Review: Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020

Review: Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, May 9, 2020

“Byzantine” by Holly Messinger
“Stepsister” by Leah Cypess
“Birds Without Wings” by Rebecca Zahabi
“Who Carries the World” by Robert Reed
“Hornet and Butterfly” by Tom Cool and Bruce Sterling
“Eyes of the Forest” by Ray Nayler
“Warm Math” by Rich Larson
“An Indian Love Call” by Joseph Bruchac
“In the Eyes of Jack Saul” by Richard Bowes
“Another F*cken Fairy Tale” by M. Rickert

“Byzantine” by Holly Messinger is fascinating. The story itself is told from the point of view of a spirit that encounters a slave with special powers in the months before the fall of Constantinople. The two develop a relationship that grows and twists in parallel with the city’s assault, siege, and ultimate fall.

Messinger does a great job in illustrating the fall off Constantinople. It’s like watching a train crash in slow motion, each day, week, month, and season carefully sculpted in such a way as to affirm the inevitability of it all, but still highlighting the attempts of the Byzantines in saving their city. Tying the main plot to an event of this stature could have gone sideways, but it doesn’t here. Despite some jarring colloquialisms from the narrator—a spirit that doesn’t perceive time the same as humans—there is little to dislike and a lot to love, even if the events are abrasive at times. Overall, a great read with a really interesting—if somewhat predictable—ending.

Leah Cypess’s “Stepsister” is a rather terrifying telling of what happens in Cinderella after the wedding, told from the point of view of the Handsome Prince’s bastard brother as the new King and Queen struggle to conceive an heir.

The narrative style is definitely that of a fairy tale and carries all the beats and tempo of one, though the darkness embedded within hearkens to the Grimm version rather than any Disney adaptation. Each twist, while relatively straightforward, is engaging and interesting. However, with those twists, the narrator gently pulls your eyes away from the dark truth buried inside the story until you’re left at the end wondering how you could’ve missed this hook. Overall, it’s a great story and a really interesting read.

“Birds Without Wings” by Rebecca Zahabi is a story about an Earth where some kind of creature or alien exists that can replace humans like a sort of doppelganger. These things are called “Fakes.” The real terrifying bit is that in doing so, they immediately kill the person they’re replacing. The story itself follows two hitchhikers, Zoe and Alex, as they make their way across Spain in this world.

At first, I felt like I knew where the story was going as soon as the Fakes were mentioned early in the story, but as the ending comes near Zahabi layers in twists that made what seemed like a predictable tale quite interesting and with a satisfying ending. The place where this story really shines though, is in the depiction of Zoe’s social anxiety. Every beat, every concern hits home in a way I don’t often see done well. At the very least, “Birds Without Wings” is worth a read for that depiction alone.

“Who Carries the World” by Robert Reed is a deep dive into humans as alien to me as if the story were told from the point of view of a tapeworm. The story itself roughly follows an immortal man named Perri who is “killed” during the collapse of a huge glass structure. A woman pulls him free and proceeds to feed himself parts of his own body as the body itself regenerates. This then connects to a very grisly story about abduction, indoctrination, and everything that entails.

I’ll be honest, this story didn’t work well for me. In order to establish the setting, so much backstory and world-building needed to be thrown in that I found it distracting to the point of dislike. Add to that the extremely gruesome body horror and disconnected minds of the protagonist and the pseudo-antagonist, and I could not connect with this. That said, there’s a good story here… just go in with both eyes open and read very carefully.

“Hornet and Butterfly” by Tom Cool and Bruce Sterling follows a character named the Hornet who lives on a city-sized raft that has just been destroyed by a typhoon. In the wake of that, he’s attacked by some cyborg-cops and, being a former genetically altered soldier, kills them all. The story itself starts in earnest when the Hornet goes to a human named the Ozzman and finds a heavily genetically engineered human called the Butterfly, which then disappears into the sky on some untold secret plan.

From there, the story gets weird.

Much like the preceding story, I couldn’t quite get into this. The opening pages were engaging enough, if sparse on detail at first, but once we get to the Butterfly, the plot spirals in a way I could only just keep track of. When the ending comes up and the point-of-view changes, I was simply confused. That’s not to say I didn’t understand how we got there; I just did not get why we were there to begin with. Overall, while the world-building is equal parts interesting and terrifying, the last half of the story fell noticeably short for me.

“Eyes of the Forest” by Ray Nayler was a breath of fresh air after the last two stories. Sedef is a way finder in training on a new world where everything alive is lit by an inner fire and the only things that are dark have died. When that happens, the scavengers come out and consume the drab things. When Sedef’s suit goes out, casting her in mundane darkness, a scavenger vine attacks, cutting open her wrist. It’s only the quick action of her mentor, the strangely named Mauled by Mistake, that saves her life, but soon after, Sedef realizes it’s her turn to save Mauled as she was injured in the attack as well. Alone in this new wilderness for the first time, Sedef takes off, hoping she can get supplies to save Mauled before she bleeds out.

Nayler’s descriptions throughout are absolutely breathtaking. The way every scene pops with color and raw, unfiltered life drives home both the strangeness and beauty of this new world. Combined with the tight plot and dark humor layered within it was an absolute pleasure to read.

Rich Larson really nailed the psychology in “Warm Math.” In this story, Rozier has just been ejected off the ship he’s spent the last three years working on into the void of space with a man dressed as a colonel. It soon becomes clear that in order to survive, they’ll need to dump a significant amount of weight, more than the escape pod has to offer, leading Rozier to eye this colonel and prepare for an attack.

The story itself isn’t complicated at first. It’s about survival, of recognizing the odds and making a choice. However, it doesn’t take long for that basic premise to morph and twist into a psychological horror show that leaves you surprised and filled with dread by the last sentence. Definitely worth a read.

“An Indian Love Call” by Joseph Bruchac is a meandering tale of a man, Billy, who has a ridiculously intelligent friend, Arlin, who does crazy stuff all the time, like accidentally summoning a female member of the Big People—or Sasquatch—who is looking for a mate in a big way.

Plot-wise, there isn’t much here. The story is very linear and when it comes to twists and tension, there’s not much there, either. However, Bruchac’s writing style is entertaining and the way he layers in native stories in the midst of the insane adventures two of his characters have been in makes for an enjoyable, if not very deep, read.

“In the Eyes of Jack Saul” by Richard Bowes is a retelling of the Dorian Gray story from the point of view of Jack Saul, a real-life male prostitute. In this story, Saul becomes at times both infatuated and angered by Dorian Gray leading to a final scene that alters the original story.

Primarily, this is a deep dive into male prostitution in late 19th century England, with a focus on fleshing out Dorian Gray’s world. While this was interesting and the point of view refreshing as it comes to Gothic literature, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on here. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the story is beyond showcasing this part of Victorian England. As such, while an interesting read with solid Gothic-inspired writing, don’t expect too much here.

“Another F*cken Fairy Tale” by M. Rickert was a pleasure to read. 98-year-old Lucy wakes up one morning and decides to go down to the beach to make a sandcastle. She’s alone—her husband and daughter long deceased—so, with no one to stop her, she goes down, starts making a castle, and shenanigans ensue.

This story doesn’t try to be more than it is. It’s a pleasant tale ending on a line that would make the hardest heart smile. Simple, short, but amazingly effective.

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