|Art by Chris Buzelli
"The Night of the Salamander" by Michael Swanwick (5384 words)
This is a neat story that reads much faster than I was expecting, but does manage to pull off a mystery in fairly good order. The story features Ritter, a German investigator who is bonded with a wolf, while he investigates the murder of a marshal with a surgeon named Lady Angélique. The character work is solid and the world-building is quite well pulled off, setting up a Europe at war with a Mongolian Wizard, though that point really isn't stressed in this story. It's present, though, and informs upon many of the characters, including Ritter, who has lost his homeland to invasion. The mystery itself is a bit more straightforward, though the story does offer a few twists along the way. There is a nice humor to the work, something delightfully of the times but with some sensibilities updated. Some of the lines did make me laugh out loud. And I liked the working relationship between Ritter and Lady Angélique, and the extended cast had some strong personalities. [OKAY SPOILER TIME] I was a bit less impressed that the only gay character happened to be the villain, and I understand it's an artifact of the times but there was also a lot of emphasis put around butt sex in this story and how detestable it is and while, again, likely quite how vocal opinions at the time were, just a little distracting for me. Still, the story does show a nice little mystery, and while the outcome seems a little straightforward, the getting there is still pretty fun and the setting is definitely one I'd be interested in seeing more of. Perhaps worth chasing down the previous stories featuring Ritter, as this seems to be the fifth such. Indeed.
"Milagroso" by Isabel Yap (4270 words)
This story focuses on a future where food has become...well, not exactly food. Not grown but manufactured, transformed from millet and grains and flavored and nutrified so that it resembles food in its texture and taste but it doesn't quite live up to the real thing. Marty has taken his family back to his ancestral home to witness a festival, but not a normal affair of parades and parties. Instead this festival is about food, where people decorate their houses with artificial food and the one with the best display gets blessed by a saint and all the food becomes real. For Marty, who works for a food manufacturer, it's a strange idea, because he feels like he's betraying himself to be so interesting, to be so excited about the possibility that he might get some real food, which everyone thinks is better. And I love that conflict within him, how he knows that the most he's doing is creating something like food but never quite there. It's supposed to be healthier, cleaner, and it's more ethical because it is cheap and gives even the poorest a chance to eat decently. But there is also no replacing food, no real way to make something built be like what is grown. And it's the conflict that Marty runs up against, this miracle of food challenging his religion, basically, which has more to do with food than with god. It's a fun story, filled with the feeling of festival, but it's also a rather solemn story, with Marty stuck, not sure what to think, just knowing that what he feels is at stark odds with what he's supposed to believe. A delicious story!
"Adult Children of Alien Beings" by Dennis Danvers (9192 words)
Strangeness and ambiguity rule in this story about Stan, an older man who delves into his parents' past only to find out that they don't have one. That they seem to have been aliens, aliens either visiting or stranded or something. And to Stan, old and no long able to do much because his body is failing, it's a sort of lifeline. Something to give him meaning. When he meets Katyana, a member of the alien children support group he joins, he finds himself waking up to life again, and to a rather crazy idea that she espouses, that there's a place where aliens can be given new bodies, that that is what happened to Stan's parents when they fell into an abyss on vacation when Stan was in college. So on the road they go. This is a strange story, part man's quest for his past and meaning later in life and part road trip story and part about loneliness and love and part about learning to find happiness where you find it. It's also about family and about roles and I quite liked the way that these alien families seemed to have an explanation for everything, for the way that Stan and his brother didn't get along, the way that they were so spread o ut but obvious cared for each other. There's a lot going on with this story, and always with the edge of not quite knowing what is real and what isn't. It's a level of ambiguity that doesn't exactly exist for Stan, who knows what he is, but for me as a reader I did keep questioning, only to sort of come to the conclusion that, for me, it's more interesting if it is all true. I know, this is something that readers of SFF gripe about all the time, but I think it does a great job in this story of revealing Stan as a character, as someone both human and not, bound perhaps to his alien traits but also bound to people, bound by caring. It's a longer story (the longest this month from Tor) and a slower one, but it does a fine job of taking Stan on a journey, physically and metaphorically, and bringing him back to where he started a changed person. Quite good.
"That Seriously Obnoxious Time I Was Stuck at Witch Rimelda’s One Hundredth Birthday Party" by Tina Connolly (4927 words)
And now for something that's just a lot of fun. I'm not familiar with the Seriously Wicked series, but if this story is anything to go by it must be a lot of fun. Here we see the main character, Camellia, at a birthday party of a seriously old witch. Aging in the setting work that witches look how they feel, and Rimelda, who is one hundred, looks a hundred and fifty. Rimelda's daughter, though, a shallow and rather cruel woman, looks but twenty five and wants to keep it that way. The story is charming, fun and funny with a great voice and a nice flow, with the added wrinkle of Camellia herself being non-magical grounding it in a sense of, well, not reality, but at least giving the reader a person to hold onto who's a bit more "normal" and acts as guide to the world of witches. [BEGIN THE SPOILERS] I quite liked the way that the story played out, that it was basically about Rimelda's daughter, Esmerelda, and granddaughter Pink. Because of Esmerelda's drive to feel young, she purposefully puts down her daughter, sets her up for failure, so that she will feel four despite being ten, because having a ten-year-old would make her feel older than she wants. It's a surprisingly layered story in that regard, about fleeing age by abusing a child. And the story shows Pink finding a way to succeed, finding a way to grow up some in spite of her mother, and in some ways to spite her mother. It's a fun story and a good message and a lot of great characters and makes me want to go and check out the series. So yes, good times!