REVIEW: “Eleusinian Mysteries” by Charlotte Ashley

Review of Charlotte Ashley, “Eleusinian Mysteries,” Luna Station Quarterly 23 (2015): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This story is a shining example of the very best of historical science fiction. In 17th-century Amsterdam, engraver Maghfira van Delsen discovers the secret of the mysterious city Eleusia, and her discovery threatens not only the colonising aspirations of the VOC (the Dutch Eastindia Company) but, as a result, her own livelihood and life. The story is a perfect blending of historical verisimilitude and extra-worldly adventure; not only is it good SF, it feels like it is exactly the sort of SF you would expect to get in the 17th century. I really loved this story.

REVIEW: “The Satyr of Brandenburg” by Charlotte Ashley

“The Satyr of Brandenburg,” by Charlotte Ashley. Fantasy & Science Fiction 135, 3-4 (2018): 8-30 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Standback.

Ashley continues to make creative use of duelists and swashbucklers. In a previous story, Ashley introduced La Héron and Alex, making their way through successive stages of a fairy duel. In this story, Héron enters an exhibition duel – seemingly a far safer, more straightforward situation. But one of her opponent has a reputation for “winning without setting foot in the arena,” which he does by manipulating others and making puppets of them. Héron’s first duel is a sordid affair, threatening to cast her as more of an executioner than a duelist.

The story focuses more on the Satyr’s mocking manipulations than on Héron and Alex as substantial protagonists. While the situations Héron is thrust into are compelling, it’s also fairly evident that she’s tackling matters in a very ineffective way — the structure is almost that of a horror story, with circumstances becoming increasingly, inevitably dire, with no real expectation that the protagonist can affect anything. That being said, it’s a very entertaining story, and there’s enough character here to make further outings with this duo an appealing prospect.

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: “Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship” by Charlotte Ashley

Review of Charlotte Ashley, “Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship”, Podcastle: 502 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

I was amused by this clever adventure story about a girl, her ship-building skills, and the lengths she’s willing to go to get some make-out time with the boy she likes. In an early modern, somewhat clock-punky alternate history, a gateway to another world opens on the ocean offshore from Mogadishu. Official powers are interesting in controlling access, but Zilal, whose clever ability to design mechanisms and ships with surprising features has already begun building her reputation, sees it as a useful place to slip away to with the object of her affection. When they find out why those official guards might be a good idea, Zilal’s “foldable” ship comes in very handy for rescue.

A great deal of the narrative sketches out the ship’s features and their mechanics, but it’s done with a light hand and interspersed with bits of romantic comedy. There is an amusing gender-reversal aspect to the story, as Zilal’s boyfriend fills out the role of somewhat naive “damsel” while Zilal is the genius inventor. As the podcast’s framing material indicates, the story is part of the worldbuilding for a shared-world narrative, but it stands alone quite well.