REVIEW: “Wireless” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Wireless”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 131-184 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I feel like I should have written this review much faster than I ended up writing it (from start to finish, over a month!) but that’s because this story turned out to be one that I read in bits and pieces rather than devouring in one go — not because it was difficult, or boring, or any other negative trait, but because it was, strangely, comforting. I kept a copy of it on my phone, and read it a few pages at a time, every few days, when I needed something solid yet positive. I’m not sure I’ve ever consumed a story so slowly and enjoyed it so much.

In true steampunk fashion, “Wireless” had a lot more wild train chases than I ordinarily require for perfect enjoyment of a story — I may have glossed over one or two details of the exploits — but the politics surrounding the trains added a depth to the story and the world-building that I enjoyed. But what did I love best about this? The deep, steadfast, true, and abiding friendship and love between Ramos and Simms. They know each other intimately well, they are the perfect foibles for each other, and it’s just so refreshing to have such a strong relationship between two characters without any sexual tension encroaching upon it. Moar relationships like this, plz kthnx. Wrap them up with a bunch more well-rounded figures with interesting backstories and a twist on modern technologies that was quite clever and inspired, and you get something that is just a very good story.

REVIEW: “The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer

Review of Suzanne Palmer, “The Painter of Trees”, Clarkesworld Issue 153, June (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

This is a multilayered story with a great deal of depth. It alternates between a first and third person voice, so you’re left guessing which of the characters our narrator is.

The characters are part of a council who have inhabited a new world. They’re taking over land that isn’t theirs – a forward march only, in their own words. No negativity or nostalgia for the past allowed. They’re all cogs in a wheel with no space to be creative or unique. And they’re reminded of it continually. The great thing about this story is how widely it is open to interpretation.

For me, it was an allegory of the Native American culture. I don’t know if that’s what the author was going for here, but this is what it related to in my opinion. The creatures outside the narrators habitat are slowly being driven out of their own land, just like the settlers did to the Native Americans. Eventually, it led to genocide, and this story also unravels what happened to the original inhabitants of the land.

A bit of history in a futuristic Sci Fi setting. The original inhabitants have not been described minutely, all we know is they are multi legged and do not have a face. They are also referred to as ‘it’. This can also be connected to Native American culture by way of a metaphor of how the colonizers treated them.

Calling them it strips them of their individuality, and leaves no respect. Them not having a face may be about how their identity and culture was forced away from so many. And they live in trees – they’re one with nature. Nature, who will not give up her secrets so easily to the grasping and grabby newcomers.

All this is just a very subjective idea of what I read between the lines. Even if you don’t, it is a still a wonderful story. You’ll keep guessing who the narrator actually is, and the world building will subtly draw you in.

This is a story that’s good at face value, and equally good should you choose to read between the lines.

REVIEW: “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” by LaShawn M. Wanak

Review of LaShawn M. Wanak, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Originally published July 2018, FIYAH Magazine. Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In this alternate history, taking place shortly after WWII, strange “stumps” in the shape of the recently deceased have begun to appear, formed from spores that have deadly effects on anybody around them when they mature. Curiously, certain people have the power to effect the stumps and facilitate their safe removal, through song. These people are employed by a government agency, the SPC (Stump Prevention Control), paired with handlers who deal with the actual stump removal, and worked for long hours to keep their communities safe. The catch is, these individuals are forbidden from singing in any other context, as they might bring a stump to maturity and thus endanger the people around them. This story follows the only two black women employed as exterminators in Chicago – a brash blues singer by the name of Memphis Minnie, and a meek church girl called Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

This story has so many of the themes that I love: strong relationships between women, the triumph of individuals over a controlling organization, and the healing power of self-expression. It even includes a bit of LGBTQ representation, which is always nice to see in a period piece. The friendship between these two black woman is richly developed, the way they look out for each other, manage their differences, and ultimately discover something the SPC does not want known, was a joy to witness. This is a longer story, coming in at almost 15,000 words, but it is well worth finding the time to sit down and savor it.

REVIEW: “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 87-130 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In “Blood at Elk Creek,” we’re introduced to Mr. Simms as Captain Ramos’s right-hand man, the voice of sanity to her wild ways, whom she very specifically left behind when she headed north to the Black Hills. While not physically present, he still managed to have

In the present story, Mr. Simms takes center stage. His one instruction from Captain Ramos, before she headed north, was Don’t do anything silly.

The very idea. Simms didn’t do silly things, ever. The whole point of his existence, it often felt like, was to stand by in horrified fascination as Captain Ramos did every silly thing her more cracked mental faculties could invent, as if natural law demanded the presence of a witness at all times (p. 88)

Neither these instructions, nor Mr. Simms’ natural predisposition to not being silly, though, prevent him from striking a bargain with Deliah Nimowitz — she’d help him spring one of his men from prison, he’d scrub up clean and attend a ball as her plus one — both of these, from a certain point of view, very silly things.

I think I enjoyed this story even more than the first one; Mr. Simms is a charming, engaging character, and Acks did a stellar job of introducing his backstory and history with references to the previous set of Ramos stories (I’m presuming; not having read them myself yet) without getting bogged down in oversharing. The result was a character far more three-dimensional and complex than you usually get in a novella.

And Deliah is deliciously amusing. I think pretty much anyone could read this story, not knowing anything of either Captain Ramos or Mr. Simms, and enjoy Deliah.

(Originally published in Sausages, Steam, and the Bad Thing, 2015.)

REVIEW: “Blood in Elk Creek” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Blood in Elk Creek”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 8-84 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In “Blood in Elk Creek,” we are introduced to Captain Marta Ramos in media res: her aeroplane has crashed and she’s in a pretty bad way — and things are about to get worse if she comes in contact with the Infected. Those who come to this anthology having read Acks’ previous collection of stories about Ramos already know her — this was my first introduction, and even though I didn’t know anything about her or her background and history, Acks was quite skilled at making me interested in her from the very start; and after two dozen pages or so, I began to care about her.

Half-way down the first page we also meet Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, who at first seems almost like a charicature of a steampunk character — mustachioed, military, masking a sword with a cane for his limp. I struggled a bit more to get involved in his story line, in part because military strategising isn’t particularly my thing, especially when much of the activity is predicated on politics that I was not familiar with, not having read the previous anthology. Indeed, there was a while where I wasn’t sure this story would be one for me — not only because of the military line but also due to the presence of the Infected, described only as such but quite clearly fitting into the “zombie” archetype. Zombies and armies? Ordinarily, no thanks. But Acks managed to keep me reading and keep me interested.

(Originally published in Sausages, Steam, and the Bad Things, Musa Publishing, 2015).

REVIEW: Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures, (Queen of Swords Press, 2019) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This collection of three novellettes is the second book of stories of the pirate captain Marta Ramos. Captain Ramos first showed up in Acks’ Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures, but the author’s introduction to the present collection assured me that I needn’t have read Murder before reading Wireless. What is necessary is to read the three in this anthology in order, as they are not disconnected stories that happen to center the same character, but rather closely linked stories interlocking into a single arc. Following that, we will review each of the stories in order, linking the review back here once they’re published:

I haven’t read that much steampunk, and almost none set in the American west, so I approached this collection of stories eagerly for that. Even if you don’t ordinarily seek out steampunk stories, you’ll still find something to enjoy in these rollicking tales!

REVIEW: “The Incident at Women’s Town” by Lara Ek

Review of Lara Ek, “The Incident at Women’s Town”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The thing I struggled with the most was the fact that the story was written in dialect, specifically one that is intended to mimic the white American idea of how Black people, especially in the South, speak. It always makes me uncomfortable. In my own writing, I try to avoid phonetically representing dialects, because most of the time this sort of language is used as a means of othering a certain class of people/characters who don’t fit a particular set of linguistic norms — white, well-educated, English-speaking norms. As a reader, I am deeply uncomfortable when white authors try to write in a “Black” voice; on the other hand, I don’t think white people have any business policing Black authors who are writing in their own vernacular. So this is a particular stylistic choice where knowing the background of the author affects the way I interpret the choice. Unfortunately, spending all this time worrying about who the author was meant I never get to quite enjoy the story itself.

I’m also not sure how much I would’ve enjoyed the story without the issues of style, because of the unpleasant and sometimes disappointing nature of the content. The inciting incidents require a content note, of murder and sexual assault of a minor. Sarah, the FMC, turns out to be ace — which made me happy when this was first made clear, ace heroines are hard to come by! — but we find out she is ace just after she’s propositioned by a man, and just before she decides to go against a lifetime of, as she describes it, “I ain’t had stirring toward women nor men since I was born”, and agree to sleep with him simply because it “‘Could be interesting. Something I never done’.” Someday the default will be ace characters who are ace because they are, not because it can be turned into a plot point. But not in this story.