The back half of April brings not only a new story and poem from Strange Horizons, but a new issue of Samovar as well, with two stories and two poems in translation to enjoy. As always, neither publication disappoints, offering up worlds and characters that walk in shadows, that encroach upon the strange and the weird and haunting. That find characters wanting very much to break free of the constraints corruption and industrialization have shackled them with. And finding that maybe there is a way out. Maybe, through cooperation, through partnership, they can reach for freedom. Or maybe that too is a bit of an illusion, and what they're really reaching for is comfort to live with the injustices they can do nothing about. In any event, let's get to the reviews!
“Our Souls to the Moon” by Tamara Jerée (4683 words)
No Spoilers: Bimi and Adal work at a factory making telescopes for the wealthy to be able to view Sao, a moon of Neptune whose sight acts as a sort of drug, a euphoric that acts as an escape for those who can afford to get away from the polluted, corrupt world they’re on. For Bimi and Adal, poor and barely scraping by, there seems to be no such escape, even through Adal, with her moonstone eyes, is valuable as an employee. And when a single random act of corruption threatens to tip them into complete ruin, their only choice might be to take a chance on a mysterious cult and a devastating sacrifice. It’s a strange piece, the world almost dreamlike but still familiar in its pollutions, both environmental and moral.
Keywords: Moons, Employment, Eyes, Queer MC, Sacrifices
Review: I really like the feel of this story, the sort of dystopian state where all these women have to work for the pleasure of others, giving the rich glimpses of euphoria that is always denied to them. That is essentially free because it’s all down to sight, but they are denied it because despite being the ones to build the telescopes, they aren’t allowed to use them or own them. They are denied, forced to live in a way that strips of their dignity arbitrarily. Bibi, the narrator, wants something better but also believes that toil is the best they can hope for, that run as they might to try and get ahead, the wheel of corruption is going to run them down. She doesn’t trust the cult that offers them a way out, a way away. Because she knows that there’s always a price and doesn’t know what it is at first. And because in many ways escaping is opting out of any struggle to change things. But that struggle really isn’t much that she can help with. And I like how that’s framed, that doing this, taking advantage of this escape, is actually what they can do. And that what else they can do is rest, and maybe find a way to be together away from the crush of the planet. The ending is strange and rather haunting, the escape not exactly what it was imagined to be. At the same time, though, it carries with it a sort of beauty, where the characters are able to be together, finally free from the need to toil for the rich, but it also brings a certain kind of annihilation. The characters kind a kind of oblivion there, though it is sweet, and it feels to me like a bit of a mixed moment, lovely but also tinged with the knowledge that this is the best they could do. That it’s still not really what they wanted, but maybe they can get to a time when they don’t hurt, at least, where they can exist and be safe and together. And it’s a wonderful story that I definitely recommend spending some time with!
“The Green Hills of Dimitry Totzkiy” by Eldar Safin, translated by Alex Shvartsman (5572 words)
No Spoilers: This is a strange take on a portal fantasy, where the portal is death itself and the world beyond is one where the narrator, Dimitry, gets to make the rules. But for all that he becomes the creator of his own world, his own reality, his actions still have consequences he wasn’t ready for, and lead to a war where things get...a bit odd, honestly. But through all of that there seems to be an interesting take on escape, on power, on creation, on administration--shifting to be a call out to the reader, or potential reader. A lot of it seems to be about the constraints of the world, the cycles that we fight against, break free of, and fall victim to in turn.
Keywords: CW- Suicide, Creation, Gods, Cards, Bargains
Review: For me a lot of the story is about the impulse to break free from a stagnant cycle, one that seems to offer no relief and no real challenge. It’s why Dimitry ends up casting the spell that is their own death in order to escape the “real world” and enter into an emptiness where he is able to start creating things to his own tastes. He does this to escape a life that seems stuck on a track that offers no real freedom, and yet when he comes to build his own universe, he falls into basically the same patterns of the world he left behind, recreating the same kind of things, the same flavors, the same imagery and landscapes. Beautiful, perhaps, but not fundamentally different. And, willfully or not, he also creates the situation where his power is taken away, where he is drawn into the same cycle of administrators and his labor being exploited. It’s just a new track, a new trap, and the war brings him from fighting for his own freedom to fighting for an end to the fighting, opting instead to try for peace, but one where he’s back in the same position he was in before. And the ending, then, is an extension on that, where once more he’s dissatisfied, once more he is looking for a way out. And...I mean, for me it sort of comes down on the side of the fact that what he wanted all along was not a sandbox to create his own universe, but a partner who could knock him off his routine, who would challenge him and be challenged by him as well. Someone to share life with, and in that sharing manage a kind of escape from the mundane cycles that has nothing to do with portals and fantasy worlds. And it seems to me to lean into the idea that sometimes what it takes to make life more manageable is someone to share in it, a partner who can act as check and balance, a person who will keep things in conflict, who won’t let things settle into complacency. And the story has a lovely, strange way of moving to this point, one full of twists and turns, struggle and negotiation. The gender roles might be a wee bit rigid, but otherwise the piece does show an interesting take on portal fantasies and a way to escape the repeating cycle of life without needing to leave everything behind. A fine read!
“An Eccentric Writer, a King, and a Bet: the story of how the “Huge Story” came to be” by Kshemendra, translated by Brishti Guha (1245 words)
No Spoilers: This story follows the court of King Satavahana, who begins the piece with all the appearances of a man who enjoys the comforts that come from his office but isn’t what many would consider a scholar. He doesn’t understand Sanskrit, which is apparently the most elite of languages, and after making a fool of himself in public, is determined to avoid a repeat. Two wise men volunteer to teach him, and make a bet on it. The piece follows the man who loses the bet, and the steps he takes because of it. And for me the piece is very much about language and the ideas of literary merit, the ways that gatekeeping and snobbishness make it so that men think they are learned without having the tools to really judge wisdom or value. It’s a short and fascinating piece, expressing a rather clever way of framing an important idea.
Keywords: Languages, Bets, Writing, Ghosts, Animals
Review: I do love that Samovar takes on these texts that are so concerned with the idea of translation and language. And this one, for me, shows that it can be very different things for someone to understand a language and be able to really understand what makes a work of linguistic art valuable. Because here the king learns Sanskrit and immediately thinks that he’s a scholar, and yet when confronted with the work that Gunadhya produced, he dismisses it. Not because he understands and doesn’t appreciate the text, but because his own prejudice against the language used makes it so that he can’t see that the work has immense value. Only when he sees that the work is moving even the animals of the forest does he come to realize that he’s made a mistake again, and that the mark of a scholar might not just be being able to understand a language, but being able to recognize profound art regardless of language. Regardless of if the language used is that found in the high court or amongst the lowly, the ghosts, and the animals of the world. In that, the piece is intricate and sharp, a kind of fable to remind people not to be prejudiced against a work just because it comes in a language that is deemed less “artistic” in some way. And it captures the tragedy that can come from that kind of prejudice, the loss of stories and voices that might be able to change the world, to captivate a huge audience with a “huge story.” The piece is a lot of fun, and fits in my opinion at least very well with what Samovar does, bringing works from different languages to us the readers, asking that we not prejudge just because of or linguistic prejudices what we find. A great read!
“young Death is in love” by L. D. Lewis
This poem speaks to me of longing and the toxic nature of how we teach desire to children. How we start at so early a time to hammer in the idea that people can show affection through aggravation, through bullying or violence. And the piece seems to use that to build this situation, this young girl who has been the target of violence, who has been told that it’s something different, something positive. Who reacts when it comes again, not only matching like to like but going further, because surely that must be the answer, especially if she wants to return the affection, if she wants to know what it means to love, to feel passion and attraction. The poem explores the horror of that if the girl has power that she doesn’t know about. For me there’s a certain feeling to the poem that really captures how dangerous this mentality is, how poison, because if you mix to it power, if you seek to universalize it, there is only tragedy, only death and suffering, blood on a scale that is terrifying. And within that bloodbath, within that horror, is the messy relationship between violence and attraction. Between death and love. What results inside the poem is a killing field, a supernatural miasma designed to show how she feels in a way that it is as unmistakable as a scraped knee, an open wound. It’s not a super happy in that, but I feel that it does a great job of showing how these kinds of cycles reproduce themselves, children taught in ways that plants a toxic seed inside them that buds and grows into a blossom of violence, that in turn seeding and spreading. And the only way to stop it is to take a stand and work to actually weed out those messages. Or else they have a way of gaining momentum, and if they fall on the wrong people, the results can be absolutely shattering. It’s a visceral read, and full of implications in a larger world and setting that could border our own. A great read!
“Night Moths” by Dai Wangshu, translated by Yilin Wang
This poem speaks to me of the ways that moths have been imagined, the ways that they’ve been incorporated into myth and religion. The narrator here recalls the different things that the moths are supposed to represent--mostly the spirits of the dead returned to Earth for whatever reason, either to comfort or else drawn by their own yearning for their past lives. For the narrator, though, the moth takes on a different symbol, a different meaning. For them, they are the moth, the ashen figure not dull but alive with color. And for me the piece is playing with the way that moths are drawn to the light, the way that they dance and seem to court the flame. To the point that some will drift to close and be singed, or burn entirely. The last stanza, though, seems to me to reframe that away from the typical folly that it is viewed as, the warning that we not become too focused on one thing lest we be tempted too close to the fire. Instead, the conviction that the narrator professes does not lead them into ruin but only the appearance of it, for while they might touch the fire and burn, they are also transforming in the process. Become something else, or becoming what they have always been. A phoenix, a being able to rise again from the ashes. For me it seems to speak of something in the narrator, some yearning, some truth, that they recognize as destructive in some ways. But that isn’t something they want to reject or turn away from. That is rather something that they cherish, something they hold strongly too, refusing to be a tragedy, a moral lesson that is passed on to others. At least, they seem to refuse to be a negative example, and seek to reclaim their power, that if they should be burned for their conviction, it will not diminish them, will not extinguish the flame that is still beating inside them, that springs forth from the ashes and is reborn. It’s a lovely piece, and definitely worth spending some time with! A wonderful read!
“My Crow” by and translated by Yuan Changming
This poem pairs very well with the last, also focusing on spirits and how they can become embodied in different animals. Instead of moths, though, this time it’s crows, and the piece explains the significance of the crow, the connection between every person and each crow they see. The piece is told in second person, and so it has the feel that it’s being told, related directly to the reader. At least for me, the piece comes as a sort of lesson or revelation, the narrator trying to tell you the secret of the crows, and through that a more personal kind of secret. Because at first brush the thought that every crow is a close ancestor seems like something mythological, some bit of folklore, the crow a messenger, fitting into their general role in fortune and augury. But the message they carry doesn’t seem to be about the future. Not...exactly at least. For me, the crows seem to act as guides, relating their own flight out of the shadows, their own struggles and their own truths. Because maybe they sense in you something that needs that guidance. Because maybe your own spirit takes on a darker hue, not black entirely and not lost. But maybe struggling yourself with the world. With yourself. And the crows then are bringing a kind of comfort. A kind of promise that there is still hope. For me, at least, the piece seems to speak to the idea that inside yourself there is darkness that you grapple with, and you see in this crow something at the same time darker and lighter than what you feel is reflected in your own heart. But that doesn’t mean you are lost. Doesn’t mean you can’t find a way through your struggles and maybe reach a point where your spirit can shine. It’s a strange piece, and for me it also speaks to the need for secrets, the way people can be one thing on the surface, another thing within, all of that touched by and touching the world, all connected to what a person does and how they live. It’s a poem for transformations and light, messages and hope, and I think it’s great way to close out the issue!