#BookReview: The Mausoleum’s Children by Aliette de Bodard

#BookReview: The Mausoleum’s Children by Aliette de Bodard"The Mausoleum's Children" by Aliette de Bodard in Uncanny Magazine Issue 52, May-June 2023 by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 52
Pages: 20
Published by Uncanny Magazine on May 2, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

The May/June 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine .

Featuring new fiction by Aliette de Bodard, Kylie Lee Baker, Lindsey Godfrey Eccles, Fran Wilde, Ewen Ma, Theodora Ward, and K.S. Walker. Reprint fiction by Chimedum Ohaegbu. Essays by Caroline M. Yoachim, LaShawn M. Wanak, Hana Lee, and Sam J. Miller, poetry by Nnadi Samuel, Jennifer Mace, Tehnuka, and Angela Liu, interviews with Kylie Lee Baker and Ewen Ma by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Antonio Caparo, and an editorial by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas.

Uncanny Magazine is a bimonthly science fiction and fantasy magazine first published in November 2014. Edited by 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, & 2022 Hugo award winners for best semiprozine, and 2018 Hugo award winners for Best Editor, Short Form, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, Meg Elison, and Monte Lin, each issue of Uncanny includes new stories, poetry, articles, and interviews.

My Review:

Welcome back to my bounce through this year’s Hugo nominations. Today’s foray into my quest to read the nominees that I didn’t get to last year is back in the Best Short Story (under 7,500 words) nominees with Aliette de Bodard’s “The Mausoleum’s Children”.

I put this particular story towards the front of the list because of the author. I’ve very much enjoyed her Universe of Xuya series – which is nominated for Best Series, BTW – and hoped for something in that series – although I should have known better because that’s against the rules – or at least something like that series – which would have been allowed.

I didn’t get what I was hoping for, but I think it did help that I have dipped into Xuya, as this is a story about returning to a place of former trauma, which just so happens to be a crashed ships’ graveyard.

Those crashed ships were once the kind of ship minds – at least sorta/kinda – who are some of the marvelous characters in Xuya. So I had the feeling this story was walking through their graves – and that bits of those minds still lingered, battered and broken and lost in endless nightmares.

But they’re not really the story. Instead, the story follows one human – or maybe I should say one person – who escaped from that ships’ graveyard as a child. Thuận Lộc is now an adult, forever scarred by her experiences, never fitting in anywhere in the world outside the mausoleum and desperate enough to return and attempt to save the people with whom she belongs – even if that attempt might mean her death.

In other words, she’s been living her whole, entire, supposedly ‘free’ life with a heaping helping of survivor’s guilt and she’s come to the conclusion that the only way out is through. One way or another.

Escape Rating B-: There’s a lot to unpack in this story and perhaps the suitcase it’s packed in wasn’t quite big enough in the first place.

The obvious bit is wrapped around Thuận Lộc’s need to belong, her guilt about not bringing her peeps out with her, and her attempt to assuage just a piece of that trauma. But there’s also more than a bit about abuse and its victims, Stockholm Syndrome writ very, very large, and the rapaciousness of greed for power in all forms and the way that some people try to escape evil by getting on top of it or allowing themselves to be co-opted by it.

I was, honestly, hoping for better from this story than I got. It wasn’t bad, I did like the central character and did feel for her, but the ending only worked because I was equating the ships in the mausoleum to the living ships from Xuya and that wasn’t in the text at all, it’s just the connection my brain went to in order to grasp something.

The premise at the heart of the story, trauma and survivors’ guilt and Stockholm Syndrome and the dangers of getting sucked back in but needing to go to expiate one’s demons – well, that’s been done much, much better in Premee Mohamed’s The Butcher of the Forest – a story that seems even better in comparison with “The Mausoleum’s Children”.

Two down in the Short Story category, four to go in the weeks ahead.

#BookReview: One Man’s Treasure by Sarah Pinsker

#BookReview: One Man’s Treasure by Sarah Pinsker"One Man's Treasure" by Sarah Pinsker in Uncanny Magazine Issue 50, January-February 2023 by Sarah Pinsker
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: fantasy, short stories
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 50
Pages: 29
Published by Uncanny Magazine on January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

The January/February 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine .

Our landmark Issue 50, a double sized issue! Featuring new fiction by Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim, Mary Robinette Kowal, P. Djèlí Clark, A. T. Greenblatt, A.M. Dellamonica, Eugenia Triantafyllou, Sarah Pinsker, E. Lily Yu, Marie Brennan, Christopher Caldwell, John Wiswell, and Maureen Mchugh. Essays by Elsa Sjunneson, John Picacio, Annalee Newitz, A.T. Greenblatt, Diana M. Pho, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, poetry by Neil Gaiman, Terese Mason Pierre, Sonya Taaffe, Betsy Aoki, Theodora Goss, Ali Trota, Abu Bakr Sadiq, Elizabeth Bear, and Brandon O'Brien, interviews with Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim by Tina Connolly; interviews with Eugenia Triantafyllou, E. Lily Yu, and Christopher Caldwell by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Galen Dara, and editorials by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, and Meg Elison.

My Review:

This second entry in my very informal and scattered series of reviews of this year’s Hugo nominated works is focused on one of the nominees in the Novelette category – meaning a story between 7,500 and 17,500 words.

The title isn’t quite as evocative as last week’s “How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub” – which is absolutely one of the most attention grabbing TITLES on the entire ballot. But this one came next because it’s from the same issue of Uncanny Magazine so I decided “Why not?”

For my next pick from the ballot I may have to resort to “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” – or I will once I get through all the works by my faves that are on the list.

The title of this story, while not quite the claxon warning that Kraken should have been, does bring a scenario to the top of one’s mind – even if it’s a much different scenario – as well as a potentially less dangerous one.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” as the old proverb goes. There’s also a variation about “one man’s meat being another man’s poison” but that’s not nearly as applicable in this story.

Because this is a story about the way that the trash gets taken out in a magically powered world, as seen through the eyes of the garbage collectors.

It’s kind of a “lower decks” story, in other words, a view of the world, not from the top where the movers and shakers do their moving and shaking and where stories are often set, but rather from much nearer to the bottom, where the nitty gritty is very gritty indeed and where shit gets done and disposed of – in this case one truckload at a time.

But this particular story is also a story about class and labor organizing and the rich being different from you and me, and especially from Aden, Blue and Nura.

And it’s a story about karma being a real bitch – but in a way that might just possibly teach someone a few lessons as she goes.

Escape Rating B-: It’s lucky for this story that it is not in the same category as Kraken because in spite of having potentially twice as much space to tell its tale, One Man’s Treasure doesn’t stick the dismount half as well.

The best part of One Man’s Treasure is the world creation and character creation by way of slice of life. On the one hand, it’s fantastically familiar on multiple levels.

While we might not think about how the Wizarding World in Harry Potter gets rid of its trash, it does have to happen somehow. In a magical world where everyone has a bit of magic, and a leisure class that has even more leisure, there would be neighborhoods where more magical detritus got thrown in the trash because there was more available to waste.

The potential of magical trash to be magically dangerous seems high once you think about it for a minute. That the ritzy neighborhoods would be paying good money to make sure that THEIR trash got taken away quietly and with minimal fuss seems obvious. That’s just humans being human in their ugliness.

The garbage collectors themselves, Aden and Blue along with Aden’s girlfriend Nura, represent an entirely different perspective. They’re the ones at the sharp end of the danger. They resent the waste of material and money that could make their lives better – AND they are frustrated by government budgeting – set by those very same rich people who don’t want to see them – that refuse to fund even basic safety equipment for their very dangerous jobs.

The situation is ripe for some kind of labor organizing and class action – which is exactly what happens. The way that situation comes about is woven into every thread of the story – even if the exact triggering point is a disgusting surprise.

But the denouement of the whole story felt a bit rushed, as though the words were running out – they possibly were – and it had to get wrapped. The character who has been lying all along – and for disgusting reasons – gets found out and gets punished. He seems to have an epiphany but we don’t get the chance to find out whether that’s real or whether it stuck.

So I was happily reading along, really liking the characters and loving the way the whole thing was working out and then BOOM it was over but not in a way that really felt like closure. This is a story where the world is terrifically built and just the right balance between familiar and new – but if you want to feel like it came to a solid conclusion you’ll need to decide that in your own head after you’ve finished – even as you wonder whether or not Aden ever lost the fox ears.

A- #BookReview: How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub by P Djèlí Clark

A- #BookReview: How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub by P Djèlí Clark"How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub" by P. Djèlí Clark in Uncanny Magazine Issue 50, January-February 2023 by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, short stories, steampunk
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 50
Pages: 26
Published by Uncanny Magazine on January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

The January/February 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine .

Our landmark Issue 50, a double sized issue! Featuring new fiction by Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim, Mary Robinette Kowal, P. Djèlí Clark, A. T. Greenblatt, A.M. Dellamonica, Eugenia Triantafyllou, Sarah Pinsker, E. Lily Yu, Marie Brennan, Christopher Caldwell, John Wiswell, and Maureen Mchugh. Essays by Elsa Sjunneson, John Picacio, Annalee Newitz, A.T. Greenblatt, Diana M. Pho, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, poetry by Neil Gaiman, Terese Mason Pierre, Sonya Taaffe, Betsy Aoki, Theodora Goss, Ali Trota, Abu Bakr Sadiq, Elizabeth Bear, and Brandon O'Brien, interviews with Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim by Tina Connolly; interviews with Eugenia Triantafyllou, E. Lily Yu, and Christopher Caldwell by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Galen Dara, and editorials by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, and Meg Elison.

My Review:

The title of this story is the title of the manual that Trevor Hemley receives along with the rather expensive ‘Kraken egg’ that he’s purchased from an advertisement in the back of a magazine. Which all sounds utterly dodgy when you think about it for even half a second – but Trevor Hemley didn’t. Think, that is.

All Trevor thought about was the possibility of fame and fortune, of finally proving to his wealthy father-in-law that he was worthy of the hand of the man’s daughter – even though he already had that hand, along with a lovely home and a secure position all provided by his wife’s father.

Which of course made him feel all that more looked down upon by his wife’s family and their wealthy connections.

So a kraken. Or rather a plan to hatch said kraken in his bathtub, reveal the existence of the long-believed either mythical or extinct kraken to the world, and reap the rewards that Trevor felt were his due. After all, in Trevor’s Victorian Era, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, fantastic discoveries were being made around the globe by Englishmen of science and daring, and the sun never set on an Empire that reaped the benefits of all the countries to which it believed it was bringing enlightenment while raping their economies and destroying their cultures.

But England is unassailable from without – as history has proven time and again. Which does not mean that it can’t be conquered – or that vengeance can’t be delivered upon it – from within. One crate and one bathtub at a time.

By a monstrous and rapacious creature – in fact a whole horde of them – with appetites as large as empires.

Escape Rating A-: The whole of this story is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, which is merely one part of what makes it so much fun and so thought provoking at the same time.

On the surface, it’s a bit of a funny story about a man whose reach has very definitely exceeded his grasp, as well as a bit of a morality tale about the parting of fools and their money, combined with the message that anything that sounds too good to be true generally is and that people generally get conned because they’ve conned themselves first.

But those messages were delivered in a thrashing of tentacles and teeth which Trevor Hemley certainly deserved. What gives the story its shiver of horror mixed with delicious righteousness is the way that Trevor is merely a part of the deliverance of those messages to a much wider and even more deserving ‘audience’.

Because it’s not really about the kraken after all. Even though it still is. And it’s the double-barrelling of the story, that it’s both the tongue-in-cheek tale of a man who does something really, really stupid and pays for it, AND it’s a story about colonialism where the colonizers get more than a few tentacles of their just desserts.

The title of this is marvelous, eye-catching and true in more ways than one – much like the story it represents. However, that title isn’t the only reason I picked this up yesterday – but it is one of the reasons that I picked it first out of the Hugo Packet for this year’s awards – which leads me straight into the other reasons I chose to read this story to round out a week that’s had a whole lot of ‘meh’ in it.

As a person with at least a Supporting Membership in this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, I have voting rights for the Hugo Awards. In order to be informed about exercising those rights, the Awards committee compiles a packet of ebook versions of as much of the nominated material as the publishers will give them. That packet became available this week and I immediately downloaded the lot.

A lot that included this story by P. Djèlí Clark, whose previous work I have very much enjoyed, and in the case of the whole, entire Dead Djinn Universe (A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and the utterly awesome A Master of Djinn) absolutely loved. While there are no djinn in this story, dead or alive, I was still up for some of his work because I knew it would be a gem whether or not it had received a Hugo nod.

All of which is to explain that many of the works that have received Hugo nominations (including another story from this very issue of Uncanny Magazine!) will appear in reviews here over the coming weeks. Based on the works that I have already read, plus this first foray into the nominated shorter works, it’s going to be an excellent year for the Hugos no matter which stories ultimately go home with rockets!

A- #BookReview: L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 edited by Jody Lynn Nye

A- #BookReview: L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 edited by Jody Lynn NyeL. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 by L. Ron Hubbard, Jody Lynn Nye, Nancy Kress, S.M. Stirling, Gregory Benford, Bob Eggleton, Amir Agoora, James Davies, Kal M, Sky McKinnon, Jack Nash, Rosalyn Robilliard, Lance Robinson, John Eric Schleicher, Lisa Silverthorne, Stephannie Tallent, Tom Vandermolen, Galen Westlake, Mary Wordsmith, Dan Dos Santos, Ashley Cassaday, Gigi Hooper, Jennifer Mellen, Pedro Nascimento, Steve Bentley, Connor Chamberlain, Selena Meraki, Guelly Rivera, Tyler Vail, Carina Zhang, May Zheng, Lucas Durham, Chris Arias
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Writers of the Future #40
Pages: 471
Published by Galaxy Press on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Spine-tingling
Breathtaking
Mind-blowing
Experience these powerful new voices—vivid, visceral, and visionary—as they explore uncharted worlds and reveal unlimited possibilities.
Open the Writers of the Future and be carried away by stories—and illustrations—that will make you think, make you laugh, and make you see the world in ways you never imagined.
Twelve captivating tales from the best new writers of the year as selected by Writers of the Future Contest judges accompanied by three more from L. Ron Hubbard, Nancy Kress, S.M. Stirling. Each is accompanied by a full-color illustration.
Plus Bonus Art and Writing Tips from Gregory Benford, Bob Eggleton, L. Ron Hubbard, Dean Wesley Smith
“When her owner goes missing, a digital housecat must become more than simulation to find her dearest companion through the virtual world.—“The Edge of Where My Light Is Cast” by Sky McKinnon, art by Carina Zhang
No one came to his brother’s funeral. Not even the spirits. Étienne knew it was his fault.—“Son, Spirit, Snake” by Jack Nash, art by Pedro N.
Man overboard is a nightmare scenario for any sailor, but Lieutenant Susan Guidry is also running out of air—and the nearest help is light years away.—“Nonzero” by Tom Vandermolen, art by Jennifer Mellen
Mac wanted to invent a cocktail to burn itself upon the pages of history—but this one had some unexpected side effects.—“The Last Drop” by L. Ron Hubbard and L. Sprague de Camp, art by Chris Arias
Dementia has landed Dan Kennedy in Graydon Manor, and what’s left of his life ahead seems dismal, but a pair of impossible visitors bring unexpected hope.—“The Imagalisk” by Galen Westlake, art by Arthur Haywood
When a teenage swamp witch fears her mama will be killed, she utilizes her wits and the magic of the bayou—no matter the cost to her own soul.—“Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” by Stephannie Tallent, art by Ashley Cassaday
Our exodus family awoke on the new world—a paradise inexplicably teeming with Earth life, the Promise fulfilled. But 154 of us are missing.…—“Five Days Until Sunset” by Lance Robinson, art by Steve Bentley
Spirits were supposed to lurk beneath the Lake of Death, hungry and patient and hostile to all life.—“Shaman Dreams” by S.M. Stirling, art by Dan dos Santos
A new app lets users see through the eyes of any human in history, but it’s not long before the secrets of the past catch up with the present.—“The Wall Isn’t a Circle” by Rosalyn Robilliard, art by Guelly Rivera
In the shadows of Teddy Roosevelt’s wendigo hunt, a Native American boy resolves to turn the tables on his captors, setting his sights on the ultimate prey—America’s Great Chief.—“Da-ko-ta” by Amir Agoora, art by Connor Chamberlain
When squids from outer space take over, a punk-rock P.I. must crawl out of her own miserable existence to find her client’s daughter—and maybe a way out.—“Squiddy” by John Eric Schleicher, art by Tyler Vail
Another outbreak? This time it’s a virus with an eighty percent infection rate that affects personality changes … permanently.—“Halo” by Nancy Kress, art by Lucas Durham
Planet K2-18b is almost dead, humanity is enslaved, and it’s Rickard’s fault.

My Review:

The “Writers of the Future” Contest sponsored by Galaxy Press has been going on for, obviously, forty years now, which is why this is #40 in the series. I hadn’t picked a single one up until last year’s 39th volume, because short story collections just aren’t my thing, and the whole L. Ron Hubbard/Scientology connection STILL gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Howsomever, this time last year I was assigned to review that 39th volume for Library Journal, and learned that my hesitations on both the format and the origin notwithstanding, the collection itself was good. Damn good, in fact.

So good that when the opportunity to review this 40th volume in the series came up, I jumped at it – and was very glad that I did.

As with most collections, there were a couple of stories that just didn’t work for me, but for the most part the stories worked and worked well and I’d be thrilled to see more work from pretty much all of these award winning authors.

Which means that I have brief thoughts of a review-type and rating for each of the new individual stories, and a concluding rating that’s going to require some higher math and a bit of a fudge-factor to get into a single letter grade even with pluses and minuses available!

“The Edge of Where My Light is Cast” by Sky McKinnon
This is a story that anyone who has ever had a ‘heart cat’ – or other companion animal, one who is not merely loved but holds a singular place in one’s heart long after they are gone will find both utterly adorable and heartbreakingly sad at the same time. Tabitha was her person’s heart cat, so when Tabita went to the Rainbow Bridge her person turned her into a virtual reality cat so that they could be together for always. When her person goes ‘to the light’, Tabitha breaks all the laws of time and space and physics so that they can be together, forever in the light of the datastreams they now both call home. Grade A because there is so much dust in this one and my eyes are still tearing up.

“Son, Spirit, Snake” by Jack Nash
This one has the feel of a myth being retold as fantasy, although its an original work. It could also fit into many post-apocalyptic futures as well. A young man is dead, his mother performs the funeral rites, but the neighbors scoff and the gods do not attend as they always have. His younger brother runs in search of solace but finds only Death – but the anthropomorphization and not the event, because his mother refuses to let the gods dictate her actions a second longer – and she scares them WAY more than they scare her. Grade B because it feels like the attempt to make the myth universal sanded off a few too many of the edges that might have made it a bit more fixed in time and space – which was the intent but made it a bit more difficult to get stuck into at first.

“Nonzero” by Tom Vandermolen
As far as she knows, she’s the only survivor of her spaceship crew, out in the black in a spacesuit with no ship in sight and no chance of reaching one. She dreams of the past, while her suit’s AI does its best to awaken her to her very limited choices: whether to let her oxygen run out – and die, self-terminate using the drugs stored in her suit – and die, or take a cryogenic cocktail of drugs, let herself be put in suspended animation, and hope that the nonzero chance of survival comes through. We’ll never know. Grade A- for her snark in the face of logic and annihilation even though we’re pretty sure from the beginning that we know which path she’ll take.

“The Imagalisk” by Galen Westlake
Anyone who ever had an imaginary friend will find a bit of hope – or a light at the end of an inevitable long, dark tunnel – in this tale of an elderly man entering the hazy world of Alzheimer’s and tossed into a nursing home by his son.  Only to discover that he’s been granted a marvelous gift, that for the residents of Graydon Manor the make-believe friends of their first childhoods have returned to help them ‘play’ the rest of their lives away in their second. If he can just hold only his present memory long enough to keep their gift from being stolen by a greedy former resident. Grade A- for being the saddest of sad fluff on the horns of the reader’s dilemma of whether this is one last grand caper or if this entire tale is just a product of the disease that brought him to Graydon Manor in the first place.

“Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” by Stephannie Tallent
One of two stories in the collection about magic and power and love and death and sacrifice that’s made even better because the sacrifice is willing and the love isn’t romantic. This one is haunting, not horror but definitely on the verge of it – but then again, if any place is haunted it’s the bayou country of Louisiana. Grade A- for the story and A+ for the art for this one which is beautiful.

“Five Days Until Sunset” by Lance Robinson
In spite of what a whole lot of SF would have one believe, the likelihood is that early colony ships will be a fairly iffy proposition. Which means that this reminds me a bit of Mickey7 but definitely without the humorous bits. Although in this case, it’s not that the planet is barely habitable, but rather that it’s not habitable in the way that the colonists dreamed of. It’s a story about adapting your dreams to your circumstances instead of attempting to force the circumstances to match your dreams. Grade A because the story is good and so complete in its very short length and it even manages to deal well with religion in the future which is really, really hard even in the present.

“Shaman Dreams” by S.M. Stirling
This one is new for the collection – which I wasn’t expecting. It’s also the story inspired by the gorgeous cover art. Even though this is set in the far distant past, as the last Ice Age is fading away, the story it reminds me of most and rather surprisingly a lot is The Tusks of Extinction – quite possibly crossed a bit with Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. Grade A+

“The Wall Isn’t a Circle” by Rosalyn Robilliard
Very SFnal, but exceedingly horrifying in its implications. It starts out as time travel – and that’s fun with interesting possibilities. The scare in this one is that it doesn’t stay there, and where it leaps to is a question of just how far – and how far over the line of morality – someone will go to get justice and where the line blurs between justice and revenge. Grade A for the wild ride of the story’s ultimate WOW.

“Da-ko-ta” by Amir Agoora
This one didn’t work for me. The bones of something really terrific are here, and I think it potentially had a lot to say about colonialism and culture erasure and just how terrible manifest destiny was but it may have just needed to be longer so that its ideas got fully on the page and weren’t merely teased out. Grade C

“Squiddy” by John Eric Schleicher
Squiddy gets its toes right up to the line of SF horror and then sticks there with tentacles. Literal, actual tentacles, in an invasion of squid-like monsters that are an addictive drug that requires sticking the squid-like creature up one’s nose. So also gross-out horror. But underneath that is a story about a drug addled dystopia, one woman who refuses to use or be used and another woman who sees her as a beacon to follow to a better, squid-free future. Grade B because this one was interesting and had a kind of wild/weird west feel but just wasn’t my jam – or calamari.

“Halo” by Nancy Kress
This is the second new-for-this-collection story by a well-known author rather than a contest winner. It’s laboratory based SF, and jumps off from the recent pandemic, but doesn’t go anywhere one thinks it will go because it’s a story about human behavior and human intelligence and the power of inspiration and how much the latter is worth saving if engineering the former can do so much ‘good’ – depending on who is determining that good. A thought-provoking Grade A story.

“Ashes to Ashes, Blood to Carbonfiber” by James Davies
There are always at least a couple of stories in any collection that don’t work for an individual reader and this was my other one. I may have been trying to read too late in the evening, or it may be that the bleakness of this particular dystopia just didn’t work for me, or the nature of the sacrifice required to break out was a bit too much even as it was talked more around than directly about. I did like that it worked out to a much better ending than I was expecting, but it just didn’t work for me. Grade C

“Summer of Thirty Years” by Lisa Silverthorne
This is the other story in the collection about sacrifice and power and love and death – done in a completely different way from the bayou story and still not about romantic love after all – although at the beginning it looks like it might be. It’s sweet and sad and haunting and beautiful, if not quite as profound as “Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” still an excellent story. Grade A-

“Butter Side Down” by Kal M
There had to be a story that managed to invoke Murderbot, and this was it. What made it fun was that the whole thing is a trial transcript, as the lone human on this particular spaceship’s crew is on trial for rescuing a planet-killing AI, falling in love with it and helping it escape. It seems like the fears of what this ultimate weapon of mass destruction – that Joe Smith has nicknamed “Breddy” can do to the whole, entire universe are very real – but that Joe is convinced that “Breddy” has decided not to. And he’s right and they’re all wrong. While the story is more lighthearted than one might imagine, in the end it’s a story about always extending the hand of friendship – and being rewarded with friendship in return to the nth degree. Grade A+

Escape Rating A- for the collection as a whole, because I mostly did escape – even in the couple of stories that weren’t quite my cuppa after all. I am still a bit surprised to say this, all things considered, but I’m honestly looking forward to getting that 41st volume in the series, this time next year.

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel AllendeLovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende
Narrator: Nicholas Boulton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, short stories
Pages: 25
Length: 38 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories on April 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Wind Knows My Name comes a mesmerizing tale of two passionate souls who share one magical night that defies all rational explanation.
Love, be it wild or tender, often defies logic. In fact, at times, the only rationale behind the instant connection of two souls is plain magic.
Bibiña Aranda, runaway bride, wakes up in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao still wearing her wedding dress, draped in the loving arms of a naked man whose name she doesn’t know. She and the man with no clothes, Indar Zubieta, attempt to explain to the authorities how they got there. It’s a story of love at first sight and experience beyond compare, one that involves a dreamlike journey through the museum.
But the lovers’ transcendent night bears no resemblance to the crude one Detective Larramendi attempts to reconstruct. And no amount of fantastical descriptions can convince the irritated inspector of the truth.
Allende’s dreamy short story has the power to transport readers in any language, leaving them to ponder the wonders of love long after the story’s over.

My Review:

Lovers at the Museum caught my eye primarily for the audiobook. The narrator, Nicholas Boulton, is the voice of one of my favorite characters in the video game Mass Effect Andromeda. (A game that is much better than the reviews would lead one to believe, but that is not the topic of this review.)

Back on topic, at least a bit more on topic, I have to say that he didn’t sound much like that character in this narration, which I should have expected because they’re not remotely alike nor should they be and that’s just plain good acting.

Which leads me back, again, by a meandering path, to this lovely little short story about, well, love, and magic, and the magic of love.

Although it starts out with the evidence of a whole lot of lust – as that’s a much easier thing to get a handle on – particularly when one of the protagonists is still presenting a handle. So to speak.

Ahem.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of modern and contemporary art in Spain’s Basque region (pictured at left) is already a magical place, both for its bulky, blocky and some would even say Brutalist, design, and in this story, at least, for the strange and weird things that happen within its walls.

This incident would add to that legend.

The morning staff of the museum discovered two disheveled, entwined, partially nude lovers in one of the galleries sleeping off a night of lustful debauchery that shouldn’t have happened at all. Not for particularly nefarious reasons but simply because they entered while the museum was closed – and should have triggered alarms in every single room they came into – which seems to have been all of them.

They say the door opened for them. They claim that they weren’t really in the museum, but in a magical pleasure palace.

The local police inspector, with a reputation for finding hidden clues, eliciting damning confessions, and a dogged determination to punish the guilty, is frustrated that he can’t break their ridiculous stories and isn’t sure what crime, if any, they actually committed.

It seems as if the magic of the Guggenheim claimed the lovers that incredible night, and it’s taking away the inspector’s will to punish them in the cold light of day.

Escape Rating B: This is short and very, very sweet – even though the inspector is downright salty for a lot of the story.

There’s a lot of salt to be had – at least from his perspective. He’s sure that someone HAS to be guilty of something prosecutable, and that someone is lying to him.

(I was betting on the museum officials lying to cover up less than attentive guards and not so secure security. It seemed like the obvious solution. Which it is logically but then again, this is about magic.)

The inspector wants to punish the lovers for their vice and their disrespect of the museum. But mostly because he envies them the magic of their love – something that is clearly lacking in his own life in spite of his decades long marriage – or perhaps because of it. That’s a bit hard to tell, but it’s sad no matter how one looks at it. Unless one is the inspector, in which case it’s downright tragic.

In the end, it all boils down to magic, the kind of magical realism that takes a story out of the everyday and sprinkles a bit of fairy dust over the proceedings. So short, sweet and utterly charming – including the inspector’s bluster.

Even better, if Isabel Allende is an author you’ve heard about but haven’t ever actually read – as was true for this reader – or if you’re not sure whether or not magical realism could be a flavor in your jam – this delightful short is the perfect way to stick your reading toe into magical realism with an author who is considered a master of the genre.

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie Tidhar

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie TidharJudge Dee and the Limits of the Law (Judge Dee, #1) by Lavie Tidhar
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal, short stories, vampires
Series: Judge Dee #1
Pages: 32
Published by Tor Books on November 11, 2020
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No vampire is ever innocent…
The wandering Judge Dee serves as judge, jury, and executioner for any vampire who breaks the laws designed to safeguard their kind’s survival. This new case in particular puts his mandate to the test.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked this up, but what I got was kind of interesting and sorta cute and blissfully short yet still told a good story and somehow managed to fit – albeit weirdly and oddly – into the whole Judge Dee rabbit hole I fell down last week.

Like many vampire stories, it needs a human touch. And it has one in this case, as it is told by vampire Judge Dee’s current human assistant, Jonathan. Who is often just a bit hard done by the Judge, as poor Jonathan needs the occasional meal of real food, and the occasional break to catch his labored breath, while the vampire clearly does not. And sometimes forgets to care.

That the human is a considerably messier eater than the average vampire, let alone the rather fastidious Judge Dee, is just part of the byplay between these two unequal companions.

The story here still manages to display Judge Dee’s much vaunted ability to, well, judge evildoers within the limits of the law and render a fit punishment – when punishment is what’s due.

The case that introduces this pair to readers is just such a case – more convoluted that one might expect leading to a rather elegant ending – and not the one the reader expects when Judge Dee first knocks on the door.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up this week for two reasons. The first is part of the reason I grabbed this at all, that I fell down a reading rabbit hole about Judge Dee and discovered this series and simply couldn’t resist. A lack of resistance that may have had something to do with the cover art which is just this side of comic but bizarre in a way that pulled me in.

The second reason, and the why right now reason, is that these are blissfully short. I’ve overcommitted myself this week and needed that really, really badly.

But I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a lot, because there is literally not a lot here. Howsomever, I got more than I expected.

Judge Dee does his damndest to stick to the letter of the law while leaning over it just enough to find justice in a situation where there might not have been any to find. He’s beyond clever and yet is amused when a potential defendant before his traveling bench manages to out-clever him.

What makes the story fun – more than fun enough that I’ll be picking up the next story the next time I need something short to tide me over an overcommitted calendar – is the first person perspective of poor, put upon, Jonathan. He’s snarky, he’s both world-weary and vampire-weary, but he’s always aware of the side on which his bread is buttered – when he can get any, that is. So his commentary covers the Judge, the law he administers, his opinions and predilections, but also the companionship they provide each other.

Along with Jonathan’s constant scramble to get enough food in his belly to keep him upright for another day trudging after the indefatigable vampire Judge Dee. And one of these days soon I’ll be, not trudging but skipping along right beside him with Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels.

Review: The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny edited by Jonathan Maberry

Review: The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny edited by Jonathan MaberryThe Good, The Bad, & The Uncanny: Tales of a Very Weird West by Jonathan Maberry, C. Edward Sellner, Keith R.A. DeCandido, James A. Moore, Greg Cox, Josh Malerman, Carrie Harris, John G. Hartness, Jennifer Brody, Scott Sigler, Laura Anne Gilman, Aaron Rosenberg, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, R. S. Belcher, Marguerite Reed, Maurice Broaddus, Cullen Bunn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, short stories, steampunk, Weird West
Pages: 350
Published by Outland Entertainment on December 19, 2023
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Gunslingers. Lawmen. Snake-oil Salesmen. Cowboys. Mad Scientists. And a few monsters. The Old West has never been wilder! THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNCANNY presents sixteen original and never-before-published adventures by some of today’ s most visionary writers who have spun wildly offbeat tales of gunmen, lawmen, magic, and weird science. Saddle up with Josh Malerman, Scott Sigler, Keith DeCandido, Cullen Bunn, R.S. Belcher, Greg Cox, Jeffrey Mariotte, Laura Anne Gilman, Aaron Rosenberg, Maurice Broaddus, John G. Hartness, Carrie Harris, James A. Moore, Marguerite Reed, C. Edward Sellner, Carrie Harris, and Jennifer Brody! These tales twist the American West into a place of darkness, shadows, sudden death, terror in the night, bold heroism, devious magic, and shocking violence. Each story blazes a new trail through very strange territory – discovering weird science, ancient evil, mythic creatures, and lightning-fast action. Edited by Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of A DEADLANDS NOVEL, the Joe Ledger Thrillers, V-WARS, and KAGEN THE DAMNED.

My Review:

I don’t normally start reviews by talking about the author’s – or in this case the editor’s – Foreword. In fact, I very seldom read the Foreword because I’m too interested in getting to the actual story – or in this case stories – to take the time. And they’re generally not all that fascinating. But I read this one and got hit with a sense of nostalgia so strong that I can’t resist mentioning it here. Because the editor and I grew up with those same Westerns on TV pretty much all the time in our childhood, and because we both emerged with the same favorite, The Wild, Wild West.

Not that awful 1999 movie. I mean – and the author meant – the one, the only, the original TV series with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. I still remember, and can hear Ross Martin’s voice in my head, talking mostly to himself, as he often did, as he was whipping up “the spécialité de la maison of the Hotel Desperation!” to get them out of whatever fix they’d gotten themselves into in that act of the four acts that made up each weekly episode. It’s a VERY fond memory.

So, if you have that same fondness for Westerns – especially those that touched on, or were touched by, or dipped their whole entire six-shooters into the very, very weird, or if you’re a fan of more recently published ‘Weird West’ inspired stories such as Charlaine Harris’ Gunnie Rose series and Laura Anne Gilman’s Huntsmen, or if you just plain love it when the things that go bump in the night are armed with fangs, claws AND six-shooters, this collection might just be your jam.

It certainly was mine. It was mine so much, in fact, that this is one of the rare occasions when I’ve rated each story in the collection individually, so that you can get the full-bodied flavor – complete with actual bodies, for each and every one.

“The Disobedient Devil Dust-up at Copper Junction” by Cullen Bunn
Mad scientist meets even madder gremlins as Professor Dimitri Daedalus and his Navajo partner Yiske arrive in remote Copper Junction Utah, summoned by the Professor’s old mentor to be his next sacrifices to the gremlins tearing up every single human tool in town with applied chaos and malice, only to end in fiery glory sailing off a cliff. Good fun. B

“Devil’s Snare” (Golgotha #1.5) by R.S. Belcher
In spite of being part of a series, this story stands quite well alone. Love-lorn scientist/engineer Clay Turlough, who combines bits of both Dr. Frankenstein AND his monster, gets dragged out of his latest attempt to ‘save’ his ladylove by a more strictly medical case of a poisoned boy, his widowed mother, and the man who is a bit too invested in both. A-

“Bad” by Josh Malerman
Borderline horror about two idiots who think they can rob the most secure bank on ‘The Trail’ by pretending to be one of the bank’s regular depositors. A pretense they intend to enact by literally stealing the man’s face. A hard read because the murdering bank robber wannabes are really, really TSTL to the point where the story is just blood, guts and idiocy. D

“Bigfoot George” by Greg Cox
Gold fever grips a gang of humans claiming a strike in Bigfoot country. The ringleaders think they can treat sasquatch the way they treat their fellow humans – only one of those fellow humans isn’t to both the humans and the sasquatch’ detriment. The humans are nasty in ways that are all too familiar, but the heel-turn of their not-so-human companion is epic enough to nearly redeem their mess – if not them. C+

“Story of the Century” by C. Edward Sellner
A tale of angels and demons, vampires and newspaper reporters. A reporter with a nose for news follows a bounty hunter on the trail of a demon who can wipe out whole towns in a single breath, only to find herself the last witness to an epic confrontation between celestial and demonic forces that wakes a legacy she had no idea she possessed. B

“The Stacked Deck” by Aaron Rosenberg
A card sharp with a magic touch wins his way onto a gambler’s paradise of a riverboat cruise only to learn that the stake he’s playing for is his soul and the deck has been stacked by a demon who believes he holds all the cards. The weird side of the weird West with a fascinating magical system of drawing cards from the ether. Maverick would have fit right in. And won. B+

“Desert Justice” by Maurice Broaddus
A black man with a righteous cause, the will to back it up and the grief not to care if he goes down in the fight takes up a magical badge to battle the evil spirit of the dead Confederacy that white men are using to vilify, subjugate and lynch blacks who stand up for themselves in the west after they fled the ‘legal slavery’ of the sharecropping system. If you enjoyed the author’s novella Buffalo Soldier you’ll love this one too. I certainly did. A

“In the End, the Beginning” by Laura Anne Gilman
A still heartbreaking but slightly more hopeful alternate magical version of the white man’s invasion of the west. It can’t be stopped, but powerful spirits CAN, if they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their magic in the cause, alter the means by which it happens, in the hopes that the ones who can’t be stopped are the best of their kind and not the worst.  A

“Nightfall on the Iron Dragon Line” by James A. Moore
The inevitable train story because no western or weird version thereof would be complete without one train story. The concept is interesting, and a story about a lawman bringing in a dangerous criminal always works in westerns but this one needed to be longer for all the disparate elements – especially the worm and the Chinese engineers – to come together. C

“Simple Silas” by Scott Sigler
This is straight up horror and the story relies on the protagonist having an undefined intellectual disability (because they were back then) in a way that just makes the whole thing more uncomfortable than compelling. D

“Hell and Destruction are Never Full” by Marguerite Reed
A bounty hunter captures a man for more money than she’s ever seen in her life and doesn’t want to hear about the real reason the bounty was set – until she comes face to face with a vampire and his renfield who plan to shut up a witness and get a meal out of it at the same time. That this has a happy ending is a big surprise. It’s not the standout in the collection but it was pretty good all the same. B

“The Legend of Long-Ears” by Keith R.A. DeCandido
A meeting that never happened between two legends, Calamity Jane and Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves. Calamity is a seer who drinks to keep her visions of the future at bay, while she does her best to keep the chaos agent known as Long-Ears from taking more lives than he’s due. She saves Reeves but can’t save them all. However, she saves so many that Long-Ears himself travels the west telling any who will listen the tale of his greatest and most respected enemy. This one seems like the quintessential weird west story, or at least one branch of it, with legends meeting, native spirits interfering, respect between enemies and tragedies all around. A+

“The Night Caravan” by Jennifer Brody
A post-apocalyptic tale where the desert has returned, while technology and fallout have bred monsters and settlements are far apart while travel puts you in danger of being ridden by one of the monsters. The mix of high tech and low villainy with a mythical utopia that is probably a boondoggle makes the story interesting. B

“Dreadful” by John Hartness
A middle-aged widow and a tired vampire-hunting cowboy team up to wipe out a nest of vampires that is eating their way across the west like locusts. Separately, they’re victims, together they might just be enough to get the job done. And if there’s an after, they might have a chance at being happy in it, together. B+

“Thicker Than Water” by Carrie Harris
Families are terrible. His brothers are human monsters. Her sisters are sea monsters. But family is family and blood is thicker than water, even when the deck of the ship is awash in it. This one just wasn’t my cuppa, and I’m trying really hard not to think about what the tea in that cuppa would be made of. C

“Barnfeather’s Magical Medicine Show and Tent Extravaganza” by Jeffrey J. Mariotte
Another one a bit too high on the creep-o-meter for me, about a magical circus tent that steals children and eats them to keep itself and its avatar powered – or perhaps the other way around, pursued by a lawman hoping to rescue children who are already gone. C

Escape Rating B: I had to do math to get to an overall rating, just as I did for the review of a previous collection by this publisher, Never Too Old to Save the World, which is going to end up on my Best Books list for this year because I’ve referred to it so often.

I enjoyed this collection, well, not quite as much as Never Too Old, but still quite a bit. Even the stories that went too far into horror for my personal tastes, or the couple that just didn’t work for me, still added to the overall feeling of ‘those thrilling days of yesteryear’ even if it was a weirder and more uncanny yesteryear than The Lone Ranger ever imagined.

Or perhaps especially because it was a whole lot weirder and considerably more uncanny. Just as marvelously as The Wild, Wild West so often was.

Review: Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 edited by R.F. Kuang

Review: Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 edited by R.F. KuangThe Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 by R.F. Kuang, John Joseph Adams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy
Pages: 320
Published by Mariner Books on October 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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“Short stories have to accomplish a nearly impossible magic trick: to introduce a world often much stranger than our own and make you care about it in a matter of pages,” writes R. F. Kuang in her introduction. “The most important part of this magic trick is just a willingness to get weird.” The stories in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 are brimming with bizarre and otherworldly premises. Women can’t lie or fall in love. Fathers feed their children ghost preserves. Souls chase one another through animal incarnations. Yet these stories are grounded deeply in our reality. Out of these stories’ weirdness emerges the cruelty of border enforcement, the horror of legislation restricting reproductive freedom, the frightening pace of AI. The result is a stunning, immersive, intensely felt experience, showing us less of what the world is, and more of what it could be.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 includes Nathan Ballingrud • KT Bryski • Isabel Cañas • Maria Dong • Kim Fu • Theodora Goss • Alix E. Harrow • S. L. Huang • Stephen Graham Jones • Shingai Njeri Kagunda • Isabel J. Kim • Samantha Mills • MKRNYILGLD • Malka Older • Susan Palwick • Linda Raquel Nieves Pérez • Sofia Samatar • Kristina Ten • Catherynne M. Valente • Chris Willrich

My Review:

This collection begins with a kind of a story getting into a bit of the nitty-gritty of just how this collection of stories was assembled. After all, it’s a fairly big ask and an equally large task to distill one year’s ENTIRE SF/F short fiction output into a book that has to be, if not all things to all (SF/F) people, at least serve as a representative sampling of the best works of an entire year in a genre that ranges from the dark heart of a monstrous villain’s soul – if they have one – to the furthest reaches of the stars – and covers everywhere and everywhen in between.

Not all stories will work for all readers, something that is especially true in such an encompassing genre, one filled with niches that may or may not even all occupy the same literary planet.

All of that being said, this collection is guaranteed to have its delightful moments for any reader of science fiction, fantasy, or any of the times, places and spaces in between.

For sheer reading pleasure, my favorites in this year’s collection were fantasy or at least fantasy-ish. Notice I said for reading pleasure, as other stories in the collection in other niches hit different places in my reading brain.

The story I loved most and hardest is, far and away, Alix E. Harrow’s “The Six Deaths of the Saint”. A story that reads like fantasy even though in the end it has SFnal elements. I loved this one because it’s a story about myths and mythmaking, but it’s told through the perspective of the person being made into a myth who finally breaks free of the legend that has accreted around them. That it happens with the aid of a love so great it makes Westley in The Princess Bride seem like he’s not even trying just adds to both the glory and the heartbreak of the story.

While Alix Harrow’s story blew me away, there were two other stories, just a bit lighter in tone, that I also adored.

Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” by Theodora Goss sits on the border between fantasy and SF, and I’m still not sure where it falls. This is fun because it begins as an exercise in imagination that becomes real, at least for situations where The Velveteen Rabbit is an imaginary country instead of a child’s toy. A group of high school students create an imaginary country, send scholarly papers to scholarly journals about the imaginary country, add Wikipedia pages about the imaginary country they’ve created – and it starts turning up in the news, the real news, and suddenly everyone remembers Pellargonia as if it’s always been there. The story is about the kids confessing what they’ve done, as though they can put the Pellargonia genie back in it’s magical bottle after it’s already become the center of a possible war.

The last of my fun favorites is “Cumulative Ethical Guidelines for Mid-Range Interstellar Storytellers” by Malka Older which is, at least in setting, actual science fiction. But it reads as if it’s in the same voice as the author’s wonderful SF/steampunk/mystery series, The Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti, with its tones of otherworldly academia where the politics and the strictures are still awfully vicious because the stakes are awfully small. It’s a story about what should be done instead of getting it done, and it’s just a lot of fun.

As much fun as those three stories were, there’s a second set of stories that captured me because they speak to the present moment in ways that chilled me to the bone. Because everything seems to come in threes, there are three stories in this category, at least for this reader, as well.

“Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills and “The CRISPR Cookbook” by MKRNYILGLD read as responses to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in that they extend the loss of bodily autonomy represented by that decision and slide it down the slippery slope as far and as frighteningly as possible into the ramifications of that loss and the many future restrictions it might lead to.

Last, but equally not least, and also in response to the current events surrounding AI being taught to take the place of humans and human interactions, “Murder by Pixel” by S.L. Huang takes a deep dive into just how toxic and downright disgusting AI chatbots can become – and just how humans made them that way.

Escape Rating A-: It’s always difficult to rate collections like this one, because reading mileage varies widely, one person’s meat is another’s poison, etc., etc., etc. Howsomever, there was only one story in this collection that I bounced off hard, and that’s rare for me. Usually there are several. And I loved “The Six Deaths of the Saint” really, really hard, and a whole bunch of the other stories I either really enjoyed or really stuck with me, so I’m rounding this one up to an A- for all of those reasons.

To make a long story short – as is this collection’s whole, entire purpose – if you don’t generally read SF/F in the short form (it’s not usually my jam) but want to get a picture of what happened last year, this collection is a great place to read!

Review: A Stroke of the Pen by Terry Pratchett

Review: A Stroke of the Pen by Terry PratchettA Stroke of the Pen: The Lost Stories by Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, short stories
Pages: 240
Published by Doubleday on October 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Far away and long ago, when dragons still existed and the only arcade game was ping-pong in black and white, a wizard cautiously entered a smoky tavern in the evil, ancient, foggy city of Morpork...
A truly unmissable, beautifully illustrated collection of unearthed stories from the pen of Sir Terry Pratchett: award-winning and bestselling author, and creator of the phenomenally successful Discworld series.

Twenty early short stories by one of the world's best loved authors, each accompanied by exquisite original woodcut illustrations.
These are rediscovered tales that Pratchett wrote under a pseudonym for newspapers during the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst none are set in the Discworld, they hint towards the world he would go on to create, containing all of his trademark wit, satirical wisdom and fantastic imagination.
Meet Og the inventor, the first caveman to cultivate fire, as he discovers the highs and lows of progress; haunt the Ministry of Nuisances with the defiant evicted ghosts of Pilgarlic Towers; visit Blackbury, a small market town with weird weather and an otherworldly visitor; and go on a dangerous quest through time and space with hero Kron, which begins in the ancient city of Morpork...

My Review:

I first became acquainted with the Discworld and its creator – or perhaps perpetrator would be the better word – in the early to mid 1990s when I had a long commute, audiobooks were still on actual tape, and the collection of same at the library where I worked wasn’t all that big because there wasn’t all that much available.

Two of those available titles were The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, the first two books in the Discworld . It wasn’t exactly love at first listen because those first two books were a bit weirder than I expected, and looking back from the perspective of even Mort, only two books later, it was pretty clear that the author figured out he had a series going on somewhen approximately between The Light Fantastic and book 3, Equal Rites.

I don’t think he was all the way there until book 8, Guards! Guards!, which is a much better entry point for the series. (I digress – but hopefully not too far or I’ll fall off the edge.)

The point I’m working my way around is that masterpieces like the Discworld do not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus – or even two Zeuses in the case of Good Omens, co-authored with Neil Gaiman.

The stories in this collection, these ‘strokes of the pen’ by Sir Terry Pratchett, are a bit of a portrait of the beloved author as a young scrivener who was still in the process of figuring out what in the hell he was doing and quite possibly where was he going in that handcart.

The story of these stories is a bit of a story all by itself. They were published – these are not early efforts that were never intended to see the light of day. It’s just that they were published in a tabloid newspaper, the Western Daily Press, published in Bristol in the U.K. from 1967 to 1984, mostly under the pseudonym Patrick Kearns.

But the Western Daily Press was – and still is – a very small newspaper. The stories were published, read and mostly forgotten, with the exception of “The Quest for the Keys” which had been cut out and preserved by one enterprising fan – howsomever without any of the borders of the pages which would have revealed where and when it was published. A painstaking search through the British Library’s Newspaper Archive resulted in the discoveries that have been published in this collection.

The stories themselves are a LOT of fun. Every single one gives the reader a chuckle or at least a smile, and there are hints of what evolved into Pratchett’s style of both telling the story and making snide asides about the circumstances even in the earliest instances.

But they are very, very short, and with the exception of “The Quest for the Keys”, which was published in four parts, it’s obvious that the newspaper had limited space for fiction – and probably everything else. So these are touches, tastes, teasers and don’t get into a lot of detail.

Still, by grouping them in little series, the reader does get a pretty clear picture of places like Blackbury [sic] which seems like it could be just around the corner from Unseen University – no matter how much the stories refer to far-distant London. Which could, with a bit of a squint, be Ankh-Morpork.

Although, speaking of Ankh-Morpork, the final story in the collection, “The Quest for the Keys”, is set in the city of Morpork. Perhaps the annexation of Ankh is just around its corner. And again, a bit of a squint turns the lazy and underhanded wizard Grubble into the more inept but much nicer about it Rincewind of The Colour of Magic, while the hired sword Grubble has hired and duped, Kron, seems more than a bit like a younger and savvier Cohen the Barbarian, perhaps with just a touch of the inestimable Sam Vimes.

Escape Rating B: A Stroke of the Pen isn’t exactly the Discworld , but it is Discworld -adjacent. Which is as close as it’s possible to get now that its author, creator and perpetrator is no longer among us. It’s at that intersection of not being sure whether to cry because it’s over, or smile because it happened. The stories themselves are generally fun but not terribly deep, because there wasn’t time in the format to get that way.

So, think of this collection as a last twinkle of the author’s eye, and enjoy!

Review: White Cat Black Dog by Kelly Link

Review: White Cat Black Dog by Kelly LinkWhite Cat, Black Dog: Stories by Kelly Link, Shaun Tan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, horror, retellings, science fiction, short stories
Pages: 272
Published by Random House on March 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Seven ingeniously reinvented fairy tales that play out with astonishing consequences in the modern world, from one of today's finest short story writers--MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow Kelly Link, bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Get in Trouble
Finding seeds of inspiration in the Brothers Grimm, seventeenth-century French lore, and Scottish ballads, Kelly Link spins classic fairy tales into utterly original stories of seekers--characters on the hunt for love, connection, revenge, or their own sense of purpose.
In "The White Cat's Divorce," an aging billionaire sends his three sons on a series of absurd goose chases to decide which will become his heir. In "The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear," a professor with a delicate health condition becomes stranded for days in an airport hotel after a conference, desperate to get home to her wife and young daughter, and in acute danger of being late for an appointment that cannot be missed. In "Skinder's Veil," a young man agrees to take over a remote house-sitting gig for a friend. But what should be a chance to focus on his long-avoided dissertation instead becomes a wildly unexpected journey, as the house seems to be a portal for otherworldly travelers--or perhaps a door into his own mysterious psyche.
Twisting and winding in astonishing ways, expertly blending realism and the speculative, witty, empathetic, and never predictable--these stories remind us once again of why Kelly Link is incomparable in the art of short fiction.

My Review:

Perhaps it’s a lingering fondness for the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, but I’ve always had a fondness for properly Fractured Fairy Tales. As the author of this collection has long been a writer I intended to read but never quite found the appropriate ‘Round Tuit’ for, this collection seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge in a bit of cartoon nostalgia while discovering an author I’d heard of – often – but never actually read.

Also, there’s a cat in the title so I figured that I couldn’t possibly go wrong reading White Cat, Black Dog. And I did not.

There are only seven stories in this collection, each based on a different, but frequently familiar, fairy tale. As with all collections there are exceptions to the rules – but always interesting ones.

Of those seven stories, my favorite was the first – and titular story, “The White Cat’s Divorce”. I’m not at all familiar with the fairy tale it was based on, The White Cat, but this is one where I honestly didn’t care. It’s a story where the reader does guess what’s coming fairly early on, but it’s such a glorious delivery of just desserts that one doesn’t mind. Also, the concept of a clan of talking cats running a marijuana farm and dispensary is just too funny for words.

My next favorite story was “The Lady and the Fox”, based on Tam Lin, which I DO remember. It’s probably the story in this collection where the grimdark is on the lightest shade of darkness, as it’s a holiday story that leans into the warmth of the season and does result in at least the possibility of a happy ending. The romance at the heart of the story could go either way after the end, but by ending where it does it is possible for the reader’s mind to wrap the whole thing in the glow of its season.

The story that creeped me out the most was “The White Road”, based on The Musicians of Bremen, a fairy tale which rings only a faint bell. Its setup actually has a lot in common with Station Eleven, but it’s not a pandemic or lawless scavengers that come creeping for those who stray into the wrong places or in the wrong ways, but rather a road that comes for the dead but can be put off by really good – or even really hammy acting.

Several stories hit the middle of their road for me. “Prince Hat Underground” just went on too long. I loved the concept, even though it reminded me more of Orpheus and Eurydice than its intended fairy tale. Something about it just didn’t work for me, although many readers loved it. My feelings about “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” were similar in that it also did not work for me.

“The Game of Smash and Recovery” was supposed to be a take-off of Hansel and Gretel and I just plain didn’t see it. It did remind me of a combination of Medusa Uploaded and In the Lives of Puppets, which made it a very weird place to be even though the fairy tale was fractured completely beyond recognition.

Last, but not least in either size or scope, is the final story in the collection, the story that includes the titular Black Dog, “Skinder’s Veil”. This story about a waystation for the denizens of fairy and the house-sitter substituting for an absentee owner who may or may not be Death and who may or may not be a dead-ringer (pardon the pun) for its protagonist had a fascinating premise as well as characters who told some equally fascinating stories. And who probably would feel right at home in Bill Willingham’s Fables. I liked the story a lot as I was reading it, but at the end it felt like something had either just slipped through my grasp, or that the entire point of the thing was in the implications it left behind.

Ultimately a fascinating conundrum but too puzzling to be a favorite. Which may very well sum up my thoughts about the collection as a whole – but I’m glad I read it just the same.

Escape Rating B: In any collection, there’s usually at least one story that doesn’t work for a particular reader, and that was certainly true for this reader. Howsomever, a sign of a good collection is that when one looks at reviews for it, that story or two that turned out to be not quite what the individual hoped are different for each reader.

And that’s certainly true with White Cat, Black Dog.

So, if you’ve been meaning to become acquainted with this author, or curious about the work of someone who won one of the MacArthur “Genius Grants”, White Cat, Black Dog is a great place to be introduced to Kelly Link and her eclectic tales that merge fantasy, SF, horror and the most classic of classic fairy tales into a twisty, spellbinding whole, this is a great way of going about it.