Monday, August 28, 2017

Quick Sips - The Book Smugglers August 2017

I’m very sad that the Gods & Monsters short story season is over at The Book Smugglers with these two short stories. It has been an excellent run and the pieces have consistently been among my favorite every month they’ve been out. But even good things must come to an end. At least for this year. To close things out there are two new stories exploring youth and education, love and responsibility. The stories aren’t that similar on the surface, but digging deeper finds narratives that are very concerned with consent and with fostering an environment where young people can explore who they are and how they want to live. They mix humor and magic, emotion and stress and frustration. But they also imagine characters taking control of their situations, negotiating their ways past the forces trying to crush them. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Ira Gladkova

“Duck Duck God” by José Iriarte (5659 words)

This story mixes the world of teaching with the difficulties of handling a young child with the powers of a demigod. It stars Monica Quintana, a fairly new teacher with a fairly rocky work history, her teaching philosophy not quite in line with the bureaucratic norm, and suddenly very overwhelmed when a student, Nicky, is revealed to be the child of a certain promiscuous Greek deity, with a slew of powers to call on to disrupt the classroom. And really there’s a lot going on in the story that deals with teaching and schools, with special needs and the concerns of parents, and in some ways with the business of teaching, for as much as education isn’t supposed to act like a business. It mixes humor and a healthy dose of professional frustrations as Monica must navigate a rather impossible situation between parents who feel she’s not doing enough for their children and an administration that wants to protect itself from criticism. All the while, Monica’s primary concern remains where it should be—on the children, and on trying to foster a healthy learning environment even in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

And I appreciate the delicate line it walks with regards to education, a field and profession that is increasingly being asked to make up for inequities in all aspects of a culture that also increasingly doesn’t respect educators. At the same time, it’s a profession that is often mired in bureaucracy and self-protection, valuing obscure metrics, testing, and obfuscation rather than looking to seeing children as, well, children. It creates a situation where it’s difficult for parents to trust schools to do what is needed even as schools are pushed to cut corners and funding to things that would make them better able to meet the demands of parents that might not believe that schools deserve funding. And around and around and around. Monica is a great face for the issue, because she cares deeply and because in the face of superpowers she feels so frustrated on all sides—with parents for thinking that she could possibly control a situation involving gods and magic, and for the administration for not wanting to give her any tools to handle the situation while still judging her on her inability to keep things under control enough. Meanwhile the story does a great job with Nicky, who is difficult but still resonates as just a child not knowing how to act in the face of what’s happened.

In the end, the story manages to be fun and engaging even as it’s mostly concerned with the minutiae of education. The premise is captivating and the bits with Zeus are delightful (and rather creepy). The solution, while not perfect, shows a very interesting take on what might be required to “set things right.” Monica never quite plays by the rules, except that she lets her desire to do good guide her. Of course, she might end up doing incredible harm because of it, but in many ways that is education, a place of risks. I’m not saying I want all teachers to do what Monica does here, but it makes for an interesting read, and you should certainly check it out!

“Avi Cantor Has Six Months To Live” by Sacha Lamb (11023 words)

This is an incredibly sweet story about two young men dealing with bullying and trust and, it turns out, a bit of magic, too. Avi is a young trans man who doesn’t fit in at school, who isn’t even out yet, and who finds himself dealing suddenly with a rather drastic new rumor—that he’s going to die in six months. To top things off, another trans boy in his class, Ian, has taken a sudden interest in him, and Avi’s world is shaken to its core. The story carries with it a nicely romantic focus, showing the ups and downs of the budding relationship between Avi and Ian, and the rather dark secret hiding just out of Avi’s sight. It’s also a story that doesn’t reveal its speculative element for some time, but when it comes it hits with a nice weight and focuses the story into something that allows the characters to move forward, that allows them to heal and, maybe, to live.

The story benefits from being rather YA focused as well as a wonderfully queer romance, which gives it a slightly lighter tone but also goes a ways to explain some of what the characters do. Avi and Ian are, after all, young and flailing a bit, both in pain and both making mistakes, though Ian’s turn out to be much more serious. I typically hesitate at stories where the breaking of trust is something handled lightly or with little consequence, especially because the story skirts a forced outing, but I think it does a nice job of it, too. What happens is never treated like it’s unimportant or like Avi is overreacting. And it pushes the story down the road it takes, showing the deep hurt and conflict within Avi and how he wants to deal with it.

At the same time, the story doesn’t close to the door on the hope of healing. And how it does it is rather great, twisting the idea of making a deal with the devil being a bad thing. The magic of the story isn’t exactly subtle, for all that it’s not around until the end. And it allows Avi and Ian to negotiate a way forward for both of them, for Ian to make amends for what he’s done so that they can both move forward. I also love the family aspects of the story, the way that Avi and Ian interact with their parents and Ian’s sister. And I do appreciate that the story isn’t about how the world doesn’t accept that Ian and Avi are men. It’s never a question. It doesn’t erase the prejudice they face and the obstacles and discomforts and injustices it puts up in their way, but their identities are never denied, and they are never dead named by others, and it’s just amazing to see a story where family is present and kind and affirming. It’s certainly not everyone’s lived experience, but it is refreshing. And really it’s a fun, sweet story about young people finding each other and entering into a relationship, testing the waters of trust and bodies and consent and having it work out pretty well. You should read this story. It is amazing!


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