Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Quick Sips - PodCastle #600 & #602

November was a month to be thankful for at PodCastle, which saw the release of the 2019 Flash Fiction Contest winners. The four flashes put the total stories out from the venue at five, which makes it the most original releases of the year. And the stories do certainly show what can be done in a very short space, most of them walking the careful line between hope and despair, humor and hurt. The works do a wonderful job of boiling fantasy down into bite-sized pieces, so it's perhaps extra appropriate that they deal with food and magic, stories and fire. Before I spoil your appetite for the amazing fiction, though, let's get right to the reviews!


“The Cost of the Revolution in Three Marvelous Confections” by R. K. Duncan (499 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this piece was important enough to be invited to events at the highest level in their city. To be able to taste the delicacies dreamed up by the chefs of Tarvagost, the presumptive ruler of the city. These parties were extravagant and laced with money, all put on while the city below roiled with unrest. The narrator tells of the final party, and specifically the food that was served there, before that sort of thing was done away with. And it’s a story that could have been bittersweet, that could have tried to give a sort of “both sides” argument to wealth, but I don’t feel that’s the impact of the piece. It’s a bit nostalgic, perhaps, but also not, and in the distance between the two I feel is where the story flourishes.
Keywords: Magic, Food, Revolutions, Wealth
Review: I say this every time but if you know me you know I love SFF that speaks to my inner foodie, and I really appreciate the way this story lingers on the magical applications of food without losing sight of the cost of that. And I think really it captures something about inequality and about wealth that doesn’t get brought up to often. And that’s the way that wealth can help produce some incredibly impressive things. Especially with art, wealth can make things possible that wouldn’t be without some ludicrous amount of money. Making pastry birds that can actually fly is something that can only come about when someone with too much money decides it’s something that they want. And that’s really the thing, that it takes someone with _too much_ money. Not in a neutral, jokey way, but in a very real, visceral way. That there is such a thing as too much money when there are people who are hungry. Especially easy to see when you look at these extravagant meals that are being produced, that are taking so many resources to feed not the needs but the whims of the wealthy while so many others go hungry. And the narrator here does mourn a bit the loss of the food that was produced because it was impressive art. But it was also a sign of something much darker, that such spending represented what amounts to waste. Because unless the needs of everyone are being met, no one should have the resources to finance something like that. It’s a powerful point, underlined by the story’s conclusion, the revelation that this is not a story about loss but about a kind of trade, and showing that the signs of injustice are varied, and some might seem positive but for the abuses they conceal with rich flavors and distracting aromas. A wonderful read!

“By Jingly Bell, By Velvet Mouse” by KT Bryski (482 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a cat with an owner who is often out all night. But who always shows up in the morning thanks to a complex system of spells the cat casts that draw her back. Until something goes wrong. Until his spells fail to bring her back, and he’s collected by his human’s mother and brought to a different house. The wrong house. And what follows it a beautiful but wrenching look at grief and denial. At desperation and magic. And while the piece is intensely sad at times, it also manages to end on a note of warmth, and hope. But seriously, be advised that this story aims for your feels and has excellent marksmanship.
Keywords: Cats, Spells, Loss, Grief, CW- Death of a Pet
Review: Welp. I guess I’m crying now. I mean, these stories are hitting just about all my weaknesses. Food. Cats. I’m almost afraid to see what’s next. But I love the way this story builds up its situation and conflict. How it positions the narrator, a cat, with relationship this his human. It is an emotionally devastating piece, though, sad because of how it examines the cat’s reaction to losing his human. With incomprehension. With doubt and guilt. Never quite understanding why she never comes back. And that’s heartbreaking because it’s often true that pets don’t understand death fully. But that they can be full of a profound sadness about loss. People often like to paint cats as being aloof and cold, but they form strong bonds, and seeing the narrator here repeatedly try to bring his human back is just so. fucking. much. And the ending brings the story full circle, setting up this moment that is so bittersweet, that finds the cat and human reunited, which is beautiful and wonderful but also gutting, because, well, it means the cat has died as well, his final spell one that everyone makes in the end, and it’s heartwarming that on the other side of that spell they are together again. It’s a cathartic read, really, one that I’m not sure needs to “mean” more than “I need go and hug my cat for a while until he scratches me in annoyance.” It’s powerful, and it hits those emotional notes with almost brutal force. It’s wonderful and you should definitely go check it out, but definitely go in with a firm handle on your feels!

“A Thousand Points, the Sky” by Michelle Muenzler (493 words)

No Spoilers: This story opens with the narrator and their Auntie making paper folded balloons. But this isn’t some idle arts and craft activity. As the story progresses, just what they’re doing, why, and the stakes of their actions become more and more clear. And as the narrator struggles with their own shortcomings as a paper balloon folder, they also are reminded about the importance of what they’re doing. It’s a piece very much about the value of work even when it seems futile, even when it seems it can never be enough. And, while definitely grim, there’s a certain hope to it as well, that some work is worth even the greatest sacrifices.
Keywords: Books, Fire, Magic, Need, Family, Origami
Review: The picture the story paints is certainly a dire one. Two people working in a massive library, working as hard as they can to tear apart books and make the pages into paper balloons. Which might seem a bit foolish, given that outside there is a mob piling wood around the building, getting ready to set it ablaze. The reasons for this aren’t clear, but burning libraries tends to go along with some rather terrible occurrences, with attempts to censor history and thought, expression and identity, so it’s probably not a good thing that’s driving the people hoping to destroy so many books. Though how are the narrator and their Auntie any different? What makes their work any different. Paper balloons don’t really fly away. Except here, fueled by the magic of need, of desperation...they do. And so the work continues as the two breathe their hope into the balloons and send them out in every direction, hoping that the pages will find safety, that they will fly clear of the conflagration that is shaping up to claim so many others. And I like how it seems so small. That out of so many books they are saving only a handful. But that they need to try. They need to do something against the complete loss of the library. As the narrator notes, half a book is better than none. It’s a piece that hurts, though, because of how this has played out historically, because of the loss that has been suffered time and again when this sort of thing happens. And the debt owed to people risking their lives (and sometimes giving their lives) to try and save something. Wrapped up in the magic of need, the piece is wrenching but lovely, grim but also rising, a fragile balloon wobbling on the air, seeking a home and a heart to protect it. An excellent read!

“Tōhoku” by Nathan Susnik (492 words)

No Spoilers: Following a disaster, Ayumi visits her hometown, which was almost entirely destroyed. Her parents were killed in the devastation, in the Wave, but the reality of it, the grief from it, doesn’t quite hit until she visits a strange phone booth displaced into the middle of a field, where she is able to say goodbye. And it creates a link that lasts through her life. The piece is melancholy and sad, built around this loss, this disaster, from which Ayumi never completely recovers. It’s a trauma that she carries with her, and that defines her relationships going forward in ways both beautiful and shattering.
Keywords: Phone Booths, Post-Disaster, Grief, Loss, CW- Terminal Disease, Family
Review: This story does a lot with grief and shock and PTSD. At least, that’s how I read Ayumi’s connection to the phone booth. She’s undergone this intense trauma, survived something that so many have not, and she needs a way of connecting back to the people that she’s lost. And so there’s this magic phone booth that she can speak through, that her need makes a connection but only for her. Because her husband doesn’t hear it, and her child doesn’t hear it. It’s just for her. And I don’t think necessarily that it means the voices on the other end “aren’t real.” It’s possible, but at the same time it seems to be a real connection for her, and Ayumi has conversations, takes advice from this other side. It’s not precisely good for her relationships, though, I think it part because it’s something she’s not really dealing with. By having that phone connection back to her parents, she’s never really putting the past to rest. It’s an open wound and remains that way for as long as she keeps it open. And so it never fully closes, and it becomes something of a wedge between her and her daughter. For me, at least, the ending becomes something...complicated. Messy. I guess it almost feels like it’s pointing to this inherited trauma, that Ayumi has passed on something that is such a mixed bag. That on the one hand is a connection for her daughter to take with her through her life, and on the other hand is a weight. Because the dead aren’t gone here, and they have expectations, expecting the living to call, waiting for that. It’s a strange and rather heavy story, but definitely one to spend some time with. A fine read!

“Franken-Puppy” by Derek Künsken (3084 words)

No Spoilers: Dennis and Melanie’s daughter, Francie, just wants a puppy. For a Sewn person, though, a puppy is a little...fragile, and after replacing a few puppies, the couple decide they might have to resort to something that is rather taboo--Sewing animals. It’s something that the local Church of Frankenstein is all for, seeing as how they’re trying hard to be relevant through being edgy. But for Dennis it’s more complicated than that, and ends up having implications far beyond his original goal of pleasing his daughter. It’s a strange, almost goofy story that manages to hold onto an edge of shadow while aiming for something heartwarming and fun.
Keywords: Frankenstein, Monsters, Family, Creation, Religion, Transgression, CW- Death of a Pet (Dog)
Review: This is a weird story that imagines a world where Frankenstein’s monsters have sort of inherited the earth, living in what seems to be a sort of suburban “American Dream” while humans have become ensconced in small villages that these beings occasionally raid for parts to make their children, and just because it’s fun. For all that they’re essentially monsters, though, the story opens where they’ve essentially just replaced humans as being rather boring and pedestrian. They have embraced the whole nuclear family thing and are most concerned with maintaining the status quo. Until Dennis is talked into transgressing, at which point he remembers his roots, as it were, as a monster, and begins to see that rebellion is a goal, not just a method. That it’s the revolution that needs to be continuous, instead of reaching a point where the progressives rock back into conservatism. For me, at least, the story explores Dennis finding what made him excited about living in the first place, the kind of transgression that pushes the envelope. And the same time, I don’t see that he’s suddenly acting childishly. Rather, he’s taken his age and wisdom and having that inform his rebellion, his scandalous actions. He’s moved not out of a desire merely to destroy, but to do something for someone he cares about. He’s moved by love, and toward joy and happiness, which can sometimes be the most powerful kind of transgression, not one that revels in violence or change for the sake of change, but one that sees how people could treat each other better and be happier and reaches for that. And yeah, it’s weird, and it has a kind of violent shadow running under it, because these beings are kinda murderers, seeing humans as fair game for whatever. But it does make for a strangely comical, fun story that’s charming and well worth checking out!


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