Friday, November 6, 2020

Quick Sips - Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World that Wouldn't Die (Neon Hemlock) [part3]

Art by Grace Fong
I’m back for part three of my review of Glitter + Ashes, a so-far wonderful anthology of queer post-apocalyptic short SFF from Neon Hemlock, edited by dave ring. The first two parts (representing just over half of the works) have managed to keep spirits fairly high despite the theme of the post-apocalypse. With this section, though, things get a bit more dire. And the stories dip a bit more heavily into the violent and tragic elements that so often go along with the sub-genre. Not that the works ever forget hope, though. After all, these are stories of a world that wouldn’t die, and that refusal to give in still shines despite the muck and blood and smog. Let’s get to the reviews!


“You Fool, You Wanderer” by Brendan Williams-Childs (short story)

No Spoilers: Shanna is still recovering from an earthquake from a few years ago that not only destroyed the lab where they worked and made hormones for people, but also killed a number of their friends, including their lover, Kean. Except now Kean has returned, and maybe things can go back to the way things were. Or, as Kean seems to way, they can use the device that brought them to this world, this reality, and they can use it to go to someplace better. Someplace they can be happy. Only, it’s not so simple a choice for Shanna, and it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in that future when Kean might be hiding things, and the true scope of Kean’s mission might be much different and more grim than Shanna had thought.
Keywords: Post-Apocalypse, Accidents, Alternate Realities, Trans MC, Queer MC, Mushrooms, Death
Review: This story is heavy with grief, with loss, with change. Even years afterward, Shanna is largely defined by what has been lost, by the earthquake and what it took. Her job. Her partner. She goes about her business now but there’s a sense that she’s not as there, not as present. She’s being haunted by a future that might have been, a present that she can’t reach. Until that future seems to reach across universes and lands right in front of her. In a lot of ways it’s a piece that really explores what it might be like to have that option, to have something that seems to promise to remove layers of trauma, grief, and loss. And I love where the story goes with that, showing that it’s a lot more complicated than just getting offered the one thing Hanna thinks she wants. Not only is it not quite right, but Hanna has done things in the time since Kean died. Maybe not as much as she wanted, maybe not in t he ways she wanted, but she’s still grown. Lived. And going with Kean would be to undo that, to sort of pretend that there was a reset button. Which is tempting. Tempting enough that this Kean, or whatever their name is, has been chasing it desperately and violently for some time now. But it can’t be undone. And Hanna finds that she doesn’t really want to. Not if it means losing what she’s done since the earthquake, not if it means abandoning the relationships that have gotten her through, kept her alive. No, they aren’t what she had with Kean. Yes, she’s likely going to be grieving for a long time. But she has something in her own world, something she maybe has been holding herself back from, and if nothing else this experience shows her that maybe she should change that. It’s a wrenching and emotionally powerful story, and a great read!

“A Party-Planner’s Guide to the Apocalypse” by Lauren Ring (short story)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, this story acts a lot like the title says, though it’s not entirely framed as nonfiction. Rather, it’s a story of a couple throwing a party, the You being of the couple (the one no good at cooking). And it goes through what parties might mean after the end of the world, when scarcity is much more A Thing and when a lot of people probably think things would be more “fend for yourself.” Rather, the story shows how important community is, and how there’s always something to celebrate, even if that’s survival. It’s a short but dense story that very much reminds readers of the mandate of the anthology, that these are stories of worlds that have ended, but have not died.
Keywords: Parties, Food, Queer MC, Post-Apocalypse, How-To
Review: I love the frame of this story, which takes this event and makes it into something of a guide. A guide for a world that will need more parties like this, because parties are a way to let off steam and to come together as a community. To bond over food and music and dancing. To start to repair a world that has been torn apart. Or at least to perform a little first aid. Because while things will not be able to go back to the way things were, that doesn’t mean there’s no future. Yes, a world has ended. But what that means is complicated. And I really like that here, in a very concise bite, is a reminder that the anthology is all about this distinction. About the idea that the apocalypse is often seen as this thing that takes from humanity a sense of civilization. That people become feral, conservative, distrustful. And that is a way that some people deal with these kinds of extreme circumstances. There are intense losses and some devastating traumas. But there are also acts of staggering kindness, and a lot of varied responses to the end of the world. Here, it’s an opportunity to reflect and to join together in mourning and a recognition of what has been lost. To celebrate what has passed on and also what might be to come. Because survival is more than just procreation, more than about the species carrying on. Survival is about going through something harrowing and coming out of it. And I like how the story handles that, how it draws these people together in broad strokes, not really world building the particulars of the events, but letting readers slip into that You role of the story and find time for this moment of noise and jubilation. A wonderful read!

“Imago” by A.Z. Louise (short story)

No Spoilers: Char is coming back from a scavenging run when they realize it’s gotten dark. Not a safe time in the place where they live. Luckily, they know a place where they can find shelter. Maya’s place, which is something of a refuge for a lot of people. Maya herself, though, is in rough shape. Tired, and perhaps exposed to a strange contagion that turns people in Oracles. Oracles, who can kill with their minds. Oracles, who are killed on sight. Oracles, who might be able to survive somewhere outside the city. In the forest. The piece is strange and heavy, violent and at times unsettling. But it’s also a story of resilience and care as Char refuses to leave the person they care about, and instead goes through a transformation that might answer some mysteries about this strange post-apocalyptic world.
Keywords: Colors, Birds, Queer MC, Transformations, Contagions
Review: I like the weird of the story, the way that it’s this pervasive force, colorful and dangerous and deadly. And I love how the story captures this sense of Tired that is so understandable given the world, given everything. It seems almost like a kind of burnout, this becoming an Oracle, where Maya shifts once she stops being as hopeful, once the grind of the world finally becomes too much. Only Char doesn’t give up on her. Because Maya was so much to so many. Because Char doesn’t want to have to face what it would be like without Maya. And so they end up going on a journey together, one that reveals a strange and wonderful beauty hidden away in this otherwise grim and shadowy world. They find a place where the birds still sing and where, maybe, finally, they can have some peace and find a way to heal. To self-care. To not have to be so stressed all the time. For me, the piece is a lot about that feeling of transition. The title speaks to it, as well, with working through a larval stage and finally getting to the ultimate stage. One that’s stable, one that might be right at last. Not so full of storm and stress but able to stretch, to be, to enjoy the new world and the way it’s different. Not worse, really, but changed, and requiring people to change so that they can all suit each other. The result is something beautiful, something alive with noise and a promise of joy. Something where Maya and Char can relax, where they can build something new, amidst those birdsongs. Where they don’t have to fear the night, or anything. A lovely and almost dreamlike read!

“Safe Haven” by A.P. Thayer (short story)

No Spoilers: Jamie and Marcos are on their way to a the promise of what the title says, a safe haven from the Weepers, zombie-like beings who have devoured most of humanity, it seems. The road is hard, and it’s made more awkward because the two have just had a fight, and Jamie is not about to apologize. Not yet. Not when he feels he’s right. That it’s too risky trying to help other people. That they should look after themselves. The story finds them trying all the same, though, to do something that might be able to rally the surviving humans. To rebuild a community, even if it costs a terrible price. It’s a difficult read, perhaps the most difficult yet in the anthology, but it still holds a power and perseverance.
Keywords: Zombies(?), Lighthouses, Arguments, Queer MC, Help
Review: With the one-two of the last two stories this might indeed be the highest the anthology has gotten so far with regards to grim content. Both resolve in a kind of hope, in a resilience, and both are still very good, but they are a bit more violent, a bit more about people losing a lot. Here, Jamie and Marcos are survivors, but for Marcos that’s not enough. They have a plan. To try and rebuild something. I love how the story captures the sort of fractured aspect of their relationship. Always a temporary situation for them but this one extra tragic because it turns out to be the last cycle in this pattern. There is a final making up, coming back together, but only at a terrible price. And for me the story is about help. Aid. Community. And sacrifice. Marcos believes that people can come together, that the lighthouse they know about can be a refuge for people, given it’s on an island surrounded by acidic water that the Weepers cannot cross. Jaime is more selfish, just wants to think about themselves, but the story really shows the power and pull of doing more than just looking out for yourself at the end of the world. There’s a hope that comes from being able to help others, to strive to do more than just watch your own back. There’s a hope that comes from community, and knitting people together following the shattering of the way things were. But also shit, this is a devastating, gutting read, one that delivers on hope but not in a very gentle way. The loss here is visceral, the feeling still very tragic for all that it retains a bit of glittering possibility. The story might be about Jamie learning that this is worth it, in the end. For humanity. Maybe even to crawl his way out of the cycles of hurt they’ve been caught in. The second person gives a sort of pleading, broken feel to the action, and it’s intense and immediate and good. But it’s still to me a dip more solidly into the grim elements of post-apocalyptic storytelling and oof, the feels. A fine read!

“Note Left On A Coffee Table” by Mari Ness (short story)

No Spoilers: The unnamed narrator of the story is authoring a list. A note to leave in their home for when they go out. Because...because someone might find it. Someone might be visiting. And the narrator wants them to know some things. Some things about surviving in what sounds like the Gulf Coast following a surging rise in ocean waters. Following the deaths of most of the people in the area. Following most of the rest of the survivors pulling out. The narrator has stayed, at least in part because they thought...they hoped, that you might visit. And now, maybe... The piece is full of a quiet longing, a recognition of how bad things have gotten but also of what remains. Which is more than you might think.
Keywords: Lists, Floods, Post-Disaster, Queer MC, Instructions
Review: I love how the story is a note revealing this setting to someone else. Easing them into the harsh realities of this post-disaster world with cookies. Nilla Wafers! And sort of getting the reader ready to know the whole story. The use of second person for that is effective, in part because it could paint a somewhat more grim reading of the ending. Because, well, I the reader am not the You the narrator wants me to be. So there could be the implication that the reader of the piece isn’t, that this is a case of wishful thinking. Except that I think it’s just as valid to say that the reader becomes Alicia, becomes the intended recipient of the note, and in that reading the ending is much more hopeful and, more importantly, joyful. Though even there there’s a certain amount of hesitation, I feel, because...because the narrator seems caught between places, between what they want and what they’re doing. The piece is written part as a story of what the narrator has done to survive, but it also feels like they’re leaving it behind because they don’t anticipate being around to say these things in person. Maybe they just don’t trust themself to convey it. But there’s just this sense I get that the narrator and Alicia are passing each other, that for all the narrator has waited for this moment, they are avoiding it. Maybe it’s too painful or maybe they want some control back because they don’t forgive you. Because they’ve been alone for so long and need to break that on their own terms. Maybe they’ll be back, and the two can finally be together again. Or maybe not, and all Alicia finds is the note and all the artifacts of the narrator’s survival. Their life. It’s a melancholy read, revealing this world that has largely ended, the people who still hold on in the flooded mess that remains. And maybe two people passing each other, coming so close but ultimately separated by too much to cross. It’s an interesting, complex read, quietly haunting and a bit less heartbreaking than the last story, but still packing a sharp emotional punch. A great read!

“The Valley of Mothers” by Josie Columbus (short story)

No Spoilers: Alice and Tamika were left behind by their parents when the change came. So were Jamal and Eve, even younger children. Together they’ve had to make a home for themselves in the ruins of their town, scavenging for food and avoiding the Mauraders that roam the area looking for trouble. Things are getting harder, though, and soon they might not be able to find food. Lucky, then, that they meet a stranger who tells them that the mythic Valley of Mothers, a place of safety and plenty, actually exists, and that she can lead them there. But is everything as it meets the eyes? Or is there something hidden in the offer? Something dangerous? It’s a piece about hope and chosen family and making something after the end of the world.
Keywords: Scavenging, Post-Apocalypse, Sanctuary, Queer MC, Family
Review: This story begins with the same grimness that has largely defined this quarter of the anthology. I’d definitely say that these six stories together make up a much more wrenching, often tragic look at post-apocalypse. There’s the elements like the Mauraders, that mark these stories as playing more with the standard tropes of the genre. The stories do manage to twist them, though, away from the entirely grim imaginings of the futility of hope. Rather, they show that even in these very difficult, very dangerous situations, people find a way to watch out for each other. To care for each other. To push back against the violence and difficulty that threaten their destruction. Here again the question seems to be whether the characters should take a risk to do something different, to reach out for community, or try to make a go of it on their own. For Alice, the fear that leaving will take away what she’s managed to build with Tamika and the others seems too large. She balks at believing that they could have it easier, because at least when they’re together they have each other, and Alice seems quite in love with Tamika. Good thing they’re headed for a settlement founded by lesbians! And I just like how it all comes together, how Alice is able to work past her fear with the help of her family, and how she knows that not all families split apart, and no one has to be left behind. It’s a joyous way to end out this section of the anthology, and seems poised to raise the mood a bit going into the final quarter. For me, it’s a story about just that, about believing even at the end of the world that things don’t have to be difficult. That people can still make it easier for each other through cooperation and caring. And it’s a great way to close out this section of the book! A wonderful read!


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