|Art by Christopher Jones|
“Vīs Dēlendī” by Marie Brennan (4736 words)
No Spoilers: Harrik Neconnu is a magic student with the audacity to petition for the field’s highest honor directly, asserting that he can so impress the greatest mages of the time that they will acknowledge his place among them. It’s a brazen act, and yet Harrik seems so sure of himself, and they have to let him try, even if every fiber of their bones is certain he is wasting their time. The outcome, though, is something that none of them expect—not even Harrik himself. It’s a story that captures the feeling of academia while infusing it with a magic, a darkness, and a view of someone who is probably very familiar to readers. It’s almost funny at times, but also depressing as fuck, and it manages that balance quite well.
Keywords: Magic Schools, Examinations, Ghosts, Obsession, Resurrection, Grief
Review: This story does a great job of revealing an aspect of academia that is fairly pervasive—the asshole dude who is so certain of himself. Harrik here is described as mediocre, forgettable. Nothing like Voland, a student who died because a similarly overconfident dude fucked up and killed her on accident. But Harrik was obsessed with Voland, and has made it his dissertation (basically) to bring her back to life with the power of his grief at her death. Grief, however, that the story slowly shows has nothing to do with Voland and the tragedy of her death. Instead, Harrik’s motivations are purely selfish, focused on his own loss and entitlement of Voland—her life and her death. The piece explores just how toxic this kind of mentality is, just how dark and awful Harrik is and also just how certain of himself, never doubting that he is doing the right thing, never wavering in his determination to bring Voland back in a way that will make her his. And the story shows how this is encouraged in academia, how especially men are pushed to violate whatever they want if it will get results, while it’s often women who pay the price of it. And how the whole system is culpable of promising Harrik rewards for his actions in a way that, had he been successful, would have made him in charge. That he failed doesn’t make the system just, and whilel he did fail and there is some comfort to be drawn from that, I still see the story as having this very dark core, this sharp critique not just of assholes in academia, but of academia itself for maintaining a structure that promotes this in order to promote “progress” above all else, which is adorned with these tragedies and injustices. And it’s a fun story, forcing this confrontation with the twisted will and vision of Harrik Neconnu while ultimately (and thankfully) having him revealed as the complete asshole he is. A fine read!
“On the Lonely Shore” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (3495 words)
No Spoilers: In this rather slow burn historical fantasy with nicely romantic notes, Judith is sent to accompany Balthazar to a family beach house typically reserved for the infirm. She’s to keep him company in the isolated location in the hopes that his health will improve, but as time passes and his mysterious malady persists, the distance from civilization and the pain from his affliction drain Balthazar and leave Judith faced with some difficult choices. It’s a story that mixes some gothic elements—the isolated estate, a taste of the unknown, a broody rich-boy—and adds in an ending that doesn’t run away from the speculative. It’s a quiet, atmospheric drama with a great sense of approaching dread that sublimates into something else instead.
Keywords: Illness, Beach House, Nurses, Historical Fantasy, Transformation
Review: This story sets itself up in rather classic fashion, following the lines of a gothic horror with its isolated estate and its moody guy in need of some nursing. The romantic elements are subtle but move nicely, Judith and Bathazar nicely paired and enjoying a rapport that shifts over time from easy friendship to sexual tension. In the background of that is Balthazar’s mysterious relationship to the house and his growing despair about what’s happening to him. Which Judith, in turn, seems to take to be his complicated relationship with his illness, his hopelessness but also his frustration that he’s missing out on the culture he so enjoys. Which I do like, because it goes much deeper than just missing a season of the opera. Balthazar’s mourning is for much more, for the human world entirely, and it’s a rather deep moment when it’s revealed, when the reader finds that he’s been hiding something much different from a terminal prognosis. And yet even from the darkness and the loss that the story conjures, it also finds passion and joy there as well, in the very horror that could have been. Instead of revulsion, there’s a sort of passionate surrender to what’s happening, to the beauty that can exist only here, only removed from the rest of civilization. Where Judith and Balthazar can enjoy the touch of the uncanny, the luminous dark wrapping them in a blanket and making room for the expression of their feelings. It’s a strange and rather quiet piece, but also a lovely and moving read!
“Before the World Crumbles Away” by A. T. Greenblatt (5992 words)
No Spoilers: The world is cracked in this story—by earthquakes that strike again and again, straining every level of society, and by the hopelessness that threatens to tear everything apart. The despair that comes from not believing that things will get better, when they’re already so hard. Elodie works in a morgue and programs on the side, hoping to place her android in a competition that could earn her some money and maybe freedom. Marina is an artist whose brother went deep in debt to pay for eye surgery that allows her to full see the world. The two women meet on the edge of a lake and something kindles between them, something delicate in a world that seems bent on destroying even the hardiest. The story is romantic but bleak, and when I say bleak I mean capital Really Fucking Bleak. And yet at its center it finds joy and warmth and a resilient hope that comes from people caring about people.
Keywords: Earthquakes, Debts, Painting, Jobs, Queer MC, Androids
Review: This is a beautiful and beautifully devastating read that builds up this relationship between Elodie and Marina only to show the universe absolutely wailing on them. It’s a setting that is already dim and grim, full of random cracks and shakes that have left everyone with PTSD. Elodie and Marina both try to move on, to find reasons to hope. Marina paints scenes with the damage in them erased. That show something people can hope will come again. While Elodie programs hoping to leave something useful behind, something functional that will help to build that better world. And yet both of them are hindered by the harsh reality around them, and at every turn it seems that their hope is tested, their lives shaken and shattered a piece at a time. And I love the idea of the beautiful lie because for me that’s kind of their relationship. Not to say that it’s not great but that for most of the story it’s a lie, built around the things that both of them don’t want to tell the other. Lies of omission just like Marina’s paintings, that gives them something to cling to in the turbulent sea around them. Only of course the lies sort of break down, and it’s just gutting to watch. Because I think we do all want the lies to win out. To think that maybe we can fake it until we make it. Where the reality is that there’s not hope enough for some things. That they must be faced and navigated and felt. The ending of the story comes with the two women leaning on each other in an act of defiance, of resilience, consciously picking to move forward even if their hope is a lie, aware on some level that it might not be enough. But deciding that for now, they still want to try. It’s heartbreaking in a kind of wonderful way, because it captures this feeling of compassion and kindness and love persisting despite the profound ways the world has gone to shit here. It’s tender and its maybe futile but for them in that moment it’s what they need, and they both freely give it. And yeah, just an amazing read!
“Other Forms of Conjuring the Moon” by Chloe N. Clark
This poem speaks to me of the power of image and imagery, of the way that people become desensitized to certain things because of the entertainment they take in, because of the way certain acts are considered magical, or fake, or harmless. Specifically, the poem relates through the narrator’s voice a dislike of the magician’s trick with the woman in the box that gets run through by swords. And I love how the poem builds that up, the dread that escalates and escalates as the “trick” is described. Because it is something that the magician plays with, the uncertainty people have about if there’s real danger. And like so many things, the effect hinges on no one reacting to seeing a woman entering into a dangerous situation with a man who seems to want her harm. The act is typically played almost for laughs, the magician assuring the woman that it’s safe while showing the audience his intentions, the blades, the box. The woman is led and the audience watches and says nothing, does nothing, complicit in the act and caught wondering if she’s going to be hurt or if she’s going to end up unharmed. And this is what the audience is there for, what they’ve been taught is entertaining, this space where they aren’t acting to help a woman made powerless before a man’s violence, saved only by accident, really, only by magic. And the narrator here asks in that last line how long people see this before they don’t feel the tension, before they stop believing that there’s any danger at all? How long before they see a woman in danger and just assume that she’ll be fine because men are just magicians, none of them really going to hurt anyone, just make pretend? It’s an uncomfortable and sharp poem that pulls back the curtain to reveal the mechanisms behind this fairly familiar scene, and it’s definitely a piece to spend some time with. A great read!
“things you don’t say to city witches” by Cassandra Khaw
This poem speaks to me of, well, of breaking up with an asshole. Or at least the narrator here speaks to the presumption of someone who would think that they could do something as deeply impactful as ruin an entire city. The piece reflects some of that arrogance and swarm that the narrator deals with, that they then respond to in clear terms, dissecting the ego that conceives of itself as as large as a city. Tucked into that is also a celebration of what cities are, their complexity and the way that they can get into a person. The way that living in a city can be like being a relationship with it, with the entire place, learning it and having this kind of intimacy with it even through its scope and scale are so large. And the narrator then brings that back to the person speaking to them, to the person who says the wrong thing to the wrong witch and gets a schooling on how little they are compared to a city. And I like it because it’s not that it’s an angry poem. Indeed, the main feel I get from it is one of wonder, and happiness, and hope, just in this rather cutting way, where it’s done to show this person who fucked up how small they are and how little this breakup is going to bother the narrator. That for the narrator there is still the city means so much more to them than the relationship. That they will continue on, having this connection to the place and the feel of it even as they forget and slough away all their connections to this terminated relationship. And it’s great because that’s exactly what would piss off a dude who would say something like that. It takes that certainty he has, that sense of being so big and powerful, and cuts it away so that he’s left measuring himself to a place with all its culture and history and depth, and finding himself lacking. Which makes for a great read!
“Wendy, Waiting” by Sandi Leibowitz
This poem speaks of constraints as it frames the narrator as Wendy waiting for the return of Peter Pan. Not, however, in a sort of pining way, not waiting for him to return and love her or anything so dreary as that. Indeed, it’s not for want of eternal youth, either. The Wendy of the poem has no problem living. Indeed, she wants to live, wants to embrace life and overcome the barriers arrayed against her. And that is what drives my reading of the poem, this yearning for more is being allowed her. Wendy speaks of the roles that she rushes through, from girl to grandmama, but all of them are limited by societal norms, by the expectation that she bend herself to suit others, to serve others. She has to marry and have children in order to get what freedom she can, but meanwhile she knows freedom, and knows that in some ways it’s being squandered on the boy who won’t grow up. Who is trapped in childhood, which she doesn’t want at all. For me, what she actually wants is...to fly. To have the ability to rise beyond the constraints of gravity, the constraints of convention, the constrains of polite society, so that she can slip them all and be finally able to embrace her feelings and her need to be free. And there’s something lonely and sad about this situation, about the way that she’s waited so long, hoping for Peter return while also wishing there was another way, any way for her to just have the freedom she wants instead of waiting on an unreliable source to come and give her something that she shouldn’t need to wait for at all. That she shouldn’t have to know an entire life of denial, of boundaries. Which is what Never feels like to me, a refusal to her requests, to her desires. The answer she receives every time she might ask when it will be her time to be free. A wonderful read!