REVIEW: “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring” by Suzanne J. Willis

Review of Suzanne J. Willis, “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 163-172. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is the first story in the anthology to be set in the future — a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has broken into factions and the enemy fears the power of the written word. In such a world, libraries become the bastions of rebellion and words tattooed upon skin provide one last barrier of protection — tattoos made from ink created from the ashes of the books that were burned, libraries filled with books made of word indelible not upon vellum but upon a different sort of skin.

This story in all rights should be horribly, terribly gruesome and macabre. But it just isn’t, and that is what makes it so magical.

REVIEW: “Labyrinth, Sanctuary” by A. E. Prevost

Review of A. E. Prevost, “Labyrinth, Sanctuary”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 151-160. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Over centuries, Constance has built her sanctuary, stone by stone. But to the poet Daylily, the sanctuary is a labyrinth within which Constance seems trapped.

Indeed, both Constance and Daylily seemed trapped by constraints of their own making; Constance, caught within the stone walls she has built, Daylily, by thinking that the only way to save the poems is to keep them to themself. Each needs the other to find the way to break free, and leave the labyrinthine sanctuary. For “there is so much there, in the world beyond” (p. 160).

I found that this was another story where the presence of the author’s note at the end significantly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the story, and the ways in which Constance and Daylily fight both to protect and save themselves and to keep themselves at bay. It was a quiet story, more words than action, very apt for the theme of battling through and with words.

REVIEW: “The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Words of Our Enemies, the Words of Our Hearts”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 133-148. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“A shiny new story with dinosaurs” is how the author’s note describes this story, and Rustad delivered exactly that — not only with dinosaurs, but also an Ever-Hungry Queen, the tomeslinger Yarchuse who uses a set of neopronouns I’d never come across before (“ae”, “aer”), which I found read surprisingly smoothly and easily for being unfamiliar, a forest fighting for its right to survive, and (tapping into all my own desires) an Unearthly Library that people pray to instead of a deity. There was a lot going on packed into this story.

Yarchuse is the focus of the story, ae and aer quest to find the Ever-Hungry Queen’s son Prince Aretas, and the greater quest to end the war with the trees, but it was the Ever-Hungry Queen that intrigued me the most. Why does she hunger? What does she hunger? Was she the Ever-Hungry Queen three years ago, before the death of her daughter the princess? She remained throughout stubbornly peripheral and absent; I would have liked to have had more of her.

REVIEW: “Her Poems Are Inked in Fears and Blood” by Kira Lees

Review of Kira Lees, “Her Poems Are Inked in Fears and Blood”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 125-130. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

A plague of ill-fortune is besetting the emperor; five courtier-poets have been killed in the last year, and no one knows how or by whom. Under Minister Ushiwara is the most recent to die, and no eulogy poem in his honor is better-crafted than the one Uguisu composes, and speaks using Ushiwara’s own words and images and voice.

Lees’s story set in Heian era Japan is blood-thirsty and vivid. Uguisu is not fighting to defend her land or her people or even herself, but something even more fundamental: Her voice, and her right to be remembered. I particularly enjoyed the quite long and detailed author’s note for this story which emphasises how little we know of the lives of historical Japanese women, often not even their names.

REVIEW: “The Firefly Beast” by Tony Pi

Review of Tony Pi, “The Firefly Beast”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 115-122. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The City God of Chengdu outsources his city’s security needs to demons “seeking atonement for past wrongs by defending the city” (p. 116). But what happens when the demon defending the city becomes the demon that the city must be defended from? Pi’s story pits the turncoat Firefly Beast against the White-Gold Guest, who defends the city with a flute rather than a sword.

For the White-Gold Guest, poetry is not a means of destruction; it’s not a weapon at all, but rather the first step on her path to atonement, and, later on in that path, a shield of protection for her adopted city.

I read this story on a night when I needed something good, something supportive, something that focuses on strength and hope and things like that. This story delivered that. I loved how the White-Gold Guest turned her power to battle against her own inner appetites, used it to seek to better herself, and later on another, rather than to destroy. And I was absolutely delighted to find out, reading Pi’s author’s note, that the White-Gold Guest’s poetess mentor, Xue Tao, is a real, historical poet. I look forward to reading more of her poems.

REVIEW: “Eight-Step Kōan” by Anya Ow

Review of Anya Ow, “Eight-Step Kōan”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 103-113. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was a beautiful story, of Shyenmu and her mother, who had driven away the dragon that poisoned the river with a seven-step quatrain; of Shyenmu and her own daughter, Mirren, died but a month gone from the water of another dragon-poisoned river; of Shyenmu and her granddaughter, Mirren’s daughter, Kaeyen, and how the two of them set off to see if they can do what Shyenmu’s mother, Kaeyen’s great-grandmother, died: to find the words of power that will shame the dragon and make him leave. It is a story of love and sacrifice, of selfishness and regret.

There were so many layers to the story, getting deeper and deeper as I read, full of myth and detail and great feeling — and the author’s note at the end provides added background. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “The Other Foot” by Margo Lanagan

Review of Margo Lanagan, “The Other Foot”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 95-101. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This short story is a retelling of one of the lesser known Anderson fairy tales, the tale of The Red Shoes. It’s a tale I hadn’t read since childhood and had only the vaguest memories of, but Lanagan’s story stands on its own: Full of the gruesome horror that all proper and good children’s fairy tales have — though this version is not one that I would share with a kid. After finishing the story, I then went to read Anderson’s version, and that only increased my enjoyment of Lanagan’s version, by adding more layers and depth.

REVIEW: “El Cantar de la Reina Bruja” by Victoria Sandbrook

Review of Victoria Sandbrook, “El Cantar de la Reina Bruja”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 79-92. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Reina Alejandra chained her goddess soul in order to seduce a king. Now she is his captive, and the king is on crusade to woo a new queen, using Alejandra’s magic as his weapon. Submitting to his will is the only hope she has of one day freeing herself.

I found this story perplexing. It was beautifully written but it felt like certain pieces to the puzzle were missing. Alejandra clearly loved her king — or at least did once — not just lusted after him. But never are we shown why; there seemed nothing loveable in him. As a result, Alejandra seemed more to be pitied than to be sad for. I also missed a piece in the way in which she won her freedom; when Alejandra and her rival queen finally meet, it seems as if they must have met already, but we are not told how. Or perhaps it just is that Alejandra loves widely, and without reason.

REVIEW: “Candied Sweets, Cornbread, and Black-Eyed Peas” by Malon Edwards

Review of Malon Edwards, “Candied Sweets, Cornbread, and Black-Eyed Peas”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 63-76. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Candied Sweets, Cornbread, and Black-Eyed Peas” is the third story in Edwards’ “Half Dark” series, set in an alternate-universe Chicago where there is a strong Haitian (sub?)community and featuring the same heroine, but can be read independently of the first two (as I did; though afterwards I read the SFFRev review of the second story).

This story forced me to work at reading it, to savor the sound of the syllables and not just their meaning. It was rewarding work, for the most part, but there were a few things that caused me to stumble. Three pages from the end of the story — at a point where I was still waiting to find out who the poet of the story is — the point of view shifts from 1st person into addressing an unnamed “you”. Shortly after that, the unnamed “you” is lost, but there is a shift in tenses, so that paragraphs alternate between present and past tense. It was not clear to me why either of these choices were made, and the abrupt shifts without any clear reason for them unfortunately detracted from my enjoyment. And I never did find out who the battle poet was.

It was a good story, reading it made me want to read the others in the series, but I am not sure I see how this particular one fits into this particular anthology/theme.

REVIEW: “She Calls Down the Future, In the Footprints Left Behind” by Setsu Uzumé

Review of Setsu Uzumé, “She Calls Down the Future, In the Footprints Left Behind”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 49-60. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The scene opens onto a circle of warriors awaiting the drumming song of Naicto, their seer, for whom “there was no difference between her drumming and her weapon” (p. 59). Her songs tell the truth, tell the warriors who will live and who will die in tomorrow’s battle. But the truth Naicto sings for Terag is worse than mere death: Live and she will kill her chief; die and the entire tribe is doomed.

But prophecies never mean what they say. And sometimes the prophet says what she says not because it’s true but because the lies are the only way to make the right future true.