REVIEW: “The Astrologer on the Fifth Floor” by Karl Dandenell

Review of Karl Dandenell, “The Astrologer on the Fifth Floor”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 101-116 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I remember reading a few months ago a review of an Asian #ownvoices novel where the reviewer complained that when the MC looked in the mirror, the words they used to describe themself didn’t include any of the typical cue words that white people use to describe Asians, and the bafflement that arose from other people at this curious criticism.

As a white woman myself, I’m not in the best place to raise the following reversal of this criticism, but since it was one of the things that impressed upon me the most at the beginning of the story, I think it’s worth mentioning. Dandenell’s MC, Harrison Leong, is “an Asian businessman” — a fair enough description from an omniscient narrator, though I did find it a bit odd to include the description since the surname should’ve been enough of a cue — and he is up on the fifth floor to meet Mr. Norbu, the titular astrologer. It is this sentence that struck me as strange:

Leong saw a short, middle-aged Asian man with a neat beard and sparkling eyes (p. 102)

I can’t help but think, is that really what Leong saw? Or did Leong see someone like himself, see simply “a short, middle-aged man with a neat beard and sparkling eyes”? Would he have seen Mr. Norbu as Asian, or would that have been the working default, just as my own mental narration never tells me when I’m seeing another white person, it only tells me when I’m seeing something that is not my default, not the norm within the cultural context that I live in.

I otherwise enjoyed the story, which flitted from POV to POV in a way that seemed seamless rather than disjointed. I’m not sure how the story fits the theme of “abandoned places”, but I decided not to let slavish adherence to a topic destroy my pleasure in a good tale.

REVIEW: “The Lost City of Leng” by Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo

Review of Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo, “The Lost City of Leng”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 33-65 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

An adventurous sequel to At the Mountains of Madness. A journalist joins an eccentric group on an expedition to Antarctica to help the “cukes” face off against Shoggoths in exchange for loot and scientific knowledge.

I’m going to state this upfront – I didn’t particularly like this novella. I enjoy new Lovecraftian work, especially set in Antarctica and one thing Rucker and Di Filippo did really well in this piece was to capture the “Good ol’ boys” adventure tone. The crew and mission were fun, the description of the subterranean lake was evocative, and the Elder Gods’ activities and motivations were appropriately fascinating and unknowable to the protagonists.

However, I found the story problematic in some ways, particularly Vivi’s characterisation and Doug’s incessant sexualisation of her. I also had some problems with Doug’s motivations, the pacing through the middle, and the subplot introduced somewhat suddenly towards the end.

There may have been more mileage for people more well-versed in Lovecraft than me – there were lots of references, shout outs and tie-ins here. I’m also wondering if there was satire or humour that just didn’t come across for me in this piece.

Overall, this piece didn’t really resonate with me and I found this a bit lacking compared to some of the more progressive and innovative contemporary Lovecraft-inspired work.


REVIEW: “The Waters So Dark” by Josh Reynolds

Review of Josh Reynolds, “The Waters So Dark”, Broadswords and Blasters 1 (2017): 67-77 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Yana Shepard.

Let me first state that this story was written well and I took no issue with it other than the religious themes. It wasn’t offensive, it’s just I’m not a fan of most religious themes. Again, written well, just not my cup of tea. But if you don’t mind, then this may be a story for you.

Without spoiling too much, there was a nifty creature that I really dug its description.

I enjoyed the ending. It was not what I was expecting.

If you like spiritual monks fighting scary monsters, this may be a tale for you.

REVIEW: “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” by Meghan Cunningham

Review of Meghan Cunningham, “Borrowing Ark Sutherland”, Luna Station Quarterly 33 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The title of the story is hard to parse, until one reads the first sentence:

Like a rental bike returned with a tire puncture, Ark woke up in a stranger’s apartment.

Ark is a person, and one in very curious circumstances indeed.

The circumstances under which Ark has become someone — something — that can be borrowed are not very pleasant. Cunningham’s story is a future-set SF story, and it’s not a hopeful future, but rather one rife with segregation, destruction of nature, and sordid hook-ups.

There was a lot going on in the story that I found difficult to keep track of or to hang together in a sensible story; I often felt like I was missing a necessary piece or two, trying to figure out who the various characters were and what exactly was going on — is Ark the one borrowing or the one who is being borrowed? Half-way through the story, I was still unsure, though by the — rather abrupt — end I had figured some things out. Certainly the complexities of the story merit reading it more than once, although both times through felt more edifying than educational.

REVIEW: “Long for This World” by Esther Scherpenisse

Review of Esther Scherpenisse, “Long For This World”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 3-10. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

One thing I like about Space and Time magazine is that they always keep things interesting and this story is no exception. Esther Scherpenisse is a Dutch SFF writer, and in this story she tells of a young man who is about to die, but whose family is lucky enough for Death to answer their call.

The main character gets taken by Death to a realm where his life is extended, though things aren’t necessarily what they seem at first glance. Death in this story is fairly kind, though firm, much like Neil Gaiman’s Death in the Sandman series, though here they are at least presented as male. Some parts of the story may be hard to face, such as the main character getting swept up in his family’s inability to say goodbye to him, despite the fact that chemo has made him more than ready to accept his death when it comes. Or his faimily’s forced ignorance of the fact that their son is wasting away in front of them, their absolute need to act like nothing is wrong.

The story keeps things short and sweet and packs a great punch when it comes to the main character’s choices. Fans of Persona may also enjoy the description of Death’s tower. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “My Heart is a Prayer” by Ryan Row

Review of Ryan Row, “My Heart is a Prayer”, Podcastle: 510 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

There are stories where the poetic language grabs my ears and carries me through to the heart of the tale even when I’m not sure where it’s going. There are stories where the tale itself grabs me and the language becomes the unnoticed medium that conveys it. “My Heart is a Prayer” falls somewhere in the vast middle between those two. The words are full of lyrical imagery but I had to re-start my listening a couple of times because I couldn’t find a story to latch on to and my mind wandered off and lost track of what I was hearing.

To some extent, that listening experience matches the content of the story fairly well. A creature that is not human, that is only just coming into its understanding of itself, describes the experience of that becoming and understanding. Eventually we get the context of its experience: two alchemists, devastated (and possibly driven mad) by the death of their child, pour all their art into undoing that death and in the process capture an entity they hadn’t intended. The disaster their success could generate dangles by a thread–and is still dangling at the story’s end.

In structure, this falls in the type of story that I feel works better in audio than on the page, but in actual execution the elusive, unfocused nature of the first half came very close to losing me entirely.

(Previously published at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores which, alas, has a completely unreadable display interface and makes it impossible to determine what the original publication date was.)

REVIEW: “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters” by A.T. Greenblatt

Review of A.T. Greenblatt, “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters”, Podcastle: 509 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This is a meta-fiction blending the world of gamer’s quests made real and the contemporary online culture of bloggers. Devon isn’t a hero; he follows quests and encounters fabulous monsters to write them up for a travel blog. But there was a time when he did try heroing with his friend Nate. It ended badly and that’s why Devon is missing an arm these days. So when Nate’s girlfriend hires Devon to find out why Nate didn’t return from his latest quest…let’s just say there are complicated feelings involved.

I found this story to have a very slow start, with its apparently random monster encounters and the detailed descriptions of how Devon works past them. The climax included some very satisfying twists and resolutions as Devon sticks to his principles to bring the quest to a satisfying conclusion for all involved–including (or perhaps especially) the monsters. The colloquial contemporary narrative style worked to leaven the otherwise stock worldbuilding. It doesn’t aspire to the level of gripping prose that will knock my socks off, but it’s appropriate to the nature of the story.

(Originally published in Mothership Zeta 2016/07/31)