Friday, February 28, 2020

Quick Sips - Tor dot com February 2020

Art by Eli Minaya
I keep on expecting Tor to decrease their short fiction offerings after a very busy January, but the hits just keep on coming with three new short stories and a novelette. The themes and the genres vary rather widely, from historical fairy tale to far future and far flung science fiction to a weird piece about a weird manuscript...and aliens. The works take on some wonderful settings and some fascinating characters, all while dealing with themes of loss and relationships. And there's plenty of fun and action to balance out the heavier emotional beats, so it's really a strong month of fiction. To the reviews!

“St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Bridig” by C.L. Polk (5545 words)

No Spoilers: Theresa is a young woman who was part of a price paid to the woman who is now her mother. The woman who makes bargains with desperate people, sending those worthy enough to speak to the bees and express their desires to have their wishes granted. Theresa has been raised as her daughter, but she’s never really felt much in the way of maternal love. She’s expected to be perfect, to be the best. So it might come as a bit of a surprise that, despite how good she is at everything, there’s another girl in her class that’s just as talented. And it sparks something that’s not rivalry, that’s not bitterness, in both of them. Something that could, just maybe, lead them to something beautiful and freeing...or tragic and bittersweet.
Keywords: School, Spells, Bargains, Bees, Queer MC
Review: Okay, yes, I love stories that capture a sense of isolation and longing, and this one does such a good job of that, showing Theresa as affluent but lonely. She’s desperate for approval, for something good and affirming in her life, and she has such a crush on this other girl in her life, Lucille, who is her equal, who could be her confidant and her friend, the one to keep her going forward, to push into greater and greater things. Unfortunately, so little of Theresa’s life is fair, and it’s all so dominated by bargains, most of which she doesn’t make. And even though she’s never forced to give up her freedom, even though she’s never made to do what she does, there’s...well, there’s a certain gravity that is pulling at her. She’s been groomed and prepared, and I love the distance that puts between her and her mother, the way they do want to reach out to one another but are separated by the ways they hurt, the cycle of use and sacrifice that seems to bind them to the bees. The mother seems to know what’s going to happen even as she wants different, even if she wants her adopted daughter to escape. But it’s not just the mother who is making the system. It’s men like the one who wants to own Lucille, who wants to abuse his own power. And as long as the system that he enforces exists, there is a need for the role that Thesea steps into. There must be a witch watching over the bees, vetting applicants, making sure that some wishes aren’t asked but some, some are answered. It’s a story where I want so much more for Theresa, want her to be able to escape the fate that’s been waiting for her her entire life. But it’s not something that really can be escaped so long as there is such misogyny, such corruption, such fear that competent and skilled women have to carry that a man will decide that they’ve out-stepped their place. And it’s a beautiful tale for all that—as Lucille comments on Theresa poetry, it’s sad and longing. And it’s very much worth checking out. A great read!

“If You Take My Meaning” by Charlie Jane Anders (8538 words)

No Spoilers: Alyssa is one third of a pretty kickass queer triad, all of whom have Been Through Some Shit and gone through changes and fights, whole revolutions, and come through alive. And now Alyssa is headed toward a strange city full of alien creatures to maybe undergo a surgery to be hybridized, which would give her different senses and also allow her to communicate in new ways. It’s something that Sophie, another one of the triad, has already been through. So it’s not like it’s a complete unknown. But knowing and being ready are two different things, and the story explores the distance between them in intimate and interesting ways, crafting a story about communication, pain, community, and hope.
Keywords: Body Modification, Queer MC, Poly Relationships, Aliens, Communication, CW- Surgery, Scars
Review: I really love the character work in this piece, the way that it builds up each of the characters. Alyssa mostly, yes, but also her partners Sophie and Mouth, and Jeremy, the man she finds in this strange, alien city who is after the same thing she is, and even Hope, the alien who helps Alyssa recover from surgery. And on top of that, it’s a story that deals with the intense themes of medical transition and trauma, the way that both Alyssa and Jeremy react violently to their change. Both are full of doubt and shame, guilt and worry. They are different in the ways that they wanted to be different, that they want to be different, and yet the getting there was a huge thing, and they have to face that their first reaction was rejection. Further, their first experiences are defined by overwhelming pain, and while both of them come to truly accept and appreciate their decision, it’s also the case that they had no real guide to prepare them. Only afterward do they get access to teachers, to a whole world that was closed off to them before. And I love that they take from that a desire to make the transition easier for others. To be resources and to be there for those who want to take that step. Who want to become hybrids. Because through their help, through their mentoring, other people can make that decision with much more information and might be able to avoid the same level of trauma that they both went through. It’s a story that really builds the idea of the importance of communities. Some of them are small, like the beautiful relationship between Alyssa, Sophie, and Mouth. Or the less intimate/romantic one that Alyssa, Jeremy, and Hope (one of the aliens) enjoy at the end. And all together it shows the strength of these connections even in the face of corrupt regimes. Building a case for the transformational power of opening new and deeper kinds of communication. Communication that reinforces those already in use—like storytelling. The result is a story that feels like it has such a history that we might not get to see but that we might feel all the same, reflecting back on our world with a powerful focus. And it’s a lovely work of affirmation and resilience and love. You should definitely check it out immediately!

“Manuscript Tradition” by Harry Turtledove (6890 words)

No Spoilers: Feyrouz is a custodian of rare books who seems to enjoy the routines of her days in a future where technology has advanced quite a bit and where humanity is reaching out toward distant worlds in search of life. One such mission by an unpersoned probe is just making its way through a system when it arrives at the planet Faraday and discovers something strange and exciting. And as large and important as it is for the world at large, it’s perhaps even more striking to Feyrouz because of the nature of the probe discovers, and how it ties back to something in her line of work. A document that has been a puzzle for hundreds of years. The piece acts a bit like a mystery but, like the historical one it seeks to “solve,” doesn’t offer much in the way of closure or certainty.
Keywords: Aliens, Librarians, Janitors, Translations
Review: This is a rather strange story. But then, as it circles around the Voynich Manuscript, that’s probably to be expected. In some ways the piece feels like a way of trying to find a way that the Manuscript could make sense, speculating as to its mystery and, more importantly, to the solution of that mystery. And it’s a compelling one, because it seeks to create this comprehensive explanation for all the weirdness, all the things that don’t make sense. The drawings are of actual flora from a distant world, the star charts accurate from that vantage, not from Earth. The naked women are actual inhabitants of the planet. And the mystery deepens, revealing how this information from a distant planet managed to arrive on Earth, and what it means when humanity finds that planet and discovers that there must be a connection to this manuscript that’s been around so long. Of course, exploring the fallout of that on a large scale doesn’t really happen, and I did feel myself wanting to know a bit more about what Earth was doing with the knowledge that there were aliens out there, and how they were treating the manuscript now that it tied to something so large. The story doesn’t really offer much into that, focusing instead on the rather personal impact on the main character and her interactions with the janitor of her building, a man she’s never thought too much about aside from extending professional courtesy.And it’s mostly just a fun little story. The central idea, that the Voynich Manuscript is discovered to be something “real” is one I like mostly because I’m fascinated by the manuscript, and I think the piece does a good job of grounding that is some rather charming speculation. And while I wish that the story had maybe had a bit more of a narrative arc and focus, it’s a neat adventure, and certainly worth checking out!

“Sinew and Steel and What They Told” by Carrie Vaughn (4426 words)

No Spoilers: Graff is a pilot, a part of the military crew engaged in some sort of conflict or patrolling. His life is full of battles, of near death experiences. But also of love. And there’s a layer to it that he lets no one else know about. At least, not until he’s so traumatically injured that he can’t keep it a secret anymore. And the truth about him might change everything, might twist the trust others have had in him into suspicion and paranoia, the love into betrayal and hate. The piece is tender, touching, about trust and truth, love and stories. It’s quiet for the most part, but heavy with hope and fear, and it’s a beautifully rendered story.
Keywords: Injuries, Space, Queer MC, Stories, Cybernetics
Review: So much of this story comes down to trust. Circles around what that means, what truth means, and how that impacts relationships, how it impacts people. And it’s a story that plays with some troubling tropes but in a rather careful way, I think. After all, Graff is only “found out” because of an injury, which brushes against some ways that stories have handled other kinds of “surprise reveals.” And indeed it follows much of the same patterns as someone forcibly “outed” and immediately treated different, immediately treated like a criminal because they have “lied” by not disclosing this thing that everyone around Graff feels is so important. To Graff, though, it wasn’t important, wasn’t necessary to divulge, not even to his intimate partner. Certainly not to his commanding officer or the military in general. He is loyal and he is valuable as a pilot, risks himself time and again. That he’s treated as a kind of spy when people “find out the truth” about him is something that rings true to me, and I hate that he needs to try and argue his way out of it even as the story does a strong job in my opinion of doing just that. Of arguing why this isn’t a problem, why it was no violation of trust, that it doesn’t really change anything. Though of course it does. I’m not sure in a super great way. Mostly because it wasn’t Graff’s idea, wasn’t his choice. And it’s dangerous to say that things will be necessarily better because of this. Likely it will be a loss for him still, and the ghost of that knowledge that now other people have might haunt him. At the same time, I do like the tender way the story grapples with this, and with the specific issues that Graff has (which are separate from the metaphoric or allegorical connections I read into them). While I don’t see this as a good thing, I do like that the people around Graff are able to trust him, are able to still love him. It’s a piece that still brims with hope, even as it traces this traumatic event that, even if Graff fully recovers physically, is going to leave scars. But it’s also just a beautifully written and build story with some happy sad gay content and I am a sucker for that. It’s a wonderful read and I definitely recommend people check it out!


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