|Art by Stephanie Singleton|
Fireside wins the award for having the last story out of the year from all the venues that I cover (at least, I’m pretty sure), with the final one dropping of New Years Eve. And it is another full month from the publication, with five stories and a poem to close out 2019. That said, it’s not quite my final review post covering 2019 material (which will drop on Monday), and so with this penultimate 2019 review post, I look at a wide range of SFF, from an ode to a YouTuber who inspires resistance and survival in a dystopian (or maybe just realistic) future to a ghost story about immigration and the pressures to make money. The works are deep and careful, powerful and resonating, and I’ll get right to my reviews!
“There Is No Beauty Without Resistance” by Dominica Phetteplace (842 words)
No Spoilers: Told in the first person, this story follows a narrator inspired by a YouTuber who specializes in tutorials for make up. At least, that what she does at first. Ways not only for a person to express themselves, but to do so while fooling facial recognition AI and creating a statement of resistance in a time and place that seem increasingly authoritarian and dystopian. Where abortion has been outlawed and people are finding many reasons to want to push back against the unjust laws. The narrator finds in this figure, in Jazmyn Margarita, a source of much needed information necessary to resist and reclaim what was lost.
Keywords: Dystopia, Make Up, Tutorial, Fanfiction, Resistance
Review: This is a rather horrifying look at the future, mostly for how realistic and nearly likely it seems, despite how dystopian and hyperbolic it might seem to some. The truth is, though, that having a surveillance state with a heavy religious authoritarianism isn’t exactly that far off what we have now, where more and more draconian, anti-science bills are being passed in the name of preventing people who can become pregnant from accessing appropriate medical care, including abortions. So called “personhood” laws that argue for the rights of fetuses do so in the spite of medical and scientific consensus on the topic. What this story does is imagine merely what would happen if the groups ramming these laws into being were able to keep winning, most likely through widespread voter disenfranchisement. And part of what I like about this story is that so much goes on beyond the specific limits of the prose. The world it evokes is one that’s already looming, already in the shadows, and it shines a light on what this would look like from a person who has been successfully suppressed and kept ignorant. Mostly. Who doesn’t have an IRL network or people to learn from. Who is isolated and doesn’t know what they can do or how they can resist. But they find what they need through those people willing to be teachers online, willing to risk everything to get the truth out there. And it’s a story about the importance of that, yes, and also the importance of the smaller resistances. The fanfic and the art and the everything that keep people working and believing and pushing back, so that what might have been lost can be reclaimed, so that the truth doesn’t die in the dark, but finds its way to the light again. It’s a resilient story and one definitely worth checking out!
“I Send My Tower Walking” by Amanda Helms (978 words)
No Spoilers: This story is told by a person to a person, perhaps even a prince, who came to try and climb their tower. The narrator is connected to their tower in deep and strange ways, at times merging with it to walk the world. To the second person You they are speaking to, this tower seemed a curse that he wanted to rescue them from. The tower is not a prison, though, and not a curse. The story explores what it is, what it means to the narrator, and where that leaves you, the man who thought to rescue them. It weaves fairy tales (particularly Rapunzel) into something that challenges the misogynist damzel in distress narrative and produces something new and rather wondrous.
Keywords: Fairy Tales, Hair, Towers, Witches, Rescue
Review: I really like how the story takes the source of Rapunzel and twists it, how it builds an entirely different dynamic between the person in the tower and the man come to “rescue” them, between the person in the tower and the tower itself. Here the idea that the tower is some form of control or punishment for the person is dropped. Their relationship to the tower is indeed complicated, and it does seem at times like there’s pain and there’s a price they pay of living there, from melding with it, from moving with it. The tower here is a freedom, though not one that allows for the easiest or most unlimited movement. Indeed, movement requires magic and pain, requires a sort of constant ache and a melding of the narrator with the stone of the tower. And yet it is still freedom. Freedom because the tower is protection. It’s freedom from the kinds of men who would seek it out with the hope of winning the person inside. Without a care that they tell the men off, that for them there is no curse or danger. Their curse, and this really speaks loudly, are the men who come for them, that they then have to deal with and teach. Teach in this case by becoming _their_ curse. Turning the tables on these men and changing the shape of the story. It’s a shape that will be changed back the moment these men get a chance to retell it, but even so, the truth will remain after they have tried to cover their embarrassment with lies. And yes, I kind of love that here the figure of Rapunzel is quasi-merged with Baba Yaga, the tower also a long-limbed companion that the narrator loves, that loves them in return. It’s a neat twist, with just enough darkness to make the triumph in the end impactful and joyous. A great read!
“Where You Are Now Is Better than Where You Were Before” by Eliza Victoria (3670 words)
No Spoilers: Lily is a student from the Phillipines trying to find a good job in Australia. She’s found work as an office worker at a strange kind of advertising company, something honestly probably beneath her skills and experience, but she needs something and the job market isn’t exactly booming for people like her. At her new job she meets Andrea, another woman from the Phillipines, and one who might have a strange connection with Lily. One involving the apartment that Lily is renting. The piece swirls around expectations and family, about violence and politics and fear and heavy, oppressive pressure to succeed in a material sense. A pressure that is killing people, from the stress and the missed medical check-ups and the general culture that prizes money above all else.
Keywords: Immigration, School, Employment, Ghosts, Queer Characters, Family
Review: The story does a lot with a light speculative touch, building a ghost story that for me is much more about the way that the pursuit of money crushes people. And how it’s all a part of the same system that allows for authoritarian abuses. That it all stems from the devaluing of people. Thinking of them as merely earners. Thinking of them and assigning them worth based on how much they make, and who they make it for. The question becomes how willing you are to kill yourself for a boss. The boss might be a manager or a politician, but the result it always the same. And it’s a thumb that is pressing down on everyone at once, so that there’s the added pressure of trying to “make up for” family who can’t earn money or who can’t earn enough. Lily is dealing with her family imagining that she could earn so much in Australia, when in truth she can’t find good work—certainly nothing that fits her experience. She has to inhabit the lowest spaces, has to accept because she’s an immigrant that people don’t want to pay her, all the while having to pretend that there’s money if she’s to convince her family (and herself) that she hasn’t made a terrible mistake. And all that complicated by the violence she wanted to escape, the shadow of that falling over her, making it hard to breathe. With that as a backdrop, the plot of the story involves Lily’s work, seeing a co-worker collapse, and learning that her apartment’s previous tenant died. All of this links through the health costs of moving through the world constantly stressed, constantly scrambling for money. And it’s a reminder, gentle and subtle but beautifully rendered, that money isn’t everything. That people are still the most important thing. And it’s got an amazing ending and just a wonderful feel, like coming up for breath after spending a long time thrashing toward the surface. A fantastic read!
“Partially True (But Mostly Not)” by Sherin Nicole (320 words)
No Spoilers: This is a very short but resounding piece that finds a narrator living with a thing. A thing that can replace her. That can walk out in her shoes if she doesn’t get out of bed. And no one seems to be able to tell the difference. This dynamic, though, between narrator and thing, shifts as the story moves, and becomes something else, something even more unsettling and grim. It’s a piece that for me flourishes in its brevity, laying a lot of groundwork of implication and then letting that settle on the reader like a weight, light a suffocating shadow.
Keywords: Duplicates, Names, Sleep, Masks, Shadows
Review: I really like the way the story plays with this thing, this...being who can take the narrator’s place. Who seems to flourish in the moments when the narrator isn’t able to face the world. For me it speaks to the pressure that she’s under, the need to put on a mask in order to interact with the world at times. And it seems that there’s this friction because the narrator sees that there’s no difference with how she’s perceived between when she’s in more control, trying to steer herself through her life, and when she’s not. It something that can break down an identity, having to live in a way where the authentic self doesn’t seem to really have a chance to see the light of day. Where the choice seems to be to give ground to the mask or else try to exist constantly at odds with the world. And for the narrator, it’s an erosive friction, one that chips away at them, that starts to erase who they are. Not being able to live authentically, the line between authentic and performance becomes lost, and when that happens, the thing, the shadow, the kind of poison presence that the story is dealing with, is empowered. And with its empowerment it steals the identity of the narrator, takes it and revels in it. And instead of this somewhat benign thing that it was, it takes on a much more malevolent and sinister feel, because it has gained enough power that it feels that it is the true person. It has supplanted the narrator, who then seems poised to become just a shadow of herself. And it’s terrifying because this thing is supposed to be something to help the narrator navigate the world. To help them deal with not always being able to face things. But because the thing does such a good job, because no one can see that the narrator is struggling, that they need help, they are lost. They are buried. And it’s a chilling and powerful portrayal of that captured in a very small space. A wonderful read!
“From Under the Peach Tree” by Kerry Truong (943 words)
No Spoilers: Ngai was the god of slights, but following a sort of revolution among the gods, they’ve been tied to the wheel of reincarnation, to be reborn and live three times before they can re-ascend into godhood. And through all of that, through the different reincarnations, they are followed by another god. By Nguyet, the god of wild things, who shared a bond with Ngai in life that has followed them through death. The piece is warm despite the moments of cold, despite the undercurrent of violence and struggle and the possibility of loss. For me, though, it’s a story about the return rather than the going, the reunion rather than the separation.
Keywords: Non-binary MC, Gods, Rebirth, Revolution, Relationships, Animals
Review: This is a short piece but I love the way it builds the relationship between these two gods, the dynamic they have, the devotion and the longing. And I like how the story carefully sets up a situation that seems a bit more sinister than it is, that might seem at first as if Ngai is being haunted by Nguyet, stalked by them. Only to reveal that something very different is going on. That what the two had and have is part of the reason the gods warred, the heavens split. Ngai seems to have been a somewhat unwilling participant in the fighting, a god always more concerned with their own petty slights but for their connection to Nguyet. Nguyet, who Ngai would sacrifice themself for. Who they died for. And who was buried with dignity to mark the successful end of the rebellion against the unjust queen. And in that moment where they decided that something was more important than their life, they transformed. First into a sparrow that Nguyet found and cared for. Then a cat. Then a blue whale. With each transformation they changed more and more, until at last they came back into their godhood, which had undergone a similar transformation. And I love that they took on a new role, a new place in the pantheon. A place beside the woman that they gave themself for, the god who kept them company through the years of their rebirths. And it’s just such a warm piece, one that shines with the ways that Ngai and Nguyet don’t give up on each other, the ways that they wait and wait to be together again, their loss and grief made less only by the joy of their eventual reunion. And it’s a lovely and nicely realized world and cast, and it’s a great read you should check out immediately!
“For Mrs. Q” by C. S. E. Cooney
This is a strange but wonderful poem about, well, about poetry. About writing it and conceiving of it. About sharing it, and all the complex ways that goes. The ways it’s different based on the poet, based on the reader, or listener. The narrator speaks of a woman she is writing to, that she is thinking about writing a poem to. About capturing her in verse, in images natural and radiant—birds and plants, contrasting those entirely artificial—clothes and the bodies of joggers smeared by a car. And there’s such a fluid grace to the piece, a rhythm that seems to me at the same time poignant and playful. And, more than that, it seems to both be speaking in a kind of layered, double speech, and speaking _on_ that speech, commenting on, defining it, relating it to an audience that might understand, and through understanding recognize the intricacies of what it’s doing, or might miss it, and in missing it think the poem is merely pretty, merely clever. And the piece speaks to how this is often gendered, how women often times have different ways of approaching poetry, and especially poetry that speaks like this, almost in a shared, not-exactly-secret language, but one that women tend to pick up on because of the pressure put on them to conform and fit into certain roles. So that they can see, they can recognize, while others might pass over the deeper meaning. The men that these people try to share the poems with see it but only at that surface level, refusing to really engage and dig deeper, not just because they’re lazy but because doing so would upset their worldview, the simple and straightforward way they imagine the world to be. Which really is only simple or straightforward when other people bend to make it that way, or make it seem that way. To ease their way through the world. And here is a key and door to a place where those who see and understand the world in a more nuanced, more complex way, can share and recognize one another. And can perhaps make the attempt to educate more people in the ways of appreciated poetry. Appreciating complexity. And recognizing it and valuing it in art and in the world at large. It's a poem that does a lot and seems to have fun while doing it, all the while revealing that the fun is running hand and hand with pain and fear, with hope. And it’s a lovely piece that seems to unfold with each reading, and is very much worth spending some time with!