Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Quick Sips - Tor dot com May 2016

Things have calmed down just a bit at Tor dot com for May. The first few months of the year have been packed with stories, but things are finally settling into more of a one-a-week pattern (which for this tired reviewer is probably healthier). As always, though, there's a great range of stories, mostly novelettes—fantasies and subverted fairy tales and contemporary dramas and science fiction journeys. Most of the tales, though, for being richly imagined, are very intimate in scope, about families and about people and about loss. And yes, okay, about giant murderous angels in need of thwarting. So without further dalliance on my part, to the reviews! 
Art by Kevin Hong


"Red as Blood and White as Bone" by Theodora Goss (9484 words)

This story tackles the ideas of fairy tales and the power of stories in general to provoke, challenge, and promote justice. The focus of the tale is on a young girl, Klara, who lives as a maid in a Baron’s house, and who is obsessed with fairy tales. When a woman collapses into the kitchen where Klara is working, it draws her into a story, but not one that she’s been taught to expect. And that’s where this story shines for me, not exactly in how it subverts fairy tales but how it reveals how the stories we learn impact who we become, impact how we treat others and how we learn to tell the stories of our lives and the lives of those around us. The story is apt when it claims that fairy tales are like a Bible in some ways, in that they are instructional. Only whatever book Klara received is one that seems to have been largely neutered of the darkness that so often must walk hand in hand with fairy tales. She only gets the adventure, the princesses in gowns and balls and dances, and by this the story seems to make a subtle critique not of fairy tales but in how they have been rendered today, tame and with a message of meekness and subservience. What Klara learns by her part in this fairy tale is something more real, more dangerous, and more useful. To do the right thing, to take risks, and that loss is sometimes random and resistance often worth whatever cost. It’s a beautiful piece that refuses to end when I thought it would, pushing forward and drawing larger implications. That shift, when it happens, I thought was handled well, bringing the focus to how important stories are, how foundational and how worth it it is to fight for stories. It’s a dark tale, and a bit long, but sharp and focused and with a great fairy tale feel to it. A fine read!

"The Pigeon Summer" by Brit Mandelo (4980 words)

Okay then (*blinks, wipes face nonchalantly because totally not crying a bit*). To me this story is about hurt and communication and learning how to live after a devastating loss. In the story, J. has moved into a small apartment to escape and maybe to come to terms with the fact that hir best friend has died, has perhaps killed himself, and in doing so destroyed the future that J. thought si could expect. And it's…it's a difficult story to read, one ripe with fresh loss and at a time when it literally seems like the end of the world. J. is eighteen, and I loved the way the story works with that, how it adds to the emotional weight precisely because J. has not lived longer, has not gone through so much. That's a time that's incredibly important, that is incredibly transitional and to have it shaken so…the way the story builds this moment of J.'s life is impressive and compelling and a bit flooring. Work into that some excellent use of ghosts and a (I can't believe I'm writing this) absolutely gripping and emotional pigeon drama and the story works all of its disparate elements seamlessly together to create a whole that feels like an absence, like a loss, like a would that should be fatal, that might yet be. And yet for all that there's hope here, too. Not exactly much, but there's enough that the story isn't a blackhole of despair and ends in a way that doesn't minimize what has happened but does give the possibility of at least partial recovery. It's a great story and you should read it. So there.

"The Dead Djinn in Cairo" by P. Djeli Clark (12,414 words)

Mixing urban and historical fantasy, this story reveals the indomitable Inspector Fatma el-Sha'arawi as she battles the forces of dark gods, the undead, and other dangerous otherworldly creatures. The setting of the story is lushly built, a Cairo of extravagance and strangeness thanks to the works of djinn and angels and other magical creatures who have trickled through to our world from beyond thanks to one human's drive to piece the veil between realities. And the tone of the story is fun and fast and action-heavy, the voice of the inspector funny and wry and endearing even as the plot sets a course for some very dark waters. But in many ways this is a procedural mystery featuring a dead djinn that becomes…something more. Something that threatens not only Fatma and her associates but the city and, really, the entire world. The mystery aspects of the story are well done and gripping, the pacing tight, and aside from one section where it was pushing it just a little too far for how long it took the characters to realize the implications of a clue I thought the story did an amazing job of crossing genres and keeping all its balls in the air, as it were. The magic is fierce and dark with an emphasis on death, on horrors, but the piece overall seems lighter for having the wit and vigor of Fatma guiding it, never letting things get too bogged down or dull. The extended cast is great as well, a mix of larger than life personalities that manage some nuance while being old standards in mystery fiction. The blustery police officer, the mysterious and alluring thief, the dangerous religious fanatic—everything works and creates an air of intrigue and fantasy that I much enjoyed. A fine and fun read!

"Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main" by Dennis Danvers (8945 words)

This is the second story in this series that I've read (I'm not sure if there's any before that but given the nature of the first story I doubt it?), and it continues to be an interesting exploration of adult children's relationships to their parents. And aliens. And love, maybe. It features Stan, in his late sixties and newly married with a son that isn't his biologically but is his in the ways that matter. This story looks more at his relationship with his brother, Ollie, which wasn't as featured in the first story. Like all the relationships the stories reveal, it's a complex one, both men old and still dealing with the strange nature of their parents and the way that their parents left. The hole that it left and the ways they've coped and grown. To me the story is also about aging and desire. Sexual desire but also the desire for something lasting, for some certainty, for some answers. Stan is faced with many calls to save someone, and in truth that seems to be a lot of Stan's personality, wanting to be good, wanting to save people. His brother. His parents. His wife. He talks about being kind, being sweet, but under that there are also desires more difficult to process and voice. His want for sex with the woman who has married him but who doesn't seem interested in him sexually (which is complicated by the fact that he has erectile troubles so can't have sex). It's a complex story and an interesting one, slow and with some nice moments. It feels part of a larger narrative, though, and while this particular chapter closes, there isn't the biggest sense of closure. Still, it's a fascinating world being created and some nice characters, and it's a fine read.

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