book reviews

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #104, 105

Furthering my quest to catch up on my reading list, I finally started on my back issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The magazine usually publishes two stories per month, focusing on “Literary Adventure Fantasy”, and is edited by Scott H. Andrews. They also post free podcasts of some of their stories on the website.

Issue #104 (September 2012) introduced me to Seth Dickinson, who offered up “Worth of Crows“. Dickinson’s quest tale has a young wizard seeking a dangerous foe, as many such tales do, but he changes it up by making the hero a girl. Who’s also a necromancer. Who also knows that magic is nothing without science, and who talks to dead crows about thermodynamics. It’s a solid fantasy story that doesn’t rely on florid language or huge chunks of exposition to make it feel magical. Loved it. (Listen to the audio version here, read by my friend Michael J. Deluca.)

Issue #105 (October 2012) was their anniversary double issue. Marissa Lingen’s delightful “Cursed Motives” reads very much like a Terry Pratchett story (I’m thinking of Nation particularly) and is a great example of two things: telling a story within a story in order to give history or explain a character, and using a very common idea as the kernel of a fantastical story (in this case, the idea that “getting exactly what you wanted” is a curse). Peta Freestone’s “Luck Fish” is set just next door of our own Universe, in a familiar-feeling tribal village with comfortable characters. Again, there’s s simple-seeming core of this story – unfortunately for this village, it only rains once a year. Freestone takes that idea and runs it with toward a very logical bit of world-building.

Unsilenced” by Karalynn Lee is a complex story, weaving the love lives of several different people together, that would have been much more interesting to if it had been about something more than that. Girl wanted her father’s love, family friend wants hers, male mage wanted the girl’s mother, female mage wanted some other guy, girl wants the mage’s love … Every action in the story is based in someone trying to win the heart or warm the memory of the person they love, and I’m kind of tired of those stories. But the world building is interesting, the writing is strong, and the plot holds up as Lee ties the different threads together. I think this is a case of a good writer telling a story I’ve heard too much of, but someone else would probably enjoy.

You can also listen to Lingen’s story read by Tina Connolly – who I’ve published at Dagan Books – here.

Overall I really get into about half of what BCS publishes. Sometimes the stories that are part of larger pieces – themed short story collections, or novels set in the same world – seem to rely on having a reader knowledgeable about those other works. I don’t read much novel-length fantasy, so pieces like Marie Brennan’s “The Ascent of Unreason” are measured on the strength of that one tale alone, and for me, didn’t work. But the original stories, the ones not part of a larger arc, tend to be creative, smartly-written, and entertaining. Many of them feature strong female characters, and there is a decent amount on non-Western settings. It’s especially nice when those strong female characters are girls of color, like in “Cursed Motives” and “Luck Fish”.

BCS is definitely on my list of markets to submit to this year. And check back next week for another set of BCS reviews – I have 8 more issues to get through.

Review: Apex magazine (Issues 40, 41, 42, and 43)

I subscribed to Apex Magazine for the first time this year. By the time I got a chance to read the accumulated issues, I had four of them waiting for me, so I’m going to do one big round up. Because this is a multi-genre magazine, I made a note of what I suspect each story’s genre is after the review.

My favorite pieces from Issues 40, 41, 42, and 43 are:

Issue 40

“Sexagesimal” by Katherine E.K. Duckett takes the idea that the Afterlife was always meant to be a short term excursion  a place where we could digest the moments of our lives before letting go of everything else, and gives it a structure that makes logical sense. Very smart, great read. Shades of Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.” SF.

“Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” by Elizabeth Bear invokes the image of real-life boxer Sonny Liston, mixes in some of the history of greatness, gives us a know-it-all narrator, and spins a story about winning that is more about the way it’s told than what’s being said. What’s being said is good, no doubt, but it’s the words that matter here, and Bear tells you this story like it wants to be told, needs to be told, so shut up, sit down, and let her tell it. (Reprint from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction edited by Ellen Datlow, 2008.) Lit bordering on SF/Fantasy in an alt-history kind of way.

Issue 41

At first I thought Cecil Castellucci’s story, “Always the Same. Till it is Not” was a prose poem, a jagged, off-kilter stream of emotional words, growing into phrases, but those words developed as the narrator’s view of himself evolved, until the story appeared. Nicely done. Horror/Fantasy.

“Simon’s Replica” by Dean Francis Alfar makes me wonder why no one has pointed me toward Alfar’s work before now. Seriously, I expect better from you people. “Replica” is deceptively simple-seeming with a touching ending that makes the set-up worth the time invested in reading it. It says something beautiful. Lovely. Lit bordering on Fantasy.

Issue 42

“Splinter” by Shira Lipken is short and blunt, to the point, and a perfect piece of flash fiction (though I think it may have a few too many words to strictly be called “flash”). It’s a moment, a conversation, a story, a thing that happened, and it says just enough to be all of those things without having to be anything else. Wonderful. Fantasy/SF.

“Erzulie Dantor” by Tim Susman is a werewolf/ghost story set in Haiti after the earthquake. I appreciate when American authors try to reach outside of the US for source material, and the setting enlivens an otherwise straight-forward tale of a jealous woman. Didn’t love it but liked it. Horror.

Issue 43

Alethea Kontis takes a classic gothic horror trope and gives it new life by showing the us lovesick girl who gave the bad baron his start. “Blood from Stone” tells the oft-retold story of the baron in his castle, killing young brides one after the other, beginning not with the final girl whose brothers will save her from the baron’s clutches, but the first sacrifice that happened before the story as we know it. The modern dialogue toward the end felt out of place, but if you assume that Death is timeless, you’ll be fine. Horror.

“Labyrinth” by Mari Ness made me cry. I didn’t expect the ending, though it fit perfectly, and the first person narration wasn’t overwhelming. I’m labeling it Lit bordering on Fantasy, though there’s no magic in it, because maybe it’s alt history, and maybe it’s not.

“Relic” by Jeffrey Ford is a strange tale about a saint’s relic, talking fish, myth and thieves. It was I’m just starting to get into Ford’s work; if this is a typical story from him I’m going to love his writing. Weird Fiction.

Overall I’m enjoying Apex. Editor-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas has a taste for borderline stories, tales that are just barely in genre, and that suits my reading tastes. It reminds me of Goss and Sherman’s selections for Interfictions, which I reviewed two weeks ago. In fact, Apex publishes work that is similar to my own writing, and I definitely need to submit to them soon.

You Should Read Maureen F. McHugh’s “After The Apocalypse”

I knew that Maureen F. McHugh was going to be a Guest of Honor at the 2013 Readercon, but I hadn’t read any of her work. Luckily I was given a copy of her short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and I found time to open it over the holidays. Well, there were some stone steps involved, and a patch of ice, and a day spent lying in bed trying to not move anything that was sore, but it was during the holiday break so that’s close enough.

I had no idea what I was going to get into when I opened the book. The first page of the first story opens on a zombie preserve. A guy, a prisoner, dropped off there to survive, and oh yeah it used to a be a real city, this place full of walking dead. It used to be Cleveland.

Yeah, that’s when I fell in love with the book.

I wasn’t wrong, either. McHugh’s prose is easy, flows well from one sentence to the next, without too many sharp edges or dictionary words, but the stories aren’t simple. They’re full of smart ideas. “The Naturalist”, the first in the collection, skips past the zombie apocalypse to a point where we could get rid of the last stragglers if we wanted to … but what we had another use for them? From that concept comes another simple idea – what if the guy sent to get eaten by zombies started studying them instead?

It’s not too much of a stretch, and in fact, none of McHugh’s stories are. There a few steps beyond what we have now, in some cases just a little hop into tomorrow, but you can trace them all back to something recognizable. “Special Economics” takes the idea of biotech advances in China and reduces it down to a young factory girl working off her debt. “Useless Things” shows us an American Southwest after an economic crash but doesn’t use the setting to explore large-scale effects of poverty. McHugh focuses tightly onto one older woman, living in the desert, making ends meet with a skill she learned before the jobs disappeared.

It’s that focus that makes McHugh’s work personal and accessible. “Lost Boy” investigates the unusual amnesia affecting a boy lost during a dirty bomb attack in Baltimore. Not the aftermath of the bomb in the conventional sense, not the terrorists, not the long camera pan across a pile of bodies lying in the street outside of the bomb site. Just one teenage boy, misplaced in the chaos.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” includes a tech girl who loved Mycroft from Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress - one of my favorite books – so there may have been a little fangirl squee on my part at that moment. The story itself wasn’t one of my favorites; it felt a little forced in places, though not much. It’s followed by “Going to France”, which is the only piece in the book that I didn’t like. I’m not sure if it’s the rambling tone of the story, or the fact that it included a mute autistic character who only served to be a part of the scenery. She’s got a superpower – flight – like some of the other characters, but while McHugh describes one flyer as being nervous after a brush with mortality, and another who “seemed caught up in dealing with logistics”, she then says “the autistic one was just pure compulsion”.

Not a fair description of most autistic people I know.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” had an odd narrative flow and while the story mentioned an Avian Flu it’s really about a teen girl torn between a dying parent and an irresponsible one. It’s a story about a personal apocalypse, the end of life as she knew it. “After the Apocalypse” ends the book on a strong, dark, note, making up for the minor missteps of “Kingdom” and “France”. It blends the personal trauma with loss on a larger scale and puts into perspective a woman’s choice to save herself instead of anyone else. Doesn’t make light of it or, I think, approve of it, but the explanation is there. McHugh also plays with a present tense voice that isn’t as distracting as it could have been.

In the end, I loved this book. These stories are wonderful. McHugh writes in a evocative yet minimal way that I like to shoot for my own writing. She rarely tries to make it complicated, because she doesn’t have to. The stories are strong, they’re good, without making them fussy or overtly decorative. It’s a small book of short stories but it’s also a fine example of what writing can be: smart, clean, powerful.

I’m very glad I read it.

You Should Read INTERFICTIONS: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Synopsis: Nineteen writers dig into the imaginative spaces between conventional genres—realistic and fantastical, scholarly and poetic, personal and political—and bring up gems of new fiction: interstitial fiction. This is the literary mode of the new century, a reflection of the complex, ambiguous, and challenging world that we live in. These nineteen stories, by some of the most interesting and innovative writers working today, will change your mind about what stories can and should do as they explore the imaginative space between conventional genres. The editors garnered stories from new and established authors in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and also fiction translated from Spanish, Hungarian, and French. The collection features stories from Christopher Barzak, Colin Greenland, Holly Phillips, Rachel Pollack, Vandana Singh, Anna Tambour, Catherynne Valente, Leslie What, and others.

At Readercon this last July I got both Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing and Interfictions 2, collections of short stories that are considered interstitial – not necessarily of one genre or another, but something in between. Strange but not quite speculative; often based in realism but still unreal. They were put out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation (disclaimer: I’m a member and you should be too), and I’ve been working my way through the books. Since it’s just been announced that the anthology series is moving online and will be open to submissions in February, it’s a good time for a review of book one.

I’ll give my quick thoughts on each story and then an overview at the end:

Christopher Barzak, “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House” – Easily my favorite story in the collection. The first person collective voice fits the story perfectly and adds that little bit of a strange, not the same kind of strange as reading a ghost story (which it also has), but the “what kind of story is this” strange that makes it interstitial. Loved it. (more…)

You Should Read: Fireside Magazine, issues 1 and 2

I hadn’t been reading much the last few months. My to-read list piled up around me. I culled my bookshelf, pulled out a couple of bags of things I could live without because either I had them digitally or I was probably never going to get around to it, but that list kept getting bigger. Recently I stopped in the middle of something else, thought about what would make me happy at that moment, and realized I can’t be happy if I’m not reading. I mean, I always knew that, but I can’t remember the last time I stopped reading long enough for it have an effect on me…

I’m better now that I have a book in my hand.*

Back in September I subscribed to digital versions of several magazines. One of those, Fireside Magazine, was new, and I caught the first two issues:

The debut issue of Fireside has four shorts stories — Press Enter to Execute by Tobias Buckell, To the Moon by Ken Liu, Emerald Lakes by Chuck Wendig, and Temperance by Christie Yant — and a comic — Snow Ninjas of the Himalayas, written by D.J. Kirkbride and Adam P. Knave, penciled by Michael Lee Harris, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic. – from the website

My favorite pieces were the stories by Buckell, Liu, and Wendig. Liu’s was first, and To The Moon is one of the best things I’ve read from him in a while. Liu always has intelligent plots, and he thinks his ideas through to their logical conclusion, instead of relying on a shiny new idea to carry the story without the framework of logic. However, I haven’t always been able to connect to his work. To The Moon combines the writing quality we’ve come to expect from Liu with an emotional exploration of truth vs what’s right, and the result is unforgettable. Loved it.

Wendig’s story, Emerald Lakes, is part of his ‘Atlanta Burns’ stories, which I haven’t read, but it works as a stand-alone piece about a young girl in a bad place. I am just getting into Wendig’s fiction, though I’ve been a fan of his non-fiction essays and blog for a while. He’s got a gritty style and puts all of the dark things out into the open, easily, casually, like dropping a filleted carcass on the table and walking away without an explanation. It’s going to have an effect on you, that’s for certain.

Buckell’s contribution is Press Enter to Execute, an alt-future tale of hitmen who take out not political figures or drug bosses, but spammers. You know, the people behind the email spam you get flooding your inboxes each day. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it because the premise seems weak and there isn’t much to the story except the way it’s told, but Buckell tells it well. It’s worth checking out to see how he takes a single idea and expands it into a whole story. It’s entertaining, and we all need entertainment.

The second issue of Fireside has stories by Stephen Blackmoore, Damien Walters Grintalis, Kat Howard, and Jake Kerr, and a comic written by Brian White, drawn by Steve Walker, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic.

My favorite pieces were Grintalis’s Scarred and Blackmoore’s Rhapsody in Blue. I’m used to be a fan of horror but once you read enough of it you see there are very few original ideas left. Someone has a dark secret, wants to be violent, is chasing someone, or running from someone, and there’s always a conflict with something unreasoning … it’s all the same. The best you can hope for is to read a piece that is well-written. It sounds silly but there is so much terribly written horror in the world, it’s easy to give up on the genre. Scarred is another “inner-conflict crazy person does violence” kind of story, but you can’t dismiss it as just that. Grintalis has a way of embodying her characters, so that if you understand being off kilter, being tempted to do horrible things, the story makes sense to you. And if you’re lucky enough to never have felt that way, you’ll catch of glimpse of that unsettled frame of mind. It’s worth a read.

Rhapsody in Blue Shift is a science fiction story with a classic space opera feel. It’s definitely the type of story I’m always going to give a chance, and I’m glad that I did. The name is a play on both George Gershwin’s 1924 musical composition and a blueshift (a decrease in wavelength usually caused by relative motion toward the observer). That should give you a pretty good idea of what the story is about, or at least what inspired it, but what makes it special is the main character. Blackmoore puts a low-grade employee of a space liner into the middle of an emergency and throws in a backwater upbringing to make the kid seem less bright than you might have hoped. Mark Twain meets Robert Heinlein, which is to say that it reminds me of Heinlein’s YA stories, especially Starman Jones. It was a fun way to end the second issue!

A successful Kickstarter has already been run for the third issue of Fireside, and I can’t wait to read it. Click on the images to buy each issue now!

*Not a print book, most days, but my Nexus 7 loaded with ebooks. I love living in the future.