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.)

REVIEW: “No Man of Woman Born” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “No Man of Woman Born”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 133-149 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Governmental oppression, mention of emergency C-section and rape.

When Mardoll said in the introduction that the characters inside “break, subvert, and fulfil the same gendered prophecies” that cis characters get in other stories, we were meant to take this quite literally, as is clear in the number of overt prophecies and oracles that occur in the stories. “No Man of Woman Born” opens with a prophecy, that no man of woman born can harm Fearghas. The prophecy was “unambiguous” and had “independent verification” (p. 139). So of course, nothing could possibly go wrong…But of course not. What is human nature but to exploit constraints, to try to find the loopholes? Schools for training women, children, or animals to fight sprang up all over, all headed by someone seeking to harm the king.

This story is centered around the prophecy, and the way it has shaped the lives of the people it does or could apply to. But even as the prophecy dictated the actions of so many, one thing I loved was the recognition that one did not need to have a prophecy to be heroic: “I’m choosing to believe I have the capacity to become the hero until proven otherwise,” Sìne tells Innes (p. 138) when a new prophecy is published that would seem to exclude her.

There are many aspects of this story that I suspect would speak directly to many people whose life experiences are very different from my own. Not having had those experiences, this story did not speak to me as much as some of the others in the anthology, but that doesn’t really matter, because I’m not the intended audience. For the intended audience — people who are coming to terms with their own gender, or newly coming to terms with the gender of a close friend or loved one — there is a lot in this story that provides models for how to react and to behave.

It’s also where we get our third set of neopronouns in the collection: “kie”/”kir”. Strangely, I didn’t find them as difficult as “nee”/”ner”, which makes me wonder about the linguistic psychology of these new words, and why some of them work so easily as pronouns while others are more cognitively difficult. (Someone do a study on this! And then do a follow-up study on how the cognitive load is lessened after repeated exposure, so that we can do things like have cis people read these stories and thereby up the amount of passive absorption of a variety of pronouns!)

REVIEW: “Early to Rise” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Early to Rise”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 104-132 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Magical curses, non-consensual kissing, mention of self-harm.

Retold fairy tales are tricky to pull off — so when one is done as masterfully as this retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” is, it is a triumph. The best retold fairy tales are ones where the story is not only told again but it’s transformed in a way that makes it entirely new.

There is so much to love about this story — Claude growing up not isolated in a forest cottage, deprived of parents, but kept close within the comfort and love of family, both parents and siblings. The issue of the pressure of finding one’s True Love being addressed head on: When one’s future depends on one finding it, finding it seems inescapably hard. And my personal favorite part, how magic is finally satisfied not through emotion but through logic, and still there is a happy ending.

If you like retold fairy tales, this version of Sleeping Beauty is totally for you.

REVIEW: “Daughter of Kings” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Daughter of Kings”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 74-103 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Misgendering, parental bigotry, mention of parental death.

Long ago when dragons roamed the lands, Ásdís and her golden sword united the clans and brought peace to the land and became queen. But peace did not last long, as her three sons fell to quarreling and war, and when Ásdís died she sheathed the golden sword in a stone and a wand-witch prophesied that one day a daughter of Ásdís’s line would draw the sword and bring peace again to the land.

Oh, how I loved this story too. It has elements of a fairy tale — dragons, witches, enchanted swords, prophesies — but the characters that inhabit the story are not the flat charicatures of fairy tales, they are real and living and breathing, giving the story more the quality of myth than of fairy tale.

There are far too few stories with truly happy endings, but the story of Finndís, king’s daughter and queen’s granddaughter, and how she came into the birthright that had been prophesied two generations earlier made me cry with gladness.

REVIEW: “His Father’s Son” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “His Father’s Son”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 47-73 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence and sexualized violence, bloodshed, death of family and children.

Oh, this story I loved! It is fiercely, surgingly, triumphantly joyful, and though it is predicated on violence, bloodshed, and death, it is permeated with love — love and acceptance that shines out of the characters and gets you right in the gut.

More stories like this, please, kthanx.