REVIEW: “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” by M. R. James

Review of M. R. James, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 179-197 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The story opens with a long paragraph of Latin which — I’ll admit — I spent far too long translating before moving on to the next paragraph and laughing when the antiquary reading the book the text is from comments that he still needs to translate the text, and does so in the next paragraph. (Unfortunately, modern spellcheckers tend to choke when it comes to Latin, as I know all to well from my own academic research, which is why, I suspect, the typo in the first line wasn’t caught in editing or proofreading.) And, oh, dear reader, the story has informative footnotes (five of them!), and those who’ve been with SFFReviews from the start know how much I love an informative footnote. All this to say: This is a story basically set up to appeal to me. What appealed even more was when I flipped to the end and read the author’s bio: “Though still well-regarded for his work as a medievalist, he is best known as one of the preeminent voices in modern Gothic horror.” A fellow medievalist who specialises in speculative fiction? How have I not heard of James before? This is one of the things that I love about the anthology: It has introduced me not only to contemporary authors but also historic ones, ones where my chances of otherwise stumbling across them are significantly reduced.

(Originally published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904).

REVIEW: “Princess Mine” by Darby Harn

Review of Darby Harn, “Princess Mine”, Strange Horizons 19 Mar. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

The irony of reviewing a short story about a TV show reviewer reviewing a TV show is not lost on me.

That said, I really enjoyed “Princess Mine.” It’s framed as a blog post by the narrator, who discovers a heretofore unseen and unannounced third season of a show which featured a has-been actress as both herself and not-herself. The third season makes the narrator realize the emptiness in her own life, the lack of connection she has been experiencing, and in a sense, it saves her life.

Like all the best stories, this one features a relatable main character. The problem she’s struggling with–and the problem the character of the TV show, in turn, is also struggling with–is common in our modern era. With everyone hidden behind a screen, it’s hard to form real human relationships, and that can make it hard to find a reason to keep living. The strange third season of the TV show serves as the narrator’s wake-up call, her warning that she needs to make a change in her life or risk ending up like the TV show character.

It’s a simple framing device, but effective at delivering the message. The writing is sharp and engaging, interspersed with “interviews” given by the actress and the narrator’s own fan script for the actress’s one big role. There are several clever turns of phrase, such as “armed with a blood alcohol level approaching godhood.”

All in all, “Princess Mine” is a strong story about finding connections and combating depression. This is yet another story I’d highly recommend.

REVIEW: “A Very Large Number of Moons” by Kai Stewart

Review of Kai Stewart, “A Very Large Number of Moons”, Strange Horizons 12 Mar. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

I’m not sure why, but I found this story particularly charming. Maybe it’s the prose, which is clever and witty, yet never pretentious. Maybe it’s the central idea, that of lunonomers and moon collections. Maybe it’s the actual collection of moons, a creative list running the gamut from simple (“flat moon–the moon you find in puddles”) to complex (“the moon over Berlin on August 12, 1961, as the first brick was laid to divide the city”).

Or maybe it’s the simple story behind it, the single interaction between the narrator and his visitor that demonstrates how much emotional resonance these moons can carry. The visitor has come seeking a specific moon that represents a moment of peace in a time of stress, and I think we can all relate. We all understand what it’s like to want to recapture the feeling of a particular moment.

Whatever the reason, this story struck a note with me. Short, sweet and endearing, I highly recommend this one.

REVIEW: “Of Warps and Wefts” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo

Review of Innocent Chizaram Ilo, “Of Warps and Wefts”, Strange Horizons 5 Mar. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Hmmm. Well, this is a strange one.

It’s hard to discuss “Of Warps and Wefts” without explaining the central conceit: that in this world, when one marries, one begins leading a split life of two marriages, one as husband, one as wife. As far as I can tell, that includes a physical transformation. So it’s definitely an interesting way to explore gender and gender roles.

But this is also a case where the story’s concept is perhaps more interesting than the actual story. Our narrator, Chime/Dime, is unhappy with their marriages, particularly their marriage to their husband. And there’s really not much of a story here on that front: at the end, after following the narrator for the day, Chime talks to him as he is transitioning, and her husband agrees that he needs to make more room for her. That’s it. Problem apparently solved. There’s no real intermediary step, no real interaction between the two for most of the story.

What’s more interesting is the stress of living a double life; all the married characters seem to be feeling it, to some degree, and dealing with it in different ways. Chime’s husband is lost in her new wife; Dime’s wife has taken on destructive drug and alcohol abuse. Yet we’re barely able to explore any of this. This is one case where I think the story and characters would benefit from a longer setting.

An interesting story, with a lot of unrealized potential.

REVIEW: “The Sound a Raven Makes” by Mathew Scaletta

Review of Mathew Scaletta, “The Sound a Raven Makes”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 104-120 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He yearned for the spark that would flare against the low alder and tall draping hemlock that surrounded the compound. He yearned for the bloom that would illuminate them all. His gaze shifted between the fireweed, his lover, and finally onto the muskeg plain that started at the bottom of the hill and stretched for miles until it slammed into foothills of another devastated mountain.

Ash works with his grandmother and uncle in a meat processing facility in southeastern Alaska, taking in the kills of rich men who fly in to hunt there and butchering them, smoking them, turning them into teriyaki—it all seems perfectly ordinary enough reading until the first customer arrives and Scaletta skirts deftly around the issue of what it is that is being hunted. Same with the next, and the next, until I’m getting increasingly anxious because I know it can’t be anything good.

Spoiler: It’s not anything good.

Such darkness needs to be balanced by light, and in this story that light comes in the form of Ash’s love for JB and JB’s for him. It is a peculiar little story, but that thread running through it lifts it from being just a little too depressing for me.

(Originally published in Gigantosaurus 2016).

REVIEW: “The Palm Bride” by Diana Hurlburt

Review of Diana Hurlburt, “The Palm Bride”, Luna Station Quarterly 33 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Any man might create a Palm Bride…It’s made of dreams.

I love me a good historically-influenced fantasy story, and Hurlburt’s story set in St. Augustine-of-the-past, -of-the-not-quite-here-and-now, delivers.

The setting of the story is post-war, when those who returned from the fight are still alive but now old and grey, and the war is near enough so that the uneasy tension between black and white remains, along with the uncomfortable matter of unchaperoned, unmarried young girls. Miss Randolph has traveled to St. Augustine from Seneca Falls to pursue a matter of ghosts, or spirits, but what she finds at Mrs. Cobb’s mansion, Villa Reina, is not at all what she expects. That which inhabits the Palm Bride is “a spirit now, and a bit livelier than most, but there was a time in which she was a goddess”. Miss Randolph is there both to study the spirit and exorcise it.

It’s a pretty standard ghost story; I kept waiting for some twist at the end, but I never quite got it.

REVIEW: “Early Morning Service” by Irette Y. Patterson

Review of Irette Y. Patterson, “Early Morning Service”, Strange Horizons 19 Feb. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This story struck me as a bittersweet reflection on the nature of present-day Christianity. Our protagonist is the stereotypical “old church lady” at an African American church in Georgia, though she’s anything but ordinary. She has some kind of power, fueled by faith and worship. But the church she patronizes is slowly dying, and so, therefore, is she. When the story opens, she can’t even conjure candy anymore.

She has a rival, of sorts. Someone who “feeds” off the stadium-seated megachurches. He is still powerful, still able to use the abilities that Miss Geneva, our main character, has lost in her quieter, more personal world. The story isn’t 100% clear on who he is, but it’s implied that he’s some form of Jesus, though not the humble, kind Jesus Christianity teaches. This one is associated with coldness, and “ebbing power” attracts him.

But there’s still hope here, a reprieve in the kindness of a child. Miss Geneva has a strong will to persevere, and the end rests on her determination: not today. She will not give up today. “Early Morning Service” is a quiet, yet powerful tale.

REVIEW: “Three Petitions to the Queen of Hell” by Tim Pratt

Review of Tim Pratt, “Three Petitions to the Queen of Hell”, Apex Magazine 106 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Apex is really out to make me question my own reading preferences with this issue. I generally do not care for love stories – they’re fine and all, but I bristle at the implication that sexual or romantic love is the most important aspect of our lives. And then a beautiful little love story about the queens of hell shows up, and I’m head over heels for it.

Marla and Zufi, the dual queens of hell (and married, naturally), have been fighting for eight years, and neither is feeling particularly motivated to apologize. One of them decides to alleviate her boredom by re-opening the paths by which mortals can petition them, thus kick-starting some change. Also, ice cream is an important plot element.

The tone is exactly the sort that I fall for, and hard. It’s poetic and sarcastic at the same time, maintaining just enough distance from the bickering queens to recognize that they are being ridiculous, without holding them in contempt (no matter how Marla and Zufi may feel at any given time). There’s also a contrast between moments of formal speech and casual phrases that pleased me. It’s funny, without being a humorous story.

This story also does a nice job of incorporating mythic themes without hewing to any one mythology. It probably draws most from the Greeks and Romans, what with the ties between the underworld and the seasons and the flavor of the guardians set to make it hard for petitioners to get to the land of the dead, but it is it’s own thing, and well executed.

Best of all, this is a queer love story with a happy ending, which is all too rare. Recommended for fans of romance and people who like their love stories with a touch of the macabre.

REVIEW: “Episode 14” by Shannon Ryan

Review of Shannon Ryan, “Episode 14”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 131-145 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story takes the central conceit of the anthology and runs with it from the very start: A group of Minnesota teenagers take a car and a cameraman and go off to film — not ghosts, but abandoned places. This is not a ghost story and these are not ghost hunters: “We’re not going to run around screaming like girls and taking our shirts off” (p. 131).

This is not the first time they’ve done this. In fact, they’re up now to their 14th episode, and their goal is an abandoned recycling plant that closed up shop quite suddenly a few years ago. It is dark of night when they reach the deserted building, but inside there is a noise.

Of course it’s not a ghost, because this isn’t a ghost story. And it certainly couldn’t be the giant rooster it sounds to be…

This story was a perfect treasure hunt of clues; I was pretty sure I’d figured out where it was going about half-way through, but there was just enough uncertainty that it was resoundingly satisfying when my hunch was confirmed.

REVIEW: “Carnivores” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Carnivores”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 239-256 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The restaurateur leaned forward. “You’re a survivor from the original batch, then? From the Bangkok biolabs?”

This story wears its Sci Fi badge with pride, announcing its genre in many different ways in the first few sentences. We have decaying engineering AIs, neural implants, Neanderthal hybrids, and autocabs before we finish the first page. Rather miraculously, these details don’t come across as info-dumping, nor as overwhelming.

Finch and Blake are planning a heist, of a restaurant “kitschy as fuck” (p. 241). The modus operandi involves getting Finch in under false pretenses — and prepared to make false promises. Once inside, what they find is more valuable, and more dangerous, than their wildest imaginings.

The story is visceral, it is tender, it is horrific, and it is sweet. It’s a mess of contradicting experiences, yet nevertheless all balancing each other. And for all of its darkness, it ends with hope. We always can do with a little more hope in our tales.

(Originally published in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts 2016).