REVIEW: “Ashes” by Mike Lewis

Review of Mike Lewis, “Ashes”, in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 63-80 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I really do love retellings of known tales. You get all of the comfort of familiarity and all the joy of wondering what the twist(s) will be. This story is, of course, Cinderella — if the title wasn’t a big enough clue, then the main character’s name being Ella definitely should be.

One of the fascinating things about fairy tales is that the characters in them are more like caricatures; they are fitted into a story according to the roles that they play rather than according to characteristics of themselves. This works brilliantly for fairy tales told to small children, who can use the technique as a means of inserting themselves into the story. For a retelling of a fairy tale, however, the use of stock characters executing well-known tropes can sometimes feel a bit tiresome. I spent much of the story being bounced between irritation at the appearance of these tropes and then having that irritation assuaged by the way Lewis played on the tropes and twisted them. Why must Ella’s sisters be physically gorgeous while she is not? Why must Ella dream of a handsome captain to rescue her? The answers are not what you might think! Sometimes, the heroine gets something better than a prince…

REVIEW: Poetry in Starward Tales II

Review of poetry in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017). — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I decided to tackle all the poetry in the anthology in one go because poetry can be wicked hard to review and it made sense, in the context of a themed anthology like this, to discuss all the poems together.

“Penelope Longing for Odysseus” by Vonnie Winslow Crist (p. 141)

One of the hallmarks of a classic story is that it transcends both time and genre. In this poem, Crist has transposed the story of Odysseus to far into the future, with Penelope waiting at home for her space-ship captain to return. Whether told in epic poetry and set in ancient Greece, or told in short blank verse form and set far in the future, the story of Penelope’s patience, love, and dissatisfaction with her wandering husband remains a powerful one. (The poem also reads aloud nicely, and rated an “It was good” from my 6 year old.)

“Chained” by Vonnie Winslow Crist (p. 39)

Like Crist’s other poem in the anthology, this one also draws upon a foundation of Greek myth, but it is not a straightforward retelling of a known tale. Instead, Crist uses the familiar elements of mythology to couch an unfamiliar future, when humanity has been awoken from cryo-state on a foreign planet. Will we find ourselves in the underworld, in purgatory, or in paradise?

“Girl in the Red Hood” by Richard King Perkins II (p. 97)

The inspiring story for this poem is obvious from the title. The first four stanzas follow the traditional story for the most part, with embellishments and details that make it a distinctive and not generic re-telling. The final stanza is where the dramatic climax is reached; unfortunately, there was not quite enough in it for me to understand the import of the ending. It wasn’t clear who the narrator of the poem was, nor what memories it was that the girl in the red hood forgot before the wolf devoured her.

“Icarus” by María Castro Domínguez (p. 117)

(Note that the table of contents puts this poem on p. 115).

The story of Icarus is one of my favorites, so I was immediately drawn to this poem from its title. The poem did not disappoint — Castro Domínguez paints some vivid pictures with her words — but I am not sure what connects the story of the poem to the story of Icarus.

“Beauty, Sleeping” by Marsheila Rockwell (p. 173)

This brief (10-line) poem takes the story of sleeping beauty and turns it upside down — what happens if when the prince comes to wake the princess instead of giving her his animative power, he takes hers instead?

REVIEW: “The Signal” by Halli Lilburn

Review of Halli Lilburn, “The Signal”, Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 135-142 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The pin for this story is placed in Germany (East Germany, I believe). It’s a short story, so there isn’t much time for clues about its fairy tale inspiration to be dropped — in fact, it was on the first page that I had a sudden lightbulb “Oooh, oooh, I know this one!” moment, even though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly which one it was. I just knew that it was one of the Grimms’ grimmer repertoire, and not one apt for Disneyification (though now I am fascinated by the idea that someone would someday try this). The rest of the story was then read enjoyable along two dimensions. On the first, there where the simple pleasures that come from reading about kick-ass female captains, translations of foreign languages, and mysterious signals from the void. On the second, there was the “I know I should recognize this story, I know I should know which one it is, is that another hint, is that another clue?” dimension, which was all the more deliciously satisfying when the ending came — with an amusing twist — and I was hit with the “oh, that’s right, it’s that one“. Someone who recognises the story sooner will alas not have that part of the enjoyment, but it hit the right spot for me.

A few parts that didn’t hit the spot have to do with a few of the liberties taken with reality. Within the span of two sentences we go from a radio signal that, when certain filters were placed on it, morphed “into a woman’s voice speaking an unknown language” to a point at which “the translation proved the message was urgent”. Unless you’ve got a babblefish on hand, this simply isn’t how the decoding of languages works — if the language were truly unknown, I would have wanted to see the decoding of the signal take decades or more, or I would’ve liked to have been told something about the new technology that makes such quick decipherment possible. I also found it rather hard to believe that rigorous checks weren’t in place when evacuating a ship to prevent people from being left behind; it may be a small detail, but even fiction needs enough verisimilitude to be enjoyed.

These are small niggles. Overall, it was a fun read.

REVIEW: “Steadfast” by R. W. W. Greene

Review of R. W. W. Greene, “Steadfast”, Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 111-115 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The pin for this story is stuck in the south of Scandinavia, but neither that nor the story itself was sufficient for me to determine which myth or legend it was a retelling of; it must be one of the more obscure ones.

The SF elements are not very clearly specified, but they — unlike in some stories — are integral to the plot and to the character development. Unfortunately, the story was marred midway through by the introduction of the casual degredation (sexual and otherwise) of women, which was both entirely not cool and entirely unnecessary to the rest of the story. If you’re looking for a story that treats women with respect and avoids demeaning them for no purpose, then don’t read this story.

REVIEW: “All for Beauty and Youth” by Kelly A. Harmon

Review of Kelly A. Harmon, “All for Beauty and Youth”, Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 41-58 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The story being retold here is “Hansel and Gretel”, as is obvious from the opening line. The retelling follows the traditional storyline but lacks some of the iconic elements, such as Hansel leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that they can find their way back home.

The sci-fi element of the story is more steampunk than sci-fi; the setting is a context where steam trains are a standard mode of transportation, but where there are clockwork men and clockwork birds, and a very detailed description of a particular machine made out of rubber tubes, bellows, pulleys on pp. 47-48. Sometimes the steampunk setting seemed like a rather thin veneer, rather than being integral to the story, though the resolution (a resolution I didn’t quite understand, for it was not made clear why Hansel and Gretel are able to corner the market on their new product) at the end does rely on clockwork. However, one thing I truly enjoyed about the story was that the elements described as magic in original versions of the story are here explicitly described as science — science is truly magical, and this fact should be exploited more!

The above ends the rather “impersonal” review of the story, in which I try to focus on positive and negative aspects of the story that are accessible to most/many readers, and thus most people can stop here. Below, I’m going to permit myself to indulge in a very personal review of a singular aspect of the story which I suspect will cause no problems whatsoever for most readers (which is why they can all stop with the above and not read any further). But…

…I have to comment on the names. The pin for this story was stuck in Hamburg, and Hansel and Gretel are classic Low German forms of the names, appropriate for the north of Germany — -el is the Low German cognate of the High German diminutive suffix -lein (e.g., Fráulein is “little Frau”, and this word is a specifically High German word). Thus when Hansel calls his sister Gret, he is using a less-diminutized form of the name, rather contrary to how I suspect Harmon used “Gret” vs. “Gretel” in the story. And there is a disconnect between these two proper Low German forms, and the names of characters introduced by Harmon. Britta works fine, but both Fritz and Dietrich are distinctly High — not Low — German forms; I would have loved to have seen Frik and Diderik instead.

It’s a small thing, such a small thing, a thing that probably 99.5% of all the people who read this story will never even notice, much less be bothered by. So why am I mentioning it? Because I’m the one who read the story and am reviewing it, and it does bother me. It’s a useful reminder to authors that (a) you never know what will bother certain readers and not others and (b) what does bother certain readers can be very idiosyncratic to them and just because a reviewer says “this bothered me” doesn’t mean that this is a universal truth that holds for all readers. Reading is a personalised experience, and this happens to be a report of mine.

REVIEW: Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege

Review of CB Droege, ed., Starward Tales II (Manawaker Studio, 2017). Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This anthology, the second in Manawaker Studio’s “Starward Tales” series, is a collection of “speculative legends”, retellings of legends, myths, and fairy tales as science fiction stories. Each story is accompanied by a map with a pin on it,

showing the approximate location of the origin of the story that inspired the work. However, many story origins are in dispute, and often an arbitrary line must be drawn to say where in history a story became the story we know today.

In addition to stories, the collection also features poetry and artwork, some newly commissioned pieces, some out-of-copyright pieces from the previous centuries, all wrapped up in a cover beautifully illustrated by Monica Rose Song. If I have one complaint about the production of the book, it is the use of straight quotes rather than “smart” quotes throughout. It’s a minor point to raise, but it detracts from the aesthetic of reading the stories, and given contemporary typesetting tools, it is not difficult to avoid. There are also a handful of places throughout where the book could have benefited from more thorough proof-reading — a missing period on p. 113, the misspelling of “pseudo” as “psuedo” on p. 114, the wrong type of dash on p. 136, extraneous capitalization on p. 241, some incorrect page references in the table of contents. Any one of these is minor, but too many of them and the result becomes less professional.

Below is a list of the contents; I will review each story individually and when the reviews are published, link to them from this post.

Fiction

Poetry

All the poetry is reviewed in one post.

  • “Chained”, by Vonnie Winslow Crist
  • “Girl in the Red Hood”, by Richard King Perkins II
  • “Icarus”, by María Castro Domínguez
  • “Penelope Longing for Odysseus”, by Vonnie Winslow Crist
  • “Beauty, Sleeping”, by Marsheila Rockwell