REVIEW: “Six Jobs” by Tim Pratt

Review of Tim Pratt, Six Jobs, Podcastle: 497 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

My expectations for this story were turned around several times in the course of listening to it–which is perhaps more a commentary on my tendency to set up expectations that on the story. From the title, I was first expecting a listicle story–a format I’m not entirely fond of. But although the six jobs of the story did provide the overall structure of the narrative, the through-line of the plot wasn’t the usual listicle structure.

Kayla has an unusual skill: the ability to see things that others can’t, especially connections between things. This brings her to the attention of various folks who are interested in making use of those skills, and the main thrust of the story is how Kayla turns her talents not only to making a living but to making a difference in the world as she understands it. The climax of the story depends on her rather naive tendency to believe what those other people tell her about their own purposes and goals. This is where the story expectations turned a few more times–or rather, turned one fewer time than I expected.

In the end, I wasn’t sure that Kayla had learned the right lesson about being skeptical of mysterious strangers offering her jobs, and rather than being a story about challenging first impressions, it settled for being a rather simpler quest resolution. I wanted one more twist at the end that I didn’t get. A good story, but not quite surprising enough to be a great one.

REVIEW: “When You Find Such a Thing” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Review of Suyi Davies Okungbowa, “When You Find Such a Thing”, Podcastle: 496 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Once again, Podcastle demonstrates the value-added not only by presenting certain stories in audio format, but by carefully matching the narrator to the material. I don’t usually call out the narrators in my reviews, but Solomon Osadolo was magnificent in interpreting the rhythms and flavor of this story. (There was one unfortunate technical recording glitch that marred the production values, but that’s neither the author nor the narrator’s fault.)

The protagonist’s ordinarily terrifying experience of meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time is given a fantasy twist by his profession: the newly government-authorized and licensed field of traditional Nigerian wizard. In explaining his profession to his potentially future father-in-law, the listener also receives the essential grounding in what this means and how it works. What confuses him is why he needs to explain it in such detail to the man. Although only recently made respectably legal, surely the man would be familiar with the basic principles? That’s when he discovers the magical shroud clouding the man’s understanding and awareness of wizardry.

Why that shroud exists, and who created it, forms the tension of the rest of the story. It is, in essential ways, a story about consent and about the limits of what is acceptable to do to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from cultural prejudice and danger. As the title says, “When you find such a thing [i.e., love], you do anything to keep it.” But who decides what that “anything” includes? In the current climate of discussion on informed consent and allowing people agency in their own lives, a surface reading of the story puts the protagonist (and the second wizard in the story) in a somewhat horrific light. But life isn’t so simple, as that other wizard points out. Government sanction and legality isn’t the same thing as acceptance, and a history of persecution and prejudice can’t be wiped away by a law and a license.

I was able to step away from the specifics of the story and feel the complexities more when I “translated” the core ethical situation into one of sexuality rather than wizardry (although there’s absolutely no basis in the story for this specific connection–it’s just one that has particular resonance for me). Is it right to deceive your loved ones about some essential aspect of your identity if full disclosure would destroy that love and put your life at hazard? We don’t have the luxury of waiting for an ideal and accepting world in which ethics can be treated purely as a philosophical exercise. We live in the world as it is. And sometimes that world has things that are precious enough that you do anything to keep them. Even if what you do is wrong by certain lights.

A separate, purely technical note on the episode: I have a certain degree of auditory processing disorder, which means that when I’m listening to speech with unfamiliar rhythms and accents, I can have difficulty processing it adequately. I needed to listen to this episode twice: once to calibrate my hearing to the narrator and language structure, and once to actually listen to the story itself. This is a defect in my neural processing, not in the story itself. If you find yourself having a similar experience, I urge you to give the story the benefit of a second listen, or try the text version instead. It’s worth it.

REVIEW: “Seven Things that Oughtn’t Cut Me” by Jessi Cole Jackson

Review of Jessi Cole Jackson, “Seven Things that Oughtn’t Cut Me”, Podcastle: Miniature 100 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

There is fantasy literature where the story itself emerges from the fantastic elements. And there is fantasy literature where the fantastic elements are used to address more familiar questions from a different angle. And then there is fantasy literature where the fantastic elements seem to be more of a Halloween costume, zipped up allegorically over a fairly mundane story. “Seven Things that Oughtn’t Cut Me” uses the language of trolls and elves, but is at heart a very ordinary–if heart-rending–story of bullying, school cliques, and a child of mixed heritage feeling out of place in the world. The fantasy felt pasted-on. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t a well-written story, but I prefer my fantasy elements to be an essential and inseparable aspect of the structure. I must also confess that the “listicle” story format, where the content is presented in the form of an ordered list of thematically-related elements, is a hard thing to sell me on. In many cases it feels like a way of dodging the lack of a plot. This story wasn’t bad, it simply wasn’t particularly good.

Content warning for descriptions of self-harm.

REVIEW: “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light” by Malon Edwards

Review of Malon Edwards, “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light”, Podcastle: 495 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This story is something of a follower to the author’s previous Podcastle story “The Half Dark Promise” (episode 287), focusing on the same protagonist: a young Haitian-American girl in an alternate Chicago whose mother is a doctor specializing in steampunk medical devices and whose father is…something else. “The Half Dark Promise” was an immersive, darkly horrific tale with the sort of menace that can only be felt by a young child who knows the monsters in the dark are real. “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light” brings in the more personal horror of family secrets and the sorts of fates that await disobedient children. The protagonist is a monster hunter–not by profession or as a hobby, but simply because monsters must be hunted to survive and protect her friends. But in the half dark as day turns to night, it can be impossible to tell who the monsters really are.

This is a story that requires you to surrender yourself to the world it’s building and wait for understanding to emerge from that half dark. I remember the first story being difficult in a good way–the way you have to work to build that picture and it’s worth it to do so. This time, having recognized the world, I was able to return easily. (And my impression is that the author is counting on return visits, so if you haven’t yet read or listened to “The Half Dark Promise”, I recommend doing so first.)

The prose is laced through with bits of Haitian Creole to good effect in the scene setting, and the cadence of the writing is yet another example of the type of story that works so well in audio. I also liked the steampunkish bits of worldbuilding: the references to the protagonist’s steam-clock heart, and how her mother came to Chicago to make clock-hearts for children stricken with polio, and how everything went so horribly wrong. Just enough bits to sketch a picture, and no more. This series of stories could be viewed either as fantasy or horror, and there are some times when I feel Podcastle is a bit too generous in embracing stories that really should be horror, but in this case I agree with the categorization because of the fiercely positive outcome.

REVIEW: “Folk” by Eden Royce

Review of Eden Royce, “Folk”, Podcastle: 494 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Sometimes there are stories where you can recognize the beauty and mastery of the storytelling but at the end you simply feel that the story wasn’t for you. Not in the sense of “eh, tastes vary” but in the sense of “this story is talking to an audience that I don’t have the background to be part of.” When listening to “Folk”, I was constantly aware of the power of the writing, but had a difficult time bringing the story together in my mind and making sense of it. It is clearly very solidly rooted in a specific cultural context in the American south, and I loved the imagery of weaving sweetgrass, the weight of old magic, and the evocation of the power of story and language. I think I figured out the connection between the narrator and the antagonist. But a lot of what I felt I should have been getting just slipped through my fingers. I don’t feel that the story failed me, more that I failed the story.

REVIEW: “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones

Review of Rachael K. Jones, “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me”, Podcastle: 493 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Never is the importance of audio fiction sources more stark than with works like this that require the rhythms of oral performance for their impact and meaning. “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” hovers in the space between prose and poetry, not only in the rhythms of the language, but in the demanding impressionist imagery. It’s the story of two peoples at opposite ends of gravity, each of whom mistakenly views the other place as heaven. Ananda comes from a line of holy women who, by long repentance and asceticism gain the tenuous ability to climb up to heaven, where they will petition for needful things like an end to drought. Sano is a winged thing from above, where only by intense self-control can one still the wings sufficiently to descend to the earth, which they call Paradise.

The poetic tale of how these two met and found their fate is only one aspect of this story. The second part is the imagery of how both cultures create an ideal of holiness and purification that demands (or at least to) self-harm. On Ananda’s side it is self-starvation and wounding herself with thorny bracelets (not too subtle Christ imagery). On Sano’s side, her desperation leads her to short-cut the meditative route to descent by mutilating herself. I think it isn’t accidental that both characters are represented as female. To say more would be to spoil the resolution, which is worth achieving on your own. Listen to this jewel some time when you can give it your full and unhurried attention.

(Originally published 2016 in Clockwork Phoenix 5.)

REVIEW: “The White Fox” by L. P. Lee

Review of L. P. Lee, “The White Fox”, Podcastle: 492 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

“The White Fox” is an evocative fantasy-of-agency, though of a somewhat displaced agency. The protagonist is escaping from a briefly-sketched prison camp in Japanese occupied Korea and receives the assistance of a supernatural figure when she (I think it’s a woman? It’s told in first person and the reader is female–not sure if gender was explicit) is in danger of being recaptured. While the story was solidly written, I felt distanced from the immediacy of the action. The memory and threat of the prison camp didn’t feel viscerally tangible, and thinking back, I cant remember a clear motivation for why the protagonist was offered protection and assistance. I thing part of my reaction is that the protagonist was a bit of a “damsel” – in peril and rescued, but saved by outside agency. I liked the way the mythic elements were solidly rooted to place and culture and time. And, as usual, I really enjoyed how the setting was established with casual brushstrokes, leading the listener to construct their own understanding rather than having it handed to them. But overall the story felt…thin.

(Originally published 2015 in Eastlit.)