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: “Like a Bell Through the Night” by Kayla Bashe

Review of Kayla Bashe, “Like a Bell Through the Night”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Jaffa Volkovitch like many other women had a childhood penfriend. Unlike many other women, Jaffa’s penfriend was a fairy, Rihannon; and unlike many other woman, Jaffa herself was a werewolf. Now Jaffa’s grown up, and Rihannon’s letter catches her by surprise: I’m coming. Help. But what kind of help can a fairy need? And what kind of help can Jaffa offer?

The story itself was fun enough, but I found the presentation/narration of it confusing; it started off in 3rd person, from Jaffa’s point of view, but scattered throughout were 1st person portions, which I never quite figured out who they were, no matter how many times I went back and re-read it. At first I thought they were actually Jaffa’s internal thoughts, but there was never anything that marked them off as such; however, after the third or fourth try, I suddenly realised that the POV had switched to Rihannon, which made me think then that maybe they were her internal thoughts. In the end, I felt the narrative issues in the beginning of the story preventing me from fully enjoying the plot, sadly, even once we got past the issues.

REVIEW: “The Incident at Women’s Town” by Lara Ek

Review of Lara Ek, “The Incident at Women’s Town”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The thing I struggled with the most was the fact that the story was written in dialect, specifically one that is intended to mimic the white American idea of how Black people, especially in the South, speak. It always makes me uncomfortable. In my own writing, I try to avoid phonetically representing dialects, because most of the time this sort of language is used as a means of othering a certain class of people/characters who don’t fit a particular set of linguistic norms — white, well-educated, English-speaking norms. As a reader, I am deeply uncomfortable when white authors try to write in a “Black” voice; on the other hand, I don’t think white people have any business policing Black authors who are writing in their own vernacular. So this is a particular stylistic choice where knowing the background of the author affects the way I interpret the choice. Unfortunately, spending all this time worrying about who the author was meant I never get to quite enjoy the story itself.

I’m also not sure how much I would’ve enjoyed the story without the issues of style, because of the unpleasant and sometimes disappointing nature of the content. The inciting incidents require a content note, of murder and sexual assault of a minor. Sarah, the FMC, turns out to be ace — which made me happy when this was first made clear, ace heroines are hard to come by! — but we find out she is ace just after she’s propositioned by a man, and just before she decides to go against a lifetime of, as she describes it, “I ain’t had stirring toward women nor men since I was born”, and agree to sleep with him simply because it “‘Could be interesting. Something I never done’.” Someday the default will be ace characters who are ace because they are, not because it can be turned into a plot point. But not in this story.

REVIEW: “Sex After Fascism” by Audie Shushan

Review of Audie Shushan, “Sex After Facism”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The story kicks off with Kris on her way to who-knows-where for who-knows-why, but she’s in the company of her new-boss-cum-new-crush, so she doesn’t mind. Her narration is filled with a wry humor, poking fun at the experience of being a modern woman (and reading modern women’s magazines) and constantly second-guessing and revising her descriptions. She is entirely engaging and loveable — except I have to say, who doesn’t like pecan pie?!

But the story itself seemed a story of two parts; and the quirky, enthusiastic Kris of the first half gives way to a much weirder and darker story in the second half. Without the second half, there would’ve been no speculative element to the story; with the second half, I’m not entirely sure how well the story functions as a whole.

REVIEW: “Genie’s Retirement” by Sarah Newman

Review of Sarah Newman, “Genie’s Retirement”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Retirement doesn’t mean quite the same thing for a Genesis Model household AI robot as it does for a human person. It’s not like robots have hobbies, after all, or need to move to warmer, sunnier climes to soothe their aching bones. But robot bodies get old, software gets outdated, and eventually their “life” must come to an end. Newman’s story explores what this end might look like, in a sympathetic and touching way.