|Art by Katy Shuttleworth|
"The Wolf and the Tower Unwoven" by Kelly Sandoval (4459 words)
Whelp, I'll just be this little puddle over here while I recover from this story, which is magical and deep and so very, very tragic. The setup is brilliantly done, an old woman/witch living alone in the forest, taking care of those who have been changed by a mysterious tower. A young wolf transformed into a man happens by and Cresa, the old woman, takes him in, helps him to maybe accept his humanity, all the while falling deeper and deeper into a plot to force her to return to a life she hoped was behind her. The story is powerful, mythic, with a mystery that made me want to keep reading. What is the Tower? And what has Cresa escaped from? There is a loneliness that pervades the story, and tied to that a seeking for belonging. For a place to find true expression. It's what Cresa was running from and what her wolf is running toward, all of them trapped in this cycle of abuse that radiates from the Tower. [SPOILERS] And, ultimately, the story is just incredibly sad, a devastating portrayal of how Cresa is unable to escape. How she is drawn back into the abusive family situation she was trying to tear herself out of. It's an incredibly depressing outcome, a sort of statement that people cannot escape their families, that they'll just keep being drawn back in, which is rather awful as far as messages go but does show the way that being good can't always stand against being twisted. That Cresa, in wanting to do the right thing, had a weakness that her sisters, that the Tower, exploited. That because she cared about others she ended up losing everything. And while there is a glimmer of good that comes out of it, the story ends on such a down note, with Cresa defeated, with hope dead. I would have liked to see perhaps a glimmer of hope, but the story does an amazing job of conveying the sorrow and loss of the ending. It's hitting and it's sinking and I quite like the story even as I hope that it's not really over, that there's some way of sidestepping the implications of the ending. A provocative and incredibly rendered piece, though!
"Big Thrull and the Askin' Man" by Max Gladstone (3794 words)
This story never really says Orc as far as I can tell but it does rather strongly imply Orc with its green-skinned, tusked people living a "simple" existence and having their favorite folk hero, Thrull. When a human arrives, the Askin' Man, it's in an attempt to swindle Thrull and her people of the gold (or other precious metal) buried under their land. The story's got a nice sense of humor to it and it playing with some old tropes, ones that tie back to ideas of hospitality and using cultural differences as a weapon to try and exploit people. And in that the story does a nice job of establishing how Thrull operates and keeping her consistent. She believes in rules and in honoring customs whereas the Askin' Man is interested only in paying lip service to them in order to steal. It's a well constructed situation and story and the character work is solid, archetypal in evoking these fantasy roles. And it's rather satisfying how it all plays out, that these stories exist in the culture of the Thrull's people in order for them to maintain their coherence, to stand against the Askin' Men with their deception without betraying who they are, without having to lose that part of their culture that values guest rights. To turn what the humans in the story would see as a backwards weakness and find strength in it. And it's a fun sort of tall tale with Thrull as the hero, not infallible but emblematic of a people and, ultimately, virtuous and victorious. It's a moral story that I like it for that, for how it builds up Thrull and how it builds up the world and how it brings everything together with a story that is funny serious. A nice read!
"The Artificial Bees" by Simon Guerrier (1357 words)
This is a cute story, one that takes a rather classic premise and presents it in a short and effective way. A robot visits a man in a garden, a man who seems to remain after the destruction of all animal species. All that remains is plants and robots, and the story does a good of selling that, of getting into the robot's head and showing how things might be like. It's a sort of "outsider meeting humanity for the first time" kind of story, the robot unsure of the nuance of human communication, human foibles. And the story could have kept to that and been entertaining and cute, fun and funny and familiar. Luckily for me and my tastes, it doesn't satisfy itself with that, and pushes deeper, offering up a twist that complicates and hits, that makes the entire story that much more interesting and emotional. [AND SPOILERS YOU'VE BEEN WARNED] Because the story pulls back and reveals that the "classic" premise, a robot learning something from humanity, has been an illusion from the beginning. The story does a nice job of it, and it avoids feeling like a cheap trick in how it "fooled" me. The actual setting is vague enough, mysterious enough, that things seem all on the level, as they appear, until everything ties together, the man and the bees and the robots, levels of the same phenomenon that seem to speak to the fact that this robot doesn't need to learn anything from humanity, that she's already learned what she needed. That the spark of what makes people human is still alive in the robots. It's effective and clever and well done. A fun read!
"god-date" by Brandon O'Brien
This is a fascinating poem that to me is about a woman courting and being courted by religion. And in some ways it feels like an agnostic falling in love with religion. Or a person not expecting to fall in love falling in love with religion. Not necessary some universal one, but a personal one, a personal vision of a goddess. But to me it's also about that woman coming to the attention of that goddess and that goddess falling in love with her. Which is strange and interesting and I love the dialogue and the flow of the poem, the way it all works together, the way this could almost be a romantic comedy between a mortal and a deity. I read it as all tongue-in-cheek at the same time that it's a rather genuine poem about someone relating to religion, never being sold on it before it sort of proved itself, before the goddess fell out of the tree. And the love is so interesting because it puts the two on an even field even while it doesn't, even while in the logic of the poem one is a goddess and the other probably not. But the worship obviously goes both ways, the esteem. The woman never expected to fall for a goddess and the goddess never expected to fall for a mortal and yet there they are. It's fun and it's complex and it's got a great voice and rhythm and it's worth spending some time with. Indeed!
"The Book of Forgetting" by Jennifer Crow
There are breakup poems and there are poems of loss and then there are poems like this one, that are wounds that cannot heal, that stand as such a hurt in the universe that the whole of that creation would have to be scrubbed clean to out it, to erase the damage done. It's a poem that sells with a brilliant clarity the feeling of losing someone, of losing that one person that you can't afford to, that makes the world livable. What remains is only tattered strips of flesh and the poem does a beautiful job describing that loss, that quaking want for a release from the pain. There are some things that can't exactly be let go of easily. That remain stubborn, smoke refusing to clear. And it's a powerful poem, about forgetting about the will to forget. To recognize when all the good of a thing has transformed into all the bad and needs to be exorcised. Needs to be lanced and removed for the good of the whole. For the balance of the world to be maintained. When love is lost or when love is abandoned or when love turns into something else. Really, yes, this is a strong poem and you should all read it!
"Closing the Gap: The Blurring of Fan and Professional" by Mark Oshiro
As a fan writer myself this article is just sort of great, all warm and fuzzy and talking about how fan writing and professional writing can merge and grow and feed off and enhance each other. It's such a strange beast, fan writing, not least because of gatekeeping and because of "legitimacy" concerns and a slew of other things. And for me personally it's the weird place of being both fan writer and professional writer and how much those things can even exist separate of each other. Especially existing as a fan of SFF short fiction and a writer of SFF short fiction things can get…a bit messy. Where me the fan writer ends and me the spec writer begins is something I'm not really sure of. It's all writing, yes, and it's all SFF writing, but it's valued differently and viewed differently and this article does a great job examining the, yes, evolving role of fan writing, the idea of the professional fan writer, and the fan professional writer, and everything in between. I love how it speaks to the two-way street of fan writing, how people can be fans of fan writing, how there is then this weird ouroboros of fans and writing and headaches. But it's also amazing. I'm relatively new to actively participating in fandom. I might be participating in my own first convention ever (as both a fan and a pro, of course) rather soon now. So I very much appreciate this piece, the insights and the obvious joy of taking part in something that one's passionate about and being able to participate in an important and increasingly important field. It's strange and wonderful and definitely check this one out!