|Art by Derek Newman-Stille|
"Unravelling" by Julia August (2883 words)
A woman deals with a sort of personal witch in this story, told through many parts and across many places real and imagined. The witch acts as the manifestation of her own inner voice. At times it is helpful, at others not at all. It provokes, it belittles a bit, it's not very good at soothing, and it's generally rather frustrating for the woman to deal with. The prose of the story is vivid and relatable, taking the woman through the various instances when her witch appears to offer advice, or perhaps just to poke and annoy. And it has some narrative structure, recurring ideas that pop up throughout the story that gives tantalizing hints to what is going on. Whether the witch is the woman's doubt or fear or maybe something more vague, a source of both wisdom and bitterness. Still, it's a nice story and a nice way to kick off the issue.
"After the Rain" by Polenth Blake (1592 words)
This story is a bit unstuck in time, following Claire and Jenny as they deal with beasts that have come after a strange rain. The story is something of a puzzle, because time is a shifting thing. Jenny, who I think is the narrator throughout, doesn't move through time in a normal manner. Even whether or not she is Jenny is (to me) somewhat in question. She travels with Claire, her mother who also seems more like her child, through a world populated by beasts. What the beasts are is left mostly unexplained, except that they have something to do with the rain. Claire and Jenny take refuge in a park, but it's not a perfect place to hide. There are other figures, too, that arrive and disappear, live and die. The story is jarring, and there's a lot to tease out of it. It's possible, after all, that Jenny and Claire are the same person, or even the same person at two points of time. Whatever the case, the story is strange and dark, filled with magical twists and surreal landscapes. It's well crafted and a bit disturbing, so hurrah!
"The Lion and the Unicorn" by A.C. Wise (1563 words)
A story about a unicorn boy being exploited in a sort of monster...brothel? A place where magical creatures are used for the pleasure of their abusers. A place where the unicorn boy dreams of being free of, free and running away from the cruel hands that tear at him. Fortunately (or not, because there's considerable danger), he becomes sick and an old lion comes to care for him. And she tells him that she will help him escape, that she will break his chain, but that he has to go to her children (who might kill him) and give them her token and tell about the place they have been imprisoned to destroy it. Flowing and lyrical, the story manages a coherent narrative while being a bit fragmented, a bit unreal and magical. It hits well with the hopes and yearnings of the characters, and leaves the gravity of what happens at the end for the reader to follow to its logical and satisfying end.
"Tiger Baby" by JY Yang (2846 words)
A woman dreams of being a tiger in this story, dreams of power and wildness that she lacks in her real life where she is nondescript, where she blends in and plods along because she has to. She doesn't feel like she belongs, knows that she is meant for something different than the same old, same old. It's a common enough sentiment, but this story manages to breath new life into the idea, into how the woman seems lost in the mundane details of the world. She dreams of Blake, and as I myself fell in love with that poem at a fairly young age, I find myself nodding along. The story follows the woman as she walks through life, as she yearns for more, and it brings her to a point of crisis after she is fired from her job, after she has to consider moving out from her parent's home. All these things push her to going out and transforming. She thinks it will be into a tiger. That it doesn't work out that way is great, a way to show that for all her dreams of power, it's not that power that she was destined for. Too often in these stories the person with their dreams of being something more is shown to be correct. They transform into that thing and can punish the world that did not recognize their specialness. This story refrains from treading that tired ground and instead shows that the transformation might not be what the women expected, but it is true to what she wanted, to what she felt. She transforms and is content with it, at ease, finally at peace with herself. It's a great story (especially if you love cats and Blake).
"What the Highway Prefers" by Cassandra Khaw (1525 words)
And old woman makes a yearly pilgrimage to a stretch of dangerous highway in this story. Strange and weighty, the trip seems to be about making deals, the old woman, Fatimah, trying to starve the highway, trying to prevent it from killing more. It reminds me of a different story, "The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill" by Kelly Robson (out this month in Clarkesworld #101). Perhaps because they are both about a highway that seems to have a hunger. Obviously one is about (kind of) aliens and this one is about ghosts, or spirits, but they both seem to be circling about the same image, the same idea, this highway that is hungry, that wants young women. I wouldn't be surprised if they were both referencing the same road, but even if they aren't I can still see this story dealing with the violence and fear and lingering ghosts of those taken on such a road, and what a woman might do to not exactly set things right, but try to minimize the harm. It's a vibrant and interesting story, and I could really feel the exhaustion and stubborn power in Fatimah. She's a great character, and the story works as a creepy little tale of one woman trying to kill a hungry road.
"The Ogre's Brown-Eyed Daughter" by Barry King (2786 words)
This story was probably the most opaque to me. There's a lot going on as a young woman deals with oppressive abuse from her ogre father and a lack of compassion from her faerie mother. Not belonging anywhere, she tries to flee, tries to get away, but there is no place for her. The world is made up of lies, is made up of lies you tell yourself and the ones that others tell about you, and the girl grows to try and define herself, to tell her own lies. She grows and gets away and doesn't have much of a relationship with her parents and tries to have a family of her own but feels pulled down by the girl that she used to be, and doesn't want that person to become her daughter so she extracts that part of her and hides it away. I'm not sure, but I interpret it as a sort of loss, as her denying that part of herself and letting it open that she's trying to protect her daughter but in reality might be missing the fact that by denying a part of herself she's setting a precedent that isn't exactly the greatest. There's a lot of layers of lies here and I must be honest and say that one reading was not enough for me to entangle everything. Still, it was an interesting read, and I'll probably have to come back to it to really start pulling it apart.