|Art by Sarah Gonzales|
The end of October brings one heart-rending story and two poems very much suited to the season to Strange Horizons. The story is gorgeous and difficult, examining a future that might as well be the past for all that history might move in circles, in cycles where certain groups are always more vulnerable, always more at risk of being stripped of their rights and lives. The poems are actually rather creepy, both of them unfolding from perspectives that gives voice to a bit of darkness. That are waiting for people to initiate a bargain that the people might not even realize they are making. But it’s enough for horror to blossom. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!
“Promise Me This Is Ours” by Omar William Sow (5152 words)
No Spoilers: This piece finds Abdou shattered after his boyfriend Mamadou is sent to a mine for queer people following a political movement in the 2070s to recriminalize queerness in Dakar, Senegal. Or it’s possible that it’s always been illegal, and there’s just a new punishment for it, but the story has a feel of slipping back, of new danger, of people desperately reaching for each other only to clutch at shadows, at the thin spaces where people used to be, where there is now emptiness. The story is full of conflict, of masking, as Abdou tries to deal with his fears and his family, and finds that he might have a little more support than he thought. Still it’s a story dominated by an absence, slightly broken in time, and it’s a beautiful look at longing and the pressure to hide and conform.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Programming, Food, Politics, Queer MC, Family
Review: I love how the piece melds fantasy (in the form of the programming Abdou does) and the harsh reality around him, the danger that he’s in, the stifling tragedy of the fact that he must hide himself always from family that hate what he is. And I like how the piece looks at crime, the family enjoying an illegal meal without fear of it, without judgment, but for his love at least some of them are okay with him being sent to a mine to perhaps die. And wow is this a powerful look at what it is to live in fear of being found out, of having to bite your tongue when even your family says terrible things about who you are. Where you feel to your core that hate, and the friction between that and loving your family and wanting their love causes this turmoil. All the while Abdou cannot really mourn what has happened, can’t show how much he is hurting, how shaken he is, how scared. He’s fracturing, needing the escape that programming offers him, where he can pretend that he has some control over his environment. But that it’s not enough, and I love how he eventually stands up for who he is, decides that he can’t live quiet any longer. Not that it’s as easy as giving it voice. And yeah, wow, the whole way that the piece ties the beginning and the ending together, where he is in this moment of uncertainty and hope, where maybe he can find a happy ending out of everything. Now, the piece does enough with virtual reality that it might be in question if that ending, that beginning, is “real” or not, and that’s something more the reader has to grapple with. Whatever the case, it’s an absolutely stunning piece, and you should go read it immediately. Heartbreaking and heartwarming and ahhhhhh! Read it!
“Follow You” by Amy H. Robinson
This is a rather wicked poem that feels very fitting for the season, what with Halloween so close. It features a main character who...well, who has a very interesting perspective. One that views the world in a rather limited way, from six feet below, but whose other senses are in many ways heightened. And it’s a nicely creepy piece for me because of how it plants this seed of doubt in the reader, the way that it opens up this space beneath our feet. And it comes as a sort of cautionary tale, though one that operates entirely by implication. The darkness of the piece is manifest in the main character, in her hunger and her status as an undead still observing the world, still waiting it seems for someone to cross a line that will allow her to rise up again. The darkness is in the stories of a being who will escape the grave and eat children. But it’s not something that we get to see. It’s an implication, a sort of promise that we as readers know can’t be real. I mean, nothing bad will happen if you walk on a grave. the dead are dead? But... And that’s what I like about the poem, that it really explores that space of superstition, where that a thing isn’t likely isn’t enough to make a person comfortable. So as long as they know of this story they will stay off the graves. Because what if? What if it’s real? It’s something that humans use all the time, and often it’s something that needs to be pushed back against because it’s used to manipulate people (especially children). But sometimes these things are indeed vital, because you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t believe and finds a sound in the night that’s more than the wind. It’s a delightful poem that does a lot and has fun while doing it. A wonderful read!
“The Bandit King” by Kelly Stewart
This poem speaks to me of a kind of excitement and adventure, a kind of bargain, and a growing darkness as the full implications of that bargain set in. At least, I get the feeling that the narrator here is a force that specializes in a certain kind of seduction, that draws power from getting people to come along on their own will into something that...that is basically what they want. The second person you that the narrator is speaking to seems at first at least to be all on board with what’s being offered. With the adventure. With the magic, with the rush of it all. You are pulled into this not against your will but like you’re sat in the pot that’s slowly being brought up to boil. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s that the thing you wanted doesn’t stop. It keeps going, and going, and you begin to realize that by agreeing to start in on this ride, you forgot to check if there were exits. It just didn’t occur at any time to ask, or to assume, and so you are left in the end being stuck on the ride forever. And even the funnest of rides does have a way of getting old, of wearing you down, so that you are weary, want to stop, but can’t. And that’s the spookiness I read into the poem, which does seem nicely appropriate for Halloween week. Because it seems like the ones more likely to agree to this kind of bargain would be a child, lured away into danger, seduced with the promise of something new and exciting and finding that it’s not a lie. But that it was a cheat all the same, a way of getting them into something they don’t have the power to escape. It really is a nicely creepy read, because of how it does seem almost fun, almost exciting, almost innocent. The language and the short stanzas give it an energy, a flow, that speak to something child-like and keen and fun, only it’s like wanting to eat candy for every meal and then getting just that. What starts as fun becomes its own sort of horror, and creates these cycles that are so hard to break, growing stronger still with each new addition to the group of lost souls the Bandit King has claimed. A fantastic read!