After I washed my hands clean of all the writing I pledged and committed myself to do this year, I thought I’d have loads of free time in November to catch up on all the reading I’ve been neglecting. It has not been the case, which is another one of those alarming indicators of adulthood. I’ll just have to wait until retirement to finally be able to do anything I want to.
I did somehow manage to find the time to sneak away while Responsibility wasn’t looking and finish reading a few books on my list–one of which being the September/October 2013 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Once again it was filled with stories I thoroughly enjoyed reading; I can’t wait to see what the next issue has for me.
Since it worked so well last time, I’ve stuck with my little asterisks and tried to give each of the stories a little summary as well, which was hard since a few of the stories left me pondering. Forgive me, I’m still new at this.
Hhasalin by Susan Palwick
* * * *
Hhasalin is the sort of science fiction story that I usually don’t care for, the kind where humans have little to no redeeming qualities and I’m left feeling a little guilty for being one, however Susan Palwick brings it all together at the end with a little spark of hope. The story is told from the perspective of Lhosi, a small, furred, sentient creature who adores her human family for adopting her out of the orphanage where she lived. She doesn’t mind doing chores, or entertaining the children by creating small shape stone objects for them, but increasingly she becomes aware of how small and inadequate she is by comparison to the humans she spends her time around. Her whole world undergoes a painful shift after one fateful trip to a science museum reveals to her the dark history between her people and the humans she holds in such high esteem. At times beautiful and at times heart breaking, Hhasalin is one of the rare science fiction stories I enjoyed despite holding opposing tastes.
myPhone20 by Robert Grossbach
* * *
Have you ever sat through a dinner party, staring at the screen lit faces of friends or family, silently contemplating how long a smart phone would last in a glass of wine? Robert Grossbach has captured the feeling of disconnect through over connection in his story myPhone20—right along with the ridiculous lengths people will go to for the newest technology. In his smart phone pervasive version of the future, Grossbach shows us a world where people only know how to communicate via networks, and increasingly, by a mind linked connection to said network. Our protagonist has shunned the cell phone trend right from the beginning and watches with an outsider’s suspicion as his family is sucked into to craze.
While lacking in subtly, the story is nonetheless entertaining, and as someone who shuffles after the advances in communications with eye rolls and exasperated sighs, I genuinely felt for the protagonist, and was pleased when he wasn’t forced to become one with the hive.
The Queen of Eyes by Rachel Pollack
* * * * *
When I was flipping through this issue to get an idea of what the content was going to be like, my first thought upon seeing The Queen of Eyes was “Man, I hope this is a good one; it’s so long!” Fortunately it was clear from the start that I wasn’t going to be mired within 60 pages of a story I didn’t like.
Rachel Pollack does a fantastic job of melding a well-rounded, believable narrative into a complex setting of mythos and history operating behind the scenes. She’s one of those authors who knows her world and characters and knows them well—well enough to not need to explain every detail to her audience for us to understand what’s going on. The information we need to know is dished out in delicious little packets for us to pick up along the way, allowing the reader to enjoy the unfolding of the story as it happens.
Walking the line between our world and a world of wizards, elementals, angels, demons and all sorts of great and powerful beings, Jack Shade is a Traveler with a stained past. His family is either dead or beyond his reach, he’s got debts and affiliations and favors owed where he’d rather not think about, and he doesn’t really get along with his fellow Travelers. His life isn’t made any brighter when he’s contacted by Sarah Strand, worried sick over the disappearance of her mother—who just so happens to be the Queen of Eyes. But Jack isn’t a private eye. He doesn’t have any training or experience in missing persons. All he’s got are his connections and an obligation to the woman who holds his card.
For all that he insists that he isn’t a detective, Jack takes us through all the motions in tracking down the missing Queen, straight down the rabbit hole and into the world of Pollack’s imagination. Beautifully written, fun and immersive, The Queen of Eyes is a story I won’t soon forget.
Un Opera nello Spazio (A Space Opera) by Oliver Buckram
* * * * *
Once again Oliver Buckram shows his mastery of flash science fiction with this quite literal space opera. I had my doubts; even enjoying Buckram’s previous work I still have my suspicions of anything titled ‘Space Opera’. I think the walls of my science fiction bias have taken some hard hits and not a few of them from Buckram’s own excellent compositions.
But what can I say about Un Opera that won’t ruin it for readers? In this three act opera we are taken into the life of Orlando the orangutan, an engine technician on board a warship fighting an evil alien race. Orlando is in love with Flora, a human science officer, but how could she ever love an ape like him in return? Will Orlando win Flora’s heart? Will the evil alien base ever be found? Will Roberto the robot ever realize his dream of becoming the Grand Fencing Master?
OK, I made that last part up, but if I say anymore I’ll give away the whole story. If you haven’t already read any of Oliver Buckram’s work, I encourage you to do so. What he does with very few words and a lot of cleverness is certain to put a smile on your face.
The Collectors by Albert E. Cowdrey
* * * * *
Albert E. Cowdrey’s The Collectors is the sort of story I like primarily for its voice. A lot of authors write really fascinating plots, sympathetic characters or amazingly deep worlds, but the ones who can incorporate a strong voice into all of these elements are the ones I remember most.
The Collectors is narrated in third person from the point of view of Charlie, an ex-bartender of questionable morals looking to make some easy money. Right away this POV choice worked for me. Undoubtedly the easy route would have been to write the entire thing in first person—a tactic that I am rarely impressed with. Cowdrey, however, writes The Collectors as a story within a story (or perhaps several stories within a story) until the last third brings us more or less to the present. Not only do we get Charlie’s unique voice through the surprisingly entertaining backstory he relates to his mother (‘haunted cookie’ is my new favorite phrase) but that voice carries over seamlessly into the third person narration as well.
Charlie has a plan. His sleazy father has just met his untimely end and left behind a fortune in priceless stolen art, among which is a more than priceless Catholic monstrance stolen from the Vatican by none other than Hermann Goering. The only thing standing between Charlie and collecting enough ill gotten goods to live like a king for the rest of his life is a custom made vault that he has no means of opening from the outside.
That’s where his mother and her telekinetic powers come in, but first he has to convince her that it’s all worthwhile.
The Collectors is a fantastically amusing piece of magical realism from an author who clearly knows what he’s doing. It’s packed with little subtleties that make it a page-turner, and ends on a pleasant high note with everything wrapped up nicely. All around, it’s a great read.
The Shore at the Edge of the World by Eugene Mirabelli
* * * *
This story had me really excited after reading its first page, but sadly, that same tone and energy sort of peters out not long after. Not that the story wasn’t enjoyable as it was, but the first page had me expecting something a little more playful than it ended up being.
Gabriel is a god—a messenger for the gods, to be more precise—who has the thankless duty of informing the mortals of the changes made by the upper management. Not that he receives a warm welcome; the people are less than pleased with what has been done to their dogs, and don’t really care all that much about a late coming announcement that the world will be round instead of flat.
But this is Gabriel’s last stop, and during his visit, he reunites with a woman he’s met three times before: Lucia, as well as her daughter Dawn and her father-in-law Max. Unfortunately for the naïve and lusty god, Lucia is well familiar by now with his habits, and has devised an ingenious trap to get what she wants.
The Shore at the End of the World is a lovely piece of flipped mythology regarding the gods, mortals and the formation of the world. The message at the end is a strong one—so strong that I felt perhaps the end may have been a little rushed. Or maybe not. There is definitely a lot to chew on with this story, and the taste isn’t by any means unpleasant.
Affirmative Auction by James Morrow
Affirmative Auction is—without any rancor—not my thing. As a satire piece it does its job, and it is cleverly written in some places but perhaps because it is history splashed in science fiction green that I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. The elements separated would have made for a good read, but I think the way in which they were combined just didn’t do it for me.
The story is told through the first person POV of a group of aliens landing in an 1800s slave auction in America. Right away the aliens speak in a way that is way too human—which is, I suppose, part of the satire, but for me it rendered the voice trite. Their ultimatum to the humans is, include everyone of all creed and color in their slave labour programme or the Earth will be vaporized. It’s a short story heavy in political poking but sadly, not for me.
After the Funeral by Daniel Marcus
OK, I think my sci fi bias is back. When I say I don’t like a story because it’s sci fi, it’s just that—a subjective distaste of science fiction. I think this is one of those stories. It felt bland to me, a little lifeless and not quite engaging. Perhaps this line from the story itself sums it up for me:
Words on a page, she thought. It meant nothing to her. It was worse that nonsense; the framework it offered was thin as a communion wafer.
Not poorly written or constructed, there’s just too little for me to grasp onto in this story to enjoy. The meaning in the academia is perhaps too obscure for me, and so the entire thing just feels dull.
Daniel Marcus gives us a story about a woman in the beginnings of elder age who has just lost her husband—a distinguished professor of great accomplishment. As she goes through the motions of the aftermath of his death, she’s approached by one of his ex-students and colleagues in an awkward attempt at romantic relations made even more awkward by his apparently being an anthropomorphized dog. The story failed to leave me with really any impression in the positive or the negative, which always makes me feel a little disappointed after I’ve read something.
The Game Room by KJ Kabza
* * * * *
KJ Kabza really has a talent for writing fantastical, emotion filled stories. The Game Room is of the sort that had me laughing one minute and near tears in the next, and overall feeling very satisfied and content by the end.
Levi’s house keeps changing. At first it was small things: items move, or are replaced, things appear or disappear at random. You know, things you can ignore. Then his house starts moving whole rooms, adding and subtracting wings and appliances and fixtures at random. Soon people are appearing and disappearing within the strange portal his house has become. But the real disaster for Levi comes when his siblings—the only family he has left after his parents are killed—reach their limits and start packing their bags.
This incredibly entertaining and heartfelt story truly hits the cords of familial separation and learning to grow and let go. KJ Kabza writes his protagonist so well that his emotions became my emotions, and it made the story so gripping and realistic that by the end I had to do a quick sweep of my house to make sure all of my rooms were still where I left them.
Rosary and Goldenstar by Geoff Ryman
I’m not sure I can accurately review this one, since I’m still not all that certain what it’s about. Presumably it’s an alternate history, but not being entirely in the know about European history, I can’t actually say for sure. The structure sort of stutters along, fractured in a lot of places, making it difficult to read concisely. On the outside, it’s about three Danes, and English count, an actor and a royal adviser talking about the nature of the universe. If it goes deeper than that, it went over my head.
Bemused by Marc Laidlaw
* * *
Unfortunately, Bemused is a portion of a larger story, and I feel that if I were reading the whole thing together as one, I might have enjoyed it a lot more. As it is, Marc Laidlaw’s tale of a bard and a gargoyle on a quest to relocate a rogue priest is a decent enough, stand alone story, but I felt a bit of a disconnect from the characters in much the same way one feels like an interloper when in the company of old friends reminiscing.
Gorlen and Spar really need to find the priest who switched their hands. Their search takes them to the ancestral home of Ardentine Wollox, a willowy, eccentric young noble with a passion for music—and an immense archival library. The good news is they can stay as long as they like with free room and board, so long as Gorlen continues to supply Ardentine with new music to add to his library. But there are some strange things happening in Wollox Hollow, the giant pipe organ that draws its breath from a massive mine shaft below, the dark history of the estate, and the odd illness infecting the musicians who stay all hint at something much more sinister going on behind the scenes.
Half as Old as Time by Rob Chilson
* * * *
Half as Old as Time is another story that feels like a small part of a whole, in perhaps a more frustrating way as this lovely tale seems like only the start of a nice, long, epic adventure, the kind that I can curl up to in bed and wish the world would pause while I soak up every word. The story has a great cadence in sentences neatly clipped, painting a setting in angles and lines of words that really make it an entrapping read.
Knowing he has done wrong, Wrann ventures to Babdalorn to see the Last Man—a being of unfathomable age and the last of his kind—for judgment of his deed. The story is short, but the length isn’t really realized until the end, which left me crying “more, more MORE!” Hopefully another installment of this adventure will pop up in a future addition.
The next book on my reading list is The Tale of Genji. May God have mercy.