REVIEW: “The Day the Dragon Came” by Marieke Nijkamp

Review of Marieke Nijkamp, “The Day the Dragon Came”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 132-156 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Alix was sold as a bond-servant as a child, and now must work to earn her freedom, running messages through a city not designed for crippled legs. Delfin’s father always told him “you’ll never see dragons, girl” (p. 134), but he did let that stop him from running away as a ‘prentice and now he’s in Ghent helping build the bellfry, the symbol of hope and strength for the city. Alix, too, is waiting for the bellfry’s completion, for that is the day that the dragon will come.

This was a rich story, full of strongly-drawn, interesting characters, a beautiful setting, and details that kept everything hovering on the border between real and fantasy. I loved it.

REVIEW: “Plus One” by Karuna Riazi

Review of Karuna Riazi, “Plus One”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 104-131 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Hafsah has received an invitation from God, for a once in a lifetime opportunity: To go on hajj. A wonderful opportunity, a blessed opportunity, a sacred opportunity…and one she doesn’t particularly want. Because this is the sort of invitation where a plus one is not expected, and Hafsah doesn’t know how she’ll go on hajj without bringing It along.

Everyone says that It is just a phase, that if she ignores It, if she names It, if she grows out of It, It will go away, but nothing she’s done has ever gotten rid of It. What “It” is in the story is not specified — it is both everything that burdens every teenager and also something unique, special, Hafsah’s alone, that no one else has. My heart ached for Hafsah as she tried to navigate a way forward to a life without It, but I also felt a sense of kinship with her, and I suspect many other readers will too…

Reading this story also made me reflect that I can probably count on two hands the number of stories with a Muslim MC that I’ve reviewed for this site since it started almost 3 years ago. This is something I’d like to change going forward! If only they can all be as good as this one was.

REVIEW: “Found Objects” by William Alexander

Review of William Alexander, “Found Objects”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 90-103 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Take the feel of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, throw in some Shakespeare and make the Buffy-character Hispanic and disabled, and that’s basically what this story felt like, and I loved it.

REVIEW: “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Katherine Locke

Review of Katherine Locke, “Per Aspera Ad Astra”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 61-89 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Every morning Lizzie’s sister Darcy asks if she’ll be coming to school with them that day, and every morning, Lizzie says maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow her anxiety won’t be so strong as to make it almost impossible to leave her room. But every morning it’s the same again. Except today. Today the shield that protects Amula, the shield that Liz herself helped programme, has been attacked, and both her city and potentially her planet are threatened.

In one of the longer stories in the collection, Locke takes up a thread similar to ones found in other stories in the anthology, of a teen who feels that her disability makes her worthless — “lazy, ineffectual, cowardly” (p. 72) — but finds out in the end she can overcome her disability and still be a valuable contributor. I have a lot of ambivalent feelings about stories like these, and this one in particular. On the one hand, Lizzie succeeded! And she learned that “she didn’t need to fight the war. She just needed to solve the next problem” (p. 88), a good lesson for any of us to learn. On the other hand, the idea that it took a handsome stranger to arrive unexpectedly to give Lizzie the support she needed to prove her utility to society, or that she even needed to prove this at all, sat a bit uncomfortably with me.

REVIEW: “The Leap and the Fall” by Kayla Whaley

Review of Kayla Whaley, “The Leap and the Fall”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 38-59 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Spoiler alert

I wasn’t expecting this story, the way it started off, to become a horror story! But that’s what it was, complete with ghosts, a haunted carnival, and two best friends, Gemma and Eloise, who can only save each other by admitting their love. This was another story with a definite romance arc in it, but Whaley used it to good effect, making it a necessary part of the resolution.

REVIEW: “Britt and the Bike God” by Kody Keplinger

Review of Kody Keplinger, “Britt and the Bike God”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 18-37 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was a straight up realistic-fiction story, nothing speculative about it at all, just the story of a girl in love. Teenaged Britt actually has two loves, the first and foremost of which is bike riding. When retinitis pigmentosa slowly took away her vision, her parents bought her a tandem bike and set up a bike club at the local university so that she’d always have someone to ride with — including love (or, more like, teenage crush!) number two, Andre.

It was really cute, and the sort of story I would’ve enjoyed a lot as a teenager, with a straight-out, unabashed happy ending. A very good kind of story.

REVIEW: “The Long Road” by Heidi Heilig

Review of Heidi Heilig, “The Long Road”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 3-17 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Lihua and her parents have left behind everything they have ever known, heading west in hopes of finding the Place of No Return — and then going even further. It’s all Lihua’s fault: If she hadn’t received her diagnosis, if she hadn’t gotten sick, they could have remained in Xi’an. All she has to protect her against illness are the amulets given to her by family, friends, the man she would have married, and at times it feels like they are more a burden than a help.

The setting of this story is the camel train from Xi’an to Persia, with all the sweat, muck, camel dung, pomegranates, and continual search for water that you’d expect. Heilig uses small details to great effect, drawing a rich, full picture. We aren’t given details about the nature of Lihua’s illness, but that just makes it possible for many different speculations to be born out by the events. In the end, it’s not the diagnosis, nor the treatment, that matters: It is who Lihua meets on her journey, and what she learned from them. This was a lovely story to start off the anthology with.

REVIEW: Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijkamp

Review of Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was one of my WorldCon ’19 recs — a book that was mentioned during one of the panels I attended, where I thought “I want to read that”. I especially wanted to read it to see if it would be something that I could recommend to one of my nieces, who I have a suspicious would be interested in SFF, but hasn’t yet gotten the right route in.

Not all the stories in this collection are speculative in nature — some of them are straight up realistic fiction (including some whose authors are best known for speculative fiction, which was a bit of a surprise!). Both queer and non-queer romance arcs were strongly represented across the anthology. It was this perhaps more than anything else that marked this book out as a collection of YA stories; whenever one of the romantic developments felt a bit too much, too fast, I had to remind myself that I’m not a teenager anymore and that if I’d read these stories as a teenager, they probably would’ve felt more real.

The stories don’t shy away from the difficult subjects. The range of disabilities represented was wide, from wheelchairs to anxiety to terminal illnesses. The characters are confronted with not only the ordinary vagaries of romance and other aspects of teenage life, but also with the worry of burdening others, the anguish of never being enough, the guilt of it all. One thing I really liked about this anthology as a collection was the way in which so many of the narrators voiced these sorts of internalised ableism, and the ways in which the stories themselves pushed back against those narratives, made it clear that they were not the right narratives. On the flip side, one of the things that made me uncomfortable was how some of the stories were variants on “even though a disabled person might think themselves unworthy, they can still do things that are valuable to society!” in a way that felt, to me, like it bordered on inspiration porn. Such stories were, however, the minority, and loaded towards the front of the book, so that by the end such early impressions were mostly memories.

As is usual, we’ll review the stories individually, and link the reviews below as they are published.

Having read all of them, yeah, I probably will get this book for my niece. They may not all be to her taste, as they weren’t all to mine, but if she derives joy from even one of them, it’ll be a worthwhile purchase. (And I really hope she likes Benwell’s and Duyvis’s, the two outstanding stories of the volume in my opinion.)

REVIEW: “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of the Imadeyunuagbon” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Review of Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of the Imadeyunuagbon”, in Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, ed., Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, (Aurelia Leo, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Nuclear warfare, possible rape, nonconsensual sex, death, suicide.

The “sacred charge of Obatala” is that all the men and women of Ife-Iyoku be useful, whether through the cultivation of special gifts as see-ers or healers or light weavers, or through the application of themselves to general tasks such as hunting and cooking and childrearing. While all the rest of Afrika has been destroyed by nuclear fall out, Ife-Iyoku stands behind a protective shield, and it is the duty of those who live there to make their community as strong as possible, that they might survive until Obatala returns to save all of Afrika.

But these roles come with definite gender restrictions, with women coming out far the worse. When Ooni Olori receives a message from beyond the shield, life in Ife-Iyoku is threatened by invasion. Those who live there must question the patriarchal structures that have bound their lives and face a future radically different from any they have ever known. I enjoyed watching Imade, one of the main characters, fight back against the gender roles that have constricted her her whole life, and by the end of the story was deeply invested in her and her outcome. A strong and powerful story.

REVIEW: “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman

Review of Michael Boatman, “Thresher of Men”, in Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, ed., Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, (Aurelia Leo, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: Transphobic and ableist language; death; shooting of Black people by cops; murder; structural racism; rape.

Oooh, this was one uncomfortable story to read, with plenty of places in the first few pages that had me squirming in my seat. The focus of the opening scene is Officer Greg Fitzsimmons, member of Lincolnville P.D. and white. He embodies a lot of what I dislike in contemporary American culture — the ambient level of unconcern for people who are not like him is just gross. This story illustrates the power that a story’s author has over it: If this story had been written by a white person, reading it would have been a very different experience. As it is, what would have looked like callousness and ignorance looks instead like a very incisive criticism of contemporary American society and racial structures. There’s a reason I should feel so damn uncomfortable: Boatman’s depiction of how white people view Black people is not wrong.

But it wasn’t all uncomfortable squirming: At the end of the opening, vengeance in the form of the goddess Kisazi slams into the scene and lights the story up — figuratively and literally — and all the white bastards get the comeuppance they deserve. Thoroughly satisfying.