Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Regular Sip - Cradle and Grave by Anya Ow (Neon Hemlock)

Art by Y.C. Yang
I’m back with a look at another novella from Neon Hemlock. This one shoots the action into the far future, or onto another world entirely, where a cataclysmic event has resulted in a world shattered, broken, and with signs that the breaking might just be getting worst. The piece looks not just at the ravages of climate change but on an assault on reality itself, where humanity’s desire for order has backfired and created a society living beside the white-hot mutating chaos of a city and a water that can turn people into insectoid monsters. It’s a bold piece, solidifying the feeling I have that Neon Hemlock is a publisher willing to take some risks that, for me at least, have paid off big. To the review!


Cradle and Grave by Anya Ow (novella)

No Spoilers: Dar Lien runs salvage, enough that she has a small shop that gets her by and a working relationship with an outfit that has mostly worked out. Except that that the Scab, mostly isn’t exactly great, and proximity to the waters there cause people to Change. Like how her body now more resembles a giant insect than a human. Which has put her off most of the risky runs into the Scab. But a gruff centaur and a mysterious man come to her with a mission and a reward that might just make her change her mind, especially if thrown into the deal are possible answers to what caused the Change, and what Lien’s connection to it is. The book moves quickly, establishing the dangers of this world and the Scab and making no attempts to shield readers from the strange horrors waiting inside. It’s a piece about change, transformation, and hope, that even when the world has gone completely to shit, there are still reasons to keep going, and the possibility of respite even in the most inhospitable of places.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Mutation, Transformation, Queer Characters, AIs, Augmentation, Salvage
Review: I really like how this story builds the story, a possible future where pushing into certain kinds of technology finally stressed reality itself to the breaking point. And Dar Lien is a great guide to this setting, worldly enough while also being rather sheltered. She knows her home, and she knows the Scab, and that’s about it. She’s poor, and if there’s one thing that even the apocalypse hasn’t changed it’s that poor people have to take greater risks just to survive. Which means they’re the ones who are pressed into going into the Scab to retrieve items that then sell to the richest of the rich. Of course Lien doesn’t really see any of that money, just what trickles down, assuming she survives. Noto enough to combat the Change that is slowly taking her, that she has to subject herself to each time she returns to the Scab, which means each time she wants to get paid. Except with Yusuf (grumpy centaur) and Servertu (mysterious rich guy), the payoff might be enough for her to afford surgery that will stop the Change, maybe even reverse it. If, of course, she can survive.

And I love that part of the story is just the horrific adventure of going into the Scab, of dealing with the strange mutants and monsters that live there, while another part is a slowly evolving mystery surrounding what the Scab really is, and why the Change that started when the Scab was made isn’t slowing down--it’s accelerating. The character interactions here are golden, too, with Lien drawn into this pact with Yusuf and Servertu, two men who obviously love each other, who are sort-of hiding their relationship because the setting is such that showing compassion is often seen as a weakness, and the weak don’t do so well. Over time, though, the depth of the relationship becomes clear, and the true nature of both men revealed.

And I really love where the story goes, showing that change isn’t something that stops. In the Scab, and around this world, the Change is only spreading more and more, the human settlements being overrun, transformed. And yet even so, even with the seeming freefall the setting is in, the rapid decline, all hope isn’t lost. There’s a part that sums up so much, where Lien comments on this phenomenon, about what good even a pause in that descent would ultimately do. And she’s answered that sometimes a pause is all it takes. That it can allow people to catch their breath. To dig deeper. And to push back even harder. That change doesn’t only work toward destruction, toward chaos. That we can build. And rebuild. And protect. And heal. But only through the conscious effort and choice to do so. Even in the face of the corruption and the betrayal that seem rampant. And the ending here is strange and beautiful, no less broken than the world that’s been revealed, but with, at last, a pause and a path toward something better. It’s a wonderful read and I definitely recommend checking it out!


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