Monday, July 30, 2018

Quick Sips - Tor dot com July 2018

It's just a pair of stories this month at Tor dot com (two novelettes, to be specific), and both deal with memories, paranoia, and family. Though, as one is a second world fantasy with magic and the other is a contemporary/near future science fiction/horror, they go about approaching these themes very differently. But at their cores I feel like there are links, with showing a situation where someone is trying to hide their true face in order to approach something they feel is evil and expansive. Now, in one of these situations the character is facing an authoritarian and brutal regime, and in the other something much different and much less defined, but in both there is a sense of hiding and waiting for the right moment to strike. To the reviews!

Art by Anna & Elena Balbusso


“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly (7841 words)

No Spoilers: Saffron is the wife of a baker and, for the moment at least, a royal food taster who volunteered to try her husband’s creations before the regent, a brutal duke who has swept to power and instituted a number of cruel and violent policies. These are no ordinary sweets, though, and the special ingredients used give the food a magic to let people experience memories. It’s a fine line that both husband and wife must walk, separated in order to keep them subservient, able to communicate only in the memories that they share and that he brings to life for her with each new course. Larger than that, the story becomes about the ways resistance can express itself, and how people can either let their regrets and sorrows lull them into a numb complacency, or goad them into fighting back, however they can. It’s a subtle and aching story about loss and about the weight of injustice, and how even those without political power can be vital in standing up to corrupt systems and governments.
Keywords: Baking, Memories, Resistance, Loss, Marriage
Review: I mean, never let a tyrant enjoy a meal in peace, right? There was a part of me, reading, reminding myself of how powerful it can be to stand up against injustice by refusing to be quiet, by refusing to allow people the ability to ignore the pain they cause. With stories about certain people being asked to leave restaurants, or otherwisely prevented to enjoy the fruits of their corruption, this story takes on a bit more topical weight. And really I just love SFF stories that take on cooking. Here we find Saffron a political prisoner, held for her husband’s good behavior, acting more because she’s desperate not to lose more, not after her sister was taken as a seditious element, tortured, and executed. Not with the government falling more and more strongly under the control of the duke. And the piece does a great job of showing the timeline in which this shift took place, this consolidation of power. It shows the ways that Saffron and her husband became...not exactly complicit, but resistant to risking everything they had built. They did good work, and yet that good work wasn’t explicitly political. It helped people, but by not taking a stand it also allowed the harm to spread. Not that they could have stopped it exactly. But it does become a regret, that they didn’t try, that they lost people that maybe could have been saved. And it gives them the resolve to try to right that, to try and not regret this next stage of their lives, where Saffron’s husband has been taken in order to provide magical food for this new ruler. And so he finds a way to cook up something special, and I love where that takes the story, how it finds such a fitting trap to spring, and how it leads Saffron and her husband to breaking free from the regrets and finding a way back to each other, and peace, and happiness. Just a wonderful read!

“The Nearest” by Greg Egan (16670 words)

No Spoilers: Kate is a police detective sergeant and new mother. When she gets a triple murder to investigate, she figures that it’s just business as usual, even if the details of the case don’t make a lot of sense. Of course, the details start to come clear after Kate’s life descends into a stark horror, one where everyone she knows or cares about seems not just a stranger, but out to do her harm. Fleeing from the people who she _knows_ are not her friends and family, she puts her detective skills to use in tracking down exactly what’s going on, and how to fix what’s plaguing those around her. The story works from a paranoid horror, one where the main character doesn’t know who to trust, merely that she knows those around her have changed. That they’re not real in the same way that they used to be. That they’ve been hollowed. And though she seems alone in this situation at first, she slowly finds that she isn’t.
Keywords: Memory, Mystery, Police, Family, Marriage, Hollow
Review: The idea of suddenly not being able to recognize those closest to you is indeed a terrifying thought. The story links this to memory disorders, and I think specifically dementia early on, looking at the horror of not being able to trust your brain and the ways of trying to work around that. The story also focuses a little more than I’d like on the horror of a mother turning on her family, turning the rather pervasive trope of motherly love into a dark reflection of itself. What I like about the piece is Kate’s drive and her desire to do the work of detecting even when her world seems falling apart. The tension and drama are high and effectively built throughout, and the resolution is solid, not dipping into too bloody a resolution, which is nice. I think my main complaint is twofold and mostly revolves around my own tiredness around the central premise. It’s done well, in a sort of reverse body-snatchers sense, where Kate must slowly come to terms with the fact that the problem is with her, not with those around her. But that seems rather obvious from very early on that I never _felt_ that Kate was correct. The tension arose instead from how those infected were planning on killing their families, and how long it was going to take Kate to figure out what was really going on. Which, really, there’s nothing wrong with that, but for that sort of arch the piece is a bit slow, and a bit long for me. People looking for a dip into the paranoia pool will probably find lots to like, though, and the character work is great, as is the rather interesting and refreshing choice to not focus so much on completely curing this condition, but rather acknowledging that sometimes it’s important to find ways around the barriers the brain can erect when it isn’t working right. A fine read.


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