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: “Long Man” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Long Man”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 152-162 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The only thing scarier than childhood nightmares of the Long Man is finding out you’re not the only child the Long Man visited at night. For then they’re no longer merely nightmares, but something in need of an explanation.

We’re aren’t given any explanation in this story, merely carnage. I find myself disappointed; so many stories in this anthology rely on the shock value of gore to make themselves scary that they stop being scary. I would have loved to see a twist in this one to tell us more about who the Long Man is and why he is doomed to haunting mirrors.

(Originally published in Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups), 2015.)

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: Nocturnall by Beth Bernobich

Review of Beth Bernobich, Nocturnall (2015) — Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One of my favorite authors had a birthday, and my first thought was that I should reread my favorite book by her to celebrate, but I couldn’t because that book was packed up to move house. Then I figured I could do something better — I could give her the gift of a review. So, happy birthday, Beth, even if it’s three months late due to the queue at SFFReviews!

The novella Nocturnall is set in Bernobich’s River of Souls world, and I read it after having read the three main River of Souls novels, Passion Play, Queen’s Hunt, and Allegiance. I note this for two reasons — one, so that you go out and read them too, because they are amazing; two, because my reading of Nocturnall was shaped by having read the other three books. As a result, POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW.

The very best of books tell a story that comes to completion and yet leaves the reader wailing “but I want more! I want to know what happens next!!” Not only the immediate future next, but the long down the lines future. What happens not only a year from now, two years from now, three, but what happens twenty years from now, thirty, forty? What happens when the war has been won and the king and queen have been crowned? What happens when the first fire of romance is over, and has been translated into burning coals of comfortable companionship, always able to be stoked again, but sometimes glowing more dimly than others.

Nocturnall is the answer to that “what happens next”. The central characters of PP, QH, and A, Ilse Zhalina and Raul Kosenmark, return in this story, more than thirty-five years after we first meet them. More than half a life time, a life that hasn’t been easy for them, but it has been kind. They have surrounded themselves with the richness of strong familial relationships across and within generations steeped in memory and their love has strengthened with the years even as their bodies have weakened. Theirs is the story of a life (lives) that has worked — even though it has also been work.

It’s hard to describe the quite visceral reaction that reading of Ilse and Raul elicits in me. The first time I read Nocturnall, I was worried that in such a short story the slow build-up that one gets in PP would be lost and that it wouldn’t have the same spark. And then Bernobich drops the bombshell right away on page 4, out of nowhere, taking my breath away and reassuring me that I needn’t have worried: All her power is just as finely wrought in novella as it is in novel form. The first time I read it, I read it in one sitting during a long airport layover, and, Reader, I cried. I cried when I reached the end and I didn’t care who saw. I’m crying again now, as I reread the story and write this review.

Why do stories like this matter? Because the power of a story lies in how we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of the character and see how our own lives might unfold. When I was young, I read of fantasy heroines and dreamed of being one one day. But then I grew up (or at least, older), and I reread those stories and found the heroines were still young, and I was not, and I could no longer see myself in those stories. I started looking for evidence that it wasn’t too late, that I, who’ve already found my prince charming, who has familial ties that preclude any great quest, could still be the heroine of my own story. I started not only looking for heroines like me now, but heroines that I can look forward to becoming in the future, and if I can be half as awesome as Ilse, I would take that as a life well lived! Stories like this matter because they are a gift of possibility to every reader who reads them. That’s a way better gift than any review I could ever gift in return.

REVIEW: “Baug’s Hollow” by Cathrin Hagey

Review of Cathrin Hagey, “Baug’s Hollow”, Luna Station Quarterly 32 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The story has many echoes of the traditional Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which puts me in mind of Edith Pattou’s East, one of my favorite books. So I really enjoyed reading this. I also enjoyed it for the optimistic view it paints of happiness at the end of life, after the death of a spouse. It is a sweet story of how love transcends boundaries, both literal and physical, and Hagey needs only a few words to paint neat pictures of each of the characters.

REVIEW: “Folk” by Eden Royce

Review of Eden Royce, “Folk”, Podcastle: 494 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Sometimes there are stories where you can recognize the beauty and mastery of the storytelling but at the end you simply feel that the story wasn’t for you. Not in the sense of “eh, tastes vary” but in the sense of “this story is talking to an audience that I don’t have the background to be part of.” When listening to “Folk”, I was constantly aware of the power of the writing, but had a difficult time bringing the story together in my mind and making sense of it. It is clearly very solidly rooted in a specific cultural context in the American south, and I loved the imagery of weaving sweetgrass, the weight of old magic, and the evocation of the power of story and language. I think I figured out the connection between the narrator and the antagonist. But a lot of what I felt I should have been getting just slipped through my fingers. I don’t feel that the story failed me, more that I failed the story.