REVIEW: “The Doomed Amulet of Erum Vahl” by Ed Grabianowski

Review of Ed Grabianowski, “The Doomed Amulet of Erum Vahl”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 43-51 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Captain Jagga of the Hammer of Triel may have a brutal reputation, but it covers a soft heart — soft enough to rescue a beautiful, helpless, nubile young woman in distress when one is discovered on a deserted coast. Neri brings with her a fine black amulet — an amulet that the god Erum Vahl wants, and will stop at nothing to get. It isn’t long before Jagga is torn between her desire for Neri and her desire to keep Neri safe…

Unfortunately, this story didn’t really do it for me; I found the way that Jagga objectified Neri, viewing her primarily as a beautiful thing that she could sleep with, problematic, and Neri herself was flat and lacked agency. Towards the beginning of the story, she felt so much like a Mary Sue that I almost expected the story’s twist to be that she was the source of the evil and horror that plagued Jagga’s ship, not the god who was chasing her. But, alas, that was not the twist.

REVIEW: “Saints and Bodhisattvas” by Joyce Chng

Review of Joyce Chng, “Saints and Bodhisattvas”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 30-42 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Within the opening lines of the story, we learn that the titular saints and bodhisattvas meet at “the confluences of currents and trade routes [that] was the famed Golden Chersonese” (p. 30).

This type of story is one of my favorite types: Fantasy, yet firmly rooted in our reality. I’ll admit, I had never heard of the Golden Chersonese before, and assumed, at the outset, that Chng had made it up; only when the narrator speaks of encountering Sanskrit and Pali speakers did I wonder “what if this is real?” Off to wikipedia I went, to find out that “Golden Chersonese” is an ancient Roman name for the Malay peninsula. A few paragraphs later, distracted by the narrator’s father giving them a perahu, “rare for a girl, but I was never a girl, never a boy either” (p. 30), I was back in wikipedia reading about ships. Some people might find it distracting to constantly have to look up these things (and other people might just simply read past and not feel the need for the details!), but pausing to read up on things I’d not otherwise come across is almost as good as an informative footnote, and loyal readers of this site will know how much I love an informative footnote.

This isn’t to say the only reason to read the story is to spark wikipedia visits; even those who don’t look up every word they don’t recognise will find a story to engross and enrapture them. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “The Seafarer” by Ashley Deng

Review of Ashley Deng, “The Seafarer”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 18-29 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Prior to launching SFFReviews, I actually rarely read short fiction, because most of the time it was either too short for me to become invested in the characters/setting, or it was long enough for that to happen, but then I’d want more, so it was still too short.

Deng’s story manages to fall into the perfect sweet spot: It gives me depth of character and world-building that makes me long for a novel-length story set in the world she has created, but is also self-contained enough to be satisfying.

Both Deng’s story and Drasio, the main character, slip effortlessly back and forth between what is real and what is familiar and what is unknown and what is fantastic. Drasio and his pirate crew sail the Mediterranean, plundering Dutch and Turkish ships; but his home sea is one not of this world. The Karreanan lies on the other side of the barrier.

If there is one thing about this story that I’d complain about, it’s the fact it was written in the present tense. This isn’t something that always bothers me, so I’m not sure what it was here, but I kept tripping up on it. Every few sentences I’d suddenly register a present-tense verb and realise that I’d tense-shifted all the other verbs unconsciously. I don’t object to an author picking the tense they most prefer for each particular story; I’m just sad that I found the tense so obtrusive in this case.

REVIEW: “Treasured Island” by Ginn Hale

Review of Ginn Hale, “Treasured Island”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 7-17 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Pirate Pascoal has found herself marooned on a deserted island surrounded by spider crabs, and how she ended up there “is a matter of some debate” (p. 7). Some might say it was mutiny against the captain, some might say that it was the captain himself that was the mutineer. But none of this changes the fact that Pascoal is now adrift and alone on of the wandering islands of the Laquerla Ocean.

But Pascoal knows what to do with a wandering island, and her first act is to offer it her thanks and her blood, because Pascoal is an Almagua, and her duty above all others is to serve and protect the wandering island.

The fact that this wandering island also happens to have abandoned treasure? Well, that’s just a perk of being a pirate, as well as an Almagua.

REVIEW: Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) edited by Catherine Lundoff

Review of Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), (Queen of Swords Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

When my sister and I were children, our Lego collections were strictly demarcated. She had the knights and castles, I had the pirates. While my interests have shifted from the piratical to the chivalric, I still hold a soft spot for pirates and all the wonderful stories I enacted with my ships and forbidden treasure and lost islands on my parents’ dining room table. I also am always At Home for feel-good stories that allow me to escape my daily cares and wind down at the end of the day — which basically describes every story in this anthology. Reading this collection was just good fun. There were Viking pirates, ancient Greek pirates, women pirates, queer pirates, space pirates, feminist pirates, and everything in between. The pirate prizes range from treasure to slaves to simply freedom to live and love another day. And while the basic premise of the stories were all the same (those activities which count as piratical are actually rather constrained!), the reading of the stories was in no way monotonous or repetitive. Quite the contrary — these stories are like candies, you can’t stop at just one, you have to pop an entire handful!

One of the things I enjoyed about this collection was the number of new authors it introduced me to; the only one I was familiar with in advance was Lundoff herself. As is usual, we will review each story in turn, and link the reviews back here as they are published:

If there is one negative note that I would raise, it is that many of the stories ended right when I felt like they were just getting started; they seemed episodic rather than full and complete. Such stories always made me a little disappointed, because they ended and left me wanting more.

REVIEW: “Cracks” by Xen

Review of Xen, “Cracks”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 113-154 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I’ll admit, I started this story, struggled some ways into it, quit, and moved on to the next one in the anthology, promising myself to revisit it soon. “Soon” ended up being more than a month later, after I’d finished all the other stories, and had only this one left to review.

The second go at it went better, because it was more familiar; I wasn’t constantly double-checking who was who, or trying to compile all the little details of world-building that I was being fed, sometimes too obliquely to really understand how they fit together. But I still struggled; the process of reading it was simply a lot of work and I never felt like I was getting close to the characters. It’s also long — one of the longest, if not the longest in the anthology — and ended up taking me two nights to get through. Finally, by about 3/4 of the way in, I felt like I’d slipped into the rhythm of it, and knew enough of the background/history to be able to follow what was happening.

Ordinarily, it’s not a story I would have finished, but I did, and the ending rewarded my persistence. It has the sort of sweet, hopeful ending that marks out so many of the stories in this anthology, and in the 2017 edition of the same. That sort of happiness in the face of bleak despair is worth reading for.