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

Leave a comment

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 Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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.

Review of “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim

Leave a comment

This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Lightspeed 4/19. This review contains spoilers.

Saki looks out the viewport at the New Mars colony site, trying to pretend that everything is fine and MJ is waiting for her there. The two of them had been planning to pursue a dream of research on an alien civilization, but the New Mars colony has collapsed, and MJ died with it. The ship’s captain is now requesting an accelerated timeline on Saki’s research into the collapse. The Chronicle is a stratified record of the universe, but visiting it muddies the record so later archronologists have less to data to work with. In the departmental meeting, Saki argues for visiting the xenoarcheology warehouse within the Chronicle rather than the medical center, expecting that an alien plague would more likely have begun there. Saki wins the argument, and she and graduate student Hyun-sik transport to the warehouse site and release drones for a preliminary investigation. Analysis of the collected data provides little information, but probes to the surface identify nanites in the soil. Saki reviews MJ’s messages, searching for a clue. His final video letter includes a shot of future Chronicle settings. Can she meet him there and find out what caused the plague? Is there a way for them to be together again?

This is billed as a love story, and it’s constructed that way, where Saki remains full of sadness for having lost her lifelove partner and father of her son Kenzou (who is dating Hyun-sik). Kenzou suggests she look around for another companion, but she’s not ready yet. The opportunity to see and talk with MJ one last time is the basis for the story. On the positive side, this affirms Kenzou and Hyun-sik’s relationship, and the investigation reveals clues to the mystery a little at a time.

On the less positive side, there are a lot of holes in this. The world-building and characterization could have used more work. The story has a SF setting, but there’s hardly any detail on the colony, how the space travel works, or who sent the ship to investigate. I would expect corporate or government sponsors with an interest in the colony, but the group on the ship seems to be an academic team funded through a research grant. The Chronicle is an alien artifact, and there’s no info on how it works or how they’ve figured out how to access it with human technology. There’s no info on where New Mars is, where the alien artifacts have come from, or where MJ got the information he tries to leave for Saki. Plus, there’s just not much drama here. I wasn’t hooked by the love story.

Three stars.

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: