October has been a surprisingly full month for Tor dot com, which saw the release of six original stories. It's also a nice mix of science fiction and fantasy and horror, each story reveling in worlds richly detailed and masterfully fleshed out. These are not often easy stories, with recurring themes of death and rebirth, but there is a strong vein of control here as well. Of being able to tell your own story. Of escaping the confines of the expected, the cage of the acceptable. These are stories about pushing boundaries and reclaiming identities, and I'm going to start the reviews…NOW!
|Art by Jasu Hu|
"The Three Lives of Sonata Jones" by Lettie Prell (8030 words)
This is a story about mortality and aging, about youth and choice and limitations. It takes place in a world where overcrowding is only made worse by the fact that people can upload themselves into new bodies, can in effect live as long as their data is alive, and live without breathing, without fear of drowning. But not exactly without fear of dying. And Sonata has decided that she's going to limit herself. That, for all that it might be possible to live forever, she wants to be something else. Something special. That she will only live three lives. It's a decision that is met with some resistance, but it is one that she holds to. And soon she is swept into the turbulence of transition and conflict in a world not really ready to accept people with mechanical bodies who can live forever. Sonata works, and the story does a nice job of mirroring her journey, of giving us a story in three parts, and of limiting those parts. I like how that is structured, the first movement truncated and the second long and full of conflict and the third a sort of return to the first but with a different sound, a more triumphant note. It's a vibrant world and the story does a great job of describing the different ways of living, the philosophy that walks hand in hand with the technology, with the way that life can change. The voice is fresh and fun and the ending keeps things vague while also bringing closure. The story is, to me, about cycles, about endings and beginnings and all the things in between. And Sonata remains a strong and compelling character, holding to her ideals in the face of death and adversity and striving always to do something to give her life meaning, to make something. It's a great story!
"The Eye of the Swan: A Tremontaine Story" by Kelly Robson (5802 words)
[note: This story is marked reprint but the text preceding the story says that it's available exclusively at Tor dot com and I have it on good authority that this is, indeed, a brand new story. It is, however, part of a larger narrative, a serial project that looks amazing and fun, set in a historical-esque location and hopefully full of magic, swords, and intrigue. Just FYI, I guess…]
This story circles around the ideas of nobility and power, influence and confidence. The main character is, Diane, is newly Duchess of Tremontaine following the deaths of her mother- and father-in-law. Her husband is reclusive in his grief, retreating to the world of learning that he so loves but leaving Diane more or less alone against the society that doesn't really hold her in high esteem. Add onto that some deeply personal issues and Diane is somewhat in crisis, still being bullied by the mandates of her now-dead mother-in-law. It's a fascinating opening and the world building of the story is strong and vivid. The terrestrial haunts of the Tremontaine's is carefully built, the servants with their personal allegiances to the family but not necessarily to Diane and Diane's peers are likewise eager to exploit her newness, to fit her into a subordinate position because of her more rustic origins. She's untested, but not really unprepared for everything, and I love how the story shows her recovering from the pain of what has happened and reach for stability. For power. She is certainly not someone to be trifled with, and I like how the story sets up her place in the setting. Dangerous and in danger, competent but still learning. It's a great start to her story and, contained, a nice arc for her character. The pieces all fit together nicely and I love the feel of the world, the sense that Diane's going to try and change how her world works and, hopefully, not get changed too much by what she might need to do to excel in her new life. An excellent read!
"Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light" by Sarah McCarry (4074 words)
This story speaks to me of dreams and dangers and the crush of trying to chase something walled off by power and money and distance. A story about monsters. It features a woman who came to a big city to try and be a writer, and has instead found poverty and a shitty, soul crushing job. And a vampire to be friends with. The story pokes a bit of fun at the publishing industry. At writers and editors and agents. Or maybe that's not quite right. Maybe what it does is force a smile and a laugh and poke an open wound. The wound of all the dying dreams out there, all the people who just want to write and create and find out that there's a system in place and that it's not really concerned with writing. With stories. That what it's interested in is marketing and sales. Making money. And if you're not good for that, good at that, then…well, things might be a smidge harder. The story is tender in its despair, moving with the main character as she is caught between the magic of the vampire and the mundane pressures of life. There is this pull toward the romance of the vampire, and then beyond just the romance. Because romanticizing the vampire would be too easy, would be just like the trashy novels that the main character is made to edit. It's not the man that the main character lusts for but the power. The distance. The wealth. Not the fantasy of what a vampire might be the thing itself. Just as the city crushes and twists her desires to write, so too does it give her this other outlet, this glimpse into a world she wants desperately to belong to even as it bores and stifles her. It's an intense story for all that it's mostly about editing and drinking, and it gets across the ups and downs of being human, hope and despair walking hand in hand. I love the characters and I love the mood. It's a great story and a dense and powerful read.
"Everything that Isn't Winter" by Margaret Killjoy (6503 words)
Wow. This is an amazing story of peace and conflict, fear and death, living and love. In it Aiden is a soldier in a world that can't really afford soldiers. Where conflict and disaster has wiped away the old world and the new world is supposed to be better. Has to be better if it's to survive, because anything worse would be too much. And Aiden is one of the only fighters in a commune that grows tea and dances, and their relationship with their partner, Khalil, is strained. Strained because they can't seem to talk. Because they can't seem to find each other in this new world that they've helped to build. Only then violence comes to their home, and for Aiden things start making sense again. And I love this story. It is a deep and it is visceral, with sharp action and resonant feelings. Aiden as a character is conflicted, confident only in warfare, only in what they knows, and they've convinced themself that they can't learn anything else. [SPOILERS] And I love how Aiden uses that, uses what they know, to realize that they'd almost rather die than face peace. Would almost except that they have something to live for, except that they have people they care about. And it takes someone looking to take it all away from them to get them to really think about what they value and why and get them to want to choose the hard path, to forsake the road that has been made by people seeking violence. And I love the idea of the beauty of a railroad track without trains, of people finding ways to use something so contrary to how it was conceived. Because it gives hope that people can find a way to live in this world peacefully. And it's a powerful story filled with action and with quiet moments, with doubt and with decision. It is beautiful and go read this story, people. Do it now!
"Clover" by Charlie Jane Anders (6143 words)
Aww. This story has a lot to recommend it. A completely adorable and grumpy couple (Anwar and Joe) who pass through life under a sort of cloud of good luck, a cat with some serious attitude (Berkley), and a woman who may or may not have been transformed into a cat for…reasons (Clover). This story spins out of a larger work and features some of the same characters, but it does a great job of standing on its own, and instead of being about the larger work it becomes a bit more about Anwar and Loe, about their relationship and about the luck that has found them. The story passes time in an interesting way to me, slipping through nine years of time and even after that not exactly stopping but rather sliding forward further so that from beginning to end a considerable amount of time has elapsed. This seems to me first to establish Anwar and Joe's relationship, second to catch the readers up on the time elapsed between when Berkley left the larger story and where he sort-of reenters it, and thirdly TO TOY WITH MY EMOTIONS. Because the story does an amazing job of building this tender and resonant relationship between Anwar and Joe, to show how close they are and how they've grown together, dreamed together, built a life together. And how it's all teetering on the edge of something, poised to tip into darkness. It is a wrenching story because surrounding Clover's story, which seems more important to the setting overall, there is this quieter story of Anwar and Joe and Berkley, which is no less gripping or small because it is largely domestic. And I love this idea of luck, the fear that it brings, that maybe the couple hasn't earned their happiness, but I'm not convinced the luck was ever entirely real, that it was entirely outside the characters. To me it feels like they made some of their luck with their love and their bond, that as long as they believe in each other it acts as their luck, pushing them through any trouble. And it's a heartwarming and beautiful story that might not seem entirely Halloween appropriate but I DON'T CARE IT'S CUTE AND I LIKE IT! So go check it out!
"meat+drink" by Daniel Polansky (4151 words)
This story represents an interesting take on vampires and a story very well suited to the proximity to Halloween. It focuses on a vampire who was turned from a seventeen-year-old young woman who now lives with four other vampires in the poor areas of Baltimore, in deserted houses. The story makes good use of form, spending its time pointedly not capitalizing letters, and it gives the story a feel of being muted, which fits with this vision of vampires as dull. As meat instead of flesh. As incapable of a lot of the animation of flesh, the emotion of flesh, though it is more resilient as meat. And I like the way that the vampires are complicated through their nature as victims. The main character and a young boy are central to the story and used as sort of orbiting bodies around the vampire that made them, expected to fulfill roles in order to make him feel alive. And yet the narrator is never not aware of her status as meat. At least in proportion to never being not aware of the thirst. It's a rather creepy little story but it's also quietly moving, the way the main character shows that she's not just meat, that in some ways it's the way she's been trained to see the world by the shit she's dealt with, and yet she still cares. About herself. About Edmund, the boy vampire. She still cares and she still feels, though it is a distant thing. She cares enough to target those who seem abusive, though looking to victimize her, which isn't exactly a good thing, but it shows some level of coping with what's happened to her and still trying. And in that it's an interesting take on the vampire mythology that's sharply written and cleverly framed. The voice is both moving and haunting and the story is definitely worth checking out!