|Art by Jana Heidersdorf|
August brings a pair of wonderful queer short stories and some excellent poetry to Strange Horizons. The stories deal with wars, with veterans who have tried to leave violence behind them. But who find that violence is so prevalent in their worlds that it can’t really be run away from. Hidden from. And so they have to find ways to meet it. To save what can be saved. To not be defined solely by the violence they do, but also by their compassion, their kindness, their resilience. And it’s just a fantastic pair of issues that I love a lot and will get right to reviewing!
“My Love, Our Lady of Slaughter” by Christine Lucas (5679 words)
No Spoilers: Sister Hecuba is a member of Panacea’s Disciples, a maybe-religious organization that specializes in healing...at least for now. The Sisters all have neural augmentation that allows them to mentally control aspects of other people’s bodies. It’s a great boon for healing, though it requires a lot of energy. It can also be used for decidedly non-healing actions, though, as Hecuba’s fellow Sister and lover, Ismene, proved a while ago, when she single-handedly stopped a war...by slaughtering most of an army. The two have since been effectively exiled, enjoying what they can of the isolation with each other. But a group of soldiers comes to call in this story, and they bring, among other things, a change to the status quo. A possible new initiate. And a demand that Ismene take back up her title as Our Lady of Slaughter. It’s a strong piece focusing on an older queer couple and their attempts to escape violence and rage, and the ways they are pulled back to it.
Keywords: Religious Orders, Healing, War, Neutrality, Mental Augmentation, Queer MC
Review: The setting here is wonderfully built. And by that I mean it’s harsh and unforgiving and corrupt, defined by politics and factions who care little for the welfare of their citizens or the consequences of their rhetoric. The soldier who come for Ismene are losing a conflict, a rebellion, and want a way to put it down. A cheat, leaning on the fact that Ismene was once one of them, a noble of their house. It leads them to trample tradition and the established rules and conventions, assuming that as long as they win, they’ll be able to spin it however they want. Knowing that they’ve already gotten away with so much, what’s a little more? Only Hecuba and Ismene are not having any of it. They’ve spent their lives trying to heal, trying to stay out of conflict. But that doesn’t mean they are weak, for all it is seen as a weakness by those who only gain power through partisan exploitation and violence. And I like how the story veers a bit away from the tragic trajectory it seems to be on. With queer elders, it seems at times like it’s almost inevitable that they’re going to be defined in stories by their pain, by a final heartbreak. And this story rejects that, doesn’t allow the characters to fall because of the actions of those who would use and erase them. Though the characters can’t avoid the rage and violence that pushes in all around them, they are not consumed by it, are saved in some ways by the efforts and compassion of another person who has been hurt by war and by corruption. A young woman who might just have a power believed to be impossible. And who learns her lessons more from what Hecuba and Ismene try to do rather than by what they are forced into by those operating in bad faith. The ending for me opens up a possibility that there is hope. For Hecuba and Ismene not to lose each other, first, and for them to maybe even be able to form a larger family, one that has the power to change the solar system. It’s a wonderful story, full of grit and blood but not despair. Definitely check it out!
“A Voyage to Queensthroat” by Anya Johanna DeNiro (5390 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a former soldier of a fallen empire, an empire built by a fellow trans woman and destroyed by an asshole. In the chaos and fear and death that followed, she’s fled to a distant moon and built an orchid where she grows white plums and tries to enjoy the peace with her dog. Until a group of (mostly) boys arrive to try and terrorize her. Until the violence that she’s been fleeing and the man who’s authored so much of the suffocating terror basically show up on her doorstep. And her urge to run is cut short by a fleeting look she sees in one of the youths who threaten her. A look that she can’t ignore. The piece is wonderful quick, and super queer. The world building is sweeping and huge, the politics complicated and careful. And the character work resonates, building up the pictures of one woman who’s lost a lot and refuses to lose more and one woman who has a whole galaxy of possibilities opening up in front of her.
Keywords: Plums, Dogs, Trans MC, War, Empires, CW- Death of a Pet (Dog)
Review: I love the way the story moves, the pacing quick while also revealing these deep wounds that run through the many moons of the setting. The last great empire has fallen, and there’s so much about that which speaks to me. The way that it was built by a trans woman, the way that it was toppled by an authoritarian and religious shit. The way that it was imperfect, angry, hurt. The story looks at cycles, at governments, at conservative backlashes to queer advancement. But also, gloriously, at queer ascendance over conservative backlashes. All told from the perspective of a woman who saw most of what she cared about crumble in various ways. The empire that accepted her toppled by a man she thought of as a friend. Her identity villainized as part of a religious and governmental dogma. A woman a bit grizzled around the edges but unable to stop caring. Who reaches out without really thinking when she sees someone in distress. Who is willing to sacrifice herself to save someone who deserves her own chance at happiness. And there’s such a great hope to the piece. That not all injustice last forever. That some can be reversed, and while the scars might last and linger, something better can be built. And that sometimes, reaching out with compassion and lifting someone up at a time when they are at their lowest might be enough to change the universe. For me, the story is about neither expecting the young to save us nor despairing that nothing ever changes. It’s about pushing for change. Regardless of how many times it crumbles to dust. Regardless of how much it hurts. Because it’s always worth doing. Because the battle is never done, but that doesn’t mean it can’t feel like victory. It’s a defiant, beautiful story with a great feel and aesthetic and you should definitely give it a read. A wonderful read!
“This poem is a dead zone” by Krishnakumar Sankaran
This piece speaks to me of loss and environmental destruction. Tracing the damage done by ecological decisions that didn’t bother to worry about wildlife or even humanity. That didn’t think of the future. The piece is told in the second person, the reader being pulled into it, into the dead zone the poem describes and conjures into existence. A place where the reader, where you can sink into the devastation. Into the poison depths where nothing can live. And for me there’s a sense that these places are considered matters of course. Prices to be paid for prosperity, for profits. Visual reminders of the cost of greed, maybe, except that they are blocked off, isolated, tried to be made invisible. They are covered by warning signs even as the warnings they represent--to the ecosystem, to the world--are ignored. You are brought into this dead zone with a certain kind of promise. That it won’t be so bad. You back into it, not looking in front of you, finding your bed and all the death there as...not quite a surprise, it seems, but with the pretense of it. And for all that the poem has a sort of peace to it for me, an air of resignation. Perhaps a recognition that at the point where there’s a dead zone, the damage is long since done. The reader then, is being placed into this situation that they might be complicit in, having to literally become the ocean suffocating. Feeling that slow...not panic, exactly. But realization of what is happening, what has happened. And having to sit with that. Which is uncomfortable, disquieting, and powerful. Because it does push the reader to recognize what’s happening and maybe do something about it. The peace of the poem belies the urgency needed, pushes at the point that if we want to avoid this, we need to act, and act quickly, because the dead zones already exist, and are spreading. And it’s a wonderful read!
“We Let You Live” by Laura Cranehill
Oof. This is a poem about pain, about injury, about pain and oppression. About one group of people and another. In the poem, it’s framed as humans and aliens. How in rural areas the aliens are all killed, while in more urban places they are imprisoned instead. The narrator is one of the urban people who keep the unnamed “you” in a closet. A you who seems in pain, who is crying out for help. But who the narrator doesn’t listen to. Despite it being in their power. The narrator just watches, blames situations outside of their control, and does nothing, waiting and fearing what you will do when you escape the closet, when you as a people come out from the jails and basements. Fearing that they will be treated as poorly as they’ve treated you. And for me it speaks to the way that especially racism is maintained and reinforced, the ways that especially white people treat people of color, hearing at all times the cries, witnessing the need for change, but not feeling it. And maintaining it through their lack of action, their insistence that it’s the system and not the individuals who are to blame. Afraid all the while that they’ll be treated poorly if people of color become truly equal. And that’s the back of the piece that really speaks loudest to me, how for so many it’s not a question of equality. The idea that people can be equals just doesn’t occur to the narrator. For them it’s all about domination, and that frames the situation such that any attempt to escape the horrible conditions and systemic issues is interpreted as anti-dominant violence. A promise that the tables will turn, that the tools the dominant built will be repurposed to oppress the dominant instead of disassembled or destroyed. It’s a paranoia that becomes both an excuse to work against justice and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because when the only options are oppress or be oppressed, that sort of might makes right will always favor the mighty. Which might not always be those currently in power. And really it’s a devastating piece, sharp as hell, questioning how a person can look at someone so in need of help and not open the door. Not let the person out and help them. It’s complex and unsettling and all sorts of well done. A great read!