Welcome to a special Christmas edition of Quick Sip Reviews, where I look at the December short SFF from PodCastle! And, well, it’s really only a special edition because this month is so full of stories that I can’t even really take a single day off. Oops. But I have some free time so it’s time to post, and cover the three new stories out from PodCastle this year, including one that is definitely appropriate to review today of all days. The works look at family, at distance, at bargains and curses. And it makes for a wonderfully balanced reading on the month and just a fantastic way to end out 2020 for the publication. To the reviews!
“Mariska and Major” by Damini Kane (6504 words)
No Spoilers: Drishti is a girl who wants to be a writer, who grew up in a small town and had a strange best friend from the city, Mariska. They’d spend time in Mariska’s home, with her grandmother, talking and drinking tea and watching old movies, and the joy of it gave them both strength. But when tragedy comes, something about that joy becomes a kind of trap, and it comes down to Drishti to take a magical journey into an abyss to try and save her friend, and maybe find herself in the process. It’s a careful, wonderfully imagined story that touches on the urge to write, the dangers and the predators waiting there, and the bonds of friendship and family that can see people through.
Keywords: Family, Stories, Friendship, Moons, Bargains, Voices
Review: I love the feel of this story, the way that it’s framed as the narrator, as Drishti, telling this story from her past. Weaving this narrative about her and her friend, about their grief, about their hope. A lot of the story is about Mariska, about how interesting she is, how captivating. How much Drishti is rather jealous of her and her life. Her grandmother. Her history. How she feels smaller in comparison. Less bright and vibrant. Unable even to take hold of her passion for writing, for stories. Fearing that she’ll always be on the outside of her dreams, looking in, resentful. And I like how the story sort builds her toward this confrontation with what writing means to her, what stories mean to her. How she doesn’t know what voice is, or Voice, or however you call it. How it seems like this elusive thing and really she’s mostly overthinking it, finding her way but slowly, and dealing with the ways that the field is littered with sharks, with salesmen, with those hoping to make deals, to take away what makes her special, what makes her voice unique, her own. She’s caught by the flash of appeal, the promise that maybe if she was someone else people would like her more. And she almost learns too late that in seeking that kind of success, she loses something vital to herself. Her identity. Her voice. Her power. And it takes her connection to her friend to warn her of the danger there. It takes knowing that she is valued for who she is, and recognizing that what she has to say, how she has to say it, is valuable, more so than anything the gods of commerce might promise. And I just love the magic of the world she enters, the way that it comes alive with the power of her stories, the warmth of her friendship. It’s a piece for me very much about family and finding voice even in an unlikely and dangerous situation, and it comes together so well and powerfully. A fantastic read!
“What My Flies Keep for Me” by Shaoni C. White (2060 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has lost their flies. Their swarm. And in this setting, that means they’ve lost a part of themself, because everyone has a swarm of insects it seems where they store a part of their personality. A part of their emotions. For the narrator’s brother, it’s confidence. For the narrator, it’s perhaps a little bit more complicated, made worse that, with most of the flies stolen, they can’t quite remember what they had stored. Though their few remaining flies are telling them to be cleanly, and to take responsibility. About what? Oh, about the dead body that has something to do with all of this. It’s part mystery, part heist, all action as the story follows the narrator attempting to reclaim a part of themself and set right what has been made wrong.
Keywords: Insects, Emotions, Swarms, Family, Murder, Honor
Review: The voice of this story is great, the sort of cluelessness that comes with the narrator losing their swarm, being adrift without what they’ve stored in their flies. The remaining flies are...polite, but lacking focus, really unable to help. And the world building elements are a lot of fun, all of it building this sense of a world touched a little bit by magic, each person a bit different and that difference captured in their swarms, in what makes them up and what they store there. And the loss is so sharp when the swarms die or are taken, and I love that at the heart of this is a small moment of colony collapse that leaves a family desperate and causes the inciting incident that finds the narrator bereft and with a corpse on his floor. Beyond that, too, it’s a story that looks at the idea of honor and both the danger and utility of it. The way that narrator has been targeted because of their sense of honor, of not wanting violence, of turning the other cheek. And how fucked up it is that doing that makes them seem vulnerable, the system toxic because it doesn’t have safety nets for people who lose their swarms. And without their honor, the narrator doesn’t really “get” why murder is wrong, why people react the way they do. And even as their honor returns it first has to build back its strength, can only stand so much against the necessity of his situation, that he was forced into this violence, that he’s doing it in part to protect his brother, that it’s a form of self defense. But it’s strong enough to stop him from crossing a line. From justifying something that shouldn’t be justified. And for all that it touches on these rather heavy elements, it’s mostly just a really fun ride, the story picking up quickly and full of action and this great comedy as the narrator tries to figure out how they should act without the guidance of their swarm. A great concept and solid execution that make up a wonderful read!
“The Cursed Noel” by Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw (4136 words)
No Spoilers: Travis is stuck in a remote part of North Carolina for Christmas this year. Which isn’t too huge a problem, really, seeing as how he was on sabbatical anyway and the pandemic means that moving back to his regular home or even visiting relatives in a no-go. Of course, having the internet knocked out sort of means he’s more isolated still, that he’ll miss his family’s Zoom celebration, and that he might be a little bored and lonely, especially after having spent so long without seeing people. It’s something of a Christmas miracle, then, that a spot of company literally materializes on his property. Or, rather, it’s something of a Christmas curse, for the woman who appears at least, and as Travis learns the whole story, he finds that his Christmas plans, or at least his Christmas Eve plans, are about to take a sudden and drastic shift. It’s a sweet story, fun and joyous, finding a moment of connection between two people going through some hard times.
Keywords: CW- Pandemic/COVID, Christmas, Curses, Time Travel, Queer MC
Review: The pandemic certainly has made for a rather different Christmas for a lot of people, and I like how that’s approached here, finding Travis both relatively unaffected by the shutdowns (or lacks thereof) and the isolation except that...it’s lasted longer than he’d like. And what might have been a time of recuperation for him, a time of creative and intellectual renewal, has become a slog, a grind, a drain as he is unable to see people, to have conversations in person. And while he knows that it’s necessary given the pandemic, he also recognizes that it takes a toll. But he’s still determined to make the best of it, and so he gets on his warmest clothes and goes out into the snow to cut down a tree. And finds a strange woman with an even stranger story about a curse and having to live only Christmas Eves. As that’s the current day, it means she’s spending the next twenty hour (or there abouts) hours either out in the snow on Travis’ property, or else with him inside where it’s warm. And I like that while Travis is rather skeptical as a rule, he’s also one who will go with what’s in front of him, who doesn’t need to understand it to deal with what’s happening. And it costs him little to accept this woman, Joscelyn, for what she claims to be, and to pass the test that she failed. To embody the spirit of Christmas and the generosity, the act of giving someone a warm place to be, and warm company to pass the time with. It’s a really sweet and fun story as the two talk and share their celebrations, their traditions. As they cook and eat and drink and make merry. It might be a little raw for some people to have a Christmas story about the pandemic, but I like what it does with that, how it makes it about something larger, this time-displaced person who might now have a chance to enjoy a Christmas Eve after so many spent in cold and hunger. A fantastic and festive read!