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)

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: “La Gorda and the City of Silver” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Review of Sabrina Vourvoulias, “La Gorda and the City of Silver”, Podcastle: 506 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

I participated in a discussion on facebook recently about defining subgenres of speculative fiction, and the question of comic book superheroes came up. In practice, superheroes can draw from fantasy (X-men, Dr. Strange), science fiction (Iron Man), mythology (Thor, Wonder Woman), “realistic” (Batman–at least for the Batman character himself), or any number of other subgenres, but what they have in common is a fantasy of agency and justice, even when justice sometimes fails. This multi-focal genre has been adopted as speculative fiction by popular acclaim, regardless of the specific mechanism of the hero’s powers.

“La Gorda and the City of Silver” is clearly a superhero story. The world of masked and costumed luchadores is deeply rooted in the genre regardless of the apparent lack of overtly fantastic elements. (I know this is a theme I tend to harp on regularly, but I do like my fantasy to actually be, you know, fantastic in general.) The narrator–who calls herself by the nickname La Gorda, one she accepted rather than chose–is the daughter of a producer of luchador shows and grows up surrounded by their performative costumed superheroism. So when the abuse of a neighbor girl calls for heroic intervention, this is the natural medium by when La Gorda takes up the challenge. The story is deeply yet casually embedded in the everyday life of a Guatemalan working class neighborhood. Both the perils and their solutions arise out of that embedding as well as the narrative of masked superheroes and the lone fight for a justice that the law won’t deliver. Or perhaps not so lone, as La Gorda discovers when she expands the scope of her protection in parallel with the expansion of the lives she feels called to protect.

This was a richly satisfying story, both in the telling and the conclusion.

Content note: Contains references to offscreen sexual abuse.

(Originally published in Fat Girl in a Strange Land edited by Holt and Leib)

REVIEW: “There are No Wrong Answers” by LaShawn M. Wanak

Review of LaShawn M. Wanak, “There are No Wrong Answers”, Podcastle: 505 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Sometimes a story doesn’t hit my sweet spot, not through any lack of writing quality, but simply because the structure is one that grates on me. “There are No Wrong Answers” was one of those (suggesting, perhaps, that there are wrong answers) due to the use of the interruptive quiz format that framed and was interspersed with the main narrative. Kudos for the experimental attempt, but it doesn’t work for me personally.

Lana has a talent for designing and analyzing personality tests, her neighbor Madame D (a drag performer and fortune teller) is a talented cold reader. Their intersection over a straying Labrador retriever results in an awkwardly developing friendship as Lana gets prickly over Madame D’s suggestion that their occupations have more in common that she’d like to think. Lana gets hired as lead test administrator for an employment counseling firm, which leads to the major conflict in the story.

The overall shape of the story is an overlay of “protagonist is aided to greater understanding of herself and learns to appreciate people she originally looked down on” and “supernatural powers achieve justice for wrongs done.” The genuine supernatural elements would seem to undermine the original premise that psychological counseling and cold reading are twins of the same parentage, but without them, this wouldn’t be a fantasy story at all.

(Originally published in What Fates Impose edited by Nayad A. Monroe)

REVIEW: “The Rocket Farmer” by Julie C. Day

Review of Julie C. Day, “The Rocket Farmer”, Podcastle: 507 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

What raises a story above simply being entertaining to being a “good story” is often the layering in of multiple themes or meanings. On its surface, “The Rocket Farmer” is a fantasy about rocket ships as an agricultural crop: their natural history, the complexities of crop management, the inevitable tragedies of failure. But on a different level, the story concerns the more mundane and eternal struggle of one generation to understand and communicate with another. Sarnai is pulled between the bottomless pit of neediness that is her father’s struggling rocket farm, and the growing suspicion that she has failed to protect her daughter from the lure of the family profession.

The story is told in three voices: Sarnai, her daughter Sophie, and one of the rockets, waiting to fulfil its destiny. The result is a delightfully unexpected and–dare I say heartwarming?–tale of communication failures and eventual success. If the story had focused only on the clever conceit of rocket farming, it would have fallen flat for me, mired in a vast array of technical detail. But as a medium for a story of human interactions, it worked beyond any of my initial expectations.

(Originally published in Interzone #271)