REVIEW: “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 87-130 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In “Blood at Elk Creek,” we’re introduced to Mr. Simms as Captain Ramos’s right-hand man, the voice of sanity to her wild ways, whom she very specifically left behind when she headed north to the Black Hills. While not physically present, he still managed to have

In the present story, Mr. Simms takes center stage. His one instruction from Captain Ramos, before she headed north, was Don’t do anything silly.

The very idea. Simms didn’t do silly things, ever. The whole point of his existence, it often felt like, was to stand by in horrified fascination as Captain Ramos did every silly thing her more cracked mental faculties could invent, as if natural law demanded the presence of a witness at all times (p. 88)

Neither these instructions, nor Mr. Simms’ natural predisposition to not being silly, though, prevent him from striking a bargain with Deliah Nimowitz — she’d help him spring one of his men from prison, he’d scrub up clean and attend a ball as her plus one — both of these, from a certain point of view, very silly things.

I think I enjoyed this story even more than the first one; Mr. Simms is a charming, engaging character, and Acks did a stellar job of introducing his backstory and history with references to the previous set of Ramos stories (I’m presuming; not having read them myself yet) without getting bogged down in oversharing. The result was a character far more three-dimensional and complex than you usually get in a novella.

And Deliah is deliciously amusing. I think pretty much anyone could read this story, not knowing anything of either Captain Ramos or Mr. Simms, and enjoy Deliah.

(Originally published in Sausages, Steam, and the Bad Thing, 2015.)

REVIEW: “Blood in Elk Creek” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Blood in Elk Creek”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 8-84 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In “Blood in Elk Creek,” we are introduced to Captain Marta Ramos in media res: her aeroplane has crashed and she’s in a pretty bad way — and things are about to get worse if she comes in contact with the Infected. Those who come to this anthology having read Acks’ previous collection of stories about Ramos already know her — this was my first introduction, and even though I didn’t know anything about her or her background and history, Acks was quite skilled at making me interested in her from the very start; and after two dozen pages or so, I began to care about her.

Half-way down the first page we also meet Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, who at first seems almost like a charicature of a steampunk character — mustachioed, military, masking a sword with a cane for his limp. I struggled a bit more to get involved in his story line, in part because military strategising isn’t particularly my thing, especially when much of the activity is predicated on politics that I was not familiar with, not having read the previous anthology. Indeed, there was a while where I wasn’t sure this story would be one for me — not only because of the military line but also due to the presence of the Infected, described only as such but quite clearly fitting into the “zombie” archetype. Zombies and armies? Ordinarily, no thanks. But Acks managed to keep me reading and keep me interested.

(Originally published in Sausages, Steam, and the Bad Things, Musa Publishing, 2015).

REVIEW: Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures, (Queen of Swords Press, 2019) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This collection of three novellettes is the second book of stories of the pirate captain Marta Ramos. Captain Ramos first showed up in Acks’ Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures, but the author’s introduction to the present collection assured me that I needn’t have read Murder before reading Wireless. What is necessary is to read the three in this anthology in order, as they are not disconnected stories that happen to center the same character, but rather closely linked stories interlocking into a single arc. Following that, we will review each of the stories in order, linking the review back here once they’re published:

I haven’t read that much steampunk, and almost none set in the American west, so I approached this collection of stories eagerly for that. Even if you don’t ordinarily seek out steampunk stories, you’ll still find something to enjoy in these rollicking tales!

REVIEW: “My Life” by Jessica Walsh

Review of Jessica Walsh, “My Life”, in Little Creepers (Sewn Together Reflections, LLC, 2018): 51-94 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Many of the characters in the other stories in Walsh’s anthology felt very shadowing and fuzzy, but in “My Life” I felt like I had a chance to see multi-faceted people with names and lives and backgrounds. This was due in part to the length — a good solid story rather than a 1-3 page gossamer bite.

Erickson and Taylor were college roommates, and unlikely — but believable — friends. (They’d be more than friends if Erickson had his way, but Taylor always laughed off his overtures.) But now things are changing — Taylor’s moving out into his own place, Erickson’s getting a new roommate. Neither is quite sure how to begin navigating this new chapter in their lives, so when Taylor finds a name scribbled on the wall underneath some pealing wallpaper, and a notebook in his bedroom with the same name inscribed in it, he assumes it’s Erickson playing some sort of joke, a parting gift (if you like). First Taylor ignores the notebook, then he starts writing in it, imagining what the story behind the name — Nicholas — written in it is.

But of course, Erickson hadn’t give him any notebook. What follows is Taylor’s plunge into the uncanny as he continues to write Nicholas’s story, getting more and more involved in the fantasy he’s creating than in the reality he’s supposed to be inhabiting. As the lines between reality and fiction blur, what really comes to the fore and shines is the relationship between Taylor and Erickson, complex, delicate, full of pathos, and beautiful. It made the ending even more horrifying when it came.

REVIEW: “And Then There Were One Hundred and Twenty-Eight” by Jessica Walsh

Review of Jessica Walsh, “And Then There Were One Hundred and Twenty-Eight”, in Little Creepers (Sewn Together Reflections, LLC, 2018): 33. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story totally wins the “best title” award! It immediately intrigued me. There’s the clash between the familiar “and then there was one” phrase and the unexpected “one hundred and twenty-eight”. Then there’s the “one hundred and twenty-eight what??” Coming in at not even a full page, Walsh doesn’t have much space to play with here, but she uses each word to its fullest potential. From the very first sentence, I know the setting — where it’s at, what time of year. I know what the 128 are, but only that: The question of why there are that many, and how they got there, is still to come.

My only complaint is that one of the main characters, Keegan, gets named, but his wife is only “his wife”. I always feel a little bit let down when the only explicitly female characters in a story are relegated to their relationship status.

REVIEW: “Lurking Status” by Jessica Walsh

Review of Jessica Walsh, “Lurking Status”, in Little Creepers (Sewn Together Reflections, LLC, 2018): 39-45 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I love it when a story can take something I usually dislike — in this case, second-person POV — and mould it and adapt it into something brilliant. This story isn’t strictly speaking second-person, because there is a definite “I” telling the story, but the “I” spends its time describing what “you” are doing. Rather than feeling like my actions and my thoughts are being dictated by the narration, I felt like I was lurking along with the “I” who narrated, and thus got to see the ordinary “someone is being plagued by some unnamed, unidentified horror” story-line from a completely different angle. I really enjoyed the result.

(Originally published in Siren’s Call no. 25.)

REVIEW: “Limited Power” by Jessica Walsh

Review of Jessica Walsh, “Limited Power”, in Little Creepers (Sewn Together Reflections, LLC, 2018): 27-29 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: This story contains sexual and physical abuse of children by members of the church.

Were it not for the fact that we commit to reading all stories in a venue here at SFFReviews, I would have quit this one after the third paragraph — heck, I was already pretty uncomfortable with the second one, when it became clear that some sort of exorcism was being performed on a young girl in a way that dehumanised her.

But, I did read it through to the end. I feel like the ending was supposed to come across as empowering and triumphant, but to me it felt merely shameful. And while I don’t ever want my negative reaction to a story to be taken as universalisable, this is not a story I could ever recommend someone else to read.