REVIEW: “The Plover’s Egg” by Allison Epstein

Review of Allison Epstein, “The Plover’s Egg”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Marya ran away from home to escape her father’s disapproval of her illicit love affair with Sonya, and now works in the count’s castle. When Aleksander the mariner turns up, unexpected, with a mysterious woman that he’s rescued from beneath the ice, Marya moves from laundrymaid to nursemaid to the quiet, icy Elizaveta. Everything from there turns messy and beautiful and sad and dark.

This was such a lovely, delicate story. It’s one part fairy-tale, one part Slavic folk-tale, and one part all its own story. I really enjoyed it.

REVIEW: “Rib of Man” by Geonn Cannon

Review of Geonn Cannon, “Rib of Man”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 90-101 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Henriette Talmadge captains the Rib of Man, a former slave trader ship that she captured and made her own. It’s a suitable name for a ship that is captained by a woman and whose crew contains many other women. On the one hand, the rib of man from which woman was created (according to one story, at least), is

curved and sharp, like a sword. A man’s rib is a weapon, crafted while he lay naked and exposed…The women standing before you are descendants of that brutal moment. We are weapons who have been taught we are weak, fragile, helpless. The weaker sex (p. 93)

But on the other hand,

ribs are also protection: a shield that is always with you, protecting your most vital organ, your heart (p. 100)

Henriette Talmadge captains her ship as both a weapon and a shield. While some pirates prefer to ransack for treasure, she’s happy to capture slave ships and free the slaves, for no profit of her own. But sometimes profit comes in unexpected quarters, as happens when the Rib of Man encounters the Rebecca and comes away with a new navigator. Genevalisse knows not only how to pilot the ship safely through treacherous waters, but she also know navigate the careful passageways into Henriette’s heart.

REVIEW: “Serpent’s Tail” by Mharie West

Review of Mharie West, “Serpent’s Tale”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 52-64 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Looking for a story about polyamorous Viking pirates with strong familial bonds and a disabled MC? Look no further, have I got the story for you!!

I loved this story; from the description given above, you might thinking cynically to yourself “looks like someone was playing ‘diversity bingo'”, but you would be totally wrong to do so. Yes, the cast of characters is more diverse than in your usual pirate story, but each of the characters is so beautifully crafted, and their interactions with each other are so real. Each facet is integral to the story, and yet none of these aspects (except perhaps Thorgest and Makarios’s relationship being treated as illicit) is a “plot point”. Authors take note: This is how you do diversity well. If this story is representative of West’s other writing, then I’m definitely going to have to find more stories by her.

REVIEW: “Saints and Bodhisattvas” by Joyce Chng

Review of Joyce Chng, “Saints and Bodhisattvas”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 30-42 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Within the opening lines of the story, we learn that the titular saints and bodhisattvas meet at “the confluences of currents and trade routes [that] was the famed Golden Chersonese” (p. 30).

This type of story is one of my favorite types: Fantasy, yet firmly rooted in our reality. I’ll admit, I had never heard of the Golden Chersonese before, and assumed, at the outset, that Chng had made it up; only when the narrator speaks of encountering Sanskrit and Pali speakers did I wonder “what if this is real?” Off to wikipedia I went, to find out that “Golden Chersonese” is an ancient Roman name for the Malay peninsula. A few paragraphs later, distracted by the narrator’s father giving them a perahu, “rare for a girl, but I was never a girl, never a boy either” (p. 30), I was back in wikipedia reading about ships. Some people might find it distracting to constantly have to look up these things (and other people might just simply read past and not feel the need for the details!), but pausing to read up on things I’d not otherwise come across is almost as good as an informative footnote, and loyal readers of this site will know how much I love an informative footnote.

This isn’t to say the only reason to read the story is to spark wikipedia visits; even those who don’t look up every word they don’t recognise will find a story to engross and enrapture them. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Under Her White Stars” by Jacob Budenz

Review of Jacob Budenz, “Under Her White Stars”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 106-126 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

I was very glad that this, the final story in the anthology, was one of the longer ones, because it meant that the time I’d be finished with the anthology would be put off. All of the stories in this book have captured so well the desired goal/theme of the anthology, and this capping story didn’t disappoint either.

I loved this story of a freelance witch who cobbles together his living by sometimes working as a healer, sometimes as a seller of spells, and sometimes a witch-hunter. We never learn his name, but his target is Amarande, a witch down south who runs a convenience store and is conning his customers into giving them their souls so that he can be immortal, and he’s got it all planned out…except what he didn’t plan for was his fiancé Lionel coming along with him.

As soon as Lionel wormed his way into the plan, ready to play the role of bait so that the witch could capture Amarande, I read the rest of the story on tenterhooks: Would it have a happy ending? Would it have a sad ending?

It’d be spoilers to tell you, so I’ll just say this: It had exactly the right ending that both the story and the anthology needed.

REVIEW: “The Plague-Eater” by Caspian Gray

Review of Caspian Gray, “The Plague-Eater”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 65-81 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

From the start of the story, a few things are clear: Todd, Miguel, and Pills have the comfortable rapport of the best of friends, and Pills is very ill.

What do two friends do when a third is sick? Anything they can to help, it turns out, and for Miguel, that “anything” includes seeking out a night nurse to help care for her — and not any old night nurse, but a plague-eater. (The fact that he can invite Todd along on a not-a-date is an added bonus.)

This was a wonderfully done story — there’s fantasy, with Miguel’s pursuit of the plague eater; there’s romance, between Miguel and Todd; but the central themes that run through the story are deeper, sadder. Pills’ slow succumbing to cancer. The importance of chosen-families. The isolation of blood-family rejection. — which keeps the reader on the edge of uncertainty concerning the outcome, right all the way up until the very end.

REVIEW: “Familiar” by kx carys

Review of kx carys, “Familiar”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 63-64 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Another vignette-type piece, “Familiar” is a brief slice in the live of Margaux and Cassia, witches and lovers. Cassia needs a familiar, and she wants a raven; Margaux thinks that’s gauche. Cassia doesn’t want another cat, and eventually she brings Margaux around.

Because the story was so short, there was little character development or anything else to give me a sense of why the resolution came about the way that it did. I would have liked to have seen more, to have this turned into a rounder, deeper story. But I’m glad Cassia got her raven in the end.

REVIEW: “Venus Conjunct Saturn” by Claire Rudy Foster

Review of Claire Rudy Foster, “Venus Conjunct Saturn”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 48-62 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Angie knows better than to give any credit to her horoscope. After all, she’s an actual scientist, and “She knew astrology was a qualitative, atmospheric science, like meteorology” (p. 48; dear reader, I may have snorked my tea reading that line.) Birthdays shouldn’t matter. The stars and planets aligning in the skies shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter that all the signs point against “Venus Conjunct Saturn”: Angie was going to go out with Kate anyway.

In an anthology that wants to center queer characters, this story does a great job. Angie is trans; Kate is bisexual. These things matter to the story, of course,—of course they do, how could they not?—but they somehow manage to be both the focus of the story and not the focus of the story at the same time. For awhile in the middle I was desperately worried that everything was going to go wrong for Angie and Kate but — spoiler — it doesn’t.

We need more happy ending stories like this one.

REVIEW: “Under the Northern Lights” by Charlotte M. Ray

Review of Charlotte M. Ray, “Under the Northern Lights”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 250-270 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was a cute little love story which I found strangely odd because the narrator seemed so personality-less; his only character trait seemed to be his falling in love with Krista, the woman whose blimp crashed into the lake outside his house. Now, Krista, on the other hand — she was pretty awesome. Confident, ambitious, educated, she I enjoyed reading about enough to feel bad that she had such a bland person falling in love with her, someone whose sole role in the story seemed to be to do that — the fact that the unnamed narrator also happens to cultivate the one thing Krista was searching for especially is a bit too neat of a coincidence. Still, it was a rather sweet way to end the anthology.

REVIEW: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 259-275 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Do dead boys get boners? Or are they safe from being mortified? Oh, God, pun intended.

This is a classic coming-of-age, boy-meets-dead-boy, high-school-prom-graduation-and-what-comes-after story — oh, wait, that’s not really classic, is it. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the story is, and it was a pure delight to read. Now, I’ve never been a high school boy myself, so I can’t attest to the verisimilitude of the narrator’s (I just realised we never learn his name) experiences, but they feel so very real and genuine, the embarrasment, the longing, the joy, the fear. This is a story I will file carefully away, to keep safely until the time comes that I think “I know someone who needs to read this story,” at which time I’ll pull it out and share it with them. Because everyone at some point in their lives, particularly in high school, needs to read a story that shows them they are not alone.

(I also totally and shamelessly want to see this short story turned into a movie. But only this story, however short a movie it ended up being, and not some story vaguely inspired by this story but with a whole bunch more added to it. Because the twist that comes about 2/3 of the way in is both completely unexpected and entirely perfect.)

There is no way to separate the act of reading a story from the reader. There is no way I cannot read the title of this story without thinking of the same-titled REM song, the song that was my mental soundtrack in the weeks after discovering I was pregnant. I cannot get away from those memories or that song while reading this story, which makes my experience of it individual, singular (but though it is individual to me, it is no more individualised than any other reader’s experiences of the story). So I was quite glad that a nod was made to the REM song at the end of the story. I hope those kids think of that time of their lives every time they hear the song, too.

(Originally appeared in The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, 2016.)