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 “Carpe Glitter” by Cat Rambo

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Meerkat in October 2019 and runs 62 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Grandmother Gloria’s motto was always carpe glitter (seize the glitter). She was a glamourous Vegas performer at the Sparkle, but a hoarder in her old age. After she dies, her granddaughter Persephone starts to clean out the house and finds a magical Nazi artifact from World War II, an automaton named Heinrich that seems to be currently disassembled but still alive. Her mother makes a desperate attempt to get control of it, and Persephone also finds that mysterious men in black have an interest. The automaton could be dangerous. What should Persephone do about it?

On the positive side, this is an interesting little mystery that emerges slowly out of Persephone’s efforts to clear away the mess left by her grandmother. (Hoarders out there, are you listening?) She works through piles of family history and moldering sequins, trying to sort out anything of worth, and eventually happens on the still-working parts of the evil automaton. Along the way, we start to get a feel for how Persephone relates to her grandmother and her mother, and reconnect with Eterno, who might be Persephone’s grandfather.

On the not so positive side, Heinrich doesn’t seem to be evil enough for all the fuss and the climax isn’t climactic enough—there’s not enough at stake. Heinrich turns out to be relatively easy to deactivate, so why didn’t somebody do that a long time ago instead of dissembling the parts as an attempt to disable it? If the parts can move around, why haven’t they crawled to one another and put themselves together? Also, some of the events that shape this feel like afterthoughts, not really significant enough to drive the story. Why didn’t Gloria have some bigger investment in the automaton? She could have been a spy during the war, for example. Or it could have been her lover. And if Eterno is Persaphone’s grandfather, why hasn’t he been a guiding presence in her life before now?

Three stars.

Review of “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, also edited by Blake Crouch. (Let’s hear it for self-actualization!) Crouch is best known as the author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy. The story runs 75 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Maxine is a non-playing character in a video game from WorldPlay. She’s meant to die in every play, but something goes wrong with the code, and she starts to behave erratically, exploring her environment and fighting back against the killers. Game-developer Riley pulls Max’s code out of the game and starts to develop her as a separate AI. After a while, Riley becomes obsessed with the process of creation, neglecting real world relationships and eventually falling in love with Max. She makes plans to embody the AI in a human-like chassis and to give her appropriate values, but what if Max has ambitions of her own?

This is based on a 2010 thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. Proposed by user Roko on the Less Wrong community blog, this scenario uses decision theory to show that powerful AI could be expected to turn on humans that imagined the creation but did nothing to bring the AI into existence. It’s called a “basilisk” because just hearing the argument puts you at risk of identification and torture from the hypothetical AI.

On the positive side, this is very character driven. Riley and Max seem very real, and side players like Brian, owner of the company, and Meredith, Riley’s wife, put in strong appearances. Riley spent most of the story ungendered, but Brian calls her “bitch” about three-quarters of the way through, revealing that she is female. The setting here is a little nebulous, as part of this takes place virtual reality and the rest in some apparent near future that is poorly defined and is possibly another layer of virtual reality. The game Max comes from is set in a place that looks like Brian’s coastal estate, and the story has a circular structure, as it both begins and ends at the estate. There’s a sudden twist near the end that should be predictable if you’ve been following the foreshadowing—we just don’t have the details until the end. And of course, I love the basilisk idea. Am I in trouble now for reading this book?

On the less positive side, leaving Riley ungendered until near the end felt like the author was playing games with the reader. I spent a bunch of imagination visualizing her as a nerdy little guy with a beard and big glasses, so I had to rework the whole thing when I got to the “bitch” comment. My personal opinion is that descriptions like this should happen early in the story so I don’t get annoyed, or else just not happen at all so I can go on visualizing the nerdy little guy. There were minor inconsistencies: Riley uses a device called a Ranedrop that sounds like the successor to a phone, but then mentions she has an “old-school phone.”

Four stars.

Review of “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

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This is a speculative fiction novelette released by Subterranean Press in April of 2018. It runs 88 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Connie Willis, she is an old hand at SFF, a multi-award winner and New York Times Bestseller. This review contains spoilers.

Jim is in New York City to make contacts for a book about the uselessness of nostalgia for obsolete technology. He does a radio interview where he gets in an argument with the host about how this applies to books. On the way to a meeting with a Random House editor, Jim is caught in a terrible rainstorm and ducks into a shop for rare books called Ozymandias Books. Although the store seems small, it opens into a storage area where Jim looks through the collection and eventually gets lost. He is rescued by a busy clerk and hurriedly catches a taxi for his appointment. When he tries to find the shop again later, he can’t.

“Ozymandias” is a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet from 1817 about great works that crumble and disappear. That states the story’s theme pretty clearly, about how we’re in danger of losing the body of knowledge contained in out-of-print books, now generally dumped in the landfill because they’re replaced by electronic media. Willis is excellent at creating entertaining characters and making things go wrong, and her work is always entertaining to read.

On the not so great side, nothing happens here. Jim leaves his interview, walks around, ducks into the store, looks at the books, leaves, and then can’t find the shop again. That’s it. It could have been a piece of flash fiction, but instead it’s been padded out to 88 pages. I was left feeling this is pretty empty.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It falls into the horror genre and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Helen York is an English expatriate and down on her luck, so she is happy to take a position as governess when her friend Bärchen offers it. The position is to teach Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter, who stays at a beautiful castle overlooking a lake in Germany. Although beautiful, the place is clearly neglected, with dust everywhere and small bones scattered through the rooms. Peter’s nursemaid Mimi is young and looks attractive as a potential lover, but she allows Peter to wander at will. Helen finds him in the cellar trying to open the crypt door. The cellar is crusted with salt and smells like a meat larder, but she is happy to find a good store of wine as well. Can she ignore those seductive smells from the cellar? What are those things floating in the lake? And why does everyone at the castle have bad teeth?

Good points: The narrative here is third person from Helen’s point of view, and very well crafted. Helen’s responses and her conversations with Bärchen and the other servants quickly reveal her playgirl character and unsuitability for the job as governess. There’s a foreboding as Helen gradually discovers the strangeness of the castle, and the story rises to a horrific climax that was hard to forecast. There’s enough description of the setting to make it creepy, and a lot of sensory imagery as the scents from the cellar start to get to Helen.

Not so good points: This doesn’t quite hang together. It appears the family isn’t really human, and that they go through a life cycle from larvae to humanoid to sea serpent. So, I gather the crypt is where they hang corpses for the larvae to feed on, but how the scents accomplish this is a huge stretch. If you can create hallucinations, there are easier ways to get people into the lake.

Two and a half stars for the failure to make good sense.

Review of “The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It ended up with 9 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

The Guardian lives within the Orangery, which she keeps and protects. She has lived there since her youth and sometimes yearns for more worldly experience. The Orangery is invaded by the randy Apollo, who is looking for the naiad Daphne in her guise as a laurel tree. The Guardian tries to protect Daphne and leads Apollo to another tree instead, which he transforms with a vial of magical syrup, revealing the naiad Dryope. Concerned about Daphne’s welfare, the Guardian goes to check on her, but Apollo follows and tries to cut down the laurel. The Guardian uses her last vial of syrup to turn him to a tree. She then leaves the Orangery in the care of Dryope and goes out to experience the world. Eventually, she feels the desire to return. Can she do it?

Hm. I think this is an absurdist/surrealist piece. The narrative jumps back and forth between the Guardian and Dryope, although at first this isn’t especially clear. Good flow, but the narrative is more about the background of the characters than plot. I’m not sure I like what it says. Apollo is a complex god, but here he’s used as a negative symbol of manhood. The Guardian seems something of a split personality, as the concept I had of her at the beginning doesn’t match the belligerent nature she exhibits later on. She must be a very powerful being to push Apollo around the way she does. Also, what kind of dumb idea was that to throw Dryope under the bus?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 14 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Lin is a Jewel, one of the ruling class, and Sima is her lapidary, an adviser, servant and jeweler. The ruling class uses the power of gems to work magic, and Sima’s father has betrayed the king. The two girls wake tied and gagged in a pit in the throne room, and an invading army is fighting the king’s defenders. The king falls and the King’s Lapidary breaks his diamond, commits suicide. The girls try to escape but are captured by the invading army, led by female warrior Nal. She expects Lin to marry her young son Remir and demands the Star Cabochon which hasn’t yet been found. When the girls refuse to accede to her demands, she threatens to torture them to death. What can they do?

This story is about keeping vows, loyalty and self-sacrifice. It felt pretty intense right from the beginning, as it starts off with the battle already in progress and continues at about the same level of tension. There’s a prologue that indicates this an event from history, and that the castle now lies in ruins. This kind of commentary is also interspersed throughout the story, which I expect is used as a device to reduce exposition. It also provides a little relief from the stressful plot. Characterization, imagery, symbolism, etc., are all subordinate to the emotional component, so none of the characters are really well-rounded.

This is meant to have a strong emotional impact, but I must be getting jaded. Without a strong attachment to the characters, I found it didn’t affect me all that much. This might have worked better if the ending had been presented as a plot twist. As it’s written, we see the girl’s plans unfolding, so the ending isn’t really a surprise. Good writing, decent plot.

Three and a half stars.

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