Monday, May 4, 2020

Quick Sips - PodCastle #622-623

PodCastle has two new stories this month, and show some very different flavors of alt-history fantasy. One is a post-disaster magical resurgence story (paradigm shift story?) about love, true and otherwise. The other is a historical fantasy featuring a couple living in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Both deal with our world and how magic might shape it, though, either a magic that has always been present and is now being twisted for war, or a magic that was absent and is now returned in the form of dangerous new rules, creatures, and hardships. The characters are in turn shaped by the conflicts that magic creates, struggling to find love and build families amidst the ruin and devastation. To the reviews!


“Spoken For” by Evan Kennedy (5585 words)

No Spoilers: Told across multiple timelines, this story follows the relationship of Auden and Ellaree, a pair who found each other after the magic came back. After Auden went to war killing dragons and after he returned home and fell in love with Ellaree, even through she was already engaged at the time. And twenty seven years after the magi came back, a mishap with a cockatrice leads to Ellaree being frozen in stone, and Auden desperate to life the curse. It’s a story with a rather fun world but one that doesn’t glaze over the rather grim realities of this new world, where new dangers add to problems left over from the old world, all blending together into a messy and intimate look at these characters and the journey they have been on since their worlds were turned upside-down.
Keywords: Courtship, Magic, Monsters, Curses, True Love, CW- Miscarriage/Pregnancy
Review: This story features an imaginative and fun setting but also a mix of tonal elements that makes for a much more nuanced piece that might be expected at first blush. Because the idea of the return of magic is something that speaks to a kind of wonder to me, an almost child-like excitement. But though the characters start out the piece as basically children, they quickly learn that this new status quo is anything but positive. For most people, after all, it’s a complete upending of everything they’ve depended on. People die in large numbers and a lot of people have to go to war against the new threats out there. The dragons, the monsters, the gods who have risen. It means that running behind a story that is about True Love in the magical and fairy tale sense, there’s also a lot about trauma and guilt, about love in a very real, very messy sense, and I love how the story really gets at that, pulling apart the idea of fairy tale True Love while at the same time relying on it. It’s this interesting dichotomy, where the characters are trying their best to live but their world, their lives, are not the magical and perfect things that fantasy often makes them out to be. The monsters are terrible, and people are still vulnerable. And the idea of love is something caught in all these different complications. For me, at least, the piece parallels the ways the fantasy elements are much friendly with the ways that love is not this clean and beautiful thing all the time. Sometimes it’s hurt and sometimes it’s raw and angry and sometimes it’s full of small betrayals. The idea of True Love as somehow being without those things it where I feel the story takes aim, putting that aside and showing instead that true love is about choice, is about the work people put in together. Not about grand gestures or slaying demons. Not about breaking a curse with a kiss. It’s about the messy realities of living, and in that the story is sharp and profound. It’s a wonderful read, and very much worth spending some time with!

“Caring For Dragons and Growing a Flower” by Allison Thai (2887 words)

No Spoilers: This story unfolds in the letters between Thi and Cương, a couple torn apart by the Vietnam War, Cương conscripted into the People’s Army after being captured because of his medical training, put in charge of tending to the dragons that are something of the national resource. And because of that capture and conscription, the correspondence between the two is tinged with party propaganda and praise lest it not make it by the censors. The two talk about their lives even as beneath the obvious words they use there is a subtext that tells a much different story. The piece is difficult at times, talking about immigration and loss at a time of war and under the ever present clouds of racism and conquest. And it’s a piece full of rain and tears, though it does seem to find the glittering lining of the dark clouds in the shape of words reaching out across a great divide, geography or mortality itself, not really expecting an answer.
Keywords: Dragons, War, Censorship, Code, CW- Pregnancy, Immigration
Review: This story combines real world history and fantasy to great effect, the piece building up this situation between Thi and Cương where they are both stuck trying to navigate a world that has turns very hostile. Where the thought of raising their child makes them desperate enough to escape that they’ll trust their fates to the sea and the hope of reaching a new land while their home is ripped apart by foreign interference. And I like the ways that they get around censorship, writing of the government in glowing terms even as their realities are bleak and dire. Indeed, there’s a mystery in the piece of just how bad it was. One that’s never really solved, because the war ends up taking everything it can, and after a certain point, once the two have managed to get Thi and their daughter away and to America. The fate of Cương is a weight, though, an aching wound that the story opens up even as there are moments of happiness and hope. And for me it speaks to the way that war destroys, and even when there in an escape, it’s not total. The scars of the conflict are still there, and Thi takes them with her to America, to a place that is supposed to be better, full of safety and promise, and...isn’t. And I love that the story shows that this isn’t a victory, that in many ways it’s not what even Thi wanted. Because in this new place she is the outsider, not accepted, having to claw her way into a kind of security. And this at a time when immigration was easier than it is now, though never, it points out, easy. For me it’s a story that captures the feeling of people both mourning the loss of the life they wanted, the life they had expected in their home country, and the hope that maybe they can still find a place to belong and thrive. Not, however, together. Never, it turns out, ever quite whole. And it’s wrenching and beautiful and a great read!


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