Friday, June 15, 2018

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 06/04/2018 & 06/11/2018

The first two weeks of June’s Strange Horizons brings a pair of stories and a pair of poems. The fiction is a mix of fantasies, one with magic and ghosts and monsters and the other with a looser grasp on reality. Both feature characters charged with watching over a space through. For one, it’s through elaborate ritual. For the other, it’s by house sitting. In both, there’s a feeling of something being trapped, of something being infested, and of the characters having been wronged. The poetry deals with myths, with mythical creatures, and with longing and endings and beginnings. And all together it makes for a rather lovely but haunting collection of short SFF. To the reviews!

Art by Kelsey Liggett

“Like Smoke, Like Light” by Yukimi Ogawa (6823 words)

No Spoilers: A woman disgraced by the way she got out of a bad marriage finds herself employed bringing meals to a much more important relative who has locked himself away in an annex full of monsters. The only way in is through an elaborate ritual, one that must be performed perfectly to both enter and leave the annex. For the narrator, this seems like the only thing she can do—in breaking the bond that kept her linked to her husband, she had to give up her connection to her family’s magic, which allows them to bind people to a place. It also works on ghosts and monsters, though, and slowly the narrator learns more about this ability, and her own particular relationship with it. Hers is a life that has been largely defined by captivity, by being bound. And so she is able to understand what it’s like to be a ghost in the same situation, used, becoming something darker and more violent from the repeated violations to autonomy. Only she knows how to break free as well, and can see the dangers to the whole system around her. It’s a quiet but occassionally intense read, only with a definite darkness but also a reaching toward justice, and freedom.
Keywords: Ghosts, Monsters, Rituals, Loss, Magic, Control, Debt
Review: For me so much of this story comes down to how people are bound in relationships, in societies, in families. How they can become trapped because those with power with to hold onto their power. And how those at the fringes of that power often find themselves being transformed by that proximity. Warped by the position that power puts them in, by the pain they are expected to endure, and the rituals they are expected to perform. They become monsters, turned by the way they are not valued into people who pass along that pain to others. Who might lash out, or believe that change or escape is impossible. Who might lose faith, and hope. And the narrator is put into a place like that, where she’s expected to participate in this ritual again and again and again. To not question, to not interfere. And yet because she is who she is, because she’s rebelled before and succeeded to some extent (even if there were pubishments waiting for her), she refuses to just go along with the abuse and the injustice. And I love the way the story explores what a difference it makes that she’s already broken the rules. Because she knows, then, that the power that her family uses to keep itself comfortable is not absolute. That for all that they want people to believe that there is no way of defeating it, there is one. And through that knowledge, she begins to question all the lies that people tell to make sure corruption remains in place. And she is able, by reaching out, by refusing to become a monster, to help others. To start a movement. The setting is beautifully rendered, too, and the world wonderfully built. The character work, especially with the narrator and her relationship to the ghosts (one of revulsion turning into one of compassion and understanding), is powerful and healing and all the yes. It’s just a wonderful story that you should all go and check out!

“Quietly Gigantic” by K. C. Mead-Brewer (6357 words)

No Spoilers: Maya is a housesitting for her oldest friend, Raimy, who is away with her most recent husband. Alone with Raimy’s things—here cat, her clothes, her neighbors—Maya takes something of a tour through her own life and how it’s intersected with Raimy. The story is infused with fantasy and dreams, and Maya is something of a mystery, an outcast who feels hated, who feels at the same time Alone and yet with a sort of tragic connection to other people. A desire to help that’s coupled with having been hurt before and knowing that she’s a survivor, even when it seems at times she doesn’t want to be. For me it’s an almost haunting story because of how Maya inhabits the house and herself, a sort of ghostly presence that lingers, waiting.
Keywords: Zombies, CW- Sexual Assault, Friendship, House Sitting, Cockroaches, Cats, Owls
Review: There’s something both lovely and sharp about this story for me, that makes the reading full of beauty but also pain, like grabbing at something shining in the sand only to find that it’s broken glass. Maya is someone who seems hardly present. Someone who fits into the absences around her, into the skill spaces. It’s something that has made her something of a target in the past, that seems to have made her seem safer to abuse, though that is only really revealed in hints and asides, never really directly delved into. Instead I found that I had a hard time telling when she was awake and when she was dreaming—what was real and what wasn’t, and the story does a wonderful job of exploring that feeling in Maya, the way that she doesn’t always know what is a dream, and even when she does there’s a doubt for me about whether she’s right. Could it all be a dream? All real? The facts of the case tend to break apart when you realize that Maya is alone, that even Raimy is not around, not ever seen in the present tense in the story. What that leaves is a narrator who might not be the most reliable, but for whom all of this feels real. The house, the strange lack of infestation, even the final spirally ascent into zombie apocalypse and superpowered heroism all carry with them a similar weight, a similar surreal feel. And for me it builds the feeling of space, of a house that is also a person, containing so much that might never be explored, but that might open at strange times, in strange ways, adn reveal something new and moving. There’s a lot here about bodies, and about violation, and though I can’t personally put it all together literally, I feel it evokes feelings of longing for acceptance, of hurt and fear, and of isolation and a kind of acceptance of isolation. And it’s a wrenching, beautiful story that you should definitely spend some time with!


“Kamcia” by May Chong

This poem speaks to me of trees, and myth, and protection, and distance. To me the narrator seems to be a tree, or a tree spirit, who recounts an event in the past where beings (probably humans), needed protection from violence and were saved by these trees. And how a connection was made there, a sort of bargain between the two groups. That, in exchange for the trees saving them, these people would help the trees spread and prosper. That this one act will be rewarded, because of what it meant to the people who were saved. And it’s possible that I’m missing some context here—that this is a sort of retelling or a myth or a folktale. To me, though, it speaks of what happens when violence comes quickly to a population that isn’t your own. Do you stand by and think of only yourself, hoping the violence will sweep away like bad dream? Or do you try to help, unsure of what the situation is, sure only that there are people who will die without you? The poem sets up that situation and gives the answer of these tree-people. They help. They protect. They shield those in need from harm. And they do it not expecting to be repaid, but because it is right. But doing what is right sometimes has a way of working out. And helping someone might mean that they will help you back, when they are able. And it might grow and transform, and lead to something beautiful and healing and wonderful. For the trees, and for the people that they saved, the result is that they can both stretch out, and spread, and find new places to prosper. And it’s a warm and bright poem that features this interesting voice, not human and yet exemplifying something we hope humanity can live up to—compassion in the face of uncertainty, action in the face of injustice. It’s a great read!

“She’s Not a Phoenix” by A.Z. Louise

This poem speaks to me of relationships ending, of mistakes and cycles and hurts. For me, at least, a lot of the language makes me feel like the narrator, in talking about this bird, is talking about a relationship that isn’t exactly working. Because, on some level, the narrator has mistaken the nature of that relationship, and the nature of the other person in it. At least, the piece to me is a lot about endings. About thinking that someone else would be there again and again and again, that they would have waited, that they would have emerged from whatever distance or time unscathed and unchanged—only she didn’t. And she’s not alone, as the narrator here seems to have changed as well, has shifted so that the two of them just don’t fit any longer. What the nature of this relationship is I’m not sure. I’d hesitate to guess it’s romantic because the metaphor of the old lovers toward the end would be too on the nose. It could be a literal bird, a pet given to someone else for a time when maybe the narrator couldn’t care for her. Or it could be a friendship, where the two people separate for a while and reconnect only to find that they’re not the same as they were, and cannot be what they meant to each other again. Whatever the case, I like how the poem imagines the narrator having to tell themself over and over again that it’s better this way. That it’s obviously something they don’t want to accept, because it means that whatever they had with this bird, with this person, is truly over. And yet the entire poem is written as a reminder. A lesson. She’s not a phoenix, and so it’s unreasonable to assume that she would also rise from the ashes, new and unblemished. Sometimes friendships end. People die. And holding on just because the relationship was familiar doesn’t help anyone. There’s a sadness to the verse, but perhaps a bittersweet feeling as well. That this is ending, and it is a loss, but that the narrator can survive, and keep going, and reach toward healing. A great read!


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