REVIEW: “The Rescue of the Renegat” by Kristine Katherine Rusch

Review of Kristine Katherine Rusch, “The Rescue of the Renegat”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 154-192 — Read Excerpt Online or Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

This was a fun read and a highlight for me this issue. I read it in one sitting because I didn’t want to put it down. It’s like a solid episode of a sci-fi TV show you didn’t know you wanted to be watching.

The crew of the Aizsargs are in charge of closing off a Sector Base no longer in use by the Fleet – a giant flotilla of ships traversing space together (“always forward”). The Fleet takes 500 years to pass over any given point from start to finish, so they often occupy or associate with bases for a long time before shutting them down. Mid-closure, however, a strange ship – the Renegat – appears out of foldspace in distress. It looks to be over a hundred years old with questionable signs of life on board and the crew of the Aizsargs sets up a rescue mission, despite not knowing where or when the Renegat came from, who’s on board, or even how to conduct the rescue mission on a ship that old.

This novella is set in Rusch’s established Diving Universe, but even for someone not familiar with it Rusch sets up a world that feels full and established despite the short word length.

Despite the simple premise of the story, the pacing is fast and Rusch manages to give it a lot of character and emotional depth. There were multiple perspective characters throughout and each one, despite some of them only getting two or so scenes, had an arc and a place in the story. The cast felt full, with histories and futures that extended beyond the edges of the story told here. Fantastic stuff.

REVIEW: “How to Survive an Epic Journey” by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Review of Tansy Rayner Robert’s, “How to Survive an Epic Journey”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“How to Survive an Epic Journey” is a wonderful example of why I am always down for a female focused take on Greek mythology. In this story, Tansy Rayner Roberts provides a rousing, subversive tale of the Argonaut’s adventures, told by Atalanta; a female member of the crew. From the opening framing device of a tavern tale, told by a woman confidently calling for wine and honey cakes, Atalanta’s energetic, cutting voice rings out loud and true. Straightaway, it is clear that the reader can expect excellent storytelling from a woman who is not afraid to upend the precious legends of heroes.

This story is packed full of so much interesting feminist detail that it’s hard to know what to focus on. Let’s start with the fact that one of Atalanta’s main intentions is to correct the prevalent versions of the Argonaut’s tales:

Jason ruined everything for his crew: the quest, the prize, even the legend that followed. We hoped to do great deeds, and be remembered as…

Yes, all right, I’ll say it. Heroes.

Instead we ended up as supporting characters in Jason’s tragic romance with himself.

Atalanta aims to reclaim her rightful place in the tales, expose the shortcomings of some of the ‘heroes’, and dispel certain myths about another big female player; Medea

However, Roberts’ retelling also concentrates on bringing Atalanta to life; giving her a distinct personality, and making her more than a device for correcting past tales. With her love of the Argo, practical feelings for her married lover Meleager, and thirst for adventure, Atalanta is a vibrant character. And the same can be said of Medea; a quick thinking, ruthless, ‘monster’ of a woman. The friendship between the two women adds another feminist dimension to the story, although I wished a little that this relationship had been more firmly established earlier. And the fact that their stories extends past the boundaries of Jason’s and Meleager’s lives on the Argo pushes against the idea that Ancient women’s stories must be tied to men, and wink out when the men disappear.

“How to Survive an Epic Journey” is a strong example of how myths, legends, and Ancient stories can be rewritten with women in mind. Pair this with stories like “Daughter of Necessity” by Marie Brennan if you need more of the women of Ancient Greece.

REVIEW: “The Bone Plain” by Karin Tidbeck

Review of Karin Tidbeck’s, “The Bone Plain”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Bone Plain” is an evocative story about a young woman trying to escape a terrible incident from her past. Erika travels west until there’s no more west in front of her. By accident, she falls in with a group of pilgrims travelling ‘the trail’, and follows them on their pilgrimage because they provide company, distraction, and a sense of safety. As their journey continues Erika’s story unfolds. She is fleeing from her life with Aidan; an older man who pretended to be her friend, but actually wanted to be much more. She is running from ‘The hand reaching out from the foot of the bed. The moist lips on her foot,’ and from the uncomfortable sense that she has done something violent in order to escape.

At first glance, “The Bone Plain” seems to contain barely a hint of the science fictional or the fantastical. However, a few key differences from our own world clearly set it outside the realms of reality. Erika’s trail takes her to the cathedral of ‘Our Lady of World’s End’; an intriguing, fictional religious figure. Erika then travels on to the ‘plains’ of the title where ‘The bones lay scattered all over the plain, the smallest one the length of a bus.’ While the bones described could easily be dinosaur bones, establishing them as real (if extinct) creatures, our world doesn’t contain a huge plain of bones ‘supposedly arranged along leylines’ that pilgrims can visit. With these simple touches, the reader is placed kindly, but firmly, in a different realm; although one that still contains familiar touchstones like payphones, pastries, and knock-off trainers. At the end, a central unsettling mystery that has the potential to complicate the reader’s understanding of Erika is left hanging in the air, and this compliments the story’s general slightly odd and out of time feeling.

“The Bone Plain” illuminates the healing potential of a journey embarked on without a clear sense of purpose. It’s a story which presents an equally satisfying alternative to the driven, questing nature of many fantasy stories. The pleasure of this alternate structure creeps up on you as Karin Tidbeck deftly balances hard history and difficult questions alongside companionship and Erika’s growing sense of reconnecting with herself. A very gratifying story, and a second reading allows you to fully savour Erika’s slow development.

REVIEW: “Learning to See Dragons” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette’s, “Learning to See Dragons”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In Sarah Monette’s poignant story about a young girl’s grief and loneliness, much of the background is shaded in swiftly; leaving the reader clutching at tantalising details. The story revolves around one central event; the death of Annie’s grandmother. However, much of what informs Annie’s story is happening, or has already happened, off the page.

When questioned by her teacher about whether there is trouble at home, Annie thinks ‘The trouble was that she didn’t have a home anymore, just a house where she lived with her parents. Her home had never been there, and now it was nowhere.’ And, while it’s difficult to build a definitive picture of Annie’s home life, it’s obvious from little details in the text that Annie doesn’t feel much affinity with her parents. Her grandmother has been the more significant, and positive, force in her life.

The fantasy element of this story is quiet, but at the same time extremely surreal. “Learning to See Dragons” is one of those stories where magic seems to appear just because it’s needed; although the appearance of magic doesn’t guarantee a typical happy ending. After finishing the story, I was remind of Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet and Lucy Wood’s collection Diving Belles. As with those stories, I was left feeling a little sad about Annie and her eventual transformation. And I felt sorry for her mother who seems to be feeling plenty of her own grief but can’t connect with her daughter at this important time. There’s an element of horror to the ending, but it’s hard not to also feel a sense of relief for Annie who has chosen and summoned her own fate. The reader is left questioning and reevaluating their response long after they’ve read the story’s last line.

REVIEW: “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

Review of Connie Willis, “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 168-197 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

I have to find Ozymandias’s first. It’s here someplace, on one of these endless, look-alike streets. It has to be.
Because otherwise all those endless shelves of books – all those histories and plays and adventures and sentimental novels and textbooks and teen star biographies are gone. And whatever fascinating or affecting or profound things were in them are as lost to us as that vanished kingdom of Ozymandias’s. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair indeed.

Jim is on a book publicity tour, based on his successful blog “Gone for Good” where he advocates for an end to nostalgia for things that no longer have a use disappearing: VHS tapes, payphones, telegrams. In Jim’s view, things being surpassed by better things and therefore being lost is part of the natural order of things. That is, until he stumbles into Ozymandius Books. Describing beyond this point would be giving away what makes this story special. This is a classic story of a protagonist falling into a strange world and then returning, not the same as they were when they started. Describing that world is the story and it’s done wonderfully here.

This novella was probably my favourite story this issue. It’s a lovely read for its own sake, but I enjoyed pausing while I read this to think about the questions it was raising: about the inherent value of books, whether updated knowledge invalidates the usefulness of the previous, and whether a book or a story loses its value when society moves away from it. At it’s core though, I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land asks two questions: Where does the last copy go? And does anyone care about it?

This story is necessarily a bit literary in tone and theme – being a meta-consideration of books and literature and their importance – but Willis’ narrative pacing and descriptions of Ozymandius were great and kept it from becoming too navel-gazey.

REVIEW: “The Christmas Abomination from Beyond the Back of the Stars” by Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt

Review of Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt, The Christmas Abomination from Beyond the Back of the Stars, Podcastle: 501 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Humor is hard. And when it doesn’t work for you, it’s hard to know if it doesn’t work or if it just doesn’t work for you. I get the impression that this story is part of a continuing holiday tradition, with references to the back-stories of characters like the boy mummy adopted by the eccentric American family. This installment is a slapstick humorous take on Lovecraftian-style horror, complete with elder gods and uncanny rituals to summon or dismiss them. All as part of a Christmas trip to an isolated Pacific island. The humor relied in part on the premise that bratty misbehaving children are inherently funny and that adults are inherently incompetent, which is also funny. It isn’t a bad story. The writing hangs together perfectly well, it was the right length for the amount of content, and the clever twist was neither out-of-the-blue nor over-telegraphed. But in the end, it didn’t work for me as humor. And I think that’s mostly because humor is hard and very individual.

REVIEW: “The Nanny Bubble” by Norman Spinrad

Review of Norman Spinrad, “The Nanny Bubble”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 160-166 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

Aunty Nanny knows when you are creeping

She knows when you’re a snake

She’ll keep you in her Bubble

Never gonna let you escape

Ted – who does not like being called Teddy – loves playing baseball and he’s pretty good at it. Or so he thinks. See, he’s only ever played structured Little League games in real time – everything else is simulations. He lives in a Nanny Bubble – a complete smartphone, 3D audio and Heads-Up Glasses system that monitors where he is and keeps him confined to a four-block radius. This doesn’t seem like such a constraint to Ted – he can go wherever he wants in virtual reality, unlike the poor kids. Except one day, when he accidentally ends up on the wrong side of the park he sees the poor kids playing a type of baseball he’s never seen before, played in real time. Ted sees an opportunity to test out whether he’s really good at baseball, if he could ever really think about playing the Major Leagues, and hatches a plan to find out.

This is a pretty simple story speculating on one idea – what if kids were so monitored that they couldn’t wander off, meet other kids, stay out close to dusk and make their own fun? Does that experience still have value in a technology-driven world? And if we don’t watch our kids every second of the day, what’s the worst that could happen?

I enjoyed this one. It’s got a nice nostalgia to it, despite the 20 minutes into the future setting. Spinrad really manages to capture that ‘late-summer hanging out at the park with your friends’ atmosphere. There’s also some nice food for thought about independence and the importance of being given room to figure things out for yourself. The parental villains fell a bit flat for me, but that element didn’t overly get in the way of a light, fun read.

REVIEW: “Maiden, Mother, Crone” by Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky

Review of Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky, Maiden, Mother, Crone, Podcastle: 500 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

The basic story structure is one of religious intolerance: the conflict between a magical woman-centered tradition and a murderous patriarchal monotheistic tradition, mediated by fear, lack of communication, and a really bad winter storm, the sort you don’t want to get caught in when you’re about to give birth. While the story hung together competently in narrative terms, I confess that stereotypes involved in the religious world-building felt unimaginative. I did like the hopeful (if far-fetched) plans the protagonist had at the end, though I don’t think it could be called a happy ending overall. I think I was hoping to be blown away by the special 500th episode story–Podcastle is really good about blowing me away on a regular basis–and it fell short of doing that for me.

REVIEW: “Nephilia clavata” by G. Grim

Review of G. Grim, “Nephilia clavata“, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 70-71. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Oh, this story was deliciously creepy! From the very first line —

So back in the day, there was this hipster trend for living tattoos.

to the very end, and through all the riot of complications and consequences of sharing your skin with someone else. The story is only a page and a half, and unlike many stories that length, it is perfectly complete as it is, and extremely well crafted.

Warning: If you’re not a huge fan of spiders, don’t do as I did, and look up nephila clavata in wikipedia. Utterly gorgeous, but they’re as creepy as their namesake story.

REVIEW: “A Good Egg” by Shawn Proctor

Review of Shawn Proctor, A Good Egg, Podcastle: 499c — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A brief heartbreaking fairy tale exploration, riffing off of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, with a brief allusion to Cinderella in passing. What if Humpty Dumpty’s great fall was falling in love with the king? I liked how the author played with the clash of the structural absurdity of the Humpty Dumpty nickname and the bodily egg imagery (both shape and fragility) in combination with the understated pathos of the rhyme’s outcome, mapped onto a rejected lover. Not a happy story but an exquisite one.