REVIEW: “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad

Review of Senaa Ahmad, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls”, Strange Horizons 15 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

What if the U.S. hadn’t just developed nuclear bombs, unthinking, cold machines capable of obliterating cities? What if they had also developed people who were capable of the same devastation?

That’s the premise behind Senaa Ahmad’s “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls.” The narrator, an unnamed member of the eponymous group, is a girl from a poor neighborhood who volunteered to become an experiment. She and her sisters are walking bombs, capable of setting themselves on fire, of detonating and destroying a city. But humans aren’t meant to take that much radiation, and so not only are they prisoners of a sort – they’re also dying.

Ahmad does an excellent job of characterizing these women, of showing how the shifting political winds and the havoc they wreak affects them. She unfolds their collective emotional distress through the slow death of Nabeela, once their most glorious sister, featured on talk shows and interviews. Are they victims? Are they criminals? Ahmad never comes down strongly on either side, perhaps because there is no easy answer. They have killed so many, but they also chose this life because they thought it was their best option.

Ahmad’s prose draws the reader in as she unspools the story of these women, and her descriptions of the fires are evocative and powerful. “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is a story that will stay with you after you read it.

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: “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.