“More Than Trinkets” by Ramez Yoakeim (2055 words)
No Spoilers: This story features Ari and Gordy, two people who start as kids born to be soldiers, created with a debt that they have to pay off by serving in the military. Through that, though, they become friends. And their bond is something deep and complicated, something that in many ways means different things to each of them. Which comes to a sort of head after many years when Gordy proposes. And the piece is careful and wrenching, showing the ways that Ari is understood and affirmed by Gordy and the ways they aren’t, the ways that some things are still cages they refuse to be constrained by. The work is still hopeful, still sweet, even as it carries this sharp tension and smoldering angst.
Keywords: Military, Debt, Non-binary MC, Time Distortion, Friendship
Review: I love the way the story reveals this central relationship, one that for Ari is about the only relationship in their life. Gordy to them is a friend, a sibling, someone cherished. But it’s not romantic and it’s not really sexual. And when Gordy makes it clear that he wants it to be, it becomes something more that Ari has to navigate, a minefield they really aren’t sure how to traverse. For me it shows the really complicated ways that relationships can work, how they can change, how they can almost fall apart. There is a tension here not because the two people don’t care for one another, but because they do want different things. For Ari it’s freedom to be themself, to express themself and define themself. Which requires an amount of freedom and distance from other people. Because even Gordy carries a lot of those cages, those societal and cultural beliefs, inside him. And as much as he bends things to be as good as he can to Ari, he doesn’t really understand everything that’s at work. He’s trying, and he gets more right than wrong, but the story does show that for all he’s trying, he’s not going to be rewarded with what he wants. And I like how the story makes that...not the point. It’s not about the sadness Gordy feels that he can’t be with Ari in the way he wants. The story is about the necessity that Ari be the one to draw their boundaries, and how if Gordy can accept that, they can still be a part of each other’s lives. It’s a story that really gets at the heart of the this relationship, the messy edges of it, and I appreciate where it goes and how it gets there. It doesn’t really offer up the traditional happy ending where romantic love has been reasserted. Rather, it values Ari’s agency and right to define their own life and body, and it’s still sweet and heartwarming. Definitely a story to spend some time with and a great read!
“5:37” by A.P. Howell (2733 words)
No Spoilers: Randie is an archivist going through the Theodore C. Gilbert Papers, which actually include a lot more than just papers. The man was a philanthropist and collector, and in the course of pursuing that (and an interest in film) he acquired a tape that featured part of a “cursed” film. The cursed-ness of the original film seems a little up in the air, but the cursed-ness of the tape is 100% real, as Randie finds out when she copies the tape and watches the copy and a spirit of a young woman appears with the news that Randie is going to die. It’s a fun twist on a horror trope and manages to be poignant, funny, and sharp all at the same time.
Keywords: Curses, Video Tapes, Ghosts, Archives, Film
Review: So I love the way that Randie responds to the situation that she finds herself in, one pulled straight from a horror movie about a cursed tape. This one surrounds a film, during the shooting of which a young actress died. The film was considered cursed because of the subsequent deaths of the director and large part of the production team. But the film isn’t cursed in that it was plagued by bad luck or doomed to fail. It’s cursed in that the spirit of that young woman became attached to all recordings of the film, so that whoever watches her death summons her, and the experience tends to scare them to death. But Randie responds...differently. With more curiosity than anything, and a sort of professionalism as an archivist who wants to do right by the artifact of the tape but also to the spirit that appears. Her immediate reaction is compassion and empathy, and it sort of changes the rules of the game, of the curse. Because the spirit doesn’t want them to die, something she can’t say for some of the people she’s visited over the years, people who wanted to watch the tape because it’s a snuff film that shows her actual death. And some part of that, or that the tape was copied, manages not to break the curse, but to change it to some degree, and to open up space for something positive to come from this. And in some ways the piece is a statement on the power of archivists, people who can limit access to certain texts in order to abide by some ethical considerations about how certain texts come about and the pain that might be attached to them. It complicates idea of access in that it recognizes that some texts are not neutral, their viewing capable of spreading and continuing cycles of harm. And that there are still ways to preserve the historical and cultural value of texts in a nuanced way. It’s a careful and charming narrative and voice, and it’s a wonderful read!
“Seven Parts Full” by Anya Ow (4966 words)
No Spoilers: Seok Kim is on a quest for a magical jade knife that can transform any ingredient it cuts into the freshest variation of itself. It was gifted by the Emperor to the abbess of a monastery high in the mountains, and Seok Kim knows a challenge when she hears it. So up the mountain she goes to challenge the abbess to a duel. Not a fight, though, at least not in the traditional sense, but to a cooking showdown. And that’s just such an amazing choice, and it plays out so nicely, where everyone sort of cares about each other, is earnest and decent and tries their best. And in a situation where misunderstandings could be devastating, the people are careful and considerate and it’s just such a happy joyful story and I love it.
Keywords: Cooking, Knives, Competitions, Queer MC, Monasteries
Review: I am here for speculative cooking battles. Here. For. It. I love the premise and Seok Kim is such a fun character, earnest and flirty, something of a hot mess who lets herself get drawn into trouble by her excitement and enthusiasm. That she’s after the knife for a challenge is great and telling, because it reveals that she’s not afraid, that she’s a damn fine chef, and that she’s willing to put up or shut up. At the same time, I just like the manners of the story, how everyone is sorry about everything, how they all care about everyone else. On one level the people are brash, at least Seok Kim and her eventual opponent, a general who also wants the knife. But on another they all are acting out of their sense of honor, and they all come to like each other, to want what’s best for everyone. They apologize all the time and I just love that. Sorry not sorry. And I love the way the story brings the characters together, how it sparks this chemistry between Seok Kim and the monk she meets on the mountain. A chemistry that isn’t leading toward any sort of romantic complication (though Seok Kim seems like she’d definitely be down for that), but that seems about to really blossom into a friendship that is deep and affirming. And I really like the way the stakes of the story shift, from being about the knife to being about the people. From being a competition to being a cooperation. It’s a meet cute and just a lot of fun. The world building is broad strokes, building up a historically-flavored fantasy full of texture and spice. It leaves a lot of room for the relationships to develop and deepen as the characters get to know each other, but it’s also a complete piece all on its own. One that’s a delightful read!
“The Cat Lady and the Petitioner” by Jennifer Hudak (4929 words)
No Spoilers: Laurie is just starting her first ever job. In a non-profit doing door-to-door work. And the first door she comes to is of a cat lady. A cat lady who might just be an inter-dimensional guardian who, along with her trusted clowder, prevents other dimensions from incurring into our own. It’s not something she’s very open about, but she doesn’t hide it, either, not when one of the cats gets out and point her to a rift in reality itself. One that she might need a little help in closing. The piece is fun, a rollicking adventure from the start, wry and charming and CATS! It sets up the start of something wonderful and introduces a cast of characters and situation that I would read books of. So many books of. Please?
Keywords: Cats, Houses, Portals, Dimensions, Employment, CW- Death of a Pet (Cat)
Review: It should surprise no one that I’m a fan of cats in SFF. A fan. So setting up a premise where an old lady and her cats save the universe is just like catnip for me. Ambrosia. It’s delightful. Seriously. And I like the way the piece runs with that premise, bringing in this outsider, This woman who is just starting out in a “professional” space and already kind of hates it. Hates what she had to do to get there. So that when this completely ridiculous thing happens to her, something that most people would run screaming from, it’s maybe not a huge leap that she...well, makes a leap. And enters into this world that has some magic in it. And some terror, yes, the place that she enters into is tinged with the horror of fear itself, a hungry being who seems to come from the shadows of whatever people are most afraid of. And she stands up to it, taking on a kind of new identity. One that seems to fit her better than the one she had to wear going door-to-door. One that lets her be a part of something that feels vital and important. That connects her with people and with animals. And for the cat lady, too, the piece shows her sort of being knocked out of her comfort zone. But necessarily, because she really hasn’t faced the fact that her work hasn’t saved the world forever. The fight will likely outlast her, and there’s the question of what comes next. If she isn’t there to save the world, then what happens? It’s something she’s been avoiding, because mortality is no fun topic, but here she starts to see that maybe it won’t suck to let some new people into her life. That maybe what she needs is a little help, and someone to teach. Someone to perhaps someday pass the torch to. And even as it’s solidly fun and charming it manages but some chilling moments and some sorrow. It’s heartfelt and heartwarming but packs something of a punch. Overall, though, the piece seems to be about endings and beginnings, and cycles, and about friendship and the will to fight balanced by the will to sit back with a warm cat and take it easy. A fantastic read and a great way to close out another section of the issue!