Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Quick Sips - Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World that Wouldn't Die (Neon Hemlock) [part 1]

Art by Grace Fong
At first I was planning on doing a Quick Collections post for this anthology, recently put out from Neon Hemlock (ed. dave ring). But a confluence of circumstances made me reconsider, and now I’m just going to be doing a full review of all 26 stories. A Lot. So I’m not going to be doing them all at once. Rather, I’m going to be breaking the anthology up into 4 parts, and reviewing them as I have convenient spots in my posting schedule. First up, the first seven stories! There’s a mix of lengths and elements, but the promise of queer stories about resilience in the face of the end of the world is front and center, delivered on beautifully. To see what I mean, let’s get right to the reviews!


“Wrath of a Queer God” by Anthony Moll (short story)

No Spoilers: The story is part fantasy, part manifesto, part religious text. It imagines a narrator who has achieved godhood. However it happens, it happens, and they are ready and not about to turn the other cheek. They have been waiting for this in many ways, yearning for this with all the need that comes from being on the receiving end of oppression and fear and pain. The story follows their plan to grab the reins of godhood and get some shit done. Woe to their enemy. Amen.
Keywords: Gods, Revenge, Power, Queer MC
Review: The collection starts off short and sweet--er, well, short and defiant more like. The piece for me has the feel of a work fueled by frustration and powerlessness. The narrator is imagining what it might be like, what they’d do if they were suddenly risen, if at the end of the way things are they were given the authority, the chance to change things. And the title does a great job of capturing the mood of that moment. Not a moment of peace or calm or serenity. Not even a moment of smug superiority and gloating. No, a moment of wrath. Of ruin. Of finally being able to stop those who have hurt the narrator. Who have forced them into a box. Who have made them feel ashamed and alone and threatened. The story focuses on them taking control, embracing their power to set right the wrongs that have been done to them. Not exactly worried about justice so much as finally, finally being able to do something instead of having to accept the ways things have been unfair to them. The piece lands on the fear people in power have about those they’ve been oppressing acting like them should they get power and here it is, glorious and queer and tired and not having any of it any more. It’s a distinct way to kick things off and I rather love it for that. For not taking prisoners. For setting the tone of what is to come by first centering those who have been hurt and silenced and giving them a voice and saying shout away. It’s fun, the voice righteous and done with shit. An excellent read!

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” by Christopher Caldwell (short story)

No Spoilers: In the world Deshaun lives in, following the Breaking, everyone has a power that helps them survive. For him, it’s a power with the earth, with the ground, that also give him a kind of healing power. For his ex-lover, Eli, it’s something a bit different. And now Eli, who goes by Grandmother when looking after her small family of survivors, needs Deshaun’s help. In moving to a place where things like be easier. Farther away from the twisted animals that pose a lethal threat to them. It’s not going to be an easy trip, but it might be enough to pull Deshaun out of his isolation to become a part of the story Eli is writing for them. With Grandmother as a kind of patron saint, and their new home as a promised land. It’s fun but also heavy with loss and with the fragility of their trip, the dangers pushing in around them.
Keywords: Post-Apocalypse, Superpowers, Queer MC, Refuge, Drag
Review: I love the idea that the end of the world has brought with it new changes. Every person possessing different powers that allow them to compete with the new threats all around them. It makes the chosen family aspect of the story also something of a super-team building exercise as well. They all work well together, round each other out, and Grandmother is basically the Professor X, not only the oldest person around but also the one with the most impressive power, and the one most often used to bolster the others. Grandmother is more than a protector, after all--she’s a kind of mythic figure. Part of a new religion, a new chapter of an older religion. One that might give her family the framework to make sense of what has happened and, hopefully, survive it. And I love that Deshaun doesn’t quite believe, because he knows Elijah, because he knows the messy roots of it all, and because he thinks he’s a loner, better off on his own. And the truth is he’s not. And for all he’s still carrying with him the wounds of the Breaking, he’s also maybe ready to buy into Eli’s vision of what could be. Of a home, a family, a place where people can make something for themselves and for each other. And it’s bittersweet, what happens, but also fits the myth that Eli was trying to build with Grandmother, becomes about ascensions, transformations. And a family brought more strongly together because of the sacrifice of their leader, their matriarch. It’s a beautifully rendered piece, grim and dangerous but with a heart that beats stronger for it, that shines bright enough to scare off the shadows and provide something like protection, something like hope for the rest of them. An amazing read!

“The Descent of Their Last End” by Izzy Wasserstein (short story)

No Spoilers: Eve and Lilith are living in a tent as an ominous ash falls over the land. Their food is dwindling, though Eve has plenty of books to read. And Lilith is working on a new art installation. Maybe her last. The piece is full of a quiet dread, both the beauty of the relationship between the characters and the feeling that it’s ending. That, whatever they do, the world is ending in that falling ash. That soon it will cover everything. That soon there won’t be anything to do but wait. Until then, though, they still have each other. And art. And that’s far from nothing.
Keywords: Post- Apocalypse, Books, Art, Queer MC
Review: I love the way the story sort of takes on the idea of futility at the end of the world. The setting here seems pretty much beyond hope. The ash, whether it’s nuclear or the result of something so massive that it has spread throughout the world (super volcano, etc.) seems to be something that’s not going to stop. And is likely just the first part of a transformation that will make the planet incapable of supporting human life. And in the face of that, Eve and Lilith are just sort of doing their thing. Living in a tent. Reading. Making art. Activities that might be seen as pointless, given what’s happening. But I feel that the story reveals that these things are also what’s important for the characters. And, given that, what else should they be doing? Plenty of people can claim that art is pointless, that reading in the face of the end of the world is foolish, selfish somehow. But that might just be to cover over the ways people want to think that they can Matter and how they tie that not to what they do, not to the love they share or the joy they spread. Often time people think about what will survive. What monuments, what messages. Hiding the whole of recorded something or another in an indestructible box and flinging it into space. Some attempt at an immortality that really is just an illusion. There’s no guarantee, after all, that the flung whole of human nobility wouldn’t just drift into a sun. Get destroyed by an asteroid. Crash into an uninhabited planet that will never see sentient life. In the face of what is happening, these two people choose to care about each other and about themselves. They refuse to let what is happening stop them from making that last piece of art, reading that last book. Loving each other each moment that they can, until they can’t. It’s heartbreaking but also wonderful, alive, and I love it. Definitely give this one a read!

“Soft” by Otter Lieffe (short story)

No Spoilers: Dee and Ray are surviving in a world reeling from climate change and rising water levels. Even so, the world they’re moving through seems rather familiar. Filled with dangers for people who don’t really fit in, who aren’t accepted by larger society. So they get by as they can, and in this case it means through sex work and pulling a few cons. Not that Dee’s had much experience. Pulling into a rest stop convenience store, it’s almost hard to tell that the world has gone to shit. Some things don’t change, but then, neither do those who can live in even the most hostile of worlds. The people used to having to make due, to lie low, and to take when the taking’s good. It’s a story of survival, and who is expected to survive, and who does it anyway.
Keywords: Survival, Shoplifting, Trans MC, Sex Work, Travel
Review: I love the defiance of the piece, and the nod to the fact that queer people have always been surviving in some incredibly difficult situations. Building their own networks, relying on things that aren’t exactly legal because a lot of the time just being alive and queer isn’t legal so what’s the difference? Here Dee and Ray are not exactly outlaws, but they know that if they’re going to keep surviving they have to do what they can, to not be afraid of breaking a law that has always considered them outside its protection. They protect each other, and it’s a pretty slick operation, relying on appearances, on making a scene, on the ways that people judge by sight alone. For them, being visible is supposed to make them easy to squash. But it also gives them a measure of protection. Because it acts as a feint, a slight-of-hand, that keeps people distracted enough for them to get what they need and get away. It’s not perfect, and it’s far from safe, but it works. For as long as the world is broken (which has been always for these people, for people like them), it might keep working. Because for all the ways they are at risk in a society that would rather they be the first sacrifices on the altar of the apocalypse, fuck that. It’s another story that captures that defiance of the anthologies premise, that here are people actively refusing to give in to the pressure to erase themselves. A great read!

“The Black Hearts of La Playa” by Jordan Kurella (short story)

No Spoilers: Marrin is part of a camp of people who live in a world without a lot of sun. Where there’s dust and there’s insects and there’s vampires out there in the desert and in camp there’s the promise of a community, of people trying to be Good and stand as a light against the shadows of the world. Looking to be heroes. Looking for things that Marrin doesn’t care about, no matter how she tries. No matter how she attaches herself to people who seem more certain than she is. Marrin’s been hiding most of her life. From her mother. From her lovers. She’s attracted and repelled by what she feels, but she might not be able to avoid it any longer. Not when it seems to be walking out of the desert looking for her. The piece is heavy but with a focus on freedom, identity, and affirmation.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Vampires, Queer MC, Breakups
Review: The story feels like the longest in the anthology so far (hard to tell without word counts) and certainly has the most dedicated world building, with humans and vampires, with an end of the world and all that means. Humanity surviving along with the few insects. The blighted landscape marries well to Marrin’s inner turmoil, the trying and trying to be this person that they’re not. This person that they feel other people want them to be. They try and try and yet it never really gets easier or better, and I like the messiness of that, the way they try and fail to live up to the expectations of others, to be what they need without ever finding someone who cares about what Marrin wants. And in that there’s the vampires, which Marrin is supposed to hate and hunt. The vampires, though, that seem to represent everything that they want--freedom. To be able to have space where they can really figure themself out. The story is heavy with the hurt they’ve layered on hurt like masks that can conceal their heart’s desires. The trajectory they expect from their life is a descent, is a tragedy, and for the rest of the camp that’s probably how it’s framed, how they think about it. Once again applying their labels to Marrin. But the feeling is much different than that to me, the ending not a defeat, not a death, but a rebirth, a chance to really be what they’ve always been, openly. And it’s a wonderful read!

“The Bone Gifts” by Michael Milne (short story)

No Spoilers: Awl is something like a priest, but more than that he’s the person entrusted to see to the remains of the dead, to offer them to the birds, and to collect the bones afterward. Who gets the bones is...complicated, and made more so by the fact that the community he serves is split over the matter of queer marriage, among other things. So when a woman dies and her skull should go to her wife, but her father demands it (rather violently), it puts Awl in a difficult position. But not, it turns out, an impossible one. The piece is grim, and the world here seems to be ending. In the face of that, though, there is still faith of a sort, and there’s still trying to do what is right.
Keywords: Death, Birds, Bones, Family, Queer MC, Funeral Rites
Review: This is another longer story (for the antho so far) and another that manages a lot of world building, finding this man of faith, who is supposed to remain neutral but judge in these achingly personal cases, faced with what to do when the end of the world seems to be slipping closer. He has his tasks, yes, the ones that bring him some measure of peace, but he also has a lot of grief, a lot of hurt, and a few secrets that still manage to fester. Because in many ways he feels inauthentic, afraid to truly be his full self. In many ways this story combines elements from a few previous ones, asking what the point is of staying true to yourself amidst the end of the world, and showing a man who has had to hide, who has been made to feel ashamed of himself, finally standing up for what he believes in. I love the aesthetic of the piece, the bones, the job itself of caring for the dead. Awl is good at it, suited to it, but also it feels trapped by it. It’s become something like a penance for him, a way to “make up for” being alive when his partner, his lover, is dead. It’s something he seems unable to forgive himself for, as if the relationship was what caused it, as if their sacrilege is what lead to the death that Awl has been carrying ever since. When the reality is much less focused on Awl. When the reality is just that everyone is dying. If it’s not the wasting disease it’ll be something else. And for all that Awl can do some good with the people in his care, it comes at the expense of his own care, his own heart. He’s neglecting that, and after so long, this series of events sort of opens his eyes. And gets him to step out into the world beyond. Not in defeat. But to start a life he was always too afraid to embrace. A fantastic read!

“When the Last of the Birds and the Bees Have Gone On” by C.L. Clark (short story)

No Spoilers: This story reads a series of instructions, or maybe a series of forms. A sort of education for a future where those with wings are separated by the Wingless, though perhaps not so much as convention and prejudice might like. The story flows through the various lessons, the supposed wisdom being passed from instructor to student. To students, really, all in preparation for the students to grow, to survive, to become adults. The lessons vary, and there are many that revolve around the same themes, how to make camp, how to maneuver in the air, that kind of thing. Tucked in there are also lessons of a more personal and intimate variety, but delivered with the same no-nonsense style and voice, one that by the end tips its hand a bit to reveal some hidden depth and compassion when it comes to certain matters of the heart.
Keywords: Wings, Birds, Instructions, Queer MC
Review: I love the voice and the flow of this story. It’s another short one, giving the collection something of a breath after the longer and more narrative-driven previous stories, and the focus shifts to feelings, to a lot being unsaid. Not that it doesn’t manage a bit of world building, because it does, and I like what’s there, the divide between winged and Wingless, the wounded nature of the world, the way the birds have disappeared, the way that food seems scarce, and people seemed armed against each other. The tone is almost military, the voice authoritative and direct, focusing often on how to fly, how to attack, how to defend, how to work together in formations. The narrator could be a drill instructor almost, though one that’s not all nails and hammers. Rather, there’s a sort of progression to the lessons, and that includes some that the students will have to make their own minds and hearts up about. They’re meant to keep the students safe but that doesn’t have much to do with happiness much of the time so there is also the recognition that students will break “the rules,” that they will act outside the scope of these lessons, and that’s part of the lessons. Indeed, it seems the part that will determine when a person might be ready to move beyond the lessons, might be able to make some of their own. And I just love the progression of it, the way that it seems on the one level very authority-driven before opening up into this affirmation of people and their love, as long as their not going to be selfish fools about it. It’s fun, and it makes for a wonderful pause after about the first quarter of the book. A fabulous read!


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