Monday, January 2, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com December 2016

The offerings from Tor dot com this December all hover around the long short story/short novelette line in terms of length, and start in the distant fantastical past before drawing closer and closer to the fantastical present. Things kick off in ancient China with a judge and a unicorn (well, a kind of unicorn) and a personal crisis, then move to the Manifest Destiny of American colonialism, then finally end in a New York much like our own…but with some superpowers involved. These are story that are at turns fun and fast and brooding and dark. There's a lot to see and feel, though, and as the stories draw nearer to the present they seem to me to grow a bit more hopeful about the new year approaching. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Ashley Mackenzie


"The Story of Kao Yu" by Peter S. Beagle (7382 words)

This is a story about judgment and law, about a judge named Kao Yu who found himself drawn into a strange series of events that changed him. The plot follows Kao Yu as he travels across part of historical China acting as a judge in various capacities. Told as a sort of history or legend, the story sets up that he is favored by a _chi-lin_, a kind of unicorn that can sense the truth and delivers swift and bloody justice to any who it knows to be guilty. And Kao Yu sees the unicorn's appearances in his court (which are seldom but come at times of great strain) to be a good omen, a sign that he is favored in some way, a sign that he is being just and fair and right. Only in one particular case where he is called on to judge, the accused is a beautiful woman who he falls instantly in love with, and who he allows into his heart, where she quickly and rather sharply takes advantage of him. The story is, to me, about seduction and about justice. Kao Yu believes in his own abilities, believes that he is favored by heaven, but really only so long as he maintains some relative "purity," like the unicorn is pure. This vision that justice must be blind and must be distanced from emotions is one that creeps again and again into the story, with Kao Yu unable to perform his job so long as he knows himself to be compromised. Not because it truly taints him but because he can't live with being a judge and not living up to his own standards. Which is an interesting thought. And the story is rather nicely told, though it remains a bit male-heavy with the only female character being a liar, thief, and probable murderer. For a story this long, at least, it was something I noticed, and would probably be considered "historically accurate." It's a nice enough read, though, with a slower style and tone that still manages some weight. Indeed.

"The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage" by Alix E. Harrow (8772 words)

This is a deep and intriguing story about maps and about colonialism and about betrayals. About being on the border of things and what that can mean not just for either side but for that middle ground. The story features Oona, a woman born along the Mississippi River between East and West, the East here being Europe and the West being the native inhabitants of what would become known as North America. And Oona really doesn't fit in, is rejected by her aunts and those of the West and exploited by those of the East who seek to use her as a mapmaker, as one who, in essence, betrays and binds the land to make it more manageable for the white settlers. The world building here is vivid and happens among the historical past. It captures the feel of going out into the unknown and having that mean something. Where the untamed West is literally untamed and the landscape can change at any moment unless it's being chained down by someone like Oona, unless it's been overridden with people who have room only for one vision of the world in their minds. And Oona is a prisoner, caught in a contract because the company paying her needs her to work. Caught because he brother is sick and needs care and if she doesn't work he'll die. Caught and spiraling into self destruction and despair because there seems no place for her and I love what the story does with the idea of borders. That they are spaces in flux, lacking just one definition. That they are neither one thing or the other and that's what makes them vulnerable but that's also what gives them strength. It's a great story with a wrenching arc and an ending filled with hope tinged with regret. The historical feel (complete with footnotes) frames the piece nicely as rather gothic, using the found text device and showing the personality and sublime of this vast landscape. A great read!

"The Thing About Growing up in Jokertown" by Carrie Vaughn (8480)

This is a rather sweet story about a group of kids who are…different. Who are wild cards. Jokers. Who have mostly physical markers that set them apart from "natural" humans. For some of them, like Rikki the main character, this gives them a small amount of power. Rikki can run. She's got the physicality of a whippet, and as such is _really_ fast. For others it's a bit less pronounces, like having skin that changes color, but for all of them it sets them apart as different. And for young people wanting to live and wanting to feel alive, it's something like a cage that keeps them in Jokertown. And I like how the story explores that feeling, of kids being kids and wanting something…not forbidden exactly, but a way to express themselves and reach for a freedom they have never know. The story takes a rather careful look at difference and privilege and powers. Rikki is a great character, filled with this desire to act and bound in by protective parents who are aware of the dangers of being different. The story does a nice job in my opinion of making her parents sympathetic but not always right. Of giving Rikki and her friends enough power to imagine a better world and work toward. In many ways (and if we're extending the poker metaphor), the story is about calling society's bluff. The world is supposed to be open to jokers, but it's not really. The jokers have been conditioned to fold. To hide in order to be safe. And Rikki doesn't want to fold. She has a strong hand and wants to play it, and it's to the story's credit (for me) that the children aren't really punished for their initiative while also still dealing with the ingrained intolerance of the system. It's a fun and rather refreshing story, told with a brisk pace and the feel of wind on your face and it's definitely worth checking out!


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