|Art by Jordan Grimmer|
"Across Pack Ice, a Fire" by Marissa Lingen (5616 words)
This story is about loss and about vengeance, though not exactly in the most straight-forward of ways. Instead, it's about justice and about war and about peace, about a woman, Solveig, reacting to the death of her husband, Per. So at its core I feel that the story is about reacting to grief, Solveig seeking out some way to express herself in an impossible situation, the agent of a neutral government amidst a war that doesn't really allow for neutrality, that is seeing people die by the thousands, that is seeing magical plagues and other atrocities visited upon the poor of both sides. Per, now dead, was a doctor, and worked to try and heal what he could. Unfortunately, while his way was better, more righteous, it also cost him his life. Leaving behind Solveig, a sorcerer, and he adopted daughter, a refugee from the conflict and source of some stress in Solveig's life. Where Per's way fails, Solveig prepares another way. Not a clean way, really, but a way to work for peace in a more absolute sense. The story becomes for me about the difference between staying neutral, staying detached from conflict, and working for peace, working for justice. Solveig is forbidden from getting involved directly, and there is definitely a part of her that wants the fighting to just end. But...there are different roads to peace, and her solution offers a subtle and clever alternative to either the care of Per or the desire for violent retribution that their daughter feels. What remains is a story with a great eye for gray, and with a reach toward justice. The world-building is a bit sparse but it's definitely clear enough that the actions of Solveig carry a solid weight. This is not a happy story but it's about happy stories being impossible at times, knowing that to get to the other side of injustice there's going to be loss and grief, and knowing that the just course is not necessarily the cleanest, but the one that ends in the right place. Which is a difficult wire to walk, but the story does a magnificent job of it. A great read!
"Gallows Girl" by Mel Kassel (6998 words)
This story looks at power and innocence, at duty and cost. It follows Kal, the younger sister of Lillian, who is something of a big deal among Gallows Girls. Gallows Girls, who comfort those criminals condemned to die, to give them a bit of innocence to ease them into death. It's something that Kal's always accepted, more because she's been told it's necessary and inevitable than anything else. Her sister had a gift, and was very good at it, and because Kal also has the gift it's something she must do. Only her first experience...doesn't go well, and she quickly figures out that what she's been told doesn't fit with what she feels in the case. That this power she has to soothe the dead isn't only for that, and that forcing herself to go through with it is a violation. And I love how the story explores how this power is something that's been perverted from what it could be, is used in order to comfort people who don't seem to need or deserve such comfort, making these young women bear the burden of soothing them when the system doesn't care what it does to the women, the cost they pay. It's just expected and required, and everyone treats it like it's an honor. Only Kal sees quickly what's going on, and decides to do something about it. It's a story that slowly explores the setting and its implications and then doesn't waste time getting to some rather visceral and intense action. The transition between the two is a little rough but I like how that pairs with Kal's own experiences and new trauma. It shows that sometimes inertia can be the most dangerous force there is, people going through corrupt systems out of obligation, because they can't think of a way to do it better. The story doesn't seek to ask who should be easing the passing of the men condemned to die, not because it's not an important question, but because it hides a more important question—who should be protecting these special people from being used up, exploited, and consumed? And I like the answer that the story finds. A fantastic read!