Review of Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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This is a science fiction/fantasy/horror novella published by Tor in May of 2018. According to the description it’s “the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original,” and leaning to Lovecraftian horror. The original chapbook was published in 2013 by Subterranean Press, and this version runs 208 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Near Deer Isle, off the coast of New England, a fallen star has poisoned the sea. Authorities evacuate everyone they can, blow up the bridge and fire rockets from Black Hawk helicopters, but still fail to stop the Great Old Ones from rising out of the sea. The agent Ptolema waits at a pub in Dublin for agents from the other side, who have maybe turned, but maybe not. When they arrive, she plays a recording that alarms them. In a later meeting, one of the agents identifies the important characters in the recording as psychiatrist Dr. Twisby and albino twins. The twins, Bête and Ivorie, are the result of sadistic experiments, lovers, and maybe entangled quantum particles on the run in a chaotic universe. Ptolema later assassinates the two agents she spoke with. Twisby has Ivorie killed, collapsing the twin souls into Bête. Years later, the White Woman drops the vial that poisons the sea.

On the positive side, this seems to have a theme. The agents apparently represent chaos versus order, playing a symbolic chess game with butterfly effects through the years. There are layers of post-modern symbolism where we encounter various literary allusions, a chess game, quantum entanglements and a time loop. The characters are very well developed, and given a recognizable conflict to work with, might actually be likable. The author provides chapter headings that describe place and time—somewhat helpful to track the way this skips around.

On the not so positive side, this has serious readability issues. The story gets off to a promising start with Ptolema and the two agents in Dublin, but after that, it pretty much collapses into chaos. Although there are a couple of linear threads that weave through it, most of the chapters seem nonsensical and unrelated; put together, they achieve no apparent meaning. Be prepared to break out your French language; one chapter is written almost entirely in French. There’s some gratuitous sickness here, too, where a production company streams seppuku type suicides. (The victim hesitates, maybe not sedated enough…) Ick.

Two stars.

Wrap up of the 2018 World Fantasy Reviews

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That’s all the World Fantasy reviews, so now I’ll attempt an analysis of the list. When you look through these, a few interesting patterns emerge.

First, the diversity breakdown. Apologies if I miss anybody here:
BEST NOVEL: 1 man, 4 women, 1 Asian, 1 African American and 1 Native/African American. 1 LGBTQ
BEST NOVELLA: 1 non-binary, 1 man, 3 women, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 2 LGBTQ
SHORT FICTION: 1 man, 4 women, 3 Jewish, 1 Hispanic, 2 LGBTQ.
The totals add up to: 3/15 men (20%), 11/15 women (73%), 1/15 non-binary (7%), 2/15 Asian (13%), 1/15 Native American (7%), 1/15 Hispanic (7%), 3/15 Jewish (20%), 2/15 African American (13%), 5/15 LGBTQ (33%). Roanhorse complicates this calculation, but I’ve listed her as only Native America.

This year’s ballot continues the apparently universal trend toward mostly female writers, with only one token male nominated in each category. The system for nomination has done well in featuring at least one non-binary, Hispanic and Native American writer. Asian writers are, as usual, over-represented considering their 5% US population demographic, as are Jewish writers with a 1.5% US population demographic. The overrepresentation of Jewish writers this year follows the same pattern I found in the Nebula and Hugo Awards. The LGBTQ component here is also overrepresented, as the self-identifying gay and lesbian US population demographic for 2018 was 4.5%. Hispanic writers, as usual, remain hugely underrepresented with a US population demographic of 18%.

After reviewing the Nebula and Hugo Award finalists, I only had to read three short stories, one novella and two novels to finish out the set. There are a couple of possible implications to this. First, it suggests the Nebula and Hugo Awards might be trending to fantasy, and second, it indicates a convergence in the US fiction awards to particular works in any given year. The three awards work differently: the Nebula is awarded by the professional membership of the SFWA; the Hugo is awarded by members of WorldCon: and the World Fantasy Award is partially juried. Members of the current WFA convention and the previous two vote two nominations onto the final ballot, and the other three are named by a panel of judges. For the 2018 awards, the judges are Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas Kilworth, and Tod McCoy.

Of course, there is the argument that particular works are elected by all three awards because they really are the best, or the more circular argument that these become the best because they’re elected. However, this kind of convergence in the major US awards remains troubling. It suggests a lack of diversity in either the marketplace or in the US awards systems. If more Native Americans were published, for example, all three awards might not elect the same writer, or if more African Americans were published, all three awards might not elect the same work.

Plus, there are also other possible explanations for convergence, such as a preference for certain content within the awards system. Of the three major US awards, the World Fantasy Award has the reputation for being the most literary, which suggests a definite preference in that direction. There is also evidence that the WFA system rewards creativity and artistic effect over standard story structures. Some of these works had little or nothing in the way of plot, and some might have qualified for a creative essay category instead. Others had serious suspension of disbelief issues. I notice there are some differences of opinion on quality out there in the readership audience. In checking out the authors, I encountered a few blogs that actually challenged the suitability of some works based on their content or execution. I personally think the Locus List has a big effect on convergence in the US awards, but interestingly, 4/15 writers (27%) of shorter works beat the odds and made it to the WFA ballot with entries that did not appear this year’s Locus List (although three of the four did appear for other works).

There was a reasonable diversity of publishers. Print magazines are clearly a failing paradigm where the awards are concerned—all the shorter finalists came from online magazines. As usual, Tor.com stood out, mostly because of the novella category, with 4/15 entries or 27%.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey

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This novel is dark fantasy/horror and a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published October 9, 2018, by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and runs 214 pages. This review contains spoilers.

As a boy, Charles Hayden steals a copy of the Victorian children’s book In the Night Wood. He later marries Erin, whose relative Caedmon Hollow wrote the book. The couple’s marriage is strained by an affair and the death of their daughter, and neither is recovered when word comes that Erin has inherited the Hollow estate. The two leave their jobs and move to the house in Yorkshire, where Charles hopes to complete a biography of Caedmon Hollow that will put his personal and professional life back on track. In the days that follow, Charles struggles with his project, and Erin sketches obsessively, turns to pills and alcohol to get her through the days. Meanwhile, the murky Eorl Wood with its hidden depths and evil king presses ever closer around them.

There’s not a lot that happens here. It’s an archetype. The prose leans to the literary, and there’s a lot of allusion to classics. Charles pursues his research, turning up details of how the estate is run and what events led Caedmon Hollow to write the book. He talks to the locals, goes through boxes in the basement. What stands out is the slowly gathering evil. Charles and Erin start to see apparitions in the trees, and the estate’s manager Cillian Harris is likewise afflicted. The Wood is hungry, the time for a tithe is coming, and there are little girls at risk.

On the less positive side, this is mostly a downer. It’s about death, depression and the viciousness of the real world, where invisible forces try to suck you down into darkness. Though the story does lighten a little bit at the end, it’s mostly about two people bent on self-destruction. Also, I didn’t think the main line of symbolism quite worked. Bailey seems to be going for a scenario where this is about inner darkness, but involving Harris destroys that effect. That means there’s no reason to dress Charles up as the dark king who steals children. This would work if he were going off the deep end, but Charles is just an observer, and it’s his wife’s family that’s cursed. On the other hand, the part about trading your children for earthly success does work. There is still a major loose end at the close: The king didn’t get his little girl, so what happens then?

Four stars.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This novel dark fantasy/horror and is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This review contains spoilers.

Soldier Dana Mills was captured by the enemy and video of her beheading circulates. Somehow not dead, she is recovered, scarred but alive, and pregnant. She returns to her ancestral family home, now replaced by a subdivision called Herot Hall, and takes shelter in caves under the mountain. She delivers a son she names Grendel, and the two of them continue to live on the fringe, outside the bounds of the estates below. Willa Herot is the carefully groomed wife of Roger Herot, a doctor and heir to the property. She resents the way her mother has orchestrated her life and despises her husband and son Dylan. Grendel is attracted by the sound of the child Dylan playing the piano, and the two become secret friends. Mills is horrified when she finds out. What will the Herots do when they discover her son at the house?

In case the names don’t ring a bell, this story is a retelling of the Scandinavia epic Beowulf. Headley has modernized the tale and made some symbolic substitutions, a scarred soldier for Grendel’s mother, a police hero for Beowulf, a philandering doctor for the king, a bored socialite for his wife, and a watch and/or train for the dragon. Headley also name-checks the Beowulf Nowell Codex, making Nowell into Willa’s maiden name. The symbolism in the story is fairly postmodern (a.k.a. inconsistent) but various clues lead me to think this is about 1) the monsters that live inside us all, and 2) how the rich make monsters of the disenfranchised (a.k.a. from Beowulf, the children of Cain). There’s a lot of social commentary here. Reading this, I got a really strong feeling that Headley comes from a small town with a full quota of mean girls—she’s characterized them very well here, as well as the men they use as pawns in their machination. In a modern twist, it’s Mills who lives to get her revenge in the end, something that feels satisfying.

On the not so positive side, this was really hard to read. First, it is seriously depressing. There’s a lot of darkness in the original Beowulf, and Headley has magnified it here. We know how this story goes. The creation of monsters is a cloud that hangs over the whole narrative, and we’re not disappointed—the characters go down one by one to a bloody end at the hands of their creations. The somewhat satisfying ending didn’t do much to lighten things up. And next, as is usual these days, this was hugely padded. Heatley winds a plot that would have supported a short story out to 300 pages with fairly nonsensical ruminations that, as far as I can tell, are mostly used to create mood.

This is another case where I have to give points for the cynical look at society and the artistic effect, but it’s one of those “read at your own risk” books. Big trigger warnings.

Four stars.

The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson

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This novella is dark fantasy and a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published in Clarkesworld in August of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Ada is six years old when her parents die and she goes to live with her aunt and uncle. There isn’t any place to sleep in the cottage, so she has to sleep in the chicken coop. She doesn’t have much to eat, but she grows to love the hens, especially Blanche, an old, white hen past laying that Ada protects. The two are in the woods looking for something to eat when a boy runs by and warns them of approaching wastoures, ravenous reptilian creatures that eat every living thing in their path. Blanche tells Ada to climb a tree and the two of them survive, while the village is razed. The two set off, looking for another family to stay with, and follow the sound of church bells to the Unlucky Village, where a man takes them in. They have to flee when the people learn Blanche can talk. The two go on to find the Lucky Village where a family takes them in, but again, they have to flee when a magical, talking hen is pronounced the Devil’s work. Wastoures overtake them on the road, and Blanche directs Ada to climb a fragment of wall. The creatures try to jump up and bring them down, and Blanche finds she has the power to send them away. Can she actually control the wastoures? Does that mean she can also destroy them?

This has the feel of a middle-grades children’s story. Although the narration begins with Ada, Blanche turns out to be the real protagonist. Mostly she just talks to Ada, but when prompted, she will also talk to other people—something not well accepted in the medieval village setting. The theme here seems to be the certainty of death, and how helpless, backward, scared and undependable adults really are. The children we see are abandoned and un-cared for, and at six years old, Ada is already on her own with just a chicken to look after her. Others aren’t so lucky, but Blanche does come through for everyone in the end.

On the not so positive side, the metafiction in this story (where the author comments) seems condescending to the reader. The title sounds like this will be social commentary, but I’m not really seeing that in the text. Plus, I’m having issues with suspension of disbelief. The scenario seems simplistic, where everyone but a chicken is totally clueless, and somehow none of the armed camps of villages are able to track down the source of the wastoure hatches. Where is the government here? Civil defense? Shouldn’t they be able to produce a hero at least as smart as a chicken?

Three and a half stars.

“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Uncanny Magazine, in the March-April 2018 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Adrianna’s best friend and housemate NPW is a taxidermist who picks up roadkill for subjects and works in the basement. Lately, he’s working on some kind of new technique that involves chanting and incense. Adrianna has no siblings and works for an estate sales firm that empties houses after someone dies. Her father is dead and her mother is in a nursing home with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Adrianna and NPW have been friends since they were kids, when NPW was a girl, and now NPW never hears from his parents except for regular prayer cards. NPW is moving up North to live with his girlfriend Robby, and Adrianna is sad. She has dreams that leave real artifacts behind, like blades of grass and wet clothes. When NPW leaves, the house seems filled with ghosts.

The most noticeable feature of this story is the imagery. The description, the sensory elements, and especially the narrative of the dreams, is exceptional. The characters are also strongly developed through both description and dialog, and the text is full of understated emotion related to Adrianna and NPW’s relationship and the hardship that is life and death. The dream artifacts are an evocative mystery that remains unexplained. The story ends with a final gift from NPW.

On the not so positive side, this is another story with a lot of decorative elements and no real plot. Adrianna and NPW talk and she dreams. NPW takes her to see her mom, and on the way back home they pick up another dead dog. They say good-bye and NPW leaves. That’s about it. The dead animals are sort of a gross-out, and adding horrific elements like this is starting to seem like a marketing gimmick to me. For anyone OCD, the loose ends here are also likely to be annoying. NPW’s new technique remains a compete mystery, and the dreams seem to have no function in the story, except to increase the artistic and fantasy feel of the narrative.

Regardless of the negatives, this is a highly artistic and well-developed short story, a glimpse into the life of a lonely girl with strange dreams who is losing her best friend. The artistic elements push up the rating.

Four and half stars.

“Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Lightspeed, October 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Despite warnings, the narrator is fourteen when she makes her first deal with the indigo snake. The cost is to find the snake’s true name. The second deal is a few days later when the narrator trades her hair twice yearly in perpetuity for an A in chemistry. Years pass before she makes another deal, and then the costs begin to add up for success, for love, for escape from gambling debts. Will a support group help?

The basis for this story seems to be Eve’s transaction with the serpent in Eden, which provides an extra level of meaning and a certain universality. There’s also something about addiction in there. The snake can’t say no, and can only name a price. Unfortunately, it can also make deals with other people, which leads to complication when things start to get tight. The story has a pretty good hook and a rising action line as the costs start to pile up, then resolves when the narrator decides to seek help for her deal addiction.

On the less positive side, nothing quite catches fire here. The snake is pretty wholesome, and not Satanic at all. A darker, more sinister serpent would have raised the suspense level quite a bit, especially if it started to play one supplicant against another. Instead, we’re only left wondering how the narrator will mess up the next time, and whether or not she can find a solution that solves her problems without losing her left arm in the process. Since the author references the Biblical story of Eve, I was expecting this snake thing would be an affliction that affects only women, but it turns out that men suffer from it, too. That seems a little counter to subtext, but then maybe Eve passed the problem along to her kids. Also, a solution involving turtles here was kind of non-politically correct gross out. I know they’re reptiles, but still…

Three and a half stars.

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