|Art by Galen Dara|
June sees a new issue from Strange Horizons and a new issue of SFF-in-translation from sibling publication Samovar. Together they offer up three short stories and two poems, all that carry a heavy edge of weird with them. The stories are rarely straightforward, taking innovative approaches to time, voice, and setting, weaving tales that blink across year or unfold in the nebulous space of dreams. They are full of strange characters, dark secrets, and small watchful eyes. For all that they also seem to reach for justice, and if not for hope than for something deeper and darker. It's a rather difficult pair of issues to describe, but I'll give it my best as we get to the reviews!
“Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time” by Alex Yuschik (5869 words)
No Spoilers: Dog and Heron are partners in a dangerous and lucrative business. They steal things, or protect people, or kill people. Or to help someone die...and come back. They are masters of arts that few know: Dog of the ability to partition his heart into different aspects, each giving him different skills; Heron of the ability to slip through time, to live non-linearly. The two are linked by their chosen jobs and their unspoken love for one another. A love that might doom them both...or save them. It’s a complex and intricate piece told from Heron’s point of view as he slips through time, orbiting Dog at different times in his life, running from a fear and yearning that seems too powerful to bear.
Keywords: Hearts, Time Travel, Queer MC, Resurrection, Assassins
Review: I love the dynamic and relationship with Heron and Dog. They are so messy! And they have this whole Thing where they don’t really want to face or admit to their feelings for each other because Reasons. Like, so many reasons. At least as I read it, there’s Dog’s deep insecurity that Heron knows everything about him, that he’s fated somehow and that he’s fated to be alone. That the reason that Heron doesn’t say anything is either Heron doesn’t love him back or Heron knows somehow that they Aren’t To Be and it’s just so heartbreaking to see that play out, where Dog goes back and forth them, at times self-destructive, at times trying his hardest to atone, to be a better person. But always scared at the same time that he can’t confess his feelings because then Heron will reject him. And Heron, not living linearly and yet with this feeling that he shouldn’t change things, that if he tried to confess his own feelings then he’d reach a time when Dog would reject him, that it would ruin the moment. Which is why I think he avoids going forward in time, when for him it’s either the past or the present, because he’s afraid of what he might find in the future. Not just that Dog might die, but that there might be a future where they’re not together. Where Heron is the one to go and embrace the end, even as he doesn’t want to, even as he’s sure he wouldn’t. But there’s this doubt that is just so real, that even being someone who can travel through time itself, he doesn’t trust time, doesn’t trust himself, doesn’t fully trust Dog. He’s afraid, running through time from his feelings and from the future he wants. And it’s just this beautiful and romantic and kickass journey that he goes through with Dog, the two growing closer and closer and maintaining their distance and fear until it all becomes too much. Until they have to make the decision of if they’re going to run away or if they’re going to stay and deal with it and for once they’re on the same page and it’s JUST SO GOOD! Seriously go and read this one like right away. The world building is great (light but with enough to really get this feel of part martial arts movie, part sprawling fantasy) and the characters are just so amazing. A fantastic read!
“Morpheus” by K.A. Teryna, translated by Alex Shcartsman (4957 words)
No Spoilers: Egor seems to have the ability to control his dreams. Or perhaps that’s not quite right. From a very young age, though, he seemed to be able to move through dreams as if it was a house, entering into other people’s dreams and even altering them if he wanted to. The piece is deeply strange and decidedly dark, with the narrator twisted by desires and haunted by a force within the realm of dreaming. A force that might be a native to dreams, or might be much closer to home than Egor wants to think. The piece is cyclical and carries a dream logic with it, which makes it at times hard to make linear sense of, but that does paint a rather unsettling picture of power, abuse, and corruption.
Keywords: Dreams, Violation, CW- Suicide, Darkness, Control, CW- Rape
Review: This is a rather dark and unsettling piece because of how it draws the reader in slowly to the strangeness, to the way that the narrator moves through and shapes dreams. Which is something they have always done but also something that carries with it a lot of trauma thanks to the fact that they basically killed someone when they were a child. And as terrible as that was, as much as it fucked them up and made them flee from dreaming, it’s also a toxic power that they seek back out when things in their waking life don’t go the way they want it. And it’s a striking portrait of someone who has been dumped and who doesn’t accept it, who doesn’t see their partner as deserving autonomy or consent. Who tortures her in her dreams by making her come back to them again and again, in ways that are very intimate and awful violations. And I find it telling that the narrator seeks to distance themself from Morpheus, from this force within the dreaming that seems to revel in cruelty and evil. And yet at the same time it seems a part of him, a shadow of himself that he tries to deny but that he also embraces whenever he has something he wants, pretending that he has no control when it’s him who is the only one with control. Until, at least, it seems like he might be trapped not by guilt but by someone trying to even the score, to fight back against what he’s done and maybe give him a taste of his own medicine. As I read it, at least, he seems trapped in his dreams, made to feel how it is to not have control all the while having the world around him change, questioning at all times if he’s finally awake only to find that there’s a new layer, a new level, a new hell for him to languish in to fit the sins he’s committed against others. It is by no means an easy read, because both formally and content-wise it’s difficult, but I also feel like it’s reward, because it gets into the sort of dream-logic that’s required for those who violate other people, who think their own wants should trump the lives of others. It is not enough to fantasize about what he wants, he needs to actually impose them, because he can, and it’s a skin-crawling experience that’s certainly worth spending some time with!
“The Spider’s Widow” by Houyem Ferchichi, translated by Ali Znaidi (2029 words)
No Spoilers: This is an intensely strange and rather poetic piece that once again (like in the previous story) blurs the lines between “making sense” in a linear fashion and instead embraces its weird to convey a story of loss and betrayal, hurt and transformation. It seems to build up this story about a spider in a house on a plateau, and the spider might be a woman, and both might kill unwary strangers because of a history of hurt and loss. And maybe it brushes against the way that folktales are reflected in real life, and how they lead into each other, refine each other, reflecting in both directions or fears and our hopes and our complicated idea of justice.
Keywords: Folktales, Spiders, Seduction, Weaving, Rumors
Review: This really is a lovely read, even as I know I struggle to really find a reading that I’m confident in. Like poetry, a lot of this reading is very personal because I feel like it steps away from telling a conventional story. It’s meta in that it’s looking at folktales and layers of narratives, transformations of spider to woman to spider to story, when the reality seems to be that the world is unsafe and uncertain, and in that situation people tend to do desperate things to try and take back some level of control. What I can say is that there seems to be a woman whose father was killed, whose family because vulnerable. And she tried to protect them through weaving, only weaving stopped being enough, and so she saved and built a place where she could do something different, where she could lure strangers like those who killed her father and kill them, rob them, take back something as had been taken from her. Only in doing so she steps into a folktale, becomes a spider, a monster, a dark force that people shun and don’t want to consider. And I think the piece becomes about the different things we take from folktales. For the woman, the role of the spider is one she relishes, one she aims for. A cautionary tale for some, for her it’s what she wants because it protects her, because it allows her to do something about her situation. And perhaps as I read the piece that’s the point, that these stories are complicated by situation and circumstance, so that the meaning we take away depends on our personal hurts and history. And it’s a fascinating examination of folktale and conflict and want, and I definitely suggest people check it out and see what they think!
“we aren’t their fairytales, baby” by Cassandra Khaw
This piece speaks to me of anger and betrayal. To me the narrator seems to be s spurned lover speaking to the person who is now with their ex. An ex that it seems like the narrator and this other person fought over. And it seems more complicated than that, messier and with deeper scars. Because the piece speaks to this kind of looking back, of speaking to this person who they probably hated for what they did to this past relationship. Did the person the narrator is speaking to get with the now-ex? I’d guess there was some cheating involved. Given some of the imagery, and the title, I’d also guess that the narrator was pregnant or had recently had a child. And I really like that the focus here is on the narrator affirming that this thing that must have seemed so bad at the time, that hurt and that was probably hell to go through, was actually the best outcome in that situation. Or, if not the best, than a good outcome, because being in that relationship was toxic and the narrator couldn’t see that at the time. They were so invested in the idea that they had to be a certain way, that they had to be the fairy tale happily ever after for their ex, that they didn’t seem to really have a space for themself. They were stuck inhabiting this role where they worked for him and hurt for him and sacrificed for him, all so that they could live up to the idea of the perfect relationship. And it all blew up in what seems like probably a dramatic fashion. And now, with some distance, they see that they’re better off without that relationship. Better off on their own (or on their own with their child, if there is a child). And I just like that, the way the piece cuts to that by confronting this other person with the question of if they’re happy. Because it’s supposed to be happily ever after, and if both people in the relationship aren’t happy, does that really count? A great read!
“Exile” by Hawad, translated by Hawad, Hélène Claudot-Hawad, & André Naffis-Sahely
This piece speaks to me of yearning, of a loss of something, of somewhere, that cannot be regained. That was perhaps never stationary to begin with but that now is gone forever, its footprint blown away by the winds of time, washed clean by conflict until there is just the memory that remains, the nostalgia that the narrator carries that keeps them going, that acts as a sort of unreachable star that still they sail by and towards. And I just love the feel of the piece, the way that touches on taste and touch, the way that it shows the narrator seeing wonders and luxury but still holding this missing piece, an absence that just cannot be filled because it can never be sated for an instant, never experience enough to dull the ache of need and want and loss. And I really like that it speaks to this even as the path lies always forward, and they continue to move and to explore, to seek and use this want inside them to inform their travels, to keep them hungry and never satisfied enough to stop. It’s a way to carry forward some of that movement of their childhood, the migration that they remember that has now ceased, has now been cut loose. And what I love so much about it is that feeling that this loss is something that they carry, something that in some ways defines them, and they’re not setting it down. They’re taking it as far as they can, past the oceans and into the stars themselves, into whatever afterlife awaits, into the very mouth of oblivion because it’s what they can do, because it’s all that’s left, and despite living in exile, despite never being able to return home, their journey allows their how to live on in a way, to become one with a larger movement and migration, to echo forward for as long as there are feet to follow into the great unknown. And it’s a gorgeous piece that’s a fantastic way to close out the original offerings from this latest Samovar!