REVIEW: “Frost” by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Review of ‘Nathan Burgoine, “Frost”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 69-79. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

To have a man like this, a man like his father, and his brothers, who would look at him and respect him and—yes—love him, even though he was small, and narrow, and gentle. What that might be like.

Flipping through the book to pick the next story to read and review, I opened to the page that had this opening quote, and knew immediately that this was the story I wanted to read. So much hope and sadness in those two sentences, and also a hint of something more.

“Frost” is in essence a classic fairy tale, with the clever youngest son hero, magic to mend a broken heart, and what should be a happily ever after. The man Frost is “born of magic and a longing for love,” and though he seems everything that Little Jay, with the gift of magic in his hands, desires and needs, as often happens when magic is involved, not everything is as it seems. Before my eyes I see the happily ever after melts away as the frost melts in the sun, and my heart ached for the unhappiness that threads through the entire story.

But,

Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always be something else (p. 79).

There is hope at the end of the story, but I’m not quite sure it’s enough to make it a happy story.

(Originally published in 2016 on ‘Nathan Burgoine’s blog.)

REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2017 edited by Steve Berman

Review of Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, (Lethe Press, 2017) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

As a cis woman who is in a happily monogamous het relationship, I am probably the least qualified person to review this collection of stories. But, oh, it has a story about Turing in it, and as a logician who sometimes flirts with computer science and AI, I feel eminently qualified to read about Turing, and for that story alone I bought the book.

As a “best of” collection, it draws upon stories published the previous year, so all of these first came out — in various venues — in 2016. Many are thus things I would not have otherwise come across, which is one of the advantages that collected volumes have — they provide a different type of exposure for the stories and the authors that wrote them. And this particular volume is a physically lovely one — beautiful cover art by Dmitry Vorsin, attractive typesetting, and a suppleness to the pages which reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, of why I love print books so much more than electronic ones.

Each story is prefaced by a short quote from the story, bound to spark the reader’s interest. The tales included are the following:

  • “The Tale of the Costume Maker” by Steve Carr
  • “Das Steingeschöpf” by G. V. Anderson
  • “Where’s the Rest of Me?” by Matthew Cheney
  • “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad
  • “Frost” by ‘Nathan Burgoine
  • “Bull of Heaven” by Gabriel Murray
  • “The Sound a Raven Makes” by Mathew Scaletta
  • “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller
  • “Most Holy Ghost” by Martin Pousson
  • “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold
  • “The Drowning Line” by Haralambi Markov
  • “My Heart’s Own Desire” by Robert Levy
  • “Turing Test” by Eric Schaller
  • “Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski
  • “Carnivores” by Rich Larson
  • It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by A. C. Wise
  • “The Death of Paul Bunyon” by Charles Payseur

Each of the stories will be reviewed individually, and linked back to this post when the review is posted.

Overall, the collection is powerful, beautiful, and sad. Every single story is steeped in emotion, and lovingly crafted.

REVIEW: “Cardinal Skin” by Bo Balder

Review of Bo Balder, “Cardinal Skin”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 5-17 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The opening story of Galuschak and Cornell’s anthology dumps us immediately into an empty plain of glass, across which Teio and her brother and father are skating to reach the mountains on the other side, the mountains on top of which

they hoped to find the sanctum where the Cardinal Skins were hidden. Many heroes had tried to acquire a Skin, trying to save the world from its ruined state after the Cataclysms.

Teio’s mother, Haio, had been such a hero, but she had failed. Now her family come, hoping both to succeed where she had not, and to find her body and bury it.

The story has all the elements of a classic quest tale, but it is more than that: It is a ghost story. It is a story of family bonds and family places. It is a story of learning that everything you knew is wrong, and a story of a place that is not quite as abandoned as everyone thought.

Balder’s writing was quick paced and precise. An unfortunate quirk of typesetting marred the story throughout, however. In a number of places, quoted material coming after another sentence lacks the space after the preceding period, meaning the quotation marks end up curled the wrong way.

REVIEW: “Ghost Marriage” by P. Djèlí Clark

Review of P. Djèlí Clark “Ghost Marriage”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Ayen is wandering the desert, exiled because of her husband, who has been wreaking chaos and death ever since he died She just wants to unbind herself from his restless spirit so that she can return home and live her life in peace. From this unsettling start, the story unfolds with slavers, a witch, a penitent bull, and forgotten gods in order to tell a story about a young woman finding her own way and her own strength.

It’s nice to see a story that incorporates multiple African cultures, instead of homogenizing the heritage of an entire continent for purposes of fantasy. I’m not sufficiently informed to say how well each was handled (I’m pretty sure they were all based on cultures that exist in our world, as I recognized the Himba from Okorafor’s Binti trilogy at one point), but I enjoyed seeing the attempt.

This is not a particularly short story, coming in at almost 12,000 words, which gives it plenty of space for twists and turns. This story has more scope than most short stories (possibly because it is a novellette), so we get to follow Ayen on a real journey. That being said, be sure to set aside enough time to enjoy it and not feel rushed. It’s certainly worth the time!

REVIEW: “The Ravens’ Sister” by Natalia Theodoridou

Review of Natalia Theodoridou, “The Ravens’ Sister”, Podcastle: 508 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Oh. Oh my.

I don’t want anyone to get the impression that the best way to get me to like a story is to rip my heart out of my chest with your bare hands. I’m just saying that it’s been known to work on occasion.

“The Ravens’ Sister” riffs off the fairy tale motif of the seven brothers who are enchanted as birds and the sister who has to save them. But there are some fates you can’t save people from. Key quote: “Were my brothers men when they went to war? Had they always had the hearts of birds?” The story is told in several versions, but the core story is the same: seven brothers go off to war in what is clearly some part of the horrors that the former Yugoslavia dissolved into. They return to their father changed, and their sister is tasked with a quest to change them back. In a fairy tale, she would have spun shirts from nettles or kept mute silence under persecution. Here she encounters several celestial beings who either help or hinder her, each taking its toll on her body. It is always the sister’s fate to sacrifice herself for her brothers’ sake. She never even questions it.

In one version of the story, the brothers return as literal birds, in another they return heroes, in the last as traitors. But in all cases, the war has changed them and they will never be whole again. The language is powerful and poetic and ugly. Be in a good place when you listen to this story. It will damage you.

The one structural thing that I disliked (and this is a general thing that I’ve touched on before) is that there is a framing structure of numbered verses, sometimes with as little as a single sentence in each verse. The narration included giving the verse numbers, which I found intrusive. Each spoken number jolted me sideways from the flow of the story. In my (highly subjective) opinion, the narration would have been more effective simply with a pause between verses, leaving the numbers in the written text but unspoken. They work visually–the eye slides over them as it does over the verse numbers in a Biblical text. But in audio that particular aspect just didn’t work for me. The story worked, but not that detail.

(Originally published in Kenyon Review Online)

REVIEW: “The Gilded Swan” by Damon L. Wakes

Review of Damon L. Wakes, “The Gilded Swan”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 357-359. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The opening line “Once upon a time” never fails to exercise its power to thrill over me. I love fairy tales. I love the way those words tap into my entire reading history, and allow the story to draw upon decades of internalized expectations. I love the familiarity of fairy tales that is rooted in those expectations. I love it when my expectations are satisfied, when every aspect of the story could have been found in any of the classic fairy tales.

But what I love even more is when those expectations are dashed, and happily ever after turns horribly ever after. This was a delightfully satisfying little fairy horror tale.

REVIEW: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

Review of Alix E. Harrow “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It turns out that most librarians are secretly witches. They can smell what kind of book you need, and intuit the size of your fine from the slope of your shoulders. Our narrator isn’t just a witch and a librarian: she’s someone who cares about her patrons. So when a black teenage boy comes in with waves of yearning billowing off him, she does everything she can to help. But how far will she go?

The whimsical premise caught my attention, but the emotional depth captured my heart. Why do we read? To fill holes in our souls, obviously. To escape from circumstances that have become unbearable. I’ve always been a proponent of the holy power of escape, so I was tickled to see this story directly challenging those who look down upon it.

This story is about more than just the power of reading (I know: there’s nothing “just” about the power of reading, but bear with me). It’s also about rules, and when to break them. The narrator shows us how to do it, too: with joy and conviction. She knows that the consequences are worth it – not just for the sake of the kid she’s helping, but for her own sake, as well.

Highly recommended for anybody interested in the healing power of stories.