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.

Rec: “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn

I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story

Jared is leader of a small group (“the magician, the knight, the thief, and the princess” and “the young woman Kat” – who is the focal point from Jared’s point of view) who are attempting to avoid the Wrath’s servants and get the princess through unfriendly lands, across the water, and back to their own lands where she can help oust the usurper. The core of the story is about them being one step from success and wondering if they’ll be caught or if they can even trust each other.

Perhaps this is a generous recommendation as I can’t quite articulate why I liked it as much as I did. At first, I wasn’t sure if it might not be intended as a parody because it seemed so extremely generic but I quickly became interested in Jared’s thoughts and Kat’s weirdness (see semi-spoiler paragraph if so inclined). The setting was made vivid and tangible. While there’s virtually no action there was enough tension to fill its wisely short length. (See semi-spoiler paragraph for a hint about one of my favorite things about the story.) In sum, it was just a gripping read that I enjoyed.

Semi-spoiler paragaph (one “reverse-spoiler,” so to speak and one only by innuendo): Regarding Kat, I found her compelling – the only tiny negative was that I was a bit disappointed that her backstory didn’t have an element I thought it should have even though I know BCS only does science fantasy as a special thing. Regarding one of my favorite things, I love it when a story reaches a fork in its road and does exactly what I think it should do. I frequently groan when characters become stupid from misguided concepts of nobility and almost always appreciate some realpolitik, at least when its not inappropriate to the story and character.

Rec: “Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick

Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, Lightspeed April 2017, fantasy novelette

Win is a chaplain charged with providing spiritual care as mandated by the JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) which is sending an inspection team to Win’s hospital. The problem, as his boss and her boss both inform him, is that they’ve found out about the skeleton in his closet – or, more accurately, the ghost. Most people die and move on, either pushed with enough love from those on earth or pulled by those who have already gone before. Maisie, however, is one of those who’s gotten stuck between planes and is lingering around the hospital, talking with and comforting patients and even employees. This will cause significant problems according to the JCAHO rules but does a lot of good as well – breaking the letter of the rules but not their “spirit.” There is a further complication in that Win has to question both his motives for not having helped Maisie across and his thoughtlessness in certain regards. The main plot tension revolves around the inspection and possible closure of the hospital and Maisie’s status, particularly as it involves a recently arrived homeless patient.

This story includes a mainstream feel with the hospital, an SF feel with the telepresence, and a fantasy feel with the spiritualism. Some stories do such things and feel like “mash-ups” or ostentatiously “genre-bending” stories (or just bad SF) and often don’t work at all, but there’s a harmony to this fantasy that doesn’t feel “mashed” at all. It is also a nominally Christian tale, but is ecumenical in the broadest sense, dealing with love and compassion. Further, it has a genuine plot, is directly told, and shows all the professionalism one might expect from a writer with over thirty years of publications. For instance, the emotions are neither suppressed nor mawkish but are simply appropriate to the depicted people and situations. My only quibble is that, while some of the backstory anecdotes exemplify why some people have a hard time crossing, Maisie’s inability to cross didn’t seem adequately explained. On the other hand, I’d recently complained about telepresence technology constantly being used in SF as a “distancing” trope and I particularly appreciate it being used in this fantasy to facilitate connection. I enjoyed this well-told, fairly novel, and touching story.

Rec: “The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard

The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard, Flash Fiction Online April 2017, fantasy short story

This short-short takes a scientific (and hilarious) approach to lucky charms and their counterparts. (Given that approach and another element, it’s almost as much SF as fantasy.) The terse, dispassionate notes are appropriate for what they’re supposed to be but also create an almost Steven Wright delivery which makes it even funnier and the outrageous extension of the tale takes it to the finish line. (Although I think my favorite specific bit was the relatively modest black spray paint/combo effort.) Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I strongly recommend this.

No Rec: Strike Thirteen, You’re Out

The sun set, casting the world into darkness. A thick, dense darkness, so dark that it would take extended sentences full of polysyllabic opacities to fully convey its impenetrability. Of course, that was broad daylight in comparison to my mind and heart, given that my wife had just committed suicide after killing my dog after that creature had been given rabies by my enemy and had eaten my daughter. So I set out to hunt that enemy down but tripped and suffered a compound fracture in the darkness. Now I lie here, writing this tale in my blood which is probably illegible because it’s hard to write in blood and very hard to do so in such dark, dark, darkness.

Okay, boys and girls! Just a tip: I’m tired of reading stories akin to the paragraph above. Usually, for the webzine stories, I just post about what seems good and let sleeping stories lie but I read thirteen stories of forty thousand words last week and, except for a downer of a forthcoming honorable mention, I didn’t appreciate any of it. So “I Die a Little,” and an all-horror issue of FFO, and an almost all-downer issue of Clarkesworld (and especially “Crown of Thorns” and “Real Ghosts”) and a boring Terraform and an all-downer BCS (with “Suddenwall” and “Ghosts of Amarana” duking it out with “Crown of Thorns” for most suicide-inducing tale)… I’m talking to all of you. Not singling out any one – anybody can do anything they want – but singling out every one for all writing the same story. Being down and dull and depressing with molasses-like prose doesn’t of itself make a story “adult” or “literary” or “good.” It just makes it down and dull and depressing with molasses-like prose.

While I’m at it, I don’t need to read so many Weird Westerns or VR/AI/holograms used as metaphors of familial isolation or so many superhero/comic book tales or so many postmodern cynical ironic satires of cliches which are far more cliched at this point than the original cliches themselves. And now I’ll leave you with some words from the philosopher of the gay science, the joyful wisdom (and a couple of tunes from other philosophers of joy):

All good things approach their goal crookedly. Like cats, they arch their backs, they purr inwardly over their approaching happiness: all good things laugh.

A man’s stride betrays whether he has found his own way: behold me walking! But whoever approaches his goal dances. And verily, I have not become a statue: I do not yet stand there stiff, stupid, stony, a column; I love to run swiftly. And though there are swamps and thick melancholy on earth, whoever has light feet runs even over mud and dances as on swept ice.

Lift up your hearts, my brothers, high, higher! And do not forget your legs either. Lift up your legs too, you good dancers; and better yet, stand on your heads!

—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Kaufmann trans.)

And for audiovisual illustrations… Continue reading