The December issues of the digests already, the beginning of the end of the reviewing year. Some strong stories in both Asimov’s and Analog. I give the Good Story award to Steve Rasnic Tem’s depressing vision of the ephemerality of our worlds.
Asimov’s, December 2011
A Christmassy issue.
“All About Emily” by Connie Willis
Billed as the author’s “annual Christmas story”, and it is indeed highly seasonal. Claire Havilland, Broadway legend of a Certain Age, gets conned by her manager into a backstage interview with Emily, a prototype android designed to be indistinguishable from humans. Emily reminds Claire all too much of the conniving ingénue Eve Harrington.
In spite of Dr. Oakes’s assurances that AIS’s artificials weren’t here to steal our jobs and Emily’s earnest protestations that she didn’t want to be an actress, the parallels to All About Eve were a bit too close for comfort. I mean, who were we kidding? If artificials weren’t a threat, Dr. Oakes and AIS wouldn’t be expending so much time and effort convincing us they weren’t.
But Emily doesn’t want Claire’s job. She has been to Radio City and now she wants to be a Rockette.
A story deeply drenched in the lore and mystique of Broadway, heartwarming as a Christmas story is supposed to be, and highly improbable in its benevolent view of human nature, which a Christmas story is also supposed to have.
“Surf” by Suzanne Palmer
Bari is ostensibly a xenobiologist working with a crew of hostile and prejudiced academics in a study of spacegoing whale-like aliens called the Rooan.
If she hadn’t had the experience with zero-grav and the full set of untethered spacewalk certifications, that would have been as far as she’d gotten. He’d told her as much when she signed on, and told her if she didn’t appreciate that he’d given her a job at all she could “go back to the woods and scratch in the dirt for food like the rest of your people,” or something like that; the exact words had fastened less in her memory than the tone of them.
In fact, she is only waiting for the right moment to seize the study ship on a mission of her own.
This space combat/adventure suffers from excess. First, the too-nasty attitude of the research team. More important, excessive competence on the part of its protagonist. The complex plans that she’d laid survive contact with the enemy entirely unscathed. She has managed to neutralize Murphy, and that’s too much to believe, as well as inhibiting the tension that this sort of adventure ought to be vibrating with. The only question left for readers is, what is her ultimate goal, and who are her allies?
“Strawberry Birdies” by Pamela Sargent
In the early 1950s, Addie’s father is a struggling grad student in physics with a wife and four children, one of whom is “different.” When the household takes in another grad student to help with the children in exchange for room and board, Addie notices the strangeness of her and wonders if she is a communist spy – not an unlikely supposition under the circumstances. But Maerleen can cope with Cyril as no one else can, not even their parents, and soon Addie is faced with a decision.
Maerleen’s true origin is not kept a secret from readers, who will probably expect some Mary Poppins play that doesn’t really materialize. Nor is the eventual outcome seriously in doubt, and it’s not really clear why Maerleen feels the need to convince Addie. I think this one might have worked better from Maerleen’s point of view, as the real problem and the real decision belong to her.
“Ephemera” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Ephemeral” is the quality of lasting no more than a day, the lifespan of a Mayfly. Collectors of ephemera value objects meant originally to be discarded after use, as theatre tickets are. Here, Tem shows us how everything we once thought permanent is really only ephemeral, likely to be swept away as dust by a future that reduces value to an instant’s electronic impulse. It is a post-plague world, fearful of dust, germs, and most forms of physical reality, a world moving towards maximum virtuality. Daniel occupies a space between, a data analyst who still collects physical books, who scans his talented son’s artwork yet still retains the physical paper originals. From time to time, he meets with an elderly dealer, a man whose collection passes over the line into hoarding. But his son regards Ascher as a walking contagion and can’t bring himself to touch a gift the old man offers.
“These sorts of items are really of great historical interest. If you want to know how people in a particular culture actually lived, I mean on a day- to- day basis, you don’t go to their history books, or to the things they wrote or said that they hoped might be passed down through the ages, the official record. No, you look at their temporary communications—their notes, their letters, their crime reports, advertisements, writings on sports and cultural events, even their menus. That’s how you find out how they really lived. Their ephemera.”
A heartbreaking and depressing vision. Archer is frantic with despair that “A whole world could be disappearing right from under us and most people wouldn’t even realize it!” Daniel replies that this is just what worlds do, they disappear. Yet this is what makes those relics that remain so valuable. Today we can still read the inventory records stamped thousands of years ago by scribes into slabs of wet clay. Those who think digitization is preservation forget that nothing is more ephemeral than the trace of an electron.
“The List” by Tim McDaniel
Kurt is holed up in an abandoned house, waiting for daylight when he can escape with the list, get ahead of everyone who is ready to kill him to take it from him, the way he got it.
He looked down at the list. Just a bunch of names, and not just kids either, with notes after each one. But enough material to blackmail anyone he cared to, for however much he would think to ask for—yet he knew it was unlikely he’d ever have the chance to use it. Everyone else—everyone, from Big Red to the corner pot dealer— wanted that list, and eventually they would figure out where he’d gone to ground, and come for it.
It’s impossible to say anything about this very short piece without revealing the ending, which is, well, fitting.
“The Countable” by Ken Liu
David is an autistic boy who prefers the world of mathematics to the world of human interaction, particularly the part of humanity including his abusive stepfather. But David is not escaping from life. He is redefining it.
He was tired of pursuing the impossible, of trying to make the world rational. Almost all of the numbers in the world were transcendental, just like pi, but most people paid no attention to them. They were preoccupied with the rational, though they were merely scattered like infinitesimal islands in the transcendental sea. His mind was drifting away from the present, and he let it. These supposedly rational moments held little interest for him. They made up such a small part of life.
What matters to David is the meditation on infinity that makes up much of the text, complete with graphic illustrations. I suspect that for most readers, these matters are those of metaphor, while for the author and a few others, they are that, and more.
“‘Run,’ Bakri Says” by Ferrett Steinmetz
When life is based way too much on video games. Sammi is part of a terrorist group; he builds bombs when not playing video games, and he has also built The Save Point device that reboots an agent back to the beginning of the operation if killed. But now Sammi has been captured, and interrogation will force him to reveal his secrets. Bakri tells Irena she has no choice but to rescue him before that can happen. No matter how many iterations it takes. Irena can remember each of those iterations. And she learns from them.
She knows why Fahrouz killed seventeen soldiers. He was just supposed to get a laptop and get out, but how many times was he beaten before he slipped past the spotlights? How long did he endure the fear of being shot before he realized The Save Point erased all consequences? The guards’ dumbstruck surprise as she kills them is the repayment for a thousand torments they can never remember.
This one starts like gaming fiction, but mutates ever more deeply into horror. Here, infinity is the metaphor for hell, when death only resets the torment back to the beginning instead of ending it.
Analog, December 2011
Some good reading in this last issue of the year. No Christmas stories.
“Ray of Light” by Brad R Torgersen
Post apocalypse, after aliens blocked off the sun’s light from Earth; everyone left alive is living in habitats beneath the ocean, near the geothermal vents. Now Max’s willful teenage daughter has taken off in a sub with an older boy, and they are two hours overdue. He thinks they are screwing around and might have gotten themselves killed, but in fact, the station’s teenagers have gone to the surface to see if the sun has returned.
I’m not sure what the point is of this perfunctory piece, other than the power of wishfulthinkium. The children want the sun to come back, so it does? They want the surface to be livable, so it will be?
“The Impossibles” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Courtroom drama. Because Kerrie didn’t make it into the top twenty of her law school class, she is now working for an Earth Alliance InterSpecies Court. It was the only way to get her student loan paid off, but cases in that court are impossible to win. Accused are guilty unless proven innocent, and there are too many cases.
There was only so much room in the starbase’s jails and prisons, there were only so many courts, and there was only so much time. Everyone in the First District who ran afoul with the laws of another culture brought the cases here to the special courts set up to reconcile one species’ law with another. Technically, the cases were supposed to go through the offended culture’s courts, but everyone waived that part of the procedure so that the case could be tried in the InterSpecies courts.
Then Kerrie is assigned a winnable case. There is a technicality, a loophole, if she can only find and use it.
This is a story about justice, and legal systems that have no time for it. It’s not really a story about aliens and alien laws; it’s a story about courtrooms in our world today, with judges and lawyers overwhelmed by too many cases, caught in the system almost as much as the defendants are, with corruption the only way out. It is an angry story, meant to make readers angry as well, but too much of this system rings true, rather than contrived.
“Not for Ourselves Alone” by Charles E Gannon
Space war. Aliens are deploying to attack Earth, and an international force is stationed off Jupiter, where the technologically-superior enemy is expected to refuel. Their mission is to draw hostile fire for analysis, specifically the analysis of the aliens’ most powerful weapon, that humans haven’t identified. This analysis is Sergei Andreyev’s job, but he also has to overcome the Russian chauvinism that won’t allow him to fully trust the Americans in charge of the station and the mission.
After a weak opening, this turned into a strong piece of military SF. A lot of action going on here, with a lot of physics neep behind it. There is a real sense of the urgency of war and the sacrifices it demands.
Sergei watched the two blue motes separate once again. One of them—Sukhilov’s—emitted a new, smaller mote; a large missile. If it held its current trajectory, it would pass behind the Arat Kur fighter screen, and well in front of the heavy: apparently a blind miss. The other blue-white speck— Meri—became a smear as the Estonian ignited his interceptor’s detachable solid-core boosters and underwent five gees of acceleration. The sensor cluster mounted on Meri’s interceptor went active and more data started scrolling in.
“Turning It Off” by Susan Forest
A rather silly story set in a really hokey future where everything comes with a safety. Teenagers Sam and Carter experiment with turning their own personal safeties off while their parents are out of the house. The problem with this scenario is that the safeties also dampen bodily sensation, ie pain, which is not a safe situation at all, and also unnecessary if the stove is safetied not to burn anyone.
“Freudian Slipstream” by Brad Aiken
Jackson Carr finds himself sitting in a beachside bar, while a beautiful woman rides up on a black horse. This happens every day, as Carr gradually grasps the fact that none of this is real, as the bartender keeps telling him, “You’ve got work to do,” as he begins to remember something about a world where people are asking him for help. A neat scenario dealing with both immunology and the unconscious mind, well presented.
“Hidden” by Kyle Kirkland
Robinson is a mindfinder, an expert on unstable supergeniuses, one of whom has just taken over a military weapons lab. The government has called him in, although the officers in charge of the facility are suspicious of his antiwar positions. And Robinson isn’t particularly happy to be there.
A dull ache broke out between Robinson’s eyes. He’d been summoned to the general’s headquarters at five o’clock, and now, at 6:15, he found himself escorted by the major out of the secure area . The sun had just begun to set; the sky was still relatively bright. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, he hadn’t been able to unwind from the day ’s tensions— he’d had a full day of patients—and he hadn’t talked to his wife.
He also correctly suspects that the military are only using him as cover for an operation that’s going to endanger everyone. Then he talks to the supergenius, Flick, and Flick makes a lot of sense.
Here’s a story about questioning one’s strongest beliefs and assumptions. Robinson, a strongly realistic character, fought to have the supergenius drug made illegal; Flick says he likes being what he is, despite the obvious drawbacks. No great truth here or ultimate solution, only recognition of uncertainty.
“Art for Splendor’s Sake” by Dave Creek
It seems that the planet Splendor is soon to be made uninhabitable by the aftermath of a supernova explosion, so humans have come to evacuate the population, which is more concerned about the disruption of their way of life. A rather fatuous human artist has also shown up on his own mission. The ambassador, Chanda, seems to spend all her time solving petty disputes among a few local tribes, and it hardly seems likely that the evacuation will be carried off in due time.
This scenario doesn’t convince. The difficulties facing Chanda seem contrived, and the author has reduced an entire world’s population to a few individuals. It also suffers from the problem, common in this zine, of an opening in which the author tries to stuff as many extraneous details into a paragraph as possible:
Earth Unity Ambassador Chanda Kasmira received the first word of her latest problem while in her quarters studying the details of the evacuation plan for the planet Splendor. The holo that appeared before her desk was of her Military Liaison Trenton Bram aboard the starcraft Nivara II, orbiting Splendor. “We’ve got a civilian craft that just took orbit,” he told her. “And a man on board, Kelsey Solheim, is insisting upon coming down.”
Subterranean Online, Fall 2011
More nonfiction and reviews than usual in this issue, and only four stories, all fine ones, so far this issue.
“White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M Valente
Now this is an opening!
Coyote walked tall down the halls of West Centerville High and where he walked lunch money, copies of last semester’s math tests, and unlit joints blossomed in his footsteps. When he ran laps out on the field our lockers would fill up with Snickers bars, condoms, and ecstasy tabs in all the colors of Skittles. He was our QB, and he looked like an invitation to the greatest rave of all time.
An inspired concept: trickster/fertility gods and high school football, a meeting of primal mythologies. Because we all know that the high school QB is a sort of minor god, at least as long as the team wins.
“SHAKA II” by Mike Resnick
A future Zulu story. A man named Robert ole Buthelezi decides that he will become the new Shaka Zulu [he spells it Tchaka], whose people have been waiting for him to be reborn and restore their empire. This he does, on an interplanetary scale, as told by his half-brother, unwilling witness to his campaign of conquest.
When he was a child, he always found a way to get what he wanted. He never cried, never screamed, never threatened–but somehow things would always work out for him. His methods were subtle. The children who stood in his way never showed up cowed or beaten…but twice they never showed up again at all.
Resnick does some of his best work with this African material Here is a story of power and ruthlessness, paralleling the path of the original Shaka, which was appalling enough when the primary weapon he had to work with was the assegai, not spacecraft with the power to obliterate entire planets. We have only to look at the careers of notable dictators throughout history to realize that Tchaka’s trajectory of power is not so improbable.
“Antiquities and Tangibles” by Tim Pratt
One of those mysterious little shops that move around and sell arcane objects. A young woman comes in, wanting to acquire happiness. Happiness is not a tangible, and though the proprietor makes several attempts at exchanging her gift, none of them produce the desired result. But over the years and decades, he begins to take a particular interest in this difficult customer.
“Always a pleasure to see you,” he said, and it was. His loneliness had been such a fundamental part of his existence that he’d never noticed it until her repeat arrivals had dispelled it. He’d secretly hoped she’d return, for the conversation alone. There were a few things in the shop that could talk–magic mirrors, at least one sword, a brass-and-clockwork head–but they were variously flatterers, psychotics, and outrageous liars, and he’d stopped talking to them years before he’d stopped talking to himself.
A meditation on the nature and acquisition of happiness. Of which the moral might be that, although hell is other people, happiness seems to require them. For some people. Sometimes.
“Balfour and Meriwether in The Battle of Kabul” by Daniel Abraham
Historical fantasy, of the sort that has Czarina Maria Feodorovna crashing through windows as a ninja. It is the 1880s, the time of the Great Game, when the British and Russian empires conducted their covert conflict for the control of Afghanistan. But there is another party that opposes the activities of both Western Powers, and it has afflicted both the Czar and the Queen of England with sorcerous possession.
The firewood cudgel swung through the air with a hiss. The physician fell back, his pipe shattered and blood pouring from his abused lip. Balfour leapt forward, his broad hands clasping the queen’s improvised weapon. A royal ankle took him in the groin, and he fell back as Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India, waved her club in the air with the conviction and ill intent of a Whitechapel brawler.
The agents of both empires must put aside their hostility to face this common enemy.
The story is framed by the reminiscence of an aged Meriwether, writing after WWI, but it speaks directly to today’s readers who have more reason to understand that the words of the possessed Victoria were true: “It cannot be won.” This entertaining adventure is very obviously a sequel, apparently growing into a series, and I suspect that the reaction of many readers will be to track down the original story in which these characters appear.
Interzone #236, Sep-Oct 2011
An unusually low futurity quotient in this issue, with two of the stories definitely fantasy.
“Time for Raven” by Stephen Kotowych
The story here is based largely on fact. The Haida people on the northern Pacific coast had long revered a unique golden sport of a Sitka Spruce, which they named Kiid K’iyaas. It was centuries old in 1997 when an unstable forester cut it down as a protest against logging practices. In this story, Wilson Gwaeskun is a Haida who once worked for the logging companies until he underwent a change of heart under the influence of a forester named Hank Delaney. It was Hank Delaney, in this version, who cut down the Golden Spruce, whose kayak was later found wrecked on the beach and the man assumed to be dead. Now Wilson plans to paddle his kayak out to sea in sacrifice, as expiation for his sins against the forest.
I’m not quite sure why the author has changed the name of the man [allegedly, I suppose] who cut down the spruce. Otherwise, the facts are as the story presents them, and as such, it’s one of those accounts that might not seem credible if presented as fiction. The fictional tale, beginning with the discovery Wilson makes when he emerges from the sea, is highly appropriate to the actual legend, although I don’t think it’s really a legend of Raven and wonder at the title.
“The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues” by Jason Sanford
Part of the author’s series based on a rather complicated scenario in which humans have mixed their DNA with that of wild animals and AIs have been attempting to restore civilization, order and authentic humanity. One agent of this project is the plague bird, a human who carries an AI in her blood, capable of wreaking great violence against those who break the law. Cristina is only recently a plague bird, trying to come to terms with her blood AI, named Red Day. But here she encounters an AI much older and more powerful, with a project of its own.
As I recall reading the first in this series, it was rather tangley to get through the explanation of the premise; there is less backgrounding here, and I think some readers may find the scenario quite confusing. The series is a single extended story, which I think would make an interesting whole if published as a novel, rather than in this form.
“The Metaphor” by Fiona Moore
A neat and novel twist on the virtual reality scenario. The narrator knows he’s trapped alone in VR, where he regularly feels the compulsion to perform certain tasks, but what he can’t figure out is why. His speculations are intelligent and plausible.
It gets boring here when I’m not chasing around the taverns, so I’ve started elaborating the hypotheses, turning them into stories to tell myself. I didn’t think I had the imagination to come up with metaphors, but I suppose in situations like this you can surprise yourself.
But alternating with his account, we have excerpts from a report which tells us what’s really going on and which reveal that beneath an apparently innocuous surface is a pool of horror. If Modern Times saw the worker as a cog in a machine, here the worker constructs his own virtual assembly line.
“The Fall of the City of Silver” by Jon Ingold
The narrator tells us this is a story of Atlantis, but I don’t believe her, for Atlantis has never been found and tourists do not frequent its ruins. The narrator also calls her city Tartassos, located on an offshore island either near Tyre, which her description suggests, or the Aegean, which she claims. But the details suggest the real location is Tartessos [often linked with Atlantis], an actual ancient city on the Atlantic coast of Spain; the name of its legendary king, Arganthonios, is the same in this story. Such inconsistency makes me irritable, when this is otherwise a fantasy tale I might enjoy, a tale of human greed.
The narrator is Euanthe, and she is now a lump of metal but was once a human girl who lived on the wealthy island city, wherever it was, although I will put her actual description down to hyperbole. In fact, all the silver was in the mines belonging to the king.
For our mountain held silver the way a jug holds wine. Imagine the slopes, pitting with mineshafts like an orange pitted with cloves. We drew silver dust with our well-water and tilled it from our fields.
One night her brother goes missing. Shortly afterward, her father disappears, leaving the family facing destitution. Euanthe searches all the low places of the city where no young girl should ever go, but no one has any word to give her of her brother’s disappearance. At last she goes to the king, who turns out to know all about it.
Aside from the geographical problems, what bothers me about this one is the fact that apparently dozens of men have been disappearing every month, that this is well-known to the king and must be well-known generally, yet everyone seems to know nothing about anyone going missing. No. If hundreds of men are being swallowed up every year, everyone would have heard at least rumors, and more likely there would be people out into the streets demanding that the king Do Something. Although I’m not so surprised that no one would tell Euanthe anything, as she’s a disagreeable, self-centered character.
“Tethered” by Mercurio D Rivera
Eh. The Wergen again. Not happy to see another in this series. The premise is unconvincing, and by now the author has obviously exhausted the possibilities in the concept of aliens unable to resist the lure of human beings. Here, human Cara actually likes her Wergen friend Bea, and they grow up as close companions until the time comes for them to take mates, which in the case of the Wergen means being physically joined to her partner. Which we had already seen if we were familiar with the previous stories. By itself, it’s a rather unremarkable story of friendship.
Clarkesworld, October 2011
This fine ezine marks its fifth anniversary with the current issue, according to editor Clarke, and with it the addition of a third story to the fiction lineup. That’s the good news, and the better new is that the additional story is by Catherynne M Valente. The aggravating news: it’s serialized and we only get Part One this month.
“Staying Behind” by Ken Liu
A prequel to the author’s excellent “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer”, in which almost all of humanity has taken up residence in virtuality. Here, we see the beginning of the process, in which Liu employs the clever conceit of comparing uploading with the Rapture, with those who refuse the process left behind. Because the scanning procedure is destructive, uploading kills the physical self – which is part of the premise I find rather dubious, but it lets the narrator refer to the uploaded as “the dead” in a manner that suggests they are zombies, out to devour the brains of the remaining live humans and particularly their susceptible children. The narrator is following the precepts of his own mother, who refused the process.
She taught me that our mortality makes us human. The limited time given to each of us makes what we do meaningful. We die to make place for our children, and through our children a piece of us lives on, the only form of immortality that is real.
But as the world becomes depopulated, it is increasingly clear that there is no human future outside the virtual and the narrator’s concerns about his daughter’s future deepen.
It may seem strange to say that a story of earlier events does not stand alone without the story of later events, but that is the case here. There are too many questions left unanswered outside the context of the other. For one thing, who is paying for the humans to undergo the process? If the human population is disappearing, who is driving the shuttles that take the patients to be scanned, who is doing the scanning, disposing of the physical remains? And who is maintaining the computers that host the downloaded individuals, supplying the power, maintaining the hardware, manufacturing the parts for maintaining the hardware? The narrator complains that soon he will be unable to keep his own computer running, but without human maintenance, what keeps Everlasting running? The later [in chronology] story addresses some of these concerns, but at this point, we have no idea and that makes the story at hand less convincing.
“Pony” by Erik Amundsen
Metaphor run amok. The ponies are not ponies, not any kind of animals, and the paddock and barn are not really paddock or barn, either. We are out somewhere in space, where humans are not surviving as well as they probably thought they would be. The ponies are transportation, sentient, space-dwelling and self-replicating, or rather, self-reproducing, as each generation incorporates new features in response to events. But they are not always formed suitably for human use, which is a problem for Diver Wei and his companions, attempting to round up new colts to sell. And there is Skull Pony among the herd, very much older than the others, very much more aware, and definitely armed.
We would have pulled up stake at the sight of him in better times. Better times not being these times, and Skull Pony not being aggressive, yet, and so clearly important to the herd, we’ve been hoping to just work around him. Tag the ponies we want, get them in the barn and off to market.
Reading this one is a matter of translation from the metaphorical, but it’s an entertaining read; the narrator has a distinctive voice, though his assumptions can be misleading. A lot of misleading here, indeed, but it resolves quite neatly, as if there were no problem in the first place.
Redstone Science Fiction, October 2011
Two stories of temptation.
“iTime” by Ferrett Steinmetz
Gotta give the author high points just for the name of this device: “It was made of white enameled metal, shaped like an old stopwatch, smooth as an egg except for the plug-timer on top and the recessed nav-wheel on the front.” Rochelle’s father bought it for her to help her cheat on tests, Rochelle being an air-head. But she also uses it extensively to make it with guys. Her geeky roommate Claire would really like to hack the device, but Rochelle starts using it to evade her, especially after Claire notices that it is causing her to age at an accelerated rate.
Both funny and sad, a study in the ways of temptation. Of course, it doesn’t make sense when you look at it too closely, as this sort of trick only works when it’s the only one, not when it’s being openly marketed to the public explicitly as a way to cheat. The resulting cascade of fraud would have crashed the economy. But this is the light sort of piece where readers aren’t really supposed to think about that sort of thing.
“How We Fall” by Andrew Knighton
Military SF. There is war between mechs and humans, and three human soldiers are trapped in an abandoned factory building as the enemy advances. They think they have found a way out through a drain, except that there is a complication – a young winged girl is with them in the building, purporting to be an angel of sorts. Her presence leads to conflict among the soldiers, whether or how to rescue her.
“There’s a way to get her out,” Brok said, a wicked grin twitching the edge of his mouth. “We take her dead.” He paused for Levit’s shocked gasp and the girl’s sad frown. “People pay more for rescues, but they’ll pay for a body to bury too.”>
An improbable scenario, with no indication how the “angel” came to be in the factory in the first place. The tension among the men is effectively done, as is the conclusion.
GigaNotoSaurus, October 2011
Finally a longer story.
“Jackstraw Magic” by Eljay Daly
An excessively complicated scenario here. There once were two peoples coexisting: Souls/Swells, who reincarnate into another body after death, and Brights/Brutes, who used to do magic. The Souls had brought in the Brights to identify the newborn bodies in whom the old souls were incarnated, who then inherited instead of their children. But the system became corrupt, there was a war, and the Brights lost everything, were forced to live as beggars amidst the ruins of their former prosperity; they now bury their dead and their sculptors make clay busts to put on the graves.
Nix is a Bright who unexpectedly encounters a ghost, an unincorporated Soul, a hostile and deadly individual who wants revenge on the wife he believes murdered him by using a clay death-head.
“So how does a swell end up a ghost, damo? Shouldn’t you be having yourself a new body somewhere?” It’s what swells do; they get reborn–just like brights used to, back before the witch war. But not this swell.
Nix traces the death-head to an old witch who still uses magic. Matters become very much more complicated. Many intriguing but improbable secrets are revealed, and coincidences pile up in heaps, far too numerous to believe.