REVIEW: “Seven Things that Oughtn’t Cut Me” by Jessi Cole Jackson

Review of Jessi Cole Jackson, “Seven Things that Oughtn’t Cut Me”, Podcastle: Miniature 100 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

There is fantasy literature where the story itself emerges from the fantastic elements. And there is fantasy literature where the fantastic elements are used to address more familiar questions from a different angle. And then there is fantasy literature where the fantastic elements seem to be more of a Halloween costume, zipped up allegorically over a fairly mundane story. “Seven Things that Oughtn’t Cut Me” uses the language of trolls and elves, but is at heart a very ordinary–if heart-rending–story of bullying, school cliques, and a child of mixed heritage feeling out of place in the world. The fantasy felt pasted-on. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t a well-written story, but I prefer my fantasy elements to be an essential and inseparable aspect of the structure. I must also confess that the “listicle” story format, where the content is presented in the form of an ordered list of thematically-related elements, is a hard thing to sell me on. In many cases it feels like a way of dodging the lack of a plot. This story wasn’t bad, it simply wasn’t particularly good.

Content warning for descriptions of self-harm.

REVIEW: “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light” by Malon Edwards

Review of Malon Edwards, “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light”, Podcastle: 495 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This story is something of a follower to the author’s previous Podcastle story “The Half Dark Promise” (episode 287), focusing on the same protagonist: a young Haitian-American girl in an alternate Chicago whose mother is a doctor specializing in steampunk medical devices and whose father is…something else. “The Half Dark Promise” was an immersive, darkly horrific tale with the sort of menace that can only be felt by a young child who knows the monsters in the dark are real. “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light” brings in the more personal horror of family secrets and the sorts of fates that await disobedient children. The protagonist is a monster hunter–not by profession or as a hobby, but simply because monsters must be hunted to survive and protect her friends. But in the half dark as day turns to night, it can be impossible to tell who the monsters really are.

This is a story that requires you to surrender yourself to the world it’s building and wait for understanding to emerge from that half dark. I remember the first story being difficult in a good way–the way you have to work to build that picture and it’s worth it to do so. This time, having recognized the world, I was able to return easily. (And my impression is that the author is counting on return visits, so if you haven’t yet read or listened to “The Half Dark Promise”, I recommend doing so first.)

The prose is laced through with bits of Haitian Creole to good effect in the scene setting, and the cadence of the writing is yet another example of the type of story that works so well in audio. I also liked the steampunkish bits of worldbuilding: the references to the protagonist’s steam-clock heart, and how her mother came to Chicago to make clock-hearts for children stricken with polio, and how everything went so horribly wrong. Just enough bits to sketch a picture, and no more. This series of stories could be viewed either as fantasy or horror, and there are some times when I feel Podcastle is a bit too generous in embracing stories that really should be horror, but in this case I agree with the categorization because of the fiercely positive outcome.

REVIEW: “Folk” by Eden Royce

Review of Eden Royce, “Folk”, Podcastle: 494 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Sometimes there are stories where you can recognize the beauty and mastery of the storytelling but at the end you simply feel that the story wasn’t for you. Not in the sense of “eh, tastes vary” but in the sense of “this story is talking to an audience that I don’t have the background to be part of.” When listening to “Folk”, I was constantly aware of the power of the writing, but had a difficult time bringing the story together in my mind and making sense of it. It is clearly very solidly rooted in a specific cultural context in the American south, and I loved the imagery of weaving sweetgrass, the weight of old magic, and the evocation of the power of story and language. I think I figured out the connection between the narrator and the antagonist. But a lot of what I felt I should have been getting just slipped through my fingers. I don’t feel that the story failed me, more that I failed the story.

REVIEW: “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones

Review of Rachael K. Jones, “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me”, Podcastle: 493 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Never is the importance of audio fiction sources more stark than with works like this that require the rhythms of oral performance for their impact and meaning. “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” hovers in the space between prose and poetry, not only in the rhythms of the language, but in the demanding impressionist imagery. It’s the story of two peoples at opposite ends of gravity, each of whom mistakenly views the other place as heaven. Ananda comes from a line of holy women who, by long repentance and asceticism gain the tenuous ability to climb up to heaven, where they will petition for needful things like an end to drought. Sano is a winged thing from above, where only by intense self-control can one still the wings sufficiently to descend to the earth, which they call Paradise.

The poetic tale of how these two met and found their fate is only one aspect of this story. The second part is the imagery of how both cultures create an ideal of holiness and purification that demands (or at least to) self-harm. On Ananda’s side it is self-starvation and wounding herself with thorny bracelets (not too subtle Christ imagery). On Sano’s side, her desperation leads her to short-cut the meditative route to descent by mutilating herself. I think it isn’t accidental that both characters are represented as female. To say more would be to spoil the resolution, which is worth achieving on your own. Listen to this jewel some time when you can give it your full and unhurried attention.

(Originally published 2016 in Clockwork Phoenix 5.)

REVIEW: “The White Fox” by L. P. Lee

Review of L. P. Lee, “The White Fox”, Podcastle: 492 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

“The White Fox” is an evocative fantasy-of-agency, though of a somewhat displaced agency. The protagonist is escaping from a briefly-sketched prison camp in Japanese occupied Korea and receives the assistance of a supernatural figure when she (I think it’s a woman? It’s told in first person and the reader is female–not sure if gender was explicit) is in danger of being recaptured. While the story was solidly written, I felt distanced from the immediacy of the action. The memory and threat of the prison camp didn’t feel viscerally tangible, and thinking back, I cant remember a clear motivation for why the protagonist was offered protection and assistance. I thing part of my reaction is that the protagonist was a bit of a “damsel” – in peril and rescued, but saved by outside agency. I liked the way the mythic elements were solidly rooted to place and culture and time. And, as usual, I really enjoyed how the setting was established with casual brushstrokes, leading the listener to construct their own understanding rather than having it handed to them. But overall the story felt…thin.

(Originally published 2015 in Eastlit.)

REVIEW: “The Names of the Sky” by Matthew Claxton

Review of Matthew Claxton, “The Names of the Sky”, Podcastle: 490 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

It may seem odd that the first description that comes to me for a story set in wartime is “lovely” but the language of this one just flowed over me. It hit my exposition sweet spot in laying out the setting with casual description and character interaction, rather than feeling the need to tell the listener where they are and what’s going on. (But I’ll tell you anyway, so the review makes sense.) Zoya, a Russian fighter pilot in WWII has come down in a rural area behind the front and needs to survive, find shelter, and figure out how to get her plane in the air again, in that order. An encounter in a nearly-deserted village leaves her saddled with a responsibility that threatens those goals, but the seemingly senile old woman isn’t what she seems. A familiarity with Russian folklore will aid the listener in keeping up, given the aforementioned oblique approach to exposition. I loved the casually feminist (or maybe woman-centered is a better term) underlayer of the story that grew organically out of the themes and the historic-folklore roots. (Though now I find myself hungry for a story of “Grandma” and her sisters in their youth–and I wonder how much of that reference is based on the original folklore as opposed to being invention.)

REVIEW: “Emshalur’s Hand Stays” by Anaea Lay

Review of Anaea Lay, “Emshalur’s Hand Stays”, Podcastle: 489 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones.

The interplay between gods and their mortal worshippers reminded me a bit of Lord Dunsany’s mythic fiction. What responsibility does a god have for his people? And is it possible for devotion to reflect only love and joy when it’s tied so closely to salvation? I thought the gradually unfolding understanding of the narrator’s identity was cleverly done, though I had to work hard to suspend my need to figure things out and found the first half of the story confusing to follow. I can’t say that this story is one of my favorites–it just missed some of the aspects that make a story click for me. But the originality and the subtle worldbuilding were impressive.