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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early May


An Australian anthology from Fablecroft Publishing, featuring women writers, as well as some of the usual ezines.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, May 2013

Three well-written stories of captivation by the other.

“Soulcatcher” by James Patrick Kelly

On a future world, one of Klary’s clone-sisters has been enthralled by a xeni.

Some liken the xeni to the faeries of Earth legend, their charisma so intoxicating that, at the merest nod, a groom will walk away from his new bride, a mother will abandon her infant. Is it telepathy? Pheromones? The lure of great wealth and power? No matter. Klary has steeled herself against the xeni’s insidious power.

Klary has been selected by their family to rescue Janary, whom the xeni keeps as a pet on a leash, and names her Nothing. It is an elaborate plot she has woven, and she is prepared, she believes, for the xeni but not for the presence of her sister, who clearly doesn’t want to be rescued.

The soulcatcher is the bait in Klary’s trap, but also the trap she falls into. No one comes out of this one. The last line is a cry of despair.

“(R+D)/I = M” by E Catherine Tobler

The equation is: risk plus distance divided by isolation equates madness. The theme is trespass.

A pair of young Martians is intrigued by the human settlement, particularly by their grapevines. They love the stolen fruit. For a long time, the humans never see them because they never expect to.

Our bodies grew as slender as the grapes did, tethered to the ground by delicate webbed feet the way the grapes held to their vines, spout-like heads spread open to collect whatever moisture the air produced. The leaves and coiled vines hovered in the air, held back by only the weight of the fruit upon them. Once plucked, the vine sprang back, looking much like we did when we jumped.

But there comes a time when it ceases being a game.

Some nice descriptions here. I love the grapes. The narrative suffers a bit from redundancy, however.

“Tachy Psyche” by Andy Dudak

A future China, disintegrating as its captive nations, like the Uyghurs, break away. Wang Zhe is an agent of the PRC, fighting to restore its unity. His brain has been modified to allow him to accelerate or slow subjective time, but the Uyghurs have learned to control the process in captive minds. As time fragments him, Wang Zhe abandons politics and finally love for enlightenment.

In the Bardo of his final moment, Wang Zhe has repeated these words thousands of times. They have become a mantra. The unmoving raindrops have become prayer beads. Past and future have melted away. He has worn his memories out. They’ve been rewritten too many times.

A very short, fragmentary piece, as Wang Zhe’s life flickers and strobes in his memories. He’s a character of inaction, trapped by his own superiors, by the enemy, by his out-of control mind. Even in love, he’s trapped and betrayed. There’s some irony in observing that his escape finally comes through Tibetan thought, as we can hopefully suppose that Tibet has probably also broken free by this time from the Han.



Apex Magazine #48, May 2013

Another good issue from Apex. This is becoming a regular thing.

“The Binding of Ming-tian” by Emily Jiang

A prose poem about footbinding, people forced into shapes they were never meant to take, people with yearnings for what they do not have. The master musician wants to paint. The apprentice musician wants his master’s daughter. The foot-bound daughter wants to dance.

The daughter of an er–hu master is not allowed to play the er–hu. Her father believes she needs to work on her dowry, so she sews. She closes her eyes and pictures the thread as an er–hu string. With each stitch the sound becomes higher, sighing a wail. She plucks a muted vibration, plucks against her heartbeat, until it shreds.

Strong symbolism here, evoking suffering: red shoes, bleeding fingers, even innocent-appearing pink ribbons. Like the er-hu, there are two strands to this story. One, the warping and mutilation of individuals in order to fulfill social norms that deny them their own forms; two, individuals who warp and distort their own forms to fulfill their hearts’ desires – in the process, risking the loss of everything else. These characters achieve what they strive for; why aren’t they more happy?

–RECOMMENDED

“Ilse, Who Saw Clearly” by E Lily Yu

A stranger arrives in a cold mountain town in Germany, offering eyes for sale. An old near-blind woman is the first to buy.

The stranger extracted three slim silver knives with ivory handles from the lining of his cloak. With infinite care and exactitude, barely breathing, he slid the first knife beneath the old woman’s eyelid, ran the second around the ball, and with the third cut the crimson embroidery that tied it in place.

Ilse alone refused to sell her own blue eyes, so she was left sighted when the rest began to fail. She sets out alone to find the charlatan and retrieve the townspeople’s eyes.

This one follows the fairytale template of the young person who journeys out into the world and returns home, wiser. Ilse doesn’t precisely have adventures, but she has numerous encounters that teach her the ways of the world, which is not a kind place overall. Nice updating of the classic.

“Come to My Arms, My Beamish Boy” by Douglas F Warrick

Cotton is dying of Alzheimer’s, clinging to his last memories as they are devoured. In his nightmares, his old biology teacher comes to him with spectral lampreys, that attach themselves to him with sharp teeth and drain it all away.

A strong depiction of this dreaded fate.

But he couldn’t remember the wedding, not a goddamned thing about it. He reached into that broken old icebox, strained a little further and tried to find the little details: what did her dress look like? How did she wear her hair? Was she smiling? Was she crying? It was gone. Melted.

The lampreys, likewise, are a strongly horrific metaphor for the process. Warrick depicts death as a mercy in such cases, and the horror being that humans, unlike fish, are aware of what’s happening to us.



One Small Step, edited by Tehani Wessely

An Australian anthology of 16 stories by women, with a theme of discovery. From the title and the subject matter, readers will probably expect science fiction, tales of exploration, new worlds, the conquest of space. That’s not what we have here. Most of the stories are fantasy of some sort, there is little exploration, and the discoveries that we find are generally of the epiphany sort. There are good reads to be found, however, some interesting settings and premises, once genre expectations are adjusted.

While not explicitly YA, a lot of the stories deal with a young woman’s coming of age, discovering who she really is. I was pleased to find, by variety, a few pieces with male narrators or protagonists. No one expects, these days, male authors to write exclusively about boys and men, but there is often a sort of expectation, for an anthology like this one, that female authors will automatically write female characters. I’m pleased that this self-limiting strategy has been rejected by the editors.

“Always Greener” by Michelle Marquardt

Humans have been colonizing a bunch of different worlds, most of which are flawed in some way. It seems they got scammed.

My father told me once how amazing it had been to see this new world as they descended from space. How beautifully, dazzlingly green it had been. How the colonists had laughed and hugged one another with joy that their world seemed so rich and abundant.

But the dazzling green turns out to be razor edged, and every day the colonists need to cut back the Grass in order to survive. Then it turns out that an alien species has laid claim to the place. Jessica’s father is lost in the ensuing battle. While waiting for the truce terms to be finalized, a pair of alien POWs is being held near her family’s claim, imprisoned by the surrounding Grass. Jessica at first hates them for her father’s sake, then becomes intrigued by them.

The discovery in this coming-of-age story is of both Self and Other. Things turn out to be not what they seem. Kindness is repaid. Cruelty remains.

“By Blood and Incantation” by Lisa L Hannett & Angela Slatter

Witchery.

She doesn’t go far now. Doesn’t flee the yard curving around her cottage, doesn’t breach the hedge encircling the lot. She doesn’t hare, or dash, or delve anywhere near the life-sucking wet. Instead, she spends her days tending circles. Bog, briar, yard. Cottage, hearth, wooden washtub. Circles within circles within circles. She keeps them intact, protected. Keeps herself, slump-shouldered Brona, at their centre. Forever staying put.

But Brona is careless, distracted with her own cares, and makes a mistake.

The neat thing here is the bog, treacherous with treasures thrown in over the ages, with bones of the dead, with evil wights. This is a women’s story, a womb story, of children wanted, unwanted and lost, and males tolerated only to the extent that they serve this end. But despite the interest of the bog and the things Brona pulls out of it, I’m not seeing much real discovery here.

“Indigo Gold” by Deborah Biancotti

Kaneko is a reporter whose boss has sent her out to make a story out of the nutcases who call the paper to say they have secret powers. Some of them say they were indigo children, meat to be the next wave of human evolution. If so, evolution hasn’t worked out for most of them very well.

“I was always finding stuff, even when I was a kid. Me Mum lost stuff, I found it. Earrings. Bank statements. Remember bank statements?” He said it like bank statements had been wiped from the face of the Earth.

This one turns out to be a murder mystery with a reporter who has a superpower of her own: tenacity that leads to discoveries. Some entertaining dialogue, but a bit too much coincidence, which isn’t a superpower for authors.

“Firefly Epilogue” by Jodi Cleghorn

Leah is spending her mid-life crisis touring the world and finds an Australian guy in Malaysia, who shows her the fireflies as he takes her downriver in his boat. She falls for both.

“They’re like … fairy lights. But more … spectacular for being part of nature. More … I can’t describe it. It’s like I’ve died and gone to the most beautiful place in all the universe.”

But Leah is standing on the riverbank looking for Andy and can’t find him. She finally remembers what has really happened.

Very short, poignant piece, in which Leah discovers where she is. The two scenes on the riverbank work well, though the stuff between them is cursory. I’m thinking it almost could have been entirely left out.

“Daughters of Battendown” by Cat Sparks

A postapocalypse world of hierarch and privilege contained in a tall ancient building where Topsiders rule in the sunlight and the most privileged daughters of Downbelow, those without defect, can be chosen to ascend as Birdman brides.

Brook and her spiteful entourage had it made. No shifts in the reclamation plants or, skies forbid, the mines. Not for them, their sisters or their mothers. If only they accepted privilege with good grace.

Autumn, not among the chosen, is pissed off at the entire situation and decides to see the sun, even if it kills her. So she climbs up the laundry chute to see it for herself.

Autumn makes lots of discoveries Topside. I’m not sure a lot of it makes sense, but it’s what we expect to find. This one fits the exploration theme better than most.

“Baby Steps” by Barbara Rosen

The narrator’s parents came from the Old Country where giants and fairytales live, and one might call him a refugee. Here, he lives a reclusive life in a place that regards him as a freak, spending a lot of time on the internet, where he finds a woman who says she’s looking for a tall guy. He tells her his life story, starting a couple generations back.

This is a long piece, full of fairytale stuff that works just as it ought, and it comes to the end with a neat and satisfying twist. This is one of the stories that is noteworthy that the narrator is male.

“Number 73 Glad Avenue” by Suzanne J Willis

Mary is time-tripping with Charlie, her tiny automaton partner, and very much enjoying 1923. Although ultimately from the future, their travels have taken them everywhen, to all the most special moments.

Silver waves of time flowed around her in a shimmering cascade as the buildings, the path, the people disappeared or grew or shrank into their new lines as required. Each step carried her quite gradually from 1852 to 1923, the bag clenched firmly in her hand, and she gave a little shiver.

But they are there on business, not just time tourists, and their clients pay with a small amount of their time.

Lovely setting, with a magical touch in the descriptions. Readers may catch a hint of steampunk. Although there’s a neat twist at the end, there’s a whole lot that isn’t revealed here. If this premise isn’t already the basis for some longer work, it would serve well for it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Shadows” by Kate Gordon

The Shadows have always been there, but only Lena can see them, not her parents. At least, so she believes. She also believes the Shadows had nothing to do with her mother’s recent disappearance. They seem to be almost benign.

I threw back the covers to find a Shadow hovering beside me. I swatted it away. At least it was only a small one this morning. Some mornings I woke up to a swarm of them and had to fight through them to escape from my room, down the stairs, into the kitchen. They tried to wrap themselves around me. They nudged their way into my pockets and pushed themselves down my pyjama top. They clung to my ankles and grabbed at my fingers.

What Lena finally discovers is the truth. The revelation makes this low-key horror, in which the reader’s imagination will have to fill in the blank spots. What we don’t know is how she will choose to use what she now knows.

“Original” by Penelope Love

In a far future when extreme body modification is common, Tek’tek signs up for Anthropology 404 because Sarah is in the class, not because he has any idea what’s going on. As Professor Xi explains with some exasperation,

“For the benefit of those who haven’t done their reading — Sara, you may keep sorting — the purpose of this class is not to study aliens but to study ourselves, our origins, with an anthropological survey of the Originals. The Originals rejected modern technology. The latest they accepted was the steam engine, a contraption so outdated I doubt you’ve heard of it.”

Now, most of the Originals live isolated on a reservation, but now, for the first time in centuries, one of them has come to the university. Communication with Enoch is difficult. But he has come because of a dire situation: centuries of inbreeding has doomed the population to death. To find a solution, they have to descend to the Old Stacks. But Enoch’s religion forbids him to accept it.

While the story has a humorous core and readers might at first take it as farce, it is more. The characters discover tolerance and respect for each other, despite their profound differences. I like the scenes where Tek’tek trades Bible verses with Enoch, attempting to convince him to accept modern medicine. The story offers insights into the real essence of humanity. I also note that Tek’tek is another male point of view.

“The Ships of Culwinna” by Thoraiya Dyer

Toman, son of the chief of the Pale People, is born into a time of famine, when tribes make war over scarce resources. When they prevail against invaders, he realizes, “It was technology which had defended the tribe. Our tools had been better suited to the task at hand.” But Toman and Doya share a vision of even more effective technology, and he leaves home to discover it. His journey does not prosper.

There are some potentially promising ideas here, but not well executed. Doya reminds me of Ayla The Too-Competent, and there are stiff, artless scenes comparing men’s and women’s roles. The second half of the story is much too sketchy; the parts don’t form a satisfying whole. There is another male narrator/protagonist.

“Cold White Daughter” by Tansy Rayner Roberts

The narrator is a snow woman, animated by the white witch she calls her mother. This witch is someone we know from other stories, although the names have been changed.

When my mother went abroad in that wide sledge of hers, drawn by reindeer, I was left alone in the house with the stone horrors. Sometimes I thought that the statues spoke to me, in voices so soft and painful that I could barely make the words out.

Then comes the thaw, and the narrator must save herself.

I like this inversion of the classic tale that exposes some of the weakness of the Lewis original yet still retains some of its charm.

“The Ways of the Wyrding Women” by Rowena Cory Daniells

A world in which some girls are marked at birth with the Wyrding sign. The Warlord’s sons took the narrator captive in a raid and call her Sun-Fire because she won’t give them her true name. Now they want to force her unborn child to carry the dead Warlord’s soul, and the ancient Wyrding Woman of the Warlord’s clan is too powerful for her to overcome. She vows to resist.

Closing my heart and mind, I invoked the Wyrding-mother, begging her to make the babe shrivel and die or better yet, make it a girl with the Wyrding-sign.

Yet she can’t resist the lure of the knowledge that the old woman offers her.

Here’s a strong, well-realized setting, peopled with strong and ruthless characters. The plot is full of murder, rape, and treachery. At its heart is Sun-Fire’s struggle to find her place, to choose between knowledge and revenge, between her birth clan and the clan of her captors, where she can win a place of power for herself and her child.

–RECOMMENDED

“Winter’s Heart” by Faith Mudge

Meriel was once a princess married against her will to a king she didn’t want. So she paid a wizard to remove her heart. Now, pregnant with a child she can’t love, she has come to ask the sorcerer Forsythian to find it, but he doesn’t seem to be at home.

My footsteps echoed in the great empty chamber; when I laid my hand on the bannister, it came away grey with dust. If what I saw and felt was an enchantment only, the illusion of abandonment, I was in skilled hands indeed.

He’s there, of course, and another denizen of the place assures her that she will eventually see him if he wants to be seen. Meriel eventually gives birth with no sight of the sorcerer. She does, however, finally hear him after he notices the baby crying.

A nice fantasy tale employing classic tropes to good effect. Meriel discovers her heart, but not as she had expected to. The point of view shift at the end works well in this case.

“Sand and Seawater” by Joanne Anderton & Rabia Gale

The dollmaker came to the island as a young woman and vowed to make it a paradise. For all the children she made bad luck dolls that would absorb all the misfortunes to befall them. She animated the dolls with the soil of the island’s volcano. But the dolls removed the children’s capacity to feel anything, not only pain. She has created an island of zombies. The islanders had thrown the dolls into the sea to wash the bad luck away, but now they are returning, very much like zombies.

The maker it remembers is a young woman. Straight back, dark long hair, and power in that hard gaze. She works the people of the village like they are needle and thread. Creating something beautiful out of them but binding them together, and to her, and to the very island at the same time. Now her eyes are dull, and squinting. Her face weathered and fearful, her back bent.

A rather complicated and contrived scenario. The authors muddy the waters of their story by having two factions of dolls with opposing purposes, and draw it out too long in quarrels between the dolls. There is a point of view shift here, as well, but I can’t see that it serves any good purpose in a narrative already overburdened. If anything is discovered, it is a lesson.

“Ella and the Flame” by Kathleen Jennings

The people of the nameless town are afflicted by a persistent drought and blame the inhabitants of the green cottage, who appear to be witches or fairies or something of that sort, for failing to alleviate it, or perhaps for causing it, or simply for having good fortune that they refuse to share. A mob gathers to do what they call justice. The three sisters are prepared to die, but they are concerned for their child, Ella. A sort of magic happens, which may be what is discovered.

Meant to illustrate the power of story, but I didn’t find it as moving as it should have been, perhaps because of the scant background. It’s hard to make a feelgood conclusion from burning women alive, even if they accept their fate.

“Morning Star” by D K Mok

The final story in the book, and at last we get a great voyage of exploration across space.

After the Apocalypse, Ven the android is sent away with the last surviving human child. Almost a century before, a scientist named Arvel Hem speculated that humans suffer from a “chronogenetic species-wide pathology” that has now caused mass die-offs. The boy named Solomon may be the exception. There may be others. Ven’s quest is to find Hem, who took off across the universe to avoid the conflagration he knew was coming to Earth. On the ship, Sol grows up, Ven slowly deteriorates, and so does their vessel.

There were choices in life that required judgement, the weighing of necessary evils, of greater goods. Ven had not been programmed with wisdom, and had no way of assessing the psychological damage that would be caused to Sol by leaving him here, versus the physical danger he would be exposed to on Demeter.

The point here is not the destination, but the voyage. Which is just as well, because the destination disappoints in an overly triumphalist way, evoking vast swelling orchestral themes and massed choruses of hosannas. I’m not buying it.



Waylines #3, May 2013

The latest issue of this multimedia ezine has two pieces of short fiction. Unfortunately, the text of one is on a black ground.

“The Horses Under Her Skin” by Leena Likitalo

Somewhere on the steppes of central Asia, or so it seems, the late King Slavik engaged in a reign of atrocities so vile that his daughter took the extreme step of poisoning him. But from the grave he laid curses on the people until they agreed to give him his revenge by sacrificing her. The Sage of the people, a shaman, is in love with the princess, but there is nothing he can do to avert her doom, despite his efforts

I could sense the resentment that emanated from the hill tombs of the past kings and queens. They abhorred Slavik for using the curse he’d cast on his deathbed, for causing storms, draught, and famine upon a whim. I’d frequented the sauna to seek counsel from them too many times to count, but before a curse of this magnitude, the ancestors were powerless.

I like this setting, the details of shamanist practices, and the animated totemic animals the people have tattooed on their bodies. The conclusion comes rather too quickly; I would have liked to see more of this underworld and the struggle there.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.


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