REVIEW: “Obscura” by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “Obscura”, Strange Horizons 29 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There are plenty of stories floating around the world about Faustian bargains and cursed objects. The trope is commonly associated with musicians and artists. So it’s no surprise that in “Obscura,” as the name would suggest, the object in question is a camera which takes pictures of absences.

The fourteen-year-old narrator (it’s never definitively established whether the narrator is male or female,) meets a strange man with a stranger camera, and the stranger ends up bequeathing the camera to the narrator after warning the narrator not to use it on people for fear of what it might show. Humans aren’t so great at resisting temptation, however.

The story showcases Lee’s gift for words. The sentences are rarely long or flowery, but there’s a power in the bluntness, in a single, precise sentence of description. The camera itself is fascinating, as are the brother and sister who bring it into the narrator’s life. However, I found myself a little confused at what, exactly, the camera’s powers were. In a novella or novel, there would be more time to learn by osmosis, but here I would have loved a slightly clearer explanation.

That said, the story is still captivating. It draws you in easily, hooks you just as the narrator is hooked, and its climax and denouement are equally memorable. Well worth a read.

REVIEW: “Going Forth by Day” by Andrew Johnson

Review of Andrew Johnson, “Going Forth by Day”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 73-97. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is one of the longest (if not the longest) in the anthology, and that’s partly why I saved it for one of the last. I wanted something that I could settle down in and sink my teeth in to, to revel in the development of world and story and character that simply can’t be done in 2 pages but can be done in 25 pages. From the start, Johnson doesn’t disappoint, introducing us to Neferkaptah, recently deceased, and yet about to become a central character of the story. On the second page we meet Cleo, the sorceress who has summoned an ancient Egyptian back from the dead, whose surprise at her success made me burst out laughing.

I really, really enjoyed this romp of a story, following Cleo and Neferkaptah’s adventures through early 20th C New York City, with funny little injokes and all the unexpected gaffes and amusements that naturally follow upon reviving a four thousand year old mummy. And revivified mummies are not the only supernatural characters to take their places upon the stage…

This story was worth saving for the last. It was witty and entertaining, and the way in which Neferkaptah interacts with a world thousands of years separated from his own is skilfully written.

REVIEW: “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad

Review of Senaa Ahmad, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls”, Strange Horizons 15 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

What if the U.S. hadn’t just developed nuclear bombs, unthinking, cold machines capable of obliterating cities? What if they had also developed people who were capable of the same devastation?

That’s the premise behind Senaa Ahmad’s “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls.” The narrator, an unnamed member of the eponymous group, is a girl from a poor neighborhood who volunteered to become an experiment. She and her sisters are walking bombs, capable of setting themselves on fire, of detonating and destroying a city. But humans aren’t meant to take that much radiation, and so not only are they prisoners of a sort – they’re also dying.

Ahmad does an excellent job of characterizing these women, of showing how the shifting political winds and the havoc they wreak affects them. She unfolds their collective emotional distress through the slow death of Nabeela, once their most glorious sister, featured on talk shows and interviews. Are they victims? Are they criminals? Ahmad never comes down strongly on either side, perhaps because there is no easy answer. They have killed so many, but they also chose this life because they thought it was their best option.

Ahmad’s prose draws the reader in as she unspools the story of these women, and her descriptions of the fires are evocative and powerful. “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is a story that will stay with you after you read it.

REVIEW: “Ghost Marriage” by P. Djèlí Clark

Review of P. Djèlí Clark “Ghost Marriage”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Ayen is wandering the desert, exiled because of her husband, who has been wreaking chaos and death ever since he died She just wants to unbind herself from his restless spirit so that she can return home and live her life in peace. From this unsettling start, the story unfolds with slavers, a witch, a penitent bull, and forgotten gods in order to tell a story about a young woman finding her own way and her own strength.

It’s nice to see a story that incorporates multiple African cultures, instead of homogenizing the heritage of an entire continent for purposes of fantasy. I’m not sufficiently informed to say how well each was handled (I’m pretty sure they were all based on cultures that exist in our world, as I recognized the Himba from Okorafor’s Binti trilogy at one point), but I enjoyed seeing the attempt.

This is not a particularly short story, coming in at almost 12,000 words, which gives it plenty of space for twists and turns. This story has more scope than most short stories (possibly because it is a novellette), so we get to follow Ayen on a real journey. That being said, be sure to set aside enough time to enjoy it and not feel rushed. It’s certainly worth the time!

REVIEW: “The Ravens’ Sister” by Natalia Theodoridou

Review of Natalia Theodoridou, “The Ravens’ Sister”, Podcastle: 508 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Oh. Oh my.

I don’t want anyone to get the impression that the best way to get me to like a story is to rip my heart out of my chest with your bare hands. I’m just saying that it’s been known to work on occasion.

“The Ravens’ Sister” riffs off the fairy tale motif of the seven brothers who are enchanted as birds and the sister who has to save them. But there are some fates you can’t save people from. Key quote: “Were my brothers men when they went to war? Had they always had the hearts of birds?” The story is told in several versions, but the core story is the same: seven brothers go off to war in what is clearly some part of the horrors that the former Yugoslavia dissolved into. They return to their father changed, and their sister is tasked with a quest to change them back. In a fairy tale, she would have spun shirts from nettles or kept mute silence under persecution. Here she encounters several celestial beings who either help or hinder her, each taking its toll on her body. It is always the sister’s fate to sacrifice herself for her brothers’ sake. She never even questions it.

In one version of the story, the brothers return as literal birds, in another they return heroes, in the last as traitors. But in all cases, the war has changed them and they will never be whole again. The language is powerful and poetic and ugly. Be in a good place when you listen to this story. It will damage you.

The one structural thing that I disliked (and this is a general thing that I’ve touched on before) is that there is a framing structure of numbered verses, sometimes with as little as a single sentence in each verse. The narration included giving the verse numbers, which I found intrusive. Each spoken number jolted me sideways from the flow of the story. In my (highly subjective) opinion, the narration would have been more effective simply with a pause between verses, leaving the numbers in the written text but unspoken. They work visually–the eye slides over them as it does over the verse numbers in a Biblical text. But in audio that particular aspect just didn’t work for me. The story worked, but not that detail.

(Originally published in Kenyon Review Online)

REVIEW: Abandoned Places edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell

Review of George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell, eds., Abandoned Places, (Shohola Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This anthology is the inaugural publication of newly launched “Purveyors of Fine Genre Fiction”, Shohola Press, and what a fine way to launch it is.

This is a collection of stories about places which are “forgotten but not gone,” of “the lonely, the rejected, and the uninhabited” (to quote the back of the book). Some of the stories are classics, written by greats such as Poe and Bradbury. But many more of them are new tales, by a variety of contemporary writers both familiar and new. In the editor’s introduction they say that “we especially wanted to introduce audiences to strong voices who haven’t yet received the widespread distribution they deserve”. Since one of the reasons I was motivated to start SFFReviews was so that I could broaden my reading horizons and learn about new authors (whether actually new or merely new to me), I was incredibly excited to receive a review copy of this beautiful book.

Below is the table of contents, and the review for each story will be linked from here as it is published:

  • “Cardinal Skin” by Bo Balder
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Glitch” by Lauren C. Teffeau
  • “Making Friends” by Steve Kopka
  • “A Strange Heart, Sed in Feldspar” by Maria Haskins
  • “Deleted Scenes” by Chris Cornell
  • “Two Tails” by Ransom Noble
  • “The Astrologer of the Fifth Floor” by Karl Dandenell
  • “Mark Twain’s Daughter” by Cath Schaff-Stump
  • “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allen Poe
  • “Episode 14” by Shannon Ryan
  • “The Last Light” by Miranda Suri
  • “Nothing Save His Anger” by Chris Bauer
  • “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” by M. R. James
  • “The Stories We Tell to Sleep At Night” by Anna Yeatts
  • “A Jangle of Bells and Voices” by Chia Lynn Evers
  • “The Lost” by Doug Engstrom
  • “The Money Book” by Laura Kristin Herndon
  • “Fishing Village of the Damned” by George R. Galuschak
  • “The Inheritance” by BethAnn Ferrero
  • “The Parthian Shot” by Dashiell Hammett

In his introduction, Cornell says that “If you discover at least one new writer who speaks to you in these pages, we have accomplished our goal, dear reader.” I discovered not one, but many. The collection is well balanced and every individual piece is stellar. Even the ones not entirely to my taste left me glad to have read them.

REVIEW: “Bartleby and the Professor Solve the Riddle” by Shondra Snodderly

Review of Shondra Snodderly, “Bartleby and the Professor Solve the Riddle”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 246-248. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The title of the story is almost a story in itself; we’ve got the characters, we’ve got the problem or obstacle, and we’ve got the resolution! Ordinarily that would mean there wouldn’t be much left in the story to be surprising, but here at least two questions present themselves as in need of answer from the title alone: What is the riddle, and how do they solve it? Following close on their heels is the question: Why does it matter that they solve it? All these questions are aptly answered in Snodderly’s relatively short story — though to be fair, Bartleby’s role in solving the riddle is perhaps a bit overstated in the title!