Monday, February 29, 2016

Quick Sips - February 2016

The stories from this month seem to be all about offering some fresh twists on old classics. From a zombie story that's unlike any I've seen before to a steam-powered take on Sherlock Holmes (though not in the way I expected), the stories take some time-honored tropes and proceed to stuff them in a stack and beat them with sticks. What pours out afterward is a slurry of interesting ideas, complex characterizations, and brilliant world-building. Now, time to review!
Art by Sung Choi


"Breaking Water" by Indrapramit Das (8504 words)

This is a fascinating take on a zombie story, one that takes the idea in a direction that I've never really seen before. There are glimpses of the more traditional tale, the death and the extreme reaction from governments, from religions, but more than that it's about a man seeing the living dead and seeing in them something to protect, something beautify, something fragile. And having to navigate the complex and complicated terrain that having walking dead would entail. I love the way the story is framed, a sort of biopic about a man reacting to the newly risen dead in a way that no one else seems to, by empathizing with them. It's strange and that the story doesn't make the only reaction one of horror and disgust despite the dead being…well, rather horrifying and disgusting, is a great choice. Because it confronts the reader with the preconceptions of what life must look like, complicating the lines between corpse and person. The story does a good job of showing that the dead are not really respected, that they are ignored. That we dress them up to make ourselves comfortable or else push them away, deny them, and yet by refusing to see them, refusing to live with them, we are allowing terrible things to happen. We become complicit in atrocity and crime. It's a subtle point but one that the story really captures in the end, with the ideas of consent and even how we treat the elderly, the dying, how we approach death, and how we should, with eyes open, with a conversation and not a silence. A very nice read!

"Tom, Thom" by K.M. Ferebee (8507 words)

Well, since we’re on the topic of novel interpretations of classic tropes, this story is a changeling tale, but a different sort of changeling tale, one that doesn't really cast the changeling as villain or poison but as victim, as lost and in pain. As family to the people he is supposed to prey upon. It is a rather dark and slow story, unfolding over time, over a few seasons as Thom, the changeling, and Tom, the human boy, act as brothers. Their relationship is great, the way that they don't quite understand each other and at times resent each other and yet need each other. Need the understanding, the presence. The are very different but also similar, brought up with different rules. And Tom is afraid, always afraid. I said it's a slow story and it's also a moody one, that builds with a steady pace, with a growing apprehension of what has to coming, some danger, some threat, that turns out to be not what I expected at all. The story moves and it does so in subtle steps, the march of days getting longer, the shadows reaching farther and farther. The story seems a sort of fairy tale but also a commentary on them, on how they try to explain and warn but what they might do is scare. There is the idea and image of wolves throughout the piece, a presence that lurks just outside the action, just beyond a border that might be crossed. There is danger and there is strangeness but there is something else, as well, that Thom embodies and that Tom finds himself drawn to like that cold iron. A darkly satisfying read!

"The Great Detective" by Delia Sherman (12752 words)

Well this is a rather cute story. Combining Sherlock Holmes and steam might not be new, but this story definitely takes the idea and wrinkles it nicely, taking the focus rather off the expected cast choices and making the titular character of this story an inventor's apprentice named Tacy. The setting is a nice mix of steam and mechanics, with a political edge as mechanical people are not deemed, well, people in the eyes of the law. Neither reasoning machines, as the Sherlock of this story is, nor ghosts possessing mechanical bodies, as is another character. And the story makes good use of a fairly large cast, and excellent use of the central dilemma of the story, that the illogic engine that Tacy helped to invent has been stolen. The Victorian sensibilities are on full display throughout the tale, from the terrible treatment that Tacy receives from the police to the way a fit of the vapors gets her out of a tricky situation. In many ways it's a story about erasure, about the implied meaning of the title. And in some ways [AND SOME SPOILERS HERE] the ending can seem disappointing in that regard, because it wraps things up with a rather neat Victorian bow (with one or two slight alterations). But it's in some ways about the way that women had to operate in the time, not romanticizing it exactly but rather showing the work that has been erased, even at times with the best of reasons, even at times because of love. That there are concessions and there are concessions. Mostly it is a fun mystery, though, with a strong homage and a number of clever twists and a great and almost zany vision of this steam-bent London. Tacy remains the star of the show and fans of Holmes will find plenty to like. Indeed!

"Recalled to Service" by Alter S. Reiss (9246 words)

This is a story that takes a fascinating look at life and death, magic and necromancy, will and revolution. In it, Laiei is a necromancer, someone who can give life to the lifeless. Which can mean bringing people back from the dead or communicating with document cases. It's a life she knows, a life she's spent fighting a revolution that has been one, though that victory is still constantly threatened. She's given up the fight on that scale, though, for a quest to discover what's come of her greatest feat, bringing back a man who helped spur on the revolution, a thinker and organizer who, unfortunately, was never the same after she brought him back. Her quest puts her at the heart of a mystery, one that, when unraveled, reveals depths no one suspected. The story does a nice job of mixing philosophy and magic, complicating the idea of bringing people back to life, questioning everything that Laiei takes for granted, the very heart of her magic gifts. And it does so on a scale that has some serious implications, an urgency that makes the story move organically, quickly. It's fairly long but it doesn't really feel that way, pushes forward and keeps things tense, engaging. The setting is quite well constructed, the post-revolution vibe complex and Laiei's role in that landscape compelling. The ending is also appropriately desperate and grim, but with a certain hope, a closure of one thing and an opening of another, a resolution that the fighting isn't done, that there is still work to do. Another excellent story!

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