September brings a certain return to form for my enjoyment of the stories from Tor dot com. Meaning, I like them. Quite a bit. The four stories provide a moving and often dark picture of the world. Of cities and the dangers lurking in and around them. Of songs and their power and their transformative essence. Of resistance and the call of standing up to the overwhelming press of danger and corruption. Of finding oneself suddenly in a very precarious situation and having to fight out of it, though not always alone. These are great pieces that explore humanity brushing against something…different. The great unknown. A monster from the night. Living cities. They are fascinating and powerful and it's time to review them!
|Art by Linda Yan
"The High Lonesome Frontier" by Rebecca Campbell (3931 words)
This story speaks to me of distance and questions that keep returning in their orbits like moons. Ideas that don’t leave us, or that seem to but then bounce back, remind us of those old songs. It’s a story that revolves around a song, written in one place and then let loose, found again and changed, found again, found again, different for each person but also a sort of universal, a sort of constant. Regardless of the time or the age of the listener or the state of humanity. And I love that idea, love it and the way that the story frames the narrative, jumping forward in time to follow this song and reaching this idea of transmissions and the edge of the black and then bouncing back, fleeing backwards in time to the origin of the piece. And yet the return isn’t quite to the original. It’s not a perfect reproduction. In its travels through space it has picked up something of the luminous, of the aether, of the black. It has been changed by its travels and returns altered but more alive, more vibrant for that change. And it’s a lovely story, following the character of a song as well as a small cast of characters as they revolve around it. The use of music is also powerfully accomplished and I love the central image and idea, the question of where the water runs. There’s a cyclic element to it, evoking water and the flow not just forward but up and back as well and I really like the line towards the end where [SPOILERS] the songwriter is confronted with the idea that the song he helped to create has in some ways always been there, that he tapped into it but that really he just caught it at one moment and that it keeps on going, keeps on flowing, and where it’s going will always be a mystery even as it always returns. An amazing read!
"Burned Away" by Kristen Simmons (4916 words)
This story does a nice job of setting up the world it takes place in, full of the early days of unions, rampant corruption, and a fledgling journalist wanting to work her way right into harms way. It's a compelling plot from the start, with this young woman trying to cover a worker strike that doesn't seem to be going well amid complex worker and gang politics and crooked corporations and a young man with a cockeyed smile making things extra interesting. Caris is an interesting character, bold and yet mostly isolated from the circumstances of the metal-workers, but wanting to learn more to hopefully break into journalism. She's certainly tenacious, but when she bites off a bit more than she can chew she has to rely on a new friend to help get her out of trouble. The action is gripping and the story moves well, and to me this seems a bit like a taste of the main course, a sample for those curious about whether they want to check out the main novel. It stands on its own, yes, but really it doesn't offer much in the way of conclusions, more counts on the questions it asks to make readers curious enough to want to return to the world. And for that I think it does a fine job. For those looking for this kind of story, with its many factions and indomitable young characters, I'm sure checking out the novel will be well worth it. As a piece of short fiction, it's fun but feels just a bit incomplete. Still, it's an interesting read and worth checking out.
"The Night Cyclist" by Stephen Graham Jones (8453 words)
This is an interesting kind of monster story, One that involves a man, a chef, who is drawn to riding his bike at night. Chasing perhaps some shadow from his youth, some idea of speed and freedom that he feels when the wind is ripping around him. And in that the story is in some ways about getting older. Not old especially but older. Middle aged. About your body not quite working like it did, about not being able to push too hard. And about reacting to that, rejecting that, living in denial of that. The story looks at the main character as he stands at a sort of crisis, his life behind him a string of failures and him still reaching back to it like it's hiding something secret and good. And then the night cyclist appears and reminds him of a lot of things. His age and his limitations, for one, that he isn't that fast or that good, that he never really was and never will be able to be that way, not really. Not without giving away some piece of himself. And it's a story about this man seeing in the night cyclist some aspect of himself, as if all the desires to just ride away into the night solidified into this darkness of the cyclist. In that in has a nearly Millennial vibe to it, for me, because it's about the allure of opting out, of following this fantasy. [SPOILERS] It's also an interesting take on the vampire, the cyclist able to give the main character this life but only at the cost of becoming dead. And the main character refuses, refuses in favor of returning to his life and trying to move forward, letting certain parts of his past fall away. He gives away his bike and keeps his knives. It's an interesting and chilling piece, and with a number of good moments. I'm not sure I really think he deserves an ending as positive as this one implies, but it's still a fascinating exploration of aging and in some ways of masculinity and it's certainly worth checking out.
"The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin (6286 words)
This is a story of place and power, of hurt and fierceness and the stubborn resolve to love, which is much different than not dying. And I love how the story sets itself up, reveals a world of living cities, where once a city grows to a certain point, matures to a certain point, it must be born. And in that birthing it is vulnerable, and that there are things ancient and hungry gunning for it. And I feel the story does a nice job of selling the idea of why New York. Why now, instead of any other time. And why this character got chosen to be the city's avatar and midwife. The main character is black and queer and homeless, all of those things linked here, inseparable. The main character is helped some, guided by a man who is more than he seems, who introduces the main character to the idea of what is happening. To the mythology of it. The world building is sharp and vague while still, to me, retaining its scope and immediacy. The main character isn't too interested what with having to worry about finding a place to stay and avoiding being killed by the cops. So that the details are a little hazy is delivered with a reason. What's most important is that something big is happening. The city is coming to life, something that I thought was great, the entirety of it starting to breathe, to rouse itself. And something wants the birth to fail. Something dangerous and something that's hunting for the main character, a twisted horror of arms and mouths that wants to feed on the devastation that might happen should New York fail. And once that gets rolling the action doesn't stop, rendered in vivid prose and bruising magic. I love the way that the main character fights, using the strengths of the city, the different edges of it, the different weapons. It's compelling and fast and fun, and provides a great vision of this world of sentient cities and the darkness lurking beneath them. An excellent read!