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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.

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Review: Aurealis #129, April 2020

Review: Aurealis #129, April 2020

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, April 9, 2020

“Pork Belly” by Jack Heath
“Father’s House” by Grace Chan
“Prime Mover” by Robert DeLeskie

“Pork Belly” by Jack Heath is a trippy ride. In a near future world, female pigs (sows) are being used as surrogates to avoid the death of human women. The story primarily follows Claudia, the would-be mother, as their sow goes in for the birth process.

Overall, it’s an interesting way to treat birth and, I think, pretty accurate. The dialog and inner monologue reads similarly to conversations I’ve had with expectant parents (sans pigs, obviously), but the real kicker comes with the final line of the story. In that moment, the full reality of this situation becomes clear and it doesn’t reflect well on humanity.

Grace Chan‘s “Father’s House” is an emotional wallop. Henry returns home to pack up his father, Tsz-Kan’s, things. It’s an emotional time, with Henry recounting old stories of his childhood with his father who helps him dig through their history; even trying to dig into Tsz-Kan’s life and learn something about his parent.

I can’t say too much more about the story without spoiling it, so I’ll stop there, but the depth of feeling and fondness with which each story is told builds upon itself until, like Henry at the end, you can’t help but cry. Beautiful story.

“Prime Mover” by Robert DeLeskie is interesting. It follows a trucker, Arlene, who is going through the motions of living after her husband dies of cancer. As a final Hail Mary before offing herself, to keep the tone of the story, Arlene takes an overnight job that leads her to an old haunt, a truck stop that served the best pecan pie. When she arrives, everyone she knows is gone, the pecan pie is store bought, and people are going missing. The night just gets weirder from there, resulting in Arlene finding a new purpose in life through her abuse of a sports relic.

The tone throughout is really spot on for a trucker, I think. Having grown up with a diesel mechanic father, I had a lot of exposure to that specific group. Every bit of the story, from the anger at rain to the climactic fight at the end, is told with the same “well, this is happening” tone I recognize from my conversations with truckers and it works really well. A fun, yet emotional romp through the life of a trucker (thrown into an 80s movie plot).

Review: Mysterion, March 2020

Review: Mysterion, March 2020

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, March 24, 2020

“Reformed” by Caias Ward

“Reformed” by Caias Ward is aptly titled. The story follows a criminal with Superman-level superpowers named Declan Samuels who is recently out of eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The story itself is really the story of an ex-con coming out of prison and trying to reintegrate into society. The addition of superpowers highlights those difficulties in a deep, visceral way.

It’s not often a superhero story makes me cry, but this one did. It’s a story that’s more than worth the time to read.

Review: Strange Horizons, December 16, 2019

Review: Strange Horizons, December 16, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, December 18, 2019

“Flags Flying Before a Fall” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu

“Flags Flying Before a Fall” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu is a strange tale. Roughly, it follows a nearly unidentified main character living in a world where they die constantly, only to be resurrected by a tree that their brother won from professionally rolling down a hill. (I wish I could have that make more sense, but I can’t.) After this sport is outlawed, the protagonist is forced by their family to pretend at success to hide the money the brother sends back. Later, when the brother comes back at an inopportune time, he learns the truth and leaves, which ultimately sends the protagonist on a quest to find their lost sibling.

The story itself was hard for me to follow. I feel like there’s some sort of backstory or mythology I’m missing out on to make the detached external narration easier to handle, which is a shame.

That said, the language and the poetry of the prose is beautifully done. The story spends so much time stuck in the emotion and inner workings of the protagonist, despite their mother’s constant reinforcement that they need to avoid emotion, that a lesser writer would’ve fumbled and failed at the attempt. Ize-Iyamu, however, really manages to keep those hooks in despite it all.

In the end, despite my disconnect with background of this story, the raw emotion delivered through accurate, beautiful prose makes this a story worth reading.

Review: Strange Horizons, December 9, 2019

Review: Strange Horizons, December 9, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, December 11, 2019

“Into the Eye” by SL Harris

“Into the Eye” by SL Harris is a stunning depiction of our reality after the Old Gods rise. Set in the far future, Earth is now flooded and filled with chattering madmen and ruled over by these horrific beings. The only ones to escape this fate are those who were either off-world or maintained the psychological fortitude in the face of Cthulhu and its brethren to keep going. The main character, Sal, is the latter. A pilot during humanity’s last stand against madness, Sal watched the world die, but managed to steer away, the only surviving ship in the human fleet.

The story revolves around a man, Captain Moore, who has been to the center of the universe and found Azathoth—Lovecraft’s creator god—sleeping. Waiting. Like Sal, Moore is the only survivor of his failed mission and comes back, having spent ten years alone, working through a plan to get away from the madness. With that in mind, Moore assembles a crew and together they head to Azathoth to escape this damned universe for another seen only in fevered images during Moore’s time near the sleeping god.

Overall, the story is incredibly well written, the integration of the Lovecraftian mythos with a far future setting works seamlessly, and Harris develops very interesting, empathetic characters that you root for by the end.

My only real gripe with the story is the end. It sort of stops and leaves us wondering at the conclusion, a nagging feeling of hope warring with the blatant horrors of this universe. In another story, without the weight of the Cthulhu mythos driving it forward, I think this would’ve worked quite well, but I can’t help but feel like it reads as the end of a chapter in a book than the end of a short story.

That said, it’s a pleasure to read and I’d recommend folks give it a shot, especially if you like new takes on Lovecraft’s madness.

Review: Strange Horizons, Dec. 2, 2019

Review: Strange Horizons, Dec. 2, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, December 2, 2019

“The Garden’s First Rule” by Sheldon Costa

“The Garden’s First Rule” by Sheldon Costa is both beautifully haunting and terrifying at the same time. The story takes place in a semi-modern world where children can be sold, or sell themselves, to a long-term art installation called the Garden. In the Garden, these children are given a seed and tied to a frame. Over the next years, that seed will grow inside them, slowly changing them from a human to some sort of weird human-plant hybrid.

The story itself follows one of these children, Eli, who convinces his parents to sell him to the Garden because of the abuse he suffered at home in the wake of his sister, Ava, being shipped off to war. Eli is happy in the Garden, but when his sister shows up one day and sees him, his world is turned upside down as old memories flood back.

The interesting part of this story is the perspective. Costa takes the time to illustrate how some of the other children fight and struggle against their planting. Even Eli sees the pain they experience in a way that makes you think, maybe, he doesn’t actually want to be there. However, every time Eli comes back to the present and focuses on his life and his long-term goals—going to seed and spreading out over the world—it’s clear Eli is a true believer.

Ultimately, I think that’s the scariest part of this story. It feels like the manifesto of a radicalized soldier, which makes the face off with Ava, a recently returned soldier with clear signs of PTSD, the more meaningful. Great story and well worth a read.

Review: Diabolical Plots #56B, October 2019

Review: Diabolical Plots #56B, October 2019

I’m not allowed to review Diabolical Plots for Tangent Online since I’m a first reader for the magazine, so… this one isn’t associated with them. :p

Full Disclosure: I didn’t read this story during my first reader duties this submissions cycle, so it ended up being a pleasant surprise. Also, the title hooked me immediately. I like me some classy swear words in a title.

Also, since this isn’t associated with Tangent, Imma let the swears out for once.

You’ve been warned.

“Save the God Damn Pandas” by Anaea Lay

“Save the God Damn Pandas” by Anaea Lay is fantastic. At its basic, it follows a guy who tries to get pandas (who can talk thanks to technology) to fuck, while confronting his own ticking biological clock.

The story is rough and tumble in its descriptions and completely earnest in the characterizations and dialog of the characters, including the pandas. At its core, this story is a straight up, early-2000s comedy plot, with all the deprecating humor you can handle.

I really enjoyed the story, perhaps in large part to the prevalence of the profanity. There’s something visceral about its use that spoke to me. It’s rare I read a story and end on a smile.

UPDATE: Just read my cohort’s review over at TO and apparently they don’t agree. Oh well. Personally, I think the ending is actually quite believable, at least the single part that’s actually resolved. Then again, I grew up in a house where a cousin acted as a father for the entirety of my sister and younger brother’s life without any sort of sexual or romantic liaison with my mom, so two best friends deciding to adopt a baby doesn’t seem that far fetched to me.

Review: Aurealis #124, September 2019

Review: Aurealis #124, September 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, September 12, 2019

“Leisure Culture” by Maddison Stoff
“Nie Among the Tree People” by E H Mann
“Inheritance” by James Rowland

“Leisure Culture” by Maddison Stoff is far funnier than a story about the end of humanity should be. It’s set in a far-future world where the Earth has taken on an almost Venusian atmosphere, most of humanity lives in leisure pods—think Ready Player One style, full immersion units—and we’ve encountered alien life, but they’re actually kind of cool. Stoff gives us humanity’s last moments through the eyes of a narrator who doesn’t really see it as any different than what they were doing in the leisure pods.

The story is filled with dark humor amidst criticism of both conservative and liberal governments, notably the rich and powerful in both camps. There’s a rough honesty in the story that really spoke to me, especially when the narrator is eating sushi while the world burns.

Because, honestly, if all of humanity is going to be absorbed into a far-reaching alien consciousness, what else are you going to do?

Overall, it’s an interesting read, just don’t expect a ton of depth.

E H Mann‘s “Nie Among the Tree People” is a story about a narrator fleeing the craziness of a city and stumbling across a village of people turned into trees. In this world, gods walk the earth. In the city, they’re things of circuits and electricity, but in the forests, they’re raw elements of fire and wood. Nie’s story begins when their flight from the city leads them to the tree people. The resulting silence and peace evolves into a life-changing experience for Nie, which ultimately results in Nie “saving” the town and themselves in the process.

The story itself is sweet and simple, once you get a handle on the fact gods exist as elemental forces. For me, Nie represents anyone who feels overwhelmed by modern society and wants to get away from it all, to reconnect with a nature that feels so far away in this day and age.

I can only hope that all of us reconnect as gracefully as them.

“Inheritance” by James Rowland is a speculative fiction story disguised as an art review of a dead artist, Nandi Harris, a woman who wove magic into her paints and made fully immersive art a reality throughout the 20th century.

The writing itself has the stale tone you expect in a scholarly article, though the descriptions and attention to detail within each discussed piece is beautiful and deep. In a way, it feels like the author is attempting to perform their own magic trick here, to create a world within a world like Harris did with her paintings. I think the success of that will be mixed, but for me personally, coming off a recent death in my family, it worked wonderfully. The end message, one so personal, hopeful, and unexpected given the handling of the rest of the content, really resonated with me because of that. It’s a great story for someone going through a tough time. Give it a read, if you can.

Review: Nightmare #83, August 2019

Review: Nightmare #83, August 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, August 23, 2019

“The Skin of a Teenage Boy Is Not Alive” by Senaa Ahmad
“The Bleeding Maze: A Visitor’s Guide” by Kurt Fawver

“The Skin of a Teenage Boy Is Not Alive” by Senaa Ahmad is a hauntingly beautiful story of teenage angst and discontent. Generally, it follows Parveen and the semester before high school graduation when the demon cult kids manage to get one of their classmates possessed.

The story can be a bit confusing at times as Ahmad hops heads, and timelines, often. In one scene we see Benny get possessed, then the demon throws them from the roof. Immediately after that, Ahmad is discussing the cult kids growing up, getting old, etc.

The uniting theme I see here is in the parallels between Parveen and the demon. Both want the same thing, freedom, and are driven by similar emotions and needs, which, the demon irritably notes, is why he keeps getting summoned by teenagers.

Overall, a really interesting tale with some fantastic description and metaphor usage. Even if you can’t catch the storyline, it’s worth reading solely for Ahmad’s descriptive talent.

Kurt Fawver‘s “The Bleeding Maze: A Visitor’s Guide” is an interesting story. The unnamed narrator tells about an unbreakable, terrifying maze in their town, a maze they send their kids into when they get old enough. From there, it digs into a series of firsthand accounts, some good, some horrific, from various citizens.

There’s definitely a decent amount here to like, but I wasn’t particularly wooed by the format. I think I’d have enjoyed a deeper dive into one of these trips into the maze rather than the detached way they were presented, almost like a reporter writing a story. Fawver tries to capture some of that tension at the end, but I don’t think it was successful. Great ideas, but the execution wasn’t quite there for me.

Review: Black Static #70, July/August 2019

Review: Black Static #70, July/August 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, July 31, 2019

“I Write Your Name” by Ralph Robert Moore
“A Crown of Leaves” by Kristi DeMeester
“Pendulum” by Steven J. Dines
“Glass Eyes in Porcelain Faces” by Jack Westlake
“Massaging the Monster” by Cody Goodfellow
“The Touch of Her” by Steven Sheil
“The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Saved” by Natalia Theodoridou

“I Write Your Name” by Ralph Robert Moore is a wandering story. Generally speaking, it follows the tale of Roger and Mia, two people who meet, very briefly, when Roger is fourteen and Mia is a newborn. They meet again thirty years later, get married, Roger gets dementia, dies, turns into a dog (?), accidentally gets Mia killed, then spends his remaining days at her grave begging her forgiveness.

I’m honestly not sure I followed the story properly by the end. Every hook or dangling bit of angst either doesn’t resolve or twists into a weird, not-quite-explained story angle that evolves into something even weirder; i.e., he changes into a dog. Also, the opening hook, with Roger looking at a baby and the author saying they fell in love, is creepily reminiscent of Lolita.

If you’re looking for something creepy, just pure creepy in a not-scary-just-super-weird sort of way, then this story is for you.

Kristi DeMeester‘s “A Crown of Leaves” follows Opal as she’s driven to the childhood home she was taken from as a child by her sister Maribel. As children, Opal and her sister were taken to the woods by their seemingly crazy mother and forced to wear crowns of leaves under an insane tree with glass leaves.

The tension build in this is pretty good. Opal’s sister slowly but steadily seems to lose her mind as the story goes on and is limned with rather terrifying memories from Opal’s childhood. As they get closer to the house, it gets worse, with Maribel turning off the lights and driving through a forest in the dark.

As we hit the climax, I was astounded by how disturbing DeMeester gets while staying true to the spirit she established at the beginning of the piece. Definitely worth a read.

“Pendulum” by Steven J. Dines. Phew. Dines presents this story in a non-linear way through the birth and death of the Milly’s son, Jack. It’s a terrifying story, though not much happens, contextually, just a constant slow build as Dines uses the metaphor and imagery of a pendulum to repeatedly amplify the worst parts of the tale. It’s a great story about a terrible thing.

“Glass Eyes in Porcelain Faces” by Jack Westlake is about how Darren’s life falls apart after he starts seeing people walking around with porcelain faces.

As the story progresses, it’s clear Darren has a history of mental illness. As his symptoms get worse and more people have these porcelain faces, he tries to hide his symptoms until, finally, he breaks down and orders two porcelain masks for himself and his girlfriend. Everything comes to a head when he goes out in public, finally feeling like he’s blending in with everyone else. The ending is apt, terrifying, and made me shudder.

Overall, it’s a great horror story. The pacing is spot on; the tension build, well written. And the ending is horrible with an apt twist that still makes me cringe. Very well done.

“Massaging the Monster” by Cody Goodfellow tells the story of Jocasta, a woman who has been through a hell unlike anything I can imagine and finds herself at a massage house as a masseuse who can see the sins of men in their skin. When the man who murdered her mother and father arrives, she decides to channel an ancestral massage style to get her revenge on him.

At its core, “Massaging the Monster” isn’t an original concept, even down to the idea of mystical energies helping someone get revenge. What really makes this story special is the execution. Goodfellow does a great job with the minutiae of the story, lending us such detail in the art of the massage that when it turns to the speculative element, it’s easy to accept what’s happening. Great story with quite the rush at the conclusion.

In Steven Sheil’s “The Touch of Her,” we’re put into the head of Mark, a man obsessed with a barista, Hannah. It’s a disturbing dive into his thoughts as he obsesses over Hannah and demonizes another admirer of hers, an overweight man known only as The Toad. The first huge chunk of this story is Mark rationalizing his crazed thoughts about Hannah until, after waiting for Hannah to leave work, he tries to follow her home. He ends up finding Hannah in a car with The Toad, then proceeds to go absolutely nuts.

I think the majority of what makes this story a success is the constant, pressing horror of how unstable and violent Mark might be.

That said, the ending is a little off for me, and not just because it’s the first evidence we’ve had of a speculative element in the entire story. There’s this change in the environment after Mark kills The Toad and hurts a little girl during his flight that, I believe, is supposed to be because social media and the like is grabbing onto his actions and turning the world against him. The speculative piece is the entire world turns into a single, focused being, all looking at him as he’s trapped in the subway.

I think the reason I’m having issues with the ending has less to do with the setup and more the message. Is it a critique of callout culture? Is it a celebration of it? I don’t know, and, as such, I can’t say for certain if the author is excusing Mark’s actions or criticizing them and that, in and of itself, terrifies me the most.

“The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Saved” by Natalia Theodoridou is written perfectly for the story. The main character, known only as Cherry girl, narrates, hinting at everything, but showing nothing. What she does reveal is her husband as some sort of supernatural being, possibly a vampire, whose mood impacts the world around him in very real ways, both good and bad.

I like the distance the narrator puts between herself and the reader. There’s this allusion to dark actions and past murders, but Cherry girl glosses over them in a haze, like she can’t see the demon in front of her, which, as we find out later, she probably can’t. It’s an intriguing story and worth a read even if it’s only to explore the great use of an unreliable narrator in telling a deep story that never says anything straight.