Friday, November 29, 2019

Quick Sips - Lackington's #20 [Birds part 1]

Art by Kat Weaver
Lackington’s giant anniversary issue is, well, for the birds. Or perhaps of the birds would be more accurate. And it’s so big I’m breaking it up into two reviews. Today I’ll look at the first six stories of the issue, and then next month I’ll be back to review the remaining five. And it works out nicely, because the issue is structured so that the early stories carry a rather staggering emotional punch, and after a few of them the issue very kindly takes something of a break to dive into a more light-hearted and fun romp with two stories about birds overthrowing human civilization. Fun! Seriously, though, the issue flows wonderfully, capturing the trademark Lackington’s poetic feel and language mixed with resonating emotional beats and a charm that makes it a joy to read. There’s a lot to get to, too, and the theme provides ample jumping off points into some breathtaking worlds and wrenching situations. To the reviews!


“The Water-Bearer and the Hawk-King” by H Pueyo (3684 words)

No Spoilers: Gaíra is both man and woman and has powers over water to create elixirs that can supposedly cure any illness. Lucky for the Hawk-King, Cauano, who has a mysterious ailment, and who rules atop a blustery mountain with the power to transform himself into a giant eagle. Of course, his power doesn’t really make Cauano a very nice or patient person, and when he spies Gaíya and knows what she can do, Cauano takes him. The story then follows his captivity and her interactions with one of Cauano’s underlings, a man named Moacyr. The piece explores power, and fluidity and transformation, and manages a certain haunting grace amid a situation that is full of violation and violence.
Keywords: Transformations, Water, Captivity, Birds, Genderfluid/Bigender MC
Review: I really like how the story build around the relationship between Gaíya and Moacyr. It borders on romantic but I think that it recognizes that the soil of the story can’t really grow anything that’s completely free of issues. Gaíya is a prisoner, after all, and Moacyr, if not her prisoner, is at least the guard assigned to watch him and make sure he doesn’t escape. It’s not a job he relishes, but at the same time he and Gaíya are both people who take a bit more passive a role in things. They are drawn in the wake of Cauano, who is more than willing to operate on a sort of might makes right mentality. And if anything it’s that confidence that he has that convinces other people that he is powerful, that he cannot be stopped, even as that’s revealed at last to be a lie, a fragile declaration that might be able to weave the gusting winds of the mountain but can’t stand up to a little water. It’s a piece that for me speaks to the power of small resistances, the way even the most powerful mountain erodes over time from the rain. Or maybe it’s more that Gaíya only seems passive, only seems yielding, but has currents all his own, and despite the attempts to force her into a specific shape, he’s impossible to fully cage. It’s surprisingly tender, complicated by the feelings Moacyr has both for the person he’s supposed to be guarding and the king he’s supposed to be loyal to. Ultimately, I feel the story is about choice, and remaining flexible, fluid, creative, and indomitable. A great read!

“A Map to the Future Unlike Any Past” by Karolina Fedyk (4500 words)

No Spoilers: The story unfolds across two perspective—a vagabond, who has lived off the land but who is headed back to the capital; and a scholar, who is in charge of confirming or disproving the authenticity of suspected witches for a king who carries within him a deep hatred and lean toward violence. The vagabond’s mission is revenge, while the scholar’s is a mix of things, but mostly concerned with her own safety. The piece weaves fable with a strangely dystopic feel, magic beside technology, and the whole piece is grim, full of shadows. It looks at resistance of different kinds, safety of varying levels, and complicity bleeding with justifications.
Keywords: Swans, Family, Witches, Assassination, Wings
Review: I love the way the story draws the two main characters, so very different and yet in some ways carrying similar histories and hurts. The vagabond, though, has always been one for action, for doing something, having forsaken their birthright and their family and now returned with the sole purpose of killing their father. It’s something they think will make the city safe for people like them. The scholar is skeptical, though. For her, the situation is more complex, though how much of that is because it’s complex and how much is because she made it that way through her complicity is a harder question to answer. Because in many ways it’s not a difficult or complicated question of morality. The king is killing people who have done nothing wrong. The scholar is helping with that, for all that she’s also working to save who she can and to steer the king to maybe making things better from the inside. But her own position inside the system requires deception and requires that she play this game that costs people their lives. A game where her own safety is more important than the ideals she might hold. And while she’s mostly honest about that, she’s also obviously haunted by that. Because the question remains: how do they change the system? How do they make anything better in the face of the corruption and the power that the king holds? Each has an answer and it’s wonderful to see the scholar question so much what they’re doing. Doubt and agonize because she’s entirely willing to kill the vagabond to maintain the false peace she’s invested in. And the ending is a wrenching, pleading moment of uncertainty, the reader left to wonder if the scholar will remain locked in her justifications or if she might start to really try to tear it all down. A fantastic read!

“Heavy Reprises of a Dark Berceuse” by Priya Sridhar (3530 words)

No Spoilers: Gentle Starling is a musician and composer chosen to be the newest member of the royal court of the tyrant conqueror Vidame Shrike. And she’s picked up by General Tanager, the presumptive main character of the piece, a woman who knows what it’s like to be chosen by Vidame Shrike, and who expects Starling to react like everyone else. Starling is singular, though, and the piece follows Tanager as she observes Starling and deals with the ongoing war that Vidame Shrike is waging against a fey queen. It’s a strange but beautiful experience, the world building deft and deep, and the result slightly haunting, ringed with shadows, but lovely and strong as well.
Keywords: Music, War, Fire, Captivity, Fear
Review: I love how this story uses music and beauty, fear and fire. It’s a magical piece, capturing for me the feeling of the old fey stories, of people being taken to live according to the fickle whims of beings of power and grace but also a sort of brutal viciousness. Starling is a musician who seems almost too pure for the kind of darkness she finds herself surrounded by, and I feel that it’s there that Tanager sort of falls under her spell, weakening the one that’s dominated her life for so long. She’s supposed to be wholly loyal to Shrike, and yet with Starling Tanager finds herself distracted and in some ways having more faith in people against. Shrike is the embodiment of a kind of cynical will to power. She’s a tyrant and she revels in the fear she inspires in others, recognizes how it makes people easier to control. But there’s something in Starling that just might be more powerful still. That allows Tanager to defeat a foe that had been beyond Shrike. And while that can be seen as a victory for Shrike and her kind of ruthlessness, exploiting the fear in Starling and using it against her enemies, I also think that there’s something subversive about it. Because even if Starling and Shrike don’t seem to recognize the power that Starling has, Tanager can feel it already, and I very much suspect that the seeds have been planted that might bear a beautiful and compassionate fruit. One that might yet prove itself to be more than the match for anything that Shrike can produce. And it’s a wonderful piece, alive with music and these shadowy wonders that evoke fairy tales and faerie stories, and throw in war, court politics, and music. A fantastic read!

“The House of the Camphor” by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh (3748 words)

No Spoilers: Tomie is a woman who must follow where the three legged crow goes, whether it’s to someplace pleasant and pastoral (though probably that’s unlikely) or straight into the heart of a rather horrifying tragedy set in a remote house anchored by a charred tree and a creepy talking bird. Which might seem rather specific except, you guessed it, that’s exactly where she’s going, her daughter Tsubomi in tow. She’s presumably there as the new housekeeper, but the truth is she doesn’t know why the three legged crow wants her there, just that she has to follow. And once she’s there, and steeping in the pain and terror, what she has to do sort of becomes clear. It’s a viscerally dark piece, set in a Japan still fresh from the devastation of the second World War. But it’s not a place or a situation that are completely gone, and Tomie must do her best to set things as right as she can make them, though that’s a messy prospect indeed.
Keywords: Trees, Curses, Demons, Bargains, Crows
Review: I really like the idea of this supernatural fixer going around post-WWII Japan, spurred by a spirit in some ways as much interested in expanding their own power as they are in making sure balance is maintained and demons aren’t allowed to flourish. The crow doesn’t seem like an entirely moral overseer, and Tomie brings up the idea that they like having influence over others, like having people in their debt. For that, they do seem to be working to thwart perhaps darker forces, and the reason that Tomie is directed to the titular house is certainly something that should be stopped. For me, the piece is a rather strong horror story, showing people being victimized who were already victims. Showing how the vulnerable are the easier to isolate and abuse. And showing that in a situation like the historical setting of the piece, there are so many ways that people can fall through the cracks. It’s a situation where predators flourish because communities have been shattered, and people are no longer trying to protect other people. Families have been destroyed and it becomes every person for themselves. But Tomie shows that this manifestation is definitely not something that’s natural. It’s a hunger that is deviant from how people normally act, and it represents a corruption in the natural order of things, one represented here by a literal demon pushing for this feeding and cursing. It’s a demon that grew out of the horrors of war, out of the ways that people have been hurt and traumatized and not allowed to heal. And Tomie is there to what she can about it, to break the cycle, and though it means leaving many more people indebted to the three legged crow, I can’t fault her. It’s an unsettling and sharp piece, and I’d watch the hell out of a show following Tomie on her journey. A great read!

“The Capacity to Serve” by Simon Christiansen (4000 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story starts out a boy sent during his summers to live with his grandmother, a wealthy woman who owns two penguins. As status symbols, the penguins are amusing and make for decent companions (especially since they can speak), but the narrator wants more. He wants proper penguin butlers. He wants servants. And as he ages and goes into biology and biomodification, he gains the knowledge and the tools to bring his vision to reality. And in doing that he also makes penguins a new kind of servant class, one cheaper and cheaper to produce and maintain. The piece has some definite darkness, and exposes the trend to view animals solely by their exploitable qualities. And it shows the rather terrifying cost of not learning from the cycles of exploitation and violence and oppression of the past.
Keywords: Penguins, Wealth, Biomodification, Servants, Slavery, Uprisings
Review: Okay, so on the one hand I am completely down with penguin butlers. 1000% yes. On the other hand, though, the whole idea of servants and especially sentient ones that aren’t compensated for their labor and who are treated like a resource rather than as people...well, that’s something completely different. And I love how the story takes something that’s a bit silly, something more about the aesthetic, and makes it this vision the narrator wants to achieve that carries with it a lot of dark and sinister undertones. After all, the whole mission is based on wanting to make these penguins, which have been driven almost extinct, who have lost their natural habitat, who now only live as a kind of pet, and seeks to make them better able to serve humans. And no one stops to think if that’s a good idea or not, so caught up are they in the rush for this shiny new slave class. They want to own their own, want to use them to drive profit, to make their own lives easier, without thinking about the penguins. So it’s perhaps no great surprise or betrayal when the penguins accept all of this only so far as they are biding their time to turn the tables. Not just to take control of the planet, but to render humans not a threat any longer. Which might mean making them less useful to the new penguin rulers, but it also means they won’t have the ability any longer to effectively rise up. As the penguins note, the capacity to serve brings with it the capacity to effectively resist and revolt, and the penguins aren’t going to make that mistake with humans. It’s a chilling read, not just because of the violent ending, but because the whole thing unfolds from the perspective of a narrator who sees no issue in creating and subjugating penguin slaves. Definitely a story to spend some time with!

“The Litany of Feathers” by Sharon J. Gochenour (2800 words)

No Spoilers: This story follows a series of Thunderbolts—that is, beings named Thunderbolt—as they each participate in a massive and growing campaign by an alliance of birds to rise up against the humans and use them as sacrifices for a new bird religion sweeping the country. And yes, it’s a bit of a dark comedy, these birds finally making good on their festering hatred of humanity and using humanity’s own greed against them. It’s part charming, part terrifying, and part inspirational, as these birds fight to push back against human dominance with their own kind of Judgment Day. And for all that birds do kind of scare me, and in this situation I would be food for a glorious bird revolution, it’s hard not to root for them a bit, too, because birds have not been treated well by people, and their rage is, if nothing else, rather justified and understandable.
Keywords: Birds, Stores, Religion, Sacrifices, Dinosaurs
Review: Okay yes I love the bird uprising and how completely it has human’s number. How easily the birds can lure humans to their deaths because humans are so assured of their own dominance, because birds don’t seem like a threat until they’re pissed and aggressive and then it’s OH SHIT BIRB! and there’s blood and hurt feelings all around. And I love that the religion that has cropped up and spread is based on bringing about this return of dinosaurs as the ultimate ally and weapon of the birds. And I love that there is no explanation given as to where these eggs came from. They just arrive, a religion fully formed, and one can almost imagine that they were designed and created by humans and then stolen by birds, who saw in them a messianic figure to lead them “back” to a time when beings like them rules the world. And otherwise it’s just a wildly fun story, full of fury and action and birbs behaving badly, which is a genre that I didn’t realize I wanted more of. It’s not a piece that really invites super deep readings or extended metaphors. Not because they can’t be found but because the point is birds are scary and hate us because we’re all awful to birds but also they’re fluffy and round and adorable and hilarious and if you need something of an emotional break in the middle of this issue, here it is. Have a laugh, recover your feels, and enjoy. An amazing read!


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