Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-01-05)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

  • “Big Mother” by Anya Ow, Strange Horizons, January 1, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Six Hundred Universes of Jenny Zars” by Wendy Nikel, Diabolical Plots #35A, January 1, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • “Universal Parking, Inc.” by James Anderson, Nature, January 3, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • “A Head in a Box, or, Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation” by Lori Selke, Nightmare #64, January [3], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “The Streets of Babel” by Adam-Troy Castro, Lightspeed #92, January [4], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Suite for Accompanied Cello” by Tamara Vardomskaya, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #242, January 4, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • An Aria for the Bloodlords” by Hannah Strom-Martin, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #242, January 4, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • “Matches” by James S. Dorr, Grievous Angel, January 5, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Open and Shut” by Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, January 5, 2018 (science fiction short story)

This was another fairly heavy week due to Nightmare and BCS coinciding with each other and everyone else, and even Grievous Angel and the Gollancz website put out stories.

First, I’ll gloss over the stories which fell short of special note to varying degrees. I’m not sure if “Open and Shut” is a story or an excerpt but it takes a retrospective conversational approach to the dramatic meat of the story which blunts its effect and seems too reliant on being part of the larger Prefect/Revelation Space space opera milieu to really stand alone. I reviewed “Big Mother” for Tangent.

In one of a pair of multiverse flash stories, the protagonist of “Six Hundred Universes of Jenny Zars” is trying to escape from an unfortunate incident in her past. The story is quite funny in places (especially universes #088 and #185) but has an anticlimactically un-funny ending. “Universal Parking, Inc.” is a tale of multiversal fraud involving parking lots which was extremely stiffly told with unnatural dialog and a weak and similarly stiff conclusion. In the third flash story of the week, “Matches” is a tale of the ordinary sibling of a vampire and a werewolf who decides to set the world on fire with really big matches which suffers most from a weak ending.

The scattershot mockery of The Beautiful Ones in “A Head in a Box, or, Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation” isn’t horror so much as initially implausible SF and finally fantasy, with intermittent bursts of disgusting elements. Not my cup of tea. Even less for me, “The Streets of Babel” is a fantasy-billed-as-SF which is not even quite metaphorical but simply homologous, taking almost seven thousand words to belabor the instantly understood concept of a tribesman being captured by a city and morphing into enslaved Modern Man, depicting his incessant torture in a way that inflicts greater torture on the reader.

By far the most interesting stories of this bunch were the duet of BCS stories which actually form a trio if “Symphony to a city under the stars” (reviewed just yesterday from another magazine) is considered. “Suite for Accompanied Cello” is a feminist tale of a fantasy world of a late-Baroque/early-Classical sensibility featuring a musician-narrator and automaton-musician and the former’s attempt to liberate the latter. The pace is a little slow and the theme (and partly the structure, particularly in the climax) is quite tired, but it is nicely written for the most part and maintains interest until a slightly flat ending. While some may prefer the “Suite,” I preferred An Aria for the Bloodlords which, while slightly (and presumably pointedly) French-flavored, creates a vividly colored world of a demon aristocracy and its mixed and human subjects and the artistic and magical rebellion of the latter against the former. There are a couple of grammatical or stylistic problems but, unlike some stories recently, they are infrequent distractions rather than truly damaging (though it includes a third example of “sunk” instead of “sank“!). More significantly, I may be giving it too much credit for ambiguity and it’s just another simplistic revenge fantasy but it seemed more nuanced than that.

Edit (2018-01-06): Added the Grievous Angel story I’d missed and specified the milieu of “Open and Shut.”

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-09)

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(While no acknowledgement was required, thanks to comfreak for the great art.)

So far in December, Grievous AngelStrange Horizons, and Tor.com have produced no original fiction in English. The rest of the (semi-)weekly venues I cover were active and here are (mostly) brief reviews of their stories.

Low Bridge! or, The Dark Obstructions” by M. Bennardo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (novelette)

A newly married couple take a boat ride on their honeymoon where they are annoyed by a boorish author of ghost stories. This opens (and, indeed, closes) with nothing necessarily fantastic, is narrated in a mannered, Victorian way, and has unappealing characters, so is hard to get into. There is a dinner scene of somewhat spirited conversation and an exciting moment of a low bridge but a prophecy is given which leads to expectations which are disappointed. The culmination is trivial.

The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (fantasy novelette)

Not having read any Patrick Rothfuss, I don’t know if or how this is related but, when the protagonist is reading The Book of the Names of the Winds, even I couldn’t help but think of the title The Name of the Wind.

What this is related to is at least three other stories about a new god in the world and the wizard(s) who resist it. I’ve only read half of them and I recommended an earlier one (“The Wizard’s House“) in 2015. This one seems to suffer more from sequelitis, being more of a middle and relying more on past stories. These references can add to a larger, numinous effect from ominous vagueness or, being robbed of their context, can simply fall flat. I suspect this could be read in isolation but wouldn’t be a good starting place.

In this installment, Diogenes, the new wizard, is trying to honor his promise to restore the persistent wind, Sylva, to her body, which had been unmade by the previous wizard’s brother. He realizes that the only way to do this is to risk re-awakening the quiescent god. Adding to the difficulties is that there’s an Emperor waiting to be served. The ending wraps up only the most interior thread and sets the stage for further adventures.

This is a slow tale, with little happening in the first half, and never really becoming all that thrilling, but certainly becoming interesting in places due to wonderfully imaginative fantastic elements. Early on, there is another nice depiction of “the wizard’s house” and the second half, with encounters with gods, ascents to the top of the house, and various other things (along with references to the amazing flying jellyfish (that you need to have read a previous installment to appreciate)) keeps things spellbinding. The prose is clean and effective and the cross-bindings of the various characters and their promises and the costs of same is well-handled. If you’ve enjoyed any of the other tales in the series, don’t miss this one and, if not, try one of the earlier tales.

Hakim vs. The Sweater Curse” by Rachael K. Jones, Diabolical Plots #34A, December 1, 2017 (fantasy flash)

A guy cries a lot and vomits Lovecraftian sweaters for his boyfriend. Words fail me.

The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones, Lightspeed #91, December [7], 2017 (science fiction short story)

This peculiar tale involves escaped cyborgs finding themselves having to run a restaurant in order to hide in plain sight, with little material to work with and less knowledge of what their fully biological human customers like to eat. When one of them becomes fixated on getting more “stars” in reviews, things go off the rails.

The premise doesn’t grab me, much of the story is extremely unpleasant (with traces of bizarre humor to compensate), and the ending would have been much more effective if the main character had actually been appealing.

Please Consider My Science-Fiction Story” by David G. Blake, Nature, December 6, 2017 (science fiction flash)

This is a meta-story about an author having a meta-conversation with his imaginary/real AI writing assistant. It’s inconsiderable.

Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” by Nino Cipri, Nightmare #63, December [6], 2017 (horror short story)

This very short (c.2,000 word) piece is just what it says: a quiz. Given that, it does a remarkable job sketching the lives and deaths of four murdered girls but still doesn’t result in much of a story.

SWARM” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Terraform, December 8, 2017 (science fiction flash)

An American/NATO soldier (who’s lost his daughter) is fighting, among others, a mobile minefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war (with children in the area). This is a little too caught up in its acronyms and tech and a little too conventional in its character/emotional efforts to make for successful fiction but it does paint an interesting picture of near-future combat and it’s good to see a story that recognizes the fact of Cold War II (even if it calls it the “Neo-Cold War”).

Rec: “The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan

The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238 2017-11-09, fantasy short story

This is a tricky story to discuss without ruining and a tricky recommendation. Viorica is narrating the story of how she came to be dangling from a rope while facing her death which involves telling us of her friendship with Oana and the latter’s relationships with a mysterious nobleman and her childhood friend. Meanwhile, a famous thief is in town and threatening to steal a famous and desired (but not especially beautiful or valuable) mask from Oana’s unpleasant brother. It’s basically a heist story.

Viorica is a brisk, wry, and entertaining narrator/protagonist and the story moves quickly with many reversals, complications, and identity revelations in a brief span. It’s really little like a Lankhmar tale, I suppose, but something about it did make me think of that fantastic city and the thief just seems like someone the Grey Mouser would have known. Over the course of reading it, I was initially involved enough but didn’t have the feeling it would end up as a rec but, by the end, I found I’d enjoyed it immensely.

It does have two (or three) problems, however. The narrative framing device is very effective for an opening hook and serves the purpose of foreshadowing, creating tension, and establishing the tone. However, it really makes little sense – she’s not telling this while hanging from a rope and so it’s clearly artificial. Secondly, there is something that occurs in the closing sequence of the story which would seem to have significant effects outside the frame of the story which no one in it (and perhaps not even the author) seems cognizant of. (A third issue, if not a problem, is that, despite being a secondary world and mentioning wizards, there’s nothing actually magical/supernatural in it.) Still, the blemishes don’t really affect the exciting, twisting tale, itself, and I recommend it.

(The other story in this issue (“His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels) has some obvious similarities with this one and is also noteworthy. It lacks the particular problems but also lacks the particular excellences, so I’m just giving it an honorable mention but some may prefer it.)

Review of BCS #231 for Tangent

BCS releases two stories every two weeks, for some reason, and Tangent covers each issue of a month separately, so here’s the first of three BCS reviews I’ll be doing this month. (As always, the link takes you to the full review on the Tangent website.)

Review of Beneath Ceaseless Skies #231, August 3, 2017

Recommended: None.

Rec: “When We Go” by Evan Dicken

When We Go” by Evan Dicken, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story

My last recommendation had “rain” in the title and, when it rains, it pours. Here’s a second excellent story from the same issue.

The Bronze Faces have been killing off the protagonist’s people in general – and her family, specifically – and she believes the gods have abandoned them. In vengeance, she has been hunting the gods down and killing them with the World Serpent’s Fang, asking them a last question: “Why did you forsake us?” With no satisfactory answer, she intends to hunt down the last: Coyote, the trickster. So, naturally, things are not as they seem.

The people are being driven to the edge of the western sea and the bulk of the story takes place in their refugee camp. (The other story in this issue has a similar locale with at least one common bit of significance, but with a very different scope and mood.) One of the many strong elements of the camp sequence is the “fire singing” in which young warriors tell of what their passing will be like. “I will soar like a sparrow when I go…. My enemies but tiny specks, I shall rise until they are nothing when I go.” Both on this scale and a social and cosmic one, as the title indicates, this is a tale of death/change.

This theme and the imagery of the story is complemented by its style. As readers of this blog may know, I’m not a big “style” guy, generally favoring simple clarity. Most of what passes for “style” slows the pace or produces obfuscation or a lilting, mincing, weak feel or any number of other failings. This story has a definite style, but a style I enjoyed, being just elevated enough to avoid plainness but remaining direct and achieving power. In addition to the line above, I’d like to quote a couple of paragraphs to illustrate this but they’re too near the climax, or another bit which achieves one of several frissons of awe after the protagonist has dealt with Death but it’s too extended, so perhaps this paragraph will suffice as an example.

I’d felt neither hunger nor exhaustion since the Field of Husks, the emptiness inside me lost against the vast hollow expanse of a thousand worlds fallen to rot amid the roots of the World Tree. I’d left more than my blood upon that long crawl down to the Serpent’s lair, the jagged tangle of obsidian roots carving away whole parts of me. And yet, something tightened in my chest as I surveyed the valley. The smoke on the air, the faint calls of herders, the distant glimmer of fires—I needed no rest, I needn’t even stop, but it would be nice to ride toward the camp for a while, to pretend I was coming home.