Monday, April 30, 2018

Quick Sips - Tor dot com April 2018

It’s a rather full month of stories from Tor this April, and also one that leans heavily towards fantasy. From gifting someone prophetic penmanship to alternate histories with hippopotamus riders, from cities full of corruption and song to cold waters full of blood and bone, the pieces look at magic and people trying to find connections in a dangerous and mysterious world. Many of the pieces focus on relationships, on main characters in love or looking for love or falling out of love. Their partnerships might be full of violence, or full of hope, or full of music, but they all show people trying to find ways to be together. And it’s a rather sweet (and occasionally creepy) collection of stories, perfect for the first breath of spring. Let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Alyssa Winans

“Played Your Eyes” by Jonathan Carroll (6022 words)

No Spoilers: A woman finds she’s received a strange bequest from an ex, a man who was in some ways the love of her life and yet who, at the end of their relationship, became cruel in his need to push her away. He’s left her his handwriting, which at first seems just weird but as the story progresses turns out to be much more than that. Though she doesn’t really know what it means, it’s her first step down a rather trippy rabbit hole that could end up letting her into a very select group. The piece focuses largely on the woman’s relationships—to both her ex and the new man in her life. It’s quiet, slower, with a careful unrolling mystery that leads to a series of odd revelations.
Keywords: Inheritance, Foresight, Handwriting, Loss, Secret Societies
Review: You know what, going back through the story I’m not sure the main character is actually named, which I’m not sure I was super aware of as I was reading but that pops out now that I’ve gone back specifically looking. Huh. In fact, there really only seems to be one named character in the story—Mr. Bellport, the lawyer/messenger. And for me it lends the story a certain blurriness. A certain, even, mystery. Because a lot of the story seems to me to be about the mysteries of life that don’t need to be answered. That part of the joy of living is dealing with not knowing things and letting those mysteries push your actions forward. The main character is essentially offered knowledge of the future—her own and the world’s. In some ways she’s being offered the power to shape some of it, too. And yet doing so would mean that she would know beforehand the answers to all the mysteries. And while there is a certain pull there, it’s one that she turns away from because she knows that knowing the ending does indeed spoil some of the joy of the surprise. And that, for ex, it meant that he did things that hurt them both in order to try and prevent a greater hurt, when really they both probably would have preferred if he had just not known so that they could be there for each other. I mean, part of the issue here is that the main character’s ex seems just a bit an asshole, full of the confidence that comes with knowing the future and yet still unable to see his own bullshit. Assuming that it justifies being cruel because he thinks he’s doing something good. That’s also, I believe, a reason she turns away, because she knows that with that knowledge would come her own attempts to influence things, and that it wouldn’t make her happy. It would hurt her and hurt others and I think the story does a nice job of bringing her to the place where she can see that. It’s an interesting read and definitely a story to spend some time with!

“The Heart of Owl Abbas” by Kathleen Jennings (6943 words)

No Spoilers: In Owl Abbas, wealth and power are horded by the Little Emperor, who desires all things opulent and pleasurable. It’s a place of inequality, where people toil in terrible conditions in part because they don’t know it can be any other way, and in part because they are placated by songs that make their lives seem brighter than they are. Excelsior is a writer of such songs, which are rather ho-hum until he hears the singing of Nightengale, an automation sent to the city to capture the heart of Owl Abbas. When Excelsior hears and is inspired by Nightengale’s singing, though, and begins to write new songs, less safe songs, the careful balance of the city might just be lost in the resulting passion and chaos. Framed as a bit of history, part anecdote and part fairy tale or myth, the piece is quietly moving and archetypal, sweeping and sweet and dark all at once.
Keywords: Music, Automations, Songwriting, Revolution, Hearts, Ghosts
Review: In some ways I see this story as a commentary on how revolutions and movements can start. Not necessarily out of the high morals or philosophies of Great Minds, but rather out of the frustrated affections and longings of people just trying to live their lives. It springs out of corruption, and people finally opening their eyes to how difficult their lives are, and how wrong it is that they must toil and others not for simple accident of birth. The story shows how so much upheaval and fighting for something better starts with a good thing. A good thing that eases a bit of pain. A voice. A song. And how this good thing actually gets people to a place where they aren’t just numb from their work, from their hurts. Where they do want to do something, because when that small good thing is taken away, they have to feel the full weight of their situation again, and it’s unbearable. So they rise. So they fight. So Excelsior writes not things to mindlessly please the masses, but things that will remind them of what they have lost, and what they can gain. It’s a piece that looks very much at the almost accidental power of small good things. It’s not precisely happy, for while there are positive elements (and a gorgeous ending), there is also a darkness here as well. A recognition that none of these people really intended to cause so much death and carnage. But that sometimes anger and revolution have a momentum of their own, and it rolls over everything, leaving not the happiness that some might have hoped for, but at least wiping away the corruption that was at the heart of some of the tragedy. Which makes for something of a strange read, but also an enjoyable one, moved by prose that felt to me a mix of historical text and mythic poetry. The world is richly imagined, and shadowed enough to feel real and alive. And overall I think it’s a fine read!

“Worth Her Weight in Gold” by Sarah Gailey (2642 words)

No Spoilers: Fast and rather funny, this story finds Winslow Remington Houndstooth in a bit of a pickle. Ruby, his noble hippopotamus steed, refuses to get up and go. With a sack full of gold and a trail of bodies that might be in the process of being discovered, Houndstooth sweats as he tries to figure out what the problem is. What it turns out to be definitely puts something of a wrinkle in his plans, but thes tory moves quickly and stays on the lighter side of things, showcasing mostly the bond between Houndstooth and Ruby. That, despite Houndstooth being a crook and a cheat, the regard he has for Ruby outweighs most everything else. Charming and with a bit of a wicked edge to it, the story gives a brief glimpse into this world, enough to whet the appetite for more hippopotamus riding action.
Keywords: Hippopotamuses, Heist, Dentistry, Gold, Alt-History
Review: Really, most of this story seems to me to be a fun romp into the world of the story—the American past but a bit different than remembered. There’s an almost Western feel to things but complicated and twisted with a speculative flourish. Houndstooth is a conman and thief, but it’s his care and kindness for Ruby that makes him a more rounded human being. The thief with the heart of gold might be something of a trope, but it’s one I like and one here paired with an adorable giant hippo and tell me that’s not a new take on a classic! The story comes alive mostly because of the warring impulses inside Houndstooth, this bravado and arrogance but also the way that he’s willing to part with his newfound riches to make sure his mistakes don’t end up hurting Ruby. Plus his animosity with Dr. Bantou is cute and well rendered, the two always at each other while secretly one suspects they care much more about each other than they’re willing to admit. What results is a light read, which doesn’t mean that it’s shallow, but rather that a lot of its depth seems like it would unfold the more familiar you are with the world and the characters. For me, who hasn’t yet gotten around to reading the other work in this world, it’s a nice taste of what the mood and style might be like. And for that, it’s a pleasure to read!

“Into the Gray” by Margaret Killjoy (5683 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this piece is in love, obsessed with spending their time with the Lady of the Waking Waters, a mermaid who loves them but also uses them to bring men to feed on. The piece opens on one such murder, where the narrator brings a man, a soldier, to the pool the Lady lives in for to be devoured. And in so doing kicks off a series of events that grow beyond the narrator’s inner struggle—their desire to stay with their love. The piece is quiet and full of the weight of violence. No one is good, really. They’re all murderers after a fashion, and they’re all living by their own codes. The world is vague, a fantasy that involves mermaids and knights, and yet it provides enough of a skeleton to set the narrator apart. As someone caught between the land and water, murder and theft, always having to move one ahead of someone trying to kill them. It’s their voice and perspective and yearning need that drives the story forward, and it makes for a haunting, powerful read.
Keywords: Mermaids, Witches, Queer MC, Bargains, Murder
Review: Change and desire battle in this story, and for me so much of this becomes about the narrator and their desire to be fully with their love. They are a person who moves from place to place, who is used to (if not perhaps wholly comfortable) changing a lot about themselves. They desire to become like a mermaid, to become a creature of the water even over the objections of those around them. What I read from them, though, is that they are searching for a way to be comfortable with themself, to feel like something is enough. They are a thief and a maker of deals, and in some ways they seem to like being seen, feeling that there is something definite about them. Something absolute. To me, at least, it pushes their actions to try and get their body, their being, to be one thing. And only when everything seems to fall apart, when their actions bring about a new flight, a new challenge, do they seem to really see that any transformation might just leave them with the same problem. That perhaps they can embrace themself fully as they are, without magic to change their body. And it’s just a complex and wrenching read, one where there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer for the narrator. And that in the end they choose to live with that, and it’s a powerful moment that caps off a rather amazing read!


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