REVIEW: “Search for the Heart of the Ocean” by A. J. Fitzwater

Review of A. J. Fitzwater, “Search for the Heart of the Ocean”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 181-198 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story was described in Lundoff’s introduction as “a new installment of [Fitzwater’s] dapper lesbian capybara pirate saga” (p. 6). I can’t say that this naturally inclined me towards the story — despite the fact that I like lesbians, capybaras, AND pirates, the combination seemed…a little farfetched. I’m not against anthropomorphised animals, but I did feel like I spent more effort in the initial stages of the story suspending my disbelief than I would’ve liked; and the use of dialect in the dialogue compounded the feeling of work that went into reading.

Eventually, though, the effort faded away, and I got drawn into the story of Cinrak and the cabin boy Benj and the kraken that Benj befriends, and the heart of the ocean that both Cinrak and the kraken are seeking. There was a lot of beautiful language, and a happy ending. If lesbian capybara pirates tick all your buttons, then this is definitely the story for you.

REVIEW: “Auger” by Sarah Pauling

Review of Sarah Pauling, “Auger”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I hardly know where to begin with this story. It is full of familial love and strong friendships; it is full of wild beauty; it is laced with horror and sadness. I can’t summarise it without giving it away, and I can’t articulate how it touched me; I can only say that it did. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?” by Jonathan L. Howard

Review of Jonathan L. Howard, “O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It’s rare to find a fresh take on Jack the Ripper, yet that is undeniably what we have here. The narrator, an expert on conspiracies, is being paid to study what many consider the first serial killer. Either through imagination born of careful study or technology, he is reliving each victim’s last hours, growing increasingly angry about their circumstances, and frustrated that he can not save them.

There are no grand conspiracies here (in fact, the narrator laughs in the face of most conspiracies, citing human nature as far too unreliable to maintain a complex cover up among hundreds of people), and absolutely no drive to romanticize or understand Jack. His background and motives are completely unimportant. What matters are the victims: the hardships they endured and the lives that were cut brutally short. What matters is a London in which a woman screaming would have drawn no attention. What matters is a humanity that denies the humanity of others, and the disgust which our narrator feels towards that attitude.

The research that went into this story is impressive. I have not fact-checked it, but the details of location and history feel true to me. It paints a vivid picture, though I sometimes found myself getting bogged down by too many street names. That is a personal tolerance, however, and those with a better head for names and facts will likely have a different experience.

Be warned, this is a lengthy story, coming it at nearly 10,000 words, so you’ll want to leave enough time to really enjoy it. I found that it required a fair bit of focused attention, and would not have wanted to feel rushed through it. That said, it’s a unique story with a strong theme that is well worth the investment of energy.

REVIEW: “At Love’s Heart” by Amanda J. McGee

Review of Amanda J. McGee, “At Love’s Heart”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

There are certain tropes that creep up again and again in fantasy literature, one of which is the “virgin to the dragon” story, whether it be actual virgins to actual dragons or is more metaphorical, whether the sacrifice be compelled or voluntary. At the heart (hah!) of this story is the voluntary sacrifice of Bronne on behalf of her village, Reykjin — for “someone had to pay the cost of winter. The cost of the ice.” Reykjin is one of the northernmost villages, but that doesn’t make the trek north to the temple any easier.

McGee traces Bronne’s path north, accompanied by women of her village all singing songs and bearing witness, through each slow and delicate step. There is a ponderousness about the pace of the story that mimics the gradual slowing down of the body due to cold; but whereas such ponderousness could sometimes be heavy, in this story, it seems appropriate. It’s a beautiful story of the many different facets of love, each as sharp and brittle and beautiful as the facet of an ice crystal.

REVIEW: “Curse Like a Savior” by Russell Nichols

Review of Russell Nichols, “Curse Like a Savior”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Junior thinks this is going to be a quick job – just slip, in repair Mrs. Layla Fisher’s Halogram (currently displaying a Jesus who cusses up a storm), and move on. He doesn’t care what anybody else believes, so long as they let him do his job in peace. Unfortunately for him, it seems that Mrs. Fisher has other ideas.

This does a great job of mixing light fun with some more serious themes. On the one hand, anybody who has ever worked a customer service job will recognize Junior’s struggle to do his job without getting drawn into a long, emotionally taxing conversation with the client. But then we have the Halograms that are at the center of this whole transaction, holograms of famous people, specifically of the sort who people idolize – religious figures and inspiration writers and politicians ranging from Jesus and Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou. As the conversation with Mrs. Fisher goes on, the subject of faith comes to the forefront, and the story transitions from an almost frivolous look at futuristic customer service, to something much deeper and more challenging.

The ending took me by surprise. It’s much more unsettling than I expected, and made me rethink everything that came before it. Fortunately, this is a short enough story that it’s not a hardship to reread it!

REVIEW: “Call to Mind” by Ella Syverson

Review of Ella Syverson, “Call to Mind”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

If swearing in your stories isn’t for you, then avoid this one — it starts off with a curse word.

But Sam and her traveling companion, Diesel, have something to curse about. Their memories have been wiped — again — and while artificial amnesia is part of the job when you’re employed by the Department of Supernatural Control, that doesn’t mean it ever gets any easier, especially when you know that there isn’t really any out. Even with artificial amnesia, DSC employees know too much to ever not be DSC employees.

Both Sam and Diesel are good at their job, though, and that’s why they’re the ones tasked to track down a rogue human who’s been fraternizing with sirens, werewolves, and witches. Too many DSC agents have been lost in trying to capture this rogue, so it’s up to the two of them to put an end to it.

Of course neither expected the job to be an easy one, but I as the reader also didn’t expect it to be easy, and found that the story came up abruptly rather short at the end. I would have loved to see the interesting premise that it began with fully developed into something more substantial than what I ended up getting.

REVIEW: “Tenari” by Michael Merriam

Review of Michael Merriam, “Tenari”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 168-180 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Captain Reed’s ship, the Black Manta, hasn’t always been black. Decades ago, the ship was just the Manta, an attack ship in the Colonial Defense Forces. At the time, Captain Reed wasn’t captain, merely senior lieutenant, and her current XO, Roger Baldry, was navigator and second officer. But it’s been a long time since Reed and Baldry encountered the mythical alien race, the Tenari, and — when no one else did — lived to tell the tale. Now the Manta is a pirate ship, no longer a military ship, and Reed and Baldry are facing the Tenari again. They were lucky once to escape with their lives; will they be lucky enough to escape a second time?

Merriam’s story is filled with rich detail and a panoply of characters, which I liked. However, two things about this story bothered or confused me. First, half the time the captain was named Kathleen Reed, the other half she was Katherine Reed, and I was never sure if this was intentional or just something that slipped past proofreading. Second, with almost no exception, the female characters were referred to solely by their given name, while the male characters were referred to by either their surname or surname + title. It’s such a small thing, but to see “Janet” (Sobrinski) working side by side (Roger) “Baldry”, “Mr. Roberts” the helmsman working with crewmember “Tilly” (no surname), was a constant reminder of how even when female characters are given equal screen time with male in a story, they are still treated unequally. We’ve come so far in terms of representation in SFF stories; but there is still so much further left to go.