Review: Clarkesworld, Issue 71, Aug 2012

I recently subscribed to Clarkesworld as well, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, since I actually buy their issues when I get a chance. Now I get them delivered to me, thanks to Weightless Books! Let’s jump right in…

FICTION:

  • “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson – another short, list-structured story, like Ken Liu’s piece from the August Lightspeed. Like Liu, Johnson gives us a smart, well-crafted, rigidly structured story that, for me, lacked an emotional element. I can see how it’s pretty and clever, but it didn’t affect me.
  • “Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar – Oh, this was perfect. Samatar lets the story of mothering a different kind of child unfold naturally. She’s set up her world and her characters off screen so that all she needs to do is show you their story, the one that makes sense in that world, and she doesn’t clutter it up with unnecessary explanations. By the end of the story, it’s all clear. The child, the parents’ relationship, the ways in which their world is different from ours. In between bits of a rather frightening alien invasion story (made less scary, initially, by the fact that Samara doesn’t tell you about it all at once, which just means it hits you harder when you understand what’s happened) you also see the ways in which a woman adapts to her child, and a marriage lives, stutters, or dies. I had to take a break after reading it, to let it all soak in. “Honey Bear” combines horror and beauty in the best possible way.
  • “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente – I want to ask Valente if she’s played Fallout, particularly Fallout: New Vegas, because in a way this story could be a glimpse into the lives of the people who didn’t go into a Vault just after the war. But saying that might give you the impression that this story is childish or flat, which is completely wrong. That “Fade to White” appealed to my geeky, post-apocalyptic, Cold War loving self (in a variety of ways) is no complaint. It is a sharp, brilliantly written, look at what being a teenager is like, when you live in an America that was hit by nuclear bombs, is ruled by “President McCarthy”, and is struggling to hold on to the imagined brilliance of the 1950s it didn’t get to have. It’s all about the propaganda that the adults created to hold on to their American Dream, and the ways in which that shapes and manipulates the people trying to live up to it. Like Samatar’s story, like all of the best stories, Valente’s tale doesn’t spoon-feed you the world building or explain it all up front. You see it like you see your life, out car windows and in commercials and in small pieces in the tiny moments you’re truly alone. Loved it.

NON-FICTION:

  • “The Spell of History: Magic Systems and Real-World Zeitgeists” by Jeff Seymour
  • “In a Carapace of Light: A Conversation with China Miéville” by Jeremy L. C. Jones
  • “Another Word: Plausibility and Truth” by Daniel Abraham
  • “Editor’s Desk: Finding the Good in a Dark Day” by Neil Clarke

I don’t have anything to say about the essays/interviews individually, except to say that they’re good, you should read them, you’ll learn something. Clarkesworld has a great non-fiction editor, and their essays are more about exploring a piece of genre than about fawning over a particular author, which I appreciate.

Overall, I’d say it’s a short but excellent read. As always, I wish that Clarkesworld had more fiction, because what they print is so good. It should tell you something, though, that the only complaint I ever have with this magazine is, “WANT MORE!” – which is really a compliment, phrased badly.

Want to hear these stories as podcasts instead? Go here and listen.

You Should Read: DEATHLESS by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European culture: the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. Valente’s take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever peasant girl to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, that will bring Russian myth to life in a stunning new incarnation. via Amazon

Let me be up front and tell you that I won this novel from Valente herself, last year, in a Twitter contest that basically amounted to stalking her over the Internet. Or, to put it another way, by identifying what hotel she was staying at from a picture of a stuffed leopard. Being the fastest at googling images of hotel pools near the convention her Livejournal post from the week before said she was attending won me the book.

Which is three ways to give you the same information – that I won the book instead of buying it – and you can decide for yourself which interpretation works best for you. In the same way, DEATHLESS is an interpretation of classic Russian myth, mixed with factual history, and woven together with the story of a willful girl who likes to be spanked. It doesn’t pretend to be an entirely original story, and you’ll be disappointed if you expect it to be, but if you can read it as a retelling, and look for where it is the best and prettiest retelling possible, you’ll find the beauty of Valente’s book.

It is one of those novels that is so well crafted you don’t see where the seems were sewn together. It takes bits from a couple of different places, and you’d expect it to be jarring in spots, but it isn’t. It’s possible to sit down with it one evening, read all the way though, and put it down at the end without having been kicked out of the story by bad writing or a missed connection with its disparate pieces. I know, because I did just that, reading it through in one shot. It’s lovely and it’s good and it’s absolutely worth reading.

My only complaint is that I may know too much to be the right audience for this book. Because I grew up on fairy tales (Russian stories being some of the best and most-read because they had the best art) and my favorite time in history is the period between 1900 and WW2, and in college I studied world history and fairy tale structure and art and cooking and  … I’m the wrong audience for this book because nothing in it surprised me. It didn’t feel novel, and I suspect it should have. For me it was like looking over photos from a trip I’d taken a few years ago and finding that the camera had better resolution than I remembered – there’s nothing new in the images and I have a comfortable familiarity with the subject matter, but they’re prettier than I’d expected.

If you’re not familiar with the history and fantasy that Valente mixes in this book, I think you’ll enjoy it very much. If you are, pick it up anyway, and read it on a cold night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket with a hot cup of soup nearby. It will feel to you then like listening a much-loved story being retold to you by a favorite grandmother.

I don’t think we give enough credit to the amount of work it takes to write a book like that, by the way. In a thousand different little ways, DEATHLESS could have failed, and it doesn’t. Familiar or not, it’s lovely. How often can you say that?