REVIEW: “Dulce et Decorum” by S. L. Huang

Review of S. L. Huang, “Dulce et Decorum”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 205-215. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is the story of how Emily Shen seeks out Valentina (sometimes Knyazev; today, Knyazeva), hedge-magician and curator of the poetry of war museum, at the suggestion of her friend Chand, for help dealing with the last remnant of her beloved grandfather — his treasured gun. This gun represents everything she hates — war that goes against her pacifist views, and a reminder of the fact that her beloved grandfather was not what she is:

Besides, the pistol feels like it doesn’t represent Yeye so much as it represents all the pieces of him I didn’t know or didn’t understand (p. 209).

It’s a story of how she must grapple with “the cognitive dissonance” — the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a pacifist raised by a war veteran, of the dissonance that comes from the juxtaposition of the two themes of the anthology: poetry, so beautiful, so vital, so full of power; and war, so ugly, so atrocious, so deadly. Valentina offers to write her a poem of her grandfather, noting that it will be “Messy. And human” (p. 214). Like life. Like war. Like poetry itself.

Huang’s telling of how is so full of piercing sentences that I could write a review just quoting all the ones that cut quick. But then I’d basically be replicating the story here, so I’ll just end this review with: Go read the story for yourself.

REVIEW: “The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 133-148. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“A shiny new story with dinosaurs” is how the author’s note describes this story, and Rustad delivered exactly that — not only with dinosaurs, but also an Ever-Hungry Queen, the tomeslinger Yarchuse who uses a set of neopronouns I’d never come across before (“ae”, “aer”), which I found read surprisingly smoothly and easily for being unfamiliar, a forest fighting for its right to survive, and (tapping into all my own desires) an Unearthly Library that people pray to instead of a deity. There was a lot going on packed into this story.

Yarchuse is the focus of the story, ae and aer quest to find the Ever-Hungry Queen’s son Prince Aretas, and the greater quest to end the war with the trees, but it was the Ever-Hungry Queen that intrigued me the most. Why does she hunger? What does she hunger? Was she the Ever-Hungry Queen three years ago, before the death of her daughter the princess? She remained throughout stubbornly peripheral and absent; I would have liked to have had more of her.

REVIEW: “El Cantar de la Reina Bruja” by Victoria Sandbrook

Review of Victoria Sandbrook, “El Cantar de la Reina Bruja”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 79-92. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Reina Alejandra chained her goddess soul in order to seduce a king. Now she is his captive, and the king is on crusade to woo a new queen, using Alejandra’s magic as his weapon. Submitting to his will is the only hope she has of one day freeing herself.

I found this story perplexing. It was beautifully written but it felt like certain pieces to the puzzle were missing. Alejandra clearly loved her king — or at least did once — not just lusted after him. But never are we shown why; there seemed nothing loveable in him. As a result, Alejandra seemed more to be pitied than to be sad for. I also missed a piece in the way in which she won her freedom; when Alejandra and her rival queen finally meet, it seems as if they must have met already, but we are not told how. Or perhaps it just is that Alejandra loves widely, and without reason.

REVIEW: “Economy These Days” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Economy These Days”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 164-179 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: Domestic violence against children

This story seemed somewhat out of place in the anthology, as it lacked anything that struck me as typical of the horror genre.

I did have to laugh when I read this:

He’d submitted résumés and cover letters to no less than two hundred openings. A total of three potential employers requested interviews. No call-backs (p. 165).

Not because it was funny, but because of all the tropes in the book, it is this one that is the most scary, because the most true. They say “write what you know”, and it is clear from this — and from other hints in other stories — that Thorn knows the academic trajectory quite well.

But otherwise this story of a struggling academic seeking to find an alternative means of financial support is violent without being either psychologically or physically scary.

REVIEW: “Fear and Grace” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Fear and Grace”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 130-149 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence against animals, gore.

This is one of the first stories in the anthology to feature a female main character — and she’s queer to boot — and yet strangely, it is Justine’s teenage flame Herbert, not mid-thirties Justine herself, whom this story is focused upon. This is a continual theme of the anthology, where even stories that feature women do not center them, but place them in an orbit of a man, such as the “erudite, virile Herbert” who “with one expression, with the subtlest of body language…could make you forget just about anything” (p. 132).

Just about anything, but not everything:

She was willing to entertain the notion that people who did bad things were not necessarily bad people, but no matter how hard she tried, it seemed she just could not forget some bad things (p. 133).

We are treated to Justine’s memories of what she cannot forget, and it’s not pleasant. It is gore for the sake of gore, purposeless and banal. Or perhaps there is a purpose, a warning that we can take away — people don’t change.

REVIEW: “The Wish-Giver” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “The Wish-Giver”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 150-156 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A young child braves a fiercesome, wish-granting dragon to ask for their heart’s desire — and the one wish the dragon cannot grant because it has already been granted. All the child needed was for other people to see what had always been true.

Every trans child needs a dragon at their back to protect and affirm them. While the stories in this collection are not written for cis people, this is one that spoke strongly to me and I hope will to other cis people as well. Not every child gets a literal dragon, but maybe we can be metaphorical dragons and step up and speak the truth when the truth is needed.

This short story is the perfect endcap to the anthology, encapsulating in it everything that is good and affirming in all the other stories (I think it’s not surprise that this is the only story in the anthology that doesn’t have a content note.)