|Art by David Plunkert|
So first thing first, these reviews are no longer neatly meeting up with the issues as listed on the Fireside Magazine site. I first noticed that last month, where there were more stories in the issue than were released on the website. The spill-over from last issue appears in this issue, and so I'm assuming that the spill-over this issue will appear next issue, and on until it's all caught up. Just an FYI, but I go off the online releases typically when reviewing Fireside so that I can get approximate word counts. So. The good news is that the fiction is still sharp and punchy, the stories short enough to be very quick reads but still hitting above their weight. There are some fun pieces and some harrowing ones, and all in all it's another wonderful month from the publication. To the reviews!
“Dirt Under the Nails” by Aaron Menzel (1140 words)
No Spoilers: Douglas is a farmer and Albert is the automaton he’s bought to help him. Because working a farm alone is difficult. But the nature of Douglas’ farm, and the nature of what Douglas wants from Albert, reveals a complicated place tinged with shadow, bordering on a grim reality where people (of a sort) can be grown or built, and where that huge advancement in technology only seems to expand the ways people are exploited and de-valued. It’s a story that carries a rather familiar voice, a man fighting his own need for help while at the same time indulging heavily in trying to get emotional labor out of other people. It’s almost haunting, and definitely creates a world full of new possibilities amid the same old loneliness and yearning that’s always partly defined humanity.
Keywords: Farming, Clones, Body Parts, Robots, Voices
Review: Douglas is a fascinating character, a man who has built himself into isolation, trying to do right in as far as he wants to be successful but always finding that his decisions leave him alone. He’s a bit of a miser, with no real care for comforts, or joy. He is mostly alone with his old bitterness and his justifications and rationalizations. He’s been someone to jump into a relationship with a manufacturer/grower of cloned human parts, the man who actually does the planting and the farming. And he’s a crab, getting a robot to help in part because he’s starting to get older and in part because he needs someone to talk to. Only of course he does it in this terrible way, refusing to show weakness, not wanting the robot to talk back because that would ruin the illusion, because Douglas doesn’t seem capable of believing that a person who can talk is listening. And maybe because he complains not so that someone will offer to fix his issues, not so that Al will actually make the complaint go away. No, there’s a certain comfort there for him in having things to complain about, about knowing that they can’t be fixed so easily as a robot might be able to fix them. He needs to pretend that he’s powerless because it excuses him from acting, makes him a victim of his life rather than the author of it. And it’s a wrenching story in that way, short and almost sweet, about the ways that humans sometimes refuse to try and make things better because they’re comfortable with things getting worse, as long as they feel they’re not ultimately responsible, or alone. A great read!
“For Change is the Moon’s Domain, and Tonight She Watches” by Izzy Wasserstein (501 words)
No Spoilers: Deborah has come to the edge of a lake on midsummer night to try and get her heart’s desire. She’s joined by her only friend, her only ally in a place where everyone seems intent on erasing her, on “correcting” her about her gender. The piece is very short but it builds wonderfully in that space the feeling of need and desperation, the hurt of having to stand against overwhelming adversity to speak and live a truth that everyone is calling a lie. Or, almost everyone. And in the still of the midsummer night, maybe that’s a distinction that means a hell of a lot.
Keywords: Lakes, Trans MC, CW- Misgendering, Queer MC, Wishes, CW- Bullying/Abuse
Review: Aww. Totally not crying here. Nope. This is a beautiful story and I love the way that it builds, the way that it captures this desperate need of Deborah to escape the constant harassment and abuse she faces because she’s trans. The ways that her parents attempt to stifle her, and her peers attempt to “correct” her and police her gender. She’s in an incredibly vulnerable place, putting her hope in this unlikely chance, this bit of possible magic. And I love that the magic here isn’t exactly the magic that she was expecting. That it’s not something that will “fix” all of her problems, because you can’t fix what isn’t broken. And I think that’s a lovely sentiment, a reminder for Deb that she there’s nothing that can make her a girl, because she’s a girl already. Which is something that she gets to see in the way that Amanda feels about her, in the strength that both take from that relationship. It doesn’t make the situation all the way better, doesn’t remove the harassment or the abuse, doesn’t erase the dysphoria about the ways that Deb’s body doesn’t feel right. But it does let her know that she’s not alone, does let her know that there is someone who really sees her, and who loves her. Which is enough on this night to quell the voices of doubt and fear and hurt that are running through Deb’s head. So maybe there is magic after all. And while it might not be the spell that Deb was hoping for, maybe it can be enough for her to get through the hell she’s going through and find a joyous and affirming place beyond it. And the ending is so sweet and so good, you really should go read it immediately.
“And For My Next Universe…” by Matthew Castleman (1022 words)
No Spoilers: Rolando the Inconceivable has made a deal with “weird old lady” to spice up his magic act. And instead of pulling a rabbit out of his hat, he ends up pulling out an entire tidal wave of rabbits, thousands of them, completely overwhelming his audience and himself. But for all it seems like a disaster, it’s actually the start of something special, something he doesn’t quite understand, and which might have some unforeseen consequences. And it’s a cute story about bargains, about not really reading the fine print, and about, of all things, friendship. Which is rather delightful.
Keywords: Magic, Magicians, Rabbits, Parallel Universes, Balance, Bargains
Review: I do love the explanation for how the trick works in this story, that there are universes out there with different levels of various things and so opening up a sort of portal between two makes the elements that are in abundance in one...sort of spill into the other. So somewhere out there is a universe just lousy with rabbits. But I also like that that very system sort of sets up the rules for the bargain that Rolando (or rather, Jeff) makes, which in turn sets up what happens next. Because as the rabbits are lef through, there’s nothing saying that it’s a one way street, and Rolando’s fame grows and grows...which for me is a nice way of capturing something a bit less tangible than rabbits, something that he never really had reason to think about or complicate...until it left him mostly high and dry. But this isn’t, imo, a “be careful what you wish for” kind of story. Rather, it’s one that looks at Jeff’s reasons for getting into magic, showing that while he’s peaked, that doesn’t mean he’s not still devoted to using magic to spread some joy in the world. And it’s something that’s mirrored in the old lady as well, because even as she’s setting up Jeff for failure (it might seem), she’s still pursuing her own goals, still wanting to have friends, which she lost when she got too many and used a portal. And it’s a fun, charming story, one that sets up a rather heartwarming ending, where both characters get what they want, even if it’s not at the scale they hoped. But that doesn’t mean it’s not enough for them to be happy. A fine read!
“The Last Librarian” by Trace Yulie (1504 words)
No Spoilers: In a setting/future where libraries have been largely privatized and government control of books/ideas tightened, Tig is an agent specializing in finding and retrieving books, taking them out of circulation and giving them to the central government. Of course, they might keep a few for themself. As trophies and reminders. And now they’re on the trail of a person called the Librarian, a revolutionary/seditious figure who encourages people to read and who makes available for people books that get around government restrictions. It brings Trig to perhaps the last public library, but even as they feel so close they can taste the new stories they’ll acquire, they find that they’ve made a few mistakes...that might cost them everything.
Keywords: Books, Libraries, Dystopian, Reading, Governments
Review: The piece does an interesting job of linking a dystopian state with a control on texts, setting the main character in the same kind of place as the main character of Fahrenheit 451 and similar texts, where they’re an agent of a government that wants to control books. That wants to control what people can read, and by extension what people can think. And like in those texts, Tig is holding some of it back for themself. Or at least they are copying some so that they have a piece of the whole government collection. But their actions don’t seem to be rooted in wanting to preserve the books, in liking books as art or valuing the ideas behind the words. In a twist on those other works, Tig is just in it for the trophies, the books just prizes that they’ve won, that they can feel superior for possessing. It’s what brings them with such energy and zeal to this last public library...and what ultimately causes their downfall. And I like how the story frames and handles it, showing how easy it is to trick Tig perhaps in part because they’re not the type to really care about books. They are focused and think in a very linear, rather brutal fashion, used to being the one in power, used to having the weight of authoring behind them. And hungry for glory, hungry for action and violence. What they don’t anticipate is that the Librarian isn’t just one person, isn’t just a lone wolf (something Tig seems taken by because of how they operate and view themself), but rather a collective, a whole community maybe who are all working to spread information, to spread access to books, and who know how to look out for one another, especially against those as unsubtle as Tig. It’s a fun piece, well imagined and brought to life, leaning on a tradition of dealing with censorship and suppression of books in SFF and adding a bit to it. A fine read!