|Art by Bridget Wilde|
"The Salt Wedding" by Gemma Files (15696 words)
I wasn't expecting to find so long a story here, and yet this one has some legs, giving a moving account of some very strange happenings at sea. Told part in dialect, the story centers around Tante Ankolee as she is tasked by the King of England to investigate a report of ghost ships. More at the center, though, are Ankolee's cousin Solomon Rusk and Jerusalem Parry, two men who share a very sordid history and a very complicated relationship. It's really interesting to see that relationship, where Solomon is obviously infatuated with Parry, and as flawed as Solomon is he thinks that's enough, despite the fact that Parry is not comfortable with the part of himself that does want to be with Solomon. And Solomon doesn't wait, and that's no good, and I'm a little uncomfortable with that because it's sort of a trope that the forced party "learns to like it" but I think the story does a good enough job complicating things that I'm comfortable enjoying the plot and the characters and the voice. Because the voice is great, capturing the story being told and the spirits of the characters involved. I could feel that Solomon seemed to regret what he did and that he was tired of the long arguments, and that Parry didn't know how to feel, but needed space and release from being linked to Solomon. Perhaps smoothing things out is that they never get a happily-ever-after ending, as they are both dead, and that death can be seen as a way of clearing away some of the badness between them while not leaving real room for them to be together. It cancels their debts instead so that they can part. They enter into a new relationship where they cling a bit to their old excuses but can be more open about their feelings, but even that doesn't really last, and in the end they are able to let go and move on, and find their own ways. So in the end I liked the story, liked how it let everyone go and how it resolved the issues. A very nice, if very long, read, this story is well worth checking out.
"Bread of Life" by Cynthia McGean (2379 words)
A story within a story, this layered piece takes the side of the outsider, the abused and oppressed. The story is of a woman telling a story to a group of villagers. The story is picked out for one in particular, a girl who lives under the violent thumb of her father, a girl who is mocked by the rest of the village. So the story that is told is about a woman who is similarly looked down on, and who makes herself a child out of bread only to have her village turn their dislike into enough hatred to kill the child. It's a stark tale, shifting between the way the storyteller weaves her tale and the drama of the woman and her magic bread. There's certainly a sense of magic to it all, especially when the story seems to have some real-world consequences. And then the two stories are linked in the end, though one can only hope it's implied that things will go better than everyone dying. Artfully told, this story was a fun read, sad but with an uplifting spirit that is captured powerfully and emotionally.
"Atomic Missions" by Michael Andre-Driussi (4593 words)
A surreal alt-history where nuclear warfare became much more widespread but didn't outright target civilian centers, this story is something of a strange one. I'm pretty sure it's looking at what might have been, as in the alternate history nukes are used in Korea, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Vietnam. There's the feel from the bomber, who acts as the main character, that this is somehow cleaner, and yet it results in so much more death, in so much more damage to the globe. But I'm not sure that what's saying is that it's better the way we did it. I'm don't think, I guess, that the story really wants to make the point that things are better this way. I think instead that it wants to show that things might have been much worse, or different, or that without dropping the nukes as we did on civilians that the US might not have had the guilt to restrain itself from using them again. It's an interesting story, reminding me of the alt-history a-bomb stories of Kim Stanley Robinson, though perhaps a bit weirder. Worth checking out at least.
"Necessary Evil" by Stephen J. Barringer (9456 words)
In this long novelette, a wizard's apprentice seeks to cure a mysterious ailment suffered by his brother's beloved. Setting up a second world fantasy that seems to have a lot of similarities with our own world (the main character being from the Scotland-analogy and there at least being a German-analogy out there as well) but where magic is real and rather complicated. It's an interesting enough story, hitting all the plot points and bringing the main character to the conclusion that sometimes one must be manipulative to do right. Only I don't really like that as a message, because the idea of "necessary evil" is one where...well, even in the "Atomic Missions" story that idea is challenged. There's even a bomber plane in "Atomic Missions" named Necessary Evil. So having these two stories side by side is rather interesting, because I feel I come more on the "Atomic Missions" side where the right and wrong are rather muddied and cannot be judged based on the outcome. In this story, I find Mycroft's manipulating of Caitryn to be...well, it didn't feel wholly necessary nor...good. She should have had the right to make her own decision free of anyone trying to guilt or bully here. There are some pretty unpleasant analogies to real-world situations where people (especially men) think they know better than the woman about what to do with the woman's body (especially, like here, when it regards pregnancy). And while it doesn't seem the intent of the story at all, it gave me a bad feeling all the same. I just don't particularly like the idea that some people manipulating other people is "for their own good" and in this story it's somehow right, somehow moral for the manipulator. The greater good argument is not one that can be used with any certainty. It's...well, I was left feeling a bit conflicted about this story. The writing is well done and Mycroft seems an interesting enough character, capable of growth and introspection. For me, though, he falls into some traps that made me like him a lot less than I could have.