|Art by Rovina Cai|
Tor was not joking around this month. Two short stories and four novelettes makes this the biggest release month they’ve had in a while, and the works range from tie-ins to larger settings to some very stand alone. Fans of Tamsyn Muir and Seanan McGuire (of which there are many, I know) will be happy that they return to popular series, and there’s some interesting works interrogating uploaded consciousnesses, mythical games, and the deteriorating nature of reality itself. There’s a lot to enjoy, and a lot to get to, so I’ll cut this short and just jump into the reviews!
“The Ones Who Look” by Katharine Duckett (10823 words)
No Spoilers: Zoe is an arbiter at Ethical Empire, a company that specializes in giving people a path to the afterlife. The premise is simple enough--people get points or lose point based on their actions, based on the ethical system that they have signed up for. People who earn enough points can buy their way into an uploaded consciousness experience where they’ll live in a heaven that they design. Zoe has her own baggage about the system, even as she works for the company running it, even as she has her own electronic angel and devil on her shoulder. Even as she gets into a relationship with a guy from work, a relationship that costs her points, but that opens up new possibilities to her, new sensations and a revelation that shakes her to her core. The piece is quiet and slow, aching and reaching, and it builds up a complex ethical situation and dilemma that Zoe must navigate all on her own.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousnesses, Relationships, Games, Heavens, Sins
Review: I really like how the story builds the idea of this game, this app, this system that would allow people to live in a way constantly being judged. Which at first seems like the last thing that people would want. But at the same time, it really feels real to me because people want to be forgiven, want to be absolved, want to know in some measurable way to assure them they are good. That they are getting into heaven. Only it’s all built on a lie. On a series of lies. First that those things can be measured, that they are objective and not just the subjective call of people like Zoe who have to weigh these questions. And second that there is a paradise waiting for anyone. Because the secret is that there really isn’t, that it’s been too difficult to do, especially large scale, and that most people end up not in paradise but a purgatory where they are stored while only the very rich enjoy what they are promised. And even they don’t get it all, because there is something that doesn’t translate, something that the company is hiding from everyone. And I love the way that Henri, the man Zoe has a relationship with, knows what he’s doing is wrong. The ways that everyone knows that so much of what they’re doing is wrong. But they do it anyway. For a variety of reasons. But mostly because they’ve been given something where they don’t have to feel completely responsible for their actions. Where they are making choices, sure, but that the ultimate judgement is in someone else’s hands. And I love that when the veil gets pulled back, when Zoe becomes one of those women who look, she sees the system for what it is, and is able to act, to tear it down, because it’s become a prison in so many ways, a lie that saves no one. That serves no one but the super wealthy, and even then, not really. It’s just another corruption, a tool of exploitation, and she leans on her own judgement, her own ability to judge right from wrong, to guide her actions. And it makes for a wonderful and wrenching and ultimately freeing read!
“The Necessary Arthur” by Garth Nix (11355 words)
No Spoilers: Tamara is an archaeologist who’s visited by a strange person who starts talking about an elaborate and possibly magical game. Which of course sounds totally made up, so she tries her best to ignore. Turns out the person isn’t exactly lying, though, for all they’re also not really telling the whole truth. But Tamara’s out of options, and is Merlin apparently, and a new game is ramping up whether she wants it or not. At stake? Who knows! But at least her life, and maybe the lives of everyone on the planet. What does she have to do? Steal a baby. Because...the baby might be Arthur reborn. Cool, cool. The piece is fun, fast, and knows full well it’s kind of ridiculous. But that’s part of the charm, and the story does a good job of blazing ahead regardless, toward a mysterious and dangerous future.
Keywords: Magic, Games, Kidnapping, King Arthur, Archaeology
Review: I do love how kinda random this whole situation is, and how it comes about because the All Powerful Gamemasters that choose Tamara as their Merlin...just aren’t very good at the game. They are ranked low, and that sort of explains why they show up at random, get pissy at Tamara for not doing more for them, and then saddle her with substandard equipment. Of course, on a narrative level it means she’s just as much wondering what’s going on as the reader, which allows for the info dumps to be delivered seamlessly, bringing everyone up to speed on what’s going on without losing the flow or voice of the story. And the world building is interesting, casting a cycle of games, where myths or folklore are repeated. And the idea of the once and future monarch isn’t new, something that the story plays with, incorporates into this larger international and perhaps intergalactic situation. Tamara becomes Merlin, and a new child that is born becomes Arthur. The why and how of it aren’t explored or revealed and in many ways aren’t important. They are things that will be revealed in time, like who They are, and for the moment the focus is on the panic and confusion and action of being thrown into the deep end of a very strange and very important Game as one of the primary pieces. Not the Arthur, perhaps, but the Merlin is important all the same, and I like the small nods as to what’s happening. The way that Nimue shows up at the end, adding all the implications that go along with that. As a game, there are rules and there is structure that seems to bend toward the same old patterns. But there’s also the sense that this could be different, that this time anything can happen. It’s not guaranteed that Arthur is going to win, or lose, or die. The past has set the expectations, but that doesn’t mean that’s how this round of the Game will go. And I like that, and am definitely down for reading more in this setting/story. A fine read!
“Juice Like Wounds” by Seanan McGuire (5893 words)
No Spoilers: This story follows three children in a place known as the Market, a place that many doorways, many portals, lead to. It’s a place driven by fair exchange, where everyone is expected to bargain in good faith and even children have to find ways to barter for what they need. The children are: Moon, who seems to have always lived in the Market; Mockery: who has escaped to the Market and likes it much better than her world; and Lundy, who has come to the Market but intends to return to her own world someday. The three become friends and try to navigate the market, and before too long come up with a plan that would allow them to get a lot of credit at the Market, enough to ensure their safety for some time. Except, as the story is up front about, the outcome is steeped in tragedy, as many fairy tales are.
Keywords: Portal Fantasies, Bargains, Markets, Wasps, Friendship
Review: The story doesn’t try to hide that it’s a tragedy, that something Bad is going to happen. It tips it’s hand about the face that one of the three girls is going to die, and there’s really no way of making that better. And the piece builds the girls quickly, drawing them from archetypes, showing how they fit together, their friendships rivers that feed the landscape of their lives. They are driven by a desire to be comfortable, to be safe, something that doesn’t seem at all like the greed that get most in trouble when they come to the Market. And I like how the story circles that idea of fairness and trade, that inherent part of the Market that is everyone has to work for it. Which...is a complex idea, and is hard to enforce, and harder still to enforce without tragedies like this. On the surface, it all seems on the up and up. Less is expected of children, so they can have no problem surviving, exactly. Except that they still can’t “afford” places to stay where it’s warm and safe. And that idea of “affording” is a vital one for me for the story, because the girls find a person who hated the structure of the Market and was punished for it. Which might seem like justice but for the fact that it’s still a kind of capital punishment. And really, people still die. Not just the one girl but a second that the story doesn’t give equal weight to because she’s the monster of the story. But still just a girl fleeing something, come to this place only to be lost again. The piece layers its tragedies carefully bringing such hope in the girls’ friendships that it then leads to a small, trickling stream. Obviously this is set in a wider universe, and it’s possible that there’s some extra context that would expand on what’s here. For what it is, though, the story is powerful and sharp, complicating the idea of fair barter, of bargains, of stories, and showing that even those things labeled as fair rarely are. A great read!
“Everything’s Fine” by Matthew Pridham (4732 words)
No Spoilers: Eric is up for a promotion and kind of nervous about it. To try and give himself an edge, he tries out a new knot for his tie. And then he walks to work. The details of the story, the plot itself, aren’t really what moves the piece along, though, or what gives it its speculative edge. Rather, the speculative elements, the deep and unnerving horror, comes from what happens around Eric throughout his day. With the implication that it’s not new, and certainly not going away. The piece is strange, a twisting nightmare that creeps in from the edges, that has to be willfully pushed away. In that struggle, though, there is only the semblance of community and care, and something very grim indeed lurking at the core of the setting.
Keywords: Employment, Cosmic Horror, Willful Ignorance, Relationships, Television
Review: For me the piece does a lot of interesting work with incremental change, assumed powerlessness, and willful ignorance. Everyone has to pretend that the world is not a nightmare hellscape. That everything is normal. That it’s great. When, obviously, it isn’t. Which isn’t something new. It’s something people do on a great many things, from climate change to politics. Because the problems seem too large, seem like there’s nothing to be done. So those who have it good enough pretend it doesn’t matter. And have to, because if they let on that they know, that it terrifies them, then they become the next target. Eric is especially good at it, and he does his best to help those around him, like his friend Sandra, but the horror takes its toll, and there’s a lot that almost breaks through their armor, through the indifference that they have to carefully and constantly maintain. It’s a nice statement on how people can desensitize themselves to horror, make it a normal part of their lives, and also fail to fully do that, fail to guard themselves fully against the horror that they’re refusing to acknowledge. There’s always a price. It comes in anxiety, in a weight that never leaves them. Even when they’re home, with people they care about, it never quite leaves. And it’s a nice way of showing that, even as what it’s showing is people who are safe enough that ignoring it just works for them, even if it also kinda doesn’t. And perhaps in showing these people the story is pointing at those who most need to wake up and stop going with the flow for the sake of their own comfort, their own promotions and normalcy. But that sort of a system only gets worse, and eventually crushes and corrupts everything. A fine read!
“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen McHugh (8799 words)
No Spoilers: June’s sister was involved in an accident in a lab. No one’s exactly sure what kind of accident, but it ended with the scientist in charge of the experiments dead, one of the assistants dead, and the other assistant, June’s sister Wanda, with extensive brain damage. Not damage they can see or measure, really, but something that’s left Wanda without the ability to properly process the world. She’s getting better, but it’s a slow thing, and in the mean time June is left with questions and with the frustration of having a sister who can’t understand her, who can barely recognize her. The truth behind the research that might have led to the accident, and the fallout from that, is what drives the story, as well as just the bone tired grind that June goes through, trying to do what she can while grieving, never allowed to stop.
Keywords: Science!, Perception, Octopuses, Family, Experiments, CW- Nursing Homes
Review: Well it’s another one I can add to my octopuses in short SFF list (Claude makes a fine addition). And mostly I like the way the story shows the sort of walking toll that June lives with, working as a case worker, juggling work and this family tragedy that has engulfed her. That has put her sister in a place where she can’t really understand what’s going on with herself. Where, just maybe, she’ gotten a glimpse of something that she shouldn’t have. And the story is all about perception. About the ways that we interact with the universe. About what reality is, and how we might perceive it or, well, not. How we might obfuscate reality because that perception is actually an evolutionary disadvantage. If that’s the case, and if Wanda has gained access to being able to experience reality on that level, it speaks to how damaging that is. How it takes away the ways we have learned to cope with limited perceptions. Coping mechanisms that are vital because they render reality in ways that are easier to navigate. That might be lies but are lies that work, that provide avenues to exist without being overwhelmed. Perception for humans in this way, our sensory apparatuses, are filters to keep out the most damaging and overwhelming information. What’s left might be a shadow on a cave wall, but that’s the level we’re capable of understanding. At least if you’re certain researchers. And I like that June mostly rejects that. Not because she has science to back it up but because she knows that a cynical view that misses out on the ways people really can surprise you. It means her sister is a lost cause. When really what that does is just shut a door. I like that June doesn’t really have an answer to it, can’t say how she thinks people can handle the full weight of reality. But obviously people carry weights all the time. Some people much more than others. The idea that it must be too much because some cannot carry it is an unconvincing argument. And while June might not know the hows, the math of it, that doesn’t mean she can’t hope. A fine read!
“The Mysterious Study of Dr. Sex” by Tamsyn Muir (8549 words)
No Spoilers: Camilla and Palamedes are friends coming up through the complex bureaucracy of Sixth House, in a setting where necromancy is common. Palamedes is something of a prodigy in the field, only thirteen but already pushing among much older scholars and archivists. He seems to have a very bright future (and indeed, the story is told by Cam, the narrator, from some point far in the future it seems, capturing this episode from their childhoods), and this story articulates why. Because he’s observant, careful, and talented. Because his mind works to find patterns, to solve puzzles. And because there are puzzles everywhere. It’s a fun piece, a mystery that’s not really about a crime having been committed. And it’s a buddy adventure that gives a neat glimpse at a fascinating setting.
Keywords: Paperwork, Necromancy, Archives, Puzzles
Review: Yes, I know, I’m probably one of the few people who hasn’t read the associated novel(s), but for the most part I think the story can be followed by readers unfamiliar with the work. Not seamlessly, unfortunately, as I feel there’s plenty of context and a few things that I was just flat out missing that I would have liked to know more, but I guess, given the story is fun and has a nice mystery/puzzle element to it, just makes for added incentive to try out out the larger works. For what it is, I like the relationship between Cam and the Warden (Palamedes), and between them and their superior, the Archivist in charge of the operation. They make for a strong detective and sidekick team, the Warden playing Holmes to Cam’s Watson. The mystery is interesting, a locked room...well, no one is quite sure at the start. A murder? A heist? Something else? The truth falls squarely in that “something else” avenue and it’s interesting to watch the pair put the pieces together, especially when it’s layered further with a literal puzzle that must be solved. I like the way it deepens the mystery and the while I feel I’m missing something about the importance of the content of the puzzle, it’s a neat way of closing out the story and I like the feel of it, the way that it closes out, the way that it seems to imply so much more about the characters and the complicated places they’ll be in when they’re older. But here, simpler, too friends solving a bit of a mystery, and getting a good laugh in at the end of the day. The setting is certainly striking, too, this strange world of necromancers and what seems like an academic bureaucracy. People navigating forms and permissions while it feels like this is happening on a space station? Something like that? It’s a neat mishmash of genres and elements and the result is fun and fresh. A delightful read!