|Art by DAPENHA|
Strange Horizons kicks March off with two issues featuring the normal story and poem apiece (on top of some excellent nonfiction). And the works play in an interesting way with tropes and with reflecting back on older literary works and traditions. One twists the old Frog and Toad Are Friends in a wonderful and queer way, while drawing in some deep hurts and systemic injustices. Another deals with the gothic tradition set in post-war France, and also looks at the hidden shadows lurking everywhere, the rots that haven't yet been brought to light. The poetry is strong, too, and looks at bodies and perceptions and time. To the reviews!
“Rat and Finch are Friends” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (4385 words)
No Spoilers: Izuchukwu is a student at a rather elite boarding school, where he’s been forbidden from seeing his best friend, Rat, ever again. To complicate matters some, both boys are also Amusus, people who can transform into animals. Izu is a finch. The piece builds around the misconceptions surrounding Amusus, tying that to other kinds of misconceptions, other kinds of hate, and how it shatters the fragile peace that Izu and Rat had. That said, it’s possible it hasn’t shattered what they’ve built together--the affection and friendship and maybe even love that they share. It’s a heartbreaking read, emotionally strong with a wonderful world building and effective layering. Just wow.
Keywords: Shape Shifting, Boarding School, Birds, Rats, Queer MC, Family
Review: Hold on let me just pick up these shattered pieces of my heart and wait for the tears to stop. No? All right I guess I’ll press on anyway. Fuck. This is a beautiful and tragic and hit me in all my soft places. I love that the story brings in Frog and Toad, a book for children that is pure and wonderful and also kinda really hella gay. Because it shows that unlike the fear mongering, religious, hateful depictions of queerness that abound, this vision of two men loving each other, being friends, is the more accurate model. The story does wonderful things about difference and fear and hate, showing how Amusus must hide because those using their powers openly are subject to suspicion and hate. Especially when they use their powers for good, to protect the innocent and punish the wicked. Because anything that threatens the established order and power structure is something that must be stopped, must be crushed. And the ways that manifests from the outside and from inside Izu’s family are just real and terrible and fuck. The ways that the cycles of violence and repression and oppression work. It’s a story in mourning, a story that explores the grief and the shame and the injustice that still very much pervades the world concerning queerness. How dangerous it still very much is. And how terrible that the reaction to this boy finding himself and finding a relationship that is affirming and right is that he’s punished, stripped of everything that could help him. And even then the story doesn’t give in completely to despair. In its final moments it casts one hopeful look up, ends on a scene of tenderness and friendship and love and fuck I’m just going to make myself cry all over again. It’s a fantastic story. You should go read it immediately. Cry with me, people.
“La Bête” by Leah Bobet (4725 words)
No Spoilers: Unfolding in post-Occupied France, this story centers a woman looking to buy a house. To chase a dream. To maintain a rose garden to supply perfume makers. She’s in talks to purchase a château from an old dowager, though there is a single stipulation to the sale--that she not make improvements or alterations to the library. At first it seems a small thing, but the reason behind the requirement, and the full truth of the château, and all of the narrators dreams, come clearer, though all of them complicated by the lingering touch of war and the weight of occupation.
Keywords: France, Houses, Roses, War, Curses, Fairy Tales
Review: I love how the story sort of sidles up next to fairy tales, using them (and especially Beauty and the Beast) to weave this layered and complex look at war, peace, and the bloody fields between the two. The narrator seems to be a former resistance fighter/spy who has come out of the war with money and plans. And a need to make something, to recover something. And she finds this house that seems to embody that, that seems perfect for her, only to find that the place is...not exactly haunted, but to me it still feels like a haunting. The opening quote establishes a Gothic theme, and the story then does play that out, with the house having this shadow, this in habitation, this history. And it’s a history that draws in the war, the occupation, the messy lines that all drew over the country. The roses are here both a symbol of what the narrator wants this place to be, what she wants it to become, and an invader, thorny and pervasive, that has overgrown everything. The decision has to be made whether to accept the conditions of its occupancy of the house, or whether to seek to evict it. And I just love the mood of the story, the feel of it, the way it seems so loaded and so damaged. The house, the various inhabitants, everyone has lost and lost and lost. But the narrator’s dream is for more than just living in a house. It’s for recovery, for a thriving industry, a thriving nation that can heal from the wounds war inflicted on it. For a bit of beauty, tough enough to survive, fragile enough to require care and work and skill and patience. Which the narrator has, even as she refuses to cede her home to an invader, even as she is determined to perform her own kind of exorcism on the house. And it’s a wonderfully rendered, careful story that mixes war, recovery, fairy tales, and hope. Go check it out!
“Playing Fetch with the Grim” by Cam Kelley
This poem finds two versions of the same person playing fetch with a grim. It’s a piece that for me revolves around the feeling of possibility, of time, of what might have been, all wrapped up in a messy ball of trauma, impossibility, and trying to set a course forward. I love the way the story sets up the multiplicity of the situation, that the narrator is split amongst these doubles, all of them him but all of them also not the person he wants to be. Which, for real, there’s something about that which speaks to me of trying to follow advice that just doesn’t quite work. After all, “they” say that he’s in there somewhere. That the person he wants to be is like a prisoner in his mind that the narrator has to let out, or transform into. And what the narrator seems to be running into is the lie that statement represents, like trauma, like loss, are things that can be sloughed away. Forgotten. That under those discarded layers there would be some sort ideal foundation to grow on. A childhood that wasn’t spent as someone you didn’t want to be. That you can just manufacture those, or discover those, instead of having to face them and all the pain and grief and guilt and shame they represent. Because when they meet this version of themself in dreams, nothing is right. They are meeting a stranger, and for me at least that speaks to the ways that they can’t even really separate themself from their issues, from their hurts. And how no one really can. Yes, the idealized self is something to maybe shoot for. To strive towards. But it’s not a mask one can slip of, and it’s certainly not a skin buried under the masks we’ve been forced to wear. It’s a beautiful poem about grappling with self, with change, with being more like what you want to be but still finding the distance there. And really, I just love the imagery and the voice and everything about it. A fantastic read!
“Such Monstrous Births” by Emily Smith
This piece seems to take a look at birth defects, starting in the present and then drifting back through time, likely through an image, a museum exhibit, stretching back to old wars, old portents of doom. The piece in some ways traces back the reactions to the ways that human development in the womb can produce children who look very different from what is considered “normal.” And how now it tends to be examined from a certain kind of detachment. The poem is broken up into sections, each one depicting a kind of person reacting to the bodies, to the artifacts of the living beings. It starts in something like the present (known mostly because of the wiki link) with a researcher who needs to study the various conditions. Then the artist using them as inspiration for art. Then a physician back in time noting the child as interesting and perhaps connected to a large statement from god. And with each step the reader is drawn in closer and closer to the child, to the birth, so that I feel that the poem might be following a single strange, from museum back through the years to when they were born. And showing the history around them, the different ways that their body has been used. It speaks to me of the ways that these kinds of births are treated, as portents and curiosities, all the while the people, the children, the mothers, are rather forgotten. Through all the years the revulsion doesn’t really change. Even those who seek to find something beautiful there find that beautiful terrible, monstrous. Which in turn reflects that back, back at all the people who would turn their back, who would refuse to recognize a child as human because of the way they were born. It’s a complex poem, on that drives down layer after layer, exposing this old wrong that has been captured in a museum, not just an artifact out of time but a constant reminder of how we treat bodies. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!