It's the first two issues of the new year and Strange Horizons has certainly kicked things off with a bang, providing two stories and two poems that capture the strange, the nebulous, and the mythic. The stories especially are told with a scarcity of dialogue and more the feel of fairy tales, dark and twisting reflections of our world. And all of the pieces take an interesting look at form and style, pushing the boundaries in their scope and their execution. These are stories that certainly live up to the Strange in Strange Horizons and challenge even as they subvert. And over and on top of all of that, they are also beautiful, lyrical SFF visions that I'm just going to review already!
"The Monkey King Sleeps" by Su-Yee Lin (2471 words)
This is a slightly strange story about climbing and about myth and about place. The story unfolds around Kai, a young man born to climb, as he goes about his business among the climbing guides of his area. The story moves fairly slowly, and is in some ways pastoral, about the place the and the feel of the place. The shadow of the mountains and the being imprisoned beneath. For Kai life is mostly about climbing, moving through without a lot of ambition except to be. And in that he becomes a softly compelling figure, not one defined by action or by conflict but by the quiet way that he moves through life, caring about his family and caring about climbing and otherwise just sort of being. It's a very different kind of life than those led by the people he guides around the mountain, tourists who are out for adventure, who are out to see something new and different. Kai's…contentment is something that many of them would probably look down on. That he doesn't seem to care too much about making money. That his joys come from climbing and from drifting down a river to escape the heat. And yet these action capture a sort of power that the story explores. A patient power. And Kai is linked to something deeper than the mountains. The ending in many ways could be read as tragedy, and yet throughout I never got the feeling that was the case. More that something is going on that people don't quite understand, that is of a different scope than people are used to seeing. And that Kai was somehow tapping into that, living his life so that it had meaning to him and not judging himself by the standards of others. This story makes me think of a Bob Ross painting, and the ending comes as a calming sigh, a promise that things aren't really over. It's a fascinating story and a great read!
"Bombyx mori" by Kerstin Hall (5969 words)
Well this is a rather unsettling story about uncertainty and about stories. About the value of them and the power of them. About control. The story unfolds as a sort of fairy tale, in a house in the woods. And the story leans on this more classic element to really fuck with the reader. It's a story with a narrator that will at times speak directly to the audience, to the reader or the voyeur or…someone. To you. It plays with pronouns quite well so that there's always some doubt of who is being discussed. Who the person is in the woods. In the house. It's possible, after all, that it's the reader there. That you are there, gendered or misgendered, and that some tragic backstory has led you to pick up this story and become a sort of prisoner of it. With the power always to walk away but also defiant of that, wanting to stay and read and experience. Or perhaps it's just that there's a character in the woods. A victim or a predator or something of both. And the story is filled with these ambiguities, these questions and these answers, and all the questions might be riddles, and all the answers might be lies. But what remains is a fascinating experience, not exactly one that is always the most satisfying in a narrative sense, but one that relies very heavily on the reader to come up with their, with your, interpretation. And it's a story that seems to me to revel in that sort of power, the power that the author holds over the reader but also the power the reader holds over the author and the text, each of them a sort of predator, everyone taking control and giving it up and the story building around this. What happens in terms of plot is rather difficult to map (for me, at least), but what happens in terms of effect is much more easy to see, as the story is part horror and part fantasy, unnerving and raw and mysterious. It's a compelling read and a strange experience, so definitely check it out!
"Inhalations" by S. Qiouyi Lu
This is a wonderfully sensual poem about a person trying to capture the essence of another person. I love the way that scent is used here, built in layers to create a language, and how the narrator of the poem tries to use that language to translate a person. The result is evocative and moving, showing the ways that scent can be poetry, that poetry can be scent, these free exchanges of ideas through the senses. Each line adds layers to the piece and I like how the poem is structured to highlight that, not a block of text but a moving vapor, a cloud of scent and smell and flavor. The poem winds like something caught on a breeze, like the aroma of incense rising from a frame. It captures so much of the desire to fully describe a person and a feeling. Which is what poetry can be, the drive to capture something in words that really can't be put into words. And it's to that same conclusion that the poem seems to draw, that the narrator eventually comes to. That for any language there is a barrier, and that scent, while moving and effective in many ways, fails like any other language to fully capture a person, a feeling, a desire. And in that I feel like the poem becomes about art in general, drawing the lines to include other senses but always back to the lack at the heart of many artistic pursuits, the drive to describe what is by its nature indescribable, felt but in a way that defies definition. It's a brilliant poem and an amazing read!
"Field Notes" by Salik Shah
I'm sure there's quite a bit of context that I'm missing from this poem, but as that hasn't stopped me yet, I will say that to me it feels like a person standing witness. First and most grounded in the poem, standing witness to a street that bustles with activity. That seems almost peaceful. A vender sells vegetables and a child plays at pretend fantasies. Meanwhile there are photos being taken, and this feeds into the idea that the narrator is witnessing more than just a regular day. It seems like they are part of some group doing research or taking notes on how this city, how this nation perhaps, is going to be divided. How it will be separated and a place that seems united by its past and by its architecture and by memories, is going to be kept apart. And this seems to be a turning point for the narrator. Perhaps in the aftermath of whatever struggle led to this situation. Perhaps with the crumbling of some faith that they could do something by keeping a record. Maybe because they think that their notes will only be used to further the divide, or else won't be used at all. What remains for me is the feeling of something ending, of something passing. The poem does a lot with just a little space, with short stanzas that are notes of a sort, that chronicle the feeling of this place and time by the sounds and the sights. And in the end I feel it's a melancholy piece, filled with a disquiet and sadness that things didn't work out better. It's a great piece, though, and I'm sure people will find much more to it than me, so go check it out!
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