Review of “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category, plus the Eugie Foster Award, presented annually at DragonCon. It was published by F&SF magazine 3-4/2019. This review contains spoilers.

Mr. Dance is old and joyless satyr, crippled by Billy Sunday and the Prohibition gang years ago. He uses a wheelchair and lives in a dark, messy house with the yard gone to seed. In an effort to do something different, he signs up to teach jazz clarinet through the State of Missouri’s Masters/ Apprenticeship Program. His first student, Eric Elkridge, arrives and confides that he plays football, but his heart really isn’t in it. He wants to be a musician instead. When the boy brings out his clarinet, Dance is shocked to see that it’s his own clarinet, the Shaft of Moonlight, stolen from him all those years ago by Billy Sunday. Eric has learned to play classic jazz tunes, but his playing lacks any magic, and he has no feel at all for improvisation. Dance suppresses all the issues the clarinet brings back about his past, and works hard to help the boy improve his musical sense. He eventually convinces Eric to go with him to a local bar to play jazz, but now Dance has to deal with his own loss of magic. Is there some way he can become the jazz player Moonlight Dance again?

The faun is actually a well-known character, and there are literary allusions here. The best known is “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a.k.a. “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” an impressionist musical composition by Claude Debussy from 1894. This, in turn, was inspired by the poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” by Stéphane Mallarmé from 1867. Debussy’s composition is considered the moment of transition from the Romantic period to modern music. His work later inspired the ballet Afternoon of a Faun choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky (considered scandalous), followed by a later version by Jerome Robbins. There’s also a fairly well-known painting of Nijinsky as the faun, done by artist Léon Bakst for the program to Nijinsky’s ballet. Take what you will from all these works.

Besides the allusions, there’s also a subtext here about Prohibition crippling jazz music. Billy Sunday was a celebrated and influential US evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century and was instrumental in establishing Prohibition with the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution (repealed January 16, 1919). The Amendment forbade the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors,” but not their consumption, which fueled a lively trade in production and transport of illegal moonshine spirits.

Okay, about the story. This is very touching, an old man revitalized by a young student interested in his art. It’s also about life and joy and the magic of music. The characters are fairly well fleshed out, and the story develops gradually, from the first meeting on though the revitalization process where Dance cleans up his act and gets his life back in order. There is a certain sexual tension, mostly in Dance’s notice of Erik’s young, healthy body, but nothing comes of it here. The allusions do seem to fuel a few jokes about sex toward the end of the story, but that’s all.

On the less positive side (and I’m being nitpicky here), the story doesn’t flow like it might. I think the issue is a bit too much telling and not enough showing. Plus, it feels a little stilted in the beginning, where the author tries to slip in too much background information by way of adjectives, rather than, say, revealing it through events or dialog. That adjective thing always just feels really awkward to me.

Four and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2020 World Fantasy Award Finalists

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There’s quite a bit of overlap this year between the WFA and the earlier major awards given out. I’ll start posting some reviews of the remainder of the fiction finalists.

Best Novel
Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callender (Orbit US)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie (Orbit US & UK)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa (Pantheon; Harvill Secker)

Best Novella
“The Butcher’s Table”, Nathan Ballingrud (Wounds)
Desdemona and the Deep, C.S.E. Cooney (Tor.com Publishing)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)
Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Read After Burning”, Maria Dahvana Headley (A People’s Future of the United States)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, Jerome Stueart (F&SF 3-4/19)
“Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?”, Genevieve Valentine (The Outcast Hours)

Best Anthology
Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Saga)
The Outcast Hours, Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin, eds. (Solaris)
The Mythic Dream, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga)
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, Nisi Shawl, ed. (Solaris US & UK)
The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Vintage)

Best Collection
Homesick, Nino Cipri (Dzanc)
Song for the Unraveling of the World, Brian Evenson (Coffee House)
Unforeseen, Molly Gloss (Saga)
A Lush and Seething Hell, John Hornor Jacobs (Harper Voyager US)
Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, Sarah Pinsker (Small Beer)

Best Artist
Tommy Arnold
Galen Dara
Julie Dillon
Wendy Froud
Kathleen Jennings

Special Award – Professional
C.C. Finlay, for F&SF editing
Leslie Klinger, for The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham (Liveright)
Ellen Oh, for We Need Diverse Books
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, for The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (New York University Press)
Sheree Renée Thomas, for contributions to the genre

Special Award – Non-Professional
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Laura E. Goodin & Esko Suoranta, for Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research
Michael Kelly, for Undertow Publications and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction series
Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe, for The Coode Street Podcast
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny
Terri Windling, for Myth & Moor

Review of A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

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This near-future science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Berkley on 10 September 2019 and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Luce Cannon has the doubtful honor of playing the last live music show in the Before. That’s before plagues and terrorism led to anti-congregation laws and music and sports moved online in the After. Years later, one of her songs has a revival and generates enough royalties to fund an illegal performance venue. Rosemary Laws grew up in the After on a farm where everything was virtual hoodspace. In her tech support job for Superwally, she connects with a StageHoloLive (SHL) band and accepts an invitation to a holoconcert. Hooked, she quits her tech support job and gets accepted as a recruiter for SHL. She’s horrified to find they track her and call police raids down on the secret venues where she finds bands. When Luce’s club is raided, she goes back on the road solo, playing more secret clubs. She loses it at the gates of Graceland and is filmed by a drone, becoming a viral sensation, and Rosemary suddenly sees the future. Is there anything the two of them can do to defeat Superwally and StageHoloLive?

This novel is based on the novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” published by Asimov’s Magazine and winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 2015. First, this is absolutely prescient. Who would have thought Pinsker could so accurately forecast upcoming events? Only seven months from the release date of her novel, we’re already in the world she’s visualized—i.e. all the places where one would normally play music have closed up shop because of coronavirus. The novel length has a big advantage over the novelette, allowing space to better investigate and develop the themes the author presents in the original. The novel features Pinsker’s smooth, trademark style, and is heavily character driven. We especially get to feel for Rosemary, trapped in a world where she’s afraid to come out of virtual space and actually touch anyone, as she works toward independence and self-determination. The details ring true, as Pinsker is a musician as well as a writer, and clearly has experience at slogging it out in back rooms and cow pastures. A last note: this also echoes the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, when Jewish musicians were barred from performing and forced into underground, illegal venues.

On the less positive side, there’s a definite sense of déjà vu here for anyone who has read Pinsker’s novelette. We get a nice warm feeling at the end that Rosemary and Luce are going to succeed, but that doesn’t consider the economic power of Superwally and SHL. It’s not Congress that sustains the status quo, but the economic interests behind it, instead. Luce Cannon’s stage name (a.k.a. loose cannon) seems a bit cliché, too. I don’t see how it enters into the story.

Four and a half stars.

More on Sales! and other Holiday Stuff

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Am still being productive. I’ve been to the Knoxville Writers’ Guild to do a reading tonight, and tomorrow night I’m going to be at the Knoxville Arts and Fine Crafts Center, a local gallery, for their First Friday Christmas art sale, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. EST.

Meanwhile, a couple of my recent sales are now up for reader enjoyment. Here’s “Zombie Love” a short poem in Liquid Imagination, narrated by yours truly. And here’s “Wine and Magnolias” at Mischief Media: A Story Most Queer Podcast narrated by Gwendolyn Boniface. The story takes about a half hour, but the poem is quick. Please check them out!

Also, this Sunday (December 8) I’m singing in a couple of holiday concerts. The evening concert will be at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church and will stream from the website from 6:00 to about 7:30 p.m. EST. The link I’ve posted should go direct, but if not, from the website, click on the link that says “listen.” Trigger warning: this is a sacred concert, as you might expect from the setting, and includes two choirs and an orchestra. I sing first soprano, and assuming the after Thanksgiving cold clears up, you will hear me at one point or the other. If you’re in the area, the concert is free, but get there early to get a parking spot. Enjoy!

bells

Review of The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award, and the title piece for Book 4 of the TTA Novellas series, published in 2017. The British press TTA also publishes Interzone and Black Static. The book is dark fantasy and also contains the short story “Going Back to the World.” The novella is about 111 pages and the short story runs about 40. This review contains spoilers.

Krisztina Ligetti is a cult artist, a singer/songwriter living in Budapest who produced one hit album years ago and then had nothing else to follow up with. After her lover Alice dies, Krisztina begins hearing elusive music that turns out to be the songs of mortality from people around her. She collects songs for a new album one-by-one that become complete as people die. She reconnects with her father, a 60s pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer, and hears his song. The story darkens as Krisztina finds she’s being followed by a man in a porcelain mask. Tracing the song of a ballerina, she encounters the writer Rebeka, a serial killer with a similar gift who has no compunction about killing people to complete their stories. Rebeka wants her story. Can Krisztina find a way to survive?

This narrative has something of a sick feel, as it’s about winter and death and the extreme depths that people plumb to feed their creativity. The title refers to the method Krisztina uses to produce her songs, detailing the grief and pain that go into each one. It lingers over relationships, failures and bitter coffee. The imagery seems foremost, as it’s all about bright futures declining into eventual decay and death. There’s nothing left at the end but the songs.

On the not so great side, the narrative jumps around a bit and seems fixated on Alice’s death, while her character remains undeveloped and peripheral to the main story. The whole thing is about depressed people who need some joy in their lives. I’m also left wondering how Rebeka gets away with her murders. Although Krisztina sees her commit a murder and the man in the mask knows who she is, nobody reports this to the police. But then, I guess it’s not about the reality.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and was published in Asimov’s September/October 2017 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Rosie Clay is a resident on a generation ship who teaches history and plays traditional fiddle in a weekly OldTime gathering. Rosie is third generation and never saw Earth, but she tries hard to maintain the history the ship has left. A few years out, a disgruntled programmer erased the databases of art, literature and history the ship carried, leaving the residents with nothing but memory to use in recreating them. Now the younger generations are starting to question why they’re required to learn and maintain this history when it is in no way useful to their own way of life. One group totally withdraws to form an artistic enclave and produce only new works. Is there any reason to save the past?

This isn’t just a question that people on a generation ship are asking. When should people expend resources trying to preserve the past and when should it all go in the trashcan? It’s a conflict between conservatives who want to preserve tradition and progressives who want to create a totally new future, all of it framed in music within this story. When Rosie accidentally creates a new song, she decides to document it carefully, creating a middle path. In the current political climate, this is a radical statement.

The music and efforts to recreate the past become the major players in the work. The story rambles, with Rosie’s narration moving from memories of her Grandmother Windy to music to events on the ship to encounters with students in her classroom. The author’s love of music comes through clearly, and anyone who has played in this kind of traditional group will share in her experience.

Not so good points: Because the narration centers so heavily around the music, generally the world building and the characters are poorly developed. We hear a lot about Windy and how she became a legend to the ship’s musicians, but know almost nothing about Rosie’s current family, the organization of the ship, the technology that runs it, etc. The conflict here is weak, too. The programmer’s act and the effort at recreation are both in the past, and at the point of the story, there’s nothing for Rosie to fight against except a minor rebellion in her classroom.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” by Sarah Pinsker

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This novelette is a dystopia SF piece published in Lightspeed magazine. It’s a Nebula finalist and ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Bay survives by scavenging along the beach. A woman in a lifeboat washes up on the island and Bay takes her back to the cottage where she lives on the cliffs above the sea. Bay can tell the woman is a musician because of the calluses on her fingers. Gabby is a “rock star” who plays for audience on the ships where the wealthy live. She wakes cold and sick, and finds she’s not especially welcome at the cottage, as likely no one will pay for her return and she is a drain on Bay’s resources. During the second night, she take’s Bay’s guitar and leaves, hoping to walk to the nearest city. Bay wakes and finds the guitar gone. It belonged to her missing wife Deb, so she sets off after Gabby, finds her sick on the road. Bay has little respect for her, as she is part of the pampered rich and has no survival skills, while Gabby tries to insist that she’s not part of that culture. They walk on toward the city, find the bridge has fallen into the sea. This ends plans and dreams for both of them, so they turn back toward the cottage. Still, Gabby has a boat.

This is another story without a plot. The two women only find each other and walk along the beach, then along the road. The whole thing is about the conversation and what they say to each other. From this we learn about the gap between the rich and poor and how this has led to the fall of civilization as we know it. On the pro side, it’s well-written and absorbing. I’m thinking the theme might be the collapse of the music business as it was into a smaller, more personal market. On the con side, I was a little disturbed by Bay’s coldness—it seems like she’s be happy to have someone to talk to after all those years without Deb. Also, the perspective shifts are a little awkward, from Bay to Gabby to an apparent interview for Inside the Music where Gabby relates the experience. Does this mean she got back to civilization?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Natural Skin” by Alyssa Wong

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This story was published by Lightspeed. It currently has six recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Liin is slipping out the window of the family apartment, but her younger sister Xuemei wakes, asks if she’s going to see a surgeon again. Liin tells her to go back to sleep, tucks her in. Their father has recently arranged for Xuemei to go to school in Ottawa, but expects Liin to stay and help with the family business. She walks through Chinatown, finds the surgeon and flesh broker, a hard woman in a burnished mask. Liin offers to sell, and she and the surgeon negotiate, come to a deal. Then they go back to the family’s apartment to conclude the bargain. Will Liin go through with it?

This is the first story I’ve read from the list that I’d qualify as science fiction, as it takes place in a possible future Toronto. It’s got the feel of Cyberpunk with the sprawling, busy city and the brokers of flesh and other casual enhancements. As is usual with Wong’s work, it’s strongly emotional and has an undercurrent of horror. It’s written in first person, so it’s fairly personal and up close. Good imagery, character development and world building, but not especially thought provoking. Very polished. Wong has a very evocative writing style.

Four stars.

Strong potential nominee.

Am gone on tour

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mike
I’ll be gone for a few days. Will be back sooner or later with more blogs.

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