|Art by Stefan Meisl
“She Who Hungers, She Who Waits” by Cassandra Khaw (3690 words)
No Spoilers: Mei Huang works as a ming-ren, a shifter of prophecy, tweaking people’s futures to allow them to choose their deaths. Many choose to take ones further out in order to avoid an early death, but this ability has its limits. And Mei Huang herself has a bit of an alterior motive linked to her sister, Mei Ying. The story follows Mei Huang’s departure from her goddess, She Who Hungers, and slides into service to She Who Waits. The piece is full of blood and guts, of violence and the ways that women like Mei Huang are made vulnerable to systems of exploitation and loss, and how they can try to fight back a bit. It’s a story about the weight of prophecy, of fate, and how that can be defied, at least a little. It’s haunting and heavy and lovely.
Keywords: Surgery, Prophecy, Fate, Immortality, Bargains, Sisters
Review: This story opens with a slap in the face, immediately establishing the kind of world that Mei Huang lives in, a world full of outsiders whose opinions of her dictate how she can live and do business. Whose whims must become her concerns because of how they can hurt her, because of how they’re protected and she isn’t. And yet even with that it’s Mei Huang who should have power, because of what she can do, because of what her trade is. But it’s like because of this power, men try to make her powerless, to assert themselves over her so that she can’t actually get ahead, so that she’s stuck in this cycle where she works but She Who Waits is always there for when the inevitable mistake happens. And I like how much the story dances around the idea that Mei Huang’s only safety, just like her sister’s only safety, would have been in being perfect. Which is no safety, because perfection is not a thing. How that unreasonable expectation to always do everything perfectly pushes them to havign to make deals, to make bargains, that strip away who they are. That rob them of what little freedom they have, so that between She Who Hungers and She Who Waits, there is nothing really that remains. But I also like how this is something that Mei Huang understands on a deep level, having seen it happen to her sister, and she has a plan to do something about it. Not to win, exactly. Not to tear down the system and start over. Because that would be too large of a shift. But to make a small change, and in so doing spare someone who she cares about from an infinity of pain. It’s a moving and visceral story about fate and predators and a broken system. And it finds a shred of hope in the mess of guts and bone and blood it drags out onto the crisp white sheets. A great read!
“Cry of Desire in a Shrouded Land” by Talisen Fray (10793 words)
No Spoilers: Centering a miracle tea that grants the drinker their dearest wish, though not exactly, the story moves between three characters—Lukas (the original teamaster), Vidita (a slave girl with ambitions), and an unnamed Exterminator of spiders. Together, the three form a web much like the vermin that plague the city (or at least plague the citizens of the city). Slow and full of frustrations, lusts, and yearning wants, the story is a strange tapestry of desires. The characters are all stuck in wanting and, more than that, in being able to achieve what they want. The miracle tea opens for them the possibility of getting exactly what they want, or exactly what they think they want, and the distance between those things reveals the deep flaws in their characters, the brutality in their hearts. The piece is often unpleasant to read, I’ll just say, but still moves with a compelling grace and power. The characters are broken, ugly, and complex, and it makes for a conflicting time watching them reach for that they hope will help them.
Keywords: CW- Rape, CW- Slavery, Exchanges, Wishes, Tea, Spiders
Review: This is a somewhat difficult story to review because of the grit and grime of the world it’s set in, a world that shuts down for months at a time because spiders emerge and cover everything. The spiders aren’t really dangerous, and yet the provoke a deep disgust and violence from humans, who go out of their way to try and exterminate them. And here really I feel that the story is getting at the way that what we think we want isn’t often the thing that will make us happy. Exterminating the spiders won’t actually make anyone happy, because without them other issues would gt much worse (they are a rather benign issue seeing as how they don’t fed on humans but rather other more devastating pests). For Lukas, he has the wealth and influence that he always wanted, but it tastes like ash in his mouth because he’s lost his connections to everything, has lost his joy. Still ossesses lust apparently because of how he treats Vidita, but the story is full of negotiation and trades and exchanges. There is a business to this and it’s in the business that the joy that’s possible is stripped away. That wishes are made into mundane and ugly things and all the hopes that people have are fulfilled for a moment just to reveal that those hopes weren’t really...good. They were selfish and hurtful, and getting them might feel good in the moment but it leaves this mark. This feeling that will never after wash clean. At least until the characters realize that the system they’ve bought into is corrupt, is impossible to win, and seek to find a way out. It’s a weird story and one with a lot of moments that are just not fun, but I do feel like it gets at this important idea that the system (capitalism, basically) is not about happiness, but rather about want. And yeah, it’s a fascinating read!