Monday, November 2, 2020

Quick Sips - Tor dot com October 2020

Art by Jon Foster
While Tor already had a large release in October in collaboration with Fiyah Magazine for Breathe Fiyah, there’s still the matter of Tor’s regular releases to get to, which include one short story and two novelettes. These stories definitely lean on the spooky side, I think, and seem rather appropriate for the season. There’s a ghost story, a nested narrative about erasure, reclamation, and the nature of storytelling. And there’s a heartwarming story about witches. All in all, it’s a powerful collection of mostly fantasy, and fantasy with some grim ornamentation. So let’s dive right into the reviews!


“Paced into Abyss (Mise en Abyse)” by Rachel Swirsky (6276 words)

No Spoilers: Chris and most of the rest of his family are at his grandmother’s house, sorting things out following her death. For most of them, that means going through her things, seeing what to get rid of, what to try and make money off of. For Chris, though, and his cousins, sorting things out has a lot more to do with their trauma, the abuse and assault they faced while visiting the house as children. The lasting wounds that are still with them long after their grandfather, and now grandmother, are dead. There’s a gravity to the story as there’s a gravity to the trauma, Chris pulled to it through time, trapped by it as if in orbit to a body he can’t reach escape velocity from. What’s left might be crumpling from the weight of it, or maybe, to take a page from certain science fiction properties, aiming at it to try and use that gravity to gain the speed and power necessary to break free and move forward. It’s a wrenching, surreal read, shattered by what has happened, and it’s by no means easy.
Keywords: Family, Houses, CW- Abuse, CW- Rape, Trauma, Time Travel, Gravity
Review: The story really hits the feeling of trauma while moving around it. Chris is caught by it, by the memories of it, the ghosts of it, while at the same time trying to push it away. He’s fighting it, as he’s been fighting it for as long as he can remember, as the entire family has been fighting it, refusing to see the ugly truth at the heart of their connections. It’s something they don’t talk about, that Chris doesn’t even really ever name or think about. But it comes back to him in moments of sensation, memories that have tunneled from the past to the present, that are constantly pulling at him. The memories, the truth, is described as a black hole, and it’s true that it seems this enormous thing that can’t really be seen right on, that is measured instead by the effects, by the lives wrecked, by the way that Chris and Jim are so fucked up, the way that Pearl is so angry, all of them trying to medicate in their own ways, none of them entirely successful in dealing with what has happened. And I like that the story does bring Chris back. Now, part of that is against his will, because he can’t fight what’s already happened. So it’s wrenching and gutting to watch. But it does get him to confront it, to turn into the gravity rather than just fighting against it. Not to crash against the surface of whatever is waiting at the core of it, but in order to maybe whip around it, using that gravity as a force that will allow him to break free. Whatever the case it is a difficult story, atmospheric and sharp when it comes to exposing the way this family failed this generation. It’s challenging and complex and done with compassion and care. And fuck, yeah, might take a while to recover from. A great read!

“City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat” by Usman T. Malik (14049 words)

No Spoilers: A group of artists come to Lahore to attend a comic con, and as the initial viewpoint character, Hatim, realizes just how much of the city has changed since he’s been away, he and the rest of his companions are drawn into a story. A story that quickly nests and nests again, a sort of labyrinth of a tale, one that unleashes its own truths and powers on the group. It’s a story of magic, and bargains, and reclamation. Of rage and power and injustice. Of women and men and everyone else. It’s not exactly one story, either, but many, and the nested nature of the work enhances the feeling of adventure and movement without ever having to leave your seat.
Keywords: Storytelling, Bargains, Afflictions, Marriage, Queer Characters
Review: I really like the way the story nests, how it makes that meta-textual point of being a story about a story being told, and within that story there is another story, and within that story there is another story, before the piece begins to come back, begins to surface, pulling back and back until, with a rubber band almost, it feels to me like it almost reaches out of the story, brings the reader into the act of unleashing this story on the world. I love that sense that with each layer of onionskin the story becomes clearer and clearer, getting down to Fatima and the truth of her struggle, her life, her rage and her power. Hers is the story that lies at the deepest part of the narrative, and it’s the one that through each one is unleashed, gaining in power as it goes, diminishing the story of M_____ with each turn. And really it’s that taking of power that becomes rather important, so that it’s his name that gets lost when Fatima’s story is unleashed. In that it feels a bit like a reclamation, a way of pushing back against the misogyny of a lot of stories, the tropes and clichés that paint women as whores and troublemakers, wives and daughters, oftentimes basically property. And...I mean, I’m not sure how I feel about the reveal with regards to Tehmina toward the end of the story. I’m probably too close to certain things to view that as it was intended, so I certainly think people should make up their own minds about that. Overall, though, I really liked the piece, the way it layers, the way it goes and returns. I’m a big sucker for that kind of nesting, where the reader is pulled inward and inward and finds, when they return, something has come with. It’s a wonderful way to structure a story, and I really like the feel of this one. So yeah, definitely a work to spend some time with!

“The Little Witch” by M. Rickert (8591 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has gotten old, and a part of her has gotten mean because of it. So when she realizes she’s laughed at a little witch on Halloween, she decides to be nice in turn. And it starts something, makes a connection she didn’t expect, and might end up changing her life in some completely unexpected ways. The piece is alive with magic, and with care. The world revealed is one very much like our own, but with magic hiding in the shadows. Shadows the narrator can see into, and sometimes reach into, to pull something back. The result is a quiet and largely heartwarming read about chosen family, about refusing to bend to the world, and to a spot of warmth even in the coldest nights.
Keywords: Witches, Halloween, Family, Cats, Ghosts
Review: I love how this story slowly reveals the magic in its heart, the nature of the narrator and the mix of horror and wholesome the piece manages on the whole. At first it seems, or did to me, almost like this would be a straight forward horror, the little witch some bit of beyond come to plague this old woman of a narrator. But as the story moves it becomes clear that she’s no regular old woman, and that she’s aware of the shadowy side of the world. Knows how to navigate beings who wish her harm, and how to punish those who trespass against her. And the girl, the little witch, Alice, isn’t some demon from hell. Rather, she might be exactly what the narrator needs in her life to be less alone, less bitter, and more ready to face the next stage of her existence. For me, Alice represents a kind of trade, a bargain. Both people get something they need from the year they spend together. Knowledge. Safety. Family. And it’s elegantly and warmly rendered, the relationship between the narrator and Alice familial, supportive, the narrator helping Alice to learn in the way she needs. That it needs to end is a little heartbreaking, a little shattering, but also feels to me inevitable. Part of a larger pattern that the narrator fell into, and now that she’s out, she’s sort of shutting down. Entering into a dormant period. Not dead, it seems, but sleeping, waiting to wake in whatever works it is. And it’s a fun and slightly haunting read, one that for me has a weight, a heaviness (of age, of propriety) but finds ways to float all the same, and reaches for something healing and alive, a chosen family whose bonds cannot be broken, though they stretch and strain at times. A wonderful read!


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