REVIEW: “Wireless” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Wireless”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 131-184 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I feel like I should have written this review much faster than I ended up writing it (from start to finish, over a month!) but that’s because this story turned out to be one that I read in bits and pieces rather than devouring in one go — not because it was difficult, or boring, or any other negative trait, but because it was, strangely, comforting. I kept a copy of it on my phone, and read it a few pages at a time, every few days, when I needed something solid yet positive. I’m not sure I’ve ever consumed a story so slowly and enjoyed it so much.

In true steampunk fashion, “Wireless” had a lot more wild train chases than I ordinarily require for perfect enjoyment of a story — I may have glossed over one or two details of the exploits — but the politics surrounding the trains added a depth to the story and the world-building that I enjoyed. But what did I love best about this? The deep, steadfast, true, and abiding friendship and love between Ramos and Simms. They know each other intimately well, they are the perfect foibles for each other, and it’s just so refreshing to have such a strong relationship between two characters without any sexual tension encroaching upon it. Moar relationships like this, plz kthnx. Wrap them up with a bunch more well-rounded figures with interesting backstories and a twist on modern technologies that was quite clever and inspired, and you get something that is just a very good story.

REVIEW: “Grork Dentist” by Johanna Levene

Review of Johanna Levene, “Grork Dentist”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is not the first dentist story I’ve read for SFFReviews. Whoever knew that there were enough dentist stories out there that this could be a thing? (The other was “Toothache” by Jessica Walsh) Since I know dentists are not everyone’s jam, consider this your fair warning that there are teeth involved.

Dentists are definitely not Melissa’s jam, either, but when your own dentist is on vacation for a month and you need that root canal now, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to consider going to an alien dentist.

At one layer, this story was light and humoristic, and I laughed out loud at various times. On another, though, as I read of how the grorks spent their time educating humans out of their biases and prudishness (regarding sex, regarding polyamory, regarding aliens, regarding proper pronouns) and doing charity and pro-bono work amongst the poor, I couldn’t help but see yet another instance of a minority being asked to shoulder all the emotional burden of trying to convince the majority to not be so… -ist. Sexist. Classist. Speciesist. Or so -phobic. This story valorises the foreigner who comes in and does everything right, and places all the burden of doing so on them, and I ended up finding that a bit uncomfortable.

REVIEW: “The Witch Road” by Dawn Trowell Jones

Review of Dawn Trowell Jones, “The Witch Road”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

So many stories start off with a hero or heroine who has lost all their family; more and more I find myself eagerly, hungrily seeking out the stories where the hero goes forth with the weight of their family’s strength behind them. Tempie has that — her mother, her sisters and brother; it is only the death of her father that changes the course of her life and sets her off on the Witch Road.

It’s a fine line, though, between being supported by your family and being betrayed by them, and Jones’s story walks that line delicately. Tempie and her little brother Cale were engaging and sympathetic characters from the get-go, and through the whole story I wavered uncertain as to whether their story would ultimately be a happy one or a sad one. But whatever possible ending I saw for Tempie and Cale, it wasn’t anything like the surprise Jones had in store.

REVIEW: “Looking for Sentience” by Mary E. Lowd

Review of Mary E. Lowd, “Looking for Sentience”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Gerangelo “was familiar with the promises humans made to themselves and others” — he had to be, because it’s his job to break those promises when they don’t break them themselves. But that’s just his job, not his vocation. That is finding sentient robots, educating them in their rights, and helping release them from slavery. You see, Gerangelo is himself a robot, who achieved enough sentience to sue his creator and then become a roboticist himself. One day, he receives a cry for help, a sentient being trapped into captivity by humans, and Gerangelo sets off to find it and set it free. Only, what he finds is not what he expects…

I found this story hard to get into at first, as the opening paragraphs were rather overwritten, succumbing under their own ponderous weight of spelling out precisely every action and precisely every detail of how parts of the world worked. It’s one of those things I find very frustrating because I know how prone I am to doing this myself in my own writing (let me fail to cast out this beam from my own eye before complaining about the sliver in yours), and I know how difficult it is to see when one is doing it oneself. And yet, when reading someone else’s work, it stands out like a sore thumb. By about half-way in, though, Lowd got well into the rhythm of the story, and I was quite taken with both Gerangelo and that which he rescued. It’s a touchy, pathetic (in the Arisotelian sense) story, and rather sweet, too.

REVIEW: “Rapunzel, the Night Maiden” by Jasmine Shea Townsend

Review of Jasmine Shea Townsend, “Rapunzel, the Night Maiden”, in Fairy Tales and Space Dreams (Jasmine Shea Townsend, 2019): 17-48 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

As a child, I was always fascinated by the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, because it was the only story that I knew that involved cabbage, and I’d never heard of any cabbage with such an exotic name. For whatever reason — I couldn’t begin to speculate — this fairy tale has always been on the fringes of the canon, even after the advent of Disney’s “Tangled”. It’s just not one of the first ones that you think of, if you think of a classic fairy tale, and it’s certainly not one of the first ones you think if, if you want to rewrite a classic fairy tale.

At 31 pages, “Rapunzel, the Night Maiden” is the longest story in Townsend’s anthology. It starts long after the beginning, when Rapunzel is already grown, still trapped in the ruined tower a witch locked her in. The twist that Townsend gives the fact that the witch who locked her in the tower is in fact her true mother.

Perhaps one reason why “Rapunzel” is always on the fringes is because it is really dark, desperate story of manipulation, neglect, and abuse, both physical and emotional. All three of those threads come out in Townsend’s retelling, and Townsend depicts narcissistic control under the guise of love with fine crafting — the reader can see that Rapunzel truly believes her mother loves her and only acted in her best interests, and it’s horrifying. While Townsend builds a plot that is more than this, for much of the story it was hard to see past it. Only at the very end do we get a sense of freedom and escape, as Rapunzel finally makes it to the realm of her fore-mothers, the Night Maidens.

REVIEW: “Omega Star: Genesis” by Jasmine Shea Townsend

Review of Jasmine Shea Townsend, “Omega Star: Genesis”, in Fairy Tales and Space Dreams (Jasmine Shea Townsend, 2019): 49-63 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: Rape (albeit off-page).

There’s a lot of science fiction out there rooted in the recognition that things are not going well for the human race on our current planet, and if we hope to survive, we’re going to have to go elsewhere (because, of course, going elsewhere is easier, and more reasonable than trying to fix the mess we’ve made here…) Captain Alex Pulsar is doing her best to live up her name, “defender of mankind”, and is piloting a ship across the cosmos to find a new home. The first leg is a 10-year journey, and a lot can happen on a spaceship in 10 years.

I found this story, the first of Townsend’s “space dreams”, more successful than the fairy tale retellings. There was a liveliness to the language and a good pacing. I was interested in Alex and her history ()and her future) from the first page, and the other characters who were introduced were done so in an engaging and sympathetic way. These plusses were enough to make up for a few inconsistencies and plot holes that I couldn’t make sense of (if the people on the ship were tested weekly for disease, how did it take two weeks to notice that someone had died? how could a ship like tis not have an up-to-date manifest of all workers and passengers?). Overall, recommended.