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.)

REVIEW: “My Heart’s Own Desire” by Robert Levy

Review of Robert Levy, “My Heart’s Own Desire”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 199-211 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He said he was a man of means now hidden to the world, and that he wanted nothing more than to take me back to his place. It is safe, he said, and warm. He also let it be known that he could conjure the most illuminating things, potion-soaked wafers that gave you crystal visions. The Hierophant’s shit is so good, my brother Carter told me later, people say God is his supplier.

Content note: Contains explicit incest.

This was a difficult story for me to read, not the least because of some fairly graphic incest scenes. I’m not a huge fan of graphic sex scenes, but there are some contexts when they feel so right and natural that I do not mind them and even enjoy them. But the context here just feels so wrong.

Often when I’m reading, the underlying question I am continually asking is “Why this story?” Why did the narrator choose to tell this story? Why did the author choose to tell this story? Quite often the answer is a simple — if unhelpful — “because it’s a good one”. But other times, I feel like I must struggle with the story to find the answer, because the underlying premise to the question always is “they must have had a reason, a reason that they thought this story was the one worth telling”. One of the salutary things about fiction is the way in which it can force people to question their defaults and assumptions, to take a second look at why they react the way they do. I found myself doing that quite often reading this story — asking myself “is the repugnance with which I view incest preventing me from seeing clearly the answer to ‘why this story’?” Is there something the author has to say that makes this particular mode of saying it not only appropriate but justified?

At the end, I don’t know. I also don’t know whether the fault lies with me, or with the story — or with both, or with neither. It was well-written — lovely pacing, beauiful imagery, depictions of drug-induced experiences that I can appreciate aesthetically even while I have no point of contact in my own experiences — but I’m not sure that was enough to rehabilitate this one for me.

(Originally appeared in Congress Magazine, 2016.)