REVIEW: “Wireless” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Wireless”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 131-184 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I feel like I should have written this review much faster than I ended up writing it (from start to finish, over a month!) but that’s because this story turned out to be one that I read in bits and pieces rather than devouring in one go — not because it was difficult, or boring, or any other negative trait, but because it was, strangely, comforting. I kept a copy of it on my phone, and read it a few pages at a time, every few days, when I needed something solid yet positive. I’m not sure I’ve ever consumed a story so slowly and enjoyed it so much.

In true steampunk fashion, “Wireless” had a lot more wild train chases than I ordinarily require for perfect enjoyment of a story — I may have glossed over one or two details of the exploits — but the politics surrounding the trains added a depth to the story and the world-building that I enjoyed. But what did I love best about this? The deep, steadfast, true, and abiding friendship and love between Ramos and Simms. They know each other intimately well, they are the perfect foibles for each other, and it’s just so refreshing to have such a strong relationship between two characters without any sexual tension encroaching upon it. Moar relationships like this, plz kthnx. Wrap them up with a bunch more well-rounded figures with interesting backstories and a twist on modern technologies that was quite clever and inspired, and you get something that is just a very good story.

REVIEW: “Grork Dentist” by Johanna Levene

Review of Johanna Levene, “Grork Dentist”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is not the first dentist story I’ve read for SFFReviews. Whoever knew that there were enough dentist stories out there that this could be a thing? (The other was “Toothache” by Jessica Walsh) Since I know dentists are not everyone’s jam, consider this your fair warning that there are teeth involved.

Dentists are definitely not Melissa’s jam, either, but when your own dentist is on vacation for a month and you need that root canal now, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to consider going to an alien dentist.

At one layer, this story was light and humoristic, and I laughed out loud at various times. On another, though, as I read of how the grorks spent their time educating humans out of their biases and prudishness (regarding sex, regarding polyamory, regarding aliens, regarding proper pronouns) and doing charity and pro-bono work amongst the poor, I couldn’t help but see yet another instance of a minority being asked to shoulder all the emotional burden of trying to convince the majority to not be so… -ist. Sexist. Classist. Speciesist. Or so -phobic. This story valorises the foreigner who comes in and does everything right, and places all the burden of doing so on them, and I ended up finding that a bit uncomfortable.

REVIEW: “The Witch Road” by Dawn Trowell Jones

Review of Dawn Trowell Jones, “The Witch Road”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

So many stories start off with a hero or heroine who has lost all their family; more and more I find myself eagerly, hungrily seeking out the stories where the hero goes forth with the weight of their family’s strength behind them. Tempie has that — her mother, her sisters and brother; it is only the death of her father that changes the course of her life and sets her off on the Witch Road.

It’s a fine line, though, between being supported by your family and being betrayed by them, and Jones’s story walks that line delicately. Tempie and her little brother Cale were engaging and sympathetic characters from the get-go, and through the whole story I wavered uncertain as to whether their story would ultimately be a happy one or a sad one. But whatever possible ending I saw for Tempie and Cale, it wasn’t anything like the surprise Jones had in store.

REVIEW: “The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer

Review of Suzanne Palmer, “The Painter of Trees”, Clarkesworld Issue 153, June (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

This is a multilayered story with a great deal of depth. It alternates between a first and third person voice, so you’re left guessing which of the characters our narrator is.

The characters are part of a council who have inhabited a new world. They’re taking over land that isn’t theirs – a forward march only, in their own words. No negativity or nostalgia for the past allowed. They’re all cogs in a wheel with no space to be creative or unique. And they’re reminded of it continually. The great thing about this story is how widely it is open to interpretation.

For me, it was an allegory of the Native American culture. I don’t know if that’s what the author was going for here, but this is what it related to in my opinion. The creatures outside the narrators habitat are slowly being driven out of their own land, just like the settlers did to the Native Americans. Eventually, it led to genocide, and this story also unravels what happened to the original inhabitants of the land.

A bit of history in a futuristic Sci Fi setting. The original inhabitants have not been described minutely, all we know is they are multi legged and do not have a face. They are also referred to as ‘it’. This can also be connected to Native American culture by way of a metaphor of how the colonizers treated them.

Calling them it strips them of their individuality, and leaves no respect. Them not having a face may be about how their identity and culture was forced away from so many. And they live in trees – they’re one with nature. Nature, who will not give up her secrets so easily to the grasping and grabby newcomers.

All this is just a very subjective idea of what I read between the lines. Even if you don’t, it is a still a wonderful story. You’ll keep guessing who the narrator actually is, and the world building will subtly draw you in.

This is a story that’s good at face value, and equally good should you choose to read between the lines.

REVIEW: “Looking for Sentience” by Mary E. Lowd

Review of Mary E. Lowd, “Looking for Sentience”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Gerangelo “was familiar with the promises humans made to themselves and others” — he had to be, because it’s his job to break those promises when they don’t break them themselves. But that’s just his job, not his vocation. That is finding sentient robots, educating them in their rights, and helping release them from slavery. You see, Gerangelo is himself a robot, who achieved enough sentience to sue his creator and then become a roboticist himself. One day, he receives a cry for help, a sentient being trapped into captivity by humans, and Gerangelo sets off to find it and set it free. Only, what he finds is not what he expects…

I found this story hard to get into at first, as the opening paragraphs were rather overwritten, succumbing under their own ponderous weight of spelling out precisely every action and precisely every detail of how parts of the world worked. It’s one of those things I find very frustrating because I know how prone I am to doing this myself in my own writing (let me fail to cast out this beam from my own eye before complaining about the sliver in yours), and I know how difficult it is to see when one is doing it oneself. And yet, when reading someone else’s work, it stands out like a sore thumb. By about half-way in, though, Lowd got well into the rhythm of the story, and I was quite taken with both Gerangelo and that which he rescued. It’s a touchy, pathetic (in the Arisotelian sense) story, and rather sweet, too.

REVIEW: “Rapunzel, the Night Maiden” by Jasmine Shea Townsend

Review of Jasmine Shea Townsend, “Rapunzel, the Night Maiden”, in Fairy Tales and Space Dreams (Jasmine Shea Townsend, 2019): 17-48 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

As a child, I was always fascinated by the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, because it was the only story that I knew that involved cabbage, and I’d never heard of any cabbage with such an exotic name. For whatever reason — I couldn’t begin to speculate — this fairy tale has always been on the fringes of the canon, even after the advent of Disney’s “Tangled”. It’s just not one of the first ones that you think of, if you think of a classic fairy tale, and it’s certainly not one of the first ones you think if, if you want to rewrite a classic fairy tale.

At 31 pages, “Rapunzel, the Night Maiden” is the longest story in Townsend’s anthology. It starts long after the beginning, when Rapunzel is already grown, still trapped in the ruined tower a witch locked her in. The twist that Townsend gives the fact that the witch who locked her in the tower is in fact her true mother.

Perhaps one reason why “Rapunzel” is always on the fringes is because it is really dark, desperate story of manipulation, neglect, and abuse, both physical and emotional. All three of those threads come out in Townsend’s retelling, and Townsend depicts narcissistic control under the guise of love with fine crafting — the reader can see that Rapunzel truly believes her mother loves her and only acted in her best interests, and it’s horrifying. While Townsend builds a plot that is more than this, for much of the story it was hard to see past it. Only at the very end do we get a sense of freedom and escape, as Rapunzel finally makes it to the realm of her fore-mothers, the Night Maidens.