REVIEW: “Eight-Step Kōan” by Anya Ow

Review of Anya Ow, “Eight-Step Kōan”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 103-113. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was a beautiful story, of Shyenmu and her mother, who had driven away the dragon that poisoned the river with a seven-step quatrain; of Shyenmu and her own daughter, Mirren, died but a month gone from the water of another dragon-poisoned river; of Shyenmu and her granddaughter, Mirren’s daughter, Kaeyen, and how the two of them set off to see if they can do what Shyenmu’s mother, Kaeyen’s great-grandmother, died: to find the words of power that will shame the dragon and make him leave. It is a story of love and sacrifice, of selfishness and regret.

There were so many layers to the story, getting deeper and deeper as I read, full of myth and detail and great feeling — and the author’s note at the end provides added background. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Pulling Secrets from Stones” by Beth Goder

Review of Beth Goder, “Pulling Secrets from stones”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Rachel has too many memories, and “when the secret memories rubbed up against the regular ones…the magic became duller”. So she stored her memories in stones, locking each secret up in a rock, and hiding the rocks in a lake where the touch of water meant she could still access them when needed. But then drought came and now her memories are lost. Rachel cannot find them again until she can master her fear of what they contain.

This story weaves the speculative and the ordinary together in a marvelously seamless way, very enjoyable.

REVIEW: “One Last Ride on the Horse With Purple Roses” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

Review of Jennifer Lee Rossman, “One Last Ride on the Horse With Purple Roses”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Death of a child.

This story of Eleanor and the little green monster Gidget starts off bright and cheerful. It’s a bit confusing at first because of the lack of context, but the more context we are given, the sadder the story becomes. Really, really sad. By the end, I was crying. If you’re a parent, don’t read this story without having your kid nearby to hug when you’re done.

REVIEW: “Escape” by K. G. Anderson

Review of K. G. Anderson, “Escape”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Shulamit Pelz is on her way from New York to Santa Fe, golem in tow. Ahead of her is a fiancé she’s never met; behind her, two “crazed Kabbalists” tracking her golem. When robbers set upon her carriage, Shulamit is forced into the company of Billy McCarty, “a city boy’s dream of a New Mexico cowboy” for all that he, too, was born in New York, not far from where Shulamit lived. Can she keep the secret of the golem from Billly? What secrets is Billy keeping from her?

Half-way through the story, we find out at least one of Billy’s secrets, and the revelation had me grinning until the end. I very much enjoyed this Jewish speculative Western — the first I’ve ever read of such a genre. One thing that has really become impressed upon me, the more diversely I read, is just how boring lack of diversity is, what a distinct lack of imagination it shows. I’m really glad we have stories like this and journals like Luna Station Quarterly to make it easy for everyone to read diversely.

REVIEW: “To Walk For the First Time” by Erin K. Wagner

Review of Erin K. Wagner, “To Walk For the First Time”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

It takes great skill to be able to provide a fully developed fantasy world in the confines of a short story. Wagner has that skill in spades in “To Walk For the First Time”, feeding the reader one detail at a time with such precision — enough detail that we can see the whole world, enough detail that we are left with so many questions. At first, the story seems to be a fantasy; then more details come and it morphs into strange and unsettling science fiction; then another shift, and is it fantasy that we are back at?

A brilliantly told tale, highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Necromance” by Alyssa Striplin

Review of Alyssa Striplin, “Necromance”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content warning: Death, animal sacrifice.

I’m not a big fan of second-person narration, so I didn’t enjoy this story as much as some. This story also leans more towards the “horror” than many stories in Luna Station Quarterly, another count against it, in my book.

But these two complaints are very personal ones, and if you don’t mind second-person narratives or a bit of gore, then you may enjoy this story of the mortician’s daughter-turned-necromancer.

REVIEW: “Space Witch” by Richaundra Thursday

Review of Richaundra Thursday, “Space Witch”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I was having a bad day at work when I took a break to read and review this story, and what a good decision that was. From the opening sentence — “All the best hexes are specific, ya float me?” — rollicking through to the end, the story was a fast-paced, quick, enjoyable read, with a nice balance of story, voice, and science.

REVIEW: “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson

Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s, “Old Habits”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Like many classic ghost stories, “Old Habits” is a study in futility, stasis, and regret. There’s nothing the dead in Nalo Hopkinson’s story can do about their situation. Trapped in the mall where they died, they have almost no agency, and are forced to regularly relive their own deaths. There are no heroes in Nalo Hopkinson’s ghost mall; no magic bullets, no tantalising opportunities to rejoin the living. And the mall they haunt isn’t exactly Valhalla.  

The mundane, slightly sordid, nature of the afterlife Hopkinson has created, and the powerlessness of her characters, could have made this story a frustrating experience for a living, breathing reader. This story rejects well-worn fantasy plot structures that focus on active questing characters changing, or finding, their fates through sheer force of will. It also centres the experience of a group of powerless ghosts instead of, as so many ghost stories do, concentrating on the living, or giving the ghosts powers. And finally, this story pushes readers to face the banal ways in which mortality can be brutally stripped away. “Old Habits” is not a comfortable read, and that’s before the reader finds out that these ghosts can be hungry, and vicious, when provoked by their own kind.

However, out of all this difficult material, I think Hopkinson has created an affecting, quiet story about the pettiness of loss. Partly that’s because its conception of death is so rooted in the mundane, and everyday; presenting, like much apocalyptic media, enticing details of a world which, at least for these ghosts, cannot be regained. And that central concentration on the powerless is a theme carried through to great effect. The story opens with the death of a disenfranchised woman, crushed by corporate security, in a nod to many real life deaths in custody. While it’s not a story I’m in a rush to read again (facing this vision of an afterlife is a hard ask) it’s certainly a well-crafted piece that plays on my mind. “Old Habits” is a reminder that ghost stories can be just as inventive as every other part of the SFF and horror genres.

REVIEW: “The Breakdown of the Parasite/Host Relationship” by Paul R. Hardy

Review of Paul R. Hardy, “The Breakdown of the Parasite/Host Relationship”, Unidentified Funny Objects 6, 2017.  pp. 28-42. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

Have you ever had to work on a group project with someone you just don’t get along with? Now imagine this person was fused to your body and you couldn’t communicate with them while you were awake. That’s the conceit of “The Breakdown of the Parasite/Host Relationship,” told through the chat logs between the project coordinator and the host and parasite who have been paired together for the job.

Through a mix of stubbornness and misunderstandings things escalate until intervention is needed, despite expense to the project. This is another one that didn’t make me laugh out loud, but I still appreciated the cleverness and odd familiarity of it. It brought me flashbacks of when I had to work in a group project in grad school and no one really had a personality that meshed.

Another recommended story, so we’re two for two with this anthology.

REVIEW: “What the Dead Are For” by Terry Grimwood

Review of Terry Grimwood’s, “What the Dead Are For”, The Future Fire Volume 2, 2005: Read online. Reviewed by Elliott Baye.

In “What the Dead Are For”, when someone dies they wake up in a mysterious graveyard, and there are two paths to consider. They could head to the forest and river to rest, or they can make the climb up the looming hill freckled with gravestones. Pastor Bob Williamson, as a man of strong Christian faith, believes that heaven is surely earned by climbing the hill, and thus tries to make his ascent.

This is a really interesting piece. It takes a proud, devout character and challenges him physically and mentally, making him rely on his own choices rather than a prewritten scripture. His ideas and morals began to conflict, and doing good became a different concept than doing “the right thing”.

Religion can be quite tricky to write about, since a lot of people can become defensive when their faith is questioned. I’m not as passionate about my religion as a great many of people, but I still think that Terry Grimwood did a pretty good job of not stepping on toes and more than necessary to tell the story. The story, to me, didn’t feel pro- or anti-religion. It was more of a “what if” scenario, and I found it fascinating.

I enjoyed the way the story ended, as it concluded Pastor Bob’s story, but I have a suspicion it will frustrate certain readers that like definitive answers to all the questions. Still, I recommend this to readers that like to wonder about life after death, as I do. Just read it with an open mind, and I think you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.