REVIEW: “Siren” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Siren”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 271-288. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I started this story, got interrupted, and then had to restart it a week later, because the initial paragraphs are complicated enough that I need to reread them in order to make sense of what followed.

This is due, in part, to the fact that the first page is in 2nd person narration (which regular readers of my reviews will know…I don’t really like). When the narrator tells me “your species thinks that space is silent”, it’s hard for me to know who/what is being talked about, or who it is that is talking.

A page later, things flip to 1st person POV. The “I” there seems to be the “You” of the previous page; and yet another page later, the “I” becomes “We”. That “We” is an angel of intergalactic death, whom we learn is on a self-imposed exile from their home, “a small planet, blue with oceans, utterly unremarkable” (p. 275). But when they decide to go back home, and they return home, suddenly it is not clear what home means or what their purpose is, at home.

In the end, the angel finds its purpose and its use, and simultaneously I made my way into the story. It’s hard to do alien minds well, and I found Acks’s account distinctive and convincing. And there were space pirates, so, you know, all around: an A+ story, despite my slight wobbles at the beginning.

This story has a particularly interesting author’s note; I have enjoyed the extra dimensions these notes have lent to many of the stories in the anthology, and would love to see more collected volumes start doing this!

REVIEW: “Recite Her the Names of Pain” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “Recite Her the Names of Pain”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 263-270. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Three sirens share an apartment in New York, adapting to a modern world that doesn’t need them to tempt heroes to bind themselves to the masts of ships just to prove their bravery and worth. Ligeia and Parthenope, at least, have shed their previous life and moved on. The third siren (the story alternates between 1st person POV from her perspective, and 3rd person POV where she is only referred to as “the siren”; however, (and I’ll admit I spent far too much time researching sirens after reading this story) I’m pretty sure she’s Leucosia), however, cannot escape the cries of the people who call to her. She hangs out at the archipelago to offer prophecy — what people need to know, not what they want to know. Sometimes, those words are the most dangerous of all.

REVIEW: “A Voice in Many Different Forms” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu

Review of Osahon Ize-Iyamu, “A Voice in Many Different Forms”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 247-261. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I often wish that I liked 2nd-person narration more than I do (which is quite little) because too often it gets in the way of my ability to enjoy good stories. I don’t like being told what to do and how to feel, and too often that is how 2nd-person narration comes across to me.

So it was in spite of the narrative choices, rather than because of them, that I got sucked into the rhythm and the feeling and the emotion of Ize-Iyamu’s story. This is the first story in the anthology so far that I would classify as ‘horror’, in so far as classifications and genres matter. There is a darkness underlying Tola, and the different voices he uses when he speaks his poetry. The unnamed addressee of the 2nd-person narration has their own battle cries and battle poems, but they are of no defense against Tola’s darkness.

They are, however, all the offense the poet needs.

REVIEW: “She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Review of Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “She Searches for God in the Storm Within”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 233-245. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: Domestic and sexual abuse, religious violence.

This was a beautiful, painful, powerful story, full of strength and fury and might. In any other context, I think I would have given it full marks. In the context of this anthology, I felt let down by the fact that — while there was a strong heroic woman warrior at the center of the story — there was no poet that I could find: all of Helene’s words are a byproduct of her actions, not the other way around. I could make up a reading of the story whereby “poetry” is more than just words, it is also actions, but…I actually want my poets to deal in words and not just deeds, because that is one of the things that makes poets special. So I ended up a bit disappointed in this story, sadly. I wish I could’ve read it first in another context, divorced from expectations of content, for then I would’ve been able to appreciate it a lot more.

REVIEW: “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” by Samantha Henderson

Review of Samantha Henderson, “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 217-230. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

There are some stories I shouldn’t try to read in public. Stories set in emergency rooms are on generally on the list. Stories set in emergency rooms and told in such a visceral way are high up on that list. Even when they are stories with happy endings — as when Dr. Jessie takes in the power of the fiddler at the heart of the world and harnesses it so that no one dies on her ward that night — there is something horrible about them (in the old-style use of ‘horrible’, full of horror…). I had to read this story reminding myself not to cry in public.

So many of the poets in this anthology are poets by some combination of choice necessity, and birthright. Dr. Jessie’s story is different from the others, because she becomes the conduit for the fiddler almost unconsciously. All she knows is that she fights on the side of life, with whatever means she has.

Henderson’s story also differs from some of the other stories in this anthology because the poet is not the viewpoint. We see the events unfolding through the viewpoint of Berto, the janitor, who isn’t one of the plainfolk, like Dr. Jessie is, but rather one of the half-fae people who can see and talk to the gods. He knows the power that Dr. Jessie calls upon unknowingly, and thus the reader knows it too; but like Berto, all the reader can do is stand on the sidelines and hope there isn’t too much to mop up in the end.

REVIEW: “Dulce et Decorum” by S. L. Huang

Review of S. L. Huang, “Dulce et Decorum”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 205-215. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is the story of how Emily Shen seeks out Valentina (sometimes Knyazev; today, Knyazeva), hedge-magician and curator of the poetry of war museum, at the suggestion of her friend Chand, for help dealing with the last remnant of her beloved grandfather — his treasured gun. This gun represents everything she hates — war that goes against her pacifist views, and a reminder of the fact that her beloved grandfather was not what she is:

Besides, the pistol feels like it doesn’t represent Yeye so much as it represents all the pieces of him I didn’t know or didn’t understand (p. 209).

It’s a story of how she must grapple with “the cognitive dissonance” — the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a pacifist raised by a war veteran, of the dissonance that comes from the juxtaposition of the two themes of the anthology: poetry, so beautiful, so vital, so full of power; and war, so ugly, so atrocious, so deadly. Valentina offers to write her a poem of her grandfather, noting that it will be “Messy. And human” (p. 214). Like life. Like war. Like poetry itself.

Huang’s telling of how is so full of piercing sentences that I could write a review just quoting all the ones that cut quick. But then I’d basically be replicating the story here, so I’ll just end this review with: Go read the story for yourself.

REVIEW: “And the Ghosts Sang With Her: A Tale of the Lyrist” by Spencer Ellsworth

Review of Spencer Ellsworth, “And the Ghosts Sang With Her: A Tale of the Lyrist”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 189-203. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I’m not a huge fan of 2nd-person narration when the narrator’s “you” is directed at me, but when the audience of the narration is not the reader but a clearly defined character who is listening to an oral tale, then I like it very much. I sometimes feel that a lot of modern fantasy storytelling has lost some of its connection with its oral past, and that we don’t write enough stories that are designed to be read aloud any more. (Having a 6yo means I spend a lot of time reading stories out loud.)

Not only does the narration capture the oral aspect of this thousands-and-one-nights-inspired story, the story itself works well not merely read aloud but performed; it would be a lovely choice for someone to recite around a campfire as the late summer sun is setting.

And it had a fabulous, vengeful ending.