REVIEW: “The Tale of the Costume Maker” by Steve Carr

Review of Steve Carr, “The Tale of the Costume Maker”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 1-10 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In the normal light of day, in this room with light streaming through the window, the costume maker is exceedingly handsome. His pale face is as clear as an unpainted porcelain figurine. He resembles Montgomery Clift or Paul Newman or Louis Jordan or none of them, or all of them all at once. His eyes react slowly to the light, as if he is waking from a dream — a dream of lazy, ethereal lovemaking.

This story was a strange one…it started off beautiful, with lovely words and lovely images, but then we are suddenly observers to a scene which should have been private — or rather, which should never have happened at all, because the costume maker did not ask for it, did not consent to it.

This is the first story in the anthology, but I’m glad it’s not the first that I read, for I think it might have put me off. I am increasingly uncomfortable with and intolerant of non-consensual sexual encounters in fiction, even when they play an important role in the story (and sometimes, precisely when they play such a role). If you share my sentiments, then you might wish to skip this story.

(First published in SickLitMag 2016).

REVIEW: “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” by S. B. Divya

Review of S. B. Divya’s, “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” is set in a dystopian Arizona where abortion has been criminalised. The narrator and their partner, Chula, have stayed in this dangerous territory with their two children in order to help women recieve safe abortions. The couple fully expect to be found by the law one day, and to have to run, but the narrator, who is disabled, does not expect they will make it out alive. All of their scenarios for the future involve Chula, the woman who is ‘a four-time triathlete, perfect eyesight, no injuries’, getting their children to a safe house. However, everything changes when Chula is killed by a bullet aimed at the narrator. From then on, the narrator has to be the one to survive in order to keep their children alive.

I’ve seen several discussions from disabled commentators about disability and dystopia, and “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” definitely feels like it’s in conversation with those discussions. This story adopts a multi-layered approach to depicting a disabled person’s life when the world is in crisis and they’re being chased by the authorities. S. B. Divya shows the practical issues of surviving in a dystopia when you have various disabilities. She allows her narrator to voice genuine concerns about their ability to survive, and to be less than positive about their situation. The fact that the narrator never offers up their name, and is never asked for it, is a subtle reminder that disabled people often don’t exist in dystopian stories.

At the same time, Divya challenges this lack of surviving, disabled characters in mainstream dystopian stories (or just the lack of disabled protagonists in mainstream dystopian stories). This story pushes back against the idea that there’s no place for disabled people in this genre by centring a disabled narrator, writing the story in their first person voice, giving them the tools to save their children, and sending them home alive, and a minor resistance hero. “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” creates some much needed space for disability while also providing an action-packed story which comments on the erosion of women’s rights. Try it out if you enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Flow” by Marissa Lingen.

REVIEW: “The Date” by R. K. Kalaw

Review of R. K. Kalaw’s, “The Date”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In “The Date” an unnamed, female narrator plucks up the courage to ask an enticing woman called Anna out to dinner. From the first description of Anna, where the narrator focuses on ‘the way she swayed, how the sun played off the velvet gleam of her exoskeleton’ it’s obvious that she is something other than human. It also becomes clear that she is direct, purposeful, and quite possibly dangerous. The narrator is well aware that she may, literally, get her head bitten off, but she chooses to pursue Anna anyway. As the story progresses, it’s easy to see why the narrator is so keen on this woman despite the imminent threat of death.

This story is concerned with the idea that women have to suppress their appetites in order to please men. The narrator explains that she’s used to playing a part when dating. ‘I wasn’t usually so forward,’ she says after asking Anna to dinner; ‘too much, too fast, and people bolted like gazelles.’ Selecting an outfit for her date, she discards a red dress in favour of an outfit which signals ‘I’m chill. I don’t need much, don’t take much, don’t need you.’ Anna, in contrast, is unafraid to take up space: laughing loudly, commanding people, and eating with gusto. She comes across as monstrous, and different, in this world of humans, with her ‘mandibles’ and ‘barbed’ arms. And she is a symbolic incarnation of characteristics leave real life women labelled as ‘monstrous’.  

Despite having  sought Anna out because she is ‘dazzling’, the narrator is unable to claim the same kind of space. She has a fear of being rejected for being ‘too much’, and this has been reinforced, repeatedly, by men. On her date with Anna, the narrator looks for a dish that is ‘small and innocuous’ because ‘Most men disliked it when I showed more hunger than they had…’ Anna laughs at this, orders them both rare steaks, and proceeds to tear hers apart ‘ripping a hunk off the bone.’; setting the narrator on a path to freedom by being herself, and granting the narrator the same freedom. ‘I’m not afraid of your appetites,’ Anna says.

It’s at this point that the story twists a little. Is the narrator, although dressed in human flesh, actually something else underneath? Are we talking about appetites or are we talking about <em>appetites</em>? “The Date” never confirms whether the narrator is inhuman, or whether she has just been suppressing a level of human desire that would be deemed ‘unseemly’ in a woman. Whichever way you read it, “The Date” is the vibrant story of a woman set free from binding social expectations by a ‘dazzling’ monster woman who could literally eat a man alive.

At the beginning of the story, the narrator says ‘It was my first time, dating a woman like her.’ And the fact that she only mentions dating men after that makes it sound like this is the narrator’s first date with a woman. The ending, where the two go off together ‘holding each other close, like lovers, like raptors,’ will put a huge grin on your face.  

REVIEW: “Done, not Undone” by Patricia Russo

Review of Patricia Russo, “Done, not Undone”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 11-16. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

What if shape-shifting was a genetic trait, one that was highly frowned upon at that? This story follows a shape-shifter and their friend (who desperately wishes they could shape-shift) as they are about to undertake some shady business in the name of grocery money and get pulled into something rather unexpected.

The premise of shape shifting, while old hat, is given a fresh take with this story, and Patricia Russo has given us characters that we care about within a short space and a page-turner of a story. Recommended.

REVIEW: “We Are New(s)” by Bentley A. Reese

Review of Bentley A. Reese “We Are New(s)”, Apex Magazine 106 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It’s always nice to be surprised. Case in point: this is not the sort of story I like. Weird dialects, an ambiguous narrator, creepy levels of social stratification, technological connection taken to the extreme: this is everything that tends to irritate me about cyberpunk. But this story? I love it.

The world is a near future cyberpunk, both strange and recognizably descended from our present day. The plot is meet-cute, with a low-class boy approaching a high-class girl, and making a genuine connection. But the narrator, the POV character, is something outside of them, something almost omniscient, tied to the constant stream of social media and news updates the near-future internet. It has a creepiness and discomfort that kept me reading.

Beyond the plot, this is a great story about how we interact with current events and media. It’s not exactly a cautionary tale, but it holds a dark mirror to our modern day obsessions and interests. It shows us our addiction to outrage and violence and viral content. Recommended for fans of cyberpunk and anyone who likes cutting social observations in their science fiction.

REVIEW: “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Gentleman of Chaos”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 55-66 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He has no name, for it was banished long ago. By royal decree he has no face, for he does not exist. No one has heard his voice, soft like velvet; no one has seen the exhaustion and pain in his eyes; no one has felt his hand, scarred and calloused, on their cheek in an apologetic caress.

I really enjoy 1st-person POV for short stories, because then I feel like I’m sitting around a campfire, or in someone’s quiet room, or at a theatre, listening to someone tell a story. This story is steeped in history and mythology, and it feels real — not that the events in it happened, but that they are events that someone, somewhere would tell to captivate an audience who is disposed to believe the teller’s fantasies. It feels like something Shahrazad would tell her captive king.

Who, exactly, the narrator is, and why She (for that is the name which we are instructed to use) has chosen to tell this tale rather than another one, put me in a position where I — cis, het, female — feel like I’m wholly unqualified to review the story. There are so many aspects of the story where I simply do not have the right standing to comment on them. So I will stick to making personal remarks: This is a love story, and I loved it, and it is magical.

(First appeared in Apex Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar” by Maria Haskins

Review of Maria Haskins, “A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 57-72 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I love the title of this piece — it is stuffed full of possibility.

The story is told in alternating points of view, from above, from beneath, from between. These voices provide the shape of the mine that is the titular abandoned space of this story. At first, I thought it was a horror story, with all the horror that comes from being a parent myself and imagining it is not Alice but me in the mine, dark, claustrophobic, uncertain of where my children have gone. (Such simple things so terrifying.) And that horror is just a shadow horror that Alice must face: The choice between whether she wants to find her children or find her way out of the mine. But then, at the very end — I don’t want to say for fear of spoilers, but the ending makes me need to revise my original classification.

A powerful, real, and disturbing story — probably my favorite of the anthology so far.

REVIEW: “High, High, Away” by Hamilton Perez

Review of Hamilton Perez, “High, High Away”, Syntax and Salt #5, December 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Tiffany Crystal

“High, High Away” is a depressing story wrapped in the robes of fantasy. You almost feel cheated, honestly. You get sucked in with the promise of dragons, and by the time you realize what is really happening, you’re already on the road to heartbreak.

That being said, Mr. Perez does a very good job of spinning a tale of a child losing their parent to what appears to be drug use. If you have ever suffered from physical abuse, you might want to steer clear of this story. The father isn’t depicted as ever laying hands on the child, but the mother doesn’t appear to be so lucky. At the end, I was torn between being glad the father was gone, and feeling sorry for the child. It’s obvious the kid loved their father and didn’t really understand the story or what the father did to the mother, but as the reader, we know, and it’s…oh, it’s difficult.

All in all, it’s not a bad story. It’s a bit of a cheat, since it’s not really a fantasy story, but it’s still not bad.

REVIEW: “The Elements of The Plague” by Julia August

Review of Julia August, “The Elements of The Plague”, Syntax and Salt #5, December 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Tiffany Crystal

Alright, so this story is confusing. At first, it doesn’t even really seem like a story…it’s more like an instruction manual. Then it’s more like a warning guide. Then you get to the end, and you go “…wait a minute…”

I am a little embarrassed at how long it took me to really understand what’s going on in this little ditty, but once it hit me, I had to give it a slow clap. If you like timey-wimey stuff, give it a read, but pay attention. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

REVIEW: “A Jangle of Bells and Voices” by Chia Lynn Evers

Review of Chia Lynn Evers, “A Jangle of Bells and Voices”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 213-228 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The opening scenes are of a sprawling battle field full of armies and weapons and activities all unfamiliar and fell. While the point of view soon zeroes in from generalities to specifics, namely the specific of Remsa Brand of the nation of Lys, I’m still left with a bewildering amount of people and places and nations and rulers. Three pages in and I feel like I’m floundering in over my head; I struggle enough with actual history, and I’ve had three and a half decades of exposure to it! I’m not sure three pages is enough for me to grasp all the necessary nuances of this very elaborately-built world. (The fact that Remsa’s empress is named Mathilde doesn’t help matters, as I keep thinking of the English empress!)

In the end, I had to stop reading this story, and then pick it back up again a few days later. I wasn’t much more enlightened by the end of that, and I’m not sure that a third read would help me much. I suspect other people who can hold details of battles and tactics and politics in their head better than I can will appreciate the story more than I did.