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)

REVIEW: “Words Never Lost” by DaVaun Sanders

Review of DaVaun Sanders, “Words Never Lost”, Podcastle: 504 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This is a very hard story to review because it feels like it balances uneasily on a knife-edge of how the marginalized identities and their historic experiences are presented, and I don’t share either of the identities in question so I feel completely unqualified to judge whether the balance is successful.

Imala is a bi-racial (Black and Apache) student in a reservation school of the later 19th century who is trying to retain/learn her mother’s language and heritage in the face of the (historically accurate) efforts of the school to erase them. At a crucial confrontation with the school officials, her long-missing father appears leading a company of Buffalo Soldiers (Black regiment in the U.S. Cavalry) who need the assistance of an Apache translator. But both the soldiers and the reason for the translator are not at all what they seem.

Imala takes up the challenge but finds herself impossibly torn between being true to both her heritages, especially in the face of the possibility of losing her father all over again. Both the situation she is put in and the solution she finds are brutal and disturbing, even though she has agency over the choice.

The aspects that made me uneasy were how the set-up of the worldbuilding pitted the Black and Native American characters in hostile opposition to each other (whereas the evil White characters seemed more cardboard background) and the way Imala’s solution (and the background build-up to it) gives the appearance of privileging written language over speech in the context of preserving culture. It was a solution that made sense within the specific constraints set up in the story, but the historic background of attempts to preserve and retain Native American language communities undermine the story’s semi-hopeful outcome.

Several content warnings including racism, threat of rape, murder, and self-mutilation.

REVIEW: “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Under the Still Waters” by N.K. Jemisin

Review of N.K. Jemisin, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Under the Still Waters”, Podcastle: 503 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

(Note: This is a re-issue of PodCastle 154 originally broadcast in 2011 and first published in Postscripts.)

Once again, Podcastle has a perfect combination of a poetically lyrical story with a strong sense of place, narrated by a voice that brings that place and person to vivid life. There are stories that are well-narrated and then there are stories that I can’t imagine consuming by any means but the specific aural performance through which I came to them, because that performance gives them a life above text on the page. Needless to say, this is one of the latter.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Tookie encounters several strange creatures that complicate his survival and efforts to help others in the flood waters. What really struck me about this story structure is how much of a hero’s-quest story it is. The “ordinary” young man is thrust into taking a champion’s role via encounter with a supernatural creature who may or may not be a force for good. (The eventual answer is “it’s more complicated than good and evil.”) At the end, he emerges with a deeper understanding of himself and a mission to help save the world, or at least his part of it.

But that’s just the symbolic structure. What makes this story great is the immersive voice and language, the way descriptions of everyday surroundings slide easily into the fantastic, and the way the folklore of cities and peoples is woven into a new mythos. This joins my list of favorite Podcastle episodes.

REVIEW: “Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship” by Charlotte Ashley

Review of Charlotte Ashley, “Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship”, Podcastle: 502 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

I was amused by this clever adventure story about a girl, her ship-building skills, and the lengths she’s willing to go to get some make-out time with the boy she likes. In an early modern, somewhat clock-punky alternate history, a gateway to another world opens on the ocean offshore from Mogadishu. Official powers are interesting in controlling access, but Zilal, whose clever ability to design mechanisms and ships with surprising features has already begun building her reputation, sees it as a useful place to slip away to with the object of her affection. When they find out why those official guards might be a good idea, Zilal’s “foldable” ship comes in very handy for rescue.

A great deal of the narrative sketches out the ship’s features and their mechanics, but it’s done with a light hand and interspersed with bits of romantic comedy. There is an amusing gender-reversal aspect to the story, as Zilal’s boyfriend fills out the role of somewhat naive “damsel” while Zilal is the genius inventor. As the podcast’s framing material indicates, the story is part of the worldbuilding for a shared-world narrative, but it stands alone quite well.

REVIEW: “The Christmas Abomination from Beyond the Back of the Stars” by Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt

Review of Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt, The Christmas Abomination from Beyond the Back of the Stars, Podcastle: 501 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Humor is hard. And when it doesn’t work for you, it’s hard to know if it doesn’t work or if it just doesn’t work for you. I get the impression that this story is part of a continuing holiday tradition, with references to the back-stories of characters like the boy mummy adopted by the eccentric American family. This installment is a slapstick humorous take on Lovecraftian-style horror, complete with elder gods and uncanny rituals to summon or dismiss them. All as part of a Christmas trip to an isolated Pacific island. The humor relied in part on the premise that bratty misbehaving children are inherently funny and that adults are inherently incompetent, which is also funny. It isn’t a bad story. The writing hangs together perfectly well, it was the right length for the amount of content, and the clever twist was neither out-of-the-blue nor over-telegraphed. But in the end, it didn’t work for me as humor. And I think that’s mostly because humor is hard and very individual.

REVIEW: “Maiden, Mother, Crone” by Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky

Review of Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky, Maiden, Mother, Crone, Podcastle: 500 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

The basic story structure is one of religious intolerance: the conflict between a magical woman-centered tradition and a murderous patriarchal monotheistic tradition, mediated by fear, lack of communication, and a really bad winter storm, the sort you don’t want to get caught in when you’re about to give birth. While the story hung together competently in narrative terms, I confess that stereotypes involved in the religious world-building felt unimaginative. I did like the hopeful (if far-fetched) plans the protagonist had at the end, though I don’t think it could be called a happy ending overall. I think I was hoping to be blown away by the special 500th episode story–Podcastle is really good about blowing me away on a regular basis–and it fell short of doing that for me.

REVIEW: “A Good Egg” by Shawn Proctor

Review of Shawn Proctor, A Good Egg, Podcastle: 499c — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A brief heartbreaking fairy tale exploration, riffing off of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, with a brief allusion to Cinderella in passing. What if Humpty Dumpty’s great fall was falling in love with the king? I liked how the author played with the clash of the structural absurdity of the Humpty Dumpty nickname and the bodily egg imagery (both shape and fragility) in combination with the understated pathos of the rhyme’s outcome, mapped onto a rejected lover. Not a happy story but an exquisite one.