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Review: Deep Magic #65, Summer 2019

Review: Deep Magic #65, Summer 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, June 18, 2019

“His Lady’s Favor” by K.D. Julicher
“Expectation of Privacy” by L.B. Spillers
“The Greatest Knife Wielder” by Django Mathijsen
“Lutwidge Ranch” by Daniel Welker
“Hall of the Diamond Queen” by Anthony Ryan

“His Lady’s Favor” by K.D. Julicher is set in a somewhat traditional fantasy world where mages draw runes into armor and squires and knights fight in a semblance of gladiatorial combat. Rina is a mage who has just lost her position as a runesmith after a knight gets injured while wearing her latest armor. In a rush of panic, she goes to her old lover, Edrick, a great warrior who retired after accidentally killing an opponent in a tournament. Together, they work to get Rina’s talents observed by patrons so she can grow to become the greatest runesmith the world has known. But, in order to achieve this, they must face their individual fear of loss. For Edrick, this is tackling his guilt over killing a man; for Rina, it’s overcoming Edrick’s disappearance following the accident.

Overall, “His Lady’s Favor” is, at its core, a sweet story about two young lovers and the trials that tear them apart. The magic system and world-building are well done and feels organic when displayed. That said, I felt like the stakes weren’t super high here, leading to a lot of pseudo-tense moments that happened to work out for the better. The story, while worth a read, is sadly a little too predictable.

L.B. Spillers‘ “Expectation of Privacy” is a story that always feels like it’s a hair away from greatness. The protagonist, Veli, works in a far future world where a network of AIs known as Certified Surveillance watch over a super advanced New York City, which is referred to as the “City.” Veli is working his way through college in the hopes of becoming a doctor, but when he’s not accepted into med school because of an ambiguous “social score,” he gives up a bit and starts moving black market goods outside of the City. Throughout all this, an AI, known as the Administrator, is present in his mind. Added to this is the fact thatVeli’s sister is on the losing side of a cancer battle, which drives him farther into the seedier side of the courier trade.

All this changes when the Administrator starts confiding in Veli that the AI is monitoring him even when it’s not supposed to under the guise of caring for its staff. This leads to a series of incidents resulting in Veli making a choice: trust the Administrator or run away.

I really wanted to enjoy this story. There’s a ton here to love, from world-building to interesting secondary characters, to this subjective “social score” I got the impression was similar to The Orville‘s “Majority Rule” episode, but all of these things stop a hair earlier than I felt they needed to land right. For example, Veli’s sister, Izzy, is an amazing, powerful character, but we only see her a couple times and rarely as anything but window dressing to add stakes. The same goes for this “social score;” it’s trotted out early on, then when he doesn’t get into med school, it’s then discarded.

I wish there was a little more here; if it was a tad deeper or I could connect to Veli a little more—he reads rather flat to me—I’d be ecstatic. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, though it does end with a nice little callback joke that made me smile.

Is ego more important than love? If Django Mathijsen‘s “The Greatest Knife Wielder” is any indication, then yes. In this story, a man, Master Marso, adopts two kids as his assistants, then trains them in his miraculous knife throwing act. As they grow up, Master Marso starts teaching the young boy, Remald, how to use a magic pendant to control the direction of his throwing knives, eventually leading to the two doing collaborative tricks.

As Remald gets older, he starts wanting some recognition, which ultimately leads to Master Marso’s jealousy getting out of hand.

“The Greatest Knife Wielder” really shines in the way it deals with the psychology of a child as they grow up in the spotlight. Beyond that, it fell a bit flat for me. Mathijsen takes a “less is more” approach to description later in the story that didn’t resonate with me. Many times, it left me feeling like the action was taking place in a white room. Additionally, Alleira, the other adopted child, feels like a one-dimensional prop for Remald rather than a companion. Overall, it’s a sweet story, but don’t expect anything earth shattering.

“Lutwidge Ranch” by Daniel Welker isn’t at all what I expected. We follow Robbyn as he goes about his daily life managing the Lutwidge Ranch like his grandfather, the aging warrior Timber. When the mythical Jabberwock arrives to torment the town, Robbyn takes his next step toward becoming the man he wants to be.

Most of the plot revolves around Robbyn’s love of his childhood sweetheart, Hannah. It’s written in such a true, endearing way I found it hard not to smile as Robbyn stumbles through the motions of courtship. When Robbyn eventually offers an off-the-cuff proposal and Hannah accepts, I spent several minutes snickering to myself.

It’s easy to try and import deeper meaning to this story than it has. At its core is this idea of growing up and what that means when you’re the last person left in your family. There’s not a whole lot of tension here as it reads like a middle-grade or children’s story. Then again, it doesn’t pretend to be deeper than it is, which I must grudgingly accept as admirable.

In the end, I think the message is doing what you need to do for those you love and, if anything, I can say that’s not a bad way to live.

“Hall of the Diamond Queen” by Anthony Ryan tells the tale of Sharrow-met, the Wraith-Queen, and commander of the armies of a dark force known as The Voice. When Sharrow-met finally takes the final city on the continent, she’s forced to confront her own humanity as well as a past that’s been hidden from her for her entire life.

This story felt simple until I got about halfway through, at which point most of my assumptions were tossed in the trash. Ryan does a great job setting the reader up to think Sharrow-met is someone she’s not and when the reveal happens, I was emotionally shocked, even if I’d started suspecting the hook by then. Like many of the other stories in this issue, there doesn’t seem to be any deeper meanings or life lessons hidden within the text, but I don’t think it needs it. It’s a fun tale with a nice twist in the middle.

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #278, May 23, 2019

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #278, May 23, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, May 23, 2019

The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne
Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case

“The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne is a story steeped with beautiful social and narrative metaphors. At its most basic, “The Two-Bullet War” is a story about royal succession following the death of the queen. The main character, Mila, is the queen’s chosen Gun, a sort of Justiciar for the kingdom. Mila is also one of the “Mountain folk,” whom were once viewed as subhuman until the queen changed that view and opened their borders. When the queen dies, one of her sons, Karstan, decides to challenge his brother’s claim for the throne. Karstan is an isolationist and racist, while his brother, Alidar, wants to maintain the regime his mother built.

The twist here is that instead of fighting a full civil war, the two princes choose champions to fight for them with the loser dying along with the defeated champion. Karstan chooses Mila due to her skill and Alidar chooses Mila’s secret lover/husband.

The conflict setup is as complex as the social structure Osborne creates. From the first word, there’s barely a moment to breathe. There are a few times it feels like the story is about to spiral out of control as Osborne threads in yet another subplot, but she manages it skillfully, ending the story with a few sentences that somehow wrap up every plot thread introduced. In short, it’s a great story and well worth a read. Also, it’s Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ Audio Podcast story for this issue and the reader does the story justice.

“Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case is told through the point of view of Madam Gray, a blind actuary who uses magical ink to write insurance policies for soldiers going off to a losing war. Her employee, Magdalena, employs a different type of magic to predict the future of those looking for insurance; she’s a Taster and reads a person’s fate by drinking blood from their lips. When one of the king’s generals shows up at Madam Gray’s home, she’s faced with making a choice: maintain her honor and reputation or lie to the king and stop the war.

Case’s descriptions and world-building throughout are splendid. He somehow manages to weave a wonderfully complex vision for a character without sight in a way that lets us enjoy the story visually. It’s a challenge, but it’s one he’s managed wonderfully. Honestly, it’s probably as challenging as crafting an engaging tale about an insurance salesperson. Overall, a great story and worth your time.

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, May 9, 2019

The Bone Flute Quartet” by K.J. Kabza
The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat” by R.K. Duncan

“The Bone Flute Quartet” by K.J. Kabza is a story with the pacing of a tale told round a fire to a group of children. Our narrator, Bretchen, is a youth who wants to be a witch like Myrra Ferrinn, an ancient sorceress who was drawn and quartered for her dark magic. Bretchen’s grandmother, or Ommama, feeds this interest despite her mother’s protestations. After finishing her primary schooling at age eleven, Bretchen is given a choice: go to a knittery and learn that trade or try and apprentice to a witch. When she takes the path of a witch, it’s no surprise.

However, what is surprising is after Bretchen’s trials and tribulations with magic during her adventure, she still chooses to become a witch at the end of the story. Since this read as a child’s tale, I assumed there’d be a lesson of power/corruption, etc., but at the end Bretchen chooses to continue down her previously chosen path, though with open eyes. It’s an interesting choice I’m not entirely sure if I enjoy, but it certainly works.

R.K. Duncan‘s “The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat” is a story centered around the idea that severed hands tossed into a river by an ancient tyrant hold mystical properties. Navid’s family takes these ancient hands and molds them into talismans, which they sell to commoners and nobles alike. When a high lord arrives and demands a 3,800 bone coat, Navid, the diver of the family, is in a race against time to find the hands so his family can craft the coat. When he runs out of time, Navid makes a choice to defile a temple in order to increase his chances of gathering the bones they need in time.

The story itself is interesting and engaging, but the ending wrapped up a bit too nicely for my taste. I kept expecting something horrible to happen to Navid after the temple scene, but nothing does. There seems to be no consequence to his action, so I felt let down at the end, like I missed something.

At the very least, he could’ve lost his hands.

Review: Diabolical Plots #50, April 2019

Review: Diabolical Plots #50, April 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, April 19, 2019

Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” by Matt Dovey
One Part Per Billion” by Samantha Mills

“Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” by Matt Dovey is a satirical look at how Millennials are ruining everything. The story reads like an article you might find on the front page of the New York Times, if the majority of humanity worshiped the Elder Dark whilst going about their otherwise mundane lives. It’s witty, funny, and ends with a Millennial thrusting his erect penis toward the sky in obeisance while his father watches from the crowd, proud tears blurring his vision. Seriously, you have to read it.

Samantha Mills‘ “One Part Per Billion” takes the idea of an alien race giving us space travel in exchange for long term observation on the first vessel created and turns it into a reflection of humanity, specifically as it pertains to the unique aspects within each of us. The story ends with the main character, and sole female on the ship, Irene Boswell, as she tries to fix an alien observation device after a mad crewmember busts it up with a wrench. The resulting damage creates a field where Irene slowly breaks apart into the most distinct parts of her, giving us a glimpse into this heroic woman’s fears and dreams, hopes and losses.

It’s a remarkably deep story told with a wry grin that ends on a humorous uptick that works. Give this one a read, for sure.

Review: Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Review: Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, March 13, 2019

Table of Contents
“But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
“When Home, No Need to Cry” by Erin K. Wagner
“Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson
“Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris
“Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson
“The Thing With the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (reprint, not reviewed)
“The Future is Blue” by Catherynne M. Valente (reprint, not reviewed)

“But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires is heartfelt and utterly disturbing. We join the narrator, Dengwen, as she recovers from the latest in a long string of miscarriages. The feeling of loss from that event permeates the story in a palpable way. Spires weaves that pain into the fabric of a tale about finding alien life on another planet and the world sending a team to find them in the hopes of saving the Earth.

The initial plot itself is worn—the Earth is dying, only the aliens can save us—but it’s not the point. The purpose of the story seems to be to highlight the loss of Dengwen and, ultimately, the lengths she’ll go to create life.

“But, Still, I Smile” is a fine example of emotional resonance. Be prepared to tear up at least once.

Erin K. Wagner‘s “When Home, No Need to Cry” is a hauntingly beautiful tale of an astronaut grounded because she has cancer and her fight to get back to the stars. It’s vulnerable and raw and I get the feeling I’ll wake up in a month thinking about this story. There’s not much more to say; Wagner knocked it out of the park with this story.

“Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson isn’t the story you think it’ll be. The story starts with us following Maya, an Apex Air salesman in the undefined future, as she goes about her day slinging designer air to the choking populace of her city. When she sees Dima walking to the same sleepstack, the story takes a romantic turn that, honestly, makes the story more fulfilling, if less action-oriented.

Larson manages to flesh out a dirty, hopeless world while showing that not all is lost because, with love, even the most horrible of places can be beautiful.

“Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris is an interesting concept for a story. Our narrator, Raneka, is an heiress trying to lie low as a war simmers in the background. After finding out she’s been getting mind wiped for years, Raneka decides to join the resistance and, instead of avoiding the war, start the fight.

There’s a ton of world-building threaded through this story. Harris adds bits of lore in almost every sentence, from hinting at socio-economic ties via a fabric store to defining a crystal magic system with a chest freezer analog.

It’s because of this I found myself re-reading many sentences in order to understand the content. Additionally, I felt Harris’s focus on world-building was done at the expense of character development. My perception of who Raneka is at the beginning of the story and the end doesn’t change much; it’s just her memories that evolve.

Overall, “Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” is an interesting story with a well-fleshed out world, but the story itself didn’t really do it for me.

In Kai Hudson‘s”Treasure Diving,”we follow Ilana as she dives to some ruins deep in the ocean looking for treasure in the days following her mother’s death in the hopes of distracting her sister from the loss. What Ilana finds in the deep is both terrifying and life-changing.

Hudson nails the pacing, especially during the action scenes, and does a great job threading emotional tension throughout. Kai’s description of the senses from the perspective of someone who breathes underwater is incredibly well done. It’s a great read, even if you guess at some of the plotting throughout.

“The Thing With the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun is extremely entertaining. Set in a world where alien invaders will only talk to people dressed like they’re about to jump into a roller derby ring, the only thing that can save the world are fifteen magic roller derby helmets and the Smash Sisters.

Trying to explain the loops Skaftun goes through to make this story seem matter-of-fact would be difficult. Suffice to say, it’s fun, periodically violent, and overwhelmingly approachable. Great story!

Review: Strange Horizons, March 4, 2019

Review: Strange Horizons, March 4, 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, March 5, 2019

“The Skinwalkers Ball” by Hammond Diehl

I’ll admit, the beginning of “The Skinwalkers Ball” by Hammond Diehl is confusing. I was a few paragraphs in when I started thinking this review was going to be terrible, but Diehl’s beautiful imagery and vivid descriptions kept me reading. I can say without a doubt, I’m glad I did.

Diehl crafts a tale that, at its heart, is a story of revenge. Set during the course of a mystical creature fashion show where contestants wear discarded bits of other beasts, “The Skinwalkers Ball” tells the story of an alchemist searching for the person who is murdering his children.

The narrator, trustworthy or not, is interesting and the near disinterest threaded through it all is reminiscent of, say, a cat who decided to record the events of a sunny day. There’s a tension Diehl pulls on as the story progresses, tightening the focus and the net until you’re left reading the end in a rush. By the time you finish the story, you’re either impressed by Diehl’s plotting and ability to tease you through with tiny nuggets of information or you’re frustrated and annoyed by it. I count myself amongst the former.

Overall, a great story, despite the early confusion.

Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, April 30, 2018

Table of Contents
“How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” by Alexander Jablokov
“The Esteemed” by Robert Reed
“Ventiforms” by Sean Monaghan
“Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer
“Credit to my Nation” by Sandra McDonald
“Written in Mud” by William F. Wu
“All the Difference” by Leah Cypess
“The Gorgon” by Jay O’Connell
“Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood
“Neom” by Lavie Tidhar

Alexander Jablokov‘s “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” starts like chapter two in a book. World-building Terminology is tossed around you’re expected to know or intuit and, many times, that’s difficult since phrases and faces pop up quickly and repeatedly as the story progresses. Even the ending is tied to a major character from another tale and their inclusion here feels weird and wrong when taking the story as a standalone piece.

I did a little research and it looks like Asimov’s has published several of Jablokov’s stories, including another story about the main character, Sere. I have to imagine I’d appreciate the piece more if I’d read that story before jumping into this one.

All that aside, it’s a decent detective story with a fully developed setting and strong writing. It’s worth a read, but I think you’ll probably enjoy it more if you read “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry” in Asimov’s July/August 2017 issue.

“The Esteemed” by Robert Reed is a long, sometimes confusing story that follows a time traveler named Mahlon and his time-manipulating travels across the 20th century. This story has dozens of twists and turns, with a narrative style that periodically throws alternate futures into random asides in the middle of dialog passages in a way I found disengaging and, sometimes, confounding.

Despite that, “The Esteemed” is an interesting take on time travel and the psychology of the travelers who take part. It’s worth a read but be ready to be misled by the narration.

Sean Monaghan‘s”Ventiforms” is, at its core, a sweet tale of a mother trying to find her son. Monaghan does a great job setting the stage for the Tailé’s quest. The descriptions of the planet Zephierre and its “ventiforms” is both entrancing and beautiful. It’s easy to understand, by the end, why her son, Brandon, is doing what he’s doing. I’m not sure many of us would choose otherwise.

“Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer takes a little while to get used to—it’s not often you find stories in second-person out in the wild—but once you do it flows well from beginning to end. Palmer takes this idea of Icarus flying close to the sun, sets it in the far future, and brings it home into a satisfying conclusion. While there isn’t much in the form of real tension, the world-building and pacing is tight and well executed. Definitely worth a read.

“Credit to my Nation” by Sandra McDonald is an interesting story about our narrator, Unity, trying to find meaning in an otherwise dark life. The narrative tool for this journey comes in the form of a sort of personal time-travel, where a person is able to dig through their past and future using their DNA. The mechanic is reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed Animus, though there’s no interaction between the person and the memory; it’s simply a display. It’s an unoriginal idea tweaked expertly into a narrative device that feels extremely personal and vulnerable.

“Written in Mud” by William F. Wu is a hilarious trip into a dystopian future. It’s filled with rapid-fire Gilmore Girls-style dialog that’s biting and witty and drives the plot forward with quip after quip. Oh, and there’s a talking fish. It’s a fun story and well worth a read.

“All the Difference” by Leah Cypess is a fantastically introspective story that follows our unnamed narrator as she uses a time travel system to explore alternate timelines to see if she’s made the right decisions in her otherwise mundane life. If you’re looking for a high-prose literary piece, this isn’t it. If you want a perfectly accessible, well-written story, this is for you.

The majority of the story is inner monologue and it’s rich with indecision and nearly neurotic chains of thought that resonated deeply with my own reflections. The ending is great, if more terrifying than expected.

Jay O’Connell‘s”The Gorgon” is an interesting story. Essentially, it follows a near-sociopath (he goes out of his way to show he’s not one, obviously) as they stumble across a massive plot by an artificial intelligence that hasn’t been built yet, but is interfering with the present through some sort of time travel mind-reading… thing. The concept is interesting and the narrator, while wholly unlikable, drags you along while you wonder “what the hell is this control freak going to do next?” The ending happens kind of all at once and, personally, was a little unfulfilling. I felt like it should have exhibited more action and consequence there, so, for me, it fell just a little short.

“Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood sets the stage for a final showdown between an old, abandoned mining colony and their returning corporate overlords. The plot is simple: ruthless taskmaster returns to a colony that’s developed its own culture and bonded with local aliens; the locals stymie that effort through trickery and deceit. There’s nothing wrong with “Salting the Mine,” but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough conflict and failure in the story to be truly engaging. Even the small romantic side-plot just kind of “works out.” Wood’s writing is great, the dialog is tight, and the description is vivid, but the story just doesn’t do it for me.

“Neom” by Lavie Tidhar is a lovely world-building tale. We follow Mariam as she goes about a usual day for her in the city of Neom, a geek-topia setup on the Arabian Peninsula. Mariam is a house-cleaner, so we get her lower class view of this otherwise high-and-mighty city, replete with all its victories and faults. As someone who grew up in a poor household with many parallels to Mariam’s life, I felt connected in a real way to the narrative style.

That said, I can’t say there’s much of a story here, in the traditional sense. It feels like the first chapter of a larger book and the ending—or non-ending, as it were—reinforces this feeling.

I’d love to see this expanded into a larger story with risks and consequences; I think it’d be fantastic. As it is, this iteration falls short of my expectations.

Review: Flash Fiction Online #62, November 2018

Review: Flash Fiction Online #62, November 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, November 19, 2018

Table of Contents
“Trinkets” by Joe Parker
“Ivy” by Melissa Goodrich

Joe Parker‘s “Trinkets” is a short piece, as you’d expect on Flash Fiction Online, but that doesn’t limit the quality of writing despite the weirdness threaded throughout. In “Trinkets,” the narrator gets little gifts from a seemingly bereaved woman. As he takes each one, his life starts to change for the better. Strokes of random good luck for him and his family. The ending, while somewhat expected, is an interesting and satisfying conclusion. Worth a read.

“Ivy” by Melissa Goodrich is… interesting. I’ve re-read the story a few times now, but I feel like I’m still missing some integral metaphor that makes this story suddenly make sense. As it is, “Ivy” tells the story of a girl who literally sprouts ivy from her hands in the days (years?) following her mother’s miscarriage. There’s some deep hints of child abuse and emotional abuse throughout the story, though the only explicit piece is when the girl’s aunt arrives and forcibly trims the ivy from her hands with shears.

“Ivy” ends with a satisfactory bit of revenge, though I feel like the missing metaphor connection really muffled the impact for me. It’s a shame because Goodrich writes quite beautifully, I wish I could see what the author is trying to show me.

Review: Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Review: Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, October 3, 2018

Flash Fiction Online #61, October 2018

Table of Contents
“What I Understand Now” by Lauren Ferebee
“Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C. Baker
“Three is a Sacred Number” by Carrie Cadwallader (reprint, not reviewed)
“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm

Lauren Ferebee‘s “What I Understand Now” feels like a modern fable. In this story, the unnamed narrator stands in for Millennials and Generation Z (I believe) while Molly, her affluent friend who opens the story knowing she’s already dead, represents something of an idealized life. A typical southern belle who did all the things the narrator dreamed of, who thenbecame the thing she felt she should be even though she doesn’t want it. And, beyond all that, there’s this feeling of loss tied to forgotten memories and lost chances. I may be reading too much into it (probably), but it’s a quick read that’s well worth your time.

“Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C. Baker is a fun story with a neat little twist at the end. Told through the eyes of “Doctress Death,” the story is essentially her rambling monologue to her frenemy, “The Paleontologist.” It’s simple and feels loosely based on Jonathan Coulton’s “Nemeses,” but it’s a fun story. And, like I mentioned earlier, the ending is a nice twist.

“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm is a surprisingly tight story for one where the premise is about extradimensional gorillas appearing one day to follow people around wherever they go. The story really gains traction when the narrator’s daughter is born and, unlike everyone else on the planet, she doesn’t have a gorilla. I just re-read that and it seems ridiculous, but by the third paragraph McKimm manages to make the gorillas seem quite blasé and normal. They fade into the background and let the real story, the one that dragged sudden tears from me as I read the ending, blossom and shine. In short: I cried at the end of a story about extradimensional gorillas.