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: Analog, May/June 2019

Analog,
May/June 2019

Original Fiction:

Novelettes

  • “Bonehunters” by Harry Turtledove
  • “Forgetfulness” by J.T. Sharrah
  • “The Dominant Heart Begins to Race” by Dave Creek
  • “Leave Your Iron at the Door” by Josh Pearce
  • “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Short Stories

  • “The Methuselah Generation” by Stanley Schmidt
  • “Galena” by Liam Hogan
  • “Cactus Season” by Frank Smith
  • “12:20 Bus from the Basics” by Wendy Nikel
  • “A Former Planetary Ruler Speaks” by Bruce McAllister
  • “Full Metal Mother” by Joe M. McDermott
  • “The Three Laws of Social Robotics” by Mary E. Lowd
  • “Mulligan” by Bud Sparhawk
  • “The Gates of Paradise” by Edward M. Lerner
  • “Midway on the Waves” by Phoebe Barton (actually another novelette)
  • “The Orca Queen” by Joshua Cole
  • “Paradigm Shift” by Eric Cline
  • “On Stony Ground” by Cynthia Ward
  • “Repairs at the Beijing West Space Elevator” by Alex Shvartsman (reprint)
  • “Welcome to your Machines” by David Ebenbach
  • “Painting the Massive Planet” by Marissa Lingen
  • Probability Zero: “Robotic Space Killers; Autonomous. Broke.” by Guy Stewart

There are quite a few stories in this issue that aren’t science fiction by my definition and some that aren’t by anyone’s. There are also quite a few sub-par stories and not many notable ones, but there are also several adequately entertaining or interesting ones.

The five listed novelettes in this issue of Analog contain very few humans and very little straightforward prose. “Forgetfulness” is really the only one that has both. Interstellar explorers return to Earth to underwhelming response, as an immortality drug, with significant side-effects, has been developed while they were gone and changed perspectives. The reversal of the usual young explorers and old homebodies is clever and interesting, though the exploration of the pros and cons of an immortality drug is more conventional. My main problem with the story is that the drug causes amnesia at each monthly dose and I don’t see why people would want to live forever if they couldn’t remember it – it seems more like committing suicide each month. Also, most readers will have seen the conclusion almost from the start.

Of the stories which lack both humans and straightforward prose, “Bonehunters” involves a Wild Westerner talking in dialect about how he and his adopted native son became guides to a bunch of bonehunters (archaeologists) in native lands and helped a scientist in his rivalry with another unscrupulous fellow. The thing is, all these people aren’t human, but are sentient dinosaurs apparently descended from raptors. Despite featuring the science of archaeology, this has no science fiction as its just an unexplained counterfactual with impossible parallelism. As a Wild West adventure, however, it’s at least competently structured. “Leave Your Iron” is a science fantasy space opera in which entire universes shrink in comparison to a post-woman’s violent attempts to rescue her post-woman love from the clutches of a post-man whether the other woman wants it or not. It’s written in a sort of beat-poet style and is full of cute names like the heroine’s “Minerva Mirv” (MIRVs being Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles) and the villain’s “Satyr Meinhoff” (riffing off the Baader-Meinhof gang). This reads overwhelmingly like someone inserted a lesser Lightspeed story into Analog.

Returning to straightforward prose but sticking with non-human protagonists, “Dominant Heart” involves the last survivors of an alien species whose homeworld has been destroyed. They are looking for a new world which can support them and encounter a particularly interesting solar system which they explore in detail. The reader may have an initial suspicion but will likely be surprised at some aspects of the story and some places the plot does (and doesn’t) go. There are problems with the contrived order of exploration, how the sensors are conveniently non-optimal, and so on, but it is an interesting exploration of a planetary system with a decent “inhuman interest” angle.

While some may both expect and be put off by the ending, “At the Fall” is the most successful of the novelettes. It details a sort of AI soft robot, which is almost more of an artificial organism and which has an ideal range of 30 kilometers per charge, attempting a 4,000 kilometer journey home. It was designed to explore oceanic hydrothermal vents and periodically rendezvous with a ship to transfer its information but, when that ship fails to appear for a long period, the creature’s journey begins. It hops from deep ocean floor micro-ecologies centered around whale carcasses when it can’t find a hydrothermal vent within its recharging range (which is almost always). The lifeforms and the undersea world are described with action and reasonably judicious infodumps and hold interest.

There is also a piece billed as a short story which is actually a novelette (I get a count of 8145 words). “Midway on the Waves” takes place about a quarter-century after a war which resulted in a city on Titan being destroyed. The story focuses on how the event affected a couple of women from each side. This feels like wind-up figures are put through motions for thematic ends rather than having thematic elements arise from characters in action and there is a reversal at the end which undercuts much of the story, dovetailing with a simplistic resolution.

The giant roster of short (often very short) stories includes several stories which range from adequate to bad: aliens paralleled with butterflies, an improbably designed mission to search for life on an alien world, a father and daughter trying to get by in the desert with the help of crashing satellites, yet another anti-basic income story, an anti-colonial piece, one about a woman dying of cancer which is not truly SF, an AI fooling its creator, an alternate history where you get Jesus even in a Macedonian empire of lesbian locomotive builders, a voluntary scapegoat helping to avoid a space elevator disaster, a “story” in the form of a manual just like some other I read not long ago, and a gimmick about people arguing over whether a thing is an interstellar vessel or not.

More interesting stories include “Painting the Massive Planet” which, although it isn’t exactly a story, is an entertaining short-short about effing the ineffable while trying to paint Jupiter from Ganymede; “Mulligan,” about a man trying to figure out if he’s being scammed by an old flame who wants his help finding and selling Shepard’s second golfball on the moon; and “The Gates of Paradise,” whose protagonist coincidentally shares a name with a Stargate protagonist, suffers from being a sequel to a story I didn’t care for and a prequel to some other story yet to come. The latter element impairs its ending which could have been tragic or triumphant and instead just waits on the next story. This one, taken by itself, was a compelling and heart-wrenching tale about a world that had been colonized by a spaceship which is now in a decaying orbit and facing imminent disaster while holding incalculable knowledge. The civilization below had fallen into a state worse than barbarism and has only now recovered to the point where they can mount a desperate expedition to the ship. A man with a kid on the way braves death to get to this ship and see what he can do once there. This suffers from being an improbably limited mission (much like “Galena” and countless others) and from credibility-stretching coincidence and, as I say, its (non-)ending, but the scenario was certainly gripping to me.

The Orca Queen” takes the odd approach of making a pirate its heroine and resolves a bit “out of the hat” and too easily but the tale of a royal-in-exile being a pirate queen and cyborg starship who meets a dreadnaught bearing news and great risk (and potentially death) for her had some nice color, entertaining familial galactic empire politics, and reads quickly, with verve. All that makes it the other “honorable mention” with “At the Fall.”

I’m not sure what it says that “Paradigm Shift” is the best story in the issue and my one recommendation but comes with the major caveat that it’s a sort of hardboiled crime story and not science fiction at all. In 1957, a man who served as a superb sniper in WWII finds himself under the thumb of a mobster who has ordered him to kill a woman set to testify against that mobster. The thing that gets it into Analog is that the paradigm shifts when Sputnik launches and our sniper, who is a science fiction fan, has to process what this all means to him. The character is really well-drawn, his backstory is skillfully woven in, the foreground situation is dramatic, the background situation is obviously of historic proportions, and the ending sidesteps a problem I thought might trip the story up, so it even ends well. If you don’t like hardboiled crime stories with a tincture of science/science fiction, then this probably won’t work for you but I recommend it to anyone who is open to such a story.

Edit (2019-08-09): After a comment by the author, I modified the line about the Stargate character name. After reading the Analog blog, I discovered that one story was actually a reprint and marked it as such. Corrected typo in the word count for “Midway” (had 8125 when I meant 8145).

Review: Asimov’s, May/June 2019

Asimov’s,
May/June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Unfinished Business” by Bill Johnson (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi” by E. Lily Yu (science fiction short story)
  • “The Memory Artist” by Ian R. MacLeod (reprint science fiction novelette)
  • “Sacrificial Iron” by Ted Kosmatka (science fiction short story)
  • “Never the Twain Shall Meet” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
  • “Chasing Oumuamua” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction short story)
  • “Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” by John Richard Trtek (science fiction novelette)
  • “Not Only Who You Know” by Jay O’Connell (science fiction short story)
  • “The Intertidal Zone” by Rahul Kanakia (science fiction short story)
  • “Gremlin” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novella)

One story, Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Memory Artist,” which is set in his “Breathmoss” universe, is a reprint1. The other six of the first seven had me convinced I was going to write a uniformly negative review. Two of the last three (the exception being a short-short) saved the issue2.

Unfinished Business” is a “Ship” story. The Ship is a vessel containing various layers of Earth flora and fauna which has returned to acquire another layer, resulting in all sorts of sociopolitical shenanigans, both on Earth and in the Ship. In this case, two humans and a dog have witnessed signs of an alliance between two antagonistic Ship factions, making them part of the “skine” (or tableau of the event). The (re)enactment of the event is complicated by saboteurs and the humans must figure out how to thwart the latter while preserving the former. This might produce a fair story but I’ve read at least one in this series and could barely hang on. I would not recommend starting with this, especially because the opening scenes are confusingly disjointed and so much of the background is so sketchy. Also, the love-“hate” relationship and bickering of the protagonists didn’t work for me. Between the decent concepts and uneven execution, this was basically average, though it might seem better in its complete context.

Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” is another novelette of about the same length with far less content. Though it lacks action and is initially elliptical, genre readers will know they’re reading a time travel tale (though I suspect non-genre readers would be utterly mystified) and it eventually becomes clear that people are escaping their oppressive government in the present by leaping over the wall of time. One thread of the story occurs in its present and another occurs in 1923 America as we follow various hunters and runners. The only interest I had in the story centered around the mystery of a woman’s death which later seemed to be intentional deception rather than any actual twist (though I could have read it wrong); one character is a walking “easy button” who personifies the authorial fiat around a main character and a point is made of how boring the former is when the latter has even less personality; there’s a red herring involving metal spike fragments.

The previously mentioned short-short, “The Intertidal Zone,” lacks any genuine science fictional element: shorn of its many-legged and -eyed “aliens,” it’s just about a woman getting plastic surgery. I would have liked to have liked “Never the Twain,” which is possibly the only SF story to be set in Kinston, NC or to deal with barbecue, but just as in “Zone,” you could substitute twins for “entities split in a transporter accident” and make the “robot” worker a human and the result would be an essentially unchanged mainstream story, this one about sibling rivalry and barbecue (Eastern barbecue is the only barbecue). “Chasing Oumuamua” has little more SF: a sister has to get spaceship plans out of her mad scientist brother so NASA can catch the next interstellar object after Oumwhoozits. The siblings and the insanity are mainstream and touchingly done but there is nothing essentially science fictional in the story’s frame. It’s also full of weird things: it claims to be set in 2024 and has a character who must be at least 57 who listens to Matchbox Twenty on the oldies station and claims Star Trek was dated when he was a kid; it’s full of namedropped brands like it’s a cyberpunk story; it messes up heavy metal handsigns; and it messes up the dramatic timing of the brother’s five minutes of lucidity with an excessive spasm of descriptive writing.

Doing and Undoing” is at least more speculative but not especially science fictional: a magical spiritual awakening has happened and faded away. In the meantime, society has redistributed its wealth and the “Haves” and “Have-nots” have been replaced by the “Doers” and the “Don’ts” in yet another brick in the mystifyingly solid wall of anti-basic-income stories. The protagonist’s own spiritual awakening is just as much handwaving fantasy or author fiat as the societal one but worse for appearing “on-screen.”

Sacrificial Iron” is superficially more science fictional but has a relatively minor problem with seemingly bad science (the notion that Hawking radiation appears “out of nothing” and that cosmic inflation means the speed of light is inconstant which means we can now produce FTL stardrives). I say “relatively minor” because this is another in the surprisingly populous subgenre of Unbelievably Contrived Space Expeditions Which Go Wrong. Someone somehow thought it was a good idea to send two men into space for years and thought it was good to do so without really knowing anything about their possible destinations. It gets even better because it turns out one of the crew is crazy and the other was expelled for beating up a kid with a baseball bat in school but this somehow slipped past the psych eval team. Then the final conflict shows that the IQ evals must have been just as effective as the psych evals. This Cain and Abel story (which almost reads like a discussion of political parties) interestingly barely precedes the somewhat similar and better “The Skinner Box” (Tor.com, June 12, 2019).

Finally, turning to the better stuff, “Not Only Who You Know” would sound like it would have to be worse. The story opens with a woman having cut off the head (and hand) of her boyfriend. But he’s not dead yet and, if he plays his cards right, he may even get them re-attached. This preposterous but definitely attention-getting concept is carried out with aplomb as the backstory is gradually revealed just ahead of the reader’s impatience (barely) and portrays a sort of “Noctambulous” (Rich Larson, Mar/Apr 2019 F&SF) notion of the rich and the means people will go to get or stay in that state. The character’s behavior and their own self-images are fascinatingly strange and complex and their relationship matches. Aside from the premise (which I could understand some not being able to accept) the only real problems are that the tense and time-critical tale resolves too easily and the denouement is too extended. Aside from those issues, though, it’s an invigorating and entertaining ride.

The last and longest story of the issue is the best. The three-part “Gremlin” opens with a Russian female fighter pilot in a dogfight with a Nazi when the Messerschmidt explodes and she realizes “there’s something on the wing!” – her wing, that is. When she gets back to base, she becomes the confused and secretive ally of a strange creature which eats metal and has all manner of special abilities. Her American granddaughter takes center stage in the second part as a Warthog pilot in Gulf War II. Grandma insists she take a mysterious bag into combat with her. The third part follows an even more remote descendant into the future and out into space with the critter still with her.

The opening section (and the 586th was a real unit of female WWII fighter pilots) is gritty with historical realism which somehow pulls off the SF/F element at the same time. As a fan of the A-10, I was already biased towards the second section which is also vivid but it went beyond that to become emotionally effective with the inter-generational connections and (relatively) contemporary relevance. When a character dies, the main character is devastated and feels that, with her A-10, which “was at heart a cannon with wings,” she could “murder the world, given ammunition enough, and time.” She mentions how her friend would “slip quietly into a statistic” but this story achieves the opposite through the humanizing power of fiction and reminds me how few stories about our current eternal wars are written, especially compared to the Golden Age SF of WWII and how we all need to be reminded that these are not statistics. The third section went exactly where I was hoping it would go, which is to the future and space but, unfortunately, it was the most obligatory and least convincing section as the historical details gave way to futuristic vagueness. It still had an effective action sequence and ended the whole in a satisfying way. I wish the third part could have been as powerful as the first two but I still strongly recommend the tale.


1 It was originally published in Chinese after having been “inspired by” a “workshop” produced by a Chinese “financial services group” and a magazine.

2 It still needs the salvation of better proofreading/editing, though, as there are several typos and outright errors.

Review: BCS #279-280

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

bcs279

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

bcs278

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.