Monday, January 29, 2018

Quick Sips - Lackington's #16 (Trades)

The last Lackington’s issue of 2017 (though for me the first one of 2018), centers on the theme of Trades. And trades of all sorts. The editorial makes mention of the idea of trade as in profession, with people pursuing their trades in the face of the inequalities and injustices of the systems they work within. The whims of cruel kings, the corruption of governments, the power of supernatural beings. But it’s also an issue that looks closely at the idea of trade as in exchange. The bargains we make with ourselves and with others. The ways that we buy and sell things, people, and justice. Or try to. The stories have some very interesting takes on these ideas, trying to look at what makes a fair trade. It’s a fascinating collection of stories, mostly fantasy and with a great sense of magic and danger. To the reviews!

Art by Paula Arwen Owen

“Lamplighter’s Eve” by Kate Dollarhyde (6800 words)

No Spoilers: A young woman named Biyya is held to account for a rather significant loss in value to two different families. The story follows how the loss came to be, and what it means in more than just monetary value. Tragic and with the feel of watching an accident in motion, the piece approaches the idea of justice and the danger of treating it like a transaction. An often uncomfortable but compelling read that offers a look at the momentum of injustice and the way that double standards continually hit those who don’t like the status quo.
Keywords: Justice, Loss, Sign Language, Commerce, Magic
Review: The story opens with much of the action of the piece already decided. In some ways it’s like reading a Cardassian court transcript, because the verdict is already guilty, and all that remains is the confession. It’s something Biyya understands quite well, even as she burns with the unfairness of it, for though she does in many ways feel responsible for what happens, she knows that the whole thing is bullshit, that firstly what happened was an accident and secondly it wasn’t her mistake. But because she’s the one who doesn’t fit in, she must bear the constant reality of having to make up for everyone else’s action, to be guilty for them because that’s the expectation. It makes inequality and the sense that some are guilty until proven innocent a part of the system, and in such systems that value hypothetical loss of wealth above loss of life and loss of freedom, the story asks what justice is. It’s a difficult story, in part because it seems so...expected. People act surprised, but not really Biyya. Having lived with this her entire life, having just wanted to do her own thing, the weight of this is a punishment not for any specific crime but because she didn’t want to conform. It’s a punitive measure to break her, erase her, and make it so that her family and the system can still exploit her. And the ending wonders where she goes from there, giving no easy answers and leaving it to the reader to decide what they feel it means when she wakes up and finds a new world waiting. A sinking and powerful story!

“Original Order” by Natalie Ritter (3000 words)

No Spoilers: Two dead agents are called through the veil of the living in order to complete a task for a spymaster. The agents delve into their task, charging their own sort of price for the work. Full of weight of history and what has been lost to it, the piece does a great job of looking at the different motives between the living and the dead, and the different ideas of cost. Slow, stoic, and lovely.
Keywords: Archives, History, Death, Cost
Review: What I find particularly interesting about this story is the different ways that the living and the dead approach the world and approach history. These two agents, Grammel and Andreen, are called to search through a huge number of documents for a single one that was dropped by an enemy spy. But for Grammel and Andreen, even as they are obligated to follow the directive that has been given to them, can’t resist but charge their own sort of price for the task. And what I like about it is that their price has everything to do with their task, with what they’re asked to do and not do. For them, the importance isn’t really on the conflict around them, the potential war that could happen as a result of the espionage going on in this nation. Their loyalty and their values are so different from the living, captured nicely by Grammel not feeling like learning names, knowing that for him people aren’t quite the same until they’re dead and on the other side. And it’s complicated by the way that the dead feel and view history, how they feel the importance of making sure that nothing is lost, that stories get told. They are arbiters of stories, full of their own truths and visions, not bound by the equivocations or spins that the current administrations seek to put on history. And I like how invoking them for selfish reasons has these unintended consequences for the spymaster, that he assumed that the dead shared his logic, when in reality they are beyond it, able to see through it and subvert it. It’s an interesting story with a deft finish and a lingering feeling of grief and hope. A great read!

“A Summary of Menistarian Law, Composed for the Citizens of Olakia, in Response to Our Present Crisis by Dr. Clemons Indement” by Joseph Tomaras (2516 words)

No Spoilers: Told as part academic paper, part call to avoid war, the piece follows a rather unique system of justice and the way it operates. In some ways, it’s an excellent example of someone using distance to look at a system “logically” while ignoring some issues in the name of a sort of “peace.” It’s chilling, too, in how it uses this more scholarly tone and style to make the case it does, showing how easy it can be to hide behind laws and systems to ignore harms and injustices.
Keywords: Justice, Brides, Bureaucracy, Corruption, Law
Review: Oh glob this story. Framing it as a paper is a wonderful choice, in part because I don’t see that as a narrative approach too often and in part because the story becomes about trying to approach a problem that really is about rights and dignity and trying to make it about laws. Laws, which as the piece shows, can be rather arbitrary and rather terrifying. The piece goes about trying to prove, basically, that a system that works almost entirely on bribes can still be a fair system of governing, and should be respected, and isn’t a sign of corruption. That, in effect, the bribes might help _speed_ justice, but they don’t influence justice, as there’s so many levels of bribery and bureaucracy at work that no one would be wealthy enough to influence it, really. And that it would always come back to the laws. And, in an effort to show how just the system can be, the piece focuses on people who try to bribe the system and fail. Normally outsiders or, more likely, those who can’t afford to bribe too widely, the common narrative thread is really that the system works only for those not looking down its barrel. That the corruption isn’t only in the way that bribes work, but in a system that is based on misogyny and abuse of power. I love the story becomes this anti-war sentiment, urging people to try and respect this system because to the fictional author, the rule of law is more important than human rights. A woman being beaten and raped is unfortunate, sure, but not actually illegal, and don’t we as good liberals have to accept and respect that? It’s the shattering message that resonates long after the story closes, this idea that if what we respect is law and not people, logic will flow to privileging systems over human lives. And if that’s the case, what good are laws, and what does justice become. A fantastic read!

“The Maiden’s Path” by D.K. Latta (5000 words)

No Spoilers: A builder is commissioned by a king to create a bridge near a ruined and possibly cursed castle, and finds an old statue that captivates him. Digging deeper, a mystery unfolds, and the builder must decide how to move forward. Lightly Gothic with a rather fun feel and clever finish, it shows the care it takes to build something without destroying too much of what came before.
Keywords: Statues, Bridges, Building, Haunting, Tricks
Review: For me, the piece is mostly just a rather fun look at a builder who stumbles across a mystery and has to find a way to both do his job (which is to please his patron, the king), and stay true to what he feels is right (in this case, not destroying a link to the past which honors one whose life was cut too short). I do think there’s a bit more to it, a bit of commentary on what it means to take on a job, to be pulled between financial obligations and moral ones, but the fact that the main character is someone who can more or less choose where he goes and who he works for means that some of that falls apart in the face of him choosing to build this bridge, which in itself might not be an aggressive act (designed to expand trade), but which will no doubt lead to violence as the trade will make it easier for this king to expand and make war. But that aside it is a fun story, the builder careful and trying to do his best in a difficult situation, not wanting to add to the tragedy of the pace he’s reshaping, wanting to do right by the magic still lingering. And I do like the solution he comes up with, which satisfies the letter of his agreement with the king if not the spirit of it (heh). It’s a neat little story and told with an earnest voice. A fine read!

“Yuckl Ogle” by N. Muma Alain (3500 words)

No Spoilers: The titular character, who also happens to be the most unfortunate and unlucky of men, finds himself at the center of a strange curse and stranger situation. Swirling with the force of fable and fairy tale, the piece has a rather definite moral to it, and one that at first blush might not be the most welcome. But peeling away the layers of the story, what emerges is a call to embrace life, and that’s certainly a message worth exploring.
Keywords: Fable, Luck, Witches, CW- Suicide, Happiness
Review: The idea of a person living under a cloud of bad luck is an interesting one, in part because it forces people to confront the way that people often see themselves as the subject of some larger conspiracy whenever anything bad happens. Here that becomes the speculative element, where Yuckl Ogle’s luck truly is a bit of magic acting at his expense, and his life start to point toward despair, toward the want to stop the pain plaguing him. And I do like that when Yuckl is faced with “fixing” his dilemma, it doesn’t really fix his luck. But it does give him tools to re-frame and try to reclaim some happiness out of his misfortune. And the idea that a person can choose a rebellious kind of happiness is something that the story explore and something I think gets at both my discomfort with some of the story and my ultimate enjoyment of it. Because it is a cute story, leaning on fable in order to make Yuckl into a lesson about living and being happy in the face of pain or bad luck. I just dislike stories that paint happiness as a choice that a person can always make, because it seems then to blame people for their despair and any suicidal feelings they might have. Though I know that fixating on being “unlucky” is not a great way to go through life, it’s not always possible to find happiness in pain. I think it’s a fun story with a great feel, but my reading of its message left me a bit conflicted. So definitely check this one out and see how it strikes you. Indeed!

“The Master of Hourglasses” by Alexandra Seidel (5000 words)

No Spoilers: Kestris, an apprentice mask-maker, travels with her father to a festival where she meets a supernatural being and ends up crafting something that brings her a great deal of attention, not all of it good. Magical and with an edge of darkness, the piece looks at craft and art, dreams and daring. There’s a wonderful world building, and Kestris as a character is bold and competent and young and makes for a great viewpoint.
Keywords: Masks, Festivals, Dreams, Bargains, Art
Review: The story builds around the career of Kestris, the daughter of a master mask-maker, who follows in her father’s footsteps to create masks, to try and capture the nature of things as if caught in a mousetrap. And in some ways this is a story about theft and ideas and dreams. Kestris is tasked with creating a mask of Talin, who is a supernatural figure who makes hourglasses out of dreams that he “trades” for. Only he doesn’t really ask and he leaves only sand where the dreams used to be. When Kestris falls victim to having a dream snatched, she turns the tables on Talin by using the sand to create a Talin mask, and from there the story builds, looking at how artists take inspiration from the world around them, from people as well as nature. And for me it looks at the nature of that taking, that inspiration. How Talin takes people’s dreams to create bottles of mist that contain...things. How Talin takes the nature of people, bits of their souls, and captures it in her masks. Both, when dealing with real people, can be something of a theft, and as such there’s a complexity of consent and permission and harm. And I feel that the story doesn’t really condemn people from pursuing their art, but it does point out that that those who benefit from this sort of theft are also subject to it, and might, like Talin, find that they aren’t the only ones who can make “trades.” It’s a complex piece and I love the feel of it, the setting and how this magic works, the bargain that Kestris and Talin make. It’s weird but weird liek a dream that you keep hoping to have again, to feel the beautiful landscape and see where the story goes. A great read and wonderful way to close out the issue!


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