Thursday, January 7, 2021

Quick Sips - Fireside Magazine #86/Fireside Quarterly Autumn 2020

Art by Don Rimx
So this review, my last in this format, also has the honor of being something of a complete mess. Because, well, Fireside Magazine has had something of a bumpy road recently, and it’s thrown off the publication schedule. What’s more, because the print Fireside Quarterly has been running ahead of the magazine, there are still a number of stories that are 2020 releases that haven’t made their way online yet. So…I decided to just settle up. So here are both the stories from the most recent issue of Fireside Magazine, and all the original stories in the latest Quarterly as well. In total, it’s nine new works, and it makes for a wonderful assortment of SFF visions and voices. And it might be messy, but for maybe the last time, let’s get to the reviews!


“In the Glass Hall of Supreme Women” by Jaymee Goh (3543 words)

No Spoilers: Mrs. Keo is a new...guest of a facility where she hopes to still be of use to her husband. The product of a marriage school and a devoted wife, she’s been found lacking because of a string of miscarriages and now her husband seems to be cashing her in. Or she’s volunteering for this, though it might be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins given her training. And the story slowly reveals what the facility is, what it means for the narrator, and how what’s unfolding is both tragedy and horror. The piece examines how societies can make people, and especially women, into sacrifices, into little more than bodies for exploitation. Used as long as they can be profitable, even if that destroys them. It’s an uncomfortable and creeping piece.
Keywords: Mushrooms, Spores, Marriage, CW- Infertility, Sacrifice, Transformation, CW- Suicide
Review: This is a difficult story that looks into a person who has been taught from her earliest that she’s only valuable in service to a man. Only as a wife. Only. It’s been her training, the message pushed by her parents, by society at large, and by her husband. And not being able to give him children has left her with little recourse other than a kind of assisted and profitable suicide. And I like the way frames that, both within the way of seeing the world that makes this necessary, even romantic, and broken by these dramatic headlines that give a taste of what might be going on outside of the narrator’s view. This thing, this industry, is expansive, and it provides an avenue for people to be rendered into mushrooms that will help the affluent be more healthy. Maybe. Truly I’d be surprised if the benefits of these mushrooms weren’t also rather up in the air, that the value at this point is that they’ve been given value, and that alone holds the system together. A dream. An illusion. But that really what’s going on here is a kind of cannibalism, a kind of murder. It’s captured in the headlines in the outrage and the corruption, while on the inside there’s so much quiet, so much acceptance, because for these people this makes sense. Their panic and fear and anger bubble to the surface at times but it’s a system that they’ve been taught and it is the way their world works. It’s just...also really fucked up and wrong. They’ve managed to gaslight and brainwash people, to abuse them into internalizing that abuse, and the result is this system that literally eats them alive. One that some people seem to be fighting back against but not the narrator, and that choice is a fascinating one, tragic and shattering and visceral because of what it means, because of how it twists her hope and sacrifice into something worthless, showing that’s what it always would have been regardless, a waste, an injustice. And ouch, yeah, it’s a deep and unsettling but fantastic read!

“Realism” by M. R. Herbert (2944 words)

No Spoilers: Ashi is painter to Vana, heir to the throne. Or at least, Vana was the heir...before she died. Something that Ashi has been using the magic of Creativity to hide since it happened, by drawing into his world different Vanas. Who look the same, and whose memories of their past lives can be erased. But the only other person who knows of it, Vana’s bodyguard Nima, isn’t so keen on sacrificing people to keep up the charade, not when it’s not real, not when there’s nothing stopping the man who killed Vana the first time to keep trying and trying. The piece looks at Ashi’s desperation, his willingness to do basically anything to keep Vana, some version of her, alive. Even if it’s not “his” version. And it moves in some unexpected and magical directions.
Keywords: Paint, Creativity, Magic, Poisons, Sacrifice, Alternate Dimensions
Review: I like that the focus on so much of the story is on what this love that Ashi has does to him. Not the way it makes him better at his craft, his Creativity, but how quickly it makes him turn to a kind of kidnapping and murder. All because he can’t stand to lose her. Not for the politics, though that’s his standard reaction, the reason he gives why they have to continue, why he doesn’t want to walk away from this and let the regent win, clearing his way to the throne. It’s not the power of his position, either, that seems to be making Ashi stay, to try again and again, to erase these alternate Vanas’ minds. It shows this grim side of Creativity, of creation, of willing to do anything for something when that...means some people are going to hurt. That instead of facing his grief and his loss he’s just spreading it, compounding it. And I like that Nima has to be the one to stop him, to stop the lie they’ve been living. That she has to face first her part in it and then accept it. Something he can’t do. But for all the story is rather soaked in certain abuses, certain violations, it also seems to be about pain and healing. About two people who do share this strong connection that even death, that even a kind of rebirth, cannot full break. I have to admit it’s hard to be entirely sympathetic to Ashi, because of what he does, because of his refusal to accept reality. But there’s also something very powerful about that refusal. That he actually has the will to no accept reality, and in so doing to kind of rewrite it. Or repaint it. To create a place where maybe he and Vana can be together again. Not in the way they were, not in the magic, but in a place where probably no one is going to poison them, where they can share a dream of magic, at least, and a reality that is full of all the things they can do for each other. And that ending I think is full of hope. That Ashi has learned in some ways how to cope through not having the power of life and death anymore. That he’s grown. And while it’s almost difficult seeing him get a rather happy ending, it’s also somewhat magical, and makes for a fine read!

“Object Permanence” by James Yu (short story)

No Spoilers: Zain is the caretaker of Oren Lighthouse, a position his uncle had before him. His uncle, the recluse and curmudgeon who was perhaps not altogether okay alone in the lighthouse. To try nad boost attention to the site, and perhaps keep it from being torn down entirely, Zain starts up a Twitter handle for he lighthouse and sort of...becomes it. Embodies it or personifies it at the very least. But when Twitter’s Green Checkmark program for landmarks approaches him about signing up, he hesitates. Resists. Until he finds that it allows him to connect even more with the Lighthouse, giving it a voice that can entwine with his own. And it also gives him a chance to connect with a network of other landmarks, which culminates in an invitation to a sort of landmark convention that...doesn’t go as peacefully as one might think. It’s a quiet and yearning story and a cute read with plenty of fun and heart.
Keywords: Landmarks, Social Media, Lighthouses, Conventions, Personification
Review: I like the way this story draws Zain and Oren Lighthouse together, shows that by sort of speaking as the Lighthouse, Zain takes on a lot of it. He’s drawn to it perhaps because of that link, because they are similar. Low key and out of the way. Reserved but also wanting to be appreciated. He’s not a recluse, and he likes giving tours, but neither is he there for the drama, for the drive to build and boom and drive traffic. He just wants to be seen, wants people to find in him something that they can relate to, that stirs something quiet but profound in them. And I do like the idea of this network of people as landmarks, how messy that quickly gets because landmarks are so different, with different “personalities” that seem to manifest in their various avatars. It’s not magical, not really. Indeed, the speculative elements of the story are very light, and have more to do with the mysterious posts that happen to the Oren Lighthouse Twitter than anything else. Because while Zain really gets into it, there are some posts that can’t be explained, that he doesn’t remember writing, even before he gets the green checkmark. And I like the way the story incorporates visuals, showing the actual tweet formats, the text of the one woman who doesn’t want to speak. And throughout it really is just a wonderful take on social media and place, people as locations, locations as people, all of them voicing each other, finding their own voices. It’s strange and vaguely magical, mysterious and just a hint haunting what with the violence that some of the landmarks end up authoring. But it’s also just a lovely and moving story about a man, a lighthouse, and finding connections, people, and maybe something like meaning in a world that is too often harsh, profit-focused, and brutal. A wonderful read!

“Whistle Posts of Forgotten Railroads” by Jason Sanford (short story)

No Spoilers: Andi has just lost her husband after spending months caring for him as he slowly died of cancer, as he seemed to lose his mind a bit, claiming that the whistles from the nearby trains were calling to him. Only now, she’s finding that the whistles are calling to her, and might be calling to a lot of other people, drawing them to the tracks, where many people have died. And, accompanied by her cat, Namless (or really, her husband’s cat), she follows the whistles out to walk along the tracks, and wrestle with the whistles, and the memories, and her grief and guilt. The piece is heavy and quiet but for the loud bursts from the trains, the siren song that comes to those who might be struggling with so much pain that it seems easier to become lost in the comforts of the past than face the realities of the present.
Keywords: CW- Cancer, CW- Suicide, Trains, Cats, Grief
Review: I like the way this story builds up this complex and wrenching picture of grief and longing through Andi, who has been through a lot, who has had to care for the person she loved as his dying drove all emotion from her, drained her of everything until all she had was just to do the work, to be there as he died. And now she’s left with the guilt and shame of that, the way she feels she lied and betrayed him, the emptiness in his absence. And she’s joined in her grief by Nameless, the canny cat who seems to understand exactly what’s going on, who seems to know what she needs and how to maybe help her to make the decision that will allow her to move on, to seek healing, to live again. But the journey is a hard one and I feel the story takes a very compassionate and careful look at that. At what grief can do. At what caring for a dying person can do. At all these things that Andi is dealing with all on her own, which isn’t a great place to be in. It’s unclear why she’s alone in this, where her friends or family is, but whatever the case, it leaves her hurting and vulnerable to the despair that seems to trigger the siren call of the train whistle. The whistle, that brings back memories that the people can get lost in, that can bring them a distraction from the pain. But that lead them ever closer to the tracks and the obliterating wheels of the train. And the story resolves in a way that is hopeful without being easy. That respects the difficulty of what Andi and Nameless are going through, and finds them looking ahead together to how they can survive and begin to live again. A wonderful read!

“That Time I Found a Phone Booth Where I can Talk to My (Dead) Dad” by Alisa Alering (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story takes walks in the same bit of kinda-nature near their house most days. They have to be careful since getting a diagnosis at age forty-one that they have a rare disorder that restricts blood flow in their extremities, making them more vulnerable to the cold. But they still like the exercise, and connecting with the natural world. Which makes it strange when a phone booth appears, seemingly out of time with the rest of the environment. Stranger still when they go in and find that their dad is on the other end of the line. The piece looks at the narrator’s reaction to that and at their relationship to their illness, and at the way that time and tragedy and misfortune operate. It’s another quiet and heavy read.
Keywords: Chronic Illness, Walks, Phone Booths, Afterlife, Birds, Cold
Review: I like how the story looks at the ways that people want answers, that they want events to mean something more than just…being events. The arrival of the phone booth, or a near miss when it comes to a traffic accident, or the diagnosis of a live-changing disorder. They are things that people need to make sense of. And it sometimes help to try and see them as part of some larger pattern that makes sense and can be interpreted, predicted. Only…that’s not really the case. As much as it can be frustrating that life doesn’t follow the structures of fiction, it’s also just sort of how it goes. Only, this _is_ fiction, and so at the same time that I feel the story is dealing with the randomness of tragedy, how events really don’t relate, there are also connections here. Connections to the narrator and to their own desire for structure, for certainty, for comfort. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. That desire to be held, for someone to make it better. The warmth of their father’s breath to chase away the cold. A magic phone booth to connect them to the dead. To give them answers amidst the uncertainty that they’re facing. For me, the story shows that there’s something of a pattern to it, at least or especially in fiction. But that there really are no answers, as much as the narrator wants them. There’s only living. Which can be full of uncertainty and cold and a kind of peril. Having some comforts shattered and not having them replaced. It’s difficult, and the ending for me leaves a lot open, threading a grimness with a kind of resilience. Whatever the case, it’s definitely a story to spend some time with. Go check it out!

“Letters from Yours” by Em Liu (short story)

No Spoilers: This story is framed as a series of letters that she is writing to her father, whose life she hopes she saved by essentially trading herself to an alien in exchange for the treatment required to save his life. Now in an alien city, she spends her time reading Shakespeare to her alien and writing letters home in the margins of the plays. Letters that she’ll never send. The piece is part in awe of the aliens and her situation, but also full of longing for the life she left behind and the person she meant to save. And through that it’s a lovely look at hope and art and the lines between tragedy and joy.
Keywords: Aliens, Bargains, Family, Letters, Stories, Shakespeare
Review: There’s something almost classic about a lot of the premise of the story, or at least it speaks to a vision of science fiction, with aliens with superior technology and a desire for human art, that I feel hasn’t been in fashion for a while. But here the story does a lot of great stuff with that, looking at the ways that the narrator has been put in this situation where she’s…not exactly free. Where she’s sold herself to save her father, and how that plays out a bit different given where SFF is now. Because for me the story doesn’t exactly sugar coat this, doesn’t miss the tragedy, doesn’t miss that for all the way the narrator describes the aliens, there’s something rather fucked up going on here, where they can save people but demand something in return. That they can essentially buy people. And for all that it is tied up in these rather flowery takes on classic SFF, the tropes of the advanced alien society, there’s also a lot about colonialism here, the language barrier, the way this woman has been renamed, stripped of who she was, made to tell her own story like it’s a fiction, to be consumed by this alien society. For me it’s a story that almost seems simple but contains such depth, commenting on debt and those who work and trade in debt. Looking at the ways she frames this alien city as more advanced, the aliens as more intelligent, but that she’s also owned by them, and can a society that has that kind of ownership be advanced. It’s a lovely read, with such an earnest feel to the words, but beneath those is this reality that demands complication, that demands a more careful and less literal reading, at least in my opinion, and I appreciate what the story does with that, where it goes, and how it lands. A great read!

“At the Intersection of Light and Sound” by Michelle Mellon (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is from a family that defines the universe according to music. Through music, their creation myth one weaved with threads of song and noise. And the story finds them moving out on a decades-long mission they’ve been on for some time now, to find out what’s inside a black hole. And as they wake from their sleep and discovers that the situation back on and around Earth has changed, the scope and nature of their mission changes. Both in the assignment from Earth and what they, ultimately, realize they have to do. It’s strange, slightly haunting, but also quite hopeful, about a creation and return that is centered in music and tenderness.
Keywords: Music, Space, Family, Twins, Black Holes
Review: I like the world building of this story, the way that it finds a humanity in decline, having to flee a dying Earth. Birth rates dropping. And how the narrator represents something like hope to so many because they’re a twin, because they’re meant to keep this line of musical performers unbroken. Only…they don’t want to. They want to be a scientist, to look at their family’s creation story through that lens, to explore it through science and through a desire to push back the borders of the known. It’s something of a disappointment to their family, but ultimately they kinda find that all work is musical work. And as they come to realize that their mission has changed, that understanding blossoms into something huge, into this way of looking at the world and creation and destruction even in new ways. And I like what the story does with that, how it pushes through that thorny mess of familial pain and guilt and finds that here, in this science, in this place so far through their home and their family, the narrator finds a kind of truth that echoes from the stories that their grandfather told. About the darkness and the light, the matter and the sound of life. The promise it represents, that goes beyond the hopes of those with power to escape the devastation they authored on Earth. A promise that tells of return and embrace, of a concentration and acceptance. There’s a lot of grim possibilities with the elements of the story, the future that looks bleak indeed, the way that the narrator is so far from their family. But they’re not. They’re finding their connection to everything, and ending that is alive with hope even as that might mean a shift in the perspective that finds strength and the bonds between people even on the edge of an event horizon. A lovely read!

“Navigational Error” by Lucy A. Snyder (short story)

No Spoilers: This story finds the narrator in something of a perilous situation. Not because they’re in space on a mission that’s dangerous, that requires the crew to all be on the top of their game. No, it’s perilous because they’ve been keeping something from someone on the crew. A secret that very much concerns them both about the wife they both left back on Earth. And it opens up a rift, a possibly catastrophic breach that might tear them and what remains of their marriage apart. The piece is very short but packs a whole lot of punch regardless, finding the narrator in this very delicate situation, one made by their own decisions, their omissions, their lies. And while it doesn’t find them in the greatest place afterward, it also isn’t completely hopeless, either.
Keywords: CW- Cancer, Space, Lies, Grief, Queer MC, Poly MC
Review: This piece opens up on this just brutal and messy situation it’s great. I mean, it’s just so complex, so complicated, so fucked up. Where the narrator has been holding something back from one person they love about someone else that they loved and lost. And that loss is something that the narrator has been holding back because…they’ve been afraid. Yes, they can hide behind the “for the sake of the mission” line that they’ve been given, that this person was more emotionally fragile, but really it seems to be more about the narrator and their needs, them being incapable of dealing with both the loss of their wife and the toll it would have on their other partner. So that what they did was allow it to be hidden. To be able to have words with their dying wife but not having to share that. It’s a betrayal and it’s compounded by the ways that they haven’t owned up to it after the fact, the way that their partner found out through someone else. It’s left this relationship that was already wounded by the death of one of the members in an even worse place. One that the narrator tries to save, tries to salvage, but one that there might be no way back from. The title speaks to this as an error. In judgment. In compassion. It’s taken them to somewhere they didn’t want to be, all because they saw an obstacle and tried to go around it in a way that might have only made matters worse. The piece is short so it doesn’t really offer up much in the way of resolution. Rather, for me at least, the story is about the mistake, the error, and the weight of it. The gravity of it. The lie that was that this thing, this grief, wouldn’t make the narrator, the captain, worse at their job. Because this is them being worse. And it’s a gutting and wrenching moment, and I’m not sure I’d want them forgiven for it, but it’s wonderfully and sharply captured, and it makes a compelling read!

“The Boy with the Golden Arm” by Danian Darrell Jerry (2125 words)

No Spoilers: Michael is a young man with a literal golden arm, his hardware part of his goal of making it in the Coliseum, a place where rap battles seem to have life and death stakes. The piece follows Michael as he waits in line to...audition(?) for the honor of competing, but even so, it’s something that’s mixed with fear and uncertainty for him. But then, so are many parts of his life. Tragedy seems to stalk him, from a dead father, an abusive uncle, and a general sense that people like him can be killed for any number of reasons and there will be no justice. The piece starts Michael on a journey, initiates him into this world of rap battles, of the Coliseum, and teaches him that before he can start expressing his pain and his loss, there might be further hardships to get through.
Keywords: Loss, Battles, Rap, Bargains, Arms, Metal
Review: This story really speaks to the kind of fire that burns when a person finds their future shrinking in front of them. Their options narrowing. The people they care about falling away, taken by injustice, murder, corruption. For Michael, the Coliseum seems to be his way out, or at least his way to fight back a bit. To get his voice heard. Not that he seems particularly suited to it, tending on the quiet side, the shy side, the fire burning low in him but growing until it can’t be contained. There’s such an edge to the story, a danger that Michael knows he is dancing with. But it’s all a dance, all a danger, and here at least he feels he can do something, be something, say something. It does center the value of voice and being seen, getting something like power, something like celebrity, as a means to an end. To have that freedom of expression and to get it in front of people. The world building here seems a little subtle, outlines and hints, not fully explored but still leaving the impression that there’s a lot there. For me, the story has this wonderful feel of a beginning, an opening, one that I hope is further explored elsewhere, but that still offers a satisfying whole. Because this is a complete story, Michael making this step, shadowed by loss, hounded by injustice, wanting so badly to be able to make other people feel his pain, to know his story, his truth. And learning along the way that there’s a whole dance he never knew about, that he’s going to have to learn if he expects to survive this new world and its new rules. It’s a story where death and pain are right there on the surface, but also deep beneath it as well. But there’s also a raw and unbroken hope, and a young man who is risking everything to try and reach for that hope. A great read!


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