|Art by Odera Igbokwe|
“Dust to Dust” by Mary Robinette Kowal (1787 words)
No Spoilers: Lloyd works magic, a field that’s shrinking in the face of technological advancement. Out of job and trying to eek out a living doing freelance stuff, his situation is complicated by things he’s done with regard to his wife. When everything comes to a head, well...the story is a mix of many things I associate with the American South—heat, religion, and a general disregard for a woman’s consent. It creates a complex situation, asking what it’s worth to keep someone alive...or bring them back. Oppressive, bleak, and a bit haunting.
Keywords: Resurrection, Foreclosure, Marriage, Sin, Religion
Review: I like how magic is a business in the story, a matter of machines beginning to take work away from people who have made their living crafting making powder and dust that protect against bugs, against the heat, and against death itself (though this last magic is forbidden on religious grounds). Lloyd is a man who’s already lost a lot—his job due to mechanization, so when he loses his wife to cancer...well, he decides that’s not something he has to accept. Because the magic exists to bring her back. But of course it’s expensive and after everything he’s done he ends up poised to lose even more—his home, his kids, his freedom. It’s a story that in some ways is about the gravity of loss and grief, how things can snowball out of control, one thing leading to another, Lloyd desperate to hold onto something and yet the more he tries, the more slips away. And I feel the story does a good job of balancing the very understandable desire Lloyd has to not lose his wife, to not have to face that, with the fact that he never asked, and that he’s done this is Not Okay. For all that the story is told from his point of view, I feel that the story does not ultimately take “his side.” Even when his wife has primarily a religious argument about why he’s wrong. Because, whatever her reasons, it’s her choice here, her body, her death. Even if there is no afterlife like she wants, I like that the story centers and respects her right to have that say, and doesn’t reward Lloyd despite what he’s poised to lose, despite the burden he tried to put on her. It’s a short, interesting story that doesn’t offer up a whole lot of happy, but that does allow Edna to have the final say over what happens to her, and that’s enough to make this a piece well worth spending some time with!
“How I Got Published (12 Tips from a Bestselling Author)” by Dominica Phetteplace (731 words)
No Spoilers: This piece is framed as just what it says, a list of steps that the narrator took to becoming a Best Seller Author. It’s part autobiographical, part an examination on taste and publishing and the road to becoming popular. There’s a lots of strangeness involved, and the road the narrator takes is not a common one or a linear one. But it makes for a charming read that feels deeper than it might have seemed at first, a deconstruction on what it means to be Best Selling and the trajectory of an author.
Keywords: Creation, Writing, Publishing, Advice
Review: For me, what I get most out of this story is a dissection of the idea of popularity, and the ways of getting it. For writers, there is always a pressure to alter your writing if your writing falls outside of what is popular, of what has a reasonable expectation of being Best Selling. There are exceptions to this, of course, but there are certain things, certain choices one makes as a writer, that threaten to push you into Unpublishable territory. Or, if published, unpopular, which is its own difficult thing to deal with. And that pressure to conform, to try to write toward what’s popular, is often a sort of trap, because in some ways it seems like that direction is closed to many who just cannot get their style to match what is more broadly appreciated. But this narrator takes a different approach, one full of magic and creation, trying to change the world instead of themself. Which is a rather great wrinkle for me, that the narrator refuses to bend, and instead strives to remake the world so that it might appreciate their work better. It’s a huge undertaking, but they are powerful, and driven, and I like how that plays out. It’s also about the idea of growing up, which many link to a sort of grim acceptance that the world isn’t going to change, that you have to change for it. And I like how the story leaves how the narrator is going to handle that up in the air. Uncertain. Poised once again to perhaps overthrow the stigma and conventional wisdom on the topic and go somewhere new. For me, it makes for a fascinating read with tons to think about and a wonderful style that riffs on writing advice and celebrity. A fantastic read!
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (3648 words)
No Spoilers: The story is pretty much what it claims to be, following the stories behind nine of the teeth that George Washington used for his dentures. Teeth that came primarily from slaves of all different backgrounds and skills. The piece creates a history for the people those teeth came from as well as for the past itself, one full of magic and paranormal entities. One steeped in violence and revolution but accented by something new and strange and mystical, while still bearing the stain of slavery. I love how the story builds a more and more fantastical past even as it keeps its core locked in the historical fact, the people bought and sold, the desire for freedom, the atrocity that sits at the heart of the founding of America.
Keywords: Magic, Alt History, Historical Fantasy, Slavery, Freedom
Review: I love how this story works on a great many levels. First, it’s a very fun piece that manages to conjure this alternative history that is in equal parts awesome and completely fresh. Mixing mythology, magic, and even other worlds with the historical past, the result is a setting that could house entire series of books. And the story does an amazing job of giving little tastes of so many different things, drawing from these nine very different individuals and having them converge in the person of George Washington. Literally inside him. At the same time that the story engages in some kickass world building, though, it also makes a lot of choices about what it is not going to alter about the past. It does not erase slavery or the horrors of it. The magical aspects of the story in no way make slavery more palatable or clean or comfortable. And by making the story focused on George Washington, on one of the founders of the USA, the story makes a rather profound statement about what should be remembered, and what is in the process of being sterilized. At least, I can’t imagine that it’s a mistake that the story focuses on figures like the chef (following the release of the children’s book about George Washington’s chef that made no real mention of slavery and treated slaves as employees instead of property). For me, the story becomes a way to spin more fiction around these figures from the past, from these slaves and former slaves, while still keeping a core of truth, rather than wrapping a thin garment of facts around a monstrous lie. And it does it with style and with a stunning touch of magic and wonder. One that shows people reaching for each other and for freedom, for hope and for justice, even in the most desolate of times. A fantastic read!
“knick knack, knick, knack” by Holly Lyn Walrath (669 words)
No Spoilers: A young girl grows up in the shadow of a forest, surrounded by the spirits of the dead, who delight her and watch over her. Years later, though, the girl has moved on and returns to her mother’s house to settle things, to go through the stuff and decide what to keep and what to let go. It’s a short and flowing story that does a nice job of sneaking in a few twists despite the limited length. In particular, the story does an interesting job with the narrator and the narrator’s distance from both the main character and the reader. Told in second person, it’s a story that perhaps by its nature feels intimate, and yet even so it does a wonderful job playing with both horror and family, leaving a last, haunting note to linger in the readers mind.
Keywords: Ghosts, Growing Up, Bones, Witches
Review: For me, the story does a great job of exploring growing up, and magic, and the relationship between parents and children. The narrator, revealed to be your mother, concentrates in some ways on how you were attuned to magic when you were younger, how you reveled in the spirits of the dead, sought to see them, to know them. And now, so much later, that connection has been severed. But it’s not treated exactly as a loss. At least not really as something to mourn, which is an interesting touch. Because it seems more common that this loss of magic to be framed as a bad thing, so deficiency that happens when a person “grows up.” For the main character, though, the loss is also a protection, because this magic is not the stuff of innocence, is not without cost or darkness. Really, the story for me becomes about this central relationship between parent and child, between magic and the more mundane day-to-day living. And deciding, in some ways, that it’s no less brave or special to choose to face the world without magic. That for this child, their decision to leave the woods and the witch’s house behind are not signs of weakness or corruption, because you’re still going to carry on a piece of that magic forward, a piece of that hope and wonder. But that you’ll keep yourself firmly in this world and it’s problems. Of course I could be way off in my reading of this one. Whatever the case, it’s a lovely story that’s well worth checking out!