REVIEW: “The Darwinist” by Diaa Jubaili

Review of Diaa Jubaili, “The Darwinist”, Strange Horizons 30 Oct. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

It’s inevitable when writing regular reviews of a publication that a reviewer will find a story that doesn’t resonate with her. “The Darwinist” is one of those stories for me.

Set in 20th century Iraq, the story tells of the birth of Shafiq, a boy with a furry, banana-shaped birthmark and the son of a reviled Darwinist. After leaping back in time to discuss the boy’s father, the story then tells of Shafiq’s adulthood, searching for a banana to give his pregnant wife, and how that search ends in tragedy.

When I say “the story tells,” I do mean tells. “The Darwinist” has a distinctly newspaper-like quality to it as it lays out the events of Shafiq’s life. It maintains a birds-eye view, never taking the time to deeply explore any of the characters or moments it discusses. There’s little dialogue or opportunity to show the story. Instead, it reads like a synopsis of a novel without much plot (save for the banana search that takes up the last third).

It’s entirely possible that this story is meant as an allegory, and I’m missing some political or cultural connotations that would give it greater emotional depth (it is told in translation from Arabic). But as it is, the narrative distance from the characters and the lack of a clear direction for the early plot kept me from fully engaging with the story.

REVIEW: “The Gates of Balawat” by Maria Haskins

Review of Maria Haskins, “The Gates of Balawat”, Strange Horizons (Samovar) 25 Sept. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, this story follows its nameless main character into the ruins of the British Museum. The main character and his team have been tasked with scanning the artifacts so limited edition replicas can be produced and sold to wealthy collectors. The originals will then be destroyed to preserve the company’s license. During the course of this job, the main character encounters one of the titular Gates of Balawat.

On the outset, this seemed like a story I would enjoy. Museums are some of my favorite places, and I’ve made an amateur’s hobby of learning about archaeology. The twist of setting it in the future addresses the old question of so many archaeologists: what will the archaeologists of the future think of us when they dredge through our ruins? Haskins touches on this throughout the story, and the bits and pieces of her larger world that leak through make the reader curious to learn more.

However, I found the execution lacking in places. Haskins makes it clear that the doors, the Gates of Balawat, have some special significance for the main character; they cause a “dream” that stirs within him throughout the novel. Yet the story never satisfactorily answers what, precisely, that significance is. We learn so little of the character’s past that we cannot guess at why the doors affect him so, or why he should dream of them so often. Ultimately, it causes the climax to fall short of what it could have been.

Despite that, there are still moments of beauty in the translated prose, filtered through a message about how meaningless our remnants will be once we are gone, that make this story worth reading.

REVIEW: “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love” by Julian Jarboe

Review of Julian Jarboe, “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love”, Strange Horizons 16 Oct. 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

The title is a mouthful and more than a little pretentious-sounding, but this captivating short story based on Minoan civilization is well worth the read. Organized as a series of letters from the protagonist, a snake woman, to Ariadne (yes, that Ariadne), the story focuses on the snake woman as she prepares for her next reincarnation and laments the loss of her world and her love.

Jarboe’s prose is lush with description, painting breathtaking pictures of the scenery and rendering the protagonist’s loss with heart-breaking details. Occasionally, the sentences run a little too verbose, causing confusion until the reader takes the time to go back and re-read, but these small offenses are forgivable for the beauty of the words.

Beyond just superb prose, Jarboe tells a story that delves into deep themes, ranging from the weariness of eternal life to cultural appropriation. There’s so much to unpack in each “letter,” and readers will find new layers of meaning with each new read-through. This story is a rich, thoughtful meditation on all the shades of lost love, and I would highly recommend it.

REVIEW: “Oshun, Inc.” by Jordan Ifueko

Review of Jordan Ifueko’s “Oshun, Inc.”, Strange Horizons 18 Sept. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This story reminded me vividly of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, if the gods in question worked in a customer service center. It has the same old-world-meets-new-world, coming-to-America feel, but with an emphasis here on a specific African pantheon and goddess. As someone unfamiliar with the goddess in question, I appreciated the choice as an opportunity to learn.

Moreover, Ifueko paints beautiful pictures with her words. Her descriptions appeal not just to the eyes, but also the ears, the nose, the tongue and even the fingers–leaving no sense neglected. She possesses the specificity of great writers, using precise analogies and examples to drive home the deeper points and nuances of her story.

The story also displays Ifueko’s talent for worldbuilding. “Oshun, Inc.” touches on the barest edge of what feels like a much larger, more detailed world filled with immortal gods and helpers. Ifueko walks a fine line between explaining terms the reader might not understand and letting the reader discover those meanings for herself, and she walks that line confidently.

I found the first half of the story to be more engaging than the second half, in part because the second half doesn’t actually resolve the problem introduced at the beginning of the story (finding a date for Bola’s problematic dentist). The ending is by no means bad, but I wish all the threads of the plot had found a resolution.

Setting that minor quibble aside, Ifueko is a promising new voice in speculative fiction, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.