|Art by Matthew Dow Smith|
"The Oiran's Song" by Isabel Yap (9559 words)
Well okay then. This is a...difficult story at times. Definitely in contrast to the story that comes after it, it is worlds apart, though at it's core it, too, is a story of loneliness. Here, though, Akira is a victim. Of history, of men without care for the personal cost of war. He's damaged by his loss, by being sold away from his brother and to a group of soldiers who use him, abuse him, see him as less than nothing, and yet through all of that Akira holds onto something. Something pure, almost. Not undamaged, but somehow part of what hardens inside him is his hope, is his belief that things can get better. He becomes a soldier, but he never really belongs. And then a oiran arrives, a woman to service and entertain the soldiers, and he finds in her someone to talk to. Someone who makes the loneliness, well, not even really more bearable, but someone to share it with. And she is even more damaged than he is, but where he holds to his hope, she holds to rage, to violence, and there's really no right or wrong to either of them. Or, perhaps, they are both right, both just dealing with a world that has destroyed them, is destroying them. This is a hard story to read, because it is achingly beautiful, the way Akira and the oiran get to know each other, the way their natures draw them close, keep them apart. They are lost and in the cold, the winter and fate and their lives all circling round and there is an inevitability to what happens that makes it all the harder to read, that makes it so much sadder, because there is no point to it, no reason beyond men deciding that they want more power and not really caring about what it costs. That here, in this place, tragedy unfolds that is so distant from the cause of it that there is no real mention of the reasons of the war, of the fighting. There is no point because there never is, really nothing that could justify this. The fighting is faceless, a demon in the snow, and it has made so many into oni, into monsters. And through it all Akira remains and it's a very, very good story. Seriously, go out and read this one. It is amazing. Difficult and complex and tragic, but amazing still. Wow.
"Find a Way Home" by Paul Cornell (7792 words)
According to the editor's note that goes along with this story, this is the first Middle Grade story that Uncanny has done. And I suppose that's true, although I'm all sorts of hazy on what makes a story Middle Grade and what makes it YA and what makes it adult (and I review Middle Grade and YA novels regularly). What I am clearer on is that this is a fun little story about a boy who finds an alien in the woods. That might sound a bit strange, but Gary, the main character, is the sole witness to a spacecraft crashing near his school, and in the moments before the crash becomes the protector of the alien who jettisoned from the craft. The story then becomes something of a chase, Gary and some of the other students at school and one teacher working to get the alien back to its people before the military can find what they're up and punish them all. There's a strong message of friendship, Gary being a bit of a loner, convinced that no one sees him, that no one likes him, when that's obviously not the case. The characterization is nicely done, all the characters having a strong voice and personality and it kind of makes up for most of them not really having an arc of their own. The humor of the piece isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it does help to balance the sort of ridiculousness of the situation (soldiers firing on a child without provocation, for example). Really, this is a nice little story, and I suppose as Middle Grade it does break out some of the tricks (the censoring for "adult language" being one that I always chuckle at) that are used to make this simultaneously for adults and for younger readers. And luckily the writing is smooth and entertaining enough that even where the seams show a little bit it still reads fast and fun and with a light but uplifting message. So yeah, not bad at all.
"A Riddler at Market" by Rose Lemberg
This poem has a strong seasonal feeling for me, of the narrator passing calmly through spring and summer and fall before falling into winter. The images of the poem are strong and provocative, and make me want to know if there is something here that I'm missing, some idea or creature that the narrator is supposed to be. The imagery is natural, hinting at colors and shapes that could be literal or nearly so, rust colored fur and brown hands and feet, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable assuming that this poem is supposed to be literal, that there's supposed to be some answer to the riddle. Or some one answer. Instead I like to see that there is something to be gained for pulling out all the different possibilities, all the different ways the imagery, the "clues" of the poem, can fit. Animal, person, abstraction, the poem opens itself to a feeling that is seasonal and cyclical, slowing but not dying, dreaming of something that's not quite there. Of course, this is also the kind of poem where I fear there's something that I'm just not getting, that I'm missing, and that might be the case too. But it still has the feeling of time and also of hope, the last lines evoking a return, a rejuvenation. It's a nice read, and definitely one to spend some time with.
"To a Dying Friend" by Dominik Parisien
This is not exactly a happy poem, as the title might clue you into, but neither is the saddest thing in the world. The poem is beautiful, moving, a friend at the side of another who has been hospitalized, who is not getting better, who knows it. The poem is a conversation of sorts, but a one sided one, the speaker, the one who's dying, commenting on things at the end and the narrator remaining silent, with a feeling that perhaps words are too painful here, that they don't know what to say, or perhaps that they know but saying them would be pointless because they've been said already. The only thing that the narrator seems to say is stories, is to make some final story of this moment, of this life so close to ending. The bond between the two people is obviously strong, though there is the sense that this is a friendship formed between people of very different ages. That the speaker is older and the narrator younger, that the narrator's silence is also part a respect for that age, for wanting to hold onto those words, to learn something from the wisdom there. There is a sense of endings here, but also of something lingering, a spirit of hope despite the loss, despite the pain. That what remains doesn't fit into words, into stories, but is still felt, is still strong. A fine poem.
"Diversity Panels Are the Beginning, Not the End" by Michi Trota
Wow. This is a long and very in depth look at the ways in which conventions...we'll say mishandle diversity panels and diverse panelists and diverse ideas and just diversity in general. This seems the kind of argument that is completely reasonable and yet, somehow, like completely over the head of almost anyone who would look at a panel on diversity and be like "but I'm not that, so it's not for me." Which, really, really, is a sentiment that seems to be in some people's heads and then makes it into craptastic reality because they assume if they don't want to think about diversity, or even be faced by diverse people, then it must be that way for everyone. This is why people assume that the Hugos must be run by liberal conspirators, because they look at the stories and who wrote them and think "those are not my stories and no one could like those stories except those people in the same exact demographic as the writer so there must be a conspiracy to get it an award nomination because I know maths and there are not enough people of that demographic to get the story nominated." And really, I do agree with this article that things are slowly shifting toward embracing diversity, but there are plenty of awkward and uncomfortable moments along the way. People seem to really dig in when it comes to diversity, and what is "too much" and what is acceptable and it means, yes, that diversity panels are rather necessary, because they help to show that diversity panels are just panels about SFF, are for everyone and not just certain people. But they are not perfect and there can be so much better. Anyway, it's a great article and you should go out and read it. Fly, you fool!