Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Quick Sips - The Sockdolager #7

You know, it probably shouldn't surprise me that the latest issue of The Sockdolager, coming as it does so close to Halloween, is incredibly dark. But I will admit that I was expecting something a bit more lighthearted. What I got was an incredible issue filled with stories told with clever flourishes and an occasional sense of fun, yes…but stories that nonetheless are dark and darker and oh my glob I think I need to spend some time staring at funny cat videos now. Shock aside, though, these are some amazing tales, that lift and sink and inspire and depress. These are stories that fit in with the season, with dying of summer and the creeping nearness of winter. These are stories that I wholeheartedly recommend, though perhaps aren't for the faint of heart. To the reviews! 


"Two Queens of the River" by Aimee Ogden (2063 words)

This is a fun story of a contest between a woman and a goddess, between two who would put themselves forward as queen of the river. The world building of the piece is swift and efficient, drawing together a world with a deep history and a fantasy flare, full of divinities that rule over the sky and the forest and the water. And full of people needing to get from one city to another, between which is only a treacherous river that one woman claimed to be master of. Only it turns out the river already has a master, a goddess who rises to challenge the human would-be queen to a contest to prove which of them can be queen. It's a story with a great flash and movement, a nice speed to it, and a mythic quality that is both fun and tense. The story reminds the reader that contests between mortals and gods rarely go well for the mortals involved, and yet when pride rules there's bound to be a confrontation. And this story manages to capture the feel of a myth, a folktale, while avoiding the pitfalls of tragedy that might-have-been. There is a darkness, yes, and I love the small touches in the story, the way that water leeks from the goddess' mouth and the way that there is this underwater palace filled with people perhaps taken against their will. So to me it's a story of humility on all sides, but really about how power ends up deciding how the river runs, and power allows the goddess to bend the rules more than the river queen could, so despite skill and cunning, the lesson of the myth is still to respect the powers of the world when they come to call, though the message of the story feels to me more about resistance and resilience. It's a very fun story, though, and a great way to kick off the issue!

"Butter-Daughters" by Nin Harris (1204 words)

Okay, so this story has a stunning, rising, consuming beauty of food and cooking that shines so bright it casts an extremely dark shadow. I love cooking. I love food. And I love this story, which looks at the joys and dangers of…butter. Not just any butter, but a butter with a certain stipulation. Don't eat it at night. Don't eat it except under the light of sun, or else you'll be consumed from the inside out by a butter-daughter. And fuck, yeah, it makes for this incredible and incredibly visceral image of someone being consumed by their food, by their greed, by their culinary curiosity. Which works so well because the story is narrated by a person, by a chef, who feels the same urge to consume and be consumed so acutely. And the story starts with the glowing joy of the butter in the daytime and then slowly drifts into the dark of night, under the gaze of sentient moons and on a world where there are elaborate rules on what you can eat when. And I love the way the story slowly twists, drawing me further and further into this intense desire to know. It plays with the idea that the forbidden is tempting, that curiosity is both affirming and destructive. That there are rules for a reason but there is also a human need or urge to transgress some things. [SPOILERS] And for the narrator it goes deeper, goes into this plan, this insidious and deadly plan that makes the story closer to a horror story than anything, like if you were watching a cooking show thinking everything was normal and then learned that every dish was being laced with poison and fed to the audience. It is an amazing story that has me captivated and hungry and disturbed at my own hunger and go read this one! Seriously amazing work!

"The Dust Gate" by Marissa Lingen (5264 words)

This is a nice story about resistance and about family, about honoring the fallen and fighting for a better world. The story shines with its character work, focusing on Yumiko, a woman who finds out that her sister is dead when some of her comrades bring her home from war. Of course, the situation is a bit more complex than just that, and I love the story shows Yumiko and her grandmother making tough but prudent decisions in order to save lives. In order to keep things working. In order to preserve what they have as best they can. The story takes a rather balanced look at war and the mentality that it breed, the hatred that it looses upon everyone looking for someone to blame. It also shows, though, that through all that, people remain people. And that the most powerful force is people joining people to protect something they care about and to help each other to live. And I just like the different voices at work, the way that Yumiko interacts with those who brought her sister home and how she has to look forward. The hurt and the feelings that Yumiko has have to be largely restrained, turned to some action, because the situation is dire enough that she can't afford to be decommissioned with grief. The world building is sharp and the cast is fleshed out enough that I was both satisfied and left wanting more from the setting. It's a fun story even as it deals with some heavy issues, and manages to bring a whole lot of hope and human compassion to a rather dark and depressing situation. A great read!

"Wolfswood" by Becky Allyn Johnson (4196 words)

Well then. The issue is sort of going back and forth on lighter and darker stories, because while this story has a nice feel of adventure to it, it's laced with a slowly grasping tragedy. A sadness. A recognition that magic isn't always what a person thinks it is, especially in a land saturated by it. The story focuses on Maura, a young woman on the edge of leaving home. Leaving home and with it the hope of the sort of magical life her father promised, a man who came from the mundane world to the Summerlands and its magic only to find it much as everywhere else. A crush of poverty and opportunities only for those who can afford them. He's raised Maura and her sisters mostly by himself, and his hope in magic, in discovering something new and wonderful in the Wolfswood, has been passed down to Maura, but with years of disappointment…well, hope is fading. And I love the set up to the story and the expectation that the worse thing that could happen is nothing. And I love that because this is fae magic and despite it being more commonplace, more "safe" because of its proliferation, it's never really safe. The story is one of awe but in the older sense, of being in the presence of something huge and dangerous. Of finding yourself come face to face with magic that is not tamed and that is dangerous. That's not like a storybook at all, or at least not like the sanitized versions, where people always win. It's like the versions that end inside a wolf. And it's dark and it's gripping and it's another great story!

"Tongueless" by Julia August (3209 words)

This is a rather dark and rather visceral story about betrayal and about what comes from treating beings like lab specimens. It features Jess, a woman who is kidnapped from her home and set up in an experiment. An experiment much like those that she helped carry out. Only now she's being sacrificed, sacrificed either because of a mistake she made in targeting someone she knew her boss would care about or because someone else set her up. The story is rather uncomfortable to say the least, loaded withi imagery and language of a woman being abducted against her will and losing her ability to say no, having things done to her that she doesn't want. She is violated in any way that matters and it is a difficult story because she immediately is forced to question if it's her fault because it happened to others and because he helped it happen to others. And the story is further complicated by the fact that while she is victimized by something…new and different she is called hormonal and [SPOILERS] pumped full of rage drugs and made into a sort of weapon. The story leans heavily on a narrative that is familiar in lit, and in SFF. Revenge. Jess has been wronged and the story cries out for blood. For violence. And yet I feel more that the story is making a statement on that thirst for revenge, that here Jess' tongue has been replaced by one that sounds more masculine. That here this narrative has been taken and simplified. Jess is supposed to be satisfied that she can hurt those that hurt her. See, justice seen. But the idea of being tongueless, the idea that Jess no longer gets to control her own narrative, her own body, is something that makes it impossible for me to feel like the ending is a triumph. It is only a second violation, one where Jess is still and always a victim, still and always trapped. And that point is very well done, to cringingly brilliant effect. It's a disturbing piece but a tightly crafted and razor sharp one that's definitely worth checking out!

"The Three Lives of Truck the Red" by Naru Dames Sundar (2164 words)

Wow. This story mixes robotics with a changing world as Truck, an automated transport, begins a journey that will take it very far from its origins indeed. I love the way the story captures the drive of Truck, the computational desperation to avoid failure. Everything becomes about the math, about the time, about the destination. It's…not really something that works out for Truck, who is slave to constantly judging itself against an end, its worth and its existence tied up with whether or not it can deliver its cargo to the right place on time. And the situation the world is in…a situation that Truck cares nothing about. And I like that, that the human elements of the story have been stripped away but are still present. The slow but impressive way that the story establishes what is happening, the decline of human civilization and the way that Truck still tries to succeed in a world where it's no longer possible. Which I think is a brilliant point, to see this world where disaster is the norm and that it does make success impossible. That, in the end, the only option that results from thinking only about the destination is failure. We cannot get there because we are blind to the course, to the realities of the world around us. And we need to be aware, as Truck becomes aware, of the constant struggle. Of being able to fail again and again and again but keep going, keep searching for a win, for a success that isn't the end but that does represent incremental change and progress. And for me this story works in showing how mechanized thinking, logical thinking, can fail us if we don't expand the parameters enough, if we look only at our closed system. It's a delightfully complex story with a fascinating voice and an effortless world building. Another story to definitely check out!

"The Beachings" by JY Yang (2206 words)

This is another story that brings with it a deep darkness, this of the sea and of human exploitation. Of the loss of happier days and the stark reality of having to live. The story centers on Ada, a woman who lives with her father and brother near the shore and who witnesses whales beaching themselves, who feels in their plight a bit of her own helplessness and need. And I love how the story frames that struggle, how the story becomes about how people could help the whales, could push them back into the sea, could give them that relief and a second chance. And instead…don't. And instead exploit. Which only creates this closed circle of misery and decline, the people able to exploit the whales only so long as they survive, never seeing that there might be a better way until the whales are gone and then they would have to fall victim to their system, the stronger exploiting the weaker on and on until everyone is dead and ground to dust. And it's a rather bleak story in that, choked by sand and night and underscored by the beating song of the machetes on whale flesh. Ada is a character I want to see win, I want to see find a way to something better, but the story does an excellent job of showing that Ada has no real power here, that she is a victim for want of other people willing to fight for a better way, to live a better way. That she believes and she tries but is only able to do so much by herself and that there is an easier way. A bloodier way. And that too many choose it. It's a difficult story and a dark one but also a beautifully moving one. Indeed!

"We're All Friends Here" by Michelle Ann King (4362 words)

This story keeps with the heavy feel of the issue and the creeping darkness. The loss. The omnipresent oppression. And yet this story also features a world where most people do not want for their material needs. Where death can be mediated so some degree with rejuvenation. And Devon is an actor on a movie that's about giving up resistance. Giving up conflict. Dying with dignity. Believing in the system because the system works and because the system wins. Only it doesn't work at no cost, and there are things that people aren't supposed to talk about, this great shadow over everything that involves some mysterious force that takes people and…well, people aren't supposed to talk about it. And I love how the story deals with that silence, with that absence, how it takes a stand not in the form of a revolution or a movement but as a resistance with a little r. The resistance of erasing people. Of erasing the pain caused by death. Of not speaking about the ways that the system doesn't work. And I like that because there is this intense pressure to not question systems that help people. Don't question or it might be taken away, or worse might happen, or there might be war. But the truth is there is better out there and better might be necessary, because harm is being done and the system doesn't prevent that, just tries not to look at it. And I love the strange mystery of the piece that is never really revealed, the shadow that is never fully illuminated, because even resisting there are things people wish to protect themselves from acknowledging. It's a great story with a hard hitting last line and a linger feel of smoke and decay. An incredible way to close out a rather dark issue!

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