REVIEW: “In the Frozen, Ancient City” by Sarah E. Donnelly

Review of Sarah E. Donnelly, “In the Frozen, Ancient City”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The short story is a hard length to pull off sometimes. The author has to give the characters enough life and depth for them to be worth the reader investing in them. There has to be enough background to give the illusion of an entire world sprawling out in front of the reader, but not so much that the story is bogged down by information rather than story. There has to something that answers the question “Why this story? Why this narrator?” — there are so many stories that can be told, why was this one chosen? And there has to be some sort of resolution, something that makes the reader feel it was worth their while to have read the story. It’s tough to pull all of these off in one and the same piece.

What this story does well is the characters. Both Nerys and Seika are rounded characters with distinct personalities, and any SFF story where the central characters are women will always get a thumbs up from me. There is also a lot of details about the geography, both natural and artificial, which helps to set the story. However, at times I was left with a desire to have more setting; the little hints that are dropped here and there provide a sketch of the scene but leave more questions than they answer. Where is home? What is the ancient city? Why is it frozen? Is home also frozen? Why are they in the ancient city? Why is it there? None of the answers to these questions is necessary to understand the story, but they do linger and niggle.

Another niggle comes from the resolution. So many short stories end in or involve death, in part because death provides a good resolution; it is, in many ways, easy. It is easier to die than to live. It is easier to tell a story of death than a story of life, because death is neat and simple and final, and life is messy and complex and unbounded. This observation should not be taken as a criticism of this story; but it is perhaps a criticism of the genre and length in general: Why aren’t there more happy endings?

REVIEW: “You and Me and Mars” by Sandy Parsons

Review of Sandy Parsons, “You and Me and Mars”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Reading a story is a very situated act: Who you are and what you bring to the story will affect not only how you read the story but also the story itself. “You and Me and Mars” is a story told by an “I” to a “you”, and neither the “you” nor the “I” are given any gender in the opening lines. Yet when I read the line:

Or maybe you could have consulted me when you started to design the drones, considering that was my idea.

I, being a woman working in academia (and, further, a science-oriented part of it), immediately read the “I” as being female and the “you” as being male. It is strange how the set-up of the story makes me identify with the narrator instead of the narrator’s “you”. I am not sure why it is, but it provides an interesting experience reading the story. The narrator’s lack of understanding of what is happening bleeds over into my own lack of understanding. I am not quite sure where we are going, or why, or why I have been chosen for the journey.

The feeling persists throughout reading the story, the wonder of why the narrator is where she is and why her story is a story to tell. I reach the end, and I am still uncertain whether this story is supposed to be optimistic or not.

REVIEW: “Beacon of Truth” by Charity West

Review of Charity West, “Beacon of Truth”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The writing, reading, and possession of fiction a subversive act. Fiction is the glorification of lies.

This quote sums up West’s story, which weaves together a number of common dystopian tropes — the forbidden nature of books, technology that prevents people from lying, the one person who can lie and will teach others how to.

The middle part of the story reminds me of China Mieville’s Embassytown, in the way it highlights how difficult it is to use language when it can only be used literally and truthfully. Every single analogy or metaphor or hyperbole that the Glib uses, in his conversation so ordinary, is almost unfathomable to the narrator.

But the real punch comes in the final paragraphs. As a parent of a young daughter myself, I found the lead-up to the ending difficult to read, and the very end brought tears to my eyes — but they were tears of happiness, not despair. It was a brilliant finish.

REVIEW: “The Mercenary” by Beth McCabe

Review of Beth McCabe, “The Mercenary”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

“The Mercenary” is a classic story of boy-ditches-girl, girl-becomes-a-time-traveller. Oh, wait, that isn’t actually one of the classic story lines? Well, there are worse reasons to become a time-traveller than being ditched for another girl.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other reasons why a girl might join a guild of time travellers, and sometimes it pays to extend beyond the standard tropes whereby the heroine needs to be thwarted in love before she can assume her agency as a heroine. When a narrator tells me

But I had never let go of my heartbreak – or my obsession.

my first thought is “Well, here’s a character who’s got a long arc ahead of her.”

Unfortunately, much of the early part of the story is spent rehearsing the past, rather than actually traversing that needed arc. When we do start moving forward, it doesn’t take long until we reach the “ahah” moment — the moment at which I go, “I bet I know how this is going to end.” I do like moments like that because then I can spend the rest of the story feeling smug, either to have that smugness confirmed when I am proven right or to have the delightful surprise when I am proven wrong. [Spoiler: In this case, I was right!]

On the other hand again, what I really want is a story that doesn’t have any of those moments, where every step is a surprise, where I have no idea where things are going to end up. Familiarity is comforting, but this story could have made me a bit more uncomfortable.

REVIEW: “Led Astray” by Anna Novitzky

Review of Anna Novitzky, “Led Astray”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The problem with surreptitiously reading stories when you’re ostensibly at an academic conference and supposedly paying attention to the speaker is that when you get a story like “Led Astray”, people start looking at you when you giggle and the speaker has said nothing amusing. But I challenge anyone to read this story without laughing. It is self-consciously meta but that is part of what makes it so funny. The best part, though, is the view of AI/SF/robots that it gives us. Too many stories take the “robots will be the death of us, when they get too smart” path; this one goes down on a different path, the path of “any sufficiently intelligent being will develop a sense of humor.” I simply loved it.

REVIEW: “Seven Kinds of Baked Goods” by Maria Haskins

Review of Maria Haskins, “Seven Kinds of Baked Goods”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is the second story is as many issues of Luna Station Quarterly that should not be read without some sort of homemade baked good on hand. Sadly, I had none, and spent the entire story feeling hungry.

First-person present-tense narration is a difficult combination to pull off well, even though it seems like such an easy voice when you’re writing, so when the story opened up with that, I was immediately leery. The story isn’t entirely told in the present-tense, though; the narrator quickly shifts into a retelling of her past, a past so delightful that I was immediately drawn in. But when it shifted back, I was (and now I am incredibly conscious of the fact that I myself am narrating in the first person shifting between past and present tense. Do you like my glass house?) left with the feeling I often get with FPPT — just who is the narrator speaking to, and why is she wasting her time telling her story instead of figuring out how to get out of the pickle she’s in?

And yet, my qualms about the narrative choices end up not seriously detracting from the story. Haskins manages to work in an impressive amount of world-building in a short amount of space, and her story does what I want any story to do: It left me wanting to read more.

REVIEW: “And the White Breast of the Dim Sea” by Hilary Biehl

Review of Hilary Biehl, “And the White Breast of the Dim Sea”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is not your ordinary story of man-meets-mermaid and has a child. This is a story of the complexities of family relationships and prejudices, which just happens to be about an enchanter and a mergyndr and their daughter, and it is filled with terribly wonderful lines like

“I know very little about human magic. Possibly it molds to human prejudice.”

I enjoyed this story because it is an example of what stories can be at their best — a mirror on our lives and our actions. It’s not a moralising story, but it is also one you cannot read without thinking and reflecting on what it reflects to you.

All this, and a delightfully satisfying ending. More stories like this, please!