Friday, May 27, 2016

Wet/Dry Mix

Here's a little headphone techno for you musically inclined nerds out there. The mix was done on Ableton. All of the tracks with the exception of Rosalie came out within the last six months. It's four-on-the-floor techno, but not your standard, pounding club music. It's meant more for chilling out and listening by yourself on your overpriced pair of Sennheisers or with a group of friends at a small get-together. Hope you like it!

-Gui Boratto/Renato Ratler - Driver
-Rodriguez Jr. - Petropolis
-Mr. Fingers - Qwazars
-Recondite - Warg
-Patrice Baumel - Surge
-Guti - El Solitario - (Carl Craig Remix)
-Pig & Dan - Growler
-Robert Hood - Lockers
-Agents of Time - Magma
-Mondowski - Klub Psycho
-Green Velvet & Carl Craig - Rosalie
-Andhim - Boy, Boy, Boy (Joris Voorn Remix)

Microreview [short story collection]: Suicide Stitch by Sarah L. Johnson

Dark, sensual, and just the right amount of devastating. 

Horror comes in a lot of flavors. It's one of those genres that exist between genres, because any other genre can be, essentially, horror-ified. Just drop the word horror at the end of a genre name and, presto-chango, it becomes a new subgenre. Which is the power of horror, in many ways, to find the horrifying in any story, to make it a focus, and to never relent. Suicide Stitch is a horror collection, and fully embraces the transformative power of horror across genres. From urban fantasy to suspense to weird to historical fantasy to good ol' literary fiction, the collection seems to understand the beating heart of what makes a story a horror story, with a creeping darkness, a confronting of the repressed, and a wonderful imagination.

The organization of the collection seems designed to bring people in gradually. The opening story, "Thank You For Playing," teases with some speculative ideas before settling down into much more familiar territory, creepy and tense but definitely the lightest and happiest piece present. Its placement in the front of the queue brought me in as a reader, sat me down, and got me comfortable. Meanwhile the second story, "I Am Lost," quietly slipped the restraints over my wrists with a gripping tale of a woman confronting the physical and psychic implications of being lost, disconnected, and alone. By the time the third story, "First Wife," showed itself, it was too late to run away.

If I can characterize the first two stories by the way they drew me in slow, then I think the middle stories of Suicide Stitch are purposefully shocking, erotic, and full of abuse and religious imagery. "First Wife," "Heart Beating Still," and "Three Minutes" all take on very strong religious trappings while being rather intensely graphic. They take religious motifs and twist them, reveal the power of spirituality but also the dangers of organized religion. These are some of my favorite pieces not just because they are some of the most erotic and challenging but also because they examine desire and repression and denial through the lens of canonical and heretical religion. Angels and demons and sex and forgiveness all take center stage, as does the linked desires for compassion and violence. They also examine how religion can hide darker forces, how a belief in a neutered supernatural can allow evil to spread and pervade.

Mixed in with these are stories that examine abuse and trauma and the almost contagious nature of harm. "Five-Day Forecast" and "A Ballad for Wheezy Barnes" both drop their speculative elements in order to show the way abuse carries, the way it seems to pass from person to person, shows people struggling with cycles of harm and hurt, desire and self-destruction. And then, of course, there's "Why(Y)," which…well, if you need some trigger warnings for the collection as a whole this one probably takes them all, condenses them, and throws in necrophilia for good measure. The subject matter of all the stories is…dark. Dark as pitch but with a nearly seductive voice that feels like bathing in oil-contaminated water at times.

My favorite stories of the collection is probably "Little Sister, Little Brother," and not just because it has a bisexual male character (though there is that, too). I love the way that it looks at feeding, at desire and reality and where the two meet. It's a story that's one part portal fantasy and one part vampire story and one part romance and I love how those elements mix together to show a character dealing with trying to find a direction in his life, trying to embrace who he is and what that means.

The collection closes on a pair of stories that once more rely on speculative elements but in subtle ways. That look at grief and life and death and choice. Like the first two stories, these ones seem a little softer, a little more restrained…until the twists come. Until the full implication of the stories come crashing down with a tremendous weight. And then…well, the collection finishes strong. And in the end it's a collection that should appeal to any fan of horror, speculative or otherwise. The stories are sharp and dangerous and dark, so dark… Which is also probably my main complaint, that I'm not the least squeamish of people and this collection is not for the faint of heart.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for a nice mix of horror across genres


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "a fine read, but maybe not for everyone" see our full rating system here.

POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: Johnson, Sarah L. Suicide Stitch [EMP Publishing, 2016]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

About that Castle finale...

I finally got around to watching the series finale of Castle last night, and feel the need to vent a bit.

First, let me admit that I've watched a lot of Castle over the years. But I didn't watch it out of any conviction that it's good. It wasn't. Rather, I watched it because it was simple fun. At its best, the show took a familiar formula (the police procedural), approached it with an appealing balance of drama and comedy and then let its charismatic leads (Nathan Fillion and Stana Katić) carry the show. All in all, that made for an enjoyable, if somewhat forgettable, hour long diversion.

Sure there was the ongoing story about an increasingly convoluted and opaque conspiracy, as well as the love story between Castle and Beckett, but at its heart Castle was an episodic show. And now that it's gone, I realize how few watchable episodic dramas are left on TV.

Which brings me to the finale...

As soon as it was over, my wife turned to me and said "Poochie died on the way back to his home planet."

Let me explain the reference. In 1997, an episode of The Simpsons aired called "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show." The marketing executives in charge of the network decided that Itchy & Scratchy wasn't "current enough," so they created a new character to appeal to the youth of the day. The result was Poochie, an amalgam of hackneyed '90s marketing cliches (i.e. "the Kung Fu Hippie from Gangsta City.") Unsurprisingly, everyone hated Poochie, so the network decided to kill him off.

Here's how they did it:

Over the years, "Poochie died on the way back to his home planet" has become a sort of code between the two of us for any illogical, tacked on resolution to an on-going plot. And that's exactly what we get at the end of Castle: a bizarre 30-second scene showing Castle and Beckett's domestic bliss seven years later--this after both are shot in the chest and clearly dying.

My best guess is that the season was supposed to end on a "will they/won't they survive" cliffhanger--until there wasn't a 9th season in the works anymore. So instead of shooting a new ending, or perhaps because it was no longer economically possible to do so, the show runners decided to just throw in whatever closure they could come up with on short notice.

I recognize that the producers and writers were put in an impossible situation by the network, and this was probably the best we were going to get. But it was nevertheless a deeply unsatisfying way to end an eight-year time commitment.

Turns out Poochie was an alien after all.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of aFeather founder/administrator, since 2012. 

Thursday Morning Superhero

I would like to open with a spoiler disclaimer and warn you that the recap on the new Captain America contains a pretty epic spoiler.  It blew up my social media feed yesterday and you likely know what it is, but just in case, you should move on to the others if you don't want to be spoiled.

The big news this week is the re-re-relaunch of the DC Universe in DC Universe Rebirth.  Geoff Johns, CCO of DC Comics and author of some classic DC stories, offered a money back guarantee to skeptical fans like myself.  If you are not satisfied with the comic, you can mail it back to DC and will be reimbursed the $2.99 and the cost it takes to ship the comic back to DC.  I was unimpressed with the issue and might take him up on that offer.

Pick of the Week:
Captain America #1 - Nick Spencer dropped a bomb that has outraged a lot of the comic book community.  With an author like Spencer, I tend to remain calm and trust he has a good resolution to this.  If you want to avoid the spoiler, then I you shouldn't continue to read this recap.  The big reveal is that Steve Rogers was brainwashed as a child as a Hydra agent and is an active Hydra agent.  The final panels of this comic are chilling as a fan of Captain America and this is a twist I never saw coming.  The nerd rage has been quite hilarious and predictable, but I think it is an interesting premise and a great way to bring Steve Rogers back after he lost his super powers.  Well played Spencer.  You have my attention.

The Rest:
DC Universe Rebirth #1 - I will admit that Geoff Johns packs a lot of value into this comic.  You are treated to 80 pages worth of material as he sets up yet another reboot of the DC Universe.  I know that they claim it is not a reboot, but that is what it feels like.  The story is from the perspective of Wally West, a character who has was erased in Flashpoint and hasn't been seen in the New 52.  In the issue Wally tries to reintroduce the events prior to the New 52 back into the DC Universe.  I don't doubt Johns' passion for DC, but the issue reads as almost an apology for the New 52.  Fans were upset that the history of the characters was erased with the New 52 and this is his attempt to hit the reset button.  I will admit that I am not an avid DC reader other than Batman.  There have been arcs of Green Lantern, Superman, and  Flash that I have greatly enjoyed, so this issue/event/reboot is not targeted at me.  The Nerdist posted a great interview with Johns and this project you should totally check out.

Star Wars #19 - I appreciate the tongue reveal over who was holding everyone captive on the Sunspot Prison but it was a bit anti-climactic to throw it back to a character that was only featured in the Star Wars Annual.  Eneb Ray (who?) is a former rebel spy who has grown weary of the old methods in taking down the Empire.  Suffering from some sort of disease, he appears to have traveled down a dark path and sets up an interesting new character that will have a huge impact down the line.  The big reveal in this issue is the lightsaber wielding storm trooper,  who I am excited to learn more about in the next issue.  This series has cooled off a bit in my opinion, but the teaser for the new arc looks good.

Daredevil #7 - The Daredevil/Electra fight took an interesting twist as we learn that Electra has a daughter and has reason to believe that Daredevil helped train her in the ways of the Hand.  Daredevil enlists the help of Foggy and we learn that Electra was led to believe this in an attempted attack on Daredevil.  Electra was unwittingly a tool in this game and is struggling to remember who manipulated her in this way.  This is a nice setup to a new danger that will challenge the Man with No Fear.  I remain impressed with Charle Soule's Daredevil run.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Microreview [book]: The People in the Castle, by Joan Aiken

Are they strange enough?


The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories, out from Small Beer Press, is a new compendium of Joan Aiken’s stories from throughout her long career. The collection showcases Aiken’s storytelling skill, while also emphasizing some of her recurring themes: small cruelties, deserved punishments, loyalty, and the bonds of love (which we see across a wide range of spectrums—familial, romantic, friendship, and even pet-human).

I’ve long been a fan of Aiken’s work and was looking forward to this collection (which, Small Beer Press should be lauded for: Aiken’s work seems to have fallen away and their push to get it back into the world is a good one). The first two stories “A Leg Full of Rubies” and “The Portable Elephant” set my expectations even higher. They are lovely fables, filled with gorgeous sentences and, even in their strangeness, the emotions ring true.

However, as I delved deeper into the collection, I felt myself getting somewhat bogged down. Too many of the stories feel so similar to the last (not in subject, necessarily, but in tone and voice) that they began to blend together. This feels like a collection not to sit down and read-through (my preferred mode for story collections), but rather to pick up on occasion and read the next story and then set down for a bit before tackling another.

Of the stories in the middle, the ones that stuck out to me were the ones that Aiken wrote about bonds between animals and humans (something Aiken has always written beautifully about): from the strange “Humblepuppy” to the heartbreaking and lovely “Lob’s Girl,” both of which pulled on my dog-loving heartstrings.

I also was pulled in by the stories which held promised threats and darkness within them. I appreciate that Aiken seemed the opposite of sentimental. When she goes dark, she usually lets that darkness pervade the piece. This can be seen clearest in stories like “Old Fillikin” and “The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick.”

In the end, though, this is ultimately a collection that starts and ends strong (the final story “Watkyn, Comma” is deeply affecting). But, the middle just doesn’t hold up as well as those end-pieces. Is this an problem with the compendium itself? That there were just to many stories to include, so that none got enough breathing room? For people coming new to Aiken, I might suggest one of her other story collections (such as The Monkey’s Wedding). Still, for fans of Aiken this collection might be just the thing if you wish to savor her work over a long period of time. A story here and a story there. A great storyteller, such as Aiken was, would probably appreciate a reader parsing out her tales like small sweet treats.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for celebrating Aiken’s work, +1 for the absolutely exquisite story “The Portable Elephant” 

Penalties: -1 for feeling somewhat repetitive with story choice

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 “a mostly enjoyable experience”

POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016.

Reference: Aiken, Joan. The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories [Small Beer Press, 2016]

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reading Deryni: Camber the Heretic

Welcome to the third of a six part series of essays focusing on Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels (you may find the first  and second parts here). As I am physically incapable of actually reviewing these novels with any semblance of objectivity because they've imprinted themselves deep into my heart, what I am going to do instead is write about the aspects of each of the "Camber Era" novels which have stuck with me throughout the years and which I find intriguing today. Shall we continue?

Nyford had burned for a day and a night, but not before rampaging humans had put to death all the Deryni and Deryni sympathizers who could be found. Deryni owned or piloted ships were burned to the waterline where they lay at the quays, after being robbed of their cargoes. Deryni shops were vandalized and looted, their proprietors usually dying in the process.

The schola was brought down stone by stone, after all its pupils and masters were put to the sword or clubbed to death. Many of the dead were no more than children [...] The piles of bodies lining the streets fueled fires whose smoke besmirched the clean skies above the delta for most of a week- pg 51-52

The persecution and purge of the Deryni race have been a looming specter hanging over the first two volumes of The Legends of Camber of Culdi. I'd like to back up a moment by looking forward. When Katherine Kurtz first published Deryni Rising in 1970, she dropped hints that some two hundred years earlier some really bad stuff happened to the Deryni race, that there was a deryni man named Camber who was canonized and later named a heretic, and in some cases the more "modern" society of Kelson's era was still recovering from what happened "back then." After writing three novels set in the era of King Kelson, Kurtz drew back the curtain and told the stories of what happened in the time of Camber of Culdi.

What happened in Camber's era is brutal and nasty and while there are moments of grace, those moments are increasingly fewer and farther between. Camber the Heretic is a dark book that gets darker as it progresses. The persecutions Camber had feared over the course of the two previous novels are now imminent threats as King Cinhil is close to dying and his sons not yet of age to rule on their own. Unlike Deryni Rising, where Kelson is able to take the throne as a competent adult at the age of 14, young (and sickly) Alroy has several years to go until he hits the age of his majority. The proposed Regency Council is primarily made up of human men who hate the Deryni and we learn very early on that they slipped some documents into a stack signed by Cinhil that will grant them power and control to shape the membership in the council itself (rather than simply abiding by the selections of Cinhil).

It is the combination of the public fear and anger facing Deryni since the ousting of the Deryni king Imre coupled with the soon to be regents of Gwynedd hatred of Deryni that is beginning to spill over as Camber the Heretic opens. The novel is set some ten years after the conclusion of Saint Camber.

Now the anti-Deryni factions were about to get their wish. Cinhil would die within the year, probably within the month, if Rhys' estimates were correct, and young King Alroy would be ruled by his regents. The last of the Deryni loyal to the Crown would be ousted by from their offices, their positions of influence, no matter than many of them had served Gwynedd and its present king well and with distinction. And then the ostracism would begin, and the persecutions, and finally the bloodshed. It had happened before, in other lands, in other times. Perhaps it was happening already. - pg 4

When I wrote about Camber of Culdi and Saint Camber, I talked around the Deryni persecutions because the persecutions were much less the focus on those novels and were rather more a looming threat. This gave me the space to think about religion and grace and the ethical use of Deryni magic. That space is now tightly contracted because Camber the Heretic is all about the bloody persecution of the Deryni race.

Early in the novel, the Deryni Healer Rhys Thurin discovers a new magical technique: the ability to "turn off" a Deryni's power and thus hide any evidence that person was ever a Deryni. Given the pride that Deryni have in their racial and cultural identity, as well as how their magic enhances how they interact with the world, this is no small thing. But, again, with the looming threat of state sponsored persecution of their race, the Camberian Council (a secret group of leading / powerful Deryni) decides to explore the idea of using this new technique as a way to possibly protect their people and relocate them as "humans" until such a time might come that their powers could be returned to them.

"And I think I have raised a valid question: if we block the best to save the best, who will teach the children?" - pg 236
The plan to block the powers and identity of Deryni is a last resort, because while the Council understands the hope to restore the powers taken away, they also recognize that this is unlikely to happen. Generations of Deryni will be lost, even as their lives may be spared. The Deryni teachers and leaders may not be around, either because their powers are also blocked or because they have also been murdered by the humans.

If you've read the original three Deryni novels Kurtz published (Deryni Rising, Deryni Checkmate, High Deryni), you may remember a scene where Morgan and Duncan visit the ruins of Saint Neot's and search for a transfer portal they might be able to use. While they found an unusable portal, they also found an old warning tied to that spot.

Beware, Deryni! Here lies danger! Of a full one hundred brothers only I remain, to try, with my failing strength, to destroy this Portal before it can be desecrated. Kinsman, take heed. Protect yourself, Deryni. The humans kill what they do not understand. Holy Saint Camber, defend us from fearful evil - pg 372
In Camber the Heretic, we see Dom Emrys, the Abbot of the Gabrillite order of Deryni teachers and healers, leave that message as his brethern are slaughtered, the chapel defiled, the abbey burnt and torn down, and finally, with his last breath he was able to destroy the portal and leave that message before he himself was murdered by human soldiers.

It gets worse, though. The part of Camber the Heretic which has most strongly imprinted itself is the wreckage of Trurill, a castle on Camber's former property. It's bad.

"If the captors of the castle had been brutal with Aidan and the castle's garrison, they had been savage with the castle's lord. They had beaten him, like Aidan, but that was the very least of the atrocities to which they had subjected poor Adrian." pg 447
Coming on the heels of the destruction of the Gabrillite and Michaeline chapterhouses, the discovery of what happened at Trurill is brutal. In some cases, I wonder if George R. R. Martin had read his Katherine Kurtz before setting down to write A Song of Ice and Fire. That Kurtz is describing what happened by showing us the aftermath, rather than writing the events as it happened, is no comfort.

Kurtz describes the detail, how the bodies were ripped apart, how the bodies lay, what sort of disfigurement, dismemberment, and torture was done. Who was impaled on stakes and crucified. It is relentless and it is as bleak as anything I have ever read.

There is a small moment of grace in this with Evaine directing the powers of her young son Tieg in healing Camlin, but that grace is tempered by the brutal loss of so much and it is then followed by the death of Camber himself (for real this time).
"Dear God, why?" he whispered, his voice breaking as the tears began to come. "Forty years to make this man, and now - this! A fall! Death should be more difficult." - pg 412  
Oh, and just in case everything else wasn't bleak enough, late in the novel after the human regents have made a mess of everything that could be considered good and holy and install the truly vile Hubert MacInnis as the new Primate of Gwynedd (sort of like a Pope), the new bishops meet for the Council of Ramos. What happens there? Oh, only the suspension of all Deryni priests and the subsequent defrocking of those priests, the forbidding of Deryni from ever taking Holy Orders again, the repudiation of Camber's canonization 12 years prior, the forbidding of Camber name to even be spoken on pain of whipping or the physical removal of one's tongue, the stripping of all titles of nobility for Deryni, the destruction of the mostly human religious order of The Servants of Saint Camber which included the burning to death of more than 60 mostly human followers, and more. So, nothing much.

Since so much of this has been focused on the persecutions, I have some final thoughts on Camber the Heretic:

**In my mind Evaine is a major character. She looms large in my memory of the Camber era novels. So, imagine my surprise when I finish this trilogy and realized that her role was relatively small if borderline non-existent. I think she must have had a much larger role in The Harrowing of Gwynedd and I translated that to this series, but she's a brilliant researcher and was discovering so much about lost Deryni heritage and magic that I really built her up. I was disappointed by her lack of presence. Even when she was on the page, she was so frequently in a minor support role and then quickly pushed aside.

**But about that lost Deryni magic - Camber the Heretic features the first mention of "an ancient Deryni brotherhood known as the Airsid". I want to know more!!

**Speaking of lost heritage,
The overall impression rather confirmed his suspicion that the origins of the Gabrillites, like the Deryni themselves, stretched back much farther in history than most folk assumed. While it was not much discussed, especially among the orthodox clergy, those who studied such things were well aware that many faiths besides Christianity had contributed to the body of knowledge which was the legacy of Deryni magic. - pg 171
I want to know more about these faiths, about the lost history, about how little people in the "present" actually seem to know about the past and what that says about what happened in the intervening centuries.

**I can't quite remember how the next trilogy goes, but we may have seen the last of the Michaeline Order. As a result of the persecutions, the Michaelines withdrew again, but this time for good. The text mentions Djellarda, the original motherhouse of the other, which overlooks "The Anvil of the Lord." Sometime in the intervening centuries, I believe the Michaelines rebranded themselves as The Knights of the Anvil. We hear of them in Kelson's time, but overall know very little.

**It is notable that early on in this novel Camber and company set up the potential for "Haldane Powers" in Cinhil's children - and those powers begin to quickly manifest themselves in Javan, the boy who seemed to have the strongest will to eventually defy the regents.

**I ran across this quote midway through the novel, ""The concept of dying to the world and being reborn is a fairly universal one, going back even before Judaic traditions. John the Baptist was neither the first nor the last to preach it." It raises an interesting side point because while I haven't talked about it before, like many, I've assumed the Deryni are a stand in of sorts for the Jewish people. After all, this world isn't a perfect match for ours, though the primary religion in the Eleven Kingdom is pretty much Christianity and we see hints of Islam. But this is a direct reference that stands out, though it is never explored in anything except for the semi-official fanfiction story "Arilan the Talmud Student" which was collected in Kurtz's Deryni Tales (which seems to legitimize it)

Finally, I will leave you with this, which is very much not a moment of grace but seems fitting based on the pain of this novel.
"I can't Alister," he whispered. "God help me, for the first time since I was ordained a priest. I can't. I saw, Alister! I had to watch while they hacked his poor, murdered body to pieces! There's no charity in my heart for what they did." pg 322

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.

Friday, May 20, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 04/2016

Hello again. Pull up a stool and relax.

Winter is finally giving way to spring and I've got a flight of stories full of the tastes of death and rebirth. Stories that face the realities of moving on, of loss and of living. These are stories pulled from every corner of the short SFF landscape—fantasy that delights and charms; science fiction that devastates and twists; horror that challenges and inspires. This is why I love speculative short fiction. For the places they take me and the feelings and thoughts they provoke.

So sit back and let your trusty storytender pour out a few recommendations for you. Cheers!

Tasting Flight: April 2016 

Art by Geoffrey Icard
"The Sweetest Skill" by Tony Pi (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
With a sweeping fantasy feel and a delicious candy coating, "The Sweetest Skill" by Toni Pi tastes like a caramel porter to me, at times almost syrupy sweet but with a lurking darkness and a depth that intrigues and satisfies. The plot of the story sees Ao, a candy maker and somewhat-reluctant servant of the gods, being pulled into a swift and dangerous adventure to rescue a ghost tiger from the violent designs of a mysterious sect. I love the feel of the story, the breath of life in the voices of the characters, from the long-suffering Ao to the capricious and amusing gods to Ao's friends, at turns earnest and guarded, open and subtle. The magic is innovative, Ao using caramel creatures and avatars to battle the forces of the Ten Crows and try to do the bidding of the gods even while he knows they are fickle and he's unlikely to escape unharmed. Thrown in for good measure is a compelling layered narrative where Ao's battle in only part of a larger struggle, one not just of the Ten Crows against the gods but the gods against themselves, their own plots and intrigues crossing Ao and entangling him further in a world that he doesn't exactly want to be a part of but is duty-bound to serve. The action is evocative and the setting memorable, and in the end the story coats the mouth with a rush of sweetness that slowly sinks into something more nebulous, but very enjoyable. 

Art by Rudy Faber
"The Cedar Grid" by Sara Saab (Clarkesworld)
Spanning worlds and cultures and family while exploring grief and loss, Sara Saab's "The Cedar Grid" is to me a Saison, with a mouth of spice and a slight bitterness that brings to mind a taste of autumn in the springtime, endings and longing but also new beginnings. The story features Majd, the son of a politician and the brother of a young man killed in a terrorist attack on Earth. It explores beautifully the relationship between the two brothers and Majd's place in the tapestry of pain, struggle, and reconciliation between humanity and the alien race responsible for the attack that killed his brother. Majd is a masseuse, and it is with his hands that he understands the world around him, through the tactility of people and places. His is a need to feel, something that has long made him an outcast in his family and yet something that makes it possible to bridge the divides that plague him. Between himself and his lost brother. Between himself and the aliens who he holds partly responsible for his brother's death. The story features a stunning and sensual look at how Majd copes and how he grieves and how he begins to approach the idea of forgiveness and healing. Like a Saison the story manages a delicate balance of bitterness and sweet, clarity and obscurity, and all with a rich flavor, excellent vision of a possible future, and strong kick. 

Art by Carrion House
"Under Dead Marsh" by Julia August (Lackington's)
Told as a series of different texts wrapped into a radio broadcast from distant Mars, "Under Dead Marsh" by Julia August feels like a black ale to me, a hint of smoke and a murky depth that might contain anything, that conceals a refreshing darkness and lingering implications. The framing of this story is part of what makes it so compelling to me, the mixing of dry documents with newspaper accounts with the songs of creatures decidedly not of this world, all of them as if dropped into a file together and sent off for examination, forgotten, found again and shelved for future inquest, left behind during a move, and then discovered and presented to the universe as is. There's a classic feel to it, a greedy developer and an endangered population, outraged homeowner's associations worried about property values and something beneath it all that is marching, that is unseen but very present, and which might make the entire struggle above the surface irrelevant. And I love the way it gathers itself and lets everything sit, leaves itself for the reader to pour through, to discover the depths and the intricacies of it. And I love that it's a series of texts framed as a radiocast framed as a story. Like a black ale it goes down surprisingly easy for all its darkness, and left me feeling engaged, happy, and ready for another. 

Art by Richie Pope
"Terminal" by Lavie Tidhar (Tor dot com)
 With the aching distance of change and death and a burning of bridges, Lavie Tidhar's "Terminal" seems to fit best as a Syrah wine, red as blood and dark as space and dry and deep and bracing. The story features a migration of sorts and all the reasons a person might have for wanting to leave Earth behind and be one of those to venture out without hope of return to Mars. And I love the way it explores that drive to go, to both defy and embrace endings. The title works both to elude to terminals, which are about destinations, about arrivals, and also to terminal illnesses, where the word takes on a more final implication. And there is this beauty to the host of small ships plodding through space, the people on board all separate and all reaching out, their voices finding each other in the din. They are living and dying, all hoping and all free, terribly free, of the connections back to Earth. It shows regret and it shows jubilation and it shows indecision and love in ways that only this sort of trip can illuminate. And just as the title takes on a double meaning, so does the story, one about journeys, about fresh starts and new beginnings, and another about how people face death. It's haunting and it's elegant as it moves between multiple characters, and like a Syrah it stares darkly back at the taster, dry and rich and full of depth. 

Art by Yana Moskaluk
"The Girl Who Escaped From Hell" by Rahul Kanakia (Nightmare)
"The Girl Who Escaped From Hell" by Rahul Kanakia, with the crushing weight of futility, of struggle, of celestial indifference, goes down like a West Coast Pale Ale, bitter but with a brightness to it, a hope that cannot be fully destroyed, that is lifting and redemptive in the face of despair. The story shows a man raising a daughter who, as a girl, visited Hell. Who is haunted by that, despite the lengths that her father goes to in order to convince her it wasn't real. And the story does such an amazing job of rendering out the father's struggle, the stress, the crush of responsibility and the way the world operates now, valuing people only for what profit they drive. It's about the slow struggle, the slow sinking feeling of never being to rise up. Out of poverty, out of depression, out of failure. And it shows a Hell that hits, not with the tortures or burning rivers but with the raw suffocating implication of it. The relationship between daughter and father is beautifully done, powerfully moving, and the story creates a world, a situation, that drew me in, that made me wonder if it was real or not. And it's in that relationship and care that I think the story offers its greatest hope, in love and sacrifice and the possibility of doing something meaningful. Like a West Coast Pale Ale the story offers a crystal clear vision and a bitterness that cannot be denied, but also a crisp and refreshing hope that some burdens are not eternal and that, somewhere above, there are sometimes helping hands, and a surface with the taste of clean air.

Art by Sandro Castelli
"All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray" by Gwendolyn Kiste (Shimmer)
 Taking a subversive and defiant look at women's roles in fairy tales, "All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray" by Gwendolyn Kiste is a hard cider, tart and bold and with that alcoholic edge that gives it a smoldering fire. The action of the story centers on an orchard where young women are sent to pick an apple and fall into a deep sleep, one that they can only be awakened from by their prince, who then takes them far away, never to be seen again. It's a situation that bothers the main character, a girl growing in the shade of these trees, these narratives, these poisoned apples. The story is a fairy tale and rejects fairy tales, contains a missing mother and a protective father, but it's also a story that denounces the lessons of fairy tales, that women only have value in their relation to a man, that they are all waiting for rescue from a likely prince. Not all the women in the story are picked, after all, and some stay like apples on the branch, slowly aging, slowly withering. And I love the power and the strength the main character shows in standing against the destiny others want for her, the comfortable narratives that seem unavoidable. There is a freeing dark in the story and a fire ready to burn away the tired stories of princesses and princes. Like a hard cider the first taste is familiar, almost nostalgic, but with each sip more the experience grows and twists, subverts and satisfies. 


"Plantation | Springtime" by Lia Swope Mitchell (Terraform)
Featuring a future where humans can be "fixed" of their free will and made into semi-sentient robots, this one is a Resurrected Robot, a mix of black rum, anise liqueur, and Goldschlager, a grenade in liquid form. This isn't the first time that I've chosen a work that's more a poem than fiction for the Round, but it's the first that unveils itself across two narratives at the same time, mixing technical schematics and an instructional voice with one of raw pain and desperation and yearning. The world building is subtle but amazingly done, building up this future that's not all that outlandish, where people's brains can be altered because of debt, because people are judged and valued based on what they earn, and those that don't earn enough are criminal, subjected to being altered and perhaps maybe altered back but…well, it's a startling vision and a great chorus of voices, showing a cycle, showing a resistance and how, in this situation, humanity has been changed. Not by having their brains altered, but by thinking that an acceptable way to create workers. The piece is short and unflinching and like a [drink name] nearly lulls one in a false security with its sweetness before hitting right between the eyes with its strength. 

Art by Dario Bijelac
"Songbird" by Shveta Thakrar (Flash Fiction Online)
About societal pressures and self-censorship, this one tastes like a Songbird, a mix of one parts gin and elderflower liqueur with half parts green chartreuse and lemon juice, a drink full of a music barely contained and full of a momentum that refuses to be denied. The story puts the reader into the narrative using the universal I or We while watching a woman from the country, Shailaja, who is brought to "civilization" and allowed every luxury as long as she doesn't sing. As long as she sounds like everyone else. But the story is full of magic and longing, and Shailaja cannot deny her nature, cannot deny that she is a bird more than she is the woman people think she is. Put in this situation she can only lose, lose because people judge her regardless of what she sounds like, what steps she takes to fit in. To them she is ever different, ever outside their clique. And in a very short space the story builds this place and these people and then shatters it like dropping a glass ball on cement, allowing that ending to tear down everything, to give not only Shailaja but the narrator and the reader that moment of seeing ourselves in her, that moment of almost unexpected empathy when we hear a voice that is unafraid and defiant and its power is enough to lift and break the chains holding people prisoner, the chains that we often place on our wrists. And like a [drink name] the story seems to linger in the throat, a phantom taste that stays around long after the glass is empty. 

Art by Katy Shuttleworth
"The Artificial Bees" by Simon Guerrier (Uncanny)
Studying artificial environments and the intricacies of extinction and what remains, this story is a Bumble Bee, layers of coffee liqueur, Irish cream, and sambuca—thick and sweet but with more than enough an edge to leave your head swimming and your stomach in danger of revolt. It features a robot character visiting a man in a garden, or at least so it seems. The garden represents a sort of lost utopia filled with robotic bees that the human cares for and muses over. And through this meeting, which at first seems like a classic "outsider meets humanity for the first time" but turns out to be quite different, the story manages to examine humanity's legacy. And more than that the story asks where the line is between the real and the artificial and how much that line should be respected. I love how the story manages to twist, to challenge, to present this intricate look at humanity and artificial life, at loss and preservation. It doesn't offer any easy answers, and I like that to, that everything the man says in the piece takes on new layers and new complexities once the full situation is revealed. And like a [drink name], the story is enhanced with each layer traversed, with each new impact of flavor.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.