REVIEW: “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 106-117 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

You’ve been selecting women with the traits you like, whether you know it or not… Independent legacy women join our branch. Legacy men keep joining the male branch. You belong to a dying species. 

A strange story that considers gender and long-distance space travel. Revali and Kemen are to be the sole human occupants on a voyage outside the galaxy. Along the way they will undertake their own research projects and participate in a long-term research project that seeks to answer one of humanity’s most pressing questions: is the splintering of the human race inevitable with the ability to create companions with genetics and personalities compatible to the other gender? Can men only cohabit successfully with women who have been designed to please them? And vice versa? Will ‘legacy’ humans die out because they are unable to coexist successfully long-term with other genders, or because they keep ‘defecting’ to cohabit with the kind of gender partners designed for them? Will the two legacy genders just give up trying to work out relationships with their legacy counterparts as just too hard?

The trip will take them thirty-six years and involve periods of hibernation and waking, as well as gender swaps for both of them across the journey. At the end Kemen and Revali have committed to undertake a ceremony in one last ditch attempt to show humanity that, from outside the galaxy their differences are minuscule and that unity between the two factions is possible. 

The approach to gender here is an interesting one – essentially considering the question of whether men and women can ever really understand each other or cohabit for long periods of time, or if there are fundamental personality differences and tendencies that both work together and don’t. But I found it a bit binary and limited. While there is gender changing here the gender roles being considered are between ‘legacy’ men who want compliant women and legacy women who are not suitable to work with legacy men long term and have instead also created partners they can work with. In short, I would have liked a more nuanced look at gender and cross-gender relations that the premise could have provided than was covered here. Despite this, the stated conflict has been fully thought through and Purdom explores it well, using the length of the trip and the discussions between Kemen and Revali as they move through their different physical bodies to cover the problem’s intricacies.  

REVIEW: “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” by Iona Sharma

Review of Iona Sharma, “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World”, Strange Horizons 8 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Some stories only work because of their fascinating concepts, and that is the case for this particular story. “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” is told by an old woman who runs a sort of mystical shelter for those who are on the run. Some brand of magic, never fully explained, brings people across time to her door and the doors of her people. The strangers can rest for a brief time and recover their strength before they return to their world.

As I said above, it’s a fascinating concept, and the story is couched in an inventive format that reveals it piece by piece. There’s a sense of history and a large world behind it, in the one-off comments made by the narrator and the hints of her lost love. Moreover, it’s clearly tied to our world somehow; the narrator mentions a Starbucks early on.

Without the novelty of that central idea, however, this story is a lot less engaging. There’s not really a plot here; ostensibly, it’s the appearance of the boy Corbie and the narrator’s interactions with him until he leaves, but these are covered only in brief sketches. We have the narrator’s presumably tragic love story with Kiran, but this too does not truly create any forward momentum. I’m left wishing for a full story featuring this old woman and the refugees she aids, something that introduces a conflict and grows toward a resolution.

REVIEW: “Big Mother” by Anya Ow

Review of Anya Ow, “Big Mother”, Strange Horizons 1 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There’s something both horrific and beautiful about the story Anya Ow narrates in “Big Mother.” It effortlessly combines the terror of meeting something strange in the dark with a childhood nostalgia and sense of loss for the wild places of the world.

In “Big Mother,” the narrator recounts an experience she had as a young girl with her brother and three neighbor children. The children go fishing in the dark, searching for a snakehead, and accidentally hook something more dangerous. When the lure proves too strong for the oldest boy, the narrator must lead the other children to his rescue.

The story has something of the feel of Stranger Things to it, in that its climax revolves around one child going missing and his friends searching for him. It’s got a creepy creature too: the eponymous Big Mother, which the children dredge out of the canal. Though it starts a little slow, the horror element pulses strongly in the story’s middle and through the climax. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Our heroine is exactly what you would want in a horror story, bold and brave despite her fear. It is she and she alone that walks into the water to meet Big Mother, and she rescues the oldest boy by talking the monster down. The story concludes with a present-day epilogue, where we see how this childhood event resonated down through the narrator’s life and how sad she is that the modern world is swallowing the spaces where magic once dwelt.

It’s a beautiful tale, well-told and memorable in its execution from start to finish.

REVIEW: “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

Review of Natalia Theodoridou, “The Birding: A Fairy Tale”, Strange Horizons 18 Dec. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Fairy tales, when they’re done well, are some of the most exquisite stories to read. Even when they’re set in our world, they have an otherworldly, dreamlike quality that sets them apart. In this regard, “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” lives up to its name.

Set in modern-day Greece in the aftermath of a plague that turns its victims into birds, this short story follows a pregnant woman named Maria as she searches the plague’s wreckage for her husband. It feels like “The Birds,” if the birds were mostly peaceful and the result of humans metamorphosing.

The story is engaging from the beginning; it starts with the classic of post-apocalyptic literature and film, the highway full of empty cars a direct sign to the reader that something is not well with the world. Maria is a sympathetic protagonist, and it’s easy to put ourselves in her shoes. She makes the choices we hope we would make, and the dashes of backstory Theodoridou inserts are just enough to paint a picture of her life and loss.

I had hoped for a different, happier ending – not the “and they lived happily ever after” sort, because that would be trite, but perhaps something that suggested a way for Maria and her child to move forward in this new world of birds. While it wasn’t what I wanted, Theodoridou does deliver a denouement full of poetic lines and beautiful imagery, and in the end, that beauty is what I like most about this modern-day fairytale.

REVIEW: “Cunning” by Laurel Lanthrop

Review of “Cunning”, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #36 Early Autumn pp. 32-37. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

This story is a fairy tale about a man who has lost his wife, and the witch he meets after saving her from drowning. The witch offers him a single wish and in his grief he wishes either for his wife to come back from the dead, or a woman who would be such a good wife to him that he would no longer remember his sorrow. Of course the witch offers to become his wife, beautifying herself with magic and going home with the man to meet his daughter and housekeeper, taking her place as the new woman of the house.

Like any fairy tale worth its salt, it has a moral or two to teach. Also like any fairy tale worth its salt, it isn’t dumbed down in order to be “kid-friendly.” “Cunning” keeps up the level of quality present throughout this entire magazine, though it was slightly harder for me to latch onto partly due to the dialogue in the story being peppered with thees and thous, seeming just a tad off. Don’t let that keep you from reading this story, though, because it’s great, and I’m very interested to see what other work Laurel comes out with.

REVIEW: “Running Straight” by E. K. Wagner

Review of E. K. Wagner, “Running Straight”, Luna Station Quarterly 32 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a story of dreams, of strength, and of slavery, told in beautiful colors. The story draws you in and draws you along at each moment becoming more and more fraught. Brilliantly written, and a brilliant story. The ending that happens is the ending you want to happen, and yet it is still quite a kicker when it comes.

One thing I really enjoyed about the story is how little details can have such a big impact. Sometimes, all that is needed to set a story in a foreign and unfamiliar place is to change one simple thing that is familiar, one thing you would never expect to change. That one thing in this story is the length of the years. Some years are longer than others, some shorter, and because Cinti’s culture, like ours, revolves around the length of a year, this one small difference has a dramatic effect on how strange and foreign the story setting feels.

This one was a good one — best in the issue in my opinion.

REVIEW: “Waffles” by Ariel Ptak

Review of Ariel Ptak, “Waffles”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 29-34 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I love ambiguous titles, and this one makes you wonder whether it’s about indecision or tasty tasty breakfast food. (Or perhaps even both!)

The story alternates between narration and snippets of emails. There is a specific shift in the voice in the narrative sections which I think was done particularly well — subtle enough that you don’t notice it at first, clever enough to be very satisfying when you do.

Ultimately, though, I felt like the story was trying to be funny rather than actually being funny, leaving the reader wondering just a bit, “why this story?”