REVIEW: “The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine

Review of Arkady Martin, The Hydraulic Emperor, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

At one point Mallory, the protagonist of The Hydraulic Emperor, describes an artistic influence ‘unfurling’, and it struck me that this is the perfect word to describe the story itself. Arkady Martine has written a slow-burning story, which uses the focus and fascination of the narrator to lull the reader into a state of curious contentment. I, for one, was happy to follow as this story slowly stretched itself in interesting directions.

The Hydraulic Emperor is powered by the attraction of a Macguffin; in this case a ‘Qath puzzlebox’. Kinesis Industrial One engage film collector Mallory Iheji to acquire the box. In return, they offer her the chance to finally view The Hydraulic Emperor by obscure filmmaker Aglaé Skemety. Neither the film or the puzzlebox are important on their own, although Martine skilfully makes it feel as if they are both extremely significant. Instead, The Hydraulic Emperor is all about the journey. The crucial quest’s the thing in this story.  

As Mallory journeys towards the defining point in her collecting career, Martin unspools a languid meditation on sacrifice, anticipation, completion, and enticing art. In some ways its themes and structure bear comparison to Moby Dick, although in this story film occupies the space religious themes take up in Melville’s work. Martine complements these thematic strands with smart world-building, an original plot, and interesting hints about Mallory’s past life.  

Sadly, for a story which often delivers a slow, lush examination which rewards the reader’s attention, the ending of this story left me a little bit unsatisfied. I wanted a little bit more closure when it came to the relationship between Averill and Mallory. I also really wanted to know what happened to Mallory’s bidding partner, Julie, after Mallory was awarded the puzzlebox. What happens to her when she is left without the puzzlebox or her precious Old Earth sacrifices? Unlike the unanswered questions Mallory is left with by the end of The Hydraulic Emperor, my unanswered questions feel like untidy, loose strands, and I’d have loved to see a fuller conclusion.

REVIEW: “Adjuva” by Arkady Martine

Review of Arkady Martine, “Adjuva”, Luna Station Quarterly 33 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Since starting SFFReviews, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to first lines of short stories. The first line of this one is excellent:

Michel dreams the dead at Antioch again.

Every single part of this makes me want to know more — who is Michel? What does it mean to “dream the dead”? Is Michel at Antioch, or the dead? And why is Antioch important? And what does it mean, he is doing this again? Has he done it before? What happened then?

A very good way to start a story.

The rest of the story continues good: Is it a time-travel story? Is it a ghost story? It is both, and neither, but in the end what I find mattered most to me was the relationship between Michel and Thomas. Their life clearly hasn’t been either easy or straightforward. But that they are still together after all that they have been through, the sheer amount of time that they have lived through together, I found sweet, and heartwarming. There is a depth of history underpinning the story, a sense of the vastness of time. It is a story that made me glad to have read it.