|Art by Sandro Castelli|
"Red Mask" by Jessica May Lin (7210 words)
This is a neat and rather gritty story about oppression and anger and identity and memory. It swirls around the concepts of justice and corruption, pitting Xiao You, a dancer at an opium den, against a city that seems hungry for people, and especially for women. Against a serial killer mutilating her friends, against triads making her pay incredibly fees for water, against shopkeepers willing to profit off her shame and pain and disfigurement. It’s…not the most cheery of places, and yet it’s a very visually evocative place, filled with ghosts and strange projections and neon signs and strange weapons and apartment pods. There’s a fusion of things going on here, and I doubt it’s by accident that the main character’s name includes the English word You. Here the reader is drawn into that world and finds a setting without answers. Without pathways to power. Filled with anger and rightfully so at all the abuse and oppression and murder and exploitation. And yet an anger that is not enough, that only seems to hinder as much as it’s justified. The story does a very nice job of showing Xiao You’s progress from passive to active, and how that idea of active has to be complicated in systems of corruption. That direct action, angry action, too often reflects back on the person trying to use it to do good, that there are corruptions of tone policing and double standards and ways that Xiao You is unable to change things because the system is so against her. But it does not mean that she’s out of options, and the story does manage to be hopeful in the end. Resolute. It’s a great, lifting piece and a story that is deep and subtle and well worth spending some time with.
"Blackpool" by Sarah Brooks (2474 words)
This is a bit of a surreal story, dark and murky but compelling in its vagueness, about the death of a man and the search of the truth of him, for his name. The action of the story is split between titles, a dead man, a detective, an assassin. Each of them exist as their title, their role rather than the person beneath it all, and it's pulled off well, like a fortune being read, the effect strange and rather magical. At it's heart it's about identity, which pervades everything, the idea that a person can go by many names, that a person lives by their luck and then, well, doesn't. The story takes on the feel of something like a Tarot reading, cards flipped, scenes explained, all of them in some ways symbolic and literal both. The imagery of the story is great, striking and a bit haunting, and there's the feeling of something glimpsed through a fog or smoke or shallow, dark waters. There's just something about the work as a whole that fits together, the pieces clicking into place at the climactic scene and then the end rolling smoothly. [SPOILERS] And I quite enjoyed the role reversals, the shifts, the feeling that each person could be anything. There's a universality to it that works quite well, that kept me hooked and imbued each action with added weight. Perhaps not the most concrete of stories, but I quite enjoy a bit of the ethereal, and this story delivers it. Indeed!