Friday, January 31, 2020

Quick Sips - Tor dot com January 2020

Art by John Anthony Di Giovanni
Welcome to Tor dot com's January, which turned things up to eleven with three short stories and three novelettes. That's...a lot, thanks in large part to the release of three linked stories on the same day (pretty sure that was a novel's worth of words in the same setting out at once, so yeah, lots). The stories are a mix, as always, though fantasy dominates, with historical fantasy and slipstream leading the way and the lone science fiction piece balancing things out. There's a lot to get to, a lot of versions of our world to experience, so I'll cut to the chase and get going with my reviews!


“Something Fishy” by Harry Turtledove (6033 words)

No Spoilers: We’re back with Governor Bill Williamson, who presides as chief executive of a fictional state located in the Pacific Northwest. And who, just fyi, is a sasquatch, who have a shrinking population but are still present enough to, well, be governor. Things aren’t all fun and games, though, and something of a puzzle has fallen into his lap as the local tribal nation has a complaint about fishing rights. This leads a little wider, and the piece explores new facets of the fictional world by introducing a new element—merfolk. The tone is once more heavily tongue-in-cheek, but the humor isn’t exactly...PC. That said, if you liked the earlier story featuring the setting and character, you might find more to like (and much more given this is the first of three stories about Bill released on the same day).
Keywords: Sasquatches, Merfolk, Native Americans, Fish, Negotiations, CW- Slurs/Racism
Review: On one level, this story further and explores the setting in a rather interesting way. The addition of the Karuk tribe and their relative animosity with the sasquatches is interesting, and the story doesn’t really make anyone here “the bad guys” so it’s not like they are introduced just to provide a group to make fun of. That said, I wasn’t sure until I looked it up that the Karuk are a real people, and wouldn’t really have been surprised if they had been a similar invention of the story. Whatever the case, I have some hesitations about their inclusion in the story, not because it’s not nice to see diversity in fantasy. Rather, it’s because the story not only places them in the context of two other completely fictional minorities, but also sets it up that despite arriving ten thousand years ago, they are viewed as essentially colonizers/invaders by the sasquatches. It’s what could be a very interesting wrinkle if not for the very real issues that the story doesn’t exactly gloss over, but that it seems to approach with a certain amount of both-sides-ism. I felt at least that a large part of the story was a reminder that everyone has their own issues. The Karuk are experiences pressure because their access to the area salmon is being limited by the merfolk. But the merfolk are only responding from other interests over fishing. The main idea seems to be that the real issue here is massive corporate/industrial exploitation, which hurts everyone. That isn’t a terrible message, and the story overall follows smoothly (if a bit too easily for my specific tastes), but there are just those lingering issues that caught me up and made this a project I just couldn’t warm too (perhaps especially because I had bounced off the first story that I read when it was released last year). Again, fans of that story might have an easier time here. Indeed.

“Always Something New” by Harry Turtledove (12903 words)

No Spoilers: The story of Bill continues with an even longer tale, this one again dealing with fish, though in the singular instead of the plural. Because, on the very day of Reagan defeating Carter in the 1980 election, Bill is called with news that a mythical fish might just have been caught. The piece returns with its light humor, near-historical fantasy take on the Pacific Northwest, and seems to be trying to capture what makes the area special. Not just the different peoples who live there, but the mentality that seems to bind them all together. It’s partly political, partly anecdotal, and kinda about a past that seems to be especially distant through a modern lens.
Keywords: Fish, Sasquatches, Politics, Elections, Interviews
Review: I think I might have a certain amount of anxiety reading about elections now, even ones that happened in the past. And I understand that the story seems to be making a case for adopting more of a historical lens to view our particular moment of fear, shame, and anger. Because the piece opens with an election. Where a republican defeats a democrat. Where someone with flash defeats someone who seems to care much more about people. It feels like more than just a defeat of a person or political power, but a defeat of justice. And the story shows that A Lot of people voted for it. And the story seems to choose to show not how this speaks to divisions that are irreconcilable, but how despite a person’s politics, you can still be kind, can still be a good person, can still be generous and generally not an evil asshole. It’s not really what I want to hear now, and I don’t think it’s necessarily what I need to hear now, but there’s certainly something to be said for harmony, for social cohesion. The story seems to me to say that the reason that the story works is that people in this fictional state are much more able to let people live their own lives. It’s a bit of give and take, but everyone respects everyone else. And I think that’s a big part of why this kind of quasi-nostalgia doesn’t really work for me, because it implies that everyone can be welcome and respected in Jefferson when that’s never really been the American truth. People have always had to hide, had to deny themselves, had to erase themselves in order to fit in enough, to escape the threat of violence. Not that the story’s message is a bad one. We should all respect each other. But given the stakes of the story are very low, and no one who violates this easy-going mentality comes forward to complicate Bill’s philosophy, it’s perhaps never challenged enough to feel complete. It’s a rather light story, though, and has its cute moments, and its fun. A fine read!

“Tie A Yellow Ribbon” by Harry Turtledove (10902 words)

No Spoilers: Three months after the previous story, Bill is getting ready to welcome home one of Jefferson’s citizens who has been held hostage in Iran. Mark is back and to help him adjust, Bill strikes up a friendship with the young man. Mostly this involves listening and eating, which is rather great. The piece continues on a lot of the themes of the previous two stories while giving yet more world building to the setting and showcasing even more of the diversity of the state of Jefferson.
Keywords: Sasquatches, Food, Language, CW- POWs, Friendship
Review: It continues to strike my how these stories present these very slice of life moments that don’t exactly feature the highest of stakes. Here the story follows a friendship begin, and shows how Mark is dealing with being back from being held prisoner. The piece is very much concerned with discrimination, with hatred, with intolerance and extremism. And the weight of carrying that, of being different, of being viewed in many places as not a person, as a monster. It might even be a warning away from nationalism, away from globalism. Not in the ways that those things bring people together, but in the way that they tend to erase regional differences, creating something in the middle of everything, but which lacks the depth that makes for a lot of cultural richness. I like the focus on food and ceremony, and I like the way I feel the story handles Mark’s feelings about being back. Uncomfortable about being used, uncomfortable even with his own military, because he sees the echoes of the extremism that nearly killed him in the USA, too. Throughout these stories, there has been a growing sense of what it means to be...I guess Small Town. Small State? Again, there seems to be a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when politicians could be mostly decent people and people regardless of their religion, nationality, or skin color, could all just sort of be friends without having to be perfect. And there is a warmth to the stories, a certain feeling of trying in good faith, for all the off-color and sometimes-offensive jokes. I’m just not sure how the pieces come together for me as stories. But maybe that’s also the point, that here the stakes aren’t life and death, are more down-to-earth, people just getting by and living their lives. For me, I’m not sure it was enough to really hold my attention and make me want to return for more. It’s not a sentiment or nostalgia I can connect to, though for those who do or can, the world is interesting and some of the characters are rather charming. Another fine story!

“How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar” by Rich Larson (11415 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is planning a heist. Or, well, the heist might only be secondary. What they’re really doing is planning some revenge. Against a crime boss who just happened to take possession of an extremely valuable piece of art. The narrator, a hacker, just needs the right team. A friend who also might have some of the mark’s DNA. And a person who doesn’t have an sort of digital modifications or implants. Of course, there’s more going on, and more to the narrator’s desire, than seem obvious at first. And there’s definitely a few twists, disasters, and bruises that the narrator didn’t foresee at all to keep things interesting. It’s a thrilling, tightly paced, and exhilarating read.
Keywords: Heists, Art, Trans MC, CW- Amputation/Torture, Virtual Reality, CW- Suicide
Review: This story flows thanks to its emotional beats and a tight pacing paired with characters built in broad strokes but distinct in their voice and roles enough to make for a compelling dynamic. The team, as it comes together, is small enough to work for a novelette, but there’s still chemistry and conflict. The narrator and Nat have history, but what it is isn’t exactly clear. It’s messy, a bit like the narrator in general, it seems, and added to the mix is a new person, a relative unknown, and somehow the narrator knows somewhat early is not going to like one particular aspect of the job. Aside from them, the main villain, the Squid of the title, is sadistic and cruel, a predator who operates on his own whims and moods, most of which involve anger. He’s terrifying, which makes for a few really tense and squirmy scenes, but also makes the resolution that much more satisfying. And despite the violence and the uglier moments in the piece, it maintains a sense of fun, a sort of quickly expanding disaster that seems sure to kill them all. For me, the piece does play with some deeper elements, too, namely how people deal with corrupt systems, systems that essentially don’t leave them with great options. Where everything is about how much money you have, which has more to do with who you’re willing to hurt than how hard you’re willing to work. There’s something defiant about it, though, and perhaps especially about the narrator’s statement here. It’s more art than it is about the money. Sure, the payday will be huge if it works, but that’s not the point. Like the artist mentioned in the title, seeing yourself become a tool of something you kinda hate means having to figure out where to go from there. For the artist, it meant going out on her own terms. For the narrator, it means not hiding any longer, and embracing who they are. But first they have to put the past to rest, which means this job is their way of embarking on a new life, if they can survive that long. An exciting and wonderful read!

“The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods” by Maria Dahvana Headley (2483 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, you are a woman, a story, a myth. A person who gets into relationships that follow their own mythic qualities, Greek gods and heroes filtered through a more contemporary lens. Orpheus a stoner in a bad band. Icarus as a affluent Chad. Zeus as a serial cheater. The story walks you through these relationships, each of them framed as their own myths and you often the one left behind, erased, forgotten. At least until there’s a turn, and the story changes to something more empowering and transformative. It’s a poetic, heavily lyric piece, with a fluid relationship to plot and world building but a lovely way of revealing you as a character and mythical figure.
Keywords: Gods, Myths, Relationships, Marriage, Stories
Review: The story flows nicely from myth to myth, the you of the piece finding embodiment in a shifting assortment of figures. You are Eurydice or a nymph who has wed Zeus. You are a woman who doesn’t always get a name, who doesn’t always have a happy ending. Well, who never really gets a happy ending. Your relationships are always with men who are basically the worst. But they are also with the men who are the main characters. Who are the gods and demigods. The heroes. The ones who are supposed to be admirable or flawed. But if they are flawed it is Fatally Flawed. Their flaws are there precisely to make them important, whereas you are there to give them some extra context or tragedy. You don’t even get to be that sad or tragic, because these men are the ones who are really tragic. Their tragedy moves people. Yours? Eh, no one cares. At least for me, it builds this mythic structure, shows how toxic not just the stories individually are, but how toxic the roles are that everyone must inhabit. And I like where the story takes that, cycling through until you have the chance to kind of take a break from it, to decouple. To spend some time not a part of someone else’s story. Which becomes this huge, empowering act, one that allows you to sort of transform, to become a goddess where before you were an afterthought. And it sets up the ending as a new beginning, the realization of godhood as the start of something new, something wonderful. And it’s a great read!

“The Case of the Somewhat Mythic Sword” by Garth Nix (6803 words)

No Spoilers: Some #angst #pining going on in this story for sure as Magnus Holmes, cousin of Sherlock Holmes (but with a much more supernatural focus) and Susan Shrike, almost-doctor, investigate the strange events surrounding an inn and a maybe-ghost. The piece seems connected to a larger series, but the story does a good job of grounding it very quickly. Magnus is suffering from a curse, one that makes him incredibly dangerous to foe and friend alike. He and Susan are trapped out of decorum and his somewhat-altered state to not acting on their attraction for each other. And there’s...not exactly a mystery to solve, here, but definitely a plot to foil, and some magical wrongs to try to set right. It’s a tightly paced, quick read that gives enough of a taste of the setting and characters to be memorable and leave me quite willing to pursue it forward.
Keywords: Transformations, Historical, Holmes, Swords, Ghosts
Review: For me this is a pretty straight forward tale of suspense and magical daring do, with a bit of Doomed Lovers going on as Magnus and Susan deal with not really being able to be open about their feelings because they’re British. Er, I mean, because one of them sometimes transforms into a murderous cloud of gas and needs to spend nights restrained in an asylum while the other is dealing with being a professional woman in a time and place where that’s very much not smiled on. And their suppressed emotions come out in the way the they treat each other, in the delicate and fragile way they view the curse that Magnus has been afflicted with. Because as terrifying as it is, as potentially disastrous, it’s also the only thing that gets them through certain situations. Like this one. The mystery aspect of the story isn’t exactly deep. It’s much more of an adventure story, and one that plays out with plenty of chills and spills. The hook is interesting, this ghost that shouldn’t exist, this inn that’s part of something much older. But the resolution comes with a rush, with a sudden confrontation and things breaking and people dying. The action is immediate and gripping, visceral and challenging. The stakes really couldn’t be higher, given everything, on both a societal and personal level. And the resolution is thrilling and well done. It’s a story that hits all its moments and leaves enough questions that there feels like there still a lot more to come. For me, it’s solidly entertaining and contains some great world building and character work, but thematically there’s not much to really dig into. The villain is brief and thin, the protagonists a bit more complex but still wearing their emotions on their sleeves. The work doesn’t really seem to dig deeper or complicate the themes of Sherlock Holmes, but for fans of those stories, it does offer up a solid read!


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