REVIEW: “A Game of Goblins” by Jim C. Hines

Review of Jim C. Hines, “A Game of Goblins”, Unidentified Funny Objects 6, 2017.  pp. 8-27. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

This is my first time reading one of the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I did receive a free copy courtesy of the publisher as a reviewer for SFF Reviews.

With that out of the way, I have to say I did enjoy this clever little story that pokes a lot of fun at high fantasy tropes, especially the ritualism and hierarchy of human society. There wasn’t really anything in this one that made me legitimately laugh, more the sort of humor where you snort a little and go “that’s funny.” I did however thoroughly enjoy this one, which is apparently an offshoot of Hines’s Goblin Quest series, and definitely has me interested in checking that one out more.

The story centers on the conceit of the various human clans vying for dominance, which leads to the Loncasters invading the home of Golaka, our main protagonist and the resident cook for her goblin tribe. They end up kidnapping her and promising her in marriage to the young lad who is to be the next in line for the throne.

Like a lot of stories that lampoon racial (and racist) tropes, Golaka ends up being the most clever out of all of them, and outwitting her captors, winning her freedom and the admiration of the young boy she was betrothed to. A great intro story for the anthology.


REVIEW: “West of Matamoros, North of Hell” by Brian Hodge

Review of Brian Hodge, “West of Matamoros, North of Hell”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 189—230. Purchase Here. Originally published in Dark Screams Volume Seven, edited by Brian James Freeman (Cemetery Dance/Hydra). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

Well, now. Where to start with this one? Brian Hodge has produced some excellent short fiction over the last few years in particular, and his contributions to The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine (2017) were both the best two stories in the book, and the best two I’d read all year. West of Matamoros, North of Hell is of a similar quality, though it falls more on the side of terror (fascinated revulsion) than horror (thrilling dread); it is a fantastic story, though hard to read in places. Not for the faint hearted. Trigger warnings: knives, dismemberment, sledgehammers, scythes. More knives.

The story is narrated by Enrique, musician and creative lead in the Mexican band Los Hijos del Infierno. The band (Enrique, Sebastián and Sofia), accompanied by a small PR team (Olaf, Morgan and Crispin) have come to take some photos for their new album at a site of some spiritually-significant cartel atrocities; a stunt that Enrique thinks is a bad idea. Turns out he’s right! Things go awry, and we’re catapulted into cartel torture territory super quick – and Santa Muerte stands over all.

The story is an excellent blend of Mexican gangster and Mythos; yet the story is so much more than this, touching on the horror associated with tainted places, and how they can bleed through the centuries. I was relieved that the end, though gruesome, was more positive than I had feared.

REVIEW: “Endoskeletal” by Sarah Read

Review of Sarah Read, “Endoskeletal”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 173—187. Purchase Here. Originally published in Black Static #59. Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I read Endoskeletal when it was first published in Black Static and thought it was excellent, so was pleased to see it included in this Best Horror of the Year anthology. The story centres on Ashley and her inadvertent discovery of Palaeolithic remains in a Swiss alpine cave; human bones broken in odd ways, skulls with strange canopic jars between their teeth. Ashley quickly becomes fascinated by these remains and the significance they might hold, particularly given the portrayal of a many-eyed shadow creature carved into the cave walls. As her obsession grows we begin to understand more about the creature, the remains and the nature of sacrifice.

It’s a great story with an adventurous feel to it, and the archaeological elements are extra seasoning for a fan of such tales (as I am). There are some interesting elements explored, including Ashley’s struggle against the power-holding males in charge of the site and access permissions. I was a bit unsure of Ashley’s background, as her reason for being at the cave initially is to study bears (I’m assuming palaeoecologically) so her knowledge of and enthusiasm for anthropology/palaeoanthropology seemed a bit of a jump. I was also slightly sceptical that the (male, Swiss) field assistant was unwilling to stop Ashley (a visiting and ultimately disempowered researcher) from essentially looting a pristine archaeological site, though perhaps in Swiss academia academic rank and authority are more hierarchical than in my experience! But minor questions aside, it’s an excellent and original story and a stand-out of the volume for me. More please.

REVIEW: “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts” by A.C. Wise

Review of A.C. Wise, “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 155—172. Purchase Here. Originally published in Looming Low: Volume One, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan (Dim Shores, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I loved the idea behind this story. Our protagonist and his friends download an augmented reality app to hunt ‘ghosts’, sort of like a spooky version of Pokémon Go (so I’m led to believe, as I know SFA about all things Pokémon). He is resentful of his younger, sickly brother Gen, who always tags along with him and plays along with ‘Ghost Hunt!’ despite being more than a little afraid. The competition between the kids to find ghosts and ghost lore in their little town of Dieu-le-Sauveur heats up, but it quickly becomes apparent that the app is detecting more than it should, and that little Gen seems far too in-tune with the captured ‘ghosts’.

It’s a nice and highly original story, with a focus on the characters and their dynamics rather than twists in the plot — we are essentially told how it ends right at the start and the sense of dread that builds comes from knowing this. The idea of how and why we perpetuate the myths of ghosts, in various forms, is thought-provoking and I found myself reflecting on this story for some time after finishing it.

REVIEW: “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce

Review of Eden Royce, “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

You go to a reader to learn your future, but she stops you when you offer to tell her your zodiac sign. Southern girls, she says, need something else. The deck she uses to read your fortune is no traditional Tarot deck – these cards are born from the American south, rich in historical and natural imagery.

This is the first story in Apex Magazine’s zodiac themed issue, and it’s a doozy. First of all, the second-person narration here really works. Some people dismiss it as a point of view, but here it made me feel like I was body-swapped with the main character. It was not exactly that I was in her head (as with first person), more like I was someone else in a dream. In this case, a black woman from the south. As a white woman in New England, that was an usual experience. I’d say the narrative encouraged empathy without giving me full insight into the character which adds to the dream-like associations.

Except this isn’t a dreamy story at all. This is a story about how hard life can be, and the desire to get some extra insight to make it tolerable, or at least to prepare for whatever is coming. Being a black women in America is no easy task, one with perils I will never experience, but I can recognize the challenges. Butter, who reads her cards, seems to offer the main character what she most needs: recognition and insight.

Lastly, the imagery in the cards described is just stunning. The descriptions and the meanings were so clear and so pure, even for someone who has no connection to the region they are evoking. This is where we get back into the dreamy, visionary feel, and connect back to the zodiac theme of the issue. I believe in these oracle cards, and I believe that they are capable of great insight.

This is a strong start to Apex’s new themed issue, and I can’t wait to see where it builds from here!

REVIEW: “The Wish-Giver” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “The Wish-Giver”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 150-156 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A young child braves a fiercesome, wish-granting dragon to ask for their heart’s desire — and the one wish the dragon cannot grant because it has already been granted. All the child needed was for other people to see what had always been true.

Every trans child needs a dragon at their back to protect and affirm them. While the stories in this collection are not written for cis people, this is one that spoke strongly to me and I hope will to other cis people as well. Not every child gets a literal dragon, but maybe we can be metaphorical dragons and step up and speak the truth when the truth is needed.

This short story is the perfect endcap to the anthology, encapsulating in it everything that is good and affirming in all the other stories (I think it’s not surprise that this is the only story in the anthology that doesn’t have a content note.)

REVIEW: “The Whipping Girls” by Damien Angelica Walters

Review of Damien Angelica Walters, “The Whipping Girls”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

After her mother’s death, Erika decides to leave Kansas and everything she’s ever known, and drive to California for a new start. She wants to prove her mother wrong, prove that she can move past fear and a childhood of abuse. To do so, she learns that she will have to encounter her past selves in a very literal sense.

I have a soft spot for stories that directly externalize an internal conflict, and that deal with mental health issues, so it’s no surprise that I connected with this one. Erika has to destroy what came before, and is now holding her back, in order to move on and be whole. I’m not sure that is good therapeutic advice (at least not for every survivor of abuse), but it strikes an emotional chord of truth. Maybe not everyone’s truth, but certainly a truth.

This is a beautiful, simple story about the painful journey to hope and healing, and I highly recommend it to those who like quiet, psychological stories set in the real world, but of course with a touch of the speculative.

REVIEW: “Choo-Choo” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Choo-Choo”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 118-127 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Gore.

Brief summary: Two teenage boys cut curfew and wander around at night, doing drugs and trespassing on the grounds of a newly built train yard. Things end badly.

Overall, I found this story more banal than horrible.

(Originally published in Polar Borealis Magazine, 2017).

REVIEW: “No Man of Woman Born” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “No Man of Woman Born”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 133-149 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Governmental oppression, mention of emergency C-section and rape.

When Mardoll said in the introduction that the characters inside “break, subvert, and fulfil the same gendered prophecies” that cis characters get in other stories, we were meant to take this quite literally, as is clear in the number of overt prophecies and oracles that occur in the stories. “No Man of Woman Born” opens with a prophecy, that no man of woman born can harm Fearghas. The prophecy was “unambiguous” and had “independent verification” (p. 139). So of course, nothing could possibly go wrong…But of course not. What is human nature but to exploit constraints, to try to find the loopholes? Schools for training women, children, or animals to fight sprang up all over, all headed by someone seeking to harm the king.

This story is centered around the prophecy, and the way it has shaped the lives of the people it does or could apply to. But even as the prophecy dictated the actions of so many, one thing I loved was the recognition that one did not need to have a prophecy to be heroic: “I’m choosing to believe I have the capacity to become the hero until proven otherwise,” Sìne tells Innes (p. 138) when a new prophecy is published that would seem to exclude her.

There are many aspects of this story that I suspect would speak directly to many people whose life experiences are very different from my own. Not having had those experiences, this story did not speak to me as much as some of the others in the anthology, but that doesn’t really matter, because I’m not the intended audience. For the intended audience — people who are coming to terms with their own gender, or newly coming to terms with the gender of a close friend or loved one — there is a lot in this story that provides models for how to react and to behave.

It’s also where we get our third set of neopronouns in the collection: “kie”/”kir”. Strangely, I didn’t find them as difficult as “nee”/”ner”, which makes me wonder about the linguistic psychology of these new words, and why some of them work so easily as pronouns while others are more cognitively difficult. (Someone do a study on this! And then do a follow-up study on how the cognitive load is lessened after repeated exposure, so that we can do things like have cis people read these stories and thereby up the amount of passive absorption of a variety of pronouns!)

REVIEW: “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn

Review of Eileen Gunn, “Night Shift”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 175-190 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

2032: An interplanetary gold rush has begun, and the prize is water, not gold. The miners are robots, with human intelligence and superhuman survivability.

The opening premise of this story resembles that of the previous one, “The Use of Things” (read the review), with a focus on the mining of asteroids by robots for water.

2032 no longer feels like that far in the future. When the author rehearses what has gone on in the 2020s, it all of a sudden has this uncomfortable feeling like this is right around the corner, except — and here I sort of slip into an uncanny valley — given how the world actually is, now, in 2018, I cannot quite fathom how it could be as Gunn describes in the 2020s. We’ve got a long way to go if we want to be populating near-Earth space with sophisticated mining technology by the end of the next decade.

This is all backdrop for what is a pretty ordinary story of coders and mining and slime mold (a lot of slime mold) which was enjoyable but unfortunately marred by one story thread that was probably thoughtless rather than intentionally hurtful, and yet is still problematic. When Tanisha, the manager, refers to Seth as “she”, and the narrator, Sina, one of the coders, “rolled my eyes. Tanisha thinks Seth is a girl”, my first thought was “if Tanisha is misgendering one of her staff, then I wish Sina would do more than just roll her eyes, but would speak up and correct her. But then it turns out that Seth isn’t trans, he’s an AI, and I found that deeply disappointing. What could’ve been the first instance of an openly queer character in this anthology instead became an example of the very problematic trope of othering trans people to the point where they are — literally — not even human.

I guess I had hoped that an anthology about visions of space and space exploration for the future would do better than that.