REVIEW: “This World Is Full of Monsters” by Jeff VanderMeer

Review of Jeff VanderMeer, “This World Is Full of Monsters, Tor.com (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Well, this story certainly gave new meaning to the word “face-plant.”

This odyssey of a short story (or possibly a novella–it’s rather long) follows our narrator as he is taken over by a “story-creature,” some kind of alien being that takes over the Earth and transforms our narrator bit by bit into something more like itself.

VanderMeer has a wondrous mastery of description, and the tale reads like a vivid nightmare or hallucination. His word choices paint an exquisite picture of a world gone mad and a narrator struggling through a metamorphosis he does not comprehend until the very end.

It also contains beautifully poetic moments, such as when the narrator remembers that he used to write obituaries; in a sense, this story is the narrator’s own obituary for his past life. There’s a sense of loss buried here, but also a sense of wonder and joy and potential in this new world. Indeed, the narrator wonders if he had slept a century and returned to a still-human world, would he have recognized it any better?

This weird tale manages to take what should be frightening body horror and alien invasion and turn it into something oddly uplifting by the end. It’s well worth your time to read.

REVIEW: “The Tablet of Scaptur” by Julia Keller

Review of Julia Keller, “The Tablet of Scaptur”, Tor.com (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Archaeology was a passion of mine when I was younger, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I find the basic premise of “The Tablet of Scaptur” intriguing. Sixteen-year-old Violet has the eponymous ancient tablet stuffed into her hand by a scientist as she’s being arrested, and Violet and her friends take it upon themselves to both translate the tablet and determine what to do with it.

The revelation of what, exactly, the tablet says is fascinating for its take on linguistics and Martian history. But the power of that revelation is tampered somewhat by the short story format; it’s clear that this tablet has world-shaking potential, but with limited information on the world, it’s hard to truly comprehend the full import. It feels very much like this story requires reading the author’s full novel in this world to truly understand the stakes.

That said, the choice Violet makes at the end is not the one that I expected. For a sixteen-year-old, Violet shows a powerful understanding of how information can influence a society in ways both good and bad–and that maybe there is some information that should be kept secret.

 

REVIEW: “The Darwinist” by Diaa Jubaili

Review of Diaa Jubaili, “The Darwinist”, Strange Horizons 30 Oct. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

It’s inevitable when writing regular reviews of a publication that a reviewer will find a story that doesn’t resonate with her. “The Darwinist” is one of those stories for me.

Set in 20th century Iraq, the story tells of the birth of Shafiq, a boy with a furry, banana-shaped birthmark and the son of a reviled Darwinist. After leaping back in time to discuss the boy’s father, the story then tells of Shafiq’s adulthood, searching for a banana to give his pregnant wife, and how that search ends in tragedy.

When I say “the story tells,” I do mean tells. “The Darwinist” has a distinctly newspaper-like quality to it as it lays out the events of Shafiq’s life. It maintains a birds-eye view, never taking the time to deeply explore any of the characters or moments it discusses. There’s little dialogue or opportunity to show the story. Instead, it reads like a synopsis of a novel without much plot (save for the banana search that takes up the last third).

It’s entirely possible that this story is meant as an allegory, and I’m missing some political or cultural connotations that would give it greater emotional depth (it is told in translation from Arabic). But as it is, the narrative distance from the characters and the lack of a clear direction for the early plot kept me from fully engaging with the story.

REVIEW: “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter”, Tor.com (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this story to read, but it wasn’t a gay love story of sorts told during a post-polymer kaiju apocalypse. That said, I’m certainly here for it.

The story takes a science fiction framework and props it against a very human backdrop. The technobabble we expect is here, but it takes a back seat to a story about three core characters: Otto, our first-person narrator and former drug addict; Trevor, Otto’s controlling boyfriend with the too-perfect exterior; and Aarav, the visitor who comes between them. The story is split into two distinct halves: a key night before the kaiju made of programmable matter wreck New York City, and life in the refuge camps of upstate New York.

The prose has its moments of beauty, though in places it leans toward the overwrought. The frequent run-on sentences give it a breathy, babbling, almost nervous quality which can sometimes be grating.

But despite the mechanic flaws, the emotional core of the tale is powerfully depicted. Miller draws a realistic picture of Otto as a recovering addict, constantly worried that he’s not good enough, that he’ll fall back into his old destructive habits. And even though Otto thinks Trevor is perfect, Miller’s skillful depiction lets the reader know how much Trevor takes advantage of Otto’s mindset. It’s a heartbreaking tale, for much is lost on both macro and micro scales, but it’s also one of self-empowerment for Otto. Well worth a read.

REVIEW: “Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone

Review of Max Gladstone, “Crispin’s Model”, Tor.com (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Phrases like “sick galaxies of staring, slitted orbs” and “trails of poison paint” evoke the lush-yet-terrifying quality I associate with H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos. So it’s fitting, then, that these phrases are found in Max Gladstone’s Lovecraftian tale of a painter, his model and the twisted things his twisted paintings produce.

Gladstone’s masterful prose gives the story much of its impact. His style evokes Lovecraft’s without cleaving too closely to it, resulting in a story that feels both thoroughly Lovecraftian and yet also thoroughly modern in its presentation.

It’s a simple premise on the surface, yet Gladstone mines it for every ounce of tension, every dram of cosmic horror he can eke from it. The reader knows from the very beginning that something is off, and we discover the source of that strangeness with a slow build that’s always suspenseful and never boring. The climax itself will raise the hairs on your neck, but Gladstone never gives away too much of the monster, preserving the sense of mystery.

A worthy addition to the genre.

REVIEW: “The Gates of Balawat” by Maria Haskins

Review of Maria Haskins, “The Gates of Balawat”, Strange Horizons (Samovar) 25 Sept. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, this story follows its nameless main character into the ruins of the British Museum. The main character and his team have been tasked with scanning the artifacts so limited edition replicas can be produced and sold to wealthy collectors. The originals will then be destroyed to preserve the company’s license. During the course of this job, the main character encounters one of the titular Gates of Balawat.

On the outset, this seemed like a story I would enjoy. Museums are some of my favorite places, and I’ve made an amateur’s hobby of learning about archaeology. The twist of setting it in the future addresses the old question of so many archaeologists: what will the archaeologists of the future think of us when they dredge through our ruins? Haskins touches on this throughout the story, and the bits and pieces of her larger world that leak through make the reader curious to learn more.

However, I found the execution lacking in places. Haskins makes it clear that the doors, the Gates of Balawat, have some special significance for the main character; they cause a “dream” that stirs within him throughout the novel. Yet the story never satisfactorily answers what, precisely, that significance is. We learn so little of the character’s past that we cannot guess at why the doors affect him so, or why he should dream of them so often. Ultimately, it causes the climax to fall short of what it could have been.

Despite that, there are still moments of beauty in the translated prose, filtered through a message about how meaningless our remnants will be once we are gone, that make this story worth reading.

REVIEW: “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love” by Julian Jarboe

Review of Julian Jarboe, “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love”, Strange Horizons 16 Oct. 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

The title is a mouthful and more than a little pretentious-sounding, but this captivating short story based on Minoan civilization is well worth the read. Organized as a series of letters from the protagonist, a snake woman, to Ariadne (yes, that Ariadne), the story focuses on the snake woman as she prepares for her next reincarnation and laments the loss of her world and her love.

Jarboe’s prose is lush with description, painting breathtaking pictures of the scenery and rendering the protagonist’s loss with heart-breaking details. Occasionally, the sentences run a little too verbose, causing confusion until the reader takes the time to go back and re-read, but these small offenses are forgivable for the beauty of the words.

Beyond just superb prose, Jarboe tells a story that delves into deep themes, ranging from the weariness of eternal life to cultural appropriation. There’s so much to unpack in each “letter,” and readers will find new layers of meaning with each new read-through. This story is a rich, thoughtful meditation on all the shades of lost love, and I would highly recommend it.