REVIEW: “We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes” by Eleanna Castoianni

Review of Eleanna Castoianni, “We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes”, Podcastle: 513 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Somehow Greece–in this case, the Greek civil war shortly after WWII–seems the most appropriate setting for a tale of haruspicy (the divining of omens by the study of entrails). Nafsika has a talent for divining futures and presents in the bones and organs of the dead–a talent that her commanding officer begrudgingly values except when the fate that Nafsika sees contradicts her strategy and plans. The war provides the peril and hazards that make hard choices necessary, but as the author’s notes indicate, this is in some ways a symbolic exploration of the real-history hardships and consequences of the setting. Intertwined in the exploration of Nafsika’s talents is the dangerous love she shares with her female comrade and Nafsika’s desperate attempt to use her talents to find a path to survival for her squad.

For all the gruesome opening and looming disaster, I was riveted from beginning to end. This is a powerful story with an intense sense of place and time. The horrors are both supernatural and historical, and the framing story of the protagonist writing the events as a diary (based on actual historic examples) leaves the audience in suspense as to the outcome. I can’t say that I’d be eager to experience it again, but I’m glad to have listened the once.

Content warning for body horror and wartime violence.

REVIEW: “Scar Clan” by Carrow Narby

Review of Carrow Narby, “Scar Clan”, Podcastle: 512 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

It isn’t often that a shapeshifter story comes up with twists I haven’t seen before. “Scar Clan” tackles the point of view of a veterinarian’s assistant in a clinic that reaches out to an unusual clientele, with the secondary task of keeping that clientele out of public knowledge. One of the unusual twists in this story’s version of werewolves is a resistance to death that goes well beyond issues of silver bullets. This is demonstrated in an extended opening scene that involves significant gruesome horror. But the meat of the story (if you’ll forgive the expression) is an exploration of the protagonist’s history of trauma and how it brought her to this particular job, with a consideration of the nature of monstrosity and personhood.

I’d classify this as a dark story, despite the central characters managing to escape perils great and small. It’s a story that assumes the world is a dark and dangerous place and that the best you can hope for is to have allies chance by at the right time. In technical terms, t’s a good story, though not really to my personal taste.

Content warning for violent dismemberment and sexual peril.

REVIEW: “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” by Julian Mortimer Smith

Review of Julian Mortimer Smith, “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium”, Podcastle: 511 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

One could identify a sub-genre of fantasy stories about shops that specialize in odd and potentially magical items. Often the shop is mysteriously transient–hard to find except when the time is right. Or perhaps there are hazardous conditions put on the transactions that drive the story’s conflict. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” is a solid addition to this genre, with the twist that the desired objects can only be “purchased” by an exchange of a possession with the same highly-subjective personal value. Misjudge the relative values and you lose everything. And when value is utterly subjective to the customer, there are unparalleled opportunities for arbitrage. The premise could drive an ordinary real-world story, but the fantasy element enters not only in the nature of the goods and their payment, but also in the mechanism for evaluating relative worth.

It’s a clever concept, laid out with rich and evocative description. The story fell short of knocking my socks off for two reasons. To a large extent, the story and characters were overshadowed by the setting and worldbuilding. Once the structures and rules had been laid out, the tale was nearly finished. And the protagonist’s need, conflict, and price were a bit too straightforward. I could see where the story was going and was unsurprised by where it ended up or how it got there. In all, a solid piece, just not among my top favorites.

REVIEW: “My Heart is a Prayer” by Ryan Row

Review of Ryan Row, “My Heart is a Prayer”, Podcastle: 510 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

There are stories where the poetic language grabs my ears and carries me through to the heart of the tale even when I’m not sure where it’s going. There are stories where the tale itself grabs me and the language becomes the unnoticed medium that conveys it. “My Heart is a Prayer” falls somewhere in the vast middle between those two. The words are full of lyrical imagery but I had to re-start my listening a couple of times because I couldn’t find a story to latch on to and my mind wandered off and lost track of what I was hearing.

To some extent, that listening experience matches the content of the story fairly well. A creature that is not human, that is only just coming into its understanding of itself, describes the experience of that becoming and understanding. Eventually we get the context of its experience: two alchemists, devastated (and possibly driven mad) by the death of their child, pour all their art into undoing that death and in the process capture an entity they hadn’t intended. The disaster their success could generate dangles by a thread–and is still dangling at the story’s end.

In structure, this falls in the type of story that I feel works better in audio than on the page, but in actual execution the elusive, unfocused nature of the first half came very close to losing me entirely.

(Previously published at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores which, alas, has a completely unreadable display interface and makes it impossible to determine what the original publication date was.)

REVIEW: “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters” by A.T. Greenblatt

Review of A.T. Greenblatt, “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters”, Podcastle: 509 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This is a meta-fiction blending the world of gamer’s quests made real and the contemporary online culture of bloggers. Devon isn’t a hero; he follows quests and encounters fabulous monsters to write them up for a travel blog. But there was a time when he did try heroing with his friend Nate. It ended badly and that’s why Devon is missing an arm these days. So when Nate’s girlfriend hires Devon to find out why Nate didn’t return from his latest quest…let’s just say there are complicated feelings involved.

I found this story to have a very slow start, with its apparently random monster encounters and the detailed descriptions of how Devon works past them. The climax included some very satisfying twists and resolutions as Devon sticks to his principles to bring the quest to a satisfying conclusion for all involved–including (or perhaps especially) the monsters. The colloquial contemporary narrative style worked to leaven the otherwise stock worldbuilding. It doesn’t aspire to the level of gripping prose that will knock my socks off, but it’s appropriate to the nature of the story.

(Originally published in Mothership Zeta 2016/07/31)

REVIEW: “The Ravens’ Sister” by Natalia Theodoridou

Review of Natalia Theodoridou, “The Ravens’ Sister”, Podcastle: 508 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Oh. Oh my.

I don’t want anyone to get the impression that the best way to get me to like a story is to rip my heart out of my chest with your bare hands. I’m just saying that it’s been known to work on occasion.

“The Ravens’ Sister” riffs off the fairy tale motif of the seven brothers who are enchanted as birds and the sister who has to save them. But there are some fates you can’t save people from. Key quote: “Were my brothers men when they went to war? Had they always had the hearts of birds?” The story is told in several versions, but the core story is the same: seven brothers go off to war in what is clearly some part of the horrors that the former Yugoslavia dissolved into. They return to their father changed, and their sister is tasked with a quest to change them back. In a fairy tale, she would have spun shirts from nettles or kept mute silence under persecution. Here she encounters several celestial beings who either help or hinder her, each taking its toll on her body. It is always the sister’s fate to sacrifice herself for her brothers’ sake. She never even questions it.

In one version of the story, the brothers return as literal birds, in another they return heroes, in the last as traitors. But in all cases, the war has changed them and they will never be whole again. The language is powerful and poetic and ugly. Be in a good place when you listen to this story. It will damage you.

The one structural thing that I disliked (and this is a general thing that I’ve touched on before) is that there is a framing structure of numbered verses, sometimes with as little as a single sentence in each verse. The narration included giving the verse numbers, which I found intrusive. Each spoken number jolted me sideways from the flow of the story. In my (highly subjective) opinion, the narration would have been more effective simply with a pause between verses, leaving the numbers in the written text but unspoken. They work visually–the eye slides over them as it does over the verse numbers in a Biblical text. But in audio that particular aspect just didn’t work for me. The story worked, but not that detail.

(Originally published in Kenyon Review Online)

REVIEW: “La Gorda and the City of Silver” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Review of Sabrina Vourvoulias, “La Gorda and the City of Silver”, Podcastle: 506 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

I participated in a discussion on facebook recently about defining subgenres of speculative fiction, and the question of comic book superheroes came up. In practice, superheroes can draw from fantasy (X-men, Dr. Strange), science fiction (Iron Man), mythology (Thor, Wonder Woman), “realistic” (Batman–at least for the Batman character himself), or any number of other subgenres, but what they have in common is a fantasy of agency and justice, even when justice sometimes fails. This multi-focal genre has been adopted as speculative fiction by popular acclaim, regardless of the specific mechanism of the hero’s powers.

“La Gorda and the City of Silver” is clearly a superhero story. The world of masked and costumed luchadores is deeply rooted in the genre regardless of the apparent lack of overtly fantastic elements. (I know this is a theme I tend to harp on regularly, but I do like my fantasy to actually be, you know, fantastic in general.) The narrator–who calls herself by the nickname La Gorda, one she accepted rather than chose–is the daughter of a producer of luchador shows and grows up surrounded by their performative costumed superheroism. So when the abuse of a neighbor girl calls for heroic intervention, this is the natural medium by when La Gorda takes up the challenge. The story is deeply yet casually embedded in the everyday life of a Guatemalan working class neighborhood. Both the perils and their solutions arise out of that embedding as well as the narrative of masked superheroes and the lone fight for a justice that the law won’t deliver. Or perhaps not so lone, as La Gorda discovers when she expands the scope of her protection in parallel with the expansion of the lives she feels called to protect.

This was a richly satisfying story, both in the telling and the conclusion.

Content note: Contains references to offscreen sexual abuse.

(Originally published in Fat Girl in a Strange Land edited by Holt and Leib)