Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Bourbon Penn
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/15/18
Tor.com 2/18, 3/18
Bourbon Penn 3/18
In the May 15 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Siobhan Carroll offers a powerful if slanted look at the course of a war in “The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes”. A chef is captured by soldiers of the Iron Crusade, in the act of collecting an egg for his lord. The commander impulsively asks him to cook for her, and then her soldiers… and he continues to cook as the Crusade continues its advance, in so doing ironically changing history. Carroll’s use of point-of-view – the story is told by a veteran of the war much later – allows hints at the issues behind the war, and its resolution.
In Lightspeed for April Will McIntosh’s “What is Eve?” is an enjoyable, YA-flavored story of a group of smart students sent off to a strange isolated school, where they encounter their new classmate, Eve, a very odd – and scary – creature indeed. Readers immediately will gather that she’s an alien – but what sort of alien and why is the question. The answer is clever and interesting, and Eve is given a meaningful voice: nice work, if the viewpoint character’s actions seem a bit predictable. I was quite taken by the central conceit of “Nitrate Nocturnes” by Ruth Joffre: people have the time until they will meet their “soul mate” on their wrists. Fiona is one of those who have a long time to wait – she’ll be 64, apparently. The story intelligently contrasts the attitudes of “short timers” with people like Fiona, and examines the ways knowing you have a “soul mate” (even granting that you might not fall in love with them) might change the way people form relationships – including, of course, “resisters.” Fiona herself turns out to be strange – her soul mate clock suddenly starts to move faster, something unheard of. My SF reader’s mind was most taken with this aspect, and the conclusion of the story, a nicely evoked depiction of what is apparently Fiona and her soul mate falling in love in front of movies, while well done, seems awkwardly grafted on to the rest of the story.
Clarkesworld has been publishing more novellas recently, a wonderful thing, and in March the novella is very good indeed: Juliette Wade’s “The Persistence of Blood”. It’s set in her world of the Varin, a caste-driven society living in underground cities. The Lady Selemei is the wife of an influential member of the Grobal (governing) caste, whose women have tremendous difficulty in childbearing, but are societally expected to bear many children, as their race is in decline. Selemei nearly died when her last child was born, and her loving husband has agreed to that they must abstain from sex, and has even proposed a law to make it legal for women with health issues to “retire” from childbearing (and even, perhaps, to use contraceptives!). This is controversial, and things get much worse when Selemei’s husband suddenly dies. She is faced with pressures to marry again, even as she decides to take the shocking step of assuming her husband’s seat in the Council. There is a lot going on here, and some of the intriguing background (and evident layers and layers of oppression) is hard to follow (it becomes clearer, I think, in the context of other Varin stories). The story – as with many politically centered stories – is also a bit talky. But it pulls things together well, and we are led to a powerful and moving conclusion. I’ll be looking for more Varin stories.
A couple of differently gritty adventure SF stories appeared recently at Tor.com. “Our King and His Court” is a dark piece set in Mexico in a ruined near future from Rich Larson. Scipio is the leading killer for a warlord of sorts called El Tirano. El Tirano’s son has been kidnapped, and Scipio has rescued him, and the story gives us Scipio’s back story, and his slow realization of the true relationship between El Tirano and his son. This is well-executed, brutal action with a slimmish SFnal premise – well worth reading if not quite original enough to stand out. “Breakwater” by Simon Bestwick is another, like G.V. Anderson’s story this month, about the aftermath of discovering intelligent ocean dwelling creatures. In this story, they’ve started a war with humans, a reaction to our poisoning of their habitat. Cally has been trying uselessly to communicate with the Toads, as they are called, but her installation has been adapted to help in the war. One day it becomes the focus of an attack, and Cally and another woman are trapped in the depths. The other woman, whom Cally is quite attracted to, leads her to safety, and then learns something totally unexpected. Exciting stuff with a nice twist, and just a hint of ambiguous hope.
Bourbon Penn is a newish magazine that I finally took a close look at. The March issue seems to have a horror-oriented focus – I’m not sure if that’s standard for them. It’s a nice-looking magazine, and the writing shows real literary chops. I enjoyed a very dark “quantum fairy tale” by Josh Pearce, “Sensorium”. Amelia is a girl who can see and speak to fairies – and dragons. She can’t be persuaded away from her beliefs, and her parents consider drastic action – so Amelia escapes to the world “Sensorium” where the dragon comes from. And then things get stranger – and very dark indeed.
“Breakwater”, Simon Bestwick (Tor.com 2/28/19)
“The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes”, Siobhan Carroll (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/15/18)
“Nitrate Nocturnes”, Ruth Joffre (Lightspeed 4/18)
“What is Eve?”, Will McIntosh (Lightspeed 4/18)
“Sensorium”, Josh Pearce (Bourbon Penn 3/18)
“The Persistence of Blood”, Juliette Wade (Clarkesworld 3/18)
Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.
This review and more like it in the May 2018 issue of Locus.
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