slowly driving him mad. He does horrible things for a palimp named Socrates in pursuit of this goal until, one day, he takes a target unlike any other for the sheer chance he’ll have his memory wiped.

The story kind of grossed me out and the ending wasn’t much of a surprise (I took pains not to mention it here so as not to ruin it for other readers). Even remembering the descriptions of the palimps makes my stomach turn, especially the weird blowjob scene with the house Madame and the palimp. Yes, it’s real. No, it’s not sexy.

If you’re going to read this, go in knowing that Cleden can write some nasty descriptions in ways that’ll haunt you for days.

“Fix That House!” by John Kessel is a farce targeting “authentic” home remodeling shows. The story follows an unnamed narrator and his spouse as they invest in an old plantation house and proceed to convert it back to its original form, down to the original, unusable kitchen. The story really gets to its punchline after they buy their first slave, Dottie, then drops off to make its point when the narrator sits on the front porch of their home at sunset with plans to go “go out and visit her later.”

This is a dark humor piece that, I think, highlights the ability of mostly white folks to look fondly on problematic time periods without seeing any of the ugliness beneath it. Personally, I think Kessel is saying he thinks these folks are yearning for those days not because they find a missing grace, but because they’re secretly wishing for the utter control they had and the freedom to do whatever they want as long as it’s done to people of color, but I could be wrong. Maybe.

Review: Aurealis #124, September 2019

Review: Aurealis #124, September 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, September 12, 2019

“Leisure Culture” by Maddison Stoff
“Nie Among the Tree People” by E H Mann
“Inheritance” by James Rowland

“Leisure Culture” by Maddison Stoff is far funnier than a story about the end of humanity should be. It’s set in a far-future world where the Earth has taken on an almost Venusian atmosphere, most of humanity lives in leisure pods—think Ready Player One style, full immersion units—and we’ve encountered alien life, but they’re actually kind of cool. Stoff gives us humanity’s last moments through the eyes of a narrator who doesn’t really see it as any different than what they were doing in the leisure pods.

The story is filled with dark humor amidst criticism of both conservative and liberal governments, notably the rich and powerful in both camps. There’s a rough honesty in the story that really spoke to me, especially when the narrator is eating sushi while the world burns.

Because, honestly, if all of humanity is going to be absorbed into a far-reaching alien consciousness, what else are you going to do?

Overall, it’s an interesting read, just don’t expect a ton of depth.

E H Mann‘s “Nie Among the Tree People” is a story about a narrator fleeing the craziness of a city and stumbling across a village of people turned into trees. In this world, gods walk the earth. In the city, they’re things of circuits and electricity, but in the forests, they’re raw elements of fire and wood. Nie’s story begins when their flight from the city leads them to the tree people. The resulting silence and peace evolves into a life-changing experience for Nie, which ultimately results in Nie “saving” the town and themselves in the process.

The story itself is sweet and simple, once you get a handle on the fact gods exist as elemental forces. For me, Nie represents anyone who feels overwhelmed by modern society and wants to get away from it all, to reconnect with a nature that feels so far away in this day and age.

I can only hope that all of us reconnect as gracefully as them.

“Inheritance” by James Rowland is a speculative fiction story disguised as an art review of a dead artist, Nandi Harris, a woman who wove magic into her paints and made fully immersive art a reality throughout the 20th century.

The writing itself has the stale tone you expect in a scholarly article, though the descriptions and attention to detail within each discussed piece is beautiful and deep. In a way, it feels like the author is attempting to perform their own magic trick here, to create a world within a world like Harris did with her paintings. I think the success of that will be mixed, but for me personally, coming off a recent death in my family, it worked wonderfully. The end message, one so personal, hopeful, and unexpected given the handling of the rest of the content, really resonated with me because of that. It’s a great story for someone going through a tough time. Give it a read, if you can.

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.

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!