|Art by Ashley Dotson|
"That Lingering Sweetness" by Tony Pi (8934 words)
This story follows up the delightful “The Sweetest Skill” from BCS last year, a story that I quite enjoyed, and this one returns to Ao just days after his ordeal, the city still very much feeling the effects of the confrontation from that piece and Ao himself troubled both by a deep guilt about his part in the troubles and destruction and by his new injury, which is preventing him from crafting his sugar zodiac-animals, which is a lot of his magic. Fortunately, it’s not all of his magic, and he still has the ability to speak with and summon the great spirits that embody the zodiac signs. He’s also trying to set right some of the pain he helped cause by getting to people down on their luck together for a new business venture that might turn both their fortunes around. Except, of course, that there are a pair of pesky curses sitting in the way, courtesy of two of the quarrelsome zodiac spirits, Goat and Monkey. And I like how the story is structured and executed, for all that this is a much more subdued story than the last installment. Because of his injury, Ao isn’t able to do much other than talk. Of course, that makes him have to rely a bit more heavily on his wits and brains, which is a fun change of pace. We also get to see a bit more of Worry, the dog that Ao adopted at the end of the last story, and through that the spirit Dog, who is my favorite of the spirits so far. The story sees Ao tested, having to be quick on his feet and with his words and learning to stretch a bit beyond what he’s used to. At the same time, the story also sets up a sort-of return to the status quo, and implies that the stories of Ao are far from over. Indeed, a lot of the piece is introducing new mysteries while putting the main focus on recovering from the events of before. There’s a lovely amount of worldbuilding and the story is once again quite fun, which is much appreciated. I like Ao as a character and the world of magic and intrigue that he inhabits is one that I’m looking forward to visiting again. Until then, though, this is a great story that promises a lot more awesome to come. Definitely check it out!
"A Marvelous Deal" by Kate Dollarhyde (5089 words)
This is a dark and rather disturbing story about Sylvie, a young girl whose mothers died from an illness that almost killed her as well. Just nine years old, she finds herself alone in a world that is dangerous and dark, especially for a girl with magic in her blood. When she picks a carrot from the garden with a face on it, things go from depressing to terrifying as it demands the blood of a rabbit and Sylvie finds how easy it can be to make bargains and how easy bargains can be cheated. The story has the feel of a fairy tale to it, the setting and the characters all sketched in broad strokes that evoke the grimness of fairy tales without being locked into one place or “real world” equivalent. And as the story unfolds that grimness gets more and more intense, providing a fantasy setting but not really one that offers Sylvie an escape from the isolation and vulnerability of her situation. The fantasy here only deepens the terror of Sylvie’s position and shows how sometimes magic offers no protection from hardship or pain or grief. There are moments when I wanted to know why no one would step in here, why no one would try to help, and that’s part of the horror that persists throughout, that Sylvie is so alone and the only person offering her anything is someone she shouldn’t trust. It’s a difficult read teaming with sorrow but it’s not without beauty. It’s just the beauty of a moonlit wood, filled with all the wonder and magic of possibility but all the danger as well, of teeth and claws and things stranger yet, like the voice of a wheedling carrot. Like some fairy tales, there is a lesson to be learned, but it’s not really a cheery one. Don’t be a child and alone. Don’t make bargains with strangers, but know that there’s no one to help you if you stumble into darkness. It’s a difficult read at times, but quite worth it for me. A fantastic story!