And this time the stories are fantasy, with an anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, whose collections are better known for hard science fiction. Also the September offerings from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Tor.com. Finally, for a change of pace, a science fiction novella by Genevieve Valentine.
Fearsome Magics, edited by Jonathan Strahan
This modest-sized fantasy anthology holds fourteen stories, in most of which there is some identifiable form of magic. Largely, I found them enjoyable. What I didn’t find a whole lot of, however, were fearsome magics. Most of the pieces are fantasy lite, several of them YA, or at the most, light dark fantasy. Thus I particularly appreciated those with a truly stygian tone, notably the Ballantyne, Bradley and Robson.
“The Dun Letter” by Christopher Rowe
Tansie’s mother decamped several years ago, leaving Tansie with her blind and infirm grandmother, whom Tansie cares for to the best of her ability and limited funds. One day, along with the bills and notices from collection agencies addressed to her mother is a strange missive with a red wax seal. Tansie can’t keep from opening it, to discover that her father was a prince of the elves and an elven knight will be coming to take her to their realm.
For some reason, this reminded Tansie of the stories she had heard about foster care from some of the kids on the at-risk track. It was always advertised as going someplace better by the people taking you away from your home. Gothwiddion the Primrose Knight sounded like he worked for Child Protective Services.
Fortunately, Tansie recalls the exact terms of the letter.
The conclusion of this short humorous piece fits it quite well, although readers might feel kind of shortchanged, not knowing how things worked out afterwards.
“Home is the Haunter” by Garth Nix
A story of Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz, a musclebound knight and sorcerous puppet who serve a Council by fighting evil. Here they are, for some reason, transporting massive cannon across a trackless, arid steppe, following an unauthorized route chosen by the know-it-all puppet. Except that Mister Fitz apparently did not know that they were about to encounter the Hag of the Shallows on her annual search for a husband.
“She rises from the Shallows this one day of the year, a thing of impenetrable darkness wreathed in fog and rain,” said Withra, not really answering the question. “Her chosen husbands are found soon after dawn, or rather the chewed remnants of them are found. . .”
Fortunately, or so it seems, they have reached the site of a convent where the mistress promises them refuge. But treachery lies within, and our heroes must risk their lives to defeat the ancient evil.
This is one of the longest stories here, perhaps longer than it had to be, as the opening section suffers from redundancy and the tendency of Mister Fitz to hold forth at length. Once the Hag actually appears, however, matters proceed more briskly to sorcerous combat. The story’s tone combines genuine horror with the lighter touch characteristic of this series, where evil gods have names like Yeogh-Yeogh, and the absurd is not ever far away.
“Grigori’s Solution” by Isobelle Carmody
“Mathematics at an exalted level is a kind of magic.” So says the narrator, revealing the story of the Doomsday Formulae, the solution to one of those arcane problems set to challenge the intellects of the highest savants in the field. The narrator is a retired and dying journalist, not a mathematician himself, but capable of recognizing the significance of the sum that will result in the unmaking of Earth. Or perhaps the entire universe, as the narrator tells us the stars are going out.
Despite the narrator’s pronouncement, math really isn’t magic, and the story isn’t about either, but the human reaction to the imminent end of the world.
When all of the forceful and truculent dying petered out, a sort of great calm peacefulness descended upon us, which is surprisingly beautiful. People have grown kind and quiet and pensive. If it is not in bad taste to say so, it seems to me that humanity’s finest hour might be its last.
“Dream London Hospital” by Tony Ballantyne
Dream London is more of a nightmare in this surreal dark fantasy. Carrionman, sort of a humanoid crow, has entered the hospital looking for his appointed meal, although this isn’t clear at first; we only know he is searching for unidentified her and suspect perhaps that she is a loved one. At the entrance, he finds a family with a young son who soon becomes lost in the hospital, and he keeps crossing paths with the child on his quest, going deeper into the hospital’s dark satanic wards.
Someone has flung the windows wide to let out the smell of sickness. It was a vain move, the thick smell of Dream London has poured into the room instead. Dream London smells of flowers and fecundity. The ward smells of gangrene and perfume. The mixture is enough to turn even my stomach.
It would be possible to read social commentary into this one, and possible to read it on its own as a piece of grotesquerie, effectively unsettling but not meaning much beyond that. Strictly speaking, there is no magic here; the bird-people of the story are perhaps the product of bad dreams or a fantastic universe, but not spells. It is, however, fearsome.
“Safe House” by K J Parker
A Studium story, which is to say, definitely about the practice of magic, and the best sort. The narrator is a magical footsoldier, an adept who was sent by the Studium to locate an untrained natural talent before it could lead to trouble.
We regulate the use and misuse of the talent, wherever, whenever. We sort out untrained naturals who suddenly discover they can turn milk sour or command earthquakes. We track down rogue adepts who decide they’ve had enough of running errands and want to be gods instead. We research unexplained phenomena, in case there’s something we should know. Some places they like us, some they don’t. We don’t get paid, or anything vulgar like that. We do the job, we go home, we get sent somewhere else, in my case usually somewhere they really don’t like us at all.
Having escaped from the hangman, he takes refuge in a magical tower, where he’s surprised to find another refugee hiding. Logic belatedly makes him realize this young woman is in fact the natural he was sent to find. But nothing in this universe is that simple, or it wouldn’t be so delightfully entertaining.
“Hey, Presto!” by Ellen Klages
Polly Wardlow is the daughter of a stage magician, “the family business, arcane secrets passed down from the men of one generation to the next.” Polly, however, plans to study at university and become a scientist. Things change when she spends a rare summer holiday in London with her father, who is preparing a new show and finds himself in need of a new assistant. As Polly spends more time in the workroom below the stage, she gains an appreciation of the care and ingenuity that goes into an illusion. “Upstairs required presence and flamboyance; downstairs, preparation and ingenuity.”
Details of the magic business give this one interest, as well as the WWII setting.
“The Changeling” by James Bradley
In a village sometime in the last 18th century, Hannah fell in love with the handsome Irish stablehand, whom the village’s old witch calls “touched by the fairies”. Before their baby was born, Brendan was killed, leaving her a widow. Perhaps because he was conceived with the help of the witch’s herbs, Connor is taken in the night and replaced by a changeling.
In the days that follow the sudden bouts of shrieking grow more frequent, Connor’s high, inhuman cry often leaving her so shaken she can barely think, barely function, so it is all she can do to draw water from the stream and gather the wool for spinning. On the fourth day it is too much, and she runs from the cottage in tears and stands in the forest with her eyes screwed shut, chanting wordlessly to herself to try to drown out the sound of his screaming
There is no ambiguity here; the fact of the changeling is sufficient magic, even if the witch is no real witch. But it can also serve as a metaphor for a number of mundane circumstances: a child of a different race, or illegitimate parentage, or with a visible deformity. In either case, the heart of the story is Hannah’s tragedy, the curse of a changeling child stemming from an exogamous marriage, becoming an outcast in her own home and seeing no escape ahead of her.
“Migration” by Karin Tidbeck
In many ways, this one feels a lot like science fiction, and there is no overt magic, but a lot of surreal strangeness. Edith lives with many other people around a staircase, where each person has an individual room. Packages of food [tasty crisp insects] are delivered at regular intervals and most of the time people have little to do. Edith has a [magical?] hammer that she taps on a broken object to fix it; the laundry man has an instant-clean basket, etc. One night she feels a presence outside her door, but she is sick and can’t respond to it. When she is able to move, she discovers the staircase deserted. Finally, with one other left-behind, she encounters a presence who tells her it’s time to move on, to go home. But where is home?
Dark recesses sit in the cliffside. Edith looks into the nearest one; inside is a narrow bed, a little table and two chairs. No dust, no sign that anyone lives there. The only sound is that of waves. Just like Gregor’s rope ladder, it proves impossible to climb into the caves. Somehow her foot falls short of the threshold again and again. She’s not supposed to be in this place, or the place isn’t ready for her. She climbs back up the path.
This is a fascinating situation that remains essentially unexplained. We do learn that the people on the staircase were refugees from various disasters that destroyed their original homes. Voices managing the setup comment that they have come “too early”. But even after they do reach their new homes, the life there is nothing like a normality we would recognize. Everyone lives in individual housing and food is delivered in parcels, just as before. Their memories are very mutable; sometimes they have dreams of somewhere else that might be home, either before or after. And while one character mentions children and old people, we see none, and everyone lives alone. It would be easy to conclude that these are not real people but some sort of constructs, living in an artificial, controlled environment, but we can only wonder. Intriguing.
“On Skybolt Mountain” by Justina Robson
The witch Lettice Beaverley has gotten herself in trouble.
Ten years she’d lived here and controlled her sense of fairness and, for the most part, her tongue. She’d done everything to present her best face, knowing stories followed her around like stray dogs, even going so far as to borrow a pan and concoct overly sugary marmalade that was sure to go unplaced at the summer fair so that its appearance would render her the more invisible. Now however, incensed for a moment by the smugness of Lyda’s presentation, she had let her sense of justice get the better of her.
This is a world where religion has outlawed magic, which doesn’t mean it has gone away, only that noticing it is forbidden. But this prohibition doesn’t extend to children, and one nasty little creature noticed the imp that Lettice set on to the jam. The word spread and grew in the spreading until it reached the local lord, who doesn’t mind magic if he can profit by it. A rumor has the dragon on the mountain dead, its horde for the taking, and Lettice has been ordered on pain of death to make sure it is rendered harmless – the lord being a fool.
Here is the sort of story I’d have liked to see more of in this anthology. The magic is immediately present and well-realized, its elements are credible and clearly potent, fearsomely so. And Lettice is a well-drawn character, growing slowly into her destined role.
“Where Our Edges Lie” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Cosima and Damia were twins. In the beginning,
I can’t tell where I begin and my twin sister ends. We stare into each other’s eyes through the bars of our separate cribs, and I fall into her mind and she into mine, and we swim together on a tide of our thoughts. We share hunger and contentment and wonder, the look of sunlight as it moves across the ceiling in the morning, the taste of apple juice, so sweet and bright, the one foot that feels cold because a sock came off, and we don’t know whose foot it is. Ours.
But when Cosima is ten, a strange-looking woman appears who tells her she is her real mother, that she is a changeling substituted for the human Cosima; she puts a ring on Cosima’s finger that she can’t remove. From that point, the separation between the twins begins. On their sixteenth birthday, Cosima’s fairy mother comes to take her away with her, giving her a taste of the powers awaiting.
A bittersweet tale of choice. The fairy was foolish, of course, to choose a twin. It’s interesting to contrast this take on changelings with the Bradley story above; here, the magic is considerably more in the foreground.
“Devil’s Bridge” by Frances Hardinge
Petra is heir to a legend.
An old woman found her route home blocked by a deep gorge with a fast-flowing river. The Devil came by and offered to build a bridge for her, on condition that he could have the soul of the first creature to cross it. He assumed that she would cross first, but instead when the bridge was finished she sent her dog across ahead of her. So she escaped, and the Devil was thwarted—
But the power to make bridges to elsewhere was passed on to her female descendants, as was the bargain; the Devil still wants his price for every bridge. Petra’s problem is that people keep forcing her to make bridges for them, and every time, she loses something of herself.
I like the bridge magic in this YA piece, not the sentimental conclusion.
“The Nursery Corner” by Kaaron Warren
Jessie has grown up in an old people’s home where her mother is Matron, a place full of weird and sinister residents, such as the old soldiers who slit her abusive father’s throat when he went too far. A stage magician named Mario Laudati came to entertain them and lingered on, ingratiating himself to the old people and courting Jessie’s mother. He made the Nursery Corner into a shrine to lost childhood, and the nurses would wheel the patients to sit there when they got fractious. But Jessie notes that many of the residents die peacefully after a stint in the corner, “as if they’d seen Heaven and no longer feared it.” Except that the truth isn’t quite so benevolent.
A sinister magic, falling short of evil but reflecting what seems to be the factor common to the dark art: taking from others for one’s own purposes.
“Aberration” by Genevieve Valentine
There are two levels of narrative here. In one, an unknown narrator addresses “you” about the apparitions, persons not entirely there, usually standing on high places, looking down at the material world and its mortal inhabitants. If they see that you have noticed them, they will say, “Don’t look”, and your gaze will lower involuntarily.
You can take all the pictures you want. Their face will be gone—some lens flare that wasn’t there before, or a dove taking off in the foreground with two feathers spread over where they used to be, or obscured behind a cloud of someone’s cigarette, even if you’ve never smoked and they never have. If there’s no excuse that the frame can find, you’ll just see a vanished face where the picture’s been eaten away, someone lifting a disappearing glass to lips that don’t exist anymore.
The other narrative is from the point of view of one of these persons, a woman who has been traveling in this way through time and space for so long she has wearied of it. She likes to take photographs of the scenes she encounters, although they fade away; she retains nothing from one place to another, other than memories. She seems to have little will in the matter of her destinations; the motive force is contained in a small flat stone that grows warm when it is ready to shift her to another location. She frequently meets another such traveler, a man, but the text suggests that there are others. In fact, there is a suggestion that the stone was forced on her unwillingly. Could it be that she was one who looked when told not to, and this is her punishment/reward?
It’s not really possible to tell whether this is magic or a sufficiently advanced technology, which is likely, as these persons seem to come from some far distant future, voyeurs of spacetime. The story is the existential weariness of immortality, particularly when it must be spent alone, and a longing for something like home.
“Ice in the Bedroom” by Robert Shearman
Simon hasn’t been able to sleep since his wife Cathy’s suicide, and he considers following her into death, if only he can hit on the right method. One night he discovers himself [he believes it isn’t a dream, but readers are likely to disagree] on a vast lake of burning ice, with the moon hovering too closely overhead. And wolves.
And he thought that if he could confront the fantasy of it, that he might still be all right. If his body could come into contact with the world, and see that it made no sense. He looked over the side of the bed once more. The ice seemed grim and so so cold—but it couldn’t be there, could it? He climbed out from the sheets. They weren’t doing much good anyway. He sat up cross-legged on the bed, he took a deep breath. He swung one bare foot over the side, he slowly lowered it down on to the ice.
Back in the waking world, that continues to become less real as time goes by, several people make the same strange remark: “The flames of Hell don’t burn. They freeze.”
No magic here, but dreams and symbols, psychological stuff, as Simon works his way through the stages of his grieving. The symbols are fantastic, often evoking deathmyths, but readers never really believe that Simon is likely to be eaten by the wolves [in any bad way] but whether he will be able to come off the ice into the light and warmth of renewed life.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #155-156, September 2014
I don’t notice any distinct themes uniting the stories in this month’s issues.
“No Sweeter Art” by Tony Pi
In a fantasy China, Ao is a candymaker who also has the power to summon zodiac spirits by modeling them in sugar – a power that can turn on its practitioner, as the spirits are independent-minded. He has allied himself with a local magistrate who has angered a sinister gang; now he has asked Ao’s aid to defeat their attempt to assassinate him. While Magistrate Gongsun engages in a riddle contest, Ao watches through the eyes of his caramel figures.
I froze. Kneeling on the same rooftop not far from me was a masked archer garbed in dirty green. Luckily, he paid no mind to my rooster figurine. The man had not as yet unslung his bow and was staring past the contest into the upper floor of the tea-and-wine shop. My real body was there, head down and cradling a pot of wine.
A strongly-realized setting here, and an effective Zodiac-based magic system. There are hints that this one is part of a related story series.
“By Appointment to the Throne” by Alter S Reiss
Xan is a Xac refugee, a group unwelcome in Arrat. Now trouble has come in the form of a murdered girl outside his restaurant kitchen.
They went inside, trying not to see what was lying on the cobblestones behind them. Hell, I wished I couldn’t see what was lying on the cobblestones behind them. I wished like anything that it hadn’t happened, and that the police would help when things happened. But it had happened, and I’d seen the way the looks on the faces of the police when they had to deal with Xac. I’d seen people packed into wagons bound for the border after someone knifed a guy two tenements over.
But this is only the beginning of the troubles, because the murder threatens to spill over into a factional war that will destroy the entire refugee community [it seems that the police may have a point].
It’s not quite clear what place in history this secondary world represents, future, past or sideways, although what little we can see of the material culture suggests a non-technological one, while the political scene seems more modern. Thus the use of such a term as “waitstaff” is jarringly anachronistic, because the time and place are clearly not our own. The fantastic element is a substance that causes the user to be possessed in part by the spirit of some ancestor; this enhances the ties of the characters to their past. There is a deep, strong backstory behind these events: the history of the Xac people, their political/ethnic factions. Fortunately, the author handles it all well, providing us just enough information to intrigue and inform, yet not too much.
“Written on the Hides of Foxes” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
Kegulan’s family has been living under a curse for generations, although they call it an illness.
“Many years ago, in the time of my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, someone in our family went out to cut wood. It was a harsh winter, and the pile of firewood was getting small. Everyone was ailing and weak. This man staggered out of the tent, his whole body empty, and cut down the first tree his axe landed on—bad luck for the whole family, because it wasn’t ready to be cut down. It begged him to go to another tree. But the man was so weak, he didn’t care, so he kept on swinging his axe. Then with the last of its strength, the tree told the man that he and his family would spend every day of every winter working with wood, preparing it and eating it, because there would be no other food, and only the most beautifully carved dolls would do.”
Specifically, the curse causes animals to flee from their presence, and since this is the main source of food for the people of the taiga, they believe they have no choice but to subsist on the tea made of the wooden dolls they carve. They also tend to go blind, which is either part of the curse or of inbreeding, as no one else will marry into the family. Kegulan, growing old at twenty-five, shows no sign of incipient blindness, which would mean a comfortable life in front of the fire with the other elders; instead, she fears her relatives will kill and eat her. Thus she flees into the forest, where she encounters Oruguaq, a magical old woman with a magical book that holds the stories of all the people she has met in her long life. She knows more about Kegulan’s dysfunctional family than she does, and she’s looking for a new apprentice.
The author has a fixation on foxes, which she works somehow into a lot of her fiction; in this case, foxes are trapped and eaten, but more significantly, Oruguaq makes the parchment for her book from the hides of foxes, which may or may not give it magical properties, although it’s not clear why. It’s Oruguaq herself who is the real magical figure here, a quasi-immortal goddess of the land. Kegulan was lucky to find her. There are also shamans and selkies, unromantically depicted, a whole world pregnant with magic that strongly evokes the folklore of Siberia, or somewhere close to it.
“The Good Deaths, Part II” by Angela Ambroz
An alternate – very alternate – tale of Carrie Nation in a world where Buddhism seems to be the dominant religion, or at least in the US, where this fact did nothing to prevent a civil war over slavery. Carrie’s own war, as in our own timeline, was against alcohol, and, heeding the call of the Lord Buddha, she embarks on a campaign of saloon-smashing. As in our own timeline, a tornado strikes one of the towns she targets, but here things change, first because of the presence of Leonidas Lazarus Suttner, who is probably a physician and becomes her next husband, and secondly because a young boy is fatally injured, for which she feels responsible. It seems to be a better ending than the one she achieved in this one.
Forgive me for my sins. I am a murderer and a widow and a sufferer, and I have done You wrong. I have tried to break out of the wheel, and I have failed, and I’ll probably fail forever. But by the laws of karma, I await Your true and pure punishment with a happy, open heart. Just don’t let me be born back east and don’t let me love a drunk and don’t let the crop fail, and Heaven help Kansas. These things I beg you, and that’s all. Thanks.
This is a pretty strange premise, the combination of Carrie Nation and Buddha, but if indeed the translation of the self into its next form is bodily as it’s described here, that would be a logical religious outcome. Readers are likely to be confused by the “Part II” of the title, paging back through the site to find Part I of the story. But there is no such; the title apparently [as far as I can figure] refers to the first half of Carrie Nation’s life, or perhaps to some prior life.
Tor.com, September 2014
Reading the Cisco story, in contrast to the other original stories from this month’s Wednesdays, makes me realize how little truly adult fantastic fiction we see these days. A welcome reminder.
“Headache” by Julio Cortázar, translated by Michael Cisco
I occasionally reflect that the modern isn’t the present, but the past. When the Spanish original of this story was published in 1951, it was closer to the 19th century than today. The setting is less fantastic than enigmatic or surreal, although there is an imaginary species of animal being raised by the narrators, who are considered weird and strange by their neighbors, who avoid them. The atmosphere is decadent; I get the impression of a decayed aristocracy, the narrators attempting to keep from falling irrevocably into the pit of poverty by breeding and selling creatures called mancuspias, that require painstaking care. The narrators are also constantly ill, neurasthenic or hypochondriac, and self-medicating with substances that have hallucinogenic and addictive properties. Besides the drugs, it seems quite likely that their ailments are caused or at least exacerbated by proximity to the mancuspias, particularly since the creatures’ sheared fur is tossed down the well from which they presumably drink.
Notwithstanding the likelihood that encroachment will continue, we prefer to spend a bit of time severely doped up; by noon we have noticed the medications taking effect, and the afternoon of work that follows comes off seemingly without a hitch, except maybe for a few minor derangements of things, so that, after a little while, the objects seem to stand motionless before us; a sensation at the very edge of life in every way. We suspect things are becoming more Dulcamara, but it is not easy to be sure.
In consequence, we are primed from the outset to consider the narrative as unreliable, but especially so near the end, after the narrators’ employees decamp and leave them to attempt to manage the workload by themselves; the conclusion is highly hallucinatory.
The story sets several puzzles for readers, such as the mancuspias, as the detailed notes on their care only increase our confusion, and we have to wonder what they are used for – meat, fur? I think of chinchillas, but the mancuspias are described as clever. There is also the question of what is actually going on with the creatures at the end, when the narrative mind becomes increasingly deranged. There is the heart of the story, the gradual deterioration of the narrators, always called “we” in the text, as well as their exact nature and relationship. While we can’t entirely rule out a split personality, it seems that there are actually two individuals, perhaps brothers, probably engaged in a sexual relationship. At which point, readers should reflect on the setting in which the author wrote and the ways in which it differs from our own time, the things that could not be made explicit, the things that had to be veiled, often in Latin. But in this sort of piece, we have to realize that the distorted forms of hallucination are as much to be wondered at as penetrated.
“As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders
Apocalypse lite. Marisol is an aspiring playwright who has spent the last two years alone in a panic room, watching soap operas and eating frozen meals that are stored in quantities I don’t find credible. When the earth stops quaking, she finally ventures outside to discover the rest of the world has been destroyed. She also finds a bottle holding a genie, who prefers the term wish-facilitator and used to be a theater critic. Richard knows that the world has been destroyed often before; invariably, someone wishes the destruction undone in a manner that only results eventually in a different manner of destruction. Marisol knows that her wishes mustn’t be wasted; she retreats to the panic room for more soap operas and frozen meals while she considers the problem. In the meantime, discussions on stagecrafting ensue.
A talky story, with the two characters nattering back and forth over trivia.
“When I was reviewing for the Times, I always tore into plays that had too many endless speeches. Your plays don’t have a lot of monologues, do they? Fucking Brecht made everybody think three-page speeches were clever. Fucking Brecht.”
I find the whole thing more tedious than clever, and keep wondering about the panic room’s operation – like, what happens with the sewage after so long?
“Selfies” by Lavie Tidhar
Putting the current twist on the old horror tale. Ellie finds a cursed camera phone in the sort of shop that disappears after you walk out the door. At first, she is eager to keep taking selfies with it, but then the curse begins to take effect.
And another and with each one I feel better and worse like I am being cut up into a lot of tiny little pieces like bits of me are lost like there is me and me and me and me and another.
The text consists of seemingly-random snippets describing the shots taken by the camera, beginning with the last, at which readers will know that it drove Ellie to her doom. Nothing much new here.
“Midway Relics and Dying Breeds” by Seanan McGuire
Actual science fiction. In a world turned green, with humans sharing dominion with other species, Ansley is a member of one of the last family-based traveling carnival troupes, careful to minimize their footprint on the land.
Humans can swear and swear that we’re moving toward a better harmony with the living world, but it’s all a smokescreen. We’ve decided that green is good, that’s all. Give us a few more centuries and we’ll change our minds again. If there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s selfishness. Everything else is temporary, as the earth measures time and change.
Her specialty is animal handler, and her special charge is Billie, a genenineered Indricothere, used primarily as a draft engine. All would be well but for her abusive asshole cousin, one of the show’s bosses, who resents her refusal to marry him. He’s also scheming to sell Billie.
The piece has two elements – the green technology of this kinder, gentler world, and the carnival story. They don’t fit together very seamlessly, and I sense that it would take a great deal of money to live the kind of harmonious-with-nature life described. The problem with the carnival story is that Davo is just too much an asshole to be believed. People wouldn’t follow that kind of leader.
Dream Houses, by Genevieve Valentine
Gaslight in space. Amadis Reyes is an ex-trucker turned spaceship crew on a run to the Gliese system when there is a malfunction in the deep sleep pods and she finds herself the only survivor, facing five extra years awake and alone except for the company of the ship’s AI. The owner of the ship being cheap, there aren’t enough rations onboard to sustain one life over this interval, unless there is food in the cargo bay. But that’s another problem.
“Capella, was cargo loaded onto the ship prior to takeoff?”
“Please specify voyage.”
“Capella.” I clear my throat. “I’m going to need you to try to understand me, please. Was there cargo in the hold when we took off?”
That pause, that pause that makes my wrists feel like lead, like I couldn’t move if I tried.
“That information is corrupted,” Capella says. “Only available data on Bay Alpha is the current video feed.”
That’s impossible. That’s the pause. Capella knows it isn’t possible. Capella knows there’s a lie.
Amadis soon realizes that the pods were sabotaged and the AI is corrupted. Whoever was behind the plot that killed four crewmembers, whatever contraband is actually in the hold [and she saw the crates being loaded, knows the bay isn’t empty] it might be dangerous if the wrong people knew there’s a survivor on the ship. Time passes, as Amadis conserves resources, tries in vain to break into the cargo bay, starves, and finally resorts to the meat kept frozen in the deep sleep pods, all the while with the companionship of Capella the AI, who insists that the slight hints of someone else present on the ship are only Amadis’s imagination.
Woven with this story of survival are several lines of backstory, meant to suggest answers to the question: Who is this Amadis? Because more than a survival story and a whodunnit, this is a story of character. It’s not the action/adventure problem of how Amadis will survive, but what kind of person does the ordeal reveal her to be?
Amadis has a brother. The siblings grew up on the edge of survival; Amadis knew the danger of starvation in her childhood. She was large and strong enough at age seven to kill a man who threatened her, but it was her brother who took the blame, her brother who was always her protector as they fled from one home to another in fear of the law. It’s been her brother and his need for her that she’s always been trying to escape, first to the road as soon as she could drive a truck, then even farther into space. The details of this relationship are doled out sparingly; for a very long time, we know only that she and her brother are estranged in some way, but the reasons only come much later, to the extent they come at all.
I was terrified of him going to another house he could barely stand and would probably leave before the year was up. My restlessness was one thing, but his I couldn’t stand; it had shifted from job-hopping to a chain of identical houses he halfheartedly tried to make homes out of, and none of them was never going to stick unless I came with him.
Does this make much sense? Not really. But the heart has its reasons, and Amadis is a person who’s spent her life evading attachment and commitment, even dropping her own given name and taking one that belongs to the knightly hero of a chivalric romance. Which raises more questions. We see virtually nothing of her sexuality here – no lovers, no one-night stands. This is a significant omission when we see her forming a bond with Capella that they both refer to as love. Yet the tie to her brother is primary, and the houses of her past still fill her dreams, thus the title.
The conclusion is difficult, so much it’s tempting to see it as ambiguous, knowing as we do that Amadis could well be hallucinating from starvation. The weight of the evidence in the text leans in the other direction, but crediting this as fact raises so many more problems than it solves that I would prefer to have it all a final dream, in which Amadis finally finds peace within herself.