The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of December 15, 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2018

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Cover Art by Alan M. Clark for ‘The Iconoclasma’

2018’s last issue of F&SF may also be its best, with several interesting stories and two recommendations.
Everyone has at least one relative we only see during the holidays, some we are even glad we don’t have to see more than once a year. Such is Uncle Jake in Jeffrey Ford’s surly and surreal short “Thanksgiving”, where family members, after decades of holiday dinners, ask themselves, whose uncle is he anyway? The story is a bit of an Uncle Jake itself: more noticeable than memorable, neither pleasant nor offensive, but odd and curious and just sort of there.
Lady Rikara, First Sword of the Kejalin Empire, becomes the companion and protector of the Emperor’s strange new consort in Y.M. Pang’s “The Lady of Butterflies”. One day, Lady Morieth appears out of nowhere in the Emperor’s Garden, with only fleeting memories of her life before. The smitten Emperor grants her honors befitting an imperial consort. Lady Rikara overcomes her suspicions about the mysterious foreign woman and becomes her constant companion. Having no family connections, Morieth’s position in the court is precarious and political circumstances threaten both Rikara’s position as First Sword and Morieth’s life. I am impressed with Pang’s instincts for visual storytelling, and her skill at weaving smaller conflicts and character moments together to inform the bigger choices that affect the plot. This is a well-wrought mini-epic from an exciting new writer.
Australian SF veteran Sean McMullen gives us a thrill-seeking psychopath in the near-future tale “Extreme”. George is incapable of empathy or fear and can only get his kicks from engaging in death-defying activities. Then a woman approaches him with an offer to take his activities to the next level. This story’s pessimism is relentless. It remains true to its narrator’s state of mind from first to last; George is as casual about escaping death as he is committing atrocities at the behest of the super-rich. A cold and calculating story by design, with a very unsettling ending. The story has its admirable qualities but is as hard to like as its narrator.
Hanuš Seiner’s “The Iconoclasma” has all the hallmarks of great adventure sci-fi: the discovery of an amazing new life form, great warships fighting space battles, a thrilling setting in a solar system powered by a red giant, and a classic fight for survival plot. The unfortunate result is that uneven pacing and non-existent character development drag it down into mediocrity. Though I bet Greg Egan is kicking himself that he didn’t think of “life forms created by complex graphs” first.
“Other People’s Dreams” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman has an enviable sci-fantasy premise: apprentice Bardo and master Rowan are dreamcrafters selling custom dreams out of Rowan’s shop. Bardo dreams of being an equal partner with the somber Rowan, whose previous apprentices had all left in frustration to open their own shops. Rowan keeps her dreams to herself, but Bardo learns a lot about Rowan when they travel to the moon and fulfill a commission for someone out of Rowan’s past. Hoffman’s lush, steady prose highlights the fascinating setting and premise, but the underwhelming second half of the story relies too hard on blatant sentimentality for my taste.
Nick DiChario conjures “The Baron and His Floating Daughter”, a folktale set on a small island near Sicily. Prince Antonio has traveled far to woo Baron Francesco’s beautiful daughter Levita, only to discover that she is allergic to gravity. If Levita does not eat a black apple from an enchanted tree every morning, she floats off and her doting father must fetch her from the ceiling. Many suitors have tried before, but Antonio falls for Levita and determines to solve the problem. Antonio’s father the King has his own solution the problem, complicating matters for the young lovers. The story unfolds with tongue planted in cheek from the start but makes a grisly left turn to the gallows once the king gets involved. It’s wicked fun, just don’t get too attached to any of the characters.

Strange Horizons, November 2018

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Toothsome Things, art by Cindy Fan from Strange Horizons 19 November 2018

The narrator of Debbie Urbanski’s “Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions)” comes out to her family as asexual. Their lack of understanding is unfortunate, but not unexpected. The narrator also suffers from depression, which exacerbates the problems that arise from her revelation. Their solution is to replace her with a BetterYou, an automated version of yourself that excels at your shortcomings. This BetterYou is more active and upbeat and affectionate with her children, fulfills all her husband’s sexual desires, and renders her irrelevant to the family. The BetterYou concept is a troubling manifestation of what people who suffer from depression often experience: to please everyone and to shut themselves away at the same time. Coupling this with a sexual orientation that few people are even willing to accept as valid much less try to understand is a cocktail recipe for tragedy.
Aimless millennial Lindsey obsesses over “Missed Connections” personal ads in Alena Flick’s story. Things get weird when she believes a ghost is trying to contact her through one. Lindsey’s position in life mirrors the experiences of many young people in today’s economy: uncertainty about her place in an unstable job market where traditional careers are disappearing. Meanwhile, advice from adults is useless because things aren’t the way they used to be. The fantasy element of the story almost feels like an afterthought. The “ghost” Lindsey goes looking for never materializes and may not be real at all, though it provides an impetus for her to seek what she wants from life rather than what others want for her.
Chimedum Ohaegbu’s “Toothsome Things” is a meta-fairytale that examines two of the most common victims of such: wolves and young women. The alarming frequency with which wolves and young women are victims in the real world does not go unnoticed. The story subverts tropes and upends stereotypes, and at the end the wolf gets its meal.

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

* “The Baron and His Floating Daughter”, Nick DiChario (F&SF, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

** “The Lady of Butterflies”, Y.M. Pang (F&SF, Nov/Dec 2018) Novelette

* “Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions)”, Debbie Urbanski (Strange Horizons, 5 November 2018) Short Story

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