Review: BCS #272-274

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #272-274
Feb. 28, 2019/Mar. 14, 2019/Mar. 28, 2019

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Original Fiction:

In “Sirens Sing,” the Queen Mother wants Velia and her siren sisters to steal a serving dish from an arch-wizard and it turns into a minor romance story (and yet another BCS music story) with the mincing pseudo-fairy-tale style turned up to 11 (except when it collapses into bathos with “smooches”). In the other water story, “The Boy” is bought by Kal because she thinks he might make a good assistant for her profession of divination by drowning (though not actually drowning as in “baleen, baleen” (Alexandra Renwick, Interzone #274, March/April 2018) but simply playing with the magic weeds underwater for awhile). When he develops a special relationship with those weeds which she lacks, things go off the rails. While the climax is disturbing, neither (especially Kal) ever came clear as characters for me and the actual ending is underwhelming, as is the preamble that takes the first third of the story and the overly detailed and then dropped scene with Lord Westin.

Whiskey Chile” has lost his mother and is going after his bad father for a reckoning in this Weird Western which is soaked in demon alcohol. Narrated by a fire-belching bullfrog named Jeremiah, this world has no joy but some may enjoy the boisterous style which, to me, teetered out of control or the tale’s visuals, which might make an entertaining TV episode. “New Horizons” is a Disney-like sketch about waifs losing  their home to the evil empire and making another. It shares the boisterous tone, Weird Western vibe, and familial motifs (turned to different purposes) of “Chile” but reads like the other 90% of the story went missing.

Undercurrents” has an evil empire keeping the non-binary rivers down but a cell of resistance dowsers works to destroy the evil empire’s evil technology. Heavy-handed, with an oddly Pollyannish ending. In the other tale of the mighty being laid low by the oppressed, a pregnant raped maid who lives in a castle where people are jealous of her accidentally acquired magic realizes she is “Destiny” when an immensely powerful pseudo-twin conquers this domain and wants something from the maid and is willing to trade for it. The “heroine” shows herself to be really small-minded and the only interesting part of this power/revenge fantasy was the idea of magic, like money, being passed on at one’s death (which is how the maid got hers when the dying duchess decided to be whimsically spiteful to her family).

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Review: Black Static #68, March/April 2019 (at Tangent)

This issue of Black Static contains two novelettes and four short stories
whose quality are almost uniformly inversely proportional to their length,
with the shortest story achieving excellence, though a few may be sufficiently
creepy to entertain.

Continue reading at Tangent.

Recommended:

  • “Totenhaus” by Amanda J. Bermudez (horror short story)

Review: Constellary Tales #2, February 2019 (at Tangent)

This second issue of Constellary Tales is my first exposure to it. It presents a mix of fantasy and science fiction in five stories which range from 1000-3300 words and seems to have potential.

Continue reading at Tangent.

Honorable mention:

  • Ambassador” by Michael Adam Robson (science fiction short story)

Selected Stories: 2019-02-06

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • The Crying Bride” by Carrie Laben, The Dark #45, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)
  • Quiet the Dead” by Micah Dean Hicks, Nightmare #77, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy/horror short story)

Oddly, I’ve been more impressed by Nightmare than Lightspeed so far this year and Nightmare here racks up its second recommendation in as many issues. Even more oddly, I’ve been more impressed in general by February’s dark fantasy/horror than other fantasy or even science fiction and a story from The Dark is my only other recommendation so far this month.

Swine Hill, basically nothing more than a pork processing plant, is already well on its way to becoming a ghost town with people outnumbered by, and many possessed by, the “Dead.” Kay is possessed by rage and vengeance after her father has died and her mother’s left, leaving her to raise her two siblings. Oscar is born and dies each day and Mira is rendered unable to speak of some great mystery or trauma. After a co-worker disrespects Kay and she wreaks vengeance on him, she loses her job. The domino effect from this runs through the family and town, bringing matters to a head.

The characters are well-drawn, the dark fantasy/horror elements are powerful (especially the night in the bar and, even more especially, the morning after) and the dying town rings true. Up to that point, this is strongly recommended. After such an effective beginning with rising tension between the sisters, I personally felt the ending was too quick and incomplete and the last line was too easy. I feel like I see what it was going for and something it was trying to avoid and perhaps others will think the ending is perfect. For me, though, it results in only a mild recommendation.

The Crying Bride” is a monologue from an old woman who turns out to be the aunt of the listener. That niece is catching up on family history prior to her marriage to another woman and the tale she receives presumably shocks her. As the story opens, they’ve gotten to talking about ghosts and the aunt assures the listener that she doesn’t believe in ghosts because the family was never haunted by the one person who should have haunted them: the crying bride. What follows is a narrative of the lives and deaths on a family farm of a drunken uncle and his prematurely dead bride, a bitter mother, and a narrator who bonds with her special tree, flees to college to become “Janey Appleseed,” and returns to make even more of a difference than she already has.

While this tale’s details are often surprising, the larger pattern is fairly predictable, but in the satisfying way of the recurrent rhythm of good familiar music. It’s also yet another misandrous tale but its problematic narrator so ironically and lightly delivers its darkness that it makes for a compelling read.

Selected Stories: 2019-01-30

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

I’d figured these “Selected Stories” posts wouldn’t adhere to any rigid schedule but that there would probably be a couple a month, with one coming after I covered the early issues and the second coming after I covered the later stories but, in January, I took a break before getting to the monthly and most of the weekly stories and covering them in one post, so I wasn’t really expecting to do another one this month. However, two late-breaking stories of note require this post.

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (recommended science fiction short story)

Thoughts and Prayers” uses multiple first-person narratives to depict the fates of the surviving members of the Fort family in the wake of their daughter’s death in a mass shooting. The mother, Abigail, is a “digital memory” person while the father, Gregg, is a “meat memory” person, driven by childhood events in his own family. Emily is the second child and Aunt Sara provides technical information. When Abigail seeks to weaponize Hayley’s death to bring about gun control and a wave of trolls swamp the initially positive reaction, the family suffers through a second nightmare which prompts Sara to provide Abigail with “armor” or a sort of individualized Bayesian troll-filter. Will it save them?

This is not a perfect story, as I feel like Abigail’s case was weakly made compared to others’, despite not agreeing with her. Even the one deviation from having family members speak, when a troll is given the floor, makes a more forceful case. Sara is too obviously the incarnated infodump and the story drags in the middle with too much isolated exposition. The bulk of the story reads like recent history more than science fiction and even the SF is rarely more extrapolative than saying at 5:50 that the Six O’Clock News will be on in a few minutes. That said, it does reference some important, burgeoning technologies (the armor “algorithm had originated in the entertainment industry“), the psychology of the story is sound, the subjects are important, and the power of some of the earlier and most of the latter part is remarkable. I was worried that, as the story is partly about crafting an emotionally effective narrative to be “a battering ram to shatter the hardened shell of cynicism, spur the viewer to action, shame them for their complacency and defeatism,” it would also be just that. Perhaps it is, in a way, but gun control is not the primary target and it’s not that simple. Instead, it is part of arrays of reality, guns, trolls, and “freedom to” opposed to mediated simulacra, controls, armor, and “freedom from,” which doesn’t conclude as comfortably as many might like.

(Edit (2019-01-31): I do not recommend the companion article. Having finally read it, it may demonstrate my misunderstanding of the story, but it seems to have been written according to a script which is independent of the story and is unconscious of the ironic result.)

On a completely different note, in celebration of 150 years of the Periodic Table, Nature‘s Futures department sends us to “Elementary School” where we learn about a number of new elements with fascinating and hilarious properties. It’s no story, but it’s entertaining.

Weekly Review: 2019-01-28 (Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Tor.com, January 23, 2019

This is a tale about Trapeze Master Binu of the Majestic Oriental Circus, his jinni friend Shehzad Marid, and, eventually, the devadasi (raja’s and god’s dancing girl) Savithri. When the latter seeks Binu’s help to escape her unrewarding bondage and Binu rather rashly agrees, a god is angered, the circus is threatened, Binu and Shehzad Marid’s relationship is tested, and Binu must do what he can to try to make things right. This is all as colorful as it hopefully sounds and there is a sort of sprightliness to the somewhat goofy Binu’s narration which is appealing though the “good” and “bad” in the story isn’t very challenging and the ending is played with the net down with threats and costs and bargains coming out of nowhere. It’s a pleasant enough diversion which may find fans.

Edit (2019-02-04): Thanks to the folks at Short Fiction Monday on Fantasy Literature for pointing out that this is a sort of sequel to “The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” (Strange Horizons, July 16, 2018). I’d reviewed, but forgotten, that story. The current story is much better but some folks may prefer to read both.

Weekly Review: 2019-01-21 (BCS/Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #269, January 17, 2019

Tor.com, January 16, 2019

El” inflicts Connor, an inert nothing of a “food crafter,” and his unbelievably repellent sister on us as he tries to recreate a recipe of his recently deceased mother’s and allows the domineering sister to abuse him yet again. This is billed as SF but other than something trivial about a handwaving server inexplicably cooking food in words 630-669 (which may simply be something I don’t understand) this is a painfully mainstream story which gave me the feeling of the famous nightmares involving running without making any progress as its nearly six thousand words of expository writing microscopically examines food such as “the decadent unctuousness of foie gras” and makes asides about Connor’s love interest, the singer Nick, and his “jazzy piece of atonality” with “Bernstein’s setting of the Ferlinghetti poem, ‘The Pennycandystore Beyond the El.'”

Despite being in a different magazine, “Deepest Notes” shares a theme of sibling troubles with “El.” The two female outlaws make me think of a sort of Thelma and Louise in a medieval forest but Jane’s killed her sister and Molly’s killed a bunch of folks before they meet each other and fall in love–also they’re not looking for “a blaze of glory.” The magic element is the fact that instruments made of animal bones can sing of the things that bother them and, when you’ve fed your sister to the pigs and someone makes instruments out of pig bones, it makes a body nervous. This isn’t a satisfying tale to me (the moral calculus eludes me), but it’s concisely told and some may appreciate it.

Carrying on the themes within the same magazine, “Orpheline” also deals with female enemies and allies and with music, in this case repeating the familiar BCS refrain of being an operatic tale set in 18th century France. The intrusively metafictional narrative (and its musical and thematic motifs) reminded me of “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” by Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons, May 14, 2018) and also of the many, many selkie tales of late, even though this uses a catwoman. A “girl” has been deprived of her catskin by a magician, so haunts an opera house as a menial and spars with the malicious Head Soprano but, when the magician’s mistress accompanies him to a performance and she offers the girl a deal which may make them both happy at the expense of the other two characters, the wheels of grrrl power and liberation begin to turn. The narrative style may appeal to some but didn’t sit right with me, seeming to intermittently shift focus as well as degree of intrusion, and the ending was too abrupt and easy but the tale was otherwise effective.