|Art by Julie Dillon|
"And the Balance in the Blood" by Elizabeth Bear (11,418 words)
This is a fairly long story, and it plays a long game, stretching out the action of the story over years, focusing on saint-presumptive Sister Scholastique in the later years, still fighting fights and getting into trouble but in much different ways than in her youth. Here the blessed Sister is stuck dealing not with outside enemies but with the church's largest benefactor, a lord who uses his position for special advantages, who knows that with his power and privilege come a forgiveness and divinity that he can buy. It's up to Scholastique to thwart him in his darkest designs, to find ways to try and erase at least some of his advantage. To bring divinity to the masses when Lord Bertrand would horde it for himself and those he cares about. For all that it is about doing the right thing, the story is also about age and sacrifice, about having the hesitance and wisdom to pick the right battle to fight, the right cause to risk dying for. It's a slow story but a building one, showing the way that privilege corrupts, the way grace can be turned to terror. And in there as well it's a story about how it's never too late to make a stand. That age does not necessarily breed complacency or conservatism, nor does it cure reckless stubbornness. The story wanders a bit afield at times as it builds and dips into backstory, but at its core it's about Scholastique and Bertrand and their struggle for the heart of the church, one the embodiment of its values and the other the master of its purse. It's a fun story, and Scholastique is a balanced character, old enough to want some measure of peace and young enough to know that there are more important things than the peace of an old woman. A fine read.
"Wooden Feathers" by Ursula Vernon (6052 words)
This story is about art and loss to me, perhaps in that order but perhaps not. It's about a young woman who loves to carve who finds out that her best customer is feeding her creations to his wooden son. Seriously, it is a kind of messed up premise for a story, a twist on Pinocchio, where here the carver, the father, is stuck in a cycle of grief after the death of his wife. Stuck with a son made of wood who he can't bring himself to love because it seems like a betrayal. He's a carver without tools, without the means really to free himself from the cycle he's stuck in, and it takes the main character to intrude in order to help him. And it's the spark of art that allows both the woman to reach out and the man to finally heal, the both of them bonding through the act of creation. And as much as the story is about loss it's also about putting aside the things that don't work. It's about learning, as Jep, the old man, learns to let go and as Sarah, the woman, learns to trust herself, to grow her craft, and to find a bit of the spark of art within her. The story paints art as reflective of both the inner light and personal struggle. By healing their art, the characters heal their hearts as well. It's a moving and rather strange story, but definitely worth checking out.
"The Thirteenth Child" by Mari Ness
A dark and rather unnerving poem taken from an old fairy tale where a girl-child is born and so her twelve brothers are killed to protect her right to the kingdom. It's an interesting thought, in part because taken away from whatever context it was originally in the quote seems almost sensible, an admission that no older brother would want to suffer a woman placed ahead of him. The poem, however, examines the kingdom that would be created by such an action, the queen who would arise from the deaths of brothers she never knew. Here this girl, this woman, pines only for the missing dead, for a kingdom not built on blood and bones. She chafes under the gold chains, under the weight of the expectation that she be happy and rich when her life cost twelve others. It's a nice look at what life in a fairy tale can be, the glamour of gold dulled by the washing tides of blood. It's a poem of longing, of loneliness. And yet I keep wondering more about the why of it, why the brothers needed to die. Because the parents were evil or because the boys were. Because boys are trained to be that way toward women and the parents recognized that it was easier to kill them rather than try to teach them different. There's a lot here that I want to know more about, but for certain is that it's a dark piece with a core of violence and the aftermath of violence, which even gold cannot make glitter.
"Something Different from Either" by Sonya Taaffe
Ah, I finally got where the title is from! Which contextualizes the poem in a way that makes it make a bit more sense to me, personally, because for a while there I was really confused and could figure out what it meant. Which does make a bit of sense because it's evoking "The Waste Land," one of the most referential poems I've ever encountered, which has whole books of footnotes and endnotes and all sorts of notes. This poem, however, is about a time after loss, about sitting on the shore and casting out into the water and hoping for a fish. About the fish not biting because, well, probably because the fish are gone, polluted away or doomsdayed away or something, the people fishing left with only this last impossible task, like knights ready to joust but finding the list empty. There is a feeling that the world is not what it was, that things are lost, desolated as the poem says, and that these people are out fishing to remind themselves, for hope but also for despair. It's a haunting poem and picks up on some themes from "The Waste Land," echoing the loss, the dust. Atmospheric and stark, it works quite well and is a solid piece.
"Please, Judge This Book By Its Cover" by Aidan Moher
This is a rather straight-forward and well-written account of cover art in SFF today. As a fan of cover art and art in general, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. It's a piece of SFF journalism (gasp!) that really just works for what it sets out to do, which is inform and get people to think a bit about cover art. It has a lot of gorgeous art and it talks to some interesting and important people in the field. It's well constructed and readable and I wasn't really expecting to have a visceral reaction to it but I think it hit me at the wrong time. It has nothing really to do with the article. It's a good article and definitely go read it. It's the idea that I've been seeing (which I think I'm writing my Thoughts on this weekend) about the idea of "vote with your wallet." I won't get into it now but it's something that I see and have to squint at most of the time. But the article does have a lot to say about where commercial art in SFF is and can go. A fascinating read.
"The Call of the Sad Whelkfins: The Continued Relevance of How To Suppress Women’s Writing" by Annalee Flower Horne and Natalie Luhrs
This is another interesting piece of nonfiction, a sort of critical examination of Ancillary Sword by way of the Sad Puppies and How To Suppress Women's Writing. And hey, it's already earned itself a response via the Sad Puppies and Tangent Online. The essay goes through some of the reactions to Leckie's novel in light of the much older text and how the whole Puppy thing has been pining for a return to "good stories." As I have not actually read Leckie's novel, or Russ' treatise, I was actually a bit lost through parts of this, but I got the core of it, the tactics used to suppress non-dominant voices. Just look at the rather extreme reaction to Women Destroy Science Fiction! and it's hard to deny that there's still a load of suppression going on. Though (*puts on douchiest glasses and pushes them up nose*), to be fair, there are women who are Sad Puppies, so that sort of ruins any argument this essay makes, amirite? Check and king me, feminism. Seriously, though, it's a nice case study of how far things have come in not coming very far at all. Indeed!