|Art by Galen Dara|
“A Vortal In Midtown” by Ashok K. Banker (8660 words)
This is a rather fun way to kick off the issue, with a small vortal—a sort of gateway into another dimension—opening up in New York and causing a bit of havoc, not least for insurance investigator Susan Khan, who ends up being the first to try and touch the object. The piece moves nicely, largely narrated from afar before narrowing in on Susan’s particular situation. It’s also a piece that has a lot of little asides and Easter Eggs for SFF fans, mentions of books and names that make the reading a bit more fun for those who will get the references. The heart of the piece, though, centers on difference and on trust and on contact. Susan gets herself stuck in the vortal, but she’s not the only one—she’s joined after a while by beat-cop Jenny Smith. And the two form an interesting relationship, their hands sucked into the same portal, their contact a driving force that seems like it can do great harm, as their first touch shatters all the glass in a large radius. Susan, a queer WoC, obviously really has no reason to trust or like Jenny, who doesn’t exactly disprove many of the stereotypes of cops, acting with immediate suspicion towards Susan despite her having a reason to be at the scene, despite her being a victim in this situation. Slowly, though, the two begin to see each other more closely, being to learn about each other. And it allows them context to interact and to be compassionate and kind to each other, to respect what the other is going through even as they are both stuck in a situation that seems primed to destroy them both. I like how the situation is one that’s impossible, that offers no “perfect” solutions. Like so much in life, the solution is tricky, messy, and rather bleak. Not that it doesn’t retain some hope. Not that there isn’t the smallest bit of uncertainty about what happens. But that it reflects the reality where cooperation and trust can often avert great catastrophe, great harm, but it can’t quite bring about a happy ending. Because of the system, because that compassion and trust has to be formed at the individual level and is lost when brought to a larger scale, we are left with these imperfect solutions, these band aids that cost so much, if not so much as they might have. It’s a story with a sense of fun even as it retains a nice complexity. A great read!
“Cake Baby (A Kango and Sharon Adventure” by Charlie Jane Anders (7400 words)
This is a super sweet and ridiculously fun story featuring Kango, who was designed and made to work in a brothel, and Sharon, who was similarly designed and built to eat people at parties. The story follows them as they meet at a party and reveal in a moment of honesty that neither of them actually much like what they’ve been born to be. What they’ve been told to be. So they leave. And leaving is a rebellion, a way for each of them to fight against what has been assigned to them. The story jumps ahead then where they are the crew of a ship, along with Jara, a young person they sort of liberated, sort of left without anywhere to go. They seem in constant monetary difficulty, but they are also traveling around, getting into trouble, trying to raise funds to keep flying, to keep going. And I love the way that the story values the family that Kango and Sharon and Jara and the ship’s AI, Noreen, form. How they help each other and lean on each other and support each other. How they make a whole that is stronger than any of them on their own, and how together they work toward a dream and realize it all at once. Because the story shows that a lot of what they want is just to be together, to be working together and having adventures together and getting into trouble together. That as long as they are moving and flying there is hope because it’s not about the retirement or the ease but about the journey and for how cheesy that might sound it’s sweet, dammit! It’s joyful and fun and has a great flow and humor to it. The setting is strange but makes complete sense inside itself. It’s a galaxy of weird but the focus is on the weird of the weird, the way that the characters fit together to form something almost mundane except that it’s glorious and magical and freeing—a found family that redeems them all as it sets them free to find their place in the vast universe. A wonderful read!
“The Faerie Tree” by Kathleen Kayembe (6300 words)
This story looks at family and deals as Marianne, who knows quite well the nature of Faeries and the price of their help, is put into an impossible situation. The story takes on the weight of family, of inheritance, as Marianne deals with the weight of being different, different because of something her grandmother a long time ago to save her father. Something she was taught never to do. And yet the world doesn’t seem willing to allow Marianne to get away safely. Tragedy is aiming for her, or for her family, everything bending to create this situation where she would have to reach for whatever power she could, only to find that what’s open to her is the same crooked dealings that was trying to be avoided in the first place. And I like how the story seems to be making a statement on power, and choice. If there were ways to be safe, to stay safe—if Marianne would be believed with her fears and concerns about the man her sister brings home, with his button eyes and sewn on mouth, none of this would have happened. But because she’s a woman, because he looks like a man, the tragedy is allowed to continue, and Marianne has to appeal to different powers in order to try and make things right. It’s a situation where only monsters have power, and so the only way to not be completely devoured is to sell parts of yourself to a monster, all the while having to watch those around you suffer, all the while losing parts of yourself, becoming something of a monster in turn. It’s a difficult story because it doesn’t really allow for happy endings, not when the system is broken, not when monsters are protected and allowed to go about their business, their brutality. It’s sad and it’s wrenching and it does a great job of showing how Marianne was left with so few choices, injustice narrowing her world until it was a call between being devoured whole or piecemeal. Which makes it a fantastic read!
“A Wound Like an Unplowed Field” by Max Wynne (1890 words)
This story unfolds like a myth, with a man wounded in the forest being found by a witch and kept alive. With an arrow in his leg right next to an artery, there isn’t much that magic can do for him...quickly, at least. So the story becomes for me about patience and about learning. For the man, it’s about learning to live with his affliction and to trust the witch, something that doesn’t exactly come easy. For the witch...well, not everyone has as much to learn. It’s a great and rather sweet story that finds the two characters drawn to each other in part so that they can ease the loneliness of the other. The man at times might feel like there’s more that the witch can do, but she operates honestly and faithfully and I like that as a fairy tale it’s by no means a grim one. I like as well that the story isn’t really about a fix to the man’s injury, his disability. Nothing is reversed to the point that he hasn’t suffered, or that he can just go back to the way things were. Yes, he gets treatment, and some things become easier and more comfortable for him, but for all that it’s magical it’s not about a cure. It’s about learning to be patient, and for the man that means patient with himself as he learns to cope and find new ways to live. And realizing that using devices because of his loss doesn’t diminish him. It’s a flowing piece with a neat style and the character work is moving and real. I love the way it all comes together, this lovely scene of two people finding each other and building a home together. Slowly, but powerfully. A great way to close out the issue!