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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late November


A fairly lackluster bunch of stories this time.

Publications Reviewed


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #186-187, November 2015

Issue #186 reworks older material; #187 has oppression and rebellion.

#186

“Holy Water, Holy Blood” by Bruce McAllister

Another installment in the author’s serial about the Child Pope Bonifacio, his companions, and their quest to destroy the Drinkers of Blood. This one is a prequel in which we meet the boy Emilio and he meets il Papino. This will doubtless mean little to readers unfamiliar with the prior events and be redundant to those who have, which is why I prefer not to review this sort of serial. I do note that in the previously-appearing sequel, “Madonna”, Emilio claims that his messenger never mentioned meeting a girl, yet here, he does so.

“The Guardian’s Head” by Tamara Vardomskaya

Here is a timely tale, with our world’s coastal regions facing inundation as the seas rise. In this world, greatly resembling the 18th century of our own, rising waters threaten the low-lying countries, and sculptors create magical figures of Guardians to hold back the waves. Lumarine’s master Merlinette has been summoned to the newly-rebuilt northern city Nevarim by its Empress to create a massive new Guardian. The Empress, a strong feminist, having heard that the sculptor had a young female apprentice, insisted that Lumarine join him. When Merlinette has difficulty creating the right head for the Guardian, Lumarine insists that she can accomplish the task in time, despite her master’s misgivings.

“I have will enough. I want to save these beautiful cathedrals—” I swept my hand, “—and the palaces and the Institute and the piers and the sky. And to save you, and me. I have the skill to save art with art. Trust me, I can do it!”

The story leaves little doubt that the ruthless Empress is satisfied with the result of Lumarine’s efforts in saving her city. But students of history will recognize her as a version of Catherine the Great, and her capitol the low-lying St Petersburg built on the delta of the Neva River. The story is clearly inspired very heavily by Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman”, making it correspondingly short on originality.

#187

“The Delusive Cartographer” by Rich Larson

Many years ago, a party of marauders was sailing home with a rich cargo of loot when their ship sank with the loss of all hands, save for one man who was picked up and imprisoned. Later, grown old after his escape, he took to telling his story in taverns, where Crane, member of a criminal guild, heard the part about the map he’d drawn in his cell. Now he and an accomplice are breaking into the prison to retrieve that map.

The setting here is lush, but the story’s center is Crane, a drug addict and semi-magician with an obnoxious, affected manner of speech that seems to earn him enemies wherever he goes.

“I am nobody, dear gaoler,” Crane said. “I am a shade. In fact, if I so wished, I could disappear from your sight completely, ensconced in a cloak of living shadow.”

It’s hard to tell how much of his abilities are actual magic and how much mere illusion, the product of various drugs. I like the way his addiction is portrayed here, the craving he can control only with an effort; I can’t believe that Crane will ever come to anything but a bad end. The old man is referred to here as “the cartographer”, primarily, I believe, to conceal the name he was actually known by, which would have revealed the ending prematurely. I suspect, however, that readers will have figured it out anyway.

“Spider’s Ink” by Jason S Ridler

The story of an uprising, told from multiple perspectives, both rebels and repressors. The Macti Archipelago was ruled by the Bestorian Empire when Daru Heriz appeared in the robes of a Wayfarer priest, operating as a healer without charging the usual price, for which he gained the loyalty of the Macti tribes. In fact, he appears to have been an agent of the rival Kingdom of Portero, engaging in sedition. The Bestorians call him the Spider for the webs of intrigue he spun. Having identified him, the Bestorians send troops to burn him out, igniting a massive insurrection.

Most of these accounts are faceless and impersonal, but the author gives the story a human dimension and heart by opening with a strong scene showing Heriz as a man and physician, curing a tribesman’s only child of a parasitic infestation while armed men surround him in case he causes her pain.

Heriz pulled back the lever, and yellow milk sputtered into the chamber. Fever juice of the chittle. Softens the flesh so they can bury their eggs. Color flushed my first-and-only’s cheeks as the chamber filled to the brim, then tinted red. Heriz pulled out the needle with a gasp, placed it on the stool, then took a strip of cloth he’d boiled and placed it in her ear. A little rough, but it was needed. Nilla shivered, but the ghosting of her eyes faded.

Readers should recognize the shape of this scenario from events of the present day and extending as far back as we have history. There have certainly been numerous empires more brutal than the Bestorians. Aside from the secondary-world setting, the SFnal element in this story is minimal, but definitely present. The Bestorians rely on a weapon they call “black fire”, where the skills of Heriz go beyond healing medicine into the realm of advanced technology that is sometimes considered magic.


Tor.com, November 2015

The site scants on original short fiction for November.

“Points of Origin” by Marissa K Lingen

The lesson here: be careful with your genes, they may come back on you. This is part of the author’s series about children growing up out in the Oort Cloud, which has suffered an economic collapse that displaced much of the population. It seems that at one point Torulf and Judith on Mars donated some genetic material to a young, unrelated, outward-headed couple—for some reason not disclosed here. Now, in the aftermath of the collapse, a social worker unexpectedly shows up at their home with three children, the product of those genes and thus their biological/legal grandchildren. While Torulf and Judith had never wanted to raise children, they step up to the plate with minimal hesitation, but adjustments are required, on both sides.

Privately I wondered whether I had learned anything at all in eighty years that would be worth teaching these quiet, self-possessed children. But they had never been to Mars before. We would start with Mars.

A warm-hearted story about family relationships. So far, the predominant theme in the series seems to be the self-sufficiency and good sense of children raised in space, much in evidence here. I do wonder how long it took them to travel to Mars from the Oort Cloud, which is quite far away, given that the children don’t seem to have aged much during the journey. I do note that apparently life extension on Mars is sufficiently advanced that at eighty years the grandparents aren’t too decrepit to carry out their charge.


Uncanny, November/December 2015

An interestingly varied ToC for this issue, albeit mostly fantasy, including one story by a male author with a male protagonist—my favorite.

“Wooden Feathers” by Ursula Vernon

A mediocre woodcarver meets a master. Sarah loves carving but isn’t very good at it; she mostly does duck decoys. Every week, an old man comes into her shop and buys her cheapest, which makes Sarah curious about him. One day, she asks and learns more than she bargained for.

Sarah watched as her poor mangled mallard suddenly stretched out its wings. She caught a glimpse of carved wooden feathers, the bill opening, the legs—she hadn’t even carved legs! Where had they come from?—flailing.

We’re clearly into Pygmalion/Pinocchio territory here, and on the borderland with horror, but the author avoids the obvious clichéd pitfalls. I do suspect that old Jep, for what he spends on cheap decoys, could buy a knife sufficient to do the carving himself, rendering Sarah unnecessary, but then the story would be, as well.

“And the Balance in Blood” by Elizabeth Bear

A Tolkien-cast setting where nuns in a chantry worship a large pantheon using prayer wheels, a practice similar to some Buddhist tradition. Sister Scholastique is one of the Elect, a still-living saint who wants only to spend her remaining years in study while awaiting the reward for virtue in the next world. Unfortunately, people are convinced that the prayers of an Elect have particular power to bless the souls of their loved ones, and when such people are ready to donate large sums to the Temple, it heeds their wishes, so that Sister Scholastique spends too much time in the chantry and not enough at her books. Her bête noir is the local lord, who now wants to establish a Special Chantry in which she would pray for the soul of his dying wife. Another chantry.

Divine fathers and mothers, she prayed, briefly closing her eyes, grant this unworthy one the strength of body to carry out your tasks. Grant your servant the strength of spirit not to complain where anyone can hear me. And honestly, Divine fathers and mothers? A little speck of your Divine inspiration on how to get all this work done and still have some time for my own studies and devotions wouldn’t go amiss.

Inspiration is granted when the Elect Sister has the notion of using a water-wheel to power the spinning of the prayer cylinders.

An interesting theological mash-up here, and the use of water power to spin prayers is by no means without precedent. I quite like Sister Scholastique and her occasional use of small loopholes in her vow of Obedience, as well as her heroic stand against the overbearing lord. The introduction of clichéd Tolkienish Dwarves, on the other hand, makes it almost as hard to take seriously as if Grumpy and Sneezy had shown up. The story is clearly meant to be sort of light, but not that light.

“A Call to Arms for Deceased Authors’ Rights” by Karen Tidbeck

The narrator is literally a ghostwriter, getting ten percent of the proceeds from the posthumous works of the deceased, spoken by their magically animated corpses. The agency and the publisher get most of the profits, of course, and eventually some trickles into the author’s estate.

Why would any author go along with this? The answer is simple. The offer is an author’s last chance to get published. An author’s chance to say a few last words.

But the authors don’t know what they’re really letting their dead selves in for. The narrator means to change that.

Overt humor, shaded somewhat dark.

“Interlingua” by Yoon Ha Lee

A pair of mindships from the Amiable Worlds are heading out to contact a race of aliens whose communications are enigmatic. Hwacha [a Korean rocket launcher] has proposed to its partner Sarissa [a Macedonian pike] that on the way it devise a new communications game to develop an improved Contact language, using interspecies members of its crew as playtesters. Game development is apparently a common pastime of mindships wanting to keep their crews entertained.

The whole idea was to teach the [simulated] pet to grow from a state of all names are one name to the usage of individual sememes, themselves knotted to lexical units by the player. Not a full Contact simulation, since I was as much in the dark as to the Outsiders’ thought processes as anyone else, but an attempt.

The problem is, the game seems to be too successful, the playtesters too much engaged, in fact obsessed. The Hwacha is stumped until it actually tries playing the game itself, because, after all, the point of a game should involve some motivating measure of fun.

A rather different sort of piece from this author, less of the poetic or fantastic in the SF, but still quite cerebral. Also rather obscure at points, having to do with the game design and its jargon—too full of nebulosities and handwavium to be really convincing. Nor am I convinced about the consequences and conclusion because, at the Hwacha admits, this game essentially throws together a bunch of well-used design elements and shouldn’t be something all that novel, with such extreme results. But the Hwacha’s oversight of the testing is pretty slipshod, overlooking the obvious, which seems to be usual with it, as its companion the Sarissa likes to point out. Indeed, the real interest here is in the interaction between the two ships, with their very different personalities.

“I Seen the Devil” by Alec Bledsoe

Back in 1973, when he was ten years old, the narrator heard the news that they had the devil locked up in the local jail, and he wanted to see for himself. He’d befriended a local Vietnam vet, a man called Tater because he lived in a hole in the ground—suggesting PTSD—and asked him to take him there. “Because you told me once that you shook the devil’s hand. I figure you’d know if this was the real devil or not!”

The strength of this short piece is in the local color, by no means uniformly charming, and the narrative voice. But its heart is in the young boy’s naïve understanding of events and the reader’s more discerning view.


Lackington’s, Fall 2015

A set of five short pieces on the declared theme of “Dreamings”. I note that more often than not these dreams are in fact the product of hallucinogens, not the sleepytime sort.

“The Spider Tapestries” by Mike Allen

The author is a poetry guy, and this shows in the prose here, as we follow the members of a [nonhuman?] tribe gathering the ingredients for their dreams.

The azure star spider injects ink when it bites, an umber venom that paints the veins if the skin has paled enough, that steeps the brain in a fire of extrasensory comprehension. We collect its poison in the wild, on cautious days-long crawls through the caverns formed by the roots of the blood-scented basalt trees, whose crowns cannot be seen beneath the ever-present cloud cover.

The narrative voice is “we”, there are no identifiable characters and nothing like a plot; it’s all the exotic setting.

“Gallery” by Mathew Scaletta

Polyamory. Three’s company, four’s a crowd. The network formed by the ties among the individual lovers is too easily torn apart if one link is weak. Here, the stronger ties are formed by the hallucinogenic flower petals the characters all seem to be dependent on—certainly they don’t seem capable of forming real relationships without.

It’s interesting that the narrative is in the 2nd person, addressed to a stranger, a potential fifth lover.

“Song of the Krakenmaid” by JY Yang

Here the dreams are of the psychological kind, and also the story-setting kind, as Fennel is oneirically seduced by the tentacled krakenmaid, after which, readers will be unsurprised by the subsequent turn of events. Fennel works at the aquarium where two newly-discovered krakenmaids have been kept, although one has just died. Fennel is also repulsed by her lover’s callous attitude towards the creatures—as, indeed, so will readers be; this isn’t subtle characterization.

It’s oddly noteworthy that while SF stories, including those in this issue, are typically full of lovers having love affairs, we don’t often actually see them having sex. Here is sex in detailed abundance. But while we shouldn’t attribute human emotions to the krakenmaid, I find it hard to credit that a creature who had just watched its close companion be cut up for necroscopy would be all that ready for sex with another of the captor species. Indeed, I wonder how the human researchers could be so callous, if not actively cruel.

“I Am Winter” by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Aliens [the Benefactors] have taken over the Earth and moved it out of its solar orbit to improve the temperature and atmosphere, from their point of view. The remaining human population seems to be greatly reduced. The narrator calls himself a hunter, which is to say an assassin-for-hire, currently commissioned, apparently by the aliens, to kill a young boy who has stolen some alien technology. He claims that he was warned in a dream:

I saw, as though I were a floating ghost, my body cold on a table but my eyes were awake, and alive, and I knew, as one knows in dreams, that the aliens meant to torture me for eternity. And keep me alive. Just to see what would happen. Out of interest.

So that he’s decided to kill the children of Earth to spare them such a fate. I don’t believe him, and he doesn’t seem to believe himself.

This is the most SFnal setting here, and the imagery is well-done, but the piece is almost a vignette, too incomplete to be satisfying beyond that.

“Pillow-Talk of the Late Oneirocalypse” by Vajra Chandrasekera

It seems that the human population now exists only in dream, or at least the narrator is dreaming that this is the case. But what is it that’s dreaming?

You remember the body you once had when you were once a body, rather than the dream of a body? You remember that it was made of quarks like everything else? It had continuity. It was the same kind of stuff as everything around it; it was a part of everything around it, dreaming that it was awake. And now that you’re dreaming that you’re a dream, the stuff that you’re made of is still the same as the stuff around you, in all its flickering, maddening slippage of dream logic.

For some reason, the narrator claims that this situation was brought about by the “mortdieu”. Which is French, of course, for the death of god. Which suggests Descartes, who informed his readers [in a weak argument] that they could be certain of their existence because they could be certain of a benevolent, omnipotent god. So perhaps we can infer that with the death of this deity, there is nothing anchoring humans to the “basal reality” and they’ve all floated away into oneiric infinity. Or perhaps the quarky narrator is just dreaming of having this discussion with a dream-lover and the story is only a fantasy. The author has certainly opened a large speculative can of worms here, with which readers can grapple.


Shimmer, November 2015

A monotonous ToC—girls in the woods.

“Even in this Skin” by A C Wise

Yet another piece about a young person drowning in angst, offered a magical escape from her intolerable mundane existence if only she can bring herself to leave her good-for-nothing brother behind. Who among us never entertained this childhood fantasy of passing through the door into fairyland? I note that Mar is also offered an adult alternative: a transfer at work with promotion, raise and benefits; but it’s the childish fantasy that attracts her.

It’s not simply that this one is profoundly unoriginal, but that it’s essentially contemporary mundane, only fantasy in terms of childish Wishfulthinkium. The magical world in the woods, with its vulpine god/lover, shows no signs of an independent existence outside Mar’s mind; if she would turn her back, it would dissipate like mist.

“In the Pines” by K M Carmien

This is much better, with a world in the woods that clearly exists on its own terms, with its own rules, when the viewpoint character isn’t there. Harry is a young witch with an innate affinity for this world, whose mother has unwisely attempted to protect her by failing to instruct her fully in her craft. So when Harry finally does grow up and enters the woods, she’s insufficiently aware of how the place works, making an error that only she can remedy.

In the center of the clearing lies a tangle of coyotes, bloodied, eyeless, mouths open in futile, soundless snarls. Even dead the bodies tug at the eye—they run into each other, with no clear ending or joins; they’re all one thing. They cast no shadow.

Magical realms have their own logic and rules: if blood holds power, spilling it has consequences; if evil is planted, it will sprout. So we’re inclined to believe that what happened in the woods must have been Harry’s doing; she should have known better. Except that we know that the woods-thing spilled the blood, not Harry; the woods-thing could have warned her, and didn’t. So if it was the woods-thing’s doing, the woods-thing’s fault, then what Harry does to remedy the evil isn’t expiation, it’s heroism.

“To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth” by Kristi DeMeester

In this creepy story, the woods is an abandoned building lot, but like the woods, it’s a place of dark potency that attracts young girls like Willa with a yen to escape, even if just a little, the strictures of their adolescent world. But Beth is something else again, Beth is Other in a way that puts off normal people who sense the wrongness in her. This, we find, is the consequence of the way she was raised by her father [in a relationship with strong incestuous tones] to dig lost things out of the Earth. Beth is a tool, and Willa and her friends recognize this.

We liked to think that we were doing her a favor. That without us, she’d languish in social hell. No friends. No one to talk to. We adopted her because it amused us. We curled her hair to see if we could, put coral lipstick and liquid eyeliner on her as if she were a doll, and then gave her the crumbs of our affection. Still, she smiled at us and took us down to the lot when we had something that needed finding.

Yet it does seem, in the end, that something of genuine friendship crept into this relationship, and Beth turns out to have her own purposes. It’s noteworthy that, although Willa is narrating this story, we never learn what happens, after, whether for good or for ill.

“A Drop of Ink Preserved in Amber” by Marina J Lostetter

No woods here, but a tool literally made into a tool by her parents, who employed genetic modification to create drawers in Amber’s body, in which small valuable items can be concealed from, for example, customs agents. Amber was a custom-built smuggling mule. Her life coincides with an intolerant movement advocating the extermination of modified humans. Amber was afraid to reveal her secret.

But the truth was, she wasn’t brave. She’d never been brave. She didn’t know how to stand up to her parents—she was a grown woman, a professional, and still she helped them smuggle. She didn’t know how to tell her friends that, just because she’d told them about her drawers, it didn’t mean they were free to use them. These days her drawers concealed proof of her friends’ affairs, secret credit cards, and past-due statements.

Amber’s modifications are a kind of Neat Idea, although the notion of rectangular drawers seems quite impossible and wrong; they ought to be expandable sacks, more like natural human organs. But the author keeps trying to make Amber stand for universally significant issues like rather than the merely personal ones of parents who would exploit their child in such a way. These attempts fall flat.

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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