REVIEW: “The Tale of the Costume Maker” by Steve Carr

Review of Steve Carr, “The Tale of the Costume Maker”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 1-10 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In the normal light of day, in this room with light streaming through the window, the costume maker is exceedingly handsome. His pale face is as clear as an unpainted porcelain figurine. He resembles Montgomery Clift or Paul Newman or Louis Jordan or none of them, or all of them all at once. His eyes react slowly to the light, as if he is waking from a dream — a dream of lazy, ethereal lovemaking.

This story was a strange one…it started off beautiful, with lovely words and lovely images, but then we are suddenly observers to a scene which should have been private — or rather, which should never have happened at all, because the costume maker did not ask for it, did not consent to it.

This is the first story in the anthology, but I’m glad it’s not the first that I read, for I think it might have put me off. I am increasingly uncomfortable with and intolerant of non-consensual sexual encounters in fiction, even when they play an important role in the story (and sometimes, precisely when they play such a role). If you share my sentiments, then you might wish to skip this story.

(First published in SickLitMag 2016).

REVIEW: “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Gentleman of Chaos”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 55-66 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He has no name, for it was banished long ago. By royal decree he has no face, for he does not exist. No one has heard his voice, soft like velvet; no one has seen the exhaustion and pain in his eyes; no one has felt his hand, scarred and calloused, on their cheek in an apologetic caress.

I really enjoy 1st-person POV for short stories, because then I feel like I’m sitting around a campfire, or in someone’s quiet room, or at a theatre, listening to someone tell a story. This story is steeped in history and mythology, and it feels real — not that the events in it happened, but that they are events that someone, somewhere would tell to captivate an audience who is disposed to believe the teller’s fantasies. It feels like something Shahrazad would tell her captive king.

Who, exactly, the narrator is, and why She (for that is the name which we are instructed to use) has chosen to tell this tale rather than another one, put me in a position where I — cis, het, female — feel like I’m wholly unqualified to review the story. There are so many aspects of the story where I simply do not have the right standing to comment on them. So I will stick to making personal remarks: This is a love story, and I loved it, and it is magical.

(First appeared in Apex Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “Where’s the Rest of Me?” by Matthew Cheney

Review of Matthew Cheney, “Where’s the Rest of Me?”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 31-52. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

And I’m looking at you right now, Mr. Reagan, and I know you’re not a queer, so I have to ask myself, as any reasonable man would: If you don’t look like a queer, why do you write like one? This is perplexing to me.

The story is a collection of snapshot vignettes, from a few sentences to a few paragraphs long, each with their own title. The same characters populate the vignettes, but the snippets are not ordered in a way to make a plot or story manifest. The reader must build the story themself while they read the different pieces, figure out how to put them into order in order to understand why we’ve been given these pieces rather than other ones. What’s omitted from the snippets are the answers to the question asked in the title of the story.

I found the story alternatingly startlingly sad and very perplexing. it is full of names and dates, historical details and precise facts — so full, in fact, that half-way through I was no longer able to reconcile what I was being told with what I (thought I) already knew about history, and had to pause and look up various things in wikipedia. That confirmed my own knowledge, and left me then wondering why Cheney chose to change history so much; what was gained by taking real-world historic figures and changing their lives, that would not have been present if Cheney had made up his characters? I don’t know. But I’ve also decided I don’t care about not knowing; even without that, this was a good story.

(Originally appeared in Blood: Stories, 2016).

REVIEW: “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold

Review of Amy Griswold, “Ratcatcher”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 165-179. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Never mind the sodding dead!” someone shouted, firing from beside him, but the only certainty he had in a world full of flying debris and blood was that the souls needed to come out of the corpses, extracted like rotten teeth. He raised his head, and saw the shattergun pointed at him from across the narrow gap between the ships.

This is the first story in the collection that I’ve read (remember, I’m reading them out of order) that is science fiction/steampunk in nature. The story opens with what could be a classic futuristic space setting, with a man with a shattergun and two airships docking together. But before the story starts, we’re told the time and place: “1918, over Portsmouth”. So this shower…isn’t your ordinary futuristic SF, and with that date “airship” takes on a steam-punk interpretation.

That being said, all the SF/SP/SPEC elements fade to the background in this wonderfully personal story, which focuses on the nature of death and the intimacies of life. It’s a story where the queer element only turns up in the final sentences, but it fits so perfectly and feels so natural that there is no question at all that this story belongs in this anthology.

There was ONE oddity of language in the story that tripped me up because it occurred so soon, and I feel compelled to mention. In the second paragraph, we’re introduced to a character via the rather clunky description “woman airman”. “Woman” isn’t an adjective; this construction doesn’t make much sense and only serves to emphasise the over gendering of the English language.

(Originally published in Mothership Zeta, 2016).

REVIEW: “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “Angel, Monster, Man”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 123-151. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Because to succeed as myth, Tom had to be dead. Otherwise the charade became too complicated to maintain. And who would know, in this city where the dying stacked up faster than firewood, that this one particular name in the long litany had never been an actual person?

A thought occurred to me, while reading the title of this piece, that while women have the threefold “Maiden/Mother/Crone” division, there isn’t really anything equivalent for men. What would such a tripartite characterisation of men look like? What types of myths and history could such a division tap into, in the way that the one for women does?

Miller’s story doesn’t actually address this question, but these were the thoughts playing in the back of my mind as I read it. I really enjoyed the complex narrative structure: Three parts, one for each portion of the title, one for each of three named narrators, the three that gave birth to Tom.

I loved the way the story operated at two levels, at one, just a story, at the other, an interrogation of the limits and boundaries of lies, fiction, and myth. Above all that, I loved the beauty of the story, with fine, delicate, ugly language. (The story is so full of lines I’d like to quote that if I quoted them all, I’d just be reproducing the entire story. “Adulterous toad-priests”. “Being a criminal is not so different from being an artist.” “Because of course it will hurt, because the things we need most always do.” “Love is the disease.” Ah! So many beautiful words.)

There is a rawness to the stories in this anthology that is unlike anything in any of the other anthologies I’ve reviewed for SFFReviews. It is hard to read these stories, Miller’s included especially, and not be moved. I also think I will be hard pressed to find a more powerful story in the collection than this astonishing one.

(This story first appeared in Nightmare, 2016).

REVIEW: “Bull of Heaven” by Gabriel Murray

Review of Gabriel Murray, “Bull of Heaven”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 83-99. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

So much calculation had gone into giving Francis realistic human coloration: olive skin, brown eyes, brown hair a little lighter than the eyes, striated and naturalistic. No one had done the same with the android Moses: they’d just painted him in tones they found beautiful, which occurred on no living man, which Francis found garish.

This is another story of automata, religious automata programmed and constructed so that they are “born” already knowing all the catechism, already capable of experiencing “the mystery of the faith” (p. 85). It is easy, in this story, to slip into the uncanny valley; it is only in consciously self-reflective narration that we are reminded that Brother Francis is no ordinary temple cleric. Moses, too, is an android, and what I find most fascinating in this story is watching Brother Francis go through his own uncanny valley, to see the automaton respond to the not-quite-right, the too-almost-organic android. “The humans might not have noticed, but Francis did” (p. 86). But there remain many things that Francis does not notice, not until he is confronted with them, not until it is almost too late.

REVIEW: “Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski

Review of Eneasz Brodski, “Of All Possible Worlds”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 223-236. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: This story contains a rape.

Ehud. I had slept with him years ago. I had loved him for awhile. I should have known he would be found out. A stone flew from the crowd and tore his ear open. It bled black.

This story was a feast of detail — Romans and Jews, slaves and centurions, Colosseum fights, monstrous grotesque animals, a wizened wizard. To every animal, human or beast, that Marad sends into the Colosseum, he offers the following apology: “You must die so that I may live. I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life. But know I wish this world was different” (p. 225).

All the stories in this anthology make my heart ache, from sadness, from gladness, from a desire that the world is other than how it is. This one left me with a feeling of sadness and fear too complex to be articulated. The horror in it is shattering.

(This story was originally published in 2016 in Swords vs. Chthulhu, Jesse Bullington & Molly Tanzer, eds.)