Friday, August 18, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 07/2017


I realized after I had chosen the stories for the July Monthly Round that the flavors are dominated by a few persistent themes. Distance. War. Loss. Corruption. Given the news and trends recently, maybe that’s not such a big surprise. These are stories that weave together settings magical and awe-inspiring…and dark. Empires of exploitation, planets on the verge of catastrophe, whole realities in danger of being swallowed up into the void. And in the face of it are characters just trying to find love, or comfort, or security. Discovering that for all they want rest and release from conflict, there is no way out that leaves their souls intact. That to strive for good requires a constant effort and constant struggle against corruption and hate.

These are not stories about burdens being lifted. They are stories that examine the burdens that cannot be lifted, the damages that cannot be wiped clean, the wounds that never fully heal. They are not about despair, at least not about giving into it. The stories don’t lose hope, and though the burdens they reveal cannot be lifted, they can be shared, and through sharing the weight of them can be managed, and slowly shifted without anyone getting crushed. These are stories about community, and the breaking of isolation, and the crossing of impossible distances. These are stories about resistance, and revolutions.

July is the height of summer, yet even so the days are growing shorter, the nights longer. The sunsets seem to last forever. Come in and pull up a seat. Enjoy the view. I can’t say you’ll find much relief in what’s on tap, but you might find just a bit of refreshment, enough to get you back on your feet, and back to the fight. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - July 2017

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: With a nose of spice and dry heat and a body of fire painting the world in hues of red, the first taste smolders—the second ignites.
Pairs with: Imperial Rye IPA
Review: Sometimes a story captures all things I wish SFF had more of—an extended cast of diverse, flawed, queer af characters; a setting full of magic and history and conflict; sex and sexuality, enthusiastic consent, and intimacy; and a cohesive mix of personal growth and a larger, layered narrative. And, well, this story delivers on all count, finding the Old Royal worn thin after a long life full of betrayals and deceits, mistrust and violence. They are a sort of phoenix, full of transformations and the prospect of renewal, even if it does come with a death, as well. But when the Raker happens along, a much younger person with hurts that run to the core and some serious trust issues, the two find in themselves a sort of renewal that doesn’t require a death, but rather a lowering of defenses, an intimacy that is an act of rebellion in a situation pushing them toward conflict and ruin. And I love that the story imagines a world where the very fabric of reality and magic is weakening, where further strain could tear everything apart. It mirrors the situation between the different cities and nations of the world, where violence and war is common and people like the Old Royal have very few reasons to trust a powerful stranger. In such a delicate landscape, though, the story does not act with caution or suspicion. Instead the characters find hope and meaning in bridging the distance between them, in finding peace and companionship, learning and love. It’s not without complication, but the story is brilliantly hopeful and joyous, even as it brushes against some very serious themes and content. And for my money, it is perhaps the best story I’ve read this year.

Art by Geneva Benton
“Cracks” by Xen (Fiyah)
Notes: With a smoky flavor like a plunge into darkness, the pour is deep brown, the nose a memory from a life that could have been, where burdens seem lighter.
Pairs with: Doppelbock
Review: Asad and Tarif are brothers with a duty to patrol the streets of their city looking for cracks, portals into another world that, if allowed to grow, consume their world and threaten to shroud it in nothingness. For Asad, this duty has consumed most of his life, because he is needed, because the price of failure is so high. And yet for Asad, queer and closeted, sure that there is no hope of finding someone while everything about him seems dominated by the work he does, one particular crack offers him a glimpse of something he’d never allowed himself to hope for. Happiness. Leisure. Love. It’s a siren’s call that strikes at the foundations of his resolve, revealing him to be the young person that he is, still struggling with the injustice of having to spend his life trying to fix something he didn’t break, something he won’t ever be free of. And wow, yeah, I love the way the story shows his anger and his bitterness, his isolation even as he is always among family. Because his family cannot offer him the kind of intimacy that he craves, that he yearns for, and it is wrenching, heartbreaking to watch him confront the warped reflection of what his life might have been like if only. The stakes of the story are certainly high, dealing with disaster and cataclysm on a planetary level, where one wrong move could lead to the destruction of an entire city, and yet I love how the story shows that the human cost is no less important, that Asad’s struggles are not selfish or indulgent, but rather embody the conflict at the heart of such settings, questioning whether survival is enough if it means giving up the hope of happiness. And the story finds a way forward despite the threat of despair, despite the distance and doubt. It finds meaning and hope and love and beauty even in the harsh reality of a world cracked under the strain of its past sins.

Art by Victo Ngai
“Waiting on a Bright Moon” by JY Yang (Tor dot com)
Notes: Conflict mingles in the form of a carbonated fizz, giving this drink a shine that cannot hide a complex and mature flavor, and packs a surprising punch.
Pairs with: Belgian Ale
Review: Tian’s life is defined by duty and distance, and as an ansible singer she is part of a power that allows her empire access to the far reaches of the galaxy. As the story opens, though, bubbling tensions are beginning to boil and the relative safety of being an ansible is shattered as corruption, magic, and murder all meet to devastating effect. The story looks very closely at the ways that Tian has been pushed into living as a literal resource for the Empire, used for her talent but denied the open expression of her identity, stripped of her chance to be someone important because of who she loves. And even then, the story shows that as the Empire allows her a sort of space to be herself, it’s defined by distance, by denial. She isn’t allowed to be with the person she loves, isn’t allowed a physical expression of her desire, is instead pushed into being ignorant and, save for the beauty of the song she shares over lightyears, alone. Until a different woman enters her life with magic of her own and the power to break through the walls keeping Tian isolated and repressed. It’s an opening up even as it comes at a time of growing fear, uncertainty, and danger. They both end up becoming a part of a resistance that pushes them to the breaking point and maybe beyond, each of them willing to risk everything once they realize that they never really had anything, just the lies and illusions of securing and contentment they were fed by the powers that be. The story is violent and fast while still maintaining a definite weight around the very small and intimate actions Tian makes. And even amid the galaxy-altering conflict the story doesn’t lose sight of Tian and her desires, holding to the hope that they won’t be consumed by the ravenous jaws of war.

“Owl vs. The Neighborhood Watch” by Darcie Little Badger (Strange Horizons)
Notes: Teetering between dark and light, the pour is a gold tinged in shadow, the taste a breath of autumn woods where the setting sun reveals a foreboding presence.
Pairs with: Amber Bock
Review: Nina has always been haunted by the specter of owls, harbingers of bad luck. All her life they have come before a tragedy, before a period of stress and difficulty. And not just owls, but Owl, a singular presence that has steered circumstances toward ruin, who keeps finding her to focus on, to bring down bad luck upon. So when Owl steps into her life again, when Nina has finally settled into something of a good life, a life of quiet employment and joy, she decides she’s not going to wait around to find what he’s bringing—she’s going to fight back. What follows is a delightful story about Nina’s battle against the forces of bad luck, against the magic that seems out to get her. What I love about the story is the tools she wields to fight back—informational packets on safety and by keeping an eye out for something strange or dangerous. I guess what I love is that in the face of this magical power, this being that brings bad luck, Nina isn’t afraid to fight back the way she knows how, not with spells or anything like that but with the magic of caution and care. As a scientist it’s a magic she knows well, how to take steps against the unknown—how to come together as specialized people to do something big, to do something as a community. The idea of the neighborhood watch is just that, where responsibilities can be portioned out and some measure of control can be regained in the face of seemingly random disaster. It’s a fun story, full of determination and the hope that even if you’ve never succeeded before, it doesn’t mean you won’t this time, or the next time. And that people helping people creates a sort of magic that can overcome even a supernatural being like Owl.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“Elsewhere” by Meera Jhala (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: Cloudy and dull as tarnished dreams, the nose is strong and bracing and the flavor a harsh bitterness tinged with the slight saltiness of tears.
Pairs with: Bitter Ale
Review: Mrs. Bhatia knows she has to move her family away from Earth. The pollution, the climate—things are not good, despite the technology that makes it possible. That same technology, after all, has helped humanity to move to other worlds. But it’s not cheap. Still, Mrs. Bhatia and her husband are ambitious, and they imagine what life could be like if they could get off of Earth and be a family somewhere else. The story is about bargaining, about compromise, and about corruption. Mrs. Bhatia makes her decisions for her family, makes a plan and sticks to it, but at every step the costs are just so high. So she over works, and her husband over works. So she has to send her children ahead, and live apart from them. Every decision seems like a smart one, because it takes her closer to the vision in her head of what it will be like afterward, when they’re all together, when their hard work has been rewarded. And what the story reveals is that such dreams are often illusions, sold to people so that they will be complicit, so that they will go along with the system enough to be eaten alive by it. The story is a gripping tragedy of the failure of this system, this world, to live up to the promise of Mrs. Bhatia’s dreams. She believed she was making a deal, her own misery and the misery of her husband for a future payoff, but such payoffs are not givens in a world where corruption has doomed the planet to a slow decay. Instead of working in the moment, instead of trying to work toward a better system, Mrs. Bhatia tries to use the broken one to get herself away, and learns that using a broken system comes with its own grief and losses.

Art by Jennifter Johnson
"A Question of Faith” by Tonya Liburd (The Book Smugglers)
Notes: Aromatic and full of the breath of gods, with a sweetness tucked away under layers of earth and dreams and the hope of a better life.
Pairs with: Semi-dry Hard Cider
Review: Ceke navigates the changing roles in her personal life even as her professional life takes something of a turn when the young man who was volunteering for her research suddenly starts exhibiting god-like powers and an ego-trip to match. The story seems to me very much about ideas and identity, Ceke struggling with the changing roles—her wife pregnant with their first child and neither of them sure what exactly to expect. Their research flows around the idea of godhood, of archetypes that exist in the brain that can be tapped to gain very real powers. The world building is fresh and complex, the setting drawing on ancient Egyptian aesthetic but blending in science and magic, psychology and dreams. The action is intense as Ceke must confront the being that she’s helped create, a man who has lost himself to a god, to the idea of a god. And the story looks at the thin line between ideas and reality, between roles and identities. Ceke is a driven character, full of fear that she might not measure up as a parent, as a partner, as a scientist, as a mentor and friend—but her fears do not stop her from acting, and acting decisively to protect those she cares about and to prevent tragedy from striking at her and hers. As with many of the stories on tap this month, the villain of the story isn’t exactly the man with the power to kill, but rather a system that has left him without a strong sense of himself, a corruption that Ceke fights against, striving to prevent her friend from becoming a victim of a larger injustice. It’s a tightly paced, moving story with a pervasive darkness that can’t overcome the dazzling light of the characters’ spirits.

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

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