REVIEW: “The White Fox” by L. P. Lee

Review of L. P. Lee, “The White Fox”, Podcastle: 492 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

“The White Fox” is an evocative fantasy-of-agency, though of a somewhat displaced agency. The protagonist is escaping from a briefly-sketched prison camp in Japanese occupied Korea and receives the assistance of a supernatural figure when she (I think it’s a woman? It’s told in first person and the reader is female–not sure if gender was explicit) is in danger of being recaptured. While the story was solidly written, I felt distanced from the immediacy of the action. The memory and threat of the prison camp didn’t feel viscerally tangible, and thinking back, I cant remember a clear motivation for why the protagonist was offered protection and assistance. I thing part of my reaction is that the protagonist was a bit of a “damsel” – in peril and rescued, but saved by outside agency. I liked the way the mythic elements were solidly rooted to place and culture and time. And, as usual, I really enjoyed how the setting was established with casual brushstrokes, leading the listener to construct their own understanding rather than having it handed to them. But overall the story felt…thin.

(Originally published 2015 in Eastlit.)

REVIEW: “The Fall of Tryos” by Eddie D. Moore

Review of Eddie D. Moore, “The Fall of Tryos”, in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 85-95 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This retelling of the siege of Troy is an eclectic mix of archaic and futuristic. The details of the story are little changed — Helen has been abducted from Menelaus; Menelaus’s friends are called to make good upon the Oath of Tyndareus; Ulysses (yes, he’s called that and not Odysseus) arrives belatedly to save the day — and many of the details are not made explicit, as Moore presupposes the reader’s familiarity with the original. For example, one must already know who Paris is to know who the character Pari or Peri (both names are used; I’m not sure if this is intentional or if one is a systemic typo) is.

It’s never entirely easy to simply transpose an ancient story into a futuristic setting. Many things — names, titles, ranks — can be kept the same, with other things — technology, for instance — simply being upgraded (the original Odysseus could only dream of space ships, laser swords, and Aspida fields). But there are certain aspects of the past that one can only hope will not be present in the future, and it is always a bit disappointing when one reads a futuristic story that still clings to the negative parts of the past. Sometimes it can be a very small thing, such as when Ulysses tells his Strategos that “our wives, children, and neighbors will feast our victory for weeks” (p. 85). Only their wives? Are none of them married to men? Are there no women in the fleet? One can only hope that in the future, it will be “our husbands, wives, and children”, or even better just “our family and friends” that celebrate our victories with us.

Like other stories in the anthology, this one is somewhat let down by the proofreading. In addition to the Pari/Peri fluctuation, there are again many missing commas, which detract (even if only minimally) from the pleasure that the story itself gives.

REVIEW: “We are Turning on a Spindle” by Joanna Parypinski

Review of Joanna Parypinski, “We are Turning on a Spindle”, Nightmare Magazine 61: Read Online. Reviewed by Winnie Ramler.

Time marches ever on. It pays no attention to the desires of us mortals, and it certainly doesn’t stop for anything. One of the fun aspects of science fiction is that it gives us a chance to imagine how the future might appear. Some choose to go not too far into the future, but Joanna Parypinski goes so far that there is hardly anything left. You can’t even be sure if this was Earth or if it’s some other planet where beings like us may have existed.

In this retelling of Sleeping Beauty, the main character traverses a long distance in the far off future in order to find the greatest beauty in the universe. The world is so changed that it is alien and ancient and falling a part. His obsession with his quest is what drives him- the strength of the legends he’s heard and the strength of his own convictions.

I love the descriptions in this story. The details were gorgeous (even when they were describing things that were less so). It was a very visceral read.

I really appreciated the introspective tone of the tale. Possession is a tenuous concept, and this story examines what exactly this term means and the consequences that can come with it. Be careful what you wish for.

REVIEW: “Poison_apple.exe” by Chanel Earl

Review of Chanel Earl, “Poison_apple.exe”, in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 145-159 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is another story where the inspiring myth is clear from the title alone. The twist comes from the fact that the story is told from the POV of the “evil queen” (who is the grandmother, rather than the stepmother — a pleasant twist away from a standard trope). The setting of the story is maybe one or two generations from the present, and Earl works in the SF elements — which are perforce muted because of the timeline — in a very careful and precise way. The magic mirror is not magic, merely a robot. Instead of poisoned apples, Snow White must avoid a cleverly implanted computer virus.

Earl’s take on “Snow White” was a vivid and different retelling of the story. She evokes the reader’s sympathy in the main character while also perfectly capturing 7-year-old exuberance.

My enjoyment of the story was marred by the number of missing apposite commas, which jars me every time, as well as a few typos and errors in capitalization. It’s a shame that a good story was let down by the proofreading and editing.

REVIEW: “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas

Review of Sheree Renée Thomas, “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight”, Apex Magazine 101: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The main action is simple: Wilder is hiking through the Tennessee woods at night with his lover, Thistle, in order to meet her mother. The language is dense and lyrical, dripping with portent. In order to get the most of this one, you have to be willing to let yourself sink into that language without worrying too much about the plot. The narrative follows a meandering path though the present and the past, dipping into Wilder’s attempts to woo Thistle, into their relationship, and occasionally into his life before her, before returning to the present day. The point of this story is not the plot (though it’s a fine, well-developed plot). The point of this story is the characters, mood, and feeling. It is the dawning realization that all is not as it seems to the narrator, and the inevitable resolution.

While I admire the luscious language and the the languid journey, I personally found that this story moved too slowly for me, towards a resolution that I guessed at shortly after the opening lines. An inevitable ending isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes it can allow the reader to focus on the journey over the destination – but it didn’t entirely work for me in this case. I kept thinking about how the details and diversions might come together in the end, when they were the point in and of themselves. Each memory, each observation, feeds the mood, giving it depth and weight. That is the point: to be fully immersed in the world, so that ending, once it arrives, has a gravity to it.

I want to emphasize that I didn’t dislike this story – I think it’s expertly written and executed – I just wasn’t able to sink into as fully as I wanted to. If you love to linger over dense prose, lyrical descriptions, and a beautifully meandering narrative, then this may well be the story for you.

REVIEW: “Ashes” by Mike Lewis

Review of Mike Lewis, “Ashes”, in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 63-80 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I really do love retellings of known tales. You get all of the comfort of familiarity and all the joy of wondering what the twist(s) will be. This story is, of course, Cinderella — if the title wasn’t a big enough clue, then the main character’s name being Ella definitely should be.

One of the fascinating things about fairy tales is that the characters in them are more like caricatures; they are fitted into a story according to the roles that they play rather than according to characteristics of themselves. This works brilliantly for fairy tales told to small children, who can use the technique as a means of inserting themselves into the story. For a retelling of a fairy tale, however, the use of stock characters executing well-known tropes can sometimes feel a bit tiresome. I spent much of the story being bounced between irritation at the appearance of these tropes and then having that irritation assuaged by the way Lewis played on the tropes and twisted them. Why must Ella’s sisters be physically gorgeous while she is not? Why must Ella dream of a handsome captain to rescue her? The answers are not what you might think! Sometimes, the heroine gets something better than a prince…

REVIEW: “Effigy Nights” by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “Effigy Nights”, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series, Vol. 8. Reviewed by Drew Shiel.

I am very much a fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s work. Paper, writing, and perception of the written and thought word are recurring themes through much of his work, so it can be argued that “Effigy Nights” is almost iconic in that regard. This story is written as though a reality in which words, when treated in particular ways, form objects and people, is normal. But it would be unfair to say that it’s written prosaically; instead it is poetic, personal and epic at one and the same time. There is something about it of a Middle Eastern feel, as suggested by the echo in the title of One Thousand And One Nights, but there are aspects of other cultures drawn in as well. It is a story about stories.

Recommended for those who can cope with a little surreality, who don’t need all the rules laid out, who can extrapolate, who think about the words on the page and the intrusion of text into the world.

REVIEW: Poetry in Starward Tales II

Review of poetry in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017). — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I decided to tackle all the poetry in the anthology in one go because poetry can be wicked hard to review and it made sense, in the context of a themed anthology like this, to discuss all the poems together.

“Penelope Longing for Odysseus” by Vonnie Winslow Crist (p. 141)

One of the hallmarks of a classic story is that it transcends both time and genre. In this poem, Crist has transposed the story of Odysseus to far into the future, with Penelope waiting at home for her space-ship captain to return. Whether told in epic poetry and set in ancient Greece, or told in short blank verse form and set far in the future, the story of Penelope’s patience, love, and dissatisfaction with her wandering husband remains a powerful one. (The poem also reads aloud nicely, and rated an “It was good” from my 6 year old.)

“Chained” by Vonnie Winslow Crist (p. 39)

Like Crist’s other poem in the anthology, this one also draws upon a foundation of Greek myth, but it is not a straightforward retelling of a known tale. Instead, Crist uses the familiar elements of mythology to couch an unfamiliar future, when humanity has been awoken from cryo-state on a foreign planet. Will we find ourselves in the underworld, in purgatory, or in paradise?

“Girl in the Red Hood” by Richard King Perkins II (p. 97)

The inspiring story for this poem is obvious from the title. The first four stanzas follow the traditional story for the most part, with embellishments and details that make it a distinctive and not generic re-telling. The final stanza is where the dramatic climax is reached; unfortunately, there was not quite enough in it for me to understand the import of the ending. It wasn’t clear who the narrator of the poem was, nor what memories it was that the girl in the red hood forgot before the wolf devoured her.

“Icarus” by María Castro Domínguez (p. 117)

(Note that the table of contents puts this poem on p. 115).

The story of Icarus is one of my favorites, so I was immediately drawn to this poem from its title. The poem did not disappoint — Castro Domínguez paints some vivid pictures with her words — but I am not sure what connects the story of the poem to the story of Icarus.

“Beauty, Sleeping” by Marsheila Rockwell (p. 173)

This brief (10-line) poem takes the story of sleeping beauty and turns it upside down — what happens if when the prince comes to wake the princess instead of giving her his animative power, he takes hers instead?

REVIEW: “So Sings the Siren” by Annie Neugebauer

Review of Annie Neugebauer, “So Sings the Siren”, Apex Magazine 101: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This story sneaks up on you, which is impressive for a 1000 word piece of flash fiction.

A young girl waits with her mother outside the hall where she is going to hear a siren sing for the first time. She asks all sorts of questions, as children are wont to do, and twirls out her excess energy in an innocent scene. That facade crumbles as we learn more about the details of how a musician plays a siren.

There is a beauty that can be born from suffering sometimes, if one is willing to work for it and lucky enough to find it. I believe that this is a story about how best to honor that choice, and whether it is better to turn away from the horror of the source in order to focus on the outcome, or whether we need to acknowledge both. It’s not an easy read, but it is powerful.

REVIEW: “At Cooney’s” by Delia Sherman

Review of Delia Sherman’s, “At Cooney’s”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Delia Sherman certainly has a way with sensory description. After a few lines of “At Conney’s” I felt like I had been whisked away to the dingy bar of her imagination:

Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a little bar called Cooney’s. It’s an old bar, with a tin ceiling and carved-up tables and a floor you don’t want to look at too hard and no air-conditioning to break up the historic atmosphere of stale beer and dusty upholstery and unwashed hair.

Enter Ali, the story’s narrator, who is sitting in Cooneys with her friends Grace and Michael. Grace & Ali argue with Michael about how ‘his man Dylan didn’t invent poetic protest songs.’ and discuss the history of black musical protest. It’s 1968, and Ali is in love with Grace. Grace is black, Ali we’re left to assume is white. Ali doesn’t know how Grace will react if a girl professes their love to her. So, from its opening moments, “At Cooney’s” is a smart, politically focused story.

During an emotional breakdown, Ali stumbles into the bathroom only to find herself transported back in time. Sherman creates real jeopardy with this device. The past is not a safe space for Ali. She arrives without money, or I.D. And her 60’s fashion choices get her branded as a girl dressing as a man.

Even returning to her present doesn’t guarantee Ali safety. It’s 1968, a time when Michael can ask, without much censure, whether the young girls on stage are ‘lezzies’. This choice to transport a narrator from the reader’s past into their own past, and then return them to a historical present, sets “At Cooney’s” apart. Sherman’s story challenges the idea that the present is always a safe space; a space where underrepresented characters are required to “be grateful”.   

In fact, despite the problems of the past, her trip provides Ali with many examples of strength. It turns out, Cooney’s used to be a club where the clientele dressed to express their true gender identities without fear of censure. When the club is raided, she sees people for who ‘being busted is a familiar pain, like a bad hangover, the price they pay for letting it all hang out, even in a speakeasy.’ And yet, these people continue to come to Cooney’s and dress the way that makes them feel their best. There she meets Ronnie, an incredibly seductive character. It’s worth reading “At Cooney’s” just to watch Ronnie’s moves:

Her breath is warm, her voice like damp velvet. I shiver, my eyes on the couples gliding past, bright-eyed and flushed, absorbed in the music and each other. Ronnie’s lips move to my mouth, and somehow we’re still dancing as we kiss, slow, slow, quick-quick.

Ali returns to 1968 with new drive to get over her fear, and to tell Grace she loves her. And while the reader never knows how Grace reacts we’re left with hope hanging in the air.