Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

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This sort of science fictional novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Saga on November 5, 2019, and runs 175 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The wajinru are the descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard to drown during the slaving years. Their young were taken in and nurtured by whales, and these children evolved into water-breathing apex predators with scales, fish tails, intersex genitalia, massive jaws and sharp teeth. They live serene lives without the distractions of history. This burden is currently carried solely by the Historian. The time of Remembering is at hand, and the wajinru assemble and build an artificial womb for the ceremony. Yetu, the current Historian, invokes the trance and starts the Remembering, but she is weak and the memories are painful. She abandons the ceremony without finishing and flees, leaving the wajinru in limbo. Yetu ends up injured and exhausted in a tidal pool, where she is discovered by land dwellers. It has been many years since the wajinru destroyed the civilization on land with massive storms. Yetu is cautious, but establishes a close relationship with Oori, one of the land dwellers. Is there some way she can bring the land and the sea back together?

First, the credits: This novella was inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song “The Deep” by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future.” Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are members of the rap ensemble.

The novella is another of the currently popular imaginative, absurdist narratives that have very little in the way of plot, characterization, or world building, but do coalesce into eventual meaning. In this case, the interesting point is that these undersea people have no memory for history, nor do they seem to want it. It’s painful after all. So they have arranged for one person to carry the burden, and only have a brief Remembering ceremony now and then, after which they’re rid of the memories again. Part of the question here is whether Yetu should permanently give them back their racial memories. I’ve found this issue of erasing history to rewrite the future in a couple of other recent cases from Millennial writers, suggesting it’s an emerging question of the current Zeitgeist.

On the not so positive side, there’s a lot of bad science here. How is it that mammals have evolved to breathe water and developed fish scales and fish tails? And how do babies born into the ocean live on whale milk? Plus, these people are carefree because they don’t remember anything. How will that translate to nuclear bombs, for example? Or the Holocaust? Sure, these things can cause depression and anxiety, but is it really safe to erase them?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

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This horror novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Broken Eye on September 3, 2019, and runs 118 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Caleb is the biracial son of the Lewis town sheriff, and his grandparents’ house is just through the woods from the Royce property. There are rumors that Archie Royce coerces women into some kind of weird religious cult. The house burns one night, and Caleb goes with his dad to try to help out. It seems too late to save anyone but a girl named Cere. While they’re waiting to find her a foster family, Caleb’s dad takes her in. She becomes like a sister to Caleb, and he learns that her evil father taught her magic and expected her to end the world. A woman is murdered, and it starts to look like Cere might not be the only survivor of the fire. Years later when Caleb becomes town sheriff himself, the murders start up again. Is there any way he and Cere can stop Archie’s plan?

On the positive side, this includes some good imagery and manages to capture a faint flavor of the South. It’s based on a legendary figure called Catfish John, a sort of gator bigfoot of the swamp, and the creature makes several appearances, both in dreams and in real life. There’s also a faint flavor of cults, and how charismatic men can twist reality for their followers. On the diversity side, it features a biracial, gay sheriff, someone you wouldn’t exactly expect in a small Southern town.

On the less positive side, this has a disjointed feel, and fails to produce much in the way of plot, theme or meaning. It’s clear early on that Cere is a powerful witch, but we don’t see much of the battle she carries on against her father and brothers. Instead, we get confused dreams from Caleb, unsolved murders and cases of rot that are never explained. There’s no description of the town or any feel for town life, only a few ugly bullies that plague Caleb when he’s a kid. Nobody seems to have any plan to deal with the Royces’ evil cult except to call on Catfish John.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “A Strange Uncertain Light” by G.V. Anderson

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This dark fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF Magazine 7-8/2019. This review contains spoilers.

Anne is a chime baby, which means she was born during the ringing of church bells. This gives her the ability to see spirits, but everyone thinks she’s just crazy. She works in her father’s clinic, but wants to escape the small southern town where she lives. She connects with Merritt, an older man wanting to recapture his youth lost during WWI, and the two marry. They intend to spend their honeymoon at Rannings, a nice hotel in Yorkshire, but Anne starts seeing ghosts right away. It turns out the building was an asylum in the last century. Is there anything Anne can do for these spirits? And is it already too late to save her marriage?

This is a smooth traditional narrative, faintly gothic, with the point-of-view/timeline varying between Anne and Mary, a servant girl who stormed the asylum in search of her lost friend Benjamin. The characterizations and world building are excellent. It rains a lot. While Merritt drowns his PTSD in alcohol, sleeping through most of the honeymoon, Anne meets ghosts who need her help and a spirit rector who gives her guidance. There’s mention of Anne’s treatments for hallucinations, and the state of the asylum inmates is fairly horrific, giving us an ugly window into past methods of mental health care. There’s a moment when Merritt and Anne come clean with one another, suggesting they might save the marriage after all, and a nice twist at the end that leaves a warm feeling.

On the not so positive side, I had some issues with the timeline here. I was under the impression that the asylum was well in the past, maybe a hundred years, but Benjamin still turns out to be alive and ambulatory? Maybe this is his special talent as a chime baby? It’s not clear.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 10 July 2019. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the eighteenth century, and poet Christopher Smart thinks God has commissioned him to write The Divine Poem. As a result, he’s been committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. He works away at his poem, writing it in blood on the walls when he’s short of pen and paper. Meanwhile, the poet’s cat Jeoffry and his friends protect the inmates, fighting off the imps and demons that plague the halls. When he devil himself comes around, demanding an evil poem from Christopher that’s due from an old bargain, it seems Jeoffry will have to stave off the apocalypse, too. Is he up to the task? Or is he over matched this time?

This story seems to be a tribute to real poet Christopher Smart (11 April 1722 – 21 May 1771), best known for religious works and for serving stints in both an asylum and a debtors’ prison. We know he had a cat named Jeoffry, because the cat appears in his poem Jubilate Agno. This story is written from Jeoffry’s point of view, and is highly entertaining. I have to give special mention to the style and imagery, and also the devil’s wig gets a special shout out.

On the less positive side, this was way too short. I’d love to follow more of Jeoffry’s adventures in the defense of his poet. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 1/23/19. This review contains spoilers.

Binu is an ordinary man who years ago left his mundane life and joined the traveling Majestic Oriental Circus in India. He has worked his way to the position of trapeze master and also appears as Aladdin in the highly popular illusion act based on the old Persian story. One detail that makes this act really different is that the jinni character Shehzad Marid is real, has his own scruffy lamp, and has chosen Binu as his master. The circus is set to perform at the palace of the Thripuram raja for the wedding of his daughter, and in the evening, a procession of Devadasis, holy temple courtesans, brings prayer offerings to the gods. Later in the night, one of the temple girls comes to Binu at the circus and asks him to help her escape. Against his better judgement, he agrees, but his boss Johuree tells him that any consequences are on his own head. When a terrible storm overtakes the circus, Binu goes out to confront the vengeful kuldevi who has brought the storm. “No man or woman is property!” he tells the goddess, but angry about the loss of her slave, she asks for the jinni in return for their lives. Can Binu let him go?

This is a fairly straightforward story with high diversity. It has a strong #OwnVoices feel, and is based the idea that the old jinns and kuldavi have adapted and are still out there, regardless of modernization in India. Binu is sexually attracted to his jinn, giving it an LGBTQ angle. The story also presents the ugly issue of temple slavery, an institution apparently still alive and well in the 21st century.

On the less positive side, there’s not much depth in the characterizations and not much in the way of description or background on the setting—I don’t get much flavor of circus life. The narrative makes a single reference to another story where these same characters apparently appear, but still, not much background. The story would have been more entertaining with a twist or so, maybe if Binu and Shehzad Marid had tried to outsmart the kuldavi instead of just giving in to her demands.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Uncanny Magazine 7-8/19. This review contains spoilers.

Zanna is a writer who is renting a remote cabin to work on her next mystery novel. Her assistant Shar helps her set up, and then leaves her to it and gets a motel room in a nearby town. The next morning, the fuses blow when Zanna tries to use the coffee maker and the microwave at the same time, and now her laptop won’t charge. She sets out walking, looking for the cabin owner to ask for repairs, and finds him dead. He has apparently fallen and hit his head on a rock. She calls 911 and the police, and incidentally Shar, turn up to see what’s going on. While the police work, Zanna’s mystery writer’s brain goes over the clues and determines that something isn’t quite right. There are animal tracks, and Zanna concludes that some animal was there that attacked or frightened the dead man. Plus, things Shar is saying don’t quite add up. Zanna’s first novel was dark fantasy about a creature that lived inside a human host and laid eggs in other people that would hatch out others of its kind. Would that story have anything to do with this case?

This is an easy, absorbing read. The mystery unfolds gradually as Zanna notices all the little details that are wrong, and finally challenges Shar, at which point she finds out the truth (again). The story is about friendship and devotion. Shar is apparently Zanna’s best friend and looks after her, stepping up to help because of Zanna’s memory lapses and looking after her while she writes her novels. Shar is keeping Zanna out of total lockdown in a hospital, and this ends with a warm feeling that Shar is going to continue to take care of things, and Zanna makes a note to appreciate her more.

On the less positive side, there are some serious logical glitches here. Where did this creature come from, and where are the rest of its kind? Surely Zanna isn’t the first and only successful infection. Plus, who appointed Shar god to make decisions like this? Her solution isn’t the responsible thing to do, and the end result is putting the public at risk. What if she slips up, fails to clean out the creature’s eggs properly? and how many people have mishaps like the owner of the cabin? Wouldn’t it be better to let Zanna go to the hospital and try to get an expert to trap the creature as it comes and goes? Shar says it’s pretty much indestructible, but unless it’s supernatural, that doesn’t make sense, either.

Three and a half stars.

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