|Art by Justin Adams|
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (4900 words)
No Spoilers: A librarian at a small Southern library has a patron who needs to escape. And there are books that will help with that. And there are Books that will help with that. Illuminating both the limits and the limitlessness of books to help people, the story dives into magic, revealing the librarian’s dilemma of balancing the needs of the patrons with the constraints of the management. A moving, wonderful book about reading and waiting and hoping.
Keywords: Libraries, Books, Escape, Portal Fantasy, Depression
Review: Stories about books and libraries are fascinating to me, in part because they help to establish the conflicted nature of libraries as both bastions of access to books and also one of the largest censors of books and availability. Because while libraries are supposed to be about getting the right books to the right people, they are also about rules, and rules that don’t necessarily put the good of the patrons in the forefront. Sometimes it’s about minimizing liability. Or trying to “protect” patrons from books that have been deemed dangerous or harmful. And that’s the conflict with the main character of this story, who is a librarian and witch, who knows there is a book that a young man coming to the library needs, and yet it’s one she’s not supposed to give him. It’s a situation that sits at the heart of my own complicated relationship with libraries, and I love how it’s explored here, with this witch feeling so torn about not being allowed to give this person what he needs. Instead she has to hope and wait. Only she knows that hoping and waiting are rarely if ever the recipe for success. Justice must be worked at, which means designing a system without absolutes, where there is room for those in need to get what they’re lacking while not opening the doors to those who would abuse power. It’s a story that walks a fine line and I love where it goes, love the world it reveals, and the rewards for rebelling, for breaking the rules that need breaking. A fantastic story!
“Work, and Ye Shall Eat” by Walker McKnight (7300 words)
No Spoilers: Karen is the ostensible leader of a small community that used to be a historical reenactment tourist location but has become something else, surrounded by two rings of electrified fence. The reason for the isolation isn’t explained, but Karen tries to make the most of things, tries to keep people working and cohesive. The mystery of what happened, though, threatens the stability of the community. Strange and increasingly tense and claustrophobic, the piece follows Karen as she deals with the prospect of life inside this cage, and what might be waiting outside it.
Keywords: Quarantine, Technology Regression, Historical Reenactment, Isolation, Invasion
Review: For me, this story is all about the terror of Something Else. For Karen, it’s almost comforting to think about the reasons the community is isolated and protected has to do with aliens or a virus or even a government experiment. Because it would mean that people just had to deal with it. As long as people think of everything happening like it’s this huge, shattering thing that they can’t do anything about, they would accept what’s happened. It’s the mystery of what else it might be that is dangerous. The question that people need answered. The Something Else that haunts and then hunts them. That waits just outside the protection of the fence. That beckons. And I love that the story never really answers what that Something Else is. The answer, however twisted and strange, probably wouldn’t equal the dread of what it could be, the terror of what we might imagine it to be. The piece is creepy and creeping, Karen slowly losing touch with her control, with her calm. The pressure seems to get to her most of all, and it’s unsettling to watch, not least of all because her fears might be entirely justified. And I like how the story leaves just enough doubt of the reader to hook themself with what this Something Else could be. It’s a piece that explores an isolated, quarantined group of people, and how they can exist in harmony until corruption takes hold. Until Karen starts taking actions without asking. Until she lets the Something Else inside herself, to push her to take rash actions that, even if sound, should not be taken alone. It’s a wonderful story with a skin-crawling feel in places and you should definitely check it out!