|Art by Jordan Grimmer|
“Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall (6953 words)
This is a wrenching and beautiful story about injustice and about vocation, about talent and about revenge and about pain. It finds Sarai taken from her home as a young girl and forced into service on an island where everything is gray, where she must work at something for the betterment of the Queen who’s responsible for her abduction, a queen kept alive thanks to the magic of people quelling the poisons in her system. Sarai has a talent for a certain kind of craft, a certain kind of magic, which can take many forms. The one she’s best at, the one where her talent lies, is in crafting scents that can take a person back into their memories and inspire them into new experiences. Even if she can never leave the island she’s on, the scents allow her to travel far and to make these wonderful aromas that can provoke very strong emotional reactions in others. And yet if she were a poison tamer, one who can quell the poison in others, she might earn her way off the island and into the presence of the queen. And once there, she might be able to kill the queen, whose reign is marked by increasing violence and scorn. I love the way the story frames Sarai’s duty and talent, the way that it shows how it’s been twisted into a tool of this colonizing power and yet there’s still power to it, still teeth. Sarai knows that she can kill the queen if she wants, but it will kill her as well, and might kill her home, too. It shows that just because it’s not directly violent, the ability to evoke emotion is an incredible weapon and power. And even as Sarai is still a prisoner, she can still use her position to try and do good, to try and make the world better so that, perhaps, she can prevent others from sharing her fate. And that, perhaps, she can keep the memory of home alive in herself, without losing it to the pressures of revenge or the taint of poison. A fantastic read!
“No Pearls as Blue as These” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (5994 words)
This is another story about duty and being stuck in a situation where the main character is not truly master of their own fate. Bidaten is a bulwark, a human modified in vitro to be something not wholly human any longer, to be a weapon against a kind of parasite that infects the world, that keeps people behind walls patrolled by their bulwarks, protected until the bulwarks fall and become part of the host attacking. It’s a brutal struggle but for Bidaten it’s mostly routine, and their life is spent in service to their lord. The story opens just as that lord takes her first wife, a foreigner, and the story truly revolves around the relationship that forms between Bidaten and this woman, Yut. The world building of the story is seamless and complex, the story growing a sort of post-apocalyptic feel even as things remain feudal, rooted in the idea of lords and households, where the bulwarks are soldiers and retainers but also slaves and second class citizens. It’s a situation that the human rich have no problem with because it makes them into something like gods, the center of this universe, and the bulwarks are their pawns, even if they sometimes treat them well. The truth is that humanity seems to have created this problem, has blasted the world until almost nothing remains, and now has used the bulwarks in order to keep themselves safe, even as all it does is grind up generation after generation of bulwark. There is pageantry and ritual associated with it, but really it’s just a cycle of death and loss that the humans don’t have to participate in directly, that bulwarks have to pay the price of. And it’s a moving piece that follows what it’s like for a bulwark who does care for their lord, who in many ways loves their lord, and yet who comes to see what kind of a love that is, when they aren’t truly valued, when they aren’t truly seen as a person. When Bidaten is actually treated like a person, with the ability to consent...well, the story does a marvelous job of showing how subversive that can be in a society that never asks the bulwarks what they want. The emotional beats are strong and I love the food elements, the way that poison is used, the way that sex and sensuality are used. It’s a great story and you should definitely check it out!