REVIEW: “The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 133-148. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“A shiny new story with dinosaurs” is how the author’s note describes this story, and Rustad delivered exactly that — not only with dinosaurs, but also an Ever-Hungry Queen, the tomeslinger Yarchuse who uses a set of neopronouns I’d never come across before (“ae”, “aer”), which I found read surprisingly smoothly and easily for being unfamiliar, a forest fighting for its right to survive, and (tapping into all my own desires) an Unearthly Library that people pray to instead of a deity. There was a lot going on packed into this story.

Yarchuse is the focus of the story, ae and aer quest to find the Ever-Hungry Queen’s son Prince Aretas, and the greater quest to end the war with the trees, but it was the Ever-Hungry Queen that intrigued me the most. Why does she hunger? What does she hunger? Was she the Ever-Hungry Queen three years ago, before the death of her daughter the princess? She remained throughout stubbornly peripheral and absent; I would have liked to have had more of her.

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: “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Gentleman of Chaos”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 55-66 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He has no name, for it was banished long ago. By royal decree he has no face, for he does not exist. No one has heard his voice, soft like velvet; no one has seen the exhaustion and pain in his eyes; no one has felt his hand, scarred and calloused, on their cheek in an apologetic caress.

I really enjoy 1st-person POV for short stories, because then I feel like I’m sitting around a campfire, or in someone’s quiet room, or at a theatre, listening to someone tell a story. This story is steeped in history and mythology, and it feels real — not that the events in it happened, but that they are events that someone, somewhere would tell to captivate an audience who is disposed to believe the teller’s fantasies. It feels like something Shahrazad would tell her captive king.

Who, exactly, the narrator is, and why She (for that is the name which we are instructed to use) has chosen to tell this tale rather than another one, put me in a position where I — cis, het, female — feel like I’m wholly unqualified to review the story. There are so many aspects of the story where I simply do not have the right standing to comment on them. So I will stick to making personal remarks: This is a love story, and I loved it, and it is magical.

(First appeared in Apex Magazine 2016).