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.

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Review of “Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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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

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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.

Review of “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Apex Magazine in January 2016.

Grandma Harken lives on the edge of the desert and tends her garden. As her tomatoes ripen, they begin to disappear, so Harken waits up at night with her shotgun. The thief turns out to be shapeshifter mocking bird woman that is enslaved by an unnamed enchanter. Harken lets her go in the morning, but follows her a distance into the desert. When the bird disappears, Harken sees train rails, so she realizes she needs to consult with the train gods. Her friend Anna’s grandson is a priest that hooks her up, and armed with knowledge of where to look, Harken sets off again into the desert. She meets a coyote, negotiates folded reality, frees a Gila dragon and finally locates the decaying house of the misplaced god. Does she have the strength to free his captives?

This seems to be standard Vernon fare, as all I’ve read from her includes similar themes of magical realism and the mystic properties of everyday people and things. This particular story references last years’ Nebula finalist, “The Jackalope Wives” and uses the same setting and some of the same characters.

Pros: The story features a strong elderly woman as a protagonist, which we certainly need more of. It has a folksy, authentic Western feel to it, and the characters are suitably magical. It includes good world-building with the folding realities. This is very readable, and the characters and images well-drawn.

Cons: I can’t believe the description of the cat. Any feline that lives on the edge of the desert like that is going to be just as ornery and magical as everything else. There’s not much development of the captives’ characters, and I ended up not knowing where they’re from or what might happen to them after they’re freed—especially the Gila dragon. Are we going to meet that creature wandering around on our next trip to the desert? Hm.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

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This short story is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in March 2016.

Enith and Gaant have been at war. Although they have reached a peace agreement, there are war casualties on both sides. Calla is a military nurse from Enith and receives a message from the Gaant Major Lan that she met during the war. “I would like to see you, and bring the game if you can,” he says. The Gaant are telepathic and the Enith are not, but Calla bravely sets off with her chess set. She and Lan have a complex past, as each has been the other’s prisoner. She finds him in a hospital and the two set up a game, begin to play. Soon others of the doctors and nurses are offering suggestions.

Pros: This is a fairly straightforward story that reviews the experiences the two had together during the war and emphasizes their losses and their kindness to one another. Finding something in common (the game) clearly brings them closer, and their relationship affects the surrounding individuals, as well. I gather this is about overcoming differences and appreciating the kindness of others.

Cons: The story suffers from limited world building and scope, and I ended up with little idea of the greater politics (what caused the war?), the cultures or what the world looks like. Without the telepathy, this wouldn’t be speculative fiction. The characters are not clearly drawn, and I came away without much of an idea about how anyone or anything looks. It relies on emotion to carry it, but (jaded me) didn’t feel a whole lot. It’s a noble message, but not outstanding in execution.

Three stars.

Review of “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

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I have two stories to read to close out the Hugo ballot short story category. This one was published by Tor.com on September 28, 2016.

A young, homeless graffiti artist in New York City meets a man named Paolo who gives him money sometimes or buys him breakfast. He thinks Paolo wants something from him, but it doesn’t seem to be sex. Instead, the man asks him to listen to the city. It’s big and old, and it’s going to be born into new life, but it needs someone to protect it from ancient evil during its birth. Can the boy provide what it needs?

As seems usual with her stories, Jemisin is working with a very resonant idea here—a sentient, living city in the process of birth. Some of the details are excellent, too, glimpses of how people see Paolo, and how they look at the narrator. But her execution doesn’t quite come off. I can’t accept that this narration is the voice of a NYC street kid, and the battle slides off into metaphor as the boy becomes one with the city to fight against its ancient enemy. I ended up suspecting this is message fiction meant to attack the NYC police. Not only does the boy imagine that he’s being shot or tortured whenever he sees police, but the ancient evil is a cop who morphs into a monstrous beast. Are police the evil he has to defeat? Hm.

Three and a half stars.

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