REVIEW: “Ghost Sex” by Joseph Keckler

Review of Joseph Keckler, “Ghost Sex”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 1-5 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Part horror, part humor, this story was very short and a bit odd. It seemed only incidentally gay, but I’m also not sure that I’m the sort of person who should be the one to make that sort of comment. Though it wasn’t really the story for me, it was neatly written and competently done, and I’ve no doubt that it’s the story for someone else!

(First published in Dragon At the Edge of a Flat World, Turtle Point Press, 2017).

REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2018 edited by Steve Berman

Review of Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, (Lethe Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Last year, I reviewed the 2017 edition of this anthology (read the review) with a bit of trepidation, as it’s not exactly my place as a het woman to be offering my opinions on gay male fic. But I loved so many of the stories in that anthology so much that when pre-orders for the 2018 volume went up, I immediately signed up.

With the same caveats as last year in place, I decided to review this volume as well, and it did not disappoint. The breadth of stories is amazing, which means that there were a few that didn’t tick my buttons, but that’s okay — many, many more did, and I am sure that other readers will find the stories that didn’t speak to me do speak to them. Overall, what struck me about the stories in last year’s anthology struck me about these as well: And that is how beautiful they were. Beautiful stories, told in beautiful words. These are like a pile of precious gems, to be treasured and kept close. I’m only sorry that Berman has announced that this will be the final year that he edits these anthologies; though perhaps this means next year I’ll have to start working through the back catalogue.

As usual, I’ll review each story separately, and link them back here when the review is posted:

(I also adore the cover, which is just gorgeous. Many kudos to Inkspiral Design, who designed it.)

REVIEW: “Teeth” by Jessamy Corob Cook

Review of Jessamy Corob Cook, “Teeth”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 150-176 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In the final story of the anthology, Cook explores how it is that Baba Yaga ended up where and who she is. It’s not told from her perspective, though, but from the perspective of one of the three riders (the white one who rides at dawn; the red one who rides at noon; and the black one who rides at night show up as side characters in the traditional stories). The black rider is not who she seems, at first, and as we alternate between the black rider’s present experiences and her memories of her past, we are given pieces of both her story and Baba Yaga’s.

At the very last the 1st person POV shifts from the black rider’s perspective to the white rider’s, which I found a bit abrupt; however, I’m not sure the final resolution (which worked beautifully) could have been brought about without this change in perspective. I wonder what the story might have been like if the perspectives of the black and white rider had alternated throughout — but it’s not fair to criticise a story by saying “I wish it had been a different story”, so don’t take that as a criticism, but rather as a hope for another story I might someday read.

REVIEW: “Boy Meets Witch” by Rebecca A. Coates

Review of Rebecca A. Coates, “Boy Meets Witch”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 125-149 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Like Honigman (read the review of her story), Coates gives her Baba Yaga story a contemporary setting. The timing and location isn’t as clearly specified, but it needn’t be — it could be any late 20th/early 21st C high school, with the same bullies and the same awkward teenagers and the same secret hidden desires that every bullied child has of someday getting revenge.

Coates takes all of these familiar aspects, and the familiar character and story of Baba Yaga, and weaves them together with some quite unexpected turns for a very satisfying “revenge” story.

REVIEW: “The Swamp Hag’s Apprentice” by Szmeralda Shanel

Review of Szmeralda Shanel, “The Swamp Hag’s Apprentice”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 101-124 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Despite the change of location — shifted from the Slavic forests to the southern American swamps — and the translation of the names — from Vasilisa to Queenie — the first half of the story is identical to the classic story of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Once Queenie finds the swamp hag, the story shifts into something new, as the swamp hag sets her not impossible tasks but a variety of lessons, training Queenie to be her apprentice.

Unfortunately, this story didn’t quite do it for me. It was too repetitious of others in the anthology in the beginning, and the plot and motivation in the second half were not clear to me. I also found the overall “voice” of the story unclear; sometimes it slipped into dialect, sometimes it read in quite a high register, most of it was in the past tense, but sometimes it shifted into the present tense. I’m not against these types of things in principle, but I want to see clearly why an author choose the voice they do at each point. For instance, if the dialogue was in dialect and the narration in the high register, that would make sense; or if the entire story were told in dialogue, including the narration, that would also make sense, and would have been enjoyable. Similarly, if the shift in tense happened in particular scenes, or particular characters, that would make sense; but as it was, it was a sentence here or there, in the middle of a paragraph in the past tense, leaving me uncertain whether it was a deliberate choice or simply a mistake.

REVIEW: “The Partisan and the Witch” by Charlotte Honigman

Review of Charlotte Honigman, “The Partisan and the Witch”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 79-100 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story is the crown jewel of the anthology, taking the myth of Baba Yaga and transplanting it into World War II Poland. Chaja is a young Jewish girl in hiding who has already seen her brother and sister, Zivek and Rywka, die. When the farmers who are protecting her can do so no longer, the farmwife tells her there is someone in the depths of the forest that may be able to help her. So Chaja sets off to find Baba Yaga and beg of her to kill the three riders, the white, the red, and the black, who are roaming the countryside slaughtering her people.

This was a superlative example both of how to take a historic myth and completely reinvent it, and how to write good modern historical fantasy. Every word breathes life into Chaja and her siblings and friends, and I was riveted.

REVIEW: “Baba Yaga: Her Story” by Jill Marie Ross

Review of Jill Marie Ross, “Baba Yaga: Her Story”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 47-77 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this long short story — long enough to nearly be a novelette, long enough to take up almost an entire bath time before the water grows cold — Ross spins out an origin story for Baba Yaga. Who is she, what was she like as a child, how did she get to be how she is? It’s richly detailed, weaving in many other Russian and Slavic mythic elements, and deeply satisfying.

The one thing that put me off a bit was the use of parenthetical glosses for the assorted Slavic phrases dotted here and there. First, these glosses were inconsistent; some foreign words were not glossed. Second, some of the foreign words seemed unnecessary, e.g., why call the oven pech instead of ‘oven’. Third, while I love seeing foreign words and phrases incorporated into a story, I’d rather see them used in a such a way that their meaning is clear from context, so that they don’t need to be glossed. But this is only a minor point.