REVIEW: “The Mercenary” by Beth McCabe

Review of Beth McCabe, “The Mercenary”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

“The Mercenary” is a classic story of boy-ditches-girl, girl-becomes-a-time-traveller. Oh, wait, that isn’t actually one of the classic story lines? Well, there are worse reasons to become a time-traveller than being ditched for another girl.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other reasons why a girl might join a guild of time travellers, and sometimes it pays to extend beyond the standard tropes whereby the heroine needs to be thwarted in love before she can assume her agency as a heroine. When a narrator tells me

But I had never let go of my heartbreak – or my obsession.

my first thought is “Well, here’s a character who’s got a long arc ahead of her.”

Unfortunately, much of the early part of the story is spent rehearsing the past, rather than actually traversing that needed arc. When we do start moving forward, it doesn’t take long until we reach the “ahah” moment — the moment at which I go, “I bet I know how this is going to end.” I do like moments like that because then I can spend the rest of the story feeling smug, either to have that smugness confirmed when I am proven right or to have the delightful surprise when I am proven wrong. [Spoiler: In this case, I was right!]

On the other hand again, what I really want is a story that doesn’t have any of those moments, where every step is a surprise, where I have no idea where things are going to end up. Familiarity is comforting, but this story could have made me a bit more uncomfortable.

REVIEW: “The Corporal” by Ali Bader

Review of Ali Bader, Elisabeth Jacquette (trans.), “The Corporal”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 35-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Many of the stories in Iraq+100 betray a deep sadness and fear about the future — but not this story. Bader’s story is a mix of exuberantly hopeful, riotously funny, and — in places — scarily prescient. Bader’s vision of the future is told through the eyes of someone from the past. The Corporal was killed by a sniper during the original invasion, and ends up in limbo while awaiting to learn whether or not his death made him a martyr (as a philosopher, I love the idea that the reason why the limbo queue in the afterlife is so long is because Socrates won’t stop asking God questions!). Eventually, though, he gets sent back to earth as a prophet — 100 years in the future. In that future, the American invasion “worked”; Iraq is now a democracy, a place of peace and calm, and a beacon of democracy in the rest of the world. The cities of Kut and Nasiriyah are quiet and clean and filled with happy people.

The speculative element of the story is quite minimal, especially in the beginning, simply there to scaffold the juxtaposition of the two Iraqs; this does not make the story any less gripping.

Reading the story, it’s hard to remember that these were written before November 2016 and the aftermath of the US election. For example, a 21st-century man explains to the Corporal:

“Just take America: now it’s an extremist state, gripped by religion…The extremists found refuge in America, and that’s the problem now. America has become an extremist state, overrun by religious intolerance…”

“Are you telling the truth, sir?”

“Yes, America is a rogue state now. It’s part of the axis of evil. The civilised world is trying to bring the country back to its senses and bring back democracy.” … “The problem is with the West — that’s right, the problem is with the West, which has been transformed into an oasis of terrorism, a haven for religious intolerance and hatred” (pp. 56-57).

It’s hard not to read this and reflect on how much truth resembles fiction sometimes.

It was a brilliant story with a brilliant ending, and one that hits a little too close to home for comfort. My favorite of the book so far.

Awards Season is Nigh!

One of the ways in which review sites like SFFReviews can serve both authors and readers is by pointing people towards things they might wish to read when considering their nominations for various awards. In order to maximise the usefulness of this site for such people, we’re adding a new category to the tags that we include for each post (in addition to reviewer, author, genre, and venue): year of publication. You can now get by a single click all reviews of:

If there is any other way that we can make this site more useful for you — whether you are looking for reviews of stories you’ve already read or looking for pointers to new stories you should read — please do contact us or leave a comment on this post!

REVIEW: “Kuszib” by Hassan Abdulrazzak

Review of Hassan Abdulrazzak, “Kuszib”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 115-138 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Of all the stories in this anthology that I’ve read so far, this one is by far the most strange. Abdulrazzak imagines a world a century from now where aliens have taken over and humans are reduced to the status of farm animals, and it is from the point of view of the aliens that the story is told (this confused me at first when wine-drinking was mentioned, but was cleared up quite quickly). Through their eyes, we are given a picture of humanity which picks up on all our flaws, our hubris, and our lack of civilization. When the aliens land at Centre Point, which used to be called “Baggy-Dad” in the archaic human language of “Arabaic”, they laugh at the fact that the people of “Newey Pork”, “Lindon”, and “Beige-inn” are all insulted that their cities were not the ones chosen as the invasion site. But “humans were never that good at logic”, the aliens are all taught, and they are uncivilized too, whatever they think. It is easy for those newly arrived conquerors to conclude that their technological superiority translates into superiority in all contexts. From there, it is an easy step to the hunting, herding, and farming of human beings, a thread running through the story whose treatment is just casual enough to make it entirely unsettling.

The story contains more erotic elements than others in the book — fair warning for anyone who would prefer to avoid anything explicit — but these elements are handled with a good measure of humor. It is refreshing to see that alien sex is amusing not because it is alien but because it is sex.

This is the first story in the collection where I have noticed some editorial issues. There is a distinct lack of commas setting off the addressee of speech, and two typos — one “it’s” for “its” on p. 124 and one “pour” for “pore” on p. 123.

REVIEW: “Ghost Town” by Malinda Lo

Review of Malinda Lo, “Ghost Town”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

As in her superb vampire story “The Cure”, Malinda Lo mixes romance, history, and the supernatural in “Ghost Town”. There’s less subtext to dive into in “Ghost Town” than in “The Cure”. Instead, it’s a solid contemporary story of new towns, hopes, prejudice, and ghosts which is relayed by a smart, observant teenager called Ty.

Ty’s family recently moved from San Francisco to Pinnacle ‘a dinky little town on the flat part of Colorado’, where coal was once a big industry. She can’t wait until she can move back to San Francisco where her hair, and her sexuality, don’t make her stand out so much. When the story starts she’s following her crush Mackenzie, one of the popular girls at her school, into The Spruce Street Guest House for a ghost hunt during the town’s big Halloween holiday season. When they arrive at the room Mackenzie wants to investigate, the girls find a homophobic slur written in fake blood. Instead of breaking down, as Mackenzie clearly hoped she would, Ty leads Mackenzie to the basement and a real scare.

In the second section of the story, it becomes clear why Ty is able move past the word on the wall, and how she is able to set up a prank of her own. The story has a backwards structure, so in the second part the reader sees Ty following Mackenzie to see if she’s going to be pranked. And in the third section we see Ty visiting the Guest House on a tour once Mackenzie has invited her to go ghost hunting.

In these sections, “Ghost Town” reveals itself as being truly Ty’s story; the story of her life in San Francisco, and how she experiences life in a small, middle of America town. I really enjoyed Ty’s voice, which is simple and down to earth, and would happily have read a longer work with her as the narrator. “Ghost Town” also a story about Ty taking steps to make sure she’s in control. The fact that she has to work so hard to stay safe is undeniably depressing. The fact that the story gives her the power to gain control is wonderful.

The ghosts are largely a device which allow Ty to gain control of a messed up situation with flair, but they also have their own fleeting story to tell. The ending makes it clear that the women found dead in the guest house were lovers, and that they’re together (possessively so) even in death. It’s a creepy cute way to end a story where one girl gets let down by her crush, and I enjoyed the fact that Lo brought an element of happy ever after even to a story containing a lot of sadness.

REVIEW: “Led Astray” by Anna Novitzky

Review of Anna Novitzky, “Led Astray”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The problem with surreptitiously reading stories when you’re ostensibly at an academic conference and supposedly paying attention to the speaker is that when you get a story like “Led Astray”, people start looking at you when you giggle and the speaker has said nothing amusing. But I challenge anyone to read this story without laughing. It is self-consciously meta but that is part of what makes it so funny. The best part, though, is the view of AI/SF/robots that it gives us. Too many stories take the “robots will be the death of us, when they get too smart” path; this one goes down on a different path, the path of “any sufficiently intelligent being will develop a sense of humor.” I simply loved it.

Guest Post: Steve Quinn / Short Story Showcase

We here at created this site because we wanted to promote short SFF and speculative stories, poetry, journals, anthologies, both the readers of such and their writers. There are many ways this promotion can be done, and while at this site we primarily focus on reviewing stories, we’re also eager to showcase other promoters working towards the same ends. To that end, we’re very pleased to have a guest post today by Steve Quinn who since the beginning of October has been running a Short Story Showcase. Here Mr. Quinn tells us a bit more about himself and his reviewing:

A huge “Thank you!” to Dr. Uckelman and the rest of the team here at SFFReviews for giving me the opportunity to post. My name is Steve Quinn, and I’m an amateur author who has recently launched a blog featuring mostly short story reviews, with the occasional writing-focused or weird historical post. My reviews will be a little different from what you’ll see on SFFReviews, though.

There are lots of fantastic stories out there, and there are lots of people more experienced than I who can help you find those stories. So, rather than identifying great stories, I want to get under the hood and discuss what makes them great from a technical perspective. Basically, these are the stories that make me, as a writer, sit up and say, “That was clever! How did they do that?”

I’m going to try to visit as many different publications (mostly semi-pro) as I can in the process, but over time you might notice me focusing on some more than others. That’s not because they’re necessarily any better, but rather because I know Charles Payseur and the great team here at SFFReviews aren’t able to cover them and I want to help draw attention to the excellent work they publish.

Before I begin this review, though, I’d like to put something on the table: I hate the Idiot Ball. Plots that only function because one or more cast members take turns huffing paint make me want to smack myself in the head with the book. For similar reasons, de-powering characters usually annoys me, too. Done well, it can be an interesting exploration of the risks inherent in using a certain skill or ability as a crutch, but most of the time it seems like the author does it because otherwise there wouldn’t be a plot. Further, even when it’s done well, it’s almost invariably less fun than another plot would be.

Consider the duel scene from the Princess Bride (a brilliant scene in a movie full of brilliant scenes). How much fun would that scene have been if they had begun dueling right after the grueling climb up the Cliffs of Insanity, when they were both dead tired? There still would have been tension, of course, but it would have been a grim, grey sort of tension, as opposed to the nail-biting back-and-forth masterpiece the movie created.

That’s why I enjoy stories like “The Bonesetter,” by Santiago Belluco and published in Metaphorosis. The core of the story is a duel of magic and cunning between two skilled, clever antagonists, each among the last of their kinds. They fight as much for survival as dominance, and they both have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to keep each other off-balance.

I use that metaphor advisedly. Ideally, Belluco would have carefully hung each trick up on the wall prior to using it, but in the cramped confines of short fiction, that’s not always possible. Instead, what this story presents is more of a magic show. You never quite know what tricks the protagonist or antagonist are going to perform, but you can count on enjoying the stagecraft.

Between the tricks, though, keep an eye out for the complex worldbuilding Belluco weaves into the story. Some stories feel like they take place on a movie set, where nothing existed before the story’s start and nothing will remain after The End. The world of “The Bonesetter” is full almost to bursting with small details and intriguing facts about far-away places, and you’ll come away with the feeling that you’ve seen just one engrossing facet of an immensely complex gem.

So give it a read! Sadly, you don’t see this sort of thing every day. And, after watching a truly masterful parasite at work in this story, you’ll be rethinking any objections you might have had to cut-rate ones.

We encourage everyone interested in reviews of short SFF to add Quinn’s series to their blog roll. We’d also love to showcase any other sites doing reviews of short SFF, please drop us a line if you’re interested in doing a guest post on our site!