In Ruthanna Emrys’ new novelette “The Word Made Flesh and Soul”, the Originators wrote their ancient religious texts in Lloala, a language that can cause a physical metamorphosis in the utterer. A conservative, all-male cabal of scholars restrict access to the texts, but for a select few students who can view them under supervision. Young Lloala scholar Polymede is a novelty, a rare female student mentored by the stodgy Dr. Rallis. Polymede and her girlfriend Rish construct a radical new interpretation of the Originators’ texts but Dr. Rallis dismisses their findings out of hand, and Polymede forges Rallis’ sponsorship to present their findings to the editors of a respected Lloala Journal. The story offers salient criticisms of patriarchal hegemony in academia and the first half of the story, in which Polymede’s and Rish’s resolve to present their findings despite having little to no chance of success, is an appealing exercise in intellectual fantasy. The second half of the story, where the two women present in front of the editorial board, is too obvious in laying the groundwork for a pat resolution.
The two stories in this issue share the theme of fathers trying to protect their young sons.
Harald and Solveig are married scientists who study trolls in the wild in T.S. McAdams’ “Feral Attachments at Kulle Bland Bergen”. Trolls stole their 4-year-old son, Bragi, from them years before; when they come across a feral child in the woods, they take him home, suspecting (but uncertain) that the boy may be Bragi. This story perked my curiosity early on but did not hold it. I enjoyed the descriptions of Harald and Solveig’s field study, but I never got invested in either of them or in their grief over losing their son. Internal conflicts bat around while little happens in terms of plot, and at the end someone makes a choice and they get on with their lives.
Boden takes his young son Tal to the fights to watch his gladiator hero, the champion Branco, battle a challenger called The Drum in Dan Mickelthwaite’s “How the Mighty”. The fight eats up most of the word count while Branco and Drum remain a symbolic presence. For the two central characters, the stakes are minimal. I liked Boden and Tal and found their relationship heartwarming; Tal is rooting for the champ and has a lot of emotion invested in his hero’s victory, as children do. For his part, Boden has a bet riding on Branco’s victory. The fights are no place for a child, but the author gives no service to the implications of bringing a child to watch a bloodsport (it’s a sword-fight to the death). Boden’s main concern is keeping his son safe in a place that’s unsafe for most adults, much less a child. Moral dubitability aside, other than its second world setting there is no real speculative element.
Amira is the servant and protector of noble-born Anyang in Isabel Yap’s “How to Swallow the Moon”. Amira has fallen in love with her charge and grows more anxious as Anyang fields suitors. It’s easy to get lost in Yap’s dazzling, melodious prose, and therefore forgivable the story is longer than it needs to be. There are some nice climactic twists once Yap stretches Amira’s unrequited longing to the breaking point. I also enjoyed the way the legend of a dragon-like monster called the Moon-Eater weaves into the tale. The ending satisfies even if the denouement struggles to find the right ending beat. Not among my favorites of Yap’s stories, but still a better-than-decent yarn.
All manner of magical creatures are totally NOT pining after the titular character in T. Kingfisher’s super short “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society”. Three faeries, a selkie, and a pooka get drunk and swap stories of their encounters with the lusty Rose, who used them while they thought they were seducing her. The author’s trademark cantankerous humor and her knack for dramatic irony are the stars of the show. It’s a fun little time filler.
Naomi Kritzer’s “The Thing About Ghost Stories” is a matryoshka doll of a tale in which Leah, an academic who specializes in ghost stories, is unwittingly living a ghost story of her own. As usual, Kritzer’s ability to balance multiple threads, themes, and layers of meaning is impressive: the subtle and manipulative, but not insincere, way Leah has of drawing stories out of her subjects; her self-consciously pedantic way of classifying the stories; the way she describes watching her mother suffer from Alzheimer’s as living with a ghost.
Monica Valentinelli’s “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F and I Am Beautiful” has fun fiddling around with Asimov’s three laws when a scientist programs a “male” cyborg to harass a “female” one. A clever, but one-joke premise. Cassandra Khaw’s flashy apocalyptic fantasy “Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” comes as advertised, as two magic-wielding lovers kept apart in life get to make magic together when Armageddon hits.
Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)
** “The Thing About Ghost Stories”, by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine Issue 25, Nov 2018) Novelette