|Art by Helen Mask|
Two short stories and two poems open up Strange Horizons’ March content. The fiction shines with magic and with beings who are a bit different than humans, passing through a world where they are set apart by their passions and their hungers and their hurts. Looking for ways to find expression and acceptance. The pieces swirl around love and art, meaning and freedom, and the poetry adds some excellent layering to the themes, revealing people and feelings ripe with longing, uncertainty, and, as always, strangeness. To the reviews!
“The Skinwalkers Ball” by Hammond Diehl (4802 words)
No Spoilers: Building up around a kind of fashion show/competition, the story unfolds before the eyes of an unnamed narrator (though it might be possible to guess what it might be). And this is no ordinary competition, no ordinary fashions on display. The contestants are skin walkers, and their creations are elaborate skins that make them into a host of different mythological creatures. Monsters and gods, they preen and perform in the hopes of moving the judge of the competition, an Alchemist named Ambrose. In keeping with the themes of the story, though, what’s happening on the surface of the show is only a sort of costume to what’s really going on, which is much darker and hungrier than it seems at first. It’s a strange read with an almost creepy feel for me, but a lovely prose and a complex view of art, performance, and skins.
Keywords: Art, Revenge, Skins, Bargains, Competitions
Review: This story carries with it an air of mystery and pageantry that is rather great. Framing it as a sort of fashion show is a great choice because of how, as I read it, it layers the ways that disguises and art are used. It asks in some ways what can constitute art, and looks at the figure of the main character, who just might be death themself, as perhaps a bit of an artist themself. And I just love that it’s all a ruse, all a dance of deceptions and bargains. The narrator has set a lot of this up, is in some ways desperate for an audience, one that might be able to really appreciate what it is they’ve done. There is a care and a kind of invested disinterest that pulls them between not wanting to seem like they care too much about this and being really very wrapped up if it’s working, if it’s going to be everything that they wanted. And it’s in some ways a story of revenge, of a father finally punishing the person who has been killing his children. That’s not the death that the narrator seems most interested in, though, and I like how there’s that other level, where the narrator is interested in Ambrose because they respect him as an artist. Because they want to be seen as an artist, their work experienced as art, and all of this kind of sets them up to really do that. The narrator is working in their own medium to create this powerful experience, in a way that mostly only they get to appreciate. But here they want to give someone else a peek, because they want to be seen, to be known. Why else sign their name at the end? And it’s a great commentary on art, through a work of fiction that then layers again with the artist, the author, acting as the guiding hand of it all, perhaps just as desirous as the narrator to ask if this is art, if this works, if this did what it was meant to do. And I’m not sure I can answer that except to say that it’s a gorgeous piece that’s very much worth spending some time with. A wonderful read!
“The Wind Whispers Secrets to the Sea” by Jordan Kurella (919 words)
No Spoilers: Told in first person plural, the narrator of the story seems to be the winds, a person who is a force of nature made of movement and emotions, stormy in their quest to find what they want. And the piece follows them as they meet people, as they seek out something that will give them what they want romantically and sexually and in all the ways that they are drifting and needing. It’s a strange piece, full of a almost violent energy, a drive that cannot be ignored, and one that needs something equally powerful in order to feel sated and fulfilled. Like the winds, there is something almost ephemeral and flighty, but pulled by a weight no less vast and solid toward an ending that is powerful and tender and passionate and secure.
Keywords: Winds, Seas, Fire, Queer MC, Relationships, Secrets
Review: I like how this story takes on relationships and power and allows the narrator space and time to work towards what they really want, a partnership that can be fully even, with neither person dominating, neither person confining the other. The relationships that the narrator describes—with their ex-husband, with Cole, and even outside of that with the women that they find afterward, are described often in terms of restriction. They don’t quite fit because the narrator is a wind and cannot really fit into any constraint that does not take into account their full self. And so the relationships they form end up featuring people holding them down, trying to hold them inside a shape that works for the relationship but doesn’t work for the narrator. They live with a certain kind of loneliness, a certain kind of airy hollow that they are trying to fill, and find some measure of success and comfort and acceptance and fulfillment with the sea, with someone who can accept them fully and support them in the ways that others could not. It’s a story for me that carries with it an edge of chill, the narrator someone who seems to have known pain and trauma, and I like that the story is affirming but not in the most traditional ways. It’s about a consuming need and drive and power, that of the wind itself, and how it finally finds its home and its equal in the sea, in an incredibly intimate and freeing moment. A great read!
“Absence” by Lore Graham
This poem speaks to me of parting, of two people going their separate ways. As the title implies, it’s a piece that is ripe with the hollow feeling left when someone is no longer there, in this case because they have left the planet for reasons unknown. Not, I think, our own Earth, but rather the poem unfolds somewhere else, on some other world that gives the separation that much more a sense of finality. Of distance. The piece looks at this ended relationship from the perspective of the narrator, who promised their now-departed lover a night together and then backed out of it. Which I like because of the way it complicates fault and the dissolution of this relationship, of what they had. The way that it doesn’t exactly give closure to it, though I don’t think that they have done anything wrong. Rather, I think that they were dealing with something large, with a fear and a pain that they didn’t know how to confront, and so they took the way out they saw. Which is refreshing to see in a way because it’s something where the narrator is caught between this person being gone, and perhaps knowing that they were going to go, and their decision to leave, to turn back, to maybe assert that much power over the situation. And no, it didn’t mean that the relationship didn’t end, didn’t prevent their former partner from going, but neither does even a promise mean they can’t change their mind and deal with the feelings that come after. And I like how that abrupt ending gives the absence described a sharpness, similar to how the narrator speaks of art and poetry and pain. It’s a piece that for me captures a sadness and a grief that goes beyond just the parting of lovers, but speaks to the dissatisfaction the narrator seems to have with the planet they’re on, with the dullness they’re stuck in. Which seems something that this other person helped to cut through and now the narrator has lost their coping mechanism, their confidante, their comfort. It’s sad and messy and full of a want the narrator can’t seem to give name to, that’s not exactly this person who is gone, but something deeper and more profound. And it’s a great read that I very much recommend you check out immediately!
“Nina Karlovna Bari (1901-1961)” by Jessy Randall
This poem looks at math and intent, history and tragedy, in the person of a mathematician, after whom the poem is titled. And it’s a piece in some ways about her death, about the way that her end is interpreted because of who he was and what she meant to people. The piece is structured as a history, or perhaps a bit of historical trivia, introducing the titular character and setting up her significance, why there are people who have opinions about her death, which seems to have come suddenly and seems to carry with it a bit of controversy. And for me the piece looks at the whys not of her death but the reaction to it. On how people want to find meaning in that death, want to find intent in it, that she threw herself in front of the train, because the alternative, that it was somehow an accident, seems...inappropriate for a woman like her, for a mathematician that looked at connections and convergences. But the poem notes that there’s no way to know, and that in some ways it being an accident is no less likely just because it would seem less than satisfactory to her life. Because in many ways all deaths are less than satisfactory, and no amount of meaning or appropriateness really makes them less so. And I like the poem for the way it stays at a distance. The math here is referred to as descriptive, and the poem is no less so, not exactly making conclusions of its own but bringing the reader to a point to see the convergences, the ways that everything might fit together. It seems to ask which we prefer, a universe in which these things are connected, in which they all come together and inform on each other, or a universe in which these are random. Which do we feel is more likely, and which more elegant or appealing? And by constructing the poem with that distance, with that uncertainty and light touch, it allows the reader to go as deep as they want, to start looking for other convergences as well. And it makes me want to know more about this mathematician, and about the history behind all of this, in part so that I can make further connections, this contemporary poem now converging as well with math and with history in a fascinating way. Another wonderful read!