|Art by Galen Dara|
“Queen Aster, Who Dances” by Tina Connolly (1016 wods)
This is an intense story about sisters and betrayal that moves with the momentum of a falling guillotine, with the flow and rhythm of a dance. It finds Aster, a young woman who was the youngest of a royal family—well, youngest aside from her twin sister, Gentian. Together the twins were artists, Aster a dancer, Gentian a singer. Together they stood against the tyranny of Lord Vikare, who was responsible for the deaths of the rest of their family and who has arrived in their city, in their kingdom, to marry Gentian and become king. Aster and Gentian themselves seem to have little power to stop this, being young and swept up in this coup. The story zeroes in a bit on the ideas of justice and freedom and vengeance. Aster is getting ready for her part of the wedding, the dance that she is to give in celebration for her sister’s marriage. And thanks to some special preparations by Gentian, it promises to be a memorable dance. Only everything is not quite what it seems in this little story and things move fast once the dance begins. I found myself a little dazed by it, by the way it unfolds in this almost unexpectedly brutal fashion. Which is weird to say, because of how the story is set up, building up all of these deaths, all of this violence done. It’s not a happy story, but it maintains a tone almost like a fairy tale, where the violence is present but not quite as real as it could be. And I like how it captures that, how the violence becomes more and more real as the story moves on, how it becomes more and more personal. And how the losses that Aster deals with are stacked higher and higher, until all she has left is duty and her own desire to be free, to not give into the machinations of others. It’s a striking piece that is steeped in sorrow and betrayal and the ending comes with a bleak inevitability. Aster knows herself, and there is a great power in that, but it’s not power that can prevent atrocity, only punish it. Which is something, and makes for a visceral and hitting read!
“We Who Stay Behind” by Karl Dandenell (622 words)
This story speaks to me of exploration. Of boldly going. It takes place in some sort of lab or compound or...maybe base would be the correct term? It leans on the depictions seen in places like Stargate, where people go through an alien portal and arrive in different worlds. Those that go, the Explorers, are those who have passed all the tests. Who have been found exemplary enough to venture out and meet the unknown. But they aren’t the only people at the base. It’s populated by a great many other people who see to the smooth operating of the missions, who stay behind and make sure there’s always something to come back to. And who sometimes have to go themselves to bring back the Explorers...or whatever’s left of them. It’s a stark story, one that doesn’t shy away from the realities of these sorts of missions. Sure, television makes it seem like there’s only one team and it pretty much always comes back alive, but this story in all its brevity does a lot to complicate that and to show just how trauma works in these situations, where the Explorers might find anything and how it might change them. How it might give them a new perspective. How it might convince them to change what they do and how they can serve the mission the most. And it does this without really settling on specific characters. The Explorers are vaguely defined ideals—they are the cool kids who have risen to the top and who know it, who get to be the main characters while everyone else is background. But the story makes a great case as to why those people in the background are there. Not because they live in awe and jealousy of the Explorers. But for other reasons that are much trickier and much more complex. I like the way it draws down to those levels, and it ends with a simple and lovely sentiment that, for me, works beautifully. So yeah, definitely check this one out!
“The Witch in the Tower” by Mari Ness (975 words)
This is a story that examines magic and fairy tales, safety and time and freedom. It revisits the story of Rapunzel, but instead of focusing on the titular character of that tale, it centers the witch. The witch, who hear bears the scars of her failure with Rapunzel, and who is actually a defender of girls. A teacher. One who is entrusted with young girls in order to keep them safe until they are ready for the world, and the world is ready for them. It’s something the witch has done for a ong time, and I love how it complicates the original fairy tale, and how it builds toward something new and interesting. And I love just how complicated this story is, because it shows how different the story is when the witch is the character getting to guide the narrative, and just how at odds it was with the original story. And yet at the same time the story doesn’t really refute that the witch is effectively imprisoning people against their will, and that while this is often something that works out quite well, it’s also really messed up. Because it’s showing that the only real way to protect these girls is to cut them off from the world, to hide them away. Which is a wrong done to them. In effect, it reveals not that the witch was right, but that the witch is using her magic and her power in order to preserve the system that makes her necessary. She’s someone with power, and yet her vision is always limited. Just one girl at a time. Just in this one specific way. And she’s proud of the good that she does, even as time proves that it’s not enough. That she’s not making anything better, just helping a very few survive a bit longer. The story doesn’t seem particularly triumphant to me. Instead, it seems to show that this cycle will continue for as long as no one bothers to attack the root of the problem, which is that these girls aren’t safe. And they’re not safe because the powers that be benefit from that. And whereas there are those with magic who might challenge those powers, they remain subservient to them, and the tragedies continue. It’s a great story that does a great job twisting the original fairy tale and you should definitely read it!
“Intruder” by M. E. Owen (4795 words)
This story takes a very interesting look at time travel and desperation as Beck is a woman in a present ravaged by a disease that isn’t stopping, that is going to kill all vertebrate and more invertebrate life on the planet. There’s some good news, though. There’s some promising research that appeared once that suggests a possible course to take to combat this. Except that the researcher was killed in an auto accident just after publishing that initial study. But hey, time machines! Unfortunately, it seems that a person going back in time can only really interact with themselves. So Beck is recruited for one simple task—go into the past and stop herself from hitting the person who could save them. Easy, right? Well... I love the way the story moves and the way it complicates the time travel tropes it evokes. It broaches this idea that time might be a closed loop, that no matter how Beck tries she can’t seem to stop her past self. And the ways that she tries and fails are gripping and wrenching and treat this idea with the gravity appropriate for a world-ending situation. And the story does a nice job of also showing Beck confronting this person from her past, confronting this past version of herself. In many ways this one event was the most traumatic of her life, and so her going back in time to save the world parallels her own attempt to go back and erase the harm that she caused. She wants to make amends, wants to make things right, and yet the harder she tries the less it seems possible and the more desperate she becomes. She times that there is no real way to erase the damage done. Time, whatever else it is, seems to strive for some balance, and the story shows how Beck slowly comes to terms with the prospect that this trauma is not one that she can just wipe away. It’s a dark and difficult and it’s a great read!