Review of “Blood Is another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 24 July 2019, and is available online and also for sale as an ebook. This review contains spoilers.

The Civil War is raging and word comes that Missus’ husband Albert is dead. The Missus’ fifteen-year-old slave girl Sully immediately drugs her, her two daughters, her mother and her sister with valerian and skullcap and slits their throats. This leaves Sully in charge of the farmstead. She buries the bodies and cleans up the mess, but finds no joy in her newfound freedom. Because the etherworld has been disturbed by the murders, Sully soon gives birth to the revenant Ziza, who has a much more assertive outlook on the future. The two discuss the question of papers to show ownership of the land, and agree this will be a problem. Ziza’s solution is to birth more revenants and take over the town where the deeds are registered. Can they make this work?

This is a powerful story that captures a bit of the flavor of the Old South in the framework of the Civil War. The murders are a variation on the popular recent theme of killing people and taking over their power, and the violence takes place early in the story, which gives it a strong initial impact. The style tends toward the symbolic and surreal, which reduces the space for imagery, characterization and world building, but Sully does come alive in a couple of flashes. Aside from the fantastical elements, the framework also suggests an alternate history of the US South, although there’s not quite enough development to carry this interpretation. Eventually Sully does manage a rebirth of sorts.

On the less positive side, a flavor of the South is all we get. This makes a powerful point in the beginning, but somehow Sully never steps up to take over her own life, even after her symbolic rebirth. She ends up with the revenant Ziza telling her what to do, and starts to read like a side character in her own story, only spawning avenging ghosts and not any kind of new Sully who will step up and achieve joy in her newfound freedom and opportunity. This leads to questions about the theme of the story. Is Solomon suggesting African Americans are too haunted by the ghosts of slavery to achieve anything positive? On the alternate history side, I’m also wondering why Sully waits until word of Albert’s death comes to carry out her revolt. His death may be only a metaphor for the South losing the war, of course, but this still leaves a question of why the slave Sully feels it is the (absent) man who somehow prevents her from murdering the women. Why is she afraid of him and not the women? About 1/3 of the population of the US South was enslaved during the Civil War years. Is Solomon wondering why the slaves didn’t rise in revolt as soon as the men left for the front?

Regardless of these (and a few other) questions, Solomon gets a lot of credit for grappling with the issues.

Four stars.

Review of The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

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This is a paranormal novella published by Gollancz in 2018. The story is set after the fifth but before the sixth novel in the author’s Peter Grant series. This review contains spoilers.

Commuters on the Metropolitan line are reporting strange encounters, oddly dressed people who seem to be trying to deliver a message. The travelers call police, but tend to forget the whole thing before response can get there. Sergeant Jaget Kumar calls Peter Grant, investigator for London’s Special Assessment Unit (a.k.a. the Folly). Peter brings along the unit’s summer intern, his teenaged niece Abigail, plus Toby the dog for the ghost hunting operation. Can they figure out the message and lay the ghost to rest? And what about that odd child that turned up part way through the investigation?

Good points: Aaronovitch creates very warm and engaging characters. His vision of London is diverse, and the police are actually concerned about your problems—we’re sure they’re going to take care of all those things that go bump in the night. Besides that, the narrative features a lot of dry humor, beginning with the name of Grant’s unit, and continuing along in like vein. The story is engaging and carries you to a satisfying conclusion that also sets up future installments of the series.

On the not so positive side, there nothing memorable here. It’s a warm, feel-good story without anything much in the way of depth or social commentary. The diversity itself is a kind of comment, of course, but like the humor, it’s understated. As someone who doesn’t follow this series, I’d liked to have a little more background on Abigail, who seems to be positioned in this installment for a future with the police.

Three and a half stars.

Cover Reveal

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So, I’ve been traveling. Here’s a shout-out to Marge Simon and Bruce Boston, both great SFF writers and poets. We had lunch on Friday in Ocala under the shadow of Hurricane Barry.

Meanwhile I’m home for a couple of days, so I guess this is a good time for a cover reveal. I’ve had some older short stories available in different e-book collections for a while, but now these will be combined in trade paperback format so they’ll be available in bookstores. Watch for it August 1! Also, keep an eye out for future works.

Moonshadows Small

Review of Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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This novella was released in 2017 by Tor.com/McMillan and runs about 112 pages. Stephen Graham Jones is a Native American of the Blackfeet tribe. He actually appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List last year with the very interesting novel Mongrels, but was overlooked for the SFF awards nominations. This novella would likely be considered dark fantasy.

Junior is a Native American boy who lives with his mother and little brother Dino off the reservation. His father died under mysterious circumstances several years before, so Junior is startled to see him cross from the kitchen to the utility room in their house one night. This is his father as he might have been, a fancy dancer in full dress costume. At first Junior thinks his father’s ghost has come back to help them, but as bad things begin to happen, he begins to suspect the ghost is sucking the life out of his little brother in order to become more real and solid. Can he save his little brother, or is the sacrifice worth bringing someone back from the dead?

Jones writes great, everyman characters that suck you in gradually until you find you’re totally involved. He does his magic here, as the shape of Junior’s life, his father’s past and his mother’s needs develop gradually into a full picture. When we’re snared, then things start to go wrong.

On the negative side, this novella has slight political messages, in other words, white stereotypes. It makes clear statements about the characters being Native American and there are a couple of references to the Old West that I suspect are the result of being published by Tor. I also suspect Jones meant to write a longer piece, as this seems to cut off a little sharply. I would have liked for him to investigate the question of sacrifice a little more fully.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Liar” by John P. Murphy

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This Nebula finalist is a fantasy novella published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Greg lives in a small Massachusetts town and considers himself a liar. This means that he can lie to things like broken rakes and convince them they aren’t broken. Pastor Julie can’t get him on the phone, so she comes to the house to ask him to step in as caretaker of the local cemetery. He agrees, but goes to talk to Joe, the last caretaker, whose back has gone out. Joe tells him there’s an accidental death of a young person every November 5. Concerned, Greg checks the records and finds this is true. He ties this to the crash of a World War II plane and a possible ghost. Can he and Pastor Julie deal with it?

I saw this described somewhere as a fantasy written by Garrison Keeler. That pretty much outlines the style. It’s very laid back and written in mystery format as Greg investigates and tracks down the threat to local youths while striving to bake the perfect apple pie. Mysteries normally have about three major plot twists, and this builds up nicely with a major twist about mid way, but it’s missing the expected one at the end, so ends up fairly anticlimactic. Murphy achieves great characterization of the narrator—I was involved and getting really concerned about Greg. The other characters are well-drawn, too, and the author injects an element of sadness about Greg’s brother, who turns out to have been one of the victim.

Four stars.

Review of Mike Resnick’s “Travels with my Cats” (2004)

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The Hugo Best Short Story award in 2004 went to Mike Resnick for a magical realism piece called “Travels with My Cats” [Asimov’s Feb 2004].

Eleven-year-old Ethan Owens finds a book at a neighbor’s garage sale written by Miss Priscilla Wallace. He buys it for a nickel and finds he loves the book. It’s written about the world travels of Miss Wallace (1892-1926), who took her two cats along on her travels. As he gets to be a teenager, his friends tease him about the book and he puts it away. Years later he moves to a small town in Wisconsin and rents an old house on a lake. Unpacking, he gets the book out again and falls in love with it all over again. Researching Miss Wallace online, he finds very little information except for an old photo. While he’s reading the book that night, he hears noise on the veranda. It turns out to be Miss Wallace and one of her cats, who have been summoned by his love for the book. She visits him for five nights, but he is afraid to touch her and find she isn’t real. On the next night, raccoons get into the house and destroy the book. The cats are there, but Miss Wallace isn’t. Clearly the cats are real and pettable. Ethan tries to salvage the book, but he’s unable to fix it up well enough to call her. He tries an antique book search, with no results. Abandoning his job and his house, he starts to travel, looking for another copy of the book, desperate to find one that will bring her back.

This is a romance. It’s well-written with good characterization and a good feel for the setting. Resnick’s references to his computer sound a bit dated in the era of the cloud, but the story holds up well. The cats are a nice, sentimental touch. Three and a half stars. I remember being surprised in 2004 that a romance had won.

Review of “The Journeyman: In the Stone House,” novelette by Michael F. Flynn

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55327_girl-writing_mdI’m continuing my reviews of the Hugo nominees. This story appeared in Analog, 06-2014.

Teodorq sunna Nagarajan and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles are headed eastward in the World when they find someone has built a great stone house to control the pass through the mountains. They hide to check it out, but are captured by a woman with a crossbow and caged in the stronghold. After questioning, they are conscripted into the kospathin’s troops and given sword training. Teodorq’s enemy Kel has also been captured, and both know a contest between them is coming. The kospathin’s Wisdom shows them relics of a space ship, and they tell him about finding a fallen shuttle with a “ghost” named Jamly who talked to them and asked them to find starmen’s villages. As the training goes on, Kel takes his chance on attacking Teodorq, but misses. The kospathin sets up a contest where both draw blood, satisfying Kel for the moment. It appears they will be sent to fight other forces eastward, which is fine, as this was the direction they were traveling. Teodorq resolves to continue looking for the starmen’s villages.

This novelette also reads like part of a novel, and events don’t resolve. However, this episode is fun and interesting to read, as the writer has spent some time on humor, characterization, description and world building, including a very readable jargon. Sammi is a real card. Three stars.

Review of “Pale Realms of Shade,” novella by John C. Wright

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Edward LearThis novella appeared in The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House.

Flint has been a “twilight” detective, one of a partnership that deals with mystical elements. Now he’s a poltergeist, a ghost angry about his murder. We get glimpses as he skips through space and time, scenes where he talks with his wife Rory, his business partner Sly, tries to confess to a priest. Eventually we find that his wife has murdered him for the insurance money and has taken up with his business partner. He is called by someone named the Fixer who offers to release him from the world. Fixer offers him an opportunity to kill Sly, but Flint realizes this will send himself to hell—not Sly. He flees, and the Fixer screams after him that he can never rest until he has finished with the business of life. He goes in search of Christ and finds an archangel who asks him to confess his sins. Flint takes a hard look at his life and realizes his problem is that he has tried to possess his wife. The angel tells him where to find Christ, and he goes off in search of Him.

I pretty much liked this one until it got preachy at the end. It’s written in the 1940s noir detective style, with the added effect of the “twilight” business and the poltergeist. Wright has done the same thing here that he’s done in the other stories I’ve read, which is to throw around too many archetypes, name-dropping elves, fairies, saints and angels. A little of this is good, but more is not better. Two and a half stars.

Review of “On a Spiritual Plain,” short story by Lou Antonelli

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779I’m currently reading the Hugo nominations so I can vote. Here’s my second review.

Lou Antonelli’s story (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014) is about Earth-people at a base on a planet called Ymilas, and it’s narrated by the base chaplain, a young Methodist minister. Because of the planet’s strong magnetic field, it traps particles that show up as fantastic auroras. When one of the work crew named Joe dies, it becomes evident that it also traps ghosts. The young minister consults with the local alien religious leader and discusses the problem, finds that the spirits of the local dead are also trapped and that they must go on a pilgrimage to the north polar region where they can pass through a gate and dissipate into nothingness. The minister sets out with the religious leader on the pilgrimage and Joe, supported by the local Helpful Ancestors, passes on. When the next man dies, the minister knows they need to go on another pilgrimage.

I rather liked the premise here. The story is well-written, though not very complex, dramatic or exciting–a bit short on conflict. The setup with the magnetic field and the ghosts is creative and provokes questions about the nature of the human soul a.k.a. the electromagnetic imprint left by humans after they die. There is very mild humor in the base commander’s anxiety about the safe return of the transportation equipment the minister uses. Three stars.

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