|Art by Geneva Benton|
“The Last Exorcist” by Danny Lore (4679 words)
This story unfolds as a magazine article turned down by a major magazine, a piece of journalism that is part interview but mostly a chronicle of a man named Naheem, who is the last exorcist. The world that the story describes is a twisted reflection of our own, where demon possession has stopped being mostly about people being taken against their will and become much more about white people using demons as a tool to attack people of color, to keep them out of white neighborhoods, which have become known as Helltowns. The idea plays into the theme of the issue and the story explores the crusade the Naheem wages against demons, against possession, and even against the wider base of white supremacy. The story does a great job of looking how white people try to find excuses for their actions, try to find tools that will allow them to attack people of color without repercussion. The way that they try to make Naheem into some leader, into some almost religious figure, in order to dismiss him, when his crusade goes deeper than religion. The story is about exhaustion and about fighting against the institutional barriers that white people use to shore up their power, to maintain their dominance. But the story also shows how that power can be battled, and how that dominance can be subverted and perhaps defeated. The story in that is much like the tutorials that Naheem gives, instructions on how to fight back both by love and community and by taking the fight to the Helltowns, to face the fear and danger directly and tear it all apart. The story calls not just for survival but for active resistance, even in the face of legislated hate and prejudice and injustice. And it manages a brilliant world building and fun and magical tone while doing it. It’s an amazing read and a fantastic way to open up the issue, capturing a chilling and inspiring parallel to the historical theme of sundown towns with an achingly modern and immediate aesthetic.
“Toward the Sun” by Sydnee Thompson (6351 words)
This story speaks to me of the strain of living under constant control, living in a place where you aren’t really valued as a person, just a cog in a great machine meant to grind up most people while elevating a select few. The city of Meteora is one where its citizens can escape the devastation of a world without an ozone layer, where radiation does terrible damage to any living outside the dome of the city. Julius is a man living at Meterora’s fringes, a sort-of fugitive because he has refused to play the city’s game any longer, earning a living by illicit trade and moonshine. He’s a man who feels betrayed by the city, bearing the pain of loss it has caused his family, but convinced he’s too old to fight more, to resist more. He lives for numbness, and I like how the story handles that, his loss but also his fear of losing his place, of making all his bad decisions somehow even worse by forsaking the benefit he gained by accepting them at the time. And when Maya, a young woman whose family is out beyond the dome dead or dying so that she can live “safely” within, finds him for help escaping, Julius finds that maybe there’s still some fight left in him. The setting is Spartan but incredibly believable, showing a city built on corruption and fueled by the desperate hope that the people outside have that they can give their children a better life. And Maya makes for a very compelling character, wanting to convince those people that it’s not worth it because the chance they give their children isn’t the rosy picture the government paints. And without the complicity of those workers, the whole system would have to change. The story does a nice job of capturing how it can be very small decisions to help another person that are the most important for shaping change and allowing resistance to flourish into something larger and more impacting. It’s a bit of a bleak story, because the world it reveals is a very bleak place, but it’s one that never loses sight of something better, of reform and justice even in the face of catastrophe. And it’s a great read!
“The Breeze in the Boughs” by Jennifer Marie Brissett (3219 words)
For a story about talking animals living in a sleepy little residential area, the parody and satire of this piece is fucking sharp. It follows a young squirrel who works to provide acorns for himself and his grandfather, and who is rather startled when rats begin moving into the neighborhood. Rats who don’t do things the way the other animals do. Rats who the rest of the animals wish would just go back to where they came from. Rats who eventually bring the attention of the humans down on the area, to some tragic results. The story manages to capture a younger, more innocent-ish tone throughout, evoking stories where the morals are clear and the lessons and punishments doled out are just and in service to maintaining a status quo that is godly and right. The plot itself is a mix of cutesy and uncomfortable for most of the time, the squirrel the animal that’s supposed to bridge the gap between his older and more conservative grandfather and these strange new neighbors. Everything about children’s stories points toward the two sides being able to find common ground, the animals “helping” the rats to fit in better while the rats “prove” that their way of doing things has merit, too. Only the whole framing of that within middle grade books is so fucked up, because the rats have to prove their worth to other animals who always see them as lesser, and who demand the rats change in order to be allowed in. The story is about white flight and encroachment and in this story there really is no happy ending. [SPOILERS] Like really, people, the ending is fucking dark and glorious because it hurts so much, because it’s so sharp and focused. It tears out the beating heart of these “there goes the neighborhood stories” that always privilege whiteness and make the story about the plight of the squirrels. Even in death the rats are only a lesson for squirrels that tragedy happens when people don’t “make enough of an effort” when what’s really happened is genocide and the squirrels were not only complicit but actively wanted it to happen, for all they complain about it afterwards. And fuck, yeah, this is a brilliant story that you need to read. Go do it!
“Cracks” by Xen (15,173 words)
I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING! *sniff sniff* Okay, okay, it might be me, because eff this is a moving story of longing and pain, isolation and hope, and it’s pretty much exactly my jam, so give me this moment. Okay, the story follows a pair of brothers, Asad and Tarif, who are part of a group of people who have the ability to see cracks in the universe. Cracks that peek into another world, possible the “real world.” But these cracks are dangerous, and as the story opens there is the looming threat that things are getting very bad, that entire cities are falling through, and what falls through the cracks gets lost in between universes. For Asad, having the sight and fighting against the cracks has shaped his life, but it hasn’t really done much for him. His life is full of hardship and a pervasive loneliness. It’s something that only gets worse when he happens to encounter a crack and see himself on the other side. Or rather, a different version of himself. One who doesn’t need to go out and seal cracks. One that doesn’t get denied the sunlight. One who has a boyfriend, something Asad has never had and assumes he’ll never had, his life too regimented, too solitary. While his brother has prospects on the relationship front, I love the story shows Asad sliding into this despair that he will always be alone, that he wants so much the life his mirror-self has. And how it begins to overshadow everything else, stealing the vibrance from his life and cutting into his hope. And yet the story is also about the beauty of perseverance and of taking joy in others’ joys and building a community that is about acting toward something that needs doing. It is a wrenching and beautiful story that examines fairness and labor and the burden of responsibility very well, that looks at slow and generational change and how it runs against the keen desire for individual satisfaction. And it’s about the power of hope and I just love the story and you need to go out and read it! It’s SO GOOD!!!
“Sandscript” by Mame Bougouma Diene
This poem moves in a steady rhythm and subtle cycle that leads the reader across space and time, treading over musical allusions and pop culture nods. It’s rare to see rhyming poetry in SFF but I like how this piece flows and how it sounds, and how the subtle variations in rhyme pattern give it a life and a brightness. The content of the poem moves through history, from the distant past and into an uncertain future, all the while keeping an eye on what unites people throughout time. There is a sense of growth for me when reading this, that the narrator is imagining this journey that they are on, both as an individual and as a member of a larger group, as a human riding time through the years and the various artistic expressions. And there is an emphasis on cycles, on the cycle of years and f seasons, of things moving back into themselves, revolving time and again. I like how the poem mirrors that by opening and closing in very similar ways, the repetition of words and ideas but not direct echoing. Instead there is the sense that even as things move back around they move forward as well, so that the narrator is in some ways both back to the beginning at the end of the poem and in someplace completely different. It’s a nice touch and I think that it works with everything else, the imagery that shifts focus between natural phenomenon (monsoons, caves, sand) that embody change and movement and human cultural phenomenon that are likewise defined by their ever-changing and mercurial nature. It’s a fun piece and a deep one and I definitely recommend checking it out!
“Remote Witness” by Uche Ogbuji
This poem, like the last, also evokes periods of history and movement, but it’s a bit more explicit in its speculative focus, imagining technology that allow people to go back in time, that allow the main character of the poem to take something of a tour of history, only for things to not be quite so sterile as expected. The idea of a historical research tour is, after all, one that seems like it would be dry, almost boring. The endeavor here has a much different flavor, because the weight of the past hits the main character of the poem with such a force. Because this isn’t something that can be observed from a safe distance. And really I feel that’s what the poem is about, the distance between study and life, between thinking about violence and tragedy and getting to experience it. The title implies that the main character wants to create this safe viewing of what they are looking for, but something in the technology and even more in the material that is being observed reaches across that distance to touch them. To challenge and to hurt them. It’s an interesting piece I like the repetition of the like that ends each stanza, this idea that art can be something covering up something else, can be peeled away but not always safely, and it’s just a piece that provides a nicely wrenching progression in time travel and the role of the watcher. A fine read!
“I Will Come To You; I Will Remove Your Lampstand From Its Place” by Rodney Wilder
This poem feels to me to speaking about place and promise, about welcome and exclusion. The language in tone is not exactly conversational, but instead a sort of lyric lesson in the way things are. Part song and part religious teaching. The poem moves through a number of ways that the glow of large houses—rich houses, white houses—hold no comfort or security or warmth or safety for most people of color, and especially for those black people whose family histories are full of those houses being weaponized, where to be black and in certain neighborhoods is a crime. It works very well back into the theme of the issue and I like how the poem revolves around the idea of housing, because it’s something that has been so systematically used to perpetuate white supremacy, to keep people of color from owning homes or else to get them to hope that they can own only to use legal trickery and corruption to take it all away, to find ways to steal what was so hard to earn in the first place. And I like how the poem repeats over and again the lesson that these houses don’t hold the same meaning for black people as for white people, that the promise of those houses is something that has been long unfulfilled and that in many ways they are a symbol, of abuse and oppression...but also hope. That though history has been full of stories of abuse and murder, hatred and racism, those homes that don’t glow might still yet. That those promises that were made and broken don’t have to stay broken. And it’s a moving and formally daring piece that moves around the page, that seems to gesture with its hands. And it’s a great way to close out the issue, with that lingering hope that things can get better, given community and love. Indeed!