Month in Review: March 2019, 2nd Ed.

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Since the update to the March Summation was so delayed, I’m not revising that post, but instead posting this “second edition” which adds the coverage of the selectively reviewed magazines (plus Tor.com) and their four additional notable stories. This brings the total March readings up to 107 stories of almost 423K words.

I hope the April Summation will follow in a few days and I’ll catch up completely before too long but technical difficulties may slow me down. My laptop (which I treat as a small desktop – I shudder to think what condition it would be in if I used it like an actual laptop) is just six and a half years old but the USB ports are glitchy, the battery is dead, the speakers don’t work (though earphones do – go figure), the hard drive (which is already a replacement for the original) has been making the click of death for quite awhile, there’s now a desktop keyboard plugged into it because almost all of the keys of the built-in have quit working, and the CD “door” broke off while I was giving it some percussive therapy because of said keyboard. So I’m going to be messing around with a new laptop and, depending on how it goes, I may not be very productive for awhile.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Better” by Tom Greene, Analog, March/April 2019 (novelette)
  • “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson, F&SF, March/April 2019 (novelette)
  • “Instantiation” by Greg Egan, Asimov’s, March/April 2019 (novella)
  • “Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt, Analog, March/April 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “Totenhaus” by Amanda J. Bermudez, Black Static #68, March/April 2019 (horror short story)

Also Mentioned

Science Fiction

  • Before the World Crumbles Away” by A. T. Greenblatt, Uncanny #27, March/April 2019 (short story)
  • “The End of Lunar Hens” by M.K. Hutchins, Analog, March/April 2019 (short story)

Fantasy (all range from dark to horror)

  • All the Hidden Places” by Cadwell Turnbull, Nightmare #78, March 2019 (short story)
  • Hellhold” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Galaxy’s Edge #37, March/April 2019 (short story)
  • Knowledgeable Creatures” by Christopher Rowe, Tor.com, March 6, 2019 (short story)
  • “The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel, F&SF, March/April 2019 (short story)
  • “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” by Jack Dann, Asimov’s, March/April 2019 (short story)
  • The Skinwalkers Ball” by Hammond Diehl, Strange Horizons, March 4, 2019 (short story)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

 

Edit (2019-08-16): Since Apex is dead now, it had left my mind (and lists) but it printed issues through May. I realized I’d skipped it after I initially posted this and have now corrected that and updated the story/word counts (no other changes).

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Selected Stories: March 2019

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

I’ve previously noted “Hellhold” in “Selected Stories: 2019-03-31.” This post finally covers the rest of the selectively reviewed magazines and adds the three stories listed above, all of which (like “Hellhold”) are dark.

Skinwalkers” starts out feeling like the sort of overly descriptive and somewhat precious story I don’t usually like at all but that turns out to be contributing to a delightfully decadent description of an elaborately executed and exquisitely excruciating revenge. (Sorry. Anyway…) A creature has been killing off an alchemist’s “children” (homonculi) and wearing their skins to costume balls of sorts and a sort of cat-like death creature narrates how the alchemist reacted to this. Nothing is free and easy in this tale and its fantastical nature helps it to work where a more prosaic tale wouldn’t, so I enjoyed this, despite it being a bit slow and having a bizarre drop in diction when the word “sting” is used in its “crime” sense. “Hidden Places” is told in a circumspect and circuitous way which maintains clarity but serves to make this “post-apocalyptic werewolf tale” seem less cliche than it might have. It is reasonably gripping and judiciously splattery, though I do wonder why a guy who seems to be from Michigan speaks just like his Virgin Islands daughter. The two are trudging across the white snow, with the father attempting to return to a childhood haunt after having fled their island home with the notion that it will be safer at the end of the world. He’s mistaken.

Nightmare‘s other offering (“Example”) isn’t dark fantasy/horror at all, but a dystopian SF piece whose premise is either unbelievable, or it’s part of a much larger change which needs to be told in a much larger story but is an otherwise effective tale of an innocent man on a future death row and would have been technically “noted.” The Dark also produced a tale that was near-notable and would have fit Nightmare better than “Example.” “After Life” could have been a superb Vampire-Lestat-only-with-a-mummy story had it reveled in its good imaginative concepts more and focused on the righteous murder of a prosaic cardboard villain less. Even it isn’t precisely “horror” since, from its point of view, all is as it should be but the dark magic and violence give it a horror feel.

In “World Crumbles,” even the SF is dark and apocalyptic though the romance between Miranda, the painter with cyborg vision, and Elodie, the android programmer, provides the light worth holding to in the dark. Near-constant earthquakes (from sea rise pouring into the crust, from fracking, from fantastic symbolism?) cause literal, physical collapse and society has followed. The main problem with this is that the plot seems like it’s also not up to code and wouldn’t survive a real violent test and feels a bit piled on. This issue of Uncanny has several very “romantic” and/or dark and almost successful stories. “Every Song Must End” is a tale of a menage a quatre and is probably a reasonably good mainstream romance with an extremely thin gratuitous patch of science fiction tacked on. (It’s set on Earth but one of the four is interested in moving to the Far East or something, here called Mars.) “Vis Delendi” is an almost-delightful fantasy about a magic student applying for a high rank by raising the dead but is too predictable and “on the nose,” with an overly prosaic core.

Another SF tale which I feel like mentioning for some reason, despite not mentioning “officially,” is “The Librarian” from Nature, which features Bradbury’s fiction within its fiction, thus cueing the reader for a sentimental tale. It’s about the libraries of the future, or the lack thereof. It’s too sentimental and thin to be generally appealing, I suppose, but it captures some of the sadness (if little of the anger) that I feel about the increasing loss of physical printing.

Review: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #41, Aug. 2019 (at Tangent)

This issue of HFQ runs the gamut in three stories, with a bad one, a mixed-but-adequate one, and a good one. It also covers a broad spectrum of fantasy in those three stories, with weird west spellslingers, weird horror pirates, and pseudo-medieval knights and squires.

Continue reading at Tangent.

Recommended:

  • “Then, Stars” by Michael Meyerhofer (fantasy short story)

Review: Compelling #13, Summer 2019

Compelling #13, Summer 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Steps in the Other Room” by LA Staley
  • “Sasha Red” by Tyler A. Young
  • “Bodybit” by Mark Parlette-Cariño
  • “What We Remember” by Mark Salzwedel
  • “Love and Brooding” by M. J. Pettit
  • “Steadies” by Robert Dawson

This issue marks the beginning of Compelling‘s incarnation as a purchase-only e-zine after having been a freely available webzine for its first twelve issues.

All six of its offerings are science fiction short stories. Three of them are fairly adventurous. “Sasha Red” is set in a solar system where refugees fleeing Mars are desperate to reach Earth. The title comes from a background element which is paid off later: Sasha Red was a “pirate” who aided refugees by “attacking” their ships, forcing their rescues. In the foreground, we follow a rescue team made up of Tom the Right-Winger, Becca the Left, and Alex the Centrist Narrator. I was initially put off by the idea of another “refugee in space” story but the ideological spread of the characters and the action-plot, involving the effort to rescue forty children before their vessel explodes, engaged me. The only real problems are that some foreshadowing regarding Tom doesn’t seem to pan out and the climax is a little too early with too much “where are they now?” in the ending.

What We Remember” is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Adam Robson’s “The Ambassador” (from Constellary Tales #2, Feb. 2019) and others in that humans make contact with a sentient fungus and some go crazy. I liked the sort of “Darmok at Tanagra” communication by means of triggered or sent memories but the tale doesn’t seem long enough or fleshed out enough and part of the ending comes off like a joke which is out of place.

Finally, “Love and Brooding” describes the life cycle of fish-like creatures who are raised by paternal mouthbrooders from the point of view of one of the fry. Like other tales of this sort, the cognitive dissonance and generalized weirdness are good, while the largely predetermined plot and difficulty of connecting with the characters are less so. I was also confused by the background milieu. It would seem that the land was once, but is no longer, habitable and that these creatures were engineered to survive in the water (perhaps these are ex-humans on a future Earth?) but, if so, I’d have to wonder why they were engineered this way.

While I prefer “far-out” stories in the abstract and that group wasn’t bad, this issue’s most interesting group of stories are the focused, near-future extrapolations which make up the other half of the issue. “Steps in the Other Room” is set in a 2064 of smart houses and more, and involves a woman calling the cops, represented by one man and one Autonomous Car named Ace, to report that her husband’s ghost has gone missing. This is a minor but decent tale in which things aren’t as they seem and ends up touching on family and loss.

Steadies” has a very interesting idea which is insufficiently explored though it has a good framework to do so. A doctor who has some expertise in statistics is shown a paper under a non-disclosure agreement which shows, via deep data-mining, that a cholesterol drug has the bizarre side-effect of reducing divorce, especially if both partners take it. Becoming jealous at a party, she guiltily decides to get her husband on it and starts taking it herself. Some of her internal conflict is shown and these conflicts broaden when the paper is released, the drug becomes very popular, and it produces some social and familial side-effects. My immediate question was the mechanism – is this some slave drug which makes people satisfied with unpleasant conditions or a love drug which heightens interpersonal relations or what? One character eventually asks, “I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work. Have you read the article?” and the narrator replies, “They don’t say. Maybe it causes an irresistible compulsion to put the toilet seat down?” So I would have liked to have seen much more serious development of this intriguing idea.

The story which most impressed me in this issue, despite being as philosophically opposed to it as can be, was “Bodybit,” which also addresses coupling and effectively takes us through a large chunk of the protagonist’s life. It takes the notion of people putting all kinds of private information online (for example, “fitbits” and dating apps) and takes it one small/huge step further: what if a device monitored your sexual performance and statistics and put that online? The story gives us a protagonist who doesn’t do so well the first time and suffers shame but perseveres until things get better for him (and his partners). It takes him through his satiety with this new dating scene before focusing on a lasting relationship he develops. The “add-ons” to the bodybit keep surprising and keep the story moving and the dramatic lines of the tale generally work. The only thing that stops me from giving it a full recommendation (and it may be my own bias against social media) is that I can’t persuade myself that this story seriously addresses the consequences in a complete way, considering the possible negatives anywhere near as thoroughly as the positives. Regardless, it is definitely, at the least, a “compelling” and notable tale.

Review: BCS #279-280

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #279-280
Jun. 6, 2019/Jun. 20, 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Revival” by Lisa M. Bradley (fantasy short story)
  • “Silver Springs” by T.R. North (fantasy novelette)
  • “A Handful of Sky” by Elly Bangs (fantasy novelette)
  • “Black, Like Earth” by Jordyn Blanson (fantasy short story)

The last two tales of June deal with individual warriors fighting for justice in their evil cities. “Black” has a person gaining warrior superpowers in a city which black people built before “pale” people came along and oppressed them. When “bronze” people come along and start slaughtering black and pale alike, the warrior just sort of wishes real hard and Magic Happens, with mixed results. This is as rigidly plotted as it is subtle. “Handful” is a bit better in having an imaginative milieu in which the oppressed sew things out of immaterial things which the rich wear for their powers. When a particular wealthy man commissions an impossible coat of sky (somewhat like the recent story of the coat of bones), the protagonist must relearn the skills she lost since her exile and deal with reconnecting with the woman she once loved and then come to a decision about the coat. The story has a character lie to another (and to us) in a way that feels unfair to readers and it also shares a feature with a different recent BCS story in calling people things like “old coot” that just don’t ring dramatically true but, as I say, at least the “coat of sky” is interesting.

The month’s first two tales deal with rationalism colliding with fantasy while women search for love. It’s an oddly balanced issue in that I debated recommending both and think they’re both at least notable. A rational young woman is exploring a tent “Revival” when she panics and is rescued by a kind man. They both would seem to have skin conditions or something of the sort but, in the case of the man, that’s not quite what it is. The pair fall in love and matters come to a head when the “devil” or other being that has been chasing the man catches up with him. It’s hard to summarize much beyond this without spoiling but there’s a nice fantastic premise here (or, as the woman would have it, a rational one which is difficult to explain) and the strange style of the tale is mild enough and consistent enough in its strangeness to work, despite some plot-action that strains the mood. “Silver Springs” has the interesting premise of people infusing silver coins with whatever psychological or spiritual issue they want taken away and then giving those coins to mermaids in Florida. Our protagonist is a kleptomaniac (which may be a sublimation of other desires) and has been brought to Florida by her religious mother and skeptical father. Naturally enough, she takes three coins when the parents don’t take any and these create the framework for an odd, ardent relationship with a particular mermaid. The multiple ways in which the protagonist is, um, a fish out of water and crushed by being in a strange land doing strange things with a society and family she can’t quite come to terms with, and the intensity with which the hot, humid setting is evoked all work well. Despite the mermaids, the action is somehow more believable than “Revival” but the character, though vividly portrayed and appealing in her way, isn’t as appealing as the duo of the other tale. Regardless, both will probably find fans.

Review: BCS #277-278

Beneath Ceaseless Skies,#277-278
May 9, 2019/May 23, 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “The Bone Flute Quartet” by K.J. Kabza (fantasy short story)
  • “The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat” by R.K. Duncan (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne (fantasy short story)
  • “Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case (fantasy novelette)

The first two tales of May are about 101 uses for human bones. “Bone Coat” is reminiscent of several other “diving” stories, especially the same author’s “The Boy Who Loved Drowning” in the same magazine just a few issues ago (#272, Feb. 28, 2019). It doesn’t seem to be an actual sequel but is too similar if not. In this one, a boy’s family gets greedy and makes a deal with a rich potentate to make him a magical coat out of all the human hands they have lying around in their community’s river. When it turns out to be essentially impossible, the boy resorts to actions which might have been aesthetically appealing (if his dad had been depicted as a jerk or if his gods weren’t depicted as being benign) but actually seemed to merit a different ending than the one we get. “Bone Flute” is reminiscent of innumerable other BCS magic music stories, and especially those that deal with instruments made of bones (such as “The Deepest Notes of the Harp and Drum” by Marissa Lingen, #269, Jan. 17, 2019 and, from that same January in Apex #116, “Bone Song” by Aja McCullou). This one deals with a young girl, Bretchen, trying to become a witch (which she and her grandmother want) rather than a knitter (as her mother wants). The grandmother sends her off with one bone flute and the backstory about the great Myrra Ferrinn, a famed witch who was brutally killed for her own brutal behavior, takes on more significance as the story progresses and more bone flutes are acquired before a climactic showdown and a revelatory denouement. I can’t fully recommend this because the heroine’s progress and the ending are too easy but I did enjoy it, mostly due to the whimsical and sprightly tone of the plucky heroine’s narration.

The next two tales deal with attempting to avert or minimize wars despite the opposite tendencies of the Powers That Be – in this case, royal families. “Two-Bullet” involves a “war” of succession between twin princes and their hired duelists (who have secretly married). It seemed momentarily promising but an elevated fantasy which, among other things, has its heroine accidentally bouncing a gun off a dead queen’s forehead, calling someone “a real dick,” and which pulls one of the funniest scenes from Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid to use in all seriousness just does not work. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the best story in this month of BCS was “Abacus of Ether,” which I recommend despite an ending that felt like deja vu all over again. A king’s war has been running for a long time and a large number of casualties. A blind woman is an actuary, or a seller of insurance to soldiers, who employs a “taster,” or a sort of benign vampire, to determine whether certain special cases should be insured before they go out to battle. When a general of the king shows up in the actuary’s apartment with news of the king’s plan to use his three sons in a new offensive and describes his own plan to end the war with trickery, things get complicated. Hopefully this minimal synopsis indicates some of the creativity and cleverness of this unusual concept but the masterful narration from the actuary’s point-of-sense is particularly good and difficult to demonstrate here. There are minor problems such as why the actuary doesn’t worry that the general may be up to no good or why, in a case I won’t specify, simple suicide’s not an option but, before the overall effect of the tale, these are quibbles.

Review: BCS #275-276

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #275-276
Apr. 11, 2019/Apr. 25, 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Boiled Bones and Black Eggs” by Nghi Vo
  • “The Red Honey Witch” by Jessica Paddock
  • “Fury at the Crossroads” by Troy L. Wiggins
  • “Hangdog” by Dayna K. Smith

All April BCS stories are fantasy shorts. The first two are simplistic vengeance tales. “Boiled Bones” is a vengeance-of-the-dead story which, aside from being contrived and playing to base sensibilities, was adequately written but reminds me strongly of some earlier BCS tale – perhaps “Old No-Eyes” from the August 2, 2018 issue or some other story about sitting around in a sort of Asian restaurant until violence breaks out. “Witch” is about a girl blessed/cursed by magical bees and is worse because the protagonist is a confused girl who, by all rights, should be the villain, but is treated as the heroine. The bees “knew her goodness too, the parts she could not see for herself.” The bees are alone in this, because the reader can’t see them either. Nevertheless, we are supposed to exult in the fate visited on the evil men who are not misunderstood and do not have hidden good parts. The only good parts in this story I could see were the portrayal of the girl’s confusion and the depiction of a catastrophe near the end.

The next two tales are a little better. “Fury” is a colorful tale of a guitar-wielding magician doing (rather unconvincing) battle with a dead wizard a warlord has sicced her on. This at least recognizes that “justice” isn’t always as simple as it might seem, though it doesn’t ultimately depict a very complex notion of it, either. “Hangdog” is the best of the four. It centers on werewolves in the vicinity of the Civil War who must deal with horse thieves and a storm of vengeful ghosts. More of this tale is devoted to chaotic battle than even “Fury.” I usually like action-oriented stories but the segue from the one fight to the next doesn’t connect very clearly. Still, the odd characters, their interrelations, and their sort of “light gray” mix of appealing and unappealing qualities make the tale work adequately.