Monday, August 3, 2015

Quick Sips - July 2015 this month certain tends toward the dark, with pretty much all but of its five stories inky and disturbing. Of course, there's really nothing wrong with that, and the stories do provide a wide range of approaches to darkness, to suffering. And there is a much lighter superhero story thrown in to bring a bit of lightness and fun into the mix. Really these stories seem to be about dealing with the past, with past trauma in most of the stories but the past more generally. A dance unfinished, the looming ghosts of past experiments, the forgotten nightmares of a time before humans, the origin of a superhero steeped in loss, and the tragic childhood of a woman from a very messed up family, the past refuses to stay buried in these stories. So let's get to the reviews!
Art by Jeffrey Alan Love


"At the End of Babel" by Michael Livingston (7705 words)

Tabitha Hoarse Raven is the last of her language, the last to be able to speak Keresan. And she's on a pilgrimage back to Sky City, the last ruined city of her people, in this story. Along with her is a guide, Red Rabbit, another Native American, who knows the way. It's a place Tabitha hasn't been to since she was a child, since she watched her father and almost everyone else gunned down by a government that upholds that speaking any language other than English is a crime. That is breaks unity. The story is moving, slow, building the tragedy of what has happened, the weight of it until it seems like very step that Tabitha takes might break through the earth and pull her down into the darkness. But she pulls on a strength and faith that is grounded more in loss and sorrow than in rising hope. Still, she goes to complete the dance her father started the night he died, to recapture the power of it or perhaps simply to make an end of it. What could have been the end, though, turns into something else entirely. She finishes her dance and signs her prayers into the air and is answered. The story does a great job of setting up the place, of contextualizing the significance of Sky City, its astronomy and bloody history, and the story shows a new page of that, the start of a new chapter, one that will hopefully end much different than the others. Because Tabitha does manage to be heard, and what answers is old, and powerful, and angry. The ending is a little vague, where things might go from there, because it doesn't really seem like things are solved by this one action, but perhaps it's showing that there is still hope, that there is still power in language, in diversity. That we should not be trying to create one people, especially not where there are people who've an older claim to the place. That if anyone should be changing, it is the dominant group, that there should be a burden of memory, a responsibility to do better than those who committed genocide. It's a pretty low bar, and yet it seems like, time and again, when the red paint fades some, there need to be reminders. A very good story.

"Islands of the Coast of Capitola, 1978" by David Herter (13617 words)

Okay, not going to lie, this one is a rather disturbing story about a boy, Ballou, who lives with his mother in a place that might have once housed gruesome laboratories. Ballou is full of imagination, and as a lonely boy all alone in a strange house, it's difficult to know what is real and what is fantasy. Whatever the case, it is obvious that he is a bit messed up, has had to grow up with hallucinations and nosebleeds and a mother who seems trapped in a cycle of substance abuse and regular abuse and it's not a good situation at all, especially when "Uncle" Wilson shows up and brings everything to a head. And wow, yeah, the story does a great job bringing the creepy, bringing a gothic feel of isolation and foreboding dread with Wilson and his violence, his threat. He is a bully, a giant to the ten-year-old boy, and he arrives not benignly but quite malignantly dismantling Ballou's life via his mother. There are some very strange flourishes to the story, bits that could be real or not, and I wasn't entirely sure what was really going on with the house. It seemed to be a place where experiments were done, on birds and humans, and perhaps a place where drugs were made, but it's difficult to say because the story does do a good job of filtering everything through Ballou's perspective. It's a creepy story, disturbing and surreal and the ending is tragic and trippy and has left me a bit numb. It's a long story, but one to check out and wrestle with. Probably this deserves more than one reading, but even with one reading I can safely recommend it. Indeed.

"In the Cave of the Delicate Singers" by Lucy Taylor (5736 words)

Here is a truly claustrophobia-inducing story about a woman, Karyn, with the ability to feel sounds, and also draw images and feelings from them, searching a cursed cave system for some lost people. The setup is pretty standard horror fare, entering into a cave system thought haunted or cursed, that turns people mad and homicidal. Well, maybe not so standard after all... but it also does a nice job of grounding the main character, of making her the one who wants to help, of giving her an ability that no one else has and in making the other, lost (doomed) characters ignore her warnings. That at least, was fairly stock but definitely not poorly done or boring. Instead, the tension comes from finding out what exactly did happen to them, having Karyn discover that in time, one person at a time, and the growing horror of what happens. Her time in the cave is tense and there is nothing hidden. The only thing obscured is the actual noise, because she's using her ability and not her ears to hear down there to avoid the siren call of it. But the sights are all given without censor, the terrible fates of the missing people, and the story does a great job of selling the idea of something dark and wholly inhuman down there, an alien presence that might not be extraterrestrial but differentAnd the ending, the twist, is well done and rather striking, giving that last turn of the knife, making the victory of Karyn's journey into something else, something that did make me rather creeped out. It uses the confines of the cave well, the portal to another place where things are possible that just aren't on the surface, where somehow the threat seems more real, more realistic. A very good scary story.

"The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman: Excerpts from an EPIC Autobiography" by Kelly McCullough (7829 words)

In this, a sort of run-up to a novel coming out in a few days, Foxman, an Iron Man-esque superhero who can hear machines, goes through a bit of self-therapy by relating his origin story. It's an interesting mix of exorcising demons and world building, creating this world where a Hero Bomb has given a number of people powers that push them toward heroism or villainy. The story sets up the sides with superhero logic, masks vs hoods, lines pretty clearly marked. Foxman obviously has had some issues, but thanks to the intervention of a new sidekick seems to be trying to come to grips with himself, with his problems. Part of that seems to be dealing with his origins, with falling out with his best friend, with the death of his father and all the feelings of guilt and conflict that came out of that. The world created is fun and fast and filled with over-the-top superhero antics, from rocket skateboards to sentient outfits. It's fun, undercut a little by the seriousness with which it has messed Foxman up. It's not the first story to look at the psychological effects being a superhero has on people, but it does a nice job of making the experience more fun than melancholy, more exciting than ponderous. Foxman's voice is biting but also repentant. It's obvious that he is dealing with a lot even as he wants to be a better person. The story does a nice job of whetting the appetite for more of these stories, though, and readers don't have to wait long, as a novel set in the same world is out soon. As a self-contained story, it manages to spin a nice yarn and pay homage to a superhero genre while maturing some of the themes and providing an interesting experiences. Another good one!

"Fabulous Beasts" by Priya Sharma (9720 words)

Well...this is a story that is, at times, rather difficult to read. And I realize that I've been saying that a bit for this issue but apparently Tor has been interested in rather disturbing stories (most involving children). The story is gripping and traumatic and touching and triumphant and dark, so very dark. It follows Lola, the daughter of a very messed up situation, and her cousin Tallulah, who live with secrets that no one really knows. The home life they have is...well just not all that healthy. Tallulah's mother is aloof, selfish and irresponsible, while Lola's mother is...damaged. Coupled with this is that Lola has an affinity for snakes and, more than that, an ability to transform into one. It's a rather terrifying prospect (especially as I am rather easily frightened by snakes), and one captured quite well, the sense that Lola doesn't feel comfortable in her own skin, that she escapes the strangeness of her body into a form that suits her. It's beautiful and visceral and it gives Lola her only real power as a young woman dominated by others, by her hurting mother and by her uncle who comes back into the picture to make the story even darker than it was. (SPOILERS YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!!!!) Okay I think I would also like to talk about the most triggerful part of the story, namely the rape and incest. Because, warning, those are in this story. I liked the way that it shaped the tragedy of the narrative, how it made that strain between Lola and her mother, how it made something of a monster of Lola even before the snake thing. Of course, the beauty of the story is that it takes that idea of monstrocity and twists it. That Lola is a monster is actually something that gets played with a lot, because she feels like a monster and is seen as a monster and yet she really isn't a monster. It's the shared trauma that bring her and Tallulah together, that ultimately allow them to escape from their shitty situation and make a place for themselves. I am super, super glad that there is something of a happy ending in all this, because otherwise I probably would never have stopped crying, but as it is I think it manages to pull of a very difficult and challenging story that works, that hits and doesn't really stop hitting, that challenging what it means to be a victim and what people would call a monster. A very good story.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Charles, I just wanted to say thank you for your comments on "Fabulous Beasts". If it helps any, it was pretty difficult to write! Thank you for totally getting what it was I was trying to say.
    All the best,