Monday, December 18, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 11/2017

As 2017 nears its end, November gives us a chance to look back. Not just at the past year, but at history, both personal and societal. Perhaps that’s why all the stories in this month’s Round come with a look at the past, whether it’s the tragedies of war and politics or those of family, love, and death. The stories all share a sense of characters dealing with the weight of their inheritances, whether it comes from their ancestors, their friends, their lovers, or themselves. As winter begins to take hold and the chill to set in, it’s time to look back to remind ourselves both what we’re still fighting for, and how far we’ve come.

So please, take seat. The flavors on tap this month are perfect for those looking to unwind by the fire, to shed a tear for those who have not made it this far, and to reaffirm a commitment to pushing forward, into a future that is not mired by the same harms and dangers as the past. Each pint today comes with a special side of memories and a tendril of shadow creeping just out of view. The only remedy is to drink deep, and share the moment with those you care about, and look for ways to escape the familiar cycles of hate, loss, and fear—together.


Tasting Flight – November 2017

Art by Psychoshadow
“The Summer Mask” by Karin Lowachee (Nightmare)
Notes: With a color of sepia, of forgotten pictures of forgotten faces, the nose is dust and the smell of old books, the flavor equal parts longing and sacrifice, grace and betrayal, bitterness and hope.
Pairs with: Session Ale
Review: David is an artist tasked with making masks for soldiers who survived massive war bearing physical scars. He meets Matthew, a man who can barely see and who has massive facial damage, and sees in him something beautiful and captivating. It’s a story of obsession and sacrifice, love and miracles. And, of course, beauty. The story does an amazing job of showing how these two men come together, Matthew because his injuries have made him an outcast and dependent on others, David because his nature and his drive to create something beautiful. And so much of what I like about the story rests on how it treats this idea of beauty, not as something redemptive or healing, but as cold and in many ways cruel. What the two men share while each is flawed might not be physically beautiful, but it comes from his place of care and love. And David, in trying to give a beautiful face to what they have, ends up inviting a distance and darkness on himself, and proves that beauty doesn’t need to be compassionate, doesn’t need approval or permission or justification. And in that it reveals a dark heart of beauty, the difference between beauty that can be captured in stone or clay, and the beauty that exists in human interaction and love. It’s a difficult and complex story, but one that captures the shape and fragility of beauty, and the price it can carry.

Art by Tomislav Tikulin
“The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt” by L Chan (The Dark)
Notes: Everything old is new again, ancient methods creating a heavy and dense profile that still crackles with static and electricity, the past crashing into the present with violence and storm before calming into something beautiful and delicately sweet.
Pairs with: Ancient Ale
Review: A nameless ghost boy shares a haunted space with a number of other forgotten spirits in this story, which explores memory and connection. When a new ghost appears on the scene, and from a most unlikely place, the main character is suddenly faced with the world outside his home, even as those around him have...mixed reactions to the prospect of freedom. The story shows how history anchors people in place, tying them with bonds that hold even after death, even after everything else has been lost and forgotten. It traces the ways that loneliness and cycles entrench harm, the ways that these ghosts reenact the same things over and over, maintaining the status quo for those in power and never able to reach beyond their prison. Until something comes from the outside in, allowing the main character to attempt to break the cycle, to reach for something new and freeing. It’s a story about change and the possibility of change, especially for those who are isolated, who can find no way to escape a physical place. The story looks with hope at the power of technology to bring people together across vast distances, to allow people to throw off the chains of their imprisonment, and to map new frontiers into a future suddenly full of possibilities. It’s a story that carries with it a heaviness, the oppression of the situation dragging at the main character and what he can do, but there’s also the hope that the drag can be overcome and escaped, and that even death is not enough to stop progress.

“Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang (GigaNotoSaurus)
Notes: Fusing flavors and styles, sweet and tangy and bitter and all points in between the pour in a muted tan tinged with pink, like a few drops of blood were added for good measure, creating an experience that is triumphant, fun, but undeniably complex.
Pairs with: Grapefruit IPA
Review: Isabel, a blind Chinese Canadian woman, works as a cook in Montreal, where food has always been the family business. When her brother brings in a man with a strange curse and holes in his memory, though, it’s her magic that she has to lean on in order to figure out what’s going on and if she can do anything about it. Not that cooking and magic are different spheres—with a culinary god for a father, food and spice, legacy and magic, all sort of roll together. And I love the way the story handles inheritance and the weight of family and culture, how decisions parents make for their children create burdens that are passed down, that can settle and rot. Isabel has to balance the various parts of herself, the different skills and experiences she’s had as well as the cultures that have created her, staying true first and foremost to who she is but striving not to lose sight of where she’s come from (especially since literally losing her sight when she strayed too far from honoring who she is rather than who some of her family might want her to be). The story builds a great relationship between Isabel and the man she’s trying to help, Elias, and creates a subtle romance while managing some stunning parallelism between his mysterious affliction and Isabel’s own demons. The tone is fun and swift, Isabel having no patience for fools and a drive toward justice, even when it means some uncomfortable reunions. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and I think there’s a great mix of action, world building, and plenty of emotional moments to make the story memorable and satisfying.

Art by Gregory St. John
“A Pestilence Come for Old Ma Salt” by Dayna K. Smith (Lackington’s)
Notes: With a bitterness that almost sticks in the throat and a pour inky and concealing, the flavors are a rush of spice and stars, the taste of secrets being dragged into the open and the truth blooming in the night.
Pairs with: India Black Ale
Review: Ma Salt is a healer for an insular mountain community, their first and last stop for most maladies, supernatural or otherwise. It’s a place where many people go when they want to get away from the rest of the world, which means that it has its share of loners and more than its share of secrets. When an infant comes down with a cough that turns out to be much more than a simple cold, though, Ma Salt is challenged in ways that push her secrets out from the shadows. The story explores small communities in an interesting way, looking at how the relationships become so twisted, the water so muddy, that it’s often difficult to see what’s right in front of you. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, or at least they seem to, which means people prize their secrets all the closer, the little ways that they can be private in a place where privacy is a precious thing. At the same time, it explores how those secrets can act as seeds of corruption, eroding at the very thing that communities need in order to function and survive—trust. And trust built on lies and misdirection is no trust, which is something that Ma Salt has to confront as she struggles to save the life of her community’s newest member. The story also shows how sometimes rumor is more dangerous than anything, and how even when the truth is hard, or shameful, it is often surprising just how much people have the capacity to forgive, and to accept, and to help those who might stumble, and to celebrate those things that make people themselves. It’s a great voice the story establishes, and I like how the plot follows a sort of exorcism—of deception and prejudice, so that the community can come together stronger than ever and so even the most vulnerable can be accepted and cared for.

Art by Max Mitenkov
“An Unexpected Boon” by S.B. Divya (Apex)
Notes: Pouring a dark brown rimmed with gold, the first sip is deep, subtle and smoky like dreams burning, only to reveal newer, sweeter tones underneath, a future still bright despite loss and danger.
Pairs with: Honey Bock
Review: Kalyani is a young (probably autistic) girl who experiences the world quite differently from the rest of her family. It’s something that Aruni, her older brother, finds quite difficult to handle, especially when his parents have left him in charge while they are away. For Kalyani, though, it’s the rest of the world that doesn’t make as much sense, that overflows with threats and dangers, that never makes as much sense as the order of her own mind and the quiet solitude of her thoughts. When a passing holy man observes her quiet, he gives her a gift, an insect that communicates with her, and gives her a tool to help decode the rest of the world. When a different holy man passes through with a much different outlook, though, Kalyani and Aruni find themselves at the center of a situation that could destroy them, especially if Aruni doesn’t trust his younger sister. And for me, the story is about family and about communication, about trust and value. Everyone treats Kalyani like she is defective, like she can’t survive in this world mostly because everyone else accepts the corruption and dangers of the systems they live in, which make Kalyani even more at risk for being a girl, for now knowing the unspoken social contracts that reinforce all levels of society. For all the darkness that the story uses as its base, though, the story rejects a trajectory toward tragedy, and the prose shines with the resolve and skill of Kalyani, her ability to function and act even as Aruni despairs, certain of defeat. To me it’s a story of the value of being able to see the world differently, to be able to come up with solutions that work for everyone, which might only be possible if first you refuse to accept the dominant narrative of the way things are. It’s a sweet and moving story full of magic and grace.

Art by Julie Dillon
“Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller & Lara Elena Donnelly (Uncanny)
Notes: The past reaches forward into the present with a taste of loss and memories bleeding together, a cloudy pour obscuring a golden shine, a mix of spice and distance and old wounds opening to an almost floral finish, a flower placed on a grave of a unknown soldier finally revealed and put to rest.
Pairs with: Abbey Ale
Review: Borrowing from the historical story of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, this story paints a picture that connects two men across time and across tragedies, as both seek to make sense of a world that refuses to make sense, where who they are makes them vulnerable, and who they must become in order to live in the world makes them monsters. The story is told through letters, letters from Wilfred Owen from the battlefields of World War I to Sassoon, who is dealing with a much different situation in the run up to the second world war. For both men, though, they must deal with their desires and the situation that life has thrust them into—the chaos of war, the dangers of men looking for a “cure” for them. The letters are (to me incredibly fittingly) one directional, neither man truly able to express himself to the other, time and war and death getting between them, cutting short what they could have meant to what another. What remains are the bruises, the scars, the injuries that never really heal—both on the bodies of those who remain and on the world as a whole, these losses weighing heavier than stone, just as crushing as any military defeat. For me the story is about loss and about cycles, about how compassion and love becomes something else when all safety is gone, when discovery and death are so near, and all these men want is to live, to be free. And it becomes in many ways about breaking that cycle, or trying to, of stepping out from safety and trying to learn from the past so that the same injustices do not continue, or grow. It’s wrenching and it’s difficult and it’s heartbreaking, and you might end up a sobbing mess, but it is a gorgeous story about history, love, and war.


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