Review of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award, and was published in Uncanny Magazine.

The doorperson takes the dime of curious patrons. If she determines you are worthy, she will tell you how to open the panel and let you have a look and a souvenir. Past the Entrance is A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed, A Radium Room, A Room of Objects That Are Really People, Our Curator’s Special Collection, A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, The Hall of Criminals and Saints and then the Exit. Can you get out of the exhibit whole and in once piece?

Nothing is clear in this story. The scenario sounds like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the bizarre and unusual. There are whispers and giggles in the shadows, a few clues in the narrator’s account. She isn’t especially reliable, but we gather that the curator is missing and the freaks are now running the show and looking for revenge. Enter at your own risk.

Good points: I would guess this falls into the category of experimental lit. You have to study it, something like a puzzle, to put together things like comments about beautiful hands, sticky carpets and the taste of brine. It’s also very surreal and atmospheric, the prose creating images and sensory experiences something like an art installation.

Not so good point: This is pretty much just an experience, like an art installation. There’s not really a story here—no characterization, no setting, no plot, no conflict—only revelation. Because of the puzzle quality, it’s pretty opaque, too. There are a couple of events/situations in there that I can guarantee as pretty likely, but I’m not really sure.

Most likely appreciated by literary horror fans.

Three stars. It’s very literary, but I can’t recommend it as a story.


Review of “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim


This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zee has a silver key in her back that the maker uses to wind her up every day. She has a strong mainspring and so a lot of energy. She lives in Closet City with her Papa, who never has any turns left over for adventure because he works so hard to help Granny and Gramps. When the carnival comes to town, Zee meets a carny boy named Vale. On her 200th day, she gets adult limbs and new paint on her face, and soon afterward Granny and Gramps wind down for the last time and are recycled. Since her Papa has only himself to take care of now, she leaves with Vale on carnival train 9 to make a life for herself as a carny. The two of them build a child they name Mattan, but the boy has a weak mainspring. Vale refuses to accept the child’s disability, so Zee takes Mattan back to her Papa in Closet City. Can she find a way to support her special needs child?

Good points: This is a very creative idea. I’m visualizing a toymaker somewhere with a whole village of windup dolls and model trains. The story, of course, takes us into the life of the dolls, limited as it is by the number of turns their mainsprings will hold. It has an inspiring message, as Zee gives up her dreams to care for her disabled child.

Not so good points: The world building here is limited, and I don’t end up with much of an idea of what the setting looks like. I gather there are carnivals on at least nine trains, houses for the dolls and recycling centers. Because of the limited background, the characters also tend to be flat. Mattan, especially has little personality because of his disability. Winding down is fairly matter-of-fact, and there’s not much investigation of the emotional issues behind the characters’ actions. True, these are dolls, but I’d like to understand their motivations, regardless.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

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This story is science fiction and was published in 2017 by Note: review may contain spoilers.

The Earth is dying and the Martian colonies have been abandoned. Financed by the wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez, architect Susannah Li-Langford is building a monument on Mars, using remote machines to clothe a spire in sparkling, white tiles. In a surprising development, the machines notify her they’ve received a signal. Could there be life still on Mars after all?

This is a pretty dystopian setting. With the Earth devastated by climate change and biological warfare, its people have lost their dream to move out to the stars. Instead, they are slowly dying in place. Li-Langford is nearing the end of her life but keeps plodding away at her monument, hoping to leave something lasting behind.

Good points: First, this is science fiction, somewhat on the hard side, but not technical enough to put anyone off. Next, the message is hope. Even with all that’s gone wrong, Li-Langford is willing to abandon her dreams to give someone else a ray of hope.

Not so good points: This reminded me very strongly of Weir’s The Martian, so I didn’t take it as highly original. I thought the characters were flat and not well developed; plus, there was a lot of exposition—I really didn’t end up feeling the devastation on Earth. I didn’t really feel Li-Langford’s dream, either. Why waste all the time and money on a monument when it seems like Earth needs it instead? Then she abandons it without a second thought and dismantles way more than seems necessary for the situation. And how are a few tiles going to help castaways? The plot didn’t quite hold water for me.

Two and a half stars because of the believability issues.

Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

Review of “Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley


This short story was a finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was originally published by Nightmare.

Natalie is the Littlest Wife of the Preacher, a cult leader in Miracle. She’s at a sleepover when the cult suicides and the compound goes up in flames. Along with her surviving widows Reese and Scarlet, she is adopted by the Stuart family, and starts school. When the carnival comes to town, the girls go to what looks like a strip show, but the woman in the skimpy costume turns out to be Valerie, an angel from heaven who has come to contact them. Valerie has the Preacher in a cage and the girls confront him. She has also brought a shipment of T-Rexs from heaven that she lets loose to take care of some mistakes on the Earth. The four of them escape in a crop duster.

Good points: This story takes on a serious subject, which is how girls and women are often mistreated in patriarchal religious cults. It also takes a jaundiced view of miracles in general that fuel this kind of cult. It’s features good characterization, as we get background on the girls. They’re immigrant children, which suggests the problem with human trafficking.

Not so good points: This has a touch of surrealism, as the story moves from what could be reality to clear unreality when the girls meet Valerie. At this point, it’s actually less interesting. I was hoping it would follow through on the dramatic opening. Instead, this looks like another attack on the patriarchy. There are no male characters that don’t leer, and all the women are avengers. Even the dinosaurs are all female. Also, I’m not sure what the pterodactyl is about.

Three stars.

What If? Attacks on Rocket Stack Rank


A furor erupted this week in SFF cyberspace about pronouns and how reviewer Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank has made light of them. For anyone just tuning in, Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) is a review site run by Hullender and Eric Wong that provides brief reviews of stories eligible for the major SFF awards, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and presumably the Bram Stoker and other awards.

The site has received a lot of positive notice, and recently Hullender was tapped to serve on the Locus panel that feeds the major awards. In response, a group of SFF authors posted an open letter complaining about the pronoun issue and Hullender’s take on trans and non-binary characters in the reviews, also calling him a racist for good measure. Since I’m not trans or non-binary, I’m going to refrain from commenting on this. Everybody is entitled to their own feelings. However, I just wrote the last blog on virtue signaling, so I’m looking at this dust up through that lens.

Hullender promptly posted an apology to “all readers and authors we’ve harmed and offended.” This was judged unacceptable because he also wrote a response to the charges with evidence to demonstrate how they were questionable. Of course, it’s unsupportable to discriminate against people because of their race, gender or trans status, but what if this is actually about something else?

David Gerrold recently made some interesting comments at Amazing Stories. He basically says that members of the SFF community have to stand up and take sides in the progressive/conservative fight in order to save their reputations. This is troubling because it suggests you can’t just remain neutral. Instead, you have to take sides, and then to signal your virtue through word and action in order to be accepted in the community. So why are Hullender and Wong being attacked? Have they not done this properly?

The authors of the open letter think they’re insensitive racists. Hullender seems to think they‘re thoughtful progressives. So, are they posting discriminatory reviews, or are they just posting equal opportunity bad reviews for stories they don’t like?

Trans is the current cause célèbre. Is critiquing the stories not proper virtue signaling? What are members of the community expecting instead?

Review of DAS STEINGESCHÖPF by G.V. Anderson

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This is the short fiction winner of the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Strange Horizons.

In 1928 Herr Hertzel has recently been made journeyman, and the Schöpfers’ Guild has given him his first commission. Frau Leitner has written from Bavaria to request a small restoration. Hertzel makes the journey and finds Frau Leitner in a small village. She is an older woman with a bad cough, and she takes him to the piece that needs work, a Steingeschöpf housed in her attic. The piece’s name is Ambroise, and he was carved in Queckstein by the French Master De Loynes during the seventeenth century. Ambroise’s eyes are so deteriorated that he can hardly see to paint, and he shows other signs of decomposition, as well. Hertzel feels inadequate to restore a piece of this history, and he tries to refuse the job, but Frau Leitner talks him into it. There are dangers. The Queckstein dust can destroy the lungs and working it absorbs life and memory. Is Hertzel up to the task?

For anyone wondering, Steingeschöpf roughly translates as “stone creature” or “stone golem.” The imagery and characterizations here are first rate. You can smell the snow, and feel it crackle underfoot. Hertzel is a Jew in the years between the World Wars, and working the Queckstein reveals his story of love and loss. The tale also reveals the love between Ambroise and Frau Leitner, and how little time they have left. It’s a very touching story, without a lot of plot, but filled with subtle, understated emotional content. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

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