|Art by Feifei Ruan|
“The Flight of Morpho Girl” by Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton (17730 words)
No Spoilers: Adesina is a young Joker girl, a person whose reaction to the Wild Card virus is to transform into something visibly different from nats, or “regular” people. Specifically, she has large butterfly wings and a few vestigial insect limbs. And recently she’s gone through another transformation, cocooning and coming out looking like a teenager instead of the eleven-year-old girl she had been. Which has put some strain on Adesina and especially her friendship with Ghost, her Ace best friend (Aces possessing more powerful abilities and typically still appearing “normal”). The piece has something of a YA feel to it because of the age of the main character, and because of the focus on friendship and growing up, and because it insists on using a whole lot of slang and other dialect. Which for me can be a bit spotty at times, but definitely grounds the story in voice and flow. There’s action, there’s some interesting (but not really explored) stuff with Adesina and her adopted mom, and overall I’d say it’s cute.
Keywords: Wild Cards, Friendship, Superpowers, Gangs, Kidnapping, Transformations, Trauma
Review: My own experience with the Wild Cards setting is not extensive, but I’ve read all of the stories that have appeared at Tor dot com over the past few years, so I am vaguely familiar with it. I think a strength of the shared setting is that it allows for very different kinds of stories to be told in it, from very dark horror to rather light and cute stories to this, which is somewhere in the middle, dealing with some very heavy themes but with a voice and tone that are a gave me more of a YA feel. And it’s a story that takes some chances with that, using a lot of...kid-speak in the narration to get across the age of the main character. I’m not sure how convinced I was, personally, and at a few points I thought that it was a bit...distracting because of what was going on in the story and the fact that Adesina does not swear much and okay I get she’s young but she has been through some shit and with the proliferation of the internet I just, well, I ended up stopping a few times because something tripped me up. The plot itself is interesting and I liked how a lot of it was exploring the change in Adesina and how that made Ghost feel, and how the two girls are just dealing with everything including the very real trauma that they share and that Adesina’s mom is also going through. Which I wish would have been explored more, because we get a lot of great insight into Adesina’s mom through her journal growing up, but I had a little bit of trouble drawing the parallels between her and Adesina’s situation. Change, certainly, and dealing with some serious shit. But I wish that had been explored more. I also felt maybe some of the action of the story wasn’t given a lot of weight, when...I felt it would have been a bigger deal. At one point Adesina has to transport a child sex trafficker (Adesina having been a subject of a clandestine operation where she was kidnapped and nearly killed) and there’s a lot of space given to her using her powers to fly and not much space given in my opinion to how this might be a bit triggering for her emotionally and mentally. Overall, it’s a fun little story, though, and I certainly suggest people visit it and see how they like it.
“Grace’s Family” by James Patrick Kelly (12254 words)
No Spoilers: Jojen is a young man on a spaceship helping to expand the knowledge of the universe. Mostly this involves just sort of being on a spaceship and taking part in stories that make the rest of the crew into his family. At nineteen, he’s the youngest aboard the ship, along with a “sister” Qory (a 200+ year-old bot), and a mother and father. They’re family because of the stories they share, but those stories come to an abrupt end when the mother and father are traded to another ship and Orisa comes aboard. Her presence tips Joj’s world into disorder, and pushes him into growing up in ways that he didn’t anticipate. For a story about exploring the universe, it’s really much more about humanity and the nature of stories, how we experience the world and how we tell stories about ourselves. It’s an interesting situation, and a rather philosophical read, that grows out of this one young man’s growing conflict over what he’s doing and who he is.
Keywords: Space, Spaceships, Stories, Family, Exploration
Review: The universe revealed by this story is fascinating, where spaceships essentially use humans in order to give their exploration of the universe structure and meaning. That, basically, the ships keep humans around not for their skills or their own drive, but because humans make stories, and the ships need those stories to properly carry out their mission. And Joj, who has for pretty much his entire life been a part of this system, not much about it makes sense. He’s not really invested in the exploration, pretending because he doesn’t know what else to do, because this has been his life, but without really knowing what that means. It takes the dissolution of his family in order to give him the kick needed to actually ask some hard questions of himself, and begin to grow beyond the childish ideas he’s had. And I like how the story really looks at that, showing him as vulnerable, as a boy in so many ways, but most importantly because he’s not examining his own situation. And when it comes down to it, for him to really grow as a person, as an adult, it has to be because he wants to. And the rest of the story is rather fun, the premise of people acting out shows as entertainment a really interesting idea and I like how it’s contrasted to stories like novels and written things, because those are static and not dynamic, but not less valuable for being static. The ending came as a little abrupt to me, and I almost would have liked to see more of how the new structure was going to look like. I liked how the piece poked fun of itself a bit, by having Orisa bounce hard off of “yet another coming of age story” when she sees Joj, when this story is basically a coming of age story. But it’s also more than that, and I think it’s definitely a story to spend some time with.
“The Guile” by Ian McDonald (6332 words)
No Spoilers: A former pit boss, current valet at a Reno casino, Pernell Brolin, tells the story of a confrontation between Maltese Jark Caruana and Remi, an AI who claims to be able to see every trick of magic, to be able to pull apart the guile of every effect. The story unfolds in a casino that marks the end of the road for most people working there. The final stop before whatever counts as retirement. For Pernell and Jack and their friends, it’s becoming a place more and more hostile toward them, because of the arrival of Remi. And when Remi begins to come after the magic of Maltese Jack, the group comes up with the plan, the competition. The show. But in a story veyr much about magic, things are not really what they seem, and the story is also an effect in itself, guiding the reader in one direction only to pull out an ending that’s simultaneously surprising and satisfying. A fun, charming tone and a flare for storytelling make this an enjoyable read.
Keywords: Stage Magic, AI, Gambling, Competition, Tricks
Review: I love that stories about stage magic often become lessons in direction and intent, as this story shows that what the narrator reveals, and what he doesn’t, is very much part of the show. The panache, as the story calls it. And that effects are made up of this panache and the guile, which is the actual physical movement. Putting a deck in one pocket and pulling a different deck out of a different pocket, but in a way that no one catches the switch. So too the story works on the reader, on the listener in the framing device of Pernell talking to some stranger in a bar. The action is all on the confrontation, the idea of man against machine, magic against technology. In some ways it gets at the central insecurity of the story, that humans are replaceable, that we indeed are flawed and weak because we cannot see through the illusions of magic. That machines are like gods, as the story says. And yet even saying that the story is engaged in redirecting our attention away from the true con being run, the true stakes of this encounter. The true battle is not whether Maltese Jack can produce an effect that Remi cannot explain, but rather to prove that humans can still outsmart and trick an AI, regardless of how observant it is. And perhaps that even AI are subject to the rules that govern humans, though in different ways. So it is with a triumphant bow when Jack loses, because in losing he has won the battle he was truly engaged in, and the one that Remi wasn’t even aware of. It’s a fun read that tackles aging well, having this group of performers and professionals at the end of their roads pull off one last bit of magic before gracefully exiting the stage. It’s a great read!
“Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar (5305 words)
No Spoilers: Esham is an orphan who has grown up in care of the state and now works at a stall selling lottery tickets. This isn’t a regular lottery, though, and the prize isn’t money but claims to offer the winner their true heart’s desire. Esham has seen a number of winners in his time as vendor, but when something happens that’s more unprecedented, Esham’s organized and scheduled life is thrown into a chaos he’s not ready for. Slow and vividly detailed, the story takes the reader into Esham’s life and the quietude of it. It’s not an empty life, really, but there is something lonely about it—something that seems almost waiting. Esham is a creature of habit, and it’s not until something throws a wrench into the works that he starts to realize that he might be able to make his own fortune.
Keywords: Lottery, Desire, Miracles, Poverty, Loneliness
Review: What I like about this story is the way that it captures what desire is for different people. Esham comments on this himself when he repeats a proverb that states “only the rich have time to dream.” For everyone else, there’s the lottery. And through his observations, readers are treated to how different it can look. How strange or personal these dreams can be. For those that win the lottery, what happens next is often unpredictable. In part because not everyone seems to actually know their dreams, their desires. For some, it comes as a surprise. For others, it comes with an assured knowledge. Regardless, the desires reveal a lot about the people who hold them. Some want adventure, some want escape, and some want things stranger still. When Esham witnesses someone who he’s been paying attention to, a regular who resonates with his own sense of quiet routine, win the lottery and yet sees no immediate change, things get a bit dicey. And I feel like it takes this event to reveal to Esham that part of his reliance on routine is a sort of waiting. Like other people are waiting. For their dreams to come true. For their winning ticket. Only I feel he sees in what actually happens to this last winning ticket as a call to not wait any longer. To not hope for things to just click into place and instead takes steps to make them a reality. To reach through his isolation. To find happiness. It’s a tender and beautiful read!
“Black Friday” by Alex Irvine (5331 words)
No Spoilers: The Mugs are a team participating in the Celebration, a Black Friday tradition where people engage in armed raids through a mall in order to secure their holiday gifts. The Mugs are also a family, though, the Andersons, with Caleb at the head of two boys, Brian and JJ, and a young daughter, Lucy, who was born on what became the first Celebration when her mother was killed. The piece is bloody, following Caleb’s thoughts as he guides his family into danger and toward their objectives. And there’s certain humor to the piece as well from how over-the-top it makes things, this spectacle of guns and guts and death all for luxury items at a shopping mall. It seems to have a rather political point, warning of the excess of capitalism and consumerism. At the same time, the critique, such as it is, is framed around an individual consumption in an affluent straight white fashion (someone who already can afford things but wants them cheaper), rather than really looking at those people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford those things that flagrant markup puts out of reach.
Keywords: Holidays, CW- Guns/Gun Violence, Shopping, Malls, Family
Review: I’m a little perplexed at the timing of this story not actually releasing around, well, Black Friday, but that aside it’s a bit of absurdist satire that looks at the way consumerism has become tangled up in patriotism. And I do appreciate the way that Caleb posits himself as a liberal as he moves through this scenario, seeing himself as participating in something great even as he reviles the other players of the game. I appreciated a little less that Caleb’s wife was fridged, but it’s possible that was a conscious choice to work with the satire of the piece. The story is fast paced and grity, with an absurdist humor that certainly has its moments and keeps things visual. I just feel that for me, personally, I wanted a more direct and nuanced take on what is a very difficult situation very easily led into navel-gazing. At least, for what is probably, to me, a critique of consumerism, it doesn’t really look very closely at the economics of what Black Friday is and who the real victims of it are. I mean, it even keeps things to Black Friday itself and not sprawled all through Thanksgiving, which is more and more the case, as employees of large chain stores are required to work long hours or be fired. This story doesn’t look at much outside of the experience of a parent trying to get things for their kids, and in such a way that just left me wishing the story had shifted some of its focus. While the action is well rendered and the situation is recognizable, I just felt a little outside of this one. Which might have everything to do with my own relationship with consumerism and Black Friday and the upper middle class than anything. Still, if this sounds fun to you, I certainly encourage you to check it out and make up your own mind.