REVIEW: “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette, “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is a slow-burn, literary, magical murder mystery. The narrator, Mr Booth, is placed in charge of papers written by a celebrated literary figure. Among the papers, he finds a poppet, which he believes has been used to murder the author – Geoffrey Usborne Bryant. Concerned that the perpetrator of this magical crime will hurt others, the narrator sets out to discover who put the poppet in Usborne Bryant’s boxes. While engaged in this detective mission, Booth reflects on the troubled, fleeting association he had with Usborne Bryant when they were at school.

Sarah Monette’s story delicately expresses how Booth’s sleuthing allows him to come to terms with the real shape of a relationship long-past. His quest to find the poppet maker is littered with small, stabbing pains of repressed past hurts and old emotions. Booth’s conversations with Usborne Bryant’s friends, as part of his amature detective work, show that he has developed a clear understanding of how people work. However, he has never quite understood the shape of his own past with Usborne Bryant. As he slowly works his way towards the criminal, Booth untangles the small-scale, but complex, web of interactions and emotions left unaddressed since school. This story is as much a work of emotional detective work as it is a detective story.  

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is also about the importance of acting morally in the face of difficult personal feelings. In keeping with the tone of the story, Monette expresses this theme without any flashy signposts that her narrator is morally compromised, and yet still manages to strongly convey that doing what is right is not always a lot of fun. From the fact that the narrator ‘fled’ when the criminal faints at the end of the story, and the way that ‘something of my emotions bled through in my voice’ at the end of the story, the reader gets the sense that while the narrator’s quest was a success it did not lead him to any kind of satisfaction (beyond a certain understanding of his past).

Strangely, this story reminded me of a favourite Philip Larkin poem – “Dockery and Son“. There’s the similar subject matter of someone thinking back on their school days. And there’s something about the pace of the story, content to dwell on scraps from the past on its way to its destination, which evokes a similar tone to the poem; as does the simple poignancy of the story’s final line. “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” was weird, and quiet, and slow, and I loved it, readers.

REVIEW: “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'” by Edward Edmonds

Review of Edward Edmonds, “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 159-183 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A gory opening scene (don’t read if you’re squeamish) segues into what would be a pretty typical detective/mystery story except that within a page we’ve got a suspect and a confession and the only uncertainty left is whether the suspect is telling the truth — and what reason would someone have to lie about negligence-leading-to-death? But Detective Ishani Grover isn’t one to assume the easy answer is the right one, and her investigations continue…until someone else dies.

Detective/mystery stories aren’t really my type, but this one was solid enough to keep me reading, with a plausible resolution and a few twists along the way to it.

REVIEW: “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” by Sarah Pinsker

Review of Sarah Pinsker’s, “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Sarah Pinsker’s “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” uses subtle, repeating images, colours, or references to emphasise the connection between the lives and work of different American artists, writers, and musicians. For the reader to be able to engage with the story, they needs to be familiar with the cultural references Pinsker includes. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the American 1920s art scene, or the works which were mentioned, to grasp the full significance of most of the references. I didn’t understand this story, and couldn’t really connect with it. And, because I wasn’t sure what had happened in real life, and how each section related to the whole, I had trouble working out what made this story science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction.

What I can say, is that Pinsker’s writing style is very elegant and it’s easy to get swept up in the rhythm of her prose. The device of using references to connect each section is intriguing. And the selection of scenes that the story presents are detailed and interesting. I’d encourage anyone who knows about the 1920s American art scene to give it a try, because I’m sure that someone who can spot all the references, and understand how story fits together as a whole, will find a lot to delve into. This story wasn’t for me, but it’s bound to be a better fit for other readers.

REVIEW: “A Different Kind of Place” by Tobias Buckell

Review of Tobias Buckell, “A Different Kind of Place”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Zadie just wants to distract herself from the zombies. She goes to the salon to escape from the news stories, but the subject just keeps following her as she deals with the residents of her upper class small town who don’t trust the new vaccine or see the need for any sort of zombie protection. After all, Chester isn’t that kind of town.

I think zombies work best as an allegory, and they work particularly well in this story about the early days of a zombie apocalypse. This is a sharp commentary on how people, especially the well-off, assume that bad things only happen somewhere else, whether that’s another town or another country.

The undercurrent of racism serves to both ground the story in reality and further define the sort of town Chester is. As a brown-skinned school teacher in a mostly white town, Zadie is never sure if she can trust the intentions behind the smiling faces she sees everywhere. These aren’t the sort of people to express overt racism, but they express themselves in small, subtle ways that neither she nor the reader can mistake.

All in all, this is a thoughtful zombie story whose themes are highly relevant to our times.

REVIEW: “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees” by Wendy Nikel

Review of Wendy Nikel, “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 141-148 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What a positively delightful title, and what a perfectly wonderful little story to go with it! I was captivated from the opening line, when we are told:

Trees were never intended to be sentient beings, or God would have created them that way, back in the Garden.

But suppose that they were — how would the course of human history have changed? What would the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil have to say, if it could speak?

The trees in this story that think such thoughts and dream the titular dreams are not descendants of the trees created by God, though; they are mechanical trees, created by man. Machines cannot speak; machines cannot procreate; machines can only dream of these things, and pray to their human creator-gods that a miracle occurs.

REVIEW: “Time and Space” by Laine Perez

Review of Lane Perez, “Time and Space”, Luna Station Quarterly 34 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This story starts off with a contradiction:

When Mira sees the library for the first time, it is exactly as she remembers it.

How can one remember what one has never seen before? But such contradictions are to be expected in a story where one character can see the future.

For all that this is a story about pushing the boundaries of time and space, this isn’t SF. Rather, it has a quiet, almost fairy-tale like quality, and what is at the forefront is Mira and Cy and how they navigate a relationship together: Not just how to fit together when one person sees the future and the other moves unexpectedly through space, but how to build a life within those confines that doesn’t end up feeling utterly fatalistic. The lack of free will or free choice that is apparently entailed by foreknowledge of the future — a problem that has been vexing not only science fiction authors but philosophers for millenia — is deftly handled here by Perez in this satisfying story.

REVIEW: “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey

Review of Jacqueline Carey, “Suzie Q”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Suzanne thought she’d escaped her painful past when she passed the summoning exam and was accepted into Holyfields, where she’d learn to summon angels. But when the story starts, she’s living on the streets of the neighboring city, dodging shadows that will eat her and bad people who will feed her to those shadows. Slowly, we learn how she got expelled from Holyfields and why she has a demon inside her. In the end, that demon proves itself to be a surprising strength.

This is a story that works as well as a metaphor as it does as a literal story, and I appreciate that. I can’t say that this is exactly an enjoyable read, dealing as it does with sexual trauma and coercion, followed by betrayal, but it is an absorbing one. The lingering effects of abuse and bullying are realistically portrayed in the character of Suzanne, and the world is tantalizingly sketched out. When she finally finds her power, I nearly cheered. She’s able to find the ways that suffering has made her stronger, and learns to use that for herself. The ending avoids the sin of romanticizing suffering, of making it seem that trauma and abuse were somehow worthwhile, by making it clear that her strength is born not just of the bad things that happened to her, but also her own choices.

This isn’t an easy story, but it is a powerful one, though it could be triggering to people who’ve experienced sexual trauma.