REVIEW: “The Watchers” by Shelly Jones

Review of Shelly Jones, “The Watchers”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The telling of this story has a fairy-tale like quality. No one is named. It is the man, and the woman, and his mother, and her grandfather, and the baker, and the other people of the town. But the story does not involve any of the standard fairy tale tropes; it is, instead, entirely of itself.

The title of the story is not especially explanatory, and even 3/4 of the way in, it is not at all clear who the watchers are. Sometimes, though, reading Jones’s detailed and precise prose — such as the following:

The single bee squatted there, its wings pressed back taut against its body. He could feel each of its legs, thin wisps of muscle, begin to give way as the bee slowly crawled up his leg. It moved methodically, each leg stepping in syncopated intervals, up his thigh and past his waist to his belly.

— one feels like it is the reader themself who is watching.

From start to finish, I had no idea where this story was going or where it would end up. I would love to hear it told aloud, around a flickering campfire on a dark night.

REVIEW: “Crossing” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “Crossing”, Podcastle 488 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This was a very lightly fantastic piece–the sort where a slight shift in point of view could make it simply imaginative realistic fiction rather than outright fantasy. It builds up gradually following the swimmer Emma Rose and her love affair with the sea and the idea of some day crossing the Channel. The figure that she meets beneath the water might be a mermaid, or it might be a personification of her obsession and self-doubt. We see the protagonist from childhood to early adulthood, working out how to balance her love for swimming with the other things she desires. Learning whether the mermaid is a jealous lover or simply herself. In some ways, I found the story a bit slow. More atmospheric than plot-driven. But the overall shape worked in the end, like a wave building up in the sea and eventually breaking on the shore.

(Originally published 2017 in LampLight.)

REVIEW: “While the Black Stars Burn” by Lucy A. Snyder

Review of Lucy A. Snyder, “While the Black Stars Burn”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about scars, both literal and figurative. Caroline is a gifted violinist, but her enjoyment of the art is tainted by her father’s expectations and abuse (Please consider that a trigger warning). I am not generally a horror fan, but I deeply enjoyed the blend of real work and fantastical horror at work here. Caroline is a rich, fully developed character, and her experiences broke my heart and chilled my spine.

The story builds up the ordinary world of Caroline’s life beautifully, providing a solid ground for the supernatural horror that is to come. I’ve heard that it’s important to establish a story’s genre immediately, but in this case the slow build pays off in the end.

The ending is one of unearned consequences. Caroline does not deserve the things that have happened to her, but at the same time, she can not escape them. It’s not a happy ending, but I’ve been mulling over it for days. It refuses to let me go, which is the mark of a powerful story.

Recommended for people who like their horror mixed in with the real world.

REVIEW: “Evil Opposite” by Naomi Kritzer

Review of Naomi Kritzer, “Evil Opposite”, Fantasy & Science Fiction 133, 3-4 (2017): 8-19 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Michael Johnston.

As a man who fled from graduate school only a couple of semesters in, and as someone who has spent perhaps too much time worrying about past mistakes, I fell right into this story of a graduate student in Physics who builds a machine that allows him to look into alternate realities where he made different choices.

As he peeks in at each life, he sees some of the mistakes he’s made in his past, but Kritzer deftly avoids making him mawkish at the opportunities he’s missed. However, there’s a cost to using the machine, which our protagonist eventually realizes, and a moment where I wonder if the professor whose notes he used to build the machine maybe wasn’t as ignorant of it as he seemed.

The Moment of Truth is a good one, and while Kritzer could easily have built a novel around this concept, I think her choice of where to end and how to do it was the best option. She has, however, left a door open for a linked story if she ever chooses to pick up this story again.

REVIEW: “The Here and Now Prison” by Jalal Hasan

Review of Jalal Hassan, Max Weiss (trans.), “The Here and Now Prison”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 139-153 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

If I had to sum up the theme of this story in one line, it would be the question “How do we deal with continuity in the face of radical discontinuity, before and after?” Or perhaps, “How do we understand the present as history from the point of view of a radically different future?” This is, in a sense, the question that shapes the entire anthology, but it is more clear in this story than in some of the others, and Hassan makes it clear how our language is simply not up to the task. In the opening scenes, a teacher tells his students:

We call it the world whether it is our own world or that which we no longer know, the way it was before the year 2021. As if nothing changed.

It was a strange, beautiful, and sweet story, but also one which was never entirely explained. In particular, the reader is left to guess at what the title is meant to mean. I can think of a number of interpretations, but I am hesitant to articulate any of them, because they seem to be nothing more than idle guesses or speculation.

There are a handful of minor typographical/editing errors: missing commas on p. 143 and p. 146, an extra “the” on p. 152, and one occurrence of “effected” on p. 149 which I am pretty sure should have been “affected” (although there is a reading of the sentence in which “effected” works.)

REVIEW: “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts,” by Richard Parks

Review of Richard Parks, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #235, September 28, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

Trials and tribulations await a father/daughter team of devil-hunters and the snake-devil in their service when a restless spirit approaches them in hopes of finding rest.

Straightforward and linear, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” seems more focused on adventure than theme. The characters are largely archetypes, never revealing enough of themselves to be memorable—although the father does seem to scratch his beard often. Despite being relegated to the periphery, Mei Li, the snake-devil in training to become human, has potential; unfortunately, her struggle never feels integrated into the plot meaningfully. This is a shame since there are so many ways in which one could explore her situation.

Instead, our focus is trained on an insidious plot involving the spirit of a wronged princess from a bygone kingdom. Most of this is shared via expository dialogue, and the forward motion stalls while this story-within-a-story unfolds. Once we reach the conclusion—expected and unsatisfactory, as if nothing much changed, adventure or no—there is a sense this story is actually a vignette. It is, perhaps, more of a case, not unlike something you’d see in a beloved mystery series like Christie’s “Poirot or Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Unfortunately, this format doesn’t work well without quirky, memorable characters or long-term serialization; part of the reason we love these stories is that we can return to a beloved character again and again—the only thing that changes is the particulars.

All told, I did enjoy the use of Chinese mythology and the way it informed the world. It’s encouraging to see fantasy break with western traditions.

 

REVIEW: Stories from Daily Science Fiction, September 25-29, 2017

Reviews of stories published in Daily Science Fiction from September 25 through 29, 2017. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

“Your Life Unfolds, and Then–” by Barbara A. Barnett, Sept 25, 2017: Read Online.

My favorite story from this week! Check out the full review here.

“A Cost-Effective Analysis for the De-Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth” by Ronald D Ferguson, Sept 26, 2017: Read Online.

Ferguson gives us the dialogue from a short lecture on the costs of bringing back an extinct species, with a humorous ending. This is one of those stories that seems mostly a set-up for the twist at the end, but it is short enough to work well.

“Progress” by John Nadas, Sept 27, 2017: Read Online.

Nadas looks at a world where “units” – which sound a lot like humans – are being created as manual labor in a society of “superior” creatures – which could possibly be robots. The dialogue reads clearly as one side of an interview with a biologist who champions the use of these units, using arguments reminiscent of those favoring robots and AIs. I’m ambivalent about this story: it made me think without providing easy answers or resolutions, but I found it somewhat bland.

“When He Saw Her” by Cory Josiah Easley, Sept 28, 2017: Read Online.

Easley describes a typical romance between a boy and a girl, with a twist: They both live in a society where heterosexual relationships are treated with the disdain and discrimination society often deals to homosexual couples.

I thought this story had a lot of potential for complicated critical thinking that didn’t get fully explored. But it seems to me a great tool for those struggling to overcome their own prejudices: an inside look at these experiences using characters that resonate with a straight reader.

“Astronauts Can’t Touch You” by Carlie St. George, Sept 29, 2017: Read Online.

A well-written, engaging look at the personal nature of grief and its relation to emotional distance. St. George evokes strong emotions that will be recognizable to anyone who has lost a loved one. In a word: tragic. The metaphor of astronauts is played against the story’s plot of an alien attack. I liked how this story explored the complex ravages of grief through metaphor, but I found it unrelentingly, devastatingly sad.