I really wanted to get this issue finished and reviewed before the end of the year, so I could start a clean slate in 2014. Travel and holidays made that impossible though, and here I am, still holding last year’s baggage, so to speak. I really should learn that nothing gets done on an airplane, and when I haven’t seen my family for two years I shouldn’t plan on there being free time to do any work. Lesson learned. Let’s wrap this up now and give the New Year a late start.
Through Mud One Picks a Way by Tim Sullivan
* * * (+ bonus *)
Like Hhasalin in the previous issue, Through the Mud is not usually the sort of story I enjoy for many of the same reasons. All the same, this one managed to keep my interest even through some redundant passages and an almost too neat ending. There were a few moments where my understanding of the back story was a little shaky, but I managed to get along and enjoy it, so this one gets an extra bonus star.
In a muddy chamber in a dank basement in a house in a seedy part of town, three aliens live in anxious uncertainty. Uxanna must find a way to communicate with the slug-like creatures, to convince them to cooperate with her employer, Hob. Uxanna has plenty of experience with Cetians though, having lived on their world for sixteen years. She shouldn’t have any trouble communicating with them. Getting them to cooperate, however, may be another thing, as they seem to have an agenda of their own.
Another cautionary tale to eradicate the first sign of humanity if it lands on your planet, Through the Mud One Picks a Way nonetheless ends on an optimistic note, though I couldn’t help feeling more of a connection to the Cretians than any of the human characters.
Hell for Company by Albert E. Cowdrey
* * * * *
After reading this story, I’m definitely adding Cowdrey to the list of repeat contributors to this magazine whose work I absolutely adore (Oliver Buckram and KJ Kabza also occupy this list).
Once again, Cowdrey gives us a tale within a tale within a tale, which is no less entertaining than the last one, and is sprinkled with lovely little bits of literary history. In Hell for Company, Cowdrey does something I can tip my hat to, for the simple fact that I could never bring myself to do it: he tells the story through the point of view of a real writer. In this case, Mark Twain relays a story of possession to our first person narrator (also a real figure) as told to him by the one possessed.
It’s a great story, and the layers it digs down into don’t muddy things up at all. Cowdrey is truly a master of narrative Inception. As to the ending, I won’t give it away, but it had me gigging and grinning for hours. This one really is a great read.
Success by Michael Blumlein
* * *
As a casual read, I really enjoyed Success. It’s a long twisting path of a story with a strong voice, fun science, and some great observations on human relationships and growth. As a critical read, however, I stumbled through a few parts that took the pleasure out of the read. Part of the reason for this is that the story meanders, which allowed me to set the story down for long periods of time during which I lost hold of momentum and perhaps key events in the beginning that were explained in the end.
Even so, it’s not a bad read if you’ve got some time to spare and nothing to distract you away from it.
Success weaves us through the story of Dr. Jim, an eccentric professor with a passion for genetics—specifically the epigene and the perigene—key components in gene expression. Unfortunately, Dr. Jim’s obsession gets a little too messy, and even after a stint in a mental institution and a fresh start on life, he can’t quite keep the lid on his strange enthusiasm for his work.
The story merges nature vs. nurture into one science and brings them both out in a sort of Jekyll and Hyde tale that finishes with a happy ending you don’t expect. I admit, I didn’t feel much for either of the main characters, but the story itself was enjoyable enough.
The Soul in the Bell Jar by KJ Kabza
* * * *
The Soul in the Bell Jar is quite a different story from what I’ve come to expect from KJ Kabza, however he shows just as much skill in the horror spectrum of speculative fiction as he does in the whimsical and the folktale. The Soul in the Bell Jar is definitely darker and more serious than previous works of his that I’ve read, but bits of his cheeky voice shine through occasionally to make this work just as delightful to read as any other.
In what reads like part Secret Garden, part Cold Comfort Farm and part Frankenstein, Kabza gives us Lindsome Glass, a young girl sent to live for a time with her eccentric uncle in his far away manor while her parents are away. A Stitchman, her uncle sews souls back onto the corpses of animals for re-purposing, and his rotting creations litter the grounds of his estate. But the vivified bodies of hundreds of animals isn’t the strangest thing Lindsome will find as she disobeys instructions to stay out of basements and laboratories, nor the most horrifying.
With perfect pacing and a smooth balance between immersion and reveal that speaks of a confidently built world, The Soul in the Bell Jar is a story that catches the reader and keeps him firmly stitched to every word, right to the very end.
Stones and Glass by Matthew Hughes
* * * *
Mathew Hughes’s Stones and Glass is the sort of fantasy story that sits on the cusp between classic and modern and because of that, I found a lot in it to enjoy. It’s a bit lengthy, but not in a dragging sort of way and the slow pace building up to an explosive ending was a bit like the excitement of creating—and then destroying—an elaborate train of dominoes.
The story is continued from previous issues, though you couldn’t tell from picking it up at this point. Hughes drops just enough seamless, in-story exposition for the reader to understand the history and complicated life of Raffalon the thief without feeling as though we’re playing catch up.
In this issue, Raffalon brings himself to Tattermatch with a sack full of bogus gemstones to sell and no one to sell them to. If having his initial plans unravel after so much painstaking plotting weren’t bad enough, he’s got an ex-lawman with his own agenda shadowing him. Unable to shake the man and unwilling to listen to him, and with time running out on his own schemes, Raffalon is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Hard Stars by Brendan DuBois
* * * *
I was a little put off at first by the opening blurb, as I have a dislike of dystopian stories. Hard Stars, however, proved that a well written story can overcome even the harshest personal biases.
Set in something of a flipped future where world powers attack the USA with deadly drone strikes, DuBois gives us a setting where technology is our biggest enemy, creating digital target zones for any drones passing overhead.
In this landscape Trenton and his team of secret service agents are trapped in winter in a lakeside cabin. With supplies running out, moral low and the only safe technology being so old as to have been obsolete decades prior, the success of their mission seems bleak.
DuBois mixes pace and reveal beautifully to give the reader both an interesting and intense story, and more than a few goosebumps.
Sing, Pilgrim! by James Patrick Kelly
* * * * *
I think it must be obvious by now that I prefer the stories that have humorous undertones to those that are of a more serious nature. There’s a lot of life philosophy in that preference; we can choose to be scared by the world or we can choose to be amused by it.
James Patrick Kelly gives us a choice as well in Sing, Pilgrim!: sit in the chair, or don’t sit in the chair.
When a mysterious, unmovable chair appears suddenly outside of a bank in Kansas, it’s a bit of a head scratcher for the locals. The puzzle turns into an outright creepy phenomenon when the first woman to sit in the chair hums a tune to herself and then vanishes into thin air. Before long there’s a line to sit in the chair to take the pilgrimage to the mysterious other side—or wherever it is that the chair takes people. No one is ever heard from again, though the Church of the Chair has its own theories.
Quick and cute, Sing, Pilgrim! is a fun bit of speculative fiction to explore life and the beyond.
Baba Makosh by M. K. Hobson
* * * * *
I’m a great lover of fairy tales and folk stories and the contemporary works that incorporate that feeling, if not the actual cultural stories themselves. I’m not well read in Russian folklore, but Baba Makosh by M. K. Hobson is precisely the sort of story I enjoy reading.
Set in the days of the Russian Revolution, Pudovkin and his companions have been sent on an advanced scouting mission to find Hell. Starved and tired, the three men eventually find what they’re looking for, but Hell isn’t what they thought it would be, and neither is their mission.
Gods and folk-magic battle against revolutionary ideas and advancing science in this moralistic tale of who—or what—is the ultimate authority in the world.
The next book on my reading list is The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie