REVIEW: “Iron Aria” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria”, Podcastle: 518 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A fantasy of ecological catastrophe and the need for skills and approaches outside the default to heal the land. Kyru has a talent for speaking with metals. He might have spent his life simply as an excellent blacksmith, except for the part where flaws in a dam threaten to destroy his entire community when it fails and no one else can sense the looming peril the way he can. Both the problem and its solution are conveyed in the impressionistic experiences of the protagonist–although told in the third person, it has a very first-person feel to the point of view. I loved the imaginative worldbuilding and poetic language used to describe it.

This next bit is more of a meta-commentary on storytelling within our particular present moment and is only slightly relevant to the content of the story. There’s another entire layer to this work, separate from the functional man-against-nature plot, involving non-default identities and negotiating how to exist in a world not designed for you.

Two central characters are trans and their recognition of each other’s experience is a key part of their bond. The protagonist is also neuro-atypical, which is tied in with–though not equated with–his unusual metal-sensing/healing skills. The ways in which these aspects are integrated into the story point up some of the awkwardness of our current balance point with regard to representing non-default identities in fiction. We aren’t yet at a stage where representation can be successful simply by casual and neutral inclusion because–to many observers–that approach can feel a bit too similar to erasure. It’s perfectly possible to write a story featuring a trans character where their transness is never explicitly addressed because it’s not relevant to the plot, but at our current moment in the cultural timeline, it’s hard to count that as representation.

All of this is to say that, within the context of the storytelling, it felt to me that the communication of both trans identity and neuro-atypicality were over-telegraphed within the story and that the over-telegraphing interrupted the flow of the storyline. But at the same time, I recognize that dialing those narrative aspects back to a level that wouldn’t have felt overdone would have made it possible (perhaps even likely) for a majority of readers/listeners to miss them entirely. I see what the author is trying to do, and I appreciate the approach, and at the same time I would have loved to see how this story could be told in a context where the potential presence of those aspects of character identity could be more taken for granted rather than needing to be fronted in the way they were here.

Originally published in Fireside Fiction.

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: 10th Anniversary Special by multiple authors

Review of multiple authors, 10th Anniversary Special, Podcastle: 516 — Listen Online . Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

To celebrate their 10th anniversary of publication, Podcastle ran a poll to choose people’s five favorite episodes and then re-broadcast them. I won’t be doing individual reviews of these stories, but you might want to check out why people chose these from the entire set of 500+ options:

516a: “Without Faith, WIthout Law, Without Joy” by Saladin Ahmed – A retelling of an Arthurian tale from the point of view of one of the many Saracen characters from the greater Arthurian mythos.

516b: “In the Stacks” by Scott Lynch – When graduate school involves a self-aware magical library, returning a book to the stacks is no trivial task. (full cast narration)

516c: “Saints, Sinners, Dragons, and Haints in the City beneath the Still Waters” by N.K. Jemisin – Dangerous things lurk in the flood waters left by Hurricane Katrina. This was re-aired fairly recently and I reviewed it here.

516d: “Makeisha in Time” by Rachael K. Jones – A woman who involuntarily slips back and forth through time turns her fate into a struggle and triumph for women throughout the ages. There’s a reason this story has been regularly celebrated and praised since it first came out.

516e: “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu – Everyday magic and the difficult journey of the son of a “mail-order bride” to properly appreciate his mother’s love and sacrifice.

REVIEW: “Propagating Peonies” by Suzan Palumbo

Review of Suzan Palumbo, “Propagating Peonies”, Podcastle: 515 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

How long do you wait for reunion when you and your beloved are out of sync on the paths of reincarnation? Arthi remains near the village waiting for the love who left her to return: as a peony, a butterfly, a cat. She is feared–or appreciated–as a witch as she waits for the cycles to turn. But when what you longed for finally arrives after so much waiting, is it worth it? This is a slow-moving, meandering story, rich in description and detail with more of a slice-of-life structure than a conflict-driven plot. The action is internal and in the end there is more acceptance than resolution.

I’m not sure how I feel about this story. It didn’t grab me by the throat but it isn’t that kind of tale. I kept trying to work out if the setting were inspired by some particular real-world culture or was entirely imaginative. It felt like the latter, so I didn’t worry quite so much about the logistics of how the reincarnation was supposed to work (except for wondering why it only seemed to be relevant for the central characters). Pleasant, but not likely to stick with me as deeply memorable.

REVIEW: “My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber” by Stephanie Charette

Review of Stephanie Charette, “My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber”, Podcastle: 514 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Oof. Another really gut-punching story from this year’s Artemis Rising series. “My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber” is more of an alternate history than a fantasy, per se. What if a town in a nebulous Old West setting decided that the solution to anarchy and violence was to forbid guns to men and to arm women instead? But that’s a facile description of the premise here. This is a full-out imagining of a woman-centered alternative society reminiscent of the sort of matriarchal/separatist experiments of 1980s SFF, but here the background worldbuilding is all to tell the story of one young woman’s quest to redeem a youthful mistake and avenge her sister.

In the community of Founding, a woman earns the right to carry a gun when she gives birth and joins the Matrons. But Alice has a deeper goal than simply coming of age. She and her sister had gone on a forbidden adventure outside the community. Only Alice returned and the true story would destroy her sister’s reputation. The plot is fairly straightforward: a quest, a duel, a coming of age. What makes this story powerful is how solidly detailed the setting and atmosphere are and how very real Alice feels as a character.

Content warning for sexual assault and violence. Not recommended for those suffering from male fragility.

REVIEW: “We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes” by Eleanna Castroianni

Review of Eleanna Castroianni, “We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes”, Podcastle: 513 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Somehow Greece–in this case, the Greek civil war shortly after WWII–seems the most appropriate setting for a tale of haruspicy (the divining of omens by the study of entrails). Nafsika has a talent for divining futures and presents in the bones and organs of the dead–a talent that her commanding officer begrudgingly values except when the fate that Nafsika sees contradicts her strategy and plans. The war provides the peril and hazards that make hard choices necessary, but as the author’s notes indicate, this is in some ways a symbolic exploration of the real-history hardships and consequences of the setting. Intertwined in the exploration of Nafsika’s talents is the dangerous love she shares with her female comrade and Nafsika’s desperate attempt to use her talents to find a path to survival for her squad.

For all the gruesome opening and looming disaster, I was riveted from beginning to end. This is a powerful story with an intense sense of place and time. The horrors are both supernatural and historical, and the framing story of the protagonist writing the events as a diary (based on actual historic examples) leaves the audience in suspense as to the outcome. I can’t say that I’d be eager to experience it again, but I’m glad to have listened the once.

Content warning for body horror and wartime violence.

REVIEW: “Scar Clan” by Carrow Narby

Review of Carrow Narby, “Scar Clan”, Podcastle: 512 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

It isn’t often that a shapeshifter story comes up with twists I haven’t seen before. “Scar Clan” tackles the point of view of a veterinarian’s assistant in a clinic that reaches out to an unusual clientele, with the secondary task of keeping that clientele out of public knowledge. One of the unusual twists in this story’s version of werewolves is a resistance to death that goes well beyond issues of silver bullets. This is demonstrated in an extended opening scene that involves significant gruesome horror. But the meat of the story (if you’ll forgive the expression) is an exploration of the protagonist’s history of trauma and how it brought her to this particular job, with a consideration of the nature of monstrosity and personhood.

I’d classify this as a dark story, despite the central characters managing to escape perils great and small. It’s a story that assumes the world is a dark and dangerous place and that the best you can hope for is to have allies chance by at the right time. In technical terms, t’s a good story, though not really to my personal taste.

Content warning for violent dismemberment and sexual peril.

REVIEW: “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” by Julian Mortimer Smith

Review of Julian Mortimer Smith, “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium”, Podcastle: 511 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

One could identify a sub-genre of fantasy stories about shops that specialize in odd and potentially magical items. Often the shop is mysteriously transient–hard to find except when the time is right. Or perhaps there are hazardous conditions put on the transactions that drive the story’s conflict. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” is a solid addition to this genre, with the twist that the desired objects can only be “purchased” by an exchange of a possession with the same highly-subjective personal value. Misjudge the relative values and you lose everything. And when value is utterly subjective to the customer, there are unparalleled opportunities for arbitrage. The premise could drive an ordinary real-world story, but the fantasy element enters not only in the nature of the goods and their payment, but also in the mechanism for evaluating relative worth.

It’s a clever concept, laid out with rich and evocative description. The story fell short of knocking my socks off for two reasons. To a large extent, the story and characters were overshadowed by the setting and worldbuilding. Once the structures and rules had been laid out, the tale was nearly finished. And the protagonist’s need, conflict, and price were a bit too straightforward. I could see where the story was going and was unsurprised by where it ended up or how it got there. In all, a solid piece, just not among my top favorites.

REVIEW: “My Heart is a Prayer” by Ryan Row

Review of Ryan Row, “My Heart is a Prayer”, Podcastle: 510 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

There are stories where the poetic language grabs my ears and carries me through to the heart of the tale even when I’m not sure where it’s going. There are stories where the tale itself grabs me and the language becomes the unnoticed medium that conveys it. “My Heart is a Prayer” falls somewhere in the vast middle between those two. The words are full of lyrical imagery but I had to re-start my listening a couple of times because I couldn’t find a story to latch on to and my mind wandered off and lost track of what I was hearing.

To some extent, that listening experience matches the content of the story fairly well. A creature that is not human, that is only just coming into its understanding of itself, describes the experience of that becoming and understanding. Eventually we get the context of its experience: two alchemists, devastated (and possibly driven mad) by the death of their child, pour all their art into undoing that death and in the process capture an entity they hadn’t intended. The disaster their success could generate dangles by a thread–and is still dangling at the story’s end.

In structure, this falls in the type of story that I feel works better in audio than on the page, but in actual execution the elusive, unfocused nature of the first half came very close to losing me entirely.

(Previously published at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores which, alas, has a completely unreadable display interface and makes it impossible to determine what the original publication date was.)

REVIEW: “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters” by A.T. Greenblatt

Review of A.T. Greenblatt, “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters”, Podcastle: 509 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This is a meta-fiction blending the world of gamer’s quests made real and the contemporary online culture of bloggers. Devon isn’t a hero; he follows quests and encounters fabulous monsters to write them up for a travel blog. But there was a time when he did try heroing with his friend Nate. It ended badly and that’s why Devon is missing an arm these days. So when Nate’s girlfriend hires Devon to find out why Nate didn’t return from his latest quest…let’s just say there are complicated feelings involved.

I found this story to have a very slow start, with its apparently random monster encounters and the detailed descriptions of how Devon works past them. The climax included some very satisfying twists and resolutions as Devon sticks to his principles to bring the quest to a satisfying conclusion for all involved–including (or perhaps especially) the monsters. The colloquial contemporary narrative style worked to leaven the otherwise stock worldbuilding. It doesn’t aspire to the level of gripping prose that will knock my socks off, but it’s appropriate to the nature of the story.

(Originally published in Mothership Zeta 2016/07/31)