Friday, June 21, 2019

Quick Sips - Diabolical Plots #52

Art by Joey Jordan
June brings a pair of SFF stories to Diabolical Plots that are very much about places. Two very different places, perhaps (one bustling city, one small village), but still stories that really dig into the ways that settings shape a whole lot about the lives of the people living in them. And how no place, no setting, is inherently free of problems or dangers. Cities might contain multitudes, and promise wonder and magic, but they also have a weight to them that can be crushing. And small towns might seem idyllic for their connectedness, but there’s also an atmosphere of silence that can grow to resist shattering that community, even at the expense of the most vulnerable. So let’s explore some speculative settings and get to the reviews!


“The Ceiling of the World” by Nicole Crucial (1920 words)

No Spoilers: Margaret has moved from a small town to the Big City, chasing the prospect of a job and the glamour of the experience, of being in the middle of something so grand. Only what starts as an experience full of magic and wonder slowly turns into something else as she notices that the city isn’t staying the same, but rather growing in ways that seem to twist what she loved about it to start with. The piece is strange and the speculative elements come with the weight of familiarity, making literal the feeling that a city can change around you, drawing you into some place dark and suffocating.
Keywords: Cities, Stairs, Change, Employment, Travel
Review: For me this story deals very much with the kind of hope of moving to a city and finding that in some ways it’s what you wanted. Margaret moves hoping to find work because there’s supposed to be a lot of it and there is. But the work is pretty much all low-paid, fairly menial, and really only allows for her to live there. She tries to think the best of the things that might not be the best (living in a basement with little light, having to walk up five flights of stairs to get to her office, the commute times) and for the most part, at least in the beginning, she is able to just keep going, to think well of it all. But there comes a time when these things begin to weigh, where the realities of the city break through their glow. And the wonder of being in a place where it seems like so much is possible is crushed beneath the ways that cities are not free from the systems that keep people exploited and stressed, that make it seem that the light fades, that the buildings push up until the sky is unreachable, until everything takes so much time and effort that being in the city is like a living presence slowly devouring you. It’s not a horror piece, but at the same time it has this dark to it, this shadow, this force that pushes Margaret down and plays with the way that everything becomes more dredging, more difficult as she stays in the city long enough, and all her hopes twist to despairs. Which is not to say that cities are bad or in any way worse than small towns, but that for some the allure turns into a kind of creeping trap that the atmosphere and mood of the story captures to great effect, and which leads to a kind of quick-sand feeling, slowly being pulled deeper and deeper toward ruin. A wonderful read!

“Bootleg Jesus” by Tonya Liburd (3368 words)

No Spoilers: Mara lives in an isolated village where magic isn’t supposed to manifest in people. A place that’s supposed to be safe from the god-like beings who manifest particularly potent gifts. For Mara’s friend Syndney, though, it’s not at all a safe place, and for all the children it’s somewhere they are not really free. As the story moves, though, Mara learns something about her own power, and seeks guidance from a small idol, a bootleg Jesus that only speaks to her. The piece is intensely dark, interrogating the ways that people imagine themselves safe, the ways that people hold faith, and the ways that faith can be shaken and tested. It doesn’t offer any easy or clean solutions, but instead focuses on the need to stand up for those betrayed by the systems that are supposed to protect them, even if that means embracing a power that carries with it its own price and burden.
Keywords: Religion, Family, Magic, CW- Rape, CW- Child Abuse, Growing Up
Review: This story starts with such a bright feeling to it, the tone and style for me matching something like a fairy tale. Not that fairy tales are always super happy, but there is a certain...innocence that is attached to the scene for me. An idyllic feel, that in this place tucked away with its goats and lack of magic, these children are growing up free from certain pains and certain fears. Which of course is ridiculous, because it’s not a place where they are really protected. The same things that put children at risk in other places (which boils way down to Might Makes Right), is very much in place here as well, where no one wants to believe that one of their own would abuse a child. And so it’s permitted, and people suffer, but the adults get to hold to that illusion of safety. And I love that in the story there is this bootleg Jesus, this idol who is on the one hand an affront to the white-washed Christianity that so many people believe in, and on the other hand is an earnest expression of faith, one where Mara can see herself in the divine in ways that she might not have been able to if she had only seen versions of Jesus that were white. It’s this clue from a young age that some rules can not only be broken, but must be in order to reach for justice. Because Jesus was a rebel, was a revolutionary, and making him the establishment, making him the upholder of the status quo over the pain of people, is the height of hypocrisy. It is allowing something good to be subverted and used for something that is only concerned with protecting those in power. And so it makes a lot of sense that it’s this bootleg Jesus who becomes a symbol and guide for Mara to embrace the divinity within herself, to take the power that she has and use it to protect others, to push back against injustice. Not that he’d probably be okay with killing, but the story takes an older testament approach to that, Mara having to take on this role of judge/jury/executioner because no one is giving her an actual route to justice. She acts, and she’s not sorry about it, and I like that, for all that it seems to put her on this very dark path where she might yet slide into ruin. But for the moment this is a story that nicely explores the need to escape those kind of abusive situations by any means, prioritizing first the victim and not pausing to consider the feelings of those who let the abuse happen in the first place. It’s often difficult and complex, but it’s also very much worth spending some time with. A great read!


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