Friday, October 12, 2018

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 10/01/2018 & 10/08/2018

Two stories and two poems open up Strange Horizons' October issues. And they are filled with yearning, with family, with hurt, and with the hope of healing. In all of the pieces, though, that healing looks very different. For some it's a personal thing that comes with freedom from other people's expectations. For others it's a societal thing that comes only through a collective effort to work for justice and against the pull of authoritarianism. In all of them, though, there are characters seeking to come to terms with their lives and the tragedies that have found them. Dark but glowing with a persevering light, they are difficult and beautiful, and I'll get right to reviewing them.

And fyi, the Strange Horizons funding drive is on, so get on that and help this amazing publication continue!

Art by Galen Dara

“The Palace of the Silver Dragon” by Y. M. Pang (7820 words)

No Spoilers: Aliah hears the song of the Silver Dragon, that calls the hopeless down into the sea. To die, perhaps. Or find the love and understanding that has eluded them on the land. For Aliah she’s not sure she cares, not sure what she wants, only that she feels like a monster and knows that she can’t stay. So she follows her brother, who gave himself to the song three years ago, and sinks. Only what she finds under the waves isn’t really what she was expected. And she certainly isn’t what the Silver Dragon was expecting, either. The story is strange and full of hurts, full of the quiet and loud ways that people feel broken, like monsters. And what it can take to make them feel whole again. Accepted. And there’s a kind of loss that drives the story forward. Not the loss of people, but a loss that stems from not fitting in, with being different and perceived as monstrous. A loss that seems to breed tragedy, though I think the story holds on, just barely, to something more hopeful and fragile and beautiful.
Keywords: Dragons, Seas, CW- Suicide, Stories, Souls, Bargains, Siblings, Queer Characters
Review: This is such a haunting and careful story for me, full of an almost eerie beauty but also one that refuses to conform to the more traditional styles. Aliah is a woman who has always felt out of place, who has always felt unloved and overshadowed. Monstrous because of what she’s willing to do, because of the urges she has to do things that are violent and hurtful. And yet they are also a part of her, not some sort of foreign presence exactly but something that she deals with. It both marks her out and help to confirm the fears and doubts she has about herself, because these urges and incidents get her a reputation, make it so that those people around her distance themselves. Which only makes things worse. And then she goes beneath the sea and meets the Silver Dragon, Karonin, and...well, doesn’t love him. Not in the way that everyone is supposed to love him. And yet he listens to her, and is patient with her, and accepts her exactly as she is. And I love that just doing that doesn’t mean that she changes, doesn’t mean that she loves him any more. In some ways it speaks to her not feeling romantic attraction to her and being allowed to find a place and outlet where that’s okay and safe. Where she’s not pressured to meet any other values or expectations. And it puts her in a place where she comes to be the one in the relationship with the power, the one who ultimately has to judge what should happen next. And I just love the aesthetic of the story, love the character work with Aliah and with Karonin. The way they are damaged and just looking for a release from their pains. The ending in my opinion isn’t exactly a triumphant one, but it’s one that I find beautifully devastating all the same. Where there is this great absence but also a sense of belonging, that Aliah finally has a place where she can just be herself and rest and be accepted, for however long it lasts. A wonderful read!

“Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap (7016 words)

No Spoilers: Set in the contemporary (or very near future) Philippines, this story focuses on Mebuyen, a sort-of deity who receives the newly dead (maybe just innocents?) at her house and gets them ready to move beyond, to the underworld. It seems that less people have been passing her way of late, but then a string of them begin showing up. A young girl. A trans woman. A boy who wants to be a police officer. All of them dead, killed in part of the current “war on drugs” series of police and vigilante killings. Killed by one man, it turns out, who needs to believe he’s doing the right thing, but whose dreams tell him a different story. It’s a gutting read, intense and unsettling and revealing some very real and unfolding injustice and tying it to mythology and beliefs that have existed for a long, long time. Which gives the feeling that for as old as Mebuyen is, these new horrors that she witnesses are new and need to be exorcised before the dead can rest, before the living can start to heal. It’s a chilling look at the rhetoric of authoritarian violence, showing how easily it can spread, and who are most often the victims when the rule of law is lost to corruption and hate.
Keywords: Afterlife, Death, Police, Injustice, Dreams, CW- Police Killings
Review: This story has such a weight to it, such a piercing look inside what makes corruption and authoritarianism possible. And it’s wrapped up in this cop, this cop who despite thinking that he’s doing the right thing, that this needs to happen, is pushed to kill again and again and can’t just turn off the part of himself that cares. That knows that it’s wrong. That realizes all of the harm that he’s done and all the lives, the wonderful lives, that he’s cut short. And the story doesn’t just make this man a monster, gives him depth and complexity...but does not let him off the hook for what he’s doing. For what he’s done. For who he’s killed. Though it’s not _all_ his fault, he is the one who can be reached. And that’s where I see the story acting, on trying to reach those who can still be reached. Because there are those who can’t be, who are so far into enjoying the killing, enjoying the power, that they cannot be reasoned with or talked to. There is no guilt or shame for them. But for this cop who cares, there is still hope. Not to undo the damage, but to stop it. And so I feel that this story is aimed there, at those who might just need to know that it’s okay to stop, that they can stop, that they can still do the right thing. That regardless of what they’ve done, they need to stop and work toward justice and healing and reconciliation. And wow, yeah, this story has a lot of grief and loss in it. It doesn’t pull its punches and it’s not about to let anyone look away from what is happening. It shows what it can, as earnestly and powerfully as it can, and perhaps with the hope that it’s enough. That _something_ will be enough to reach people and show them that what’s happening needs to stop. That the killings need to end. And it is a necessary and amazing story!


“Ice Pick” by Mehnaz Sahibzada

This poem is sharp, pointed. Like the title implies, it evokes a sort of violence that might erupt at any time. That acts in suppression of the narrator, to try and get her to conform with the expectations of what feels to me like a romantic partner. To be the presence that she is expected to be. For me at least the piece has this feeling of a couple where the narrator is supposed to be the meek but visible marker of the other person’s success. Assuming that the second person in this relationship is a man, it plays into how men use their partners, their wives, as symbols of status and power, and also as a visual reminder to people that this man should be safe and good. And yet as I read the story the woman, the narrator, is done being that presence. Is done being paraded about for the benefit of her husband. Though she’s had to do this for years, here she is finally refusing outright to participate. Here she is demanding that she be respected in her introverted ways. That she’s not lying when she says she doesn’t want to go. And the piece captures using these thin lines the resilience in the face of threat. The weaponized expectations that the narrator will submit, that she will do what her partner wants, that she will give in because it won’t be so bad, and she might secretly enjoy it, or she’s just being shy, or whatever reason her partner imagines that allows them to continue to pressure her into going against her nature, against her desires. And I just love that lingering sense that she’s done finally, that she’s not giving in, that she’s not going to be intimidating any longer by this passive aggressive look. It’s a great read!

“family talk” by Laura Theis

This is a strange and short poem, centered on the screen/page and discussing mothers and winds. The title evokes a sort of family meeting, as the narrator and the person they’re talking to might be, or else a talk about family. And the centering to me gives the piece a more airy feel, that works in with the nature of who the narrator is speaking to, and just conveys this sense of space. At least to me, the way that the text runs down the middle conveys a bit of movement, uncertainty, and fragility. The lines aren’t very long, the stanzas irregular and tending to short as well. The relationship between the narrator and the person they’re talking to isn’t known exactly, but it feels to me like something in an early relationship. A sort of clearing of the air, as it were. That both people are talking about their families, to sort of get that out of the way. Only here is something that wasn’t expected, a landmine, and as I read it that kind throws things into chaos. Because the narrator doesn’t seem to have a good read on the situation, thinks that they’re kind of joking, and it doesn’t seem like the person they’re talking is. And I love how loaded this is, how tenuous. The whole idea of family talk, of having that disclosure, and being in a rather complicated situation, is one that carries with it a lot of weight. Because you don’t choose your family exactly, don’t choose where you came from, and it can be hard on all sides to navigate that. And yeah, it’s a strange piece and so full of feeling, with an ending that might be tender or brutal or completely inappropriate, and weighing all the options is half the fun. Definitely a poem to spend some time with!


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