Friday, August 3, 2018

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 07/30/2018 Special SEUSA Issue

It’s a special issue of Strange Horizons to help close out July, which focuses on SFF from the Southeastern USA. The stories range quite a bit in style and location, but they are linked by their connections to the American South as well as to magic. Of the six short stories, all of them land on the fantasy side of things, focusing on gods and ghosts most of all. And perhaps that’s not surprising, because the story looks at power, and systems, and the ways that South is built on injustice, on suffering. On how it can be such an oppressive place, but also a place of power for the oppressed. Because they have connections there, a well of pain and resolve and survival that they can draw on to keep them moving foward. It’s a wonderful bunch of stories and poetry, so let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Geneva Benton

“Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings” by Christopher Caldwell (4694 words)

No Spoilers: A free black man in the Antebellum South loses his mother but not her legacy when he goes to live with his godparents. Though he lives in relative comfort and safety, there’s a power inside him, a music and a flight, that cannot be denied. When he chooses to embrace his destiny, though, things don’t go nearly smooth. Instead, he finds himself on the run, in danger both from the forces seeking to subjugate or destroy him and from his own desires finally finding form and voice. It’s a moving story, full of movement and hope and dreams and a recognition of internal truth. The story is about flight, about escape in many ways, and yet for me the story isn’t really about avoiding conflict. Rather, it’s about realizing potential, and recognizing that for these men, their revolution is in getting away from the U.S. Away from the systems that have let them down and would see them destroyed. Not that their lives will be easy because of it, but that they might find a place to be and to stand to fully embrace the song swelling their chests.
Keywords: Historical, Magic, Shapeshifting, Queer MC, Flight, Music
Review: I love how this story takes a very fresh take on the tropes of shapeshifters. Because this is not about moody werewolves, but rather about people with magical power that they choose not to suppress. That they choose to embrace, despite the danger, despite how it makes them targets. Like their slowly building romance, they know that they are in danger because of who they are. Because they are queer, because they are shapeshifters, because they are black. And the story shows the pressure on both of these men, on the narrator as well as Henri, the man running away from enslavement, to just accept their situation. For the narrator, to accept his relative comfort, and relative safety. Because he is free, and that is something, and his godfather knows that if he is known to be magical, he won’t be able to remain free—he’ll be enslaved or killed. And for Henri, the pressure is to accept being a slave, accept that trying to escape will most likely kill him, and that no one will help him, and that it will be worse if he has to be brought back. Always the threat is violence, and always in maintaining the status quo of a deeply racist and corrupt system. And so the act of saying no, of resisting the pressure to conform, is revolutionary. And I like that the story acknowledges that the solution they come to, that of leaving the U.S., is not without its issues, and is also supported by some racist movements to try and get black people to leave the country. It shows that the solution to these issues is not simple, and that true justice isn’t exactly possible because that justice would have to come at a systemic level. Instead, the men find their own imperfect, but beautiful, solution. One where they can be together and embrace the power of their birthright. It’s a complex, touching, romantic, and just wonderful read!

“Strange Mercy” by Christopher R. Alonso (2640 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the collective first person, this story features a community seeking to bring one of their murdered number back to life. Lola is something of a mythic figure inside the community, a woman who rose out of a bad situation and then returned in order to help people. She used the wealth of her husband to try and make life better for the lowest of the low, because she knew what they were going through. And because of what she was doing, she was killed by her husband. And the story has been distorted over time, to make her death something that must have been justified. That she had been seeing other men. That she made them mad with jealousy. And perhaps she did. But the story pushes back against the narrative that she died because of romantic passion. Instead, it presents a much darker and more uncomfortable but more truthful picture of what happened, and what happens next.
Keywords: Loss, Resurrection, Fire, Mobs, Magic
Review: In some ways I feel this is a story of mob justice. Of revenge, for Lola, who was taken from this community, who could never properly avenge her because of their place in the greater community. Because they are seen as trash, unworthy of being avenged. And Lola’s crime was, in part, that she was their hope. That she was trying to make a difference. And so she was killed, and yet there is no justice. And I like the magic of the piece, how the community is able to shape a spell, to become witches because they are as good as witches, because that’s how they’re seen anyway. And I like how the voice of the story brings the reader into this collective We, into the community that has finally found a way to stand up and fight back. It’s a strange piece, with no real dialogue or individual characters outside of Lola and the man who killed her. And yet it paints this vivid picture of a place and a people, all of them united in their pain over what has happened, all of them linked by their need for something to be done about it. And that collective need manifesting in the person of Lola, in her resurrection, so that she might direct them toward justice that she was denied. A fine read!

“The People Who Sleep Beneath the Waves” by Malena Crawford (4445 words)

No Spoilers: Ayo is the daughter of a chief and a new mother who now finds herself losing hope aboard a slaver ship bound for the Americas. In her mind, he remembers the events leading up to her imprisonment, the joy of her pregnancy and upcoming birth, the fear and panic and the decisions that she had to make. Aboard the ship, she’s presented with new choices, and finds herself unsure if she has what it takes to make them. The story is steeped in tragedy. There’s such a frustration on Ayo’s part, that she didn’t get a chance to fight against this coming terror before it was too late. Because things were kept secret. Because some people accepted them as inevitable. And because of that, she has to face what’s happened, and push back against the tide sweeping her toward a fate she is desperate to avoid.
Keywords: Historical, Slavery, Water, Death, CW- Death of a Child, Marriage
Review: This is not an easy story, thanks in large part to the horror of the situation and where it puts Ayo. She has lost so much, been forced to decide things that no should have to, and is trapped by the guilt and shame of it. She wants to die, and I like how the story approaches that, not that she really desires death but that she wants to die well, to die free, and surviving at this point just isn’t very important to her. Because really, surviving at this point seems to only prolong the torture of what is happening, prolonging the amount of time she has to live with what she has done. And the magic here is one that comes from the ocean, from the raging waters, is gentle but is also harsh and unstoppable. And that’s fitting, I feel, because of everything that has happened. Ayo’s time for needing other assistance is past—all that remains before she’s taken completely away from her home is a final storm, a torrent to wash her clean of what she’s done and usher her into the next life. It’s a story of...not victory exactly. In this situation victory has been put out of reach. There is no escape, no turning the ship around. But it is a story of stopping the pain and hurt and maybe spreading it out a bit so that it’s not just Ayo and her people who bear all of it. So that there can be an ending, and one much cleaner and better than the end waiting either in starvation, disease, or slavery. A complex piece very much worth spending some time with!

“Dying Lessons” by Troy L. Wiggins (2589 words)

No Spoilers: A young person is trained in this story to use their powers, which they’ve inherited from both their parents. Light from their mother, shadows from their father. The ability to disappear. The ability to manipulate darkness. This unfolds, though, as racial violence in the country escalates, and armed gangs travel through cities, targeting people and families and gunning them down in their homes and neighborhoods. When that violence comes to the narrator’s life, all that they’ve learned from both their parents is put to the test. And all the things that they’ve been taught falls before the brutality and bigotry of those that they face. It’s an unsettling read because of the violence it depicts, but also powerful and necessary because of what it reveals about what’s going on beneath that violence, and what that violence leaves in its wake.
Keywords: Powers, Light, Shadows, CW- Gun Violence, Family
Review: I almost want to call this story a superhero piece, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Or, if it is, then the story is an origin story about the narrator and how they came to embrace their power. Because their parents, while powered, seem never really to have used them for more than personal protection. They have recognized that them having powers does not make them safe, and that they still had to keep them secret and their lives as normal as possible. For all that things have been dangerous for them, though, things seem to be getting worse. The violent backlash is intensifying and though the narrator’s parents have lived through Some Shit, this is Some New Shit and their tactics, designed to protect themselves and those they care about, don’t exactly work. And what’s left is the narrator, who has been taught all of the ways to blend in and stay safe, but who sees in brutal clarity that it’s not enough. That hiding and running isn’t enough any more. That there has to be a reckoning, and that they are going to help bring that about. It’s a story that acknowledges the need to fight back, to avenge. Like a lot of the stories in the issue so far, it seems the need for action over safety, because safety was always an illusion anyway. And here more than the others, imo, I feel confronted with the realities of the violence, of the hate, of the racism. And I feel the frustration and the need to Do Something. Which makes for a tense, obliterating read that you should definitely check out!

“Venus Witch’s Ring” by Inda Lauryn (7000 words)

No Spoilers: Dora is a woman who always wanted to be a musician, but who feels she never got the chance. Because her family was too poor to afford for her to pursue music at a young age. So that now, years later, she finds she doesn’t have the foundation to build on to become a great musician. At least, not on her own. Which is what brings her to Crossroads and a pale man with something to offer her—the hands of Lisa Beth Johnson. But who Lisa Beth Johnson is, and what it would mean for Dora to take her hands, requires a stroll through a music history that could have been, and brings Dora to a place where she must decide what she’s going to do. The piece is slower and definitely less violent than the last, but still builds well, with a keen eye toward innovation and patience and expression. Lisa is resilient and persistent, never afraid of putting in work and never surprised by how the gatekeepers in the music industry try to push her out. There’s a very resonant theme of paying it forward that unfolds in the work, and really lands with an ending that is all about celebration, love, and trying to make a positive impact in a field.
Keywords: Music, Bargains, Crossroads, Fame, Innovation, Talent
Review: I would hazard to be there’s a lot of people who wanted to be musicians. Who wished that they could find a way to express the music that they feel inside them. But who didn’t have the chance to get the training necessary to really explore that. And so who end up at the periphery of music. For Dora, that seems an injustice that she wants to fix. By making a deal with the devil in order to get the hands of a great musician, although one who has gone through her career as a relative unknown. And yet the deal goes beyond what the hands can do, and what Dora would be taking, which is the possible impact that Lisa could have. Lisa isn’t super well known, but within the story she does so much to push music forward, helping to innovate genre after genre and yet never getting the credit for it. working for the love of music and yet never finding that people want to know her or promote her. Because she’s a black woman in an industry that very much values white men above all others. So she fights. And she helps others. And she teaches. And in her wake music is a better place. And I feel what Dora realizes is that she doesn’t need to be a musician in order to be important to music. That being famous isn’t everything. That she can help a lot just by being that person who will try to help others. By, in this case, becoming a music journalist and helping to do things like raise awareness of Lisa. It’s a story of inspiration and touching lives, and realizing that it’s not all about talent, or even putting in the practice. It’s a matter of believing in music and trying to build and maintain a music scene that is inclusive, rewarding, and just. And the story is just amazing!

“Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone” by Eden Royce (5241 words)

No Spoilers: Mixie is fairly recently divorced and living with her mother, still working the family business, which involves cooking and ghosts. Tempted from the other side by their favorite dishes, spirits can be asked for answers to questions, advice, and truth. When Mixie gets the news that the latest client is the new wife of her ex, who died not long after divorcing Mixie, and a whole slew of old feelings are dredged up. But Mixie is a professional, and might just be hoping to get some answers herself. The piece moves quickly and has a great conflicted tone to it, a messiness when it comes to Mixie’s feelings about Terrell, her ex. The story shines with its characterization, with the relationships and interactions between Mixie, her family, her ex, and this new woman who was with him well before the divorce. It’s a perfect scene for drama, and the story delivers a fun, funny, rather mischievous experience.
Keywords: Ghosts, Cooking, Marriage, Divorce, Truth
Review: The final story of the special issue closes things out on a...I almost want to say lighter note, and I think even in a story weighed down at times by ghosts, murder, and revenge, it _is_ a lighter story. Mostly, for me, because of the voice of the story, of Mixie, who is crisp and conflicted, messy but strong. She’s divorced and mostly okay with that, because she’s not a fool and doesn’t have great patience for fools. And her ex, Terrell, was somewhat full of himself, demanding to come first in her life when she had no intention of living that way. And yet the way it ended, and that he ended up dead soon after, seems to rankle Mixie. She wants answers, and perhaps she also wants to be able to rest knowing that he made a terrible mistake in breaking up with her. She’s a bit competitive, definitely stubborn, and delightful in the way that she cuts to the heart of what’s going on when the seance goes very wrong very quickly. It’s a summoning, but for me it also acts a bit as an exorcism, where Mixie can get out her lingering doubts and hurts about her divorce. And along the way there’s a mystery to solve, a villain to be brought to justice, and a delicious meal to eat. It’s evocative celebration of a story, Mixie carrying the day and appropriately smug about it. A joy to read!


“Hula Hoops” by Oak Morse

This poem focuses on speech and on shame, on bullying and being bullied. The narrator is a man remembering being a boy and teasing his cousin, who was taking speech classes. Who found some satisfaction in torturing someone, because otherwise it was the narrator being tortured, being teased because of a mole on his upper lip. And the piece really looks at the way this works, the way that life can seem to move in these circles, cruel cycles that threat to grind people to gore and dust. And I feel there’s this yearning guilt to the poem, a regret because the narrator can see what happened, can look back and see the missed opportunity that he had, to reach out in kindness and understanding to this cousin. Because the narrator was older and should have understood how difficult it is to be bullied. Shouldn’t have wanted to inflict that on someone else. And yet that urge is often there, because for those who feel that they have no power, sometimes in order to feel powerful they have to target those that they can. And here it means someone who is younger and an easier target. But that sort of relief lasts only as long as the more vulnerable person remains that way. And people grow. Speech problems can be remedied. And the narrator can find himself many many years later realizing that he’s not be able to move past his own pain, his own bullying. And is perhaps he sees that maybe, if he had been nicer to his cousin, he might have been fostering a world that wouldn’t make him so self conscious about his mole, and he might be in a better place than where he’s at. It’s not exactly a speculative poem that I can tell, but it is a wonderful read!

“Cagastrophe in Steerage” by Michael Díaz Feito

This is a rather strange poem that unfolds in space, on a ring ship, where the narrator has kind-of killed his father. And okay, I will admit that this one might pass by me, might skip over my head, but let me crack my knuckles and try to think about it some. The opening is abrupt and extreme, fratricide over something that seems like a moment’s frustration rather than a concerted effort of kill. And yet from the title and from some of the moments within the poem I’m guessing that this has to do with money, with danger, with a child who resents their father for a great many things, but still never expected this. There’s an element of trauma, of surprise, of suddenness that weaves into the poem for me, where nothing seems bolted down. It’s weightless, and in that weightlessness there’s an element of the absurd. The entire situation is one that the narrator seems to want to deny, that they want to just go away. And yet it’s there, for all that maybe it was a mistake, for all that maybe there is no good reason why any of this has happened. It’s complicated and it’s weird but I think it’s very much wrestling with. The poem is beautiful and a bit haunting, giving to be a feel of desperation and regret, chaos and opportunity slipping away. Go check it out!


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