REVIEW: “Iron Aria” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria”, Podcastle: 518 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A fantasy of ecological catastrophe and the need for skills and approaches outside the default to heal the land. Kyru has a talent for speaking with metals. He might have spent his life simply as an excellent blacksmith, except for the part where flaws in a dam threaten to destroy his entire community when it fails and no one else can sense the looming peril the way he can. Both the problem and its solution are conveyed in the impressionistic experiences of the protagonist–although told in the third person, it has a very first-person feel to the point of view. I loved the imaginative worldbuilding and poetic language used to describe it.

This next bit is more of a meta-commentary on storytelling within our particular present moment and is only slightly relevant to the content of the story. There’s another entire layer to this work, separate from the functional man-against-nature plot, involving non-default identities and negotiating how to exist in a world not designed for you.

Two central characters are trans and their recognition of each other’s experience is a key part of their bond. The protagonist is also neuro-atypical, which is tied in with–though not equated with–his unusual metal-sensing/healing skills. The ways in which these aspects are integrated into the story point up some of the awkwardness of our current balance point with regard to representing non-default identities in fiction. We aren’t yet at a stage where representation can be successful simply by casual and neutral inclusion because–to many observers–that approach can feel a bit too similar to erasure. It’s perfectly possible to write a story featuring a trans character where their transness is never explicitly addressed because it’s not relevant to the plot, but at our current moment in the cultural timeline, it’s hard to count that as representation.

All of this is to say that, within the context of the storytelling, it felt to me that the communication of both trans identity and neuro-atypicality were over-telegraphed within the story and that the over-telegraphing interrupted the flow of the storyline. But at the same time, I recognize that dialing those narrative aspects back to a level that wouldn’t have felt overdone would have made it possible (perhaps even likely) for a majority of readers/listeners to miss them entirely. I see what the author is trying to do, and I appreciate the approach, and at the same time I would have loved to see how this story could be told in a context where the potential presence of those aspects of character identity could be more taken for granted rather than needing to be fronted in the way they were here.

Originally published in Fireside Fiction.

REVIEW: “A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley

Review of Charlotte Ashley, “A Fine Balance”, Podcastle: 517 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

In an early-modern secondary world setting that gave me an Ottoman Empire feel, the social and political balance between two ethnic groups is maintained in part by an elaborate system of ritual dueling and economic forfeiture. But the power differentials that underlie the superficially “fair” system come to a head when one side is willing to cheat to claim permanent advantage. The story is told from the point of view of an apprentice duelist who witnesses and participates in the crucial confrontations.

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this story and how the listener’s understanding of the social conflicts and function of the dueling rituals builds gradually to support the main conflict. The one flaw for me was that the play-by-play of some of the duels themselves got tedious, but I know this is a feature that people with more direct familiarity with martial arts may instead find a plus.

I particularly enjoyed how women were given pride of place in the narrative without needing to erase the underlying patriarchal nature of the cultural setting.

Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction

REVIEW: “The Death of Paul Bunyan” by Charles Payseur

Review of Charles Payseur, “The Death of Paul Bunyan”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 279-286 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The suits pass a glance amongst themselves like it’s weed at a folk rock concert and Johnny wishes he ad brought something to take the edge off. H remembers smoking with Paul and Babe, during a summer they spent in the northwest once. Bigfoot hunting, they said, though in the summer of 1944 draft dodgin was probably more accurate.

For me, this was the perfect piece to finish off the anthology with, which is why I left it for last. The title alone evoked both nostalgia — memories of the Paul Bunyan murals at the Memorial Union at UW-Madison where did my BA and MA — and also a bit of embarrassment when I realised I’ve left Wisconsin behind long enough ago that I do not remember the details of Paul and Babe’s story.
So of course I did what any self-respecting academic would do, and read up on them before reading Payseur’s story. (While utterly irrelevant to Payseur’s story, I feel honor-bound to inform all of you that Disney did an animated musical Paul Bunyan, featuring the voice of Tony the Tiger.) What surprised me — most likely because I never knew this in the first place — was the status of the Bunyan tales as “fake-lore”, that is, stories that were made up to be like folk tales but without the long oral history that folk tales have. But this is supposed to be a review of Payseur’s story and not a discourse on Paul Bunyan, so let’s go see what happens when Bunyan dies, because that is when this story begins:

Paul Bunyan has died. Paul Bunyan has died and Johnny Appleseed is heading north (p. 279).

Both Bunyan and Appleseed are men out of American myth, but their status as myths doesn’t prevent them from still being men. (Reading the story I had a strange sense that I was reading a superhero story.) But how one can be both myth and man is the pole around which this story pivots, and in turn the story — stories — are that which make Paul and Johnny who they are:

They’re all made of stories, people like Johnny, people like Paul (p. 283).

But does the story die because Paul does, or does Paul die because the story does? That ambiguity, dear reader, is why you should read this story for yourself.

(Originally published in Lightspeed, 2016.)

REVIEW: “The Drowning Line” by Haralambi Markov

Review of Haralambi Markov, “The Drowning Line”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 183-195 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I drive on the way back and tell my husband everything he needs to hear — slowly and with conviction, a recital of sweet nothings. What I really do is think about the man in the water, my family’s legacy and undoing.

The story opens with a man being woken by the ringing of a cell phone, and in the exchange that follows between the first-person POV narrator and the man who has called him, I found I had to flip pages back and forth and reread the scene two or three times until I figured it what was happening and who was saying which words.

But that is pretty much my only complaint about the story. It is breathlessly beautiful and full of love and it caught me up in its wake and made my heart weep and bleed. It is both ordinary — the queer aspect is both foregrounded but utterly mundane — and extraordinary — with the speculative elements providing a framework that blend fantasy and reality seamlessly. Reading this story makes me so glad I bought this anthology, despite my misgivings about my suitability to review it.

(Originally published in Uncanny Magazine, 2016.)

REVIEW: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 259-275 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Do dead boys get boners? Or are they safe from being mortified? Oh, God, pun intended.

This is a classic coming-of-age, boy-meets-dead-boy, high-school-prom-graduation-and-what-comes-after story — oh, wait, that’s not really classic, is it. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the story is, and it was a pure delight to read. Now, I’ve never been a high school boy myself, so I can’t attest to the verisimilitude of the narrator’s (I just realised we never learn his name) experiences, but they feel so very real and genuine, the embarrasment, the longing, the joy, the fear. This is a story I will file carefully away, to keep safely until the time comes that I think “I know someone who needs to read this story,” at which time I’ll pull it out and share it with them. Because everyone at some point in their lives, particularly in high school, needs to read a story that shows them they are not alone.

(I also totally and shamelessly want to see this short story turned into a movie. But only this story, however short a movie it ended up being, and not some story vaguely inspired by this story but with a whole bunch more added to it. Because the twist that comes about 2/3 of the way in is both completely unexpected and entirely perfect.)

There is no way to separate the act of reading a story from the reader. There is no way I cannot read the title of this story without thinking of the same-titled REM song, the song that was my mental soundtrack in the weeks after discovering I was pregnant. I cannot get away from those memories or that song while reading this story, which makes my experience of it individual, singular (but though it is individual to me, it is no more individualised than any other reader’s experiences of the story). So I was quite glad that a nod was made to the REM song at the end of the story. I hope those kids think of that time of their lives every time they hear the song, too.

(Originally appeared in The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, 2016.)

REVIEW: “My Heart’s Own Desire” by Robert Levy

Review of Robert Levy, “My Heart’s Own Desire”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 199-211 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He said he was a man of means now hidden to the world, and that he wanted nothing more than to take me back to his place. It is safe, he said, and warm. He also let it be known that he could conjure the most illuminating things, potion-soaked wafers that gave you crystal visions. The Hierophant’s shit is so good, my brother Carter told me later, people say God is his supplier.

Content note: Contains explicit incest.

This was a difficult story for me to read, not the least because of some fairly graphic incest scenes. I’m not a huge fan of graphic sex scenes, but there are some contexts when they feel so right and natural that I do not mind them and even enjoy them. But the context here just feels so wrong.

Often when I’m reading, the underlying question I am continually asking is “Why this story?” Why did the narrator choose to tell this story? Why did the author choose to tell this story? Quite often the answer is a simple — if unhelpful — “because it’s a good one”. But other times, I feel like I must struggle with the story to find the answer, because the underlying premise to the question always is “they must have had a reason, a reason that they thought this story was the one worth telling”. One of the salutary things about fiction is the way in which it can force people to question their defaults and assumptions, to take a second look at why they react the way they do. I found myself doing that quite often reading this story — asking myself “is the repugnance with which I view incest preventing me from seeing clearly the answer to ‘why this story’?” Is there something the author has to say that makes this particular mode of saying it not only appropriate but justified?

At the end, I don’t know. I also don’t know whether the fault lies with me, or with the story — or with both, or with neither. It was well-written — lovely pacing, beauiful imagery, depictions of drug-induced experiences that I can appreciate aesthetically even while I have no point of contact in my own experiences — but I’m not sure that was enough to rehabilitate this one for me.

(Originally appeared in Congress Magazine, 2016.)

REVIEW: “The Sound a Raven Makes” by Mathew Scaletta

Review of Mathew Scaletta, “The Sound a Raven Makes”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 104-120 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He yearned for the spark that would flare against the low alder and tall draping hemlock that surrounded the compound. He yearned for the bloom that would illuminate them all. His gaze shifted between the fireweed, his lover, and finally onto the muskeg plain that started at the bottom of the hill and stretched for miles until it slammed into foothills of another devastated mountain.

Ash works with his grandmother and uncle in a meat processing facility in southeastern Alaska, taking in the kills of rich men who fly in to hunt there and butchering them, smoking them, turning them into teriyaki—it all seems perfectly ordinary enough reading until the first customer arrives and Scaletta skirts deftly around the issue of what it is that is being hunted. Same with the next, and the next, until I’m getting increasingly anxious because I know it can’t be anything good.

Spoiler: It’s not anything good.

Such darkness needs to be balanced by light, and in this story that light comes in the form of Ash’s love for JB and JB’s for him. It is a peculiar little story, but that thread running through it lifts it from being just a little too depressing for me.

(Originally published in Gigantosaurus 2016).