The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2019

Featured image by Ashley Mackenzie from “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270, January 31, 2019

BCS 270
Cover Art: “Dreams of Atlantis” by Flavio Bolla

The narrator of Natalia Theodoridou’s short vignette “To Stab with a Rose” reveals an odd custom from her homeland, involving dancers on a frozen lake in spring choosing lovers by offering them a rose or a knife. The rose means you get no play, and the knife means you get cut and the lovemaking lasts for as long as the wound stays open. Unceasing war has since forced her to flee her homeland, and she now works as a servant in a foreign land. She pines after a fellow servant girl, who’s not in to her like that, while frequently being summoned to the bedchamber of her mistress, who is. As an internal monologue about her pain over the loss of her homeland and customs there are some nice passages here. Trying to keep a sense of one’s own culture in a place that doesn’t understand or accept it is a double-edged sword – the very thing that keeps you grounded in your identity can also distance you from others and leave you vulnerable to exploitation. The conflation of love with open wounds is an interesting, if grisly, metaphor.
When we meet the healer Eefa at the beginning of Alix E. Harrow’s “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, she is fleeing the city of Xot and the Emperor’s endless war machine. Eefa’s pregnant wife Talaan, a famed warrior and the Emperor’s Lion of Xot, tracks her down and convinces her to return, promising her that their new daughter will be a healer like her, not a soldier. Eefa relents and returns with her, but soon learns that the Emperor’s will trumps even that of the great Lion of Xot. Harrow builds an interesting culture in this story, one where women are bred to be soldiers and pregnancy isn’t an excuse to keep one from the battlefield. I liked that titles such as “husband” and “emperor” were not gendered when describing a person’s role in society. The choices that Eefa and Talaan make at the end are touching, and the final image is stark and memorable.

Tor.com 1/23/2019 & 1/30/2019

HIs Footsteps
Cover Art by Kashmira Sarode

I love the groundwork Mimi Mondal lays for her story “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”. Binu is a trapeze artist for the Majestic Oriental Circus in India, who also plays the character of Alladin for a real-life jinni’s illusion show. The jinni, Shehzad Marid, trusts only Binu with the care of his lamp. This makes Binu his de facto master, though Binu doesn’t see it that way. While performing at the wedding for the raja’s daughter in Thripuram, a devadasi (holy courtesan), convinces Binu to let her run away with the circus, which has deadly consequences for all of them. There’s so much to savor in story—the warm friendship between Binu and Shehzad, the unconventional daily life of the circus troupe—that the letdown of the story’s ending sank lower than it should have. The climax makes up its own rules, and the resolution comes too easily.
Lynette grew up in the circus. After spurning the advances of the escape artist, he chains her up and throws her in the water tank to drown. She is rescued by a boy in a mirror who becomes her boyfriend/companion, even though he is only present as her reflection. He disappears when she is sixteen, only to reappear years later when someone is hunting down anyone with a connection to him. The title of J.Y. Yang’s new story “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a bit on the nose, don’t you think? I appreciated that all three title characters had a POV section of the story, though in some ways I would have preferred it stay with Lynette, who is the hero and whose section has the longest word count. Magic is an accepted part of daily life so there’s a weird casualness to everything that goes on in the story, even when it seems like the characters should act with a little more urgency. The writing has an unforced charm, like most of Yang’s work; I suppose not every story has to ratchet up the tension to 11, even when the protagonist is being hunted by a serial killer.

Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019

Apex-Magazine-Nook-117
Cover Art by Julia Griffin

The brilliant concept that drives Izzy Wasserstein’s “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is that magic users transform into the thing they specialize in. In Danae’s case, it’s spiders, and she has a complicated relationship with her houseplant of a mother. Danae works as a courier for Pliny (books of course), who sends her on a job to clients who turn out to be fly cultists, who want to sacrifice her in a mysterious ritual. What starts as a straightforward chase story evolves into a meditation on cities and the people and myths and social structures that hold them together. Traverse is a mythical city filled with as much corruption, inequality, and structural decay as any real one, suspended over a chasm called the Drop by a massive spider’s web—an astounding visual metaphor, and one that Wasserstein uses to weave together a variety of thematic strands. Danae muses on the perception gap between rich and poor: the weave is tighter in the rich parts of town, where folks don’t have to worry about gaps in the walkway, while Danae prefers “to get clear of those claustrophobic streets” where she can “dash across open spaces” and “feel the web… beneath her bare feet.” An outstanding tale in a vivid and inventive setting.
Amadis escapes from their abusive Fey lover Kinnear, who doesn’t give up so easy in Hayley Stone’s suspenseful “Cold Iron Comfort”. The story does a good job of depicting the trauma abuse survivors suffer, and the climax contrives a clever solution to Amadis’ plight. I liked the way the author expressed Amadis’ gradual understanding of their gender fluidity.

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

*** “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, by Izzy Wasserstein

* “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy”, by J.Y. Yang

Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 88 (September 2017)

Among the original fiction, there were two very good stories here. The best of them is Jaymee Goh’s “The Last Cheng Beng Gift” (8.1), a charming and entertaining fantasy about a woman “living” her afterlife in the underworld, who receives annual gifts from her still living children. She hates the gifts she receives from her daughter, and finally decides to take a trip back to the living world to haunt her. Goh does and excellent job of establishing her protagonist and the otherworldly setting, and though the ending is a tad predictable, it is still welcome and emotionally satisfying.
Nearly as good is Giovanni De Feo’s “Ugo”(8.0), the story of a man (the titular Ugo) who can “travel” to inhabit his own body at earlier points in his life. He can interact with the past as his future self, but changes cannot be made without severe consequences. He tells his future wife, Cynthia, about his strange power when they are both children, and it affects the way she views her own future and even her own identity. The reader figures out Ugo’s grand scheme well before Cynthia does, and while this sort of thing is often a frustrating conceit, it works here. The author employs an odd narrative device in which Cynthia creates a separate identity (Cinzia) for herself when she is with Ugo. It adds an interesting dimension to the story at first, but after the “twist” ending, it feels like a bit of a cheat. Not bad enough to kill an otherwise terrific tale, thankfully.
The other two original stories are less successful. Timothey Mudie’s “An Ever-Expanding Flash of Light”(6.2) uses time dilation in a similar fashion as The Forever War – in this case a soldier, Tone, keeps signing up for more year-long tours while hundreds of years pass on earth. His hope is, one day, science will be able to cure his hibernating wife (Irena) of cancer, but every year he returns to Earth and no progress has been made. It’s a compelling concept with some nice touches, but it doesn’t work as science fiction. A thousand years go by over the course of the story but there is no indication that any changes to the cultural or political landscape have any effect on his job as a soldier or his wife’s status on earth, so the whole concept feels underdeveloped. The ending is sweet, but the overall story is a little flat.
“A Pound of Darkness, A Quarter of Dreams”(3.3) by Tony Ballantyne is the only real dud in the group. It involves a grocer who must make a deal with a demon who traffics in souls to keep her shop open. The whole concept is shoddily conceived – it’s the kind of story that needs to keep adjusting the rules of its premise to move forward. The characters are uninspiring, and the prose aims for a whimsy that feels forced.
There is also has an interview with Theodora Goss and a review of her new novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – which sounds interesting and has been added to my reading queue – as well as an excerpt of Annalee Newitz’s terrific debut novel Autonomous; if anyone is on the fence about reading either of those books, this issue of Lightspeed should help you make up your mind.

Hugo Nominated Short Stories 2017

This was a disappointing crop of nominees, even without the Wright story throwing off the curve. Sadly, none of the works on my nominating ballot were finalists in this category, but I do find Jemisin’s and Wong’s respective stories to be award quality works, and plan to place them on my final ballot. The stories by El-Mohtar, Vaughn and Bolander are not without merit, but not enough for me to consider them award worthy. If the crop of stories were stronger this year I would be happy to drop “No Award” in place of Wright’s utterly vacuous, self-important drivel, but the other three stories I’m leaving off the ballot don’t deserve that dishonor.

Rating Scale: 1 [godawful]-10 [godlike]

“The City Born Great”, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016) 8.8
In Jemisin’s short fantasy adventure, cities that have grown old and large enough get to live, if the chosen midwife succeeds in birthing it. A homeless man is given this role for New York City, and he races to sing the city to life against an ancient enemy that wants to stop him.
This story is a little too compact for its grand premise, and maybe a bit heavy-handed at times, but is still a riveting read thanks to Jemisin’s stellar prose and rich imagination.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016) 8.0
Alyssa Wong is probably the most gifted prose writer to emerge in recent years on the SFF scene, and this story is a sterling example of why. Hannah and Melanie are sisters who have the power to bend time; Melanie’s death sets Hannah on a grief-stricken cycle of reliving the events just prior to her death and trying to change the outcome. The story itself is scattered – intentionally so, but scattered nonetheless – but the atmosphere, the imagery, the raw emotion, leaves you thoroughly wrung and hung out to dry.
“The world hiccupped, warping violet, legs of electricity touching down around me, biting at my hair, singeing anything still alive beneath the water. I barely felt it.
‘Why did you come back?’ were the last words she said to me before she went up in flames, taking the rest of the universe with her.”
Simply compelling.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press) 7.2
This clever tale has two young women involved in two completely different fairy tales accidently run into each other and help work out the other’s problem. Beautifully written, with engaging dual protagonists in an imaginative setting. I was able to work out the underlying theme of the story before it turned into a hammer that treated me like a nail, and I think I engaged with it much more on an intellectual level than an emotional one. Still an entertaining story from start to finish.

“That Game We Played During the War”, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016) 5.9
A pleasant SF story from Vaughn, in which a POW teaches her captor to play chess, then later both resume the game during a ceasefire. The hitch is that her former captor, like all his people, is telepathic, while her race is not. The game becomes a metaphor for how the war was fought and eventually “not lost” despite one race being able to literally read the minds of the other.
A creative, Outer Limits style tale that doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but it is well paced and there are some nice details about the psychological costs of war.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016) 5.3
There is some solid, memorable writing here (“I was playing at being mortal this century because I love cigarettes and shawarma, and it’s easier to order shawarma if your piercing shriek doesn’t drive the delivery boy mad” is one of my faves) and the story touches on some very important and powerful themes, but it didn’t quite come together for me. It came off as a coarse rape-revenge drama, and though I appreciate the emotion that went into it, I didn’t think it worked beyond the visceral.

“An Unimaginable Light”, by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House) 1.7                     Tone deaf prose and one-dimensional characters weigh down this abysmal tale from the once promising Wright. It quickly becomes clear that the author is using this story to air out his laundry list of grievances against the horrible horrible SJWs who are ruining science fiction and everything else in the world, puffing it up with a lot of pseudo-philosophical word salad designed to make him look superior. Boring, dumb, pointless; there is little to recommend here beyond a few fleeting moments that reminded me this guy used to know how to write.

I had four short stories on my nominating ballot: Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station/Hours Since Last Patient Death: 0, Caroline M. Yoachim; Things with Beards, Sam J. Miller; Terminal, Lavie Tidhar; and The Story of Kao Yu, Peter S. Beagle. Of course, I prefer these four to all of the finalists listed above, but that’s how it goes sometimes!