|Art by Armando Veve|
Coming off a full February, Tor's March lineup relaxes a bit with just one short story and one novelette (so far, at least, assuming nothing new slips in before the end of the month). The two pieces take on some very interesting settings, though, where the world has been changed by some rather huge events. In one, some animals have become Knowledgeable, uplifted to "human levels," though the true implications of the world are much more complex than that. In the other, we return to the Wild Cards universe, where a virus makes certain people develop power, turning them into Aces...or Jokers. The stories look at people trying to get by and maybe do the right thing, though in very different ways and tones. Before I give too much away, though, let's get to the reviews!
“Knowledgeable Creatures” by Christopher Rowe (5867 words)
No Spoilers: Connolly Marsh is an investigative dog, a former (and now quasi-disgraced) cop who poked his nose in the wrong crotch and got swatted with more than just a newspaper. Now making a living as a private eye, he should know better to get involved in the case that falls into his lap—a murder at a local school that’s nothing at all what it seems to be. At every step he has the chance to leave well enough alone, but Connolly is, well, like a dog with a bone when he gets on the scent of mystery, and the piece explores the dark corners that he begins to illuminate, before the shadows swirl and close in around him. It’s a rather noir tale but in a world where Knowledgeable animals are commonplace, though their origins are more contested than the Imperium would like people to believe. It’s rather fun, definitely dark, and an interesting introduction to a setting full of potential.
Keywords: Investigations, Research, Animals, Dogs, Mice, Crows
Review: This isn’t the first “uplifted animal” noir mystery that Tor has run, but it definitely takes the idea much farther and also shoots it back in time, connecting more to a historical fantasy/science fiction where animals have been uplifted since the times of Newton, and the world looks very different for it. As much as all the little teasers about the setting are interesting and fun, the piece mostly focuses on a murder that’s not a murder and a mystery that’s much deeper than anyone suspects. I like the layering of the story and the voice of Connolly, who is jaded and knows well enough how the system works, but who is still pulled by the greatest mystery of them all. And who, when faced with what might be the truth, finds that it makes him confront the reasons why he wanted to know. Or, for me, the story sets Connolly on a trajectory to find out the truth only to discover that he didn’t want to know. Not really. He wanted the opposite to be true, for everything to come together like a murder case, where there’s always a human or animal intelligence behind it. It’s the logic that makes sense to him, and when he got the scent that maybe something was different from that, I feel like he wanted to find out that the conspiracies were wrong, a front for some sort of more mundane crime. To discover that the crime is the facade, and the truth is what is hiding behind it, throws his world into a state where he can’t really recover. It breaks him in ways that are haunting and well rendered by the story, where here he is confessing his sins, but not in a way that really pushes for the truth to be revealed. He’s confessing with, for me at least, a sense of defeat. An acknowledgement that he shouldn’t have dug so deep, and that there’s really nothing he can do about any of it. And it’s a fascinating place for him, and for the story to explore, full of this giant darkness masquerading as a small shadow, a bit of still water that seems shallow but stretches to the origins of intelligence of Earth. A fine read!
“How to Move Spheres and Influence People” by Marko Kloos (12327 words)
No Spoilers: T.K. is a disabled high schooler living primarily in a boarding school where, while not exactly miserable, she’s not wholly happy at either. She’s facing some bullying, and as she tries to navigate the treatment something awakens within her. Her card flips, and it turns out she’s an ace who can control spheres. Which might not seem all that cool but is very powerful and built quite well in what turns out to be a rather solid origin story. The piece further expands the Wild Cards universe that I’ve visited a number of times by now, and it’s a rather upbeat and charming read. T.K. has a natural integrity and compassion that lends nicely to powers, as well as a curiosity that overrides any fears she might have about the sudden change, and makes for an interesting case study in this expansive universe.
Keywords: Wild Cards, Superpowers, School, Control, Spheres
Review: Part of what I find interesting about this story is that T.K. is wealthy. it’s something that’s obviously a big part of her life, and indeed sets up so much of her character, and yet I kept waiting for the story to sink its teeth into that a bit more, largely because it seems primed to. But as this is an origin story, a lot of these seeds have yet to germinate, and that’s completely okay, but it does make me a little more hesitant about the story and the direction it took because I don’t have what I would consider the full scoop on everything. I’ll break down what gives me pause, though, because I do think that the story is rather cute and fun and wholesome, and there’s an enthusiasm that I like, and a sort of forthrightness about T.K. that I quite enjoy. But. But the story does make it a point to showcase her wealth, and the fact that she’s an ace. And while she doesn’t choose this, it does put her in this place where despite her physical disability she is also rather privileged, and people all like her more because of her powers, which are useful and interesting and, well, powerful. And the first thing she really does with them is take down a joker terrorist. Who she can’t even understand. Who says things and has motivations and is probably not really wealthy and definitely not gifted with abilities like T.K.’s. The whole story sort of sets T.K. on this path where she wants to be a hero, wants to do good, but her experience is filtered through her wealth, which she doesn’t like to examine. So she acts for peace and order without really questioning who might not find this system fair or just. She acts to uphold the law and does so violently if not lethally. And that contrasts with the lighthearted fun of the story because there is some darkness there, a question in my mind about if she’s going to fall into line to protect the system that benefits her while condemning those crushed by that system as terrorists. But again, I do suspect that these elements were too prominent to not be picked up again in a future story with the character. As it is, it is a fun and entertaining read that I definitely think people should try out for themselves!