REVIEW: “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts,” by Richard Parks

Review of Richard Parks, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #235, September 28, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

Trials and tribulations await a father/daughter team of devil-hunters and the snake-devil in their service when a restless spirit approaches them in hopes of finding rest.

Straightforward and linear, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” seems more focused on adventure than theme. The characters are largely archetypes, never revealing enough of themselves to be memorable—although the father does seem to scratch his beard often. Despite being relegated to the periphery, Mei Li, the snake-devil in training to become human, has potential; unfortunately, her struggle never feels integrated into the plot meaningfully. This is a shame since there are so many ways in which one could explore her situation.

Instead, our focus is trained on an insidious plot involving the spirit of a wronged princess from a bygone kingdom. Most of this is shared via expository dialogue, and the forward motion stalls while this story-within-a-story unfolds. Once we reach the conclusion—expected and unsatisfactory, as if nothing much changed, adventure or no—there is a sense this story is actually a vignette. It is, perhaps, more of a case, not unlike something you’d see in a beloved mystery series like Christie’s “Poirot or Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Unfortunately, this format doesn’t work well without quirky, memorable characters or long-term serialization; part of the reason we love these stories is that we can return to a beloved character again and again—the only thing that changes is the particulars.

All told, I did enjoy the use of Chinese mythology and the way it informed the world. It’s encouraging to see fantasy break with western traditions.


REVIEW: “Dire Wolf” by Michael J. DeLuca

Review of Michael J. DeLuca, “Dire Wolf,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #234, September 14, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

In a world resembling the United States circa Prohibition—judging from the prevalence of logging/trapping, the stark disconnect between city and “wilderness,” and the mention of a speakeasy—a man named Staggerlee is always on the lookout for a fight. One day, trouble finds him in the form of a massive wolf, and a beautiful woman from his past…

Brimming with authentic sensory detail, “Dire Wolf” thoroughly embraces the grit, dirt, and violence that defines protagonist Staggerlee’s existence. He is an exile from “the city,” a wanderer whose many regrets lead him to drink profusely and go toe-to-toe with anyone who might be willing. Unfortunately, these regrets are kept vague—the few hints afforded us do little to flesh out a satisfactory backstory for Staggerlee. I personally conjured the image of the brooding “hero” from one of the old westerns that helped my father start learning English as a child in Japan; the same ones he sometimes still watches, basking in the glow of nostalgia. But like many of those characters, there is a sense that Staggerlee’s foundations are firmly grounded in toxic masculinity. After all, the first thing we learn about him is that he feels compelled to react with physical displays and self-destructive behavior. I feel like this could have been an interesting angle, but it seems to have been played straight, with Staggerlee being “the baddest mother around.” (Incidentally, this is given as one of the reasons he is “exiled” from the city).

The women play secondary roles, though it’s obvious that Delia—a beautiful former singer from one of the city’s speakeasies—is one of Staggerlee’s regrets. Why? He loved her. It’s also explained in a few brief lines that a certain woman (or girl?) “froze to death,” and for this, Delia desires revenge. She now hunts him with a massive, man-eating she-wolf in tow (a little on the nose thematically, but it’s the primary speculative element). If we fully accept that this wolf is a metaphor for Staggerlee’s desired death, the ending becomes much more interesting; even if it does, however, I’m not sure it really changes anything for Staggerlee.

And this then is the sense I take away from “Dire Wolf”—for all its action, we never learn enough, about the world or its characters. To end on a positive note, while I may not be the ideal audience for this type of story, I appreciate the many technical merits of the prose. I was particularly impressed with how grounded I felt in the action.

REVIEW: Steal the Stars [Podcast]

Review of Steal the Stars by Mac Rogers. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

Please note: This review contains light spoilers for Episodes 12-14, which, as of this review, have not yet aired. Catch up here!

Steal the Stars, a 14-episode sci-fi podcast from Tor Labs and Gideon Media, is a stunning return to the bygone era of radio dramas—though it might be the closest to a prestige TV show the format has ever come. Sleek production values, taut scripting, and next-level performances send this series ricocheting into a new universe of possibilities.

Much of what makes Steal the Stars so appealing is its keen subtlety. Spools of character development, foreshadowing, and worldbuilding carefully unwind through dialogue that, in any other format, might feel like exposition; here, it’s as natural as can be. We see the world through the eyes of Dakota “Dak” Prentiss—an experienced ex-soldier tough and smart, yet heartbreakingly vulnerable—and crucial insights can be gleaned from what she says (and fails to say). Is Dak an unreliable narrator? Not exactly—but there is so much she doesn’t allow herself to see.

Through her eyes, Matt Salem (Dak’s colleague and eventual lover) is an enigma. He is described as a “beautiful boy,” with a wounded expression that “makes you want to protect him”—the type of sensitive, attractive lover Dak has always wanted but never believed could want her. However, while we get a sense he’s a good guy, Matt remains distant from listeners throughout the podcast; we never know what he’s thinking, or if he’s who we think he is . . . or, in Dak’s case, who she wants him to be.

While their fervent need to stay together drives the plot—after all, they burn all their bridges and formulate a heist—what of the speculative elements? The scriptwriter, Mac Rogers, is in a class of his own when it comes to formulating effective science fiction. Some writers throw in a spaceship here, an alien there, and call it good; Rogers sets the speculative to work in service of a greater cause: theme. After all, the best science fiction isn’t focused on cool tech, phenomena, or even extraterrestrials.

It’s always, always, always about people.

And make no mistake, Steal the Stars is an incredibly human tale. Its characters long for purpose, to feel grounded in something bigger than themselves. Whether it’s the quirky scientist Lloyd, whose chatty exuberance hides a deep well of sorrow, or the unwaveringly loyal Patty, whose friendship with Dak is doomed to wither on the vine, that desperate need to connect is a constant undercurrent beneath the surface of the story.

If you’re looking for an engaging story that will leave you thinking about its implications for weeks, Steal the Stars is for you. It’s science fiction at its best and most thoughtful, a paradigm-shifter that, I hope, signals a glorious new era of prestige podcast serials.

REVIEW: “Corpus Grace” by William Broom

Review of William Broom’s “Corpus Grace,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #234, September 14, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

After years spent in hiding, a fugitive priest journeys into the heart of danger to preserve the interred form of an apocryphal saint marked for destruction. Deemed an apostate, he is fiercely pursued by an agent of the church and her party.

Reverberating with echoes of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” William Broom’s “Corpus Grace” is a paean to the persistence of faith. Told in three parts—each named for its respective innominate protagonist—we move from one perspective to the next, seeking insight into this world we are thrust into, and since religion seems so central to it, the impact of belief systems as well.

Unfortunately, these details are kept purposefully vague. We learn of an empire and its state-sanctioned religion, intent on violently stamping out anything that veers outside its prescribed canon. We spend time with tribesmen and women on the fringe of empire, who secretly revere apocryphal saints and observe ancient traditions from a time in which they worshipped spirits instead. Nothing is named or defined; they are simply “the empire,” “the church,” “the steppe-people.” What little we are given often feels like shorthand references to real-world institutions—for instance, with its focus on saints, the dominant religion seems to suggest Catholic roots. Despite the speculative element (the priests welcome the consciousness of the saints into themselves to perform blessings), it’s a little disappointing to see Christianity again set as the default.

I would have also liked to have seen more done with the steppe-people, whom we learn little about. It seems clear that they are the victims of colonization, but this aspect is left frustratingly unexplored. They are universally looked upon with pity and condescension by the POV characters, like children who need firm guidance, and they are brutally punished if/when they deviate. At the end, when they are bestowed with the priest’s secrets, they even assume a role traditionally played by children once they are grown: that of an inheritor. This, I think, is problematic, considering the controversial legacy of Christian missionaries.

Of the main cast, the priest is most compelling. Described in the text as worn and weary, he nevertheless abides. Much like the nameless priest in “The Power and the Glory,” he continues to perform rites and blessings for the adherents who choose to shield him. He offers comfort to the persecuted, a comfort that he denies himself, and eventually risks his own safety in an attempt to defend the barrow of his saint, Mirabina. However, because we jump into the heads of other characters, we do not spend the time we need to fully feel his sacrifice. The second section, which follows the inquisitor, is perhaps the weakest of the piece; it provides quick forward motion and action, but to the detriment of the priest’s arc. Here, we learn the most about the world, yet it also introduces concepts that are only briefly alighted on—interesting concepts, but perhaps ultimately superfluous.

Despite its issues, “Corpus Grace” is an ambitious piece that draws on literary traditions. There are real moments of beauty in the prose, and it approaches its complex central themes with clarity and sincerity, which is sometimes difficult to achieve.