|Art by Arturo Lauria|
Two issues of Strange Horizons bring two short stories and two poems to kick off December's content. Tonally, the issues cover a lot of ground, from a slow, wrenching examination of oppression and expression, family and safety, to a more action-oriented adventure in deep space featuring twisted gods. The poetry adds to the diversity of the works and the moods, painting pictures both creepy and resilient. All in all, it's a wonderful look at just how different short SFF can be, building fascinating new worlds peppered with classic touches. To the reviews!
“The Garden’s First Rule” by Sheldon Costa (6542 words)
No Spoilers: Eli is becoming something of a plant, an exhibit in the Garden, the stage where the upper class of the island competes against each other to see who can outdo the others, who can steer fashion and win social point that aren’t really good for anything. Eli is from the lower island, his parents poor, his sister already sent off to fight in a terrible war. His options are to volunteer for the Garden or share that fate, and for him the Garden isn’t a torture or a prison, but a place to grow, to spread his branches and his roots. But memory is a persistent thing, and when he sees his sister in the Garden, seeming to look for him, it threatens everything he’s become, everything he might become. It’s a heartbreaking story, tender but rending, and it’s a difficult read, for all that it’s beautiful as well.
Keywords: Plants, Transformation, Fashion, War, Family, Growth
Review: The story does an amazing job capturing the really haunting but beautiful transformation that Eli is going through in his becoming a plant. An exhibit. A permanent fixture of the Garden. And it’s a very difficult read for me because there’s so much to do with abuse and with societal trauma going on here, in the way that Eli is leaning into this transformation as basically his only escape. As the best he can hope for. And he’s not necessarily wrong about that. But it contrasts so achingly with the way his sister approaches the world, which is as a fight. As a fight that she probably can’t win but she’s going to try anyway. She’s the one who will disobey, who will rebel, but she’s also the one who would try to save him, too. From this island and its corruption and ugliness. From even himself. And glob is it gutting to watch that, to have this impossible situation for the two where they are trapped and for Eli it’s a cage that at least has some beauty and wonder and magic to it. He can pretend at least that by choosing this he has some power. When really what he’s done is give up everything to become a set piece in a garden for the wealthy, where he never would have even been allowed to glimpse. It makes his position one that I find hard to celebrate, and I feel the story leaves this in a sort of area where the reader must ultimately decide if the events of the ending are Eli protecting himself and standing up for himself or if it’s a defeat, a way of him caving to his own exploitation and ultimate destruction. There is no clear answer to if he’s actually going to live on in the tree, if he’s going to be able to spread beyond the Garden, or if that’s just a lie he’s clinging to because he needs it, needs to believe that he can be something beautiful in a world that has been so ugly. And I like that the ending doesn’t give an answer, but rather a cry. A scream. Because that’s all that’s left, all he can do and it won’t save anyone. His sister will die and he will die and nothing around them will change and wow, yeah, the story plays with all of that in a powerful and profound way. A fantastic story!
“Into the Eye” by SL Harris (5936 words)
No Spoilers: Unfolding around the ensemble cast of a small ship out to escape the horrors of a universe overrun by elder gods, this story centers the pilot of the crew, Sal. Sal is one of the last survivor’s of the gods invasion of Earth, somehow resilient to the madness that they inspire in others. They are not the only human left, though, nor the only one who has shown that they can stay sane when confronted with the cosmic horrors that have ravaged the universe. They’ve been pulled into a mission by a Captain with a bold plan—to escape this reality entirely and steer a course for a universe that doesn’t know the touch of these twisting gods. Not that it’s going to be easy. But with a motley crew, maybe they can all put their troubled pasts behind them and reach for something untainted by their tormentors.
Keywords: Space, Madness, Gods, Reality, Oaths
Review: I love how the story acts as essentially a heist story but instead of stealing something the crew is designed to (presumably) escape reality itself. And I do love how it’s done, this mysterious captain moving around and gathering up the broken toys of the universe, the people who are motivated by not much of anything now that most things have been lost to the gods. Sal lost their entire family and planet, and seems to accept because it’s...not hope, exactly. It’s not like they can really get back what they’ve lost. But that they can see a place that isn’t fallen, that isn’t such a sad mockery of the world and people he loved. He just wants to get free of it, and this seems to be the way. The rest of the crew have their own reasons, though, but they all seem to gel pretty well. Until the captain starts showing signs that this isn’t quite the escape that it might have been. That maybe this isn’t about just getting away, and that he has no intention of just letting the crew walk away from this. The piece is tense and well paced, and I appreciate how it features these characters dealing with the impossible, able to withstand the stress of space and madness and impossible gods, and yet they don’t see the betrayal coming until it’s nearly too late. I like that, in a way, it’s because they’re so used not really seeing what it is they’re looking at. It’s what kept them sane. But here it also allows them to nearly be used to do something they didn’t sign up for. Not that they don’t really want it, but that they never wanted to be sacrifices in a man’s quest for revenge. They joined for something else, and it’s a rather neat way that some of them at least manage to refuse the plans of gods and madmen in order to reach for hope. Because in a universe of impossible things, even that might happen. A wonderful read!
“Gretel’s Bones” by Mari Ness
This is a rather strange piece that evokes fairy tales, and in particular the titular character, of “Hansel and” fame. The piece makes repeated reference to the bones that Gretel still keeps, and I think the most unsettling question of the poem is whose bones they are. I mean, for me the most obvious answer is that they are the witches bones, all that really remains of the witch following the incident with the oven. Certainly it fits then that the speaker of the poem, the person whom Gretel is poking and caressing, is Hansel. Hansel who has escaped one fate to find himself now facing what might be something of the witch returning. But. But the narrator refers to themselves in the plural in that last stanza. We. And that single thing changes the meaning of the work in some rather profound ways for me. Because what it seems to me to imply is that this is a new pair of children. Ones who have become the new inhabitants of the house, as Hansel and Gretel were once. Meaning that Gretel has truly replaced the woman that she helped to banish. And those bones might not be the witch’s, but rather Hansel’s. And there’s just so much weird and chilling to really dig into this piece. The imagery is intense and twisted. The narrators are unnerved and wary, but they also seem to be aware of the story. They do not seem quite the unsuspecting victims, though they might be victims waiting for their time to turn the tables. There’s something cyclic about it for me, something that speaks to the way that trauma can’t always be washed away in a happily ever after. That sometimes the darknesses linger and rot. Sometimes they infect. And it’s an unsettling read, wonderfully creepy and complex. And it invites readers to really spend some time with it, staring into the darkness, seeing what takes shape, seeing what starts looking back. A great read!
“Mary Agnes Chase (1869*1963)” by Jessy Randall
This story speaks of the natural and the unnatural. Grasses and prison cells. Freedom and captivity. Erasure and suffrage. A bit of Wikipedia reveals that Mary Agnes Chase was a botanist and an advocate for suffrage and women in science. Which adds a bit of context to the piece, as it focuses on both grass and being in prison for protesting. The link between suffrage and grass is interesting, though, and I love the way that it places women in that role, in that place of grass. Not that it might seem like the most generous of places to be, because for many grass is a weed. But as a plant it’s very successful, and people spend a lot of time trying to keep it in its place. Grass is meant to fill a yard, is meant to be looked at, is meant to be a part of the scenery. But grass isn’t about to be contained. It finds ways to break through the neat lines people plan for it. It spreads, and it supports each other through clustering, through reaching upward toward the sun. In that way grass is rather relentless, rather strong, and I like how that becomes something that the narrator here is thinking about. Something that gives them comfort, because eventually the grass wins. And I think it’s that sense of time and inevitability that might seem comforting here. That keeps the narrator from their despair. Plus it’s not only this idea of a rising tide, a spreading field where everyone can reach the sun and be fulfilled, but more specifically is a vision of what she wants to be doing. Of what she wants to achieve. To be the one out there doing science, taking observations, being involved in ways that women in her time were not really allowed to be. And it’s a quiet piece, for all that there is a great strength behind it. Serene, and though peaceful, not without its defiance. A lovely read!