REVIEW: “The Patron” by Derrick Boden

Review of Derrick Boden, “The Patron”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 312 (September 10, 2020). Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

 In this excellent story on the origins of compassion and empathy, The Patron is a woman who cares more deeply than she realizes about the people who come to her seeking vengeance on others. She has spent seven years as a prisoner negotiating, day after day, the terms for such retribution. But the chain that binds her ankle to her chair—as well as to the need to negotiate these vengeful transactions—is largely symbolic. The Patron believes she is imprisoned and controlled by daemons who thrive on physical and psychic pain and who perform the vengeful acts. She’s wrong, though, and her eventual recognition of the genuine nature of her imprisonment gives rise to a selfless act that ultimately frees her (in a sense). In turn, hope is born, where previously there had been only darkness and despair.  

REVIEW: “Yolk” by Morgan MacVaugh

Review of Morgan MacVaugh, “Yolk”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The story had a strong fairy-tale quality to it; it’s the sort that I could see myself reading aloud to a child not for the strong characters or fast-paced plot but for the beautiful language and the pictures it draws, of a little girl who makes friends with a man who walks the line between day and night, and shares some toast with him dipped in the yolk of the sun.

REVIEW: “10 Spells the Glasbläser Family Is Not Sharing With Each Other, In Order of Secrecy” by Elisabeth R. Moore

Review of Elisabeth R. Moore, “10 Spells the Glasbläser Family Is Not Sharing With Each Other, In Order of Secrecy”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Abortion.

First off, I love this title. It’s basically a story all on its own!

Second off, the story lives up to the title. It’s 10 little vignettes, each centered on a different member of the Glasbläser family, saying something about the spell each won’t share, where it comes from, what it does, and — perhaps more importantly — why each individual considers their spell so precious. In the end, the story says just as much about what we need from our family as it does the secrets that we keep from each other.

Loved, loved, loved this story. Sweet, sad, funny, pragmatic.

REVIEW: “The Family Recipe” by Alexandra Grunberg

Review of Alexandra Grunberg, “The Family Recipe”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Though the title of this story talks of the family “recipe”, in truth, it’s recipes: The star of the story is a cookbook collated and then handed down from generation to generation. Some recipes get lost through sticky mishaps; others are written down and added; the entire life of the cookbook a repetition of losses and additions. I liked the cyclic structure this forced onto the story, which was otherwise remarkably devoid of plot in a way that did not make the story feel deficient. My only complaint is that I found the ending weak; I would probably have stopped with simply “Everyone knew that it was never just a cookbook.”

REVIEW: “Deep in the Drift, Spinning” by Lisa L. Hannett

Review of Lisa L. Hannett, “Deep in the Drift, Spinning”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 312 (September 10, 2020): listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

I found this to be a rather frustrating read. Though the story is certainly well written—Hannett has won four Aurealis awards, so that’s no surprise—I find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for it. Mostly that’s because I don’t find the point-of-view character, Winnifletch, very engaging. She’s a witch, of sorts, living a solitary, regret-filled life outside the sea town of Baradoon, whipping up magical broths to help her neighbors-in-need. Her daughter Shales is, or perhaps fancies herself, a harpy, while her mother pictures her more as a sailor on a galleon crewed by mermaids. Unfortunately, we don’t actually meet Shales; we learn about her and her desires only from her mother’s somewhat meandering perspective. That’s too bad. I would have liked to learn more about the lives of harpies and mermaids in the world of Baradoon, and what tugs a person more in one direction than the other. 

REVIEW: “A Curse, A Kindness” by Corinne Duyvis

Review of Corinne Duyvis, “A Curse, A Kindness”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 276-304 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was the other stand-out story of the volume, sitting alongside of Fox Benwell’s story a cut above the rest. It was so unexpected and charming and an unabashed, straight-up fairy tale, complete with a curse, a wholly unexpected genie, three wishes, and a happy ending. A great story, and a great way to end the anthology. Any misgivings I had reading the first story of the anthology were wholly banished by ending it on this note.

REVIEW: “The Day the Dragon Came” by Marieke Nijkamp

Review of Marieke Nijkamp, “The Day the Dragon Came”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 132-156 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Alix was sold as a bond-servant as a child, and now must work to earn her freedom, running messages through a city not designed for crippled legs. Delfin’s father always told him “you’ll never see dragons, girl” (p. 134), but he did let that stop him from running away as a ‘prentice and now he’s in Ghent helping build the bellfry, the symbol of hope and strength for the city. Alix, too, is waiting for the bellfry’s completion, for that is the day that the dragon will come.

This was a rich story, full of strongly-drawn, interesting characters, a beautiful setting, and details that kept everything hovering on the border between real and fantasy. I loved it.

REVIEW: “The Long Road” by Heidi Heilig

Review of Heidi Heilig, “The Long Road”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 3-17 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Lihua and her parents have left behind everything they have ever known, heading west in hopes of finding the Place of No Return — and then going even further. It’s all Lihua’s fault: If she hadn’t received her diagnosis, if she hadn’t gotten sick, they could have remained in Xi’an. All she has to protect her against illness are the amulets given to her by family, friends, the man she would have married, and at times it feels like they are more a burden than a help.

The setting of this story is the camel train from Xi’an to Persia, with all the sweat, muck, camel dung, pomegranates, and continual search for water that you’d expect. Heilig uses small details to great effect, drawing a rich, full picture. We aren’t given details about the nature of Lihua’s illness, but that just makes it possible for many different speculations to be born out by the events. In the end, it’s not the diagnosis, nor the treatment, that matters: It is who Lihua meets on her journey, and what she learned from them. This was a lovely story to start off the anthology with.

REVIEW: Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijkamp

Review of Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was one of my WorldCon ’19 recs — a book that was mentioned during one of the panels I attended, where I thought “I want to read that”. I especially wanted to read it to see if it would be something that I could recommend to one of my nieces, who I have a suspicious would be interested in SFF, but hasn’t yet gotten the right route in.

Not all the stories in this collection are speculative in nature — some of them are straight up realistic fiction (including some whose authors are best known for speculative fiction, which was a bit of a surprise!). Both queer and non-queer romance arcs were strongly represented across the anthology. It was this perhaps more than anything else that marked this book out as a collection of YA stories; whenever one of the romantic developments felt a bit too much, too fast, I had to remind myself that I’m not a teenager anymore and that if I’d read these stories as a teenager, they probably would’ve felt more real.

The stories don’t shy away from the difficult subjects. The range of disabilities represented was wide, from wheelchairs to anxiety to terminal illnesses. The characters are confronted with not only the ordinary vagaries of romance and other aspects of teenage life, but also with the worry of burdening others, the anguish of never being enough, the guilt of it all. One thing I really liked about this anthology as a collection was the way in which so many of the narrators voiced these sorts of internalised ableism, and the ways in which the stories themselves pushed back against those narratives, made it clear that they were not the right narratives. On the flip side, one of the things that made me uncomfortable was how some of the stories were variants on “even though a disabled person might think themselves unworthy, they can still do things that are valuable to society!” in a way that felt, to me, like it bordered on inspiration porn. Such stories were, however, the minority, and loaded towards the front of the book, so that by the end such early impressions were mostly memories.

As is usual, we’ll review the stories individually, and link the reviews below as they are published.

Having read all of them, yeah, I probably will get this book for my niece. They may not all be to her taste, as they weren’t all to mine, but if she derives joy from even one of them, it’ll be a worthwhile purchase. (And I really hope she likes Benwell’s and Duyvis’s, the two outstanding stories of the volume in my opinion.)

REVIEW: “Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox” by Jeremy Packert Burke

Review of Jeremy Packert Burke, “Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 311 (August 27, 2020): listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

In this lovely and compelling story, Themis—a character presumably named after the Greek goddess of justice, wisdom, and good counsel—is his king’s sole mnemosyne.  By some “obscure alchemy,” a mnemosyne is able to “take on, in their entirety, the memories of generals, scientists, poets, doctors—any citizen marked great by the king’s council.”  

In theory, a mnemosyne is able to search this “living archive” of information and provide solutions to whatever catastrophes befall his city, and the king who rules it. Unfortunately, in this case the city is plagued by a catastrophe for which there is no solution. Buildings have seemingly taken on a life of their own, growing “the way trees, and love, and cancer do: too slow to see but constant.” Over time, however, the rate of growth is nothing short of alarming. Knowing there is no solution, Themis is convinced the king will soon have him killed. Where he finds consolation, even joy, in the face of imminent death, I’ll leave you to discover.