|Art by Ashley Mackenzie|
January sees a return to form for Tor.com, which took most of November and December off of fiction releases. They’re back, and with two short stories and two novelettes covering a lot of thematic ground. From living space ships to food magic, from jinni to wraiths. Most of the pieces deal with haunting, as well, in some form or another. And perhaps more specifically, with people haunting themselves. Holding themselves to the past in ways that are like chains, that offer them no hope or help to move forward. And the stories show how these characters seek to sever the ties with those pasts, with those dreams they have outgrown, so that they can put new ones in their place. The pieces lean dark and quiet, and it’s a wonderful collection of short SFF. To the reviews!
“The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Karin Tidbeck (5617 words)
No Spoilers: Saga is the...well, kind of the janitor of the crab ship Skidbladnir, which travels through the universe via rather unknown means, ferrying the rich while Saga labors to keep them comfortable. It’s not exactly the life she imagined for herself when the ship showed up in her village looking for someone who was good at fixing things, and increasingly it seems that her grand adventure is going to be just a low paid, rather menial job for the rest of her life. Until she finds out that all is not right with Skidbladnir, and that change is coming, whether people are ready for it or not. The piece is layered, switching between Saga’s life and synopses of a show that she’s a fan of, and the parallels are complex and add a lot to both narratives.
Keywords: Space, Travel, Crabs, Television, Home
Review: I love the way the story uses the nested stories of the television show Andromeda Station. First, it ties it to things like Star Trek or Babylon 5 and it’s just rather fun to see. More than that, though, I love how it builds up the idea and romance of space and space travel. It’s something that led Saga to leave on the crab ship. To travel to distant worlds. But as she says near the beginning of the piece, that kind of romanticism gives way beneath the weary grind of the work. And I think that points to something very real and very raw, the ways that people have this almost childlike enthusiasm for the adventure of growing up, of doing these amazing things, but then are sort of squeezed dry of it. How the realities of the situations are often such that they end up tired, grumpy, and depressed. Where the fantasy of space can’t live up to the reality of it. Except, of course, as the story progresses, we learn that’s not really the case. That, ultimately, the wonder of space is real and much more than a show could properly imagine. That the fantasy ends up paling in the face of the reality of space and all its freedom and hope and possibilities. And that it was always the system, the exploitative grind of employment and a focus on making money, that made space seem something dull and confined and hopeless. And that just speaks to me, because of how it imagines setting aside the dreadful parts of the job and finding meaning and fullfillment and adventure in doing what it is you really want to be doing. It’s fun and it’s a bit lonely to me, a bit melancholy, but also freeing, and reaching for a place where Saga can capture that magic that finally feels possible. An amazing read!
"Beyond the El” by John Chu (5968 words)
No Spoilers: Connor is a food crafter, able to use magic to bring any ingredient or dish to its bliss point, the place where the flavors are at their finest. He can cook without pot or pan and is trying to work his way back up the pecking order after having had to take time off to care for his dying mother. Despite the hectic life of working in the back of the house, though, it’s his family life that is taking the largest toll on him. Largely, the continued machinations of a sister who enjoys hurting him, and his own personal quest to recreate his mother’s potstickers. And what follows is a slow and deeply intimate story about loss and love and family. About fear and guilt and trauma. And it renders a wrenching and poignant picture of a young queer man struggling under the weight of familial expectations and roles and the desire to find love and acceptance.
Keywords: Food, Family, Recipes, Magic, Queer MC, CW- Abuse, Death
Review: Nope, just cutting onions to make this review theme-appropriate. Not crying at all. Not—okay who am I kidding yes I am crying because this is a beautiful examination of grief and loss and family and abuse. And it features Connor, who I really want to reach through the screen and hug because fuck is his family life pretty fucked up. Raised mostly by a sister who resented having to raise him, pushed into professions and roles that he didn’t want, kept from a part of his family, a part of himself because he wasn’t supposed to want to cook...just yeah, this story speaks to me of being someone who tries so hard to please people, to not make waves, to never be a burden or want things, but who on the inside is so full of want. Of touch. Of reassurance. That he just can’t ask for because of his trauma, because he was always punished and so can’t trust his own judgments or desires. It manifests in the way he flirts with Nick, the handsome singer at the restaurant he works at, where despite obvious mutual attraction he won’t make a move on. It manifests in the way he wants to recreate his mother’s potsticker recipe, part of him feeling still that if could just do it right, just make this perfect potsticker, that it would...change something. Basically it’s a story of being hurt and wanting to undo that hurt, wanting in some ways to be a different person, and finally, maybe, starting to change that. Starting to feel comfortable in your own life. A life that Connor realizes he has some control over. Where he doesn’t need to care about what his sister does, because he is independent and skilled and worth something. And there is just this deep power and quiet grace that I absolutely love in this story. Also, the food. You know I love me some foody SFF, and this is an amazing example. Seriously, people, you owe it to yourself to read this story. Go on now!
“His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal (7523 words)
No Spoilers: Binu is a trapese artist who doubles as a terrible actor and triples as a bit of a softie. His work in the air is a thing of beauty, and his acting is mostly comedy while the special effects of his best friend, an illusionist, really dazzle the audience. But it’s his soft heart that really set him apart and, it turns out, define how he moves through the world. Because not everything at Majestic Oriental Circus are quite what they seem, and before the story is through Binu will have to negiate real magic, angry gods, and a young woman on the run from a life of servitude. It’s a really fun piece, revealing Binu to be someone who operates on different rules than the society that he passes through. He wants things to work as his heart tells him, but keeps coming up against the real-world corruptions that force him into making bargains he’d rather not make.
Keywords: Circuses, Jinni, Acting, Gods, Bargains, Queer MC
Review: This story fits quite nicely with the previous in the world (“The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” at Strange Horizons), which focused more on Binu’s mother, and shows where he’s been since he disappeared from his mother’s lfie. It’s a story of performance for me, and bargains. Because so many people in the piece are performing in some way. For each other, mostly. They are concealing parts of themselves in order to cohere better, are bending themselves because they think that’s what others want of them. And in some cases that’s true. But only because the system is rather fucked, rather corrupt. They must mask themselves because being authentic makes them vulnerable. And only by clinging to the masks, and helping each other to hide and conceal their true identities and desires, can they try to keep each other safe and...well, not free exactly. But more free than otherwise. And I think that’s a large theme that runs through, that sort of incredmental freedom. Not total, not absolute, but that kind of freedom can’t really exist where there are castes, where there are structures that keep people in place invisibly and yet powerfully. And it has a sense of magic and adventure to it that is infectiously fun, and that makes for a great read!
“Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by JY Yang (9154 words)
No Spoilers: Lynette is a former circus girl, who worked with fire and knives and, following a rather traumatic event, was a first rate escape artist. Also after that event, though, she was linked to Mirror Boy. Not quite a spirit, not quite a ghost, Mirror Boy listened to her and helped her and the two grew close until Lynette started to want a normal life. Ten years later and he’s back in her life with something of a problem—someone’s trying to kill him. Which means killing everyone who he’s been linked to before. Which, it turns out, means Lynette. The piece is full of action, a sort of mystery surrounding the nature of Mirror Boy and why someone wants to end him so bad. The piece is also deftly complex, full of messy relationships and people not entirely sure what they want, but certain at least that they want to live. It’s a thrilling but intensely dark read, and people should be aware of the content warnings.
Keywords: Wraiths, Hosts, Circuses, CW- Sexual Assault, Queer MC, Mirrors
Review: This is a deeply dark piece, filled with abuses and a pull toward tragedy. The piece establishes that right away with the attack on Lynette after her mother dies, an attempted rape that ends in attempted murder, her survival thanks to the intervention of Mirror Boy and her own resolve to live. It’s that will to live that drives a lot of the story forward, despite her not living what most would consider a great life. Certainly not an easy one. It’s a life that even she doesn’t know much what to do with, or how to think of it. She likes it, mostly, but feels like a pretender, and I love that feeling, the way the story circles around life not needing to justify itself. Not needing to be about more than living. In some ways I see it as about listening, too. Because that seems the most important thing throughout the story, that act of listening to someone else, of reaching out in compassion and empathy. Of looking deeper than mere appearances, deeper than the surface of things. Because on the surface Mirror Boy is a wraith, something dangerous to be destroyed. And Lynette is infected, and better off dead. But they don’t feel that way. And had their Hunter listened to them, really tried to understand them, he’d have seen that there was no justice in his actions. No mercy. Nothing but murder. And I like how the piece builds up to that, how it weaves together a place where it’s easy to act first, to lash out, to hurt and kill. And it’s hard to dismantle that, to act more mindfully but no less decisively. And I like the space the story makes for that, where Lynette acts when she needs to, but she doesn’t act out of prejudice or fear or disgust. She acts out of need, to protect herself and others. And despite the darkness it is rather hopeful for that, that Lynette can have had so much bad happen to her and still reach for compassion and understanding first. It’s a wonderful read!