|Art by Qistina Khalidah
September keeps right on rolling at Strange Horizons, and between the latest two issues there is a short story and two poems to look at. The stories evoke darkness and myth, and the places in the world where magic seems able to slip through. The deep woods. The moments of tragedy that break the world a bit. But as much as there is violence and sorrow and grief and loss, there are moments of healing as well, and compassion and empathy, that might be able to knit back together the torn fabric of reality, while maintaining a bit of that magic. To the reviews!
“This is How” by Marie Brennan (1961 words)
No Spoilers: The story chronicles how a valravn is made, and how it acts. A monster without mercy, a valravn happens when a child dies out of cold or starvation, out of neglect or injustice, and a raven happens by and eats from the dead child’s heart. Something natural, almost, but also decidedly unnatural, wrong, and it births a creature that haunts the night, that attacks travelers and traps their souls within them. Only...only one of the souls the valravn of the story takes is different, and in that difference there’s a chance for change, and maybe even redemption. It’s a dark piece, and one heavy with grief and pain and injustice. But it’s also hauntingly beautiful, and never loses hope or compassion, even in the face of cruelty and pain.
Keywords: Ravens, Monsters, Souls, CW- Death of a Child, Transformations
Review: I have to admit I love the mythology in this story, the way that it describes how a valravn is created, that there is just this confluence of events that unlocks this malevolence. It’s something that common in folklore, that there are things that cause monsters, some of them rather random but many of them coming out of some tragedy, here being a child’s death, which twists the raven into a being that can transform into a knight and kill whoever they find. But the story is also more than that, and for me about the power of empathy over cruelty. Indeed, the story is about a kind of infectious empathy, one planted in the valravn when they kill a man who could still feel sorry of them, who apologized to them even as he was being killed. And it’s something that the valravn can’t exorcise because of its nature. The empathy, the compassion, is like a key to the lock that sealed when the child died. When that wrong happened because no one had been compassionate to the child. Because no one had helped. And seeing and experiencing that there is love and compassion in the world, the valravn faces a fatal contradiction that it’s can’t deal with. Like a malfunctioning Star Trek (TOS) computer, it can only sort of self destruct. Only not in a way that destroys it, but that furthers its transformation, giving it a chance to try and do good in the world instead of evil. Giving it a chance to try and stop things like what created the valravn in the first place from happening again. It’s a lovely and wrenching story and just beautifully rendered and written. So good! Do yourself a favor and go out and read it immediately!!!
“Stepping the path trod by the moon” by Hester J. Rook
This is a rather beautiful poem about loss and about recovery. And the weight of the night, heavy with memories and with fresh wounds, and how they surround the narrator. It seems to me at least that the night was partly defined by the narrator’s relationship, their passion with this other person who is gone now. It doesn’t seem like that person is dead to me, just absent, probably following the dissolution of their relationship. And for me there’s this feeling of almost numb questioning, where the narrator is wondering how to approach all the things that were familiar and comforting and passionate and alive when they were with this former partner, and now are...less familiar. Stranger. Full of a kind of uncertainty. Not, however, ruined or unbeautiful. But linked in ways that run as deep as muscle memory to what has happened, so that now they’re looking for new paths through the night, new avenues that will bring them new experiences, even when it might run over old territory. Because for all there seems a bit of melancholy to the piece for me, a lingering grief, I think that ultimately the piece is about picking up and moving on. About finding the beauty still waiting in those places where the narrator and their former partner enjoyed, and not giving it up just because it brings up hurts that haven’t been and perhaps won’t be fully healed. It’s fun and it’s short and it imagery is wonderful, from evoking curling hair by calling it chain-linked to imagining the moon as something that could be grasped between a set of hungry teeth. There is a sense of loneliness perhaps but also a presence in the night, of the moon itself, a company that the narrator can take with them going forward, and the possibility that these new blooming baths will bring them to somewhere or someone new and wonderful. A great read!
“The Woods” by August Huerta
This is something of a haunting read for me, a poem that is full of a sense of isolation and distance, magic and yearning. That features a narrator who feels to me trapped by parental abuse, by loneliness. The woods are setting of many a fairy tale and evoke for me that kind of feeling, strengthened by the mention of magic and the darkness that seems to linger in the work. And the narrator seems someone of those woods, a part of them, even as they have a hunger for beyond, for something outside the woods, always looking out from the branches, from the treetops, always wondering but always stuck in place. There is a sense for me that the narrator is coping with essentially having been planted in these woods, in this place, by a man and situation that isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly healthy. That came as a sort of violence being done. But that from that violence the narrator has found a kind of beauty, as well. And it’s in that contradiction, or seeming contradiction, or resilience, or...something, that I find a lot of my meaning from the piece. That the woods are both home to the abuse that happened, a constant reminder and trigger, but also the only home that the narrator has known, and full of comforts as well. Like with fairy tales, the woods hold all number of threats, and darknesses, and things the rest of the world have repressed and pushed out. But that’s not all of what the woods are. Even when they are, there is a kind of magic to it that can save as well as condemn, and it’s a richly complex poem that is very much worth spending some time with. A fine read!