Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Quick Sips - The Book Smugglers June 2017

Book Smugglers is back for its 2017 short story season! This year’s theme is Gods & Monsters and the two first stories up are a science fiction tale that definitely leans on some tropes surrounding gods—well, more like goddesses, and a contemporary fantasy full of heart and dark magic. These are stories that unfold across a galaxy rich with life as two women discover the joy of experience even as they run up against the limitations of it as well, or inside a world quite familiar, full of middle school dances and carrot cake as two sisters and their dads find out that there is more than dust bunnies lurking in the shadowy spaces of the globe. Both are stories about change and about moving on, about discovery but also autonomy, and they are a great way to kick off another year of stories from one of my favorite publishers. To the reviews!

Art by Sparrows

“Beauty, Glory, Thrift” by Alison Tam (10577 words)

This story begins with the trappings of divinity, with a group of supposed sisters who have all seem to embody one idea or aspect of a person. Glory, beauty, wisdom—the main character is Thrift, whose primary talent is finding a bargain and turning something less into something more. The piece opens with a thief breaking into the abandoned temple where the sisters live, and Thrift trying to convince the woman, Pak, to free her from the confines of the temple. Pak agrees, sort of, and takes Thrift into her own mind, where Thrift can experience what Pak experiences, can feel what Pak feels, and yet cannot communicate with anyone outside of Pak. She’s a ghost of sorts, trying to help Pak as best she can, and though Pak is determined to find a way to be rid of Thrift once it becomes clear that Thrift is stuck in her brain, the two slowly develop an interesting and complicated relationship, one that comes out of ignorance and misunderstanding but still manages to be beautiful and meaningful.

A quick note: I am delighted by stories that do what this one does, which is to offer up a bit of corrective blinders for your sci fi enjoyment. Pretty much every character in the story is identified as a woman, and it’s this subtle thing that I like because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. I am, just now, but more to say that it’s this little flourish that shows how the story is aware of the legacy of science fiction as a genre where the absence of women is often not commented upon. In all of SFF, even, women not being present or named characters is pravelent, especially in many of the “classics” and here we see a story that takes a great classic, space-opera flare, and does the complete opposite, pointing out that you don’t need to go the Leckie route and obfuscate gender using only she/her pronouns. Here the point seems to be that non-women characters probably exist, but they’re just not being seen. And those that would take issue with that can try scouring the old sci fi books for women (some very recent ones as well...sigh....).

But back to the story. I love how Pak and Thrift develop, Thrift enamored by the newness of everything and Pak learning to live a bit more by seeing how things that she’s always taken for granted are exciting and wonderful to Thrift. All the same, their relationship is based on this initial breach of consent, and the story doesn’t ignore that. It slowly circles around this and shows that even as the characters come to care for each other a great deal, they are also trying to figure out how to live as separate people who Thrift is a constant presence in Pak’s mind. I keep saying Pak, too, but the story mostly refers to her as the thief, and I like that as well, how it gives them both this archetype and role that is outside of their names and yet also their names.

The world-building is interesting and I like how the story focuses so much on movement and adventure. It’s fun exploring just where the characters go and what they do next, all the while the shadow between them grows. That they care for each other doesn’t make what happens easier. Indeed, it makes it harder, because the one thing that the characters both want is something that turns out to be impossible. At least, impossible by most standards. I like how the story gets around the reality of their situation, refusing to bend to convention. The story becomes about transformation and change, and how sometimes it’s necessary to take some frightening steps in order to find something that works. And along the way the story is just lots of fun, with a lovely relationship at its core and a galaxy full of adventure spiraling out from there. It’s a great read!

“The Waters and Wild of Winter Street” by Jessi Cole Jackson (6214 words)

You just try to read this fucking story and not feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Just. Try. It’s a story about parenting and about family, about fathers and daughters and sisters. It features Geoffrey and Matt, who adopt a young set of twin girls, Moira and Mystique. The clues are in the their names from the start, evoking X-Men comics and yet for a while no one really thinks anything is wrong. And, well, even when Geoffrey and Matt definitely suspect that Mystique might be a bit...different, they never really think that there’s anything wrong with her. She’s their daughter, and their love and care is what moves a lot of the story forward, showing them trying to keep their heads while helping their daughters to grow and mature in what safety and security they can offer.

And while much of the framing of the story focuses on the idea of parents and parenting, I think during the story itself the real heart rests with the relationship between Moira and Mystique. Because while they begin life very similar, those similarities begin to diverge, and the way the sisters interact shows many of the tragedies of family, and especially of twins. Because they can’t help compare themselves to each other, can’t help but feel judged in many ways because of that. Though incredibly close as children, moving into adolescence and young adulthood shows the cracks in their relationship, the ways that their differences breed a sort of contempt and hurt. Not because of each other, really, but because of the world around them pushing them into boxes. For Moira, who is more comfortable in the role people expect of her, Mystique’s subversions feel particularly barbed. And for Mystique, who faces harassment and threats because of how she expresses herself, Moira’s anger is a kind of betrayal. It’s here that I wish the story had lingered a bit longer, because it does cover a whole lot of territory and time and I wanted to see that relationship explore more.

In the end, the story returns to the idea of parenting and family that goes beyond blood, that looks into the hearts of these people and shows the strength of the connections there. The force that threatens to break them apart is the same they have always faced, and always defeated—the differences between Moira and Mystique. But they love their daughters equally and it really does just give me all the warm fuzzies to read the ending, to see the tension and know that this all might fall apart but instead to find affirmation and love and gah! it’s just beautiful and fun and witty and kind and you should go out and read this immediately before I break down in a flood of tears. Go read it!!!


No comments:

Post a Comment