February is often a month devoted to love but Tor dot com has chosen instead to focus on duty and organizations and the role of a single operative in a larger mechanism. These stories cross genres, from high fantasy to space opera to near future science fiction. And yet they all involve people who are dedicated to a cause, who are part of a larger group. Whether attached to a government ministry, a military, a clandestine organization, or a religious empire, these characters are all parts of something larger than themselves. And many of the stories explore that size difference, showing how important, or unimportant, or importantly unimportant, some people can be. The stories are mostly thrilling, too, about assassinations and attempted coups and spies and in that they have a pace and a momentum to them that is captivating. They are not always the easiest of reads but many of them are quite fun, and all of them are quite interesting, and I should just stop yammering on and get to the reviews!
|Art by Micah Epstein|
"The Greenest Gecko" by Ploy Pirapokin (6351 words)
Well that…didn't end the way that I expected it would. This is a story about a country teetering close to civil war, it's president sick and his son and successor not quite secure in his power. The plot focuses on Fon, a woman who has fought her way up through the Ministry of Merit to become one of the primary movers. She's driven and fierce and tired of all the bullshit she has to put up with there, the misogyny and losing credit for her ideas. Only she finally gets the chance to start really advancing herself only to find that there's more going on than she's aware of. It's a story that does a great job of building up this future, this nation that wants to stay independent and doesn't know quite how to do it. The president here doesn't present as a tyrant but his rule is absolute and his position is all that unites a nation that is dealing with scarcity and corruption and a vast difference between the wealthy and the poor. And in this situation Fon is a success story of sorts, and is supposed to be proof that merit is rewarded. But in this political climate merit is something that is produced and not earned. The illusion of merit is used in order to maintain the status quo, which is to say to maintain the ruling family's power and influence, and though Fon believes she's above the illusions she doesn't quite realize how deep they go, just how insidious they can be. It's a fascinating story with a great setting and some lovely images. I mean, it has a gecko cannon. That alone makes this story worth checking out, but it also has a careful look at power and corruption and merit, and is a great read!
"The Old Dispensation" by Lavie Tidhar (6688 words)
This is a strange but wonderful story about a mission gone wrong, an agent and a ruler and a religion all twisted around this idea of Us vs. Them. Chosen and Treif. This is a religiously minded SF tale, one that imagines a religious empire across the stars, but it's also one that doesn't use Christianity but a much-changed form of Judaism in order to cast religious dogma against the realities of a galaxy full of aliens and worlds. The action itself is split between two storylines, one involving Shemesh, an agent for the Exilarch, the religious leader of the empire, being sent out to take care for a rumored heretic, and one involving the Exilarch…interrogating Shemesh afterward. It's an interesting framing of the narrative and one that works to break the real climax of the story into two parts. The first at the end of Shemesh's time hunting the heretic and the second at the end of the interrogation, when the Exilarch realizes what has happened. And I love that the story concerns itself with a central question, which is where to aliens fit into religious teachings, especially in religions where only the saved inherit heaven and on the Chosen are seen as full people under the law. It looks at how religion can be used to further colonialism and abuses great and small, and that without the urge to empathize and see ourselves in others, as all the same no matter the shape, a darkness can take root in the heart of a religion that was meant to shine a light. It's a rather visceral and dark story, all told, but it also has a lovely aesthetic and a breathtaking world-building. The action is fast and at-times difficult to watch and the ending is complex but, for me, very satisfying. A great read!
"Extracurricular Activities" by Yoon Ha Lee (14,259 words)
Well this is an absolutely delightful science fiction novelette that features Jedao, a military officer with special operations training, being sent on a rather dangerous assignment to, presumably, save an old friend who had been compromised on a mission. The action requires Jedao to go undercover with a trading convoy into a…well, not unfriendly state but perhaps a rival government. There's politics and backstabbing and just a great amount of detail and depth to the setting. Jedao for me makes a great main character, driven but also mischievous and playful at heart, restrained but fully knowledgeable about when and how to act and act boldly. And as much as I love the world built here, it's really the characters that won me over the most. From flippant and sexy Teshet to grumpy and efficient Haval to all the strange denizens on the station that Jedao needs to infiltrate, the characters are what makes the world live and breathe. I love that this is a setting that isn't cemented into current Christian models of family or relationships. There's still meddlesome parents needling for grandchildren, but the mechanics of that are somewhat different when you can enter into a marriage of five people. And I just love how this makes relationships more complex, not quite as intensely dual as is often seen in fiction. Instead, people treat relationships and sex in a much more open and intricate way, and it's refreshing as hell to read. The action of the story is also fast and fun, with Jedao knowing quite well how to fight and how to infiltrate, even if much of the operation seems like a series of half-salvaged mistakes. The story seems to recognize that espionage is not always an elegant affair. Oftentimes it is more of a seat-of-your-pants kind of running fight, acting before an opponent has a chance to recover from the initial surprise. The story delivers on the promise of an amazingly imagined, fun, character-driven experience with space and ships and death and sex. All the recommendations on this one, people—go read it!
"Losing Heart Among the Tall" by A.M. Dellamonica (8201 words)
This is another fun and exciting adventure set in this world of ships and intrigues and betrayals. Gale and Parrish are back but once again they aren't the viewpoint characters of the story. Instead we see through the eyes of Royl, the aging Captain trying to retire before he makes a mistake that gets him or, worse yet, Gale killed. In stern opposition to this is Beatrice, Gale's sister, who is determined that Royl cannot retire, that Parrish isn't up to the challenge of being Captain and protecting Gale. And so in the midst of a rather thrilling adventure featuring theft and revenge and espionage the story itself is much quieter, much more reserved, as it focuses on Royl and his situation, on both his desire to keep going and his desire to bow out, to quit and enter into the rest that he is due. To be with someone and to leave the adventures to those not only more able to do them, but more willing to do them. Which is a great part of the story, not that Royl is necessarily getting unfit for duty physically or emotionally but that he's starting to not want to be there. He sees his home and the pull of a quieter life on the shore and for all that he will miss what he's had he want to be done. And that, more than anything else, means that he should, because it's holding some of his attention now, and in the game they all play you need your whole mind on the situation at hand. It's something the story delves into and shows in no uncertain terms. And, as always, the story is quite fun, even with the adventure sidelined in favor of showing the weight of this moment for Royl and for all of them. The setting continues to be interesting and nicely painted and the action is intense at times. It's a story that feels like a bow, a player quitting the stage, a character stepping off the page. It's the close of a chapter, and the beginning of a new one, and it's definitely worth checking out. Indeed!