Review: The Case of the Stalking Shadow

Weird Detectives: Recent InvestigationsThe Case of the Stalking Shadow by Joe R. Lansdale

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

Writers of paranormal fiction have a tendency to distance the narrator from the story going all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Joe R. Lansdale’s short story our narrator recounts a tale he heard long ago from Detective Dana Roberts telling of her very first case spanning twenty years of her life and already a distant memory at its telling – a memory, of a story, of a memory, of a memory. It’s a convenient device to introduce a pre-packaged story without establishing context but lessens the drama. We know she will be fine, and most likely her cousin will be fine, because she is sharing this anecdote at a club in front of strangers.

The mystery itself recalls native folklore, and the dangers that lay in the ancient forests of the American deep south. Dana Roberts, as a young girl, spent her summers on her aunt’s homestead. She and her cousins would play games in the house and on the grounds, but she encountered something unnerving in those woods as a child which plagued her into adulthood. She and her closest cousin, the only one who shares her dread, return to investigate the woods to confront or dispel shadowy figure which haunts them still.

This story works best in the woods. Both through the encounter as a child and again as an adult, Lansdale is able to let the dread creep in. The quite anticipation and breathless flights feel authentic and familiar. The action works pretty well too, but there is a gimmick to the confrontation which simultaneously is too convenient but also not exploited to its fullest once introduced. I don’t think the layers and frames to the story are necessary. One concept underlined several times in the primary frame is that Detective Dana Roberts does not believe in magic or superstition, instead looking for scientific explanations. I think this could have been explored further or reinforced in the investigation. It is an intruiging inclusion to have the detective not only a skeptic, but a scientific meta-physician, only to leave that avenue unexplored.

The Case of the Stalking Shadow is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: Hero of the Five Points

Hero of the Five PointsHero of the Five Points by Alan Gratz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and they are correct. The illustration (click the link to see the whole image) by Rednose Studio is amazing and absolutely made me want to read this story, but this short story is a mess.

Hero of the Five Points is set in New Rome (alternate New York) in the Five Points region of Mannahatta (Manhattan) with a culture and political climate identical to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. In this universe the Americas had at some point been under the control of the Romans and their ruins establish the foundation of the cities in a way similar to what you might find Europe. However Europe and the Americas no longer have communication or trade and the First Nations have a more established cultural foothold in this version of the United Nations of America. With characters lifted roughly from the film, our protagonist, Dalton Dent infiltrates the Dead Rabbits lead by Kit Burns, who is a more thuggish Bill the Butcher, and aided by the also undercover Hellcat Maggie.

The forward tells us it is 1853, which is peculiar. In this story Thomas Edison is an old and prosperous man, which of course he would only be 6 years old in our timeline. Lektricity (ahem, electricity) has come and gone with the science of the day taking a steampunk flare featuring dirigibles, steam power (including steam-powered robots with AI), but not ballistics, instead featuring ray guns. The timeline and logic is a mess. Also in the forward it tells us this short story is from the world of the League of Seven series for middle grade readers, but even pre-teens can do a simple to search to figure out when Edison was born. Integrating actual historical places and figures then not establishing a cursory understanding of their actual characteristics reflects the laziness of the writing in general. There is a lot of wild fantastical world building which must be explored in League of Seven because it is simply distracting here.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: Daughter of Necessity

Daughter of NecessityDaughter of Necessity by Marie Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy alternate point of view stories, or to clarify, a familiar or famous story told from someone other than the original protagonist’s perspective. Wicked by Gregory Maquire is a classic example. I imagine stories like these start as an academic challenge or writing prompt, but to be successful it takes more than cleverness to interweave a seamless story with well known waypoints and motivations. These types of stories (and indeed all fan fiction) are wonderful experiments of empathy.

Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, who has ruled for twenty years in Odysseus’s absence waiting for him to return from the Trojan War. While his exploits are famously chronicled in The Odyssey, her trials and cleverness are only footnotes. One of the strategies she employs to hold off her 108 suitors is to weave the burial shroud of her father-in-law Laertes. She claims she will select a new husband (and King of Ithaca) from the waiting suitors upon completion of the shroud, however each night she unravels her work to delay for Odysseus’s return. We learn all of this in the Odyssey.

In Daughter of Necessity Marie Brennan brings us into the heart and mind of Penelope. You sense the weight of her responsibilities to Ithaca, her son Telemachus, and her husband. Each night as she finishes the shroud and she contemplates union with each suitor she can imagine the chaos and disorder from each selection. She can read all the potential outcomes in the warp and weft of her cloth as she weaves, then unmakes, the shroud. This is beautiful and clever work. Rich with reference to the source material and rightly honors the sacrifices of Penelope who held the throne against all opposition during Odysseys’s lengthy voyage.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: Acrobatic Duality

Acrobatic DualityAcrobatic Duality by Tamara Vardomskaya

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We are one, and we are not one.

Science fiction goes through phases and eras which generally mirror our scientific advancements. From the 1950s through 70s it was space, in the 1980s and 90s it was computers. We are in the golden age of science fiction of the mind. Old Man’s War, Lock In, Altered Carbon, Legion and Dollhouse (among many others) have explored questions of self and identity. Amongst a sea of great thinkers and writers of speculative fiction Tamara Vardomskaya finds an unique voice and perspective.

We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time.

A talented but unremarkable gymnast awakens to find that her consciousness is shared between two talented acrobatic gymnasts; a discipline which requires the coordinated routines of balance and aerial maneuvers in pairs. With their shared proprioception they are unbeatable, soaring to the world championships and heavily favored to win. Vardomskaya does an admirable job translating the essence of the movements, but the senses and limitations of this unique identity is where Acrobatic Duality really shines. The struggle between the distinct bodies and shared mind is thoughtfully explored with beauty, tenderness and honesty.

…blue eyes against dark-brown, searching for what should look right, for when we were I.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: Damage

DamageDamage by David Levine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fell from the warmth and light of the hangar into the black silent chill of space, plummeting toward the teeming, rotating stars.

This is the short story of JB6847½ (a.k.a. “Scraps”) the single-seat space fighter cobbled from the remnants of two destroyed spaceframes and their artificial intelligences. Scraps remembers what it was to be each of her component ships, their missions, their beloved pilots, and her two previous deaths. She carries this with her, along with her new pilot, into desperate battles at the end of a losing campaign.

Tensors and coordinates and arcs of potential traced bright lines across my mind—predictions of our path and our enemies’, a complex dance of physics, engineering, and psychology. I shared a portion of those predictions with my pilot on his cockpit display. He nudged my yoke and our course shifted.

Her own greater senses and perspective keep them safe, while her pilot provides the bravado. Within this short story we get a love story as asymmetrical as most, she is unfailingly devoted to him, programmed to be so; and he cannot see beyond himself.

My pilot’s biologicals, I saw immediately, were well into the red, trembling with anxiety and anger. “We are secure at target coordinates, sir,” I reassured him. “No sign of pursuit.”

“Took you long enough,” he spat. “Where the hell are we?”

The mechanic who created her, Specialist Toman, repairs her and is only person within whom she confides. Toman offers warmth and respect towards Scraps and is alternately her mother and her friend. The science nerd in me was disappointed in a strategy employed at the end of the piece. I don’t want to delve toward spoilers, but it would seem an available tactic (which would have been much more potent) was missed. Fans of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress or the Cretaceous period would likely have thought similarly to me. The outcome could have been the same while considerably raising the stakes. Ultimately it is a story of conscience versus duty and provides a different perspective of the casualties and calculations of war.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: The Necromancer’s Apprentice

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Necromancer’s Apprentice by Lillian Stewart Carl

My Rating 2 of 5 stars

Court rumors name Lord Robert Dudley as Queen Elizabeth I’s choice for husband and King Regent of England; the only obstacle is that Lord Dudley is already married. When the Lady Dudley falls to her death, assistant magician and alchemist Dr. Erasmus Pilbeam and his apprentice Martin Molesworth take the case to determine if the death was an accident, or if a plot, by whom. The investigation essentially boils down to Pilbeam spouting a continual stream of insults towards his feckless assistant Molesworth, raising the spirit of Lady Dudley and asking her what happened. When they uncover that a plot did in fact exist all investigation then stops. Without further evidence they conjecture possible motives without questioning the actual minions who facilitated the crime, pin it to an adversary, and call the case closed. With the lack of actual detective work and Pilbeam’s unlikeable nature (and increasingly absurd insults) I can’t find much to recommend.

The Necromancer’s Apprentice is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: Skin Deep

Skin Deep
Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephan Leeds does not have multiple personality disorder, he is schizophrenic and sees 47 different imaginary people, each with a specialized skill or ability. He and his 47 aspects are genius consultants for hire and together they are Legion. The premise is absurd and amazing, and like last time the premise outshines the actual investigation but continues to be a marvelous sandbox for storytelling. The rules regarding his projections have continued to evolve and some new twists have added in. I love the diverse character(s) of Legion and find these serialized novellas to be a prefect size for these adventures. Brandon Sanderson is known for his creative magical systems and the mind(s) of Stephen Leeds has a magic all its own.

The first in the series was also a favorite and made my Best of 2014 list.
You can peruse my fanboy review here.

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Review: Cryptic Coloration

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
Cryptic Coloration by Elizabeth Bear

My Rating 2 of 5 stars

We are introduced to Junior Professor Matthew Szczegielniak through the observations of three of his freshman, female students as he is playing a pick-up basketball game in New York City. He is covered in tattoos and piercings with a short blond ponytail and sculpted physique. The hastily sketched girls are entranced by his mysterious beauty and set aside all scholastic ambition to tail him and learn the secrets of his extra-curricular life. When he bolts from his office hours and directly towards a scene of an apparent suicide we discover he has some magical ability and is potentially a regional warden of New York in a group called the Prometheans and has allies within the police force. I often enjoy being thrown into a story in medias res, but eventually I have an expectation that answers are coming. Through all the colorful language and descriptive physicality I never got a sense who these people were, how the world worked or a functional understanding of the magical system employed. I am new to Elizabeth Bear’s work, but her name has been on my “to read” list for some time. Perhaps these characters and settings are part of a larger narrative from her full length novels, but here I never found my footing or a reason to care for the characters. The magical menace was revealed to be the exact creature Matthew anticipated upon his initial analysis of the crime scene. Despite this we never get a full picture why it could only be this creature and only get scraps of physical description, origin and capabilities as the conclusion is in sight. We either were with Matthew who felt no need to speak about his knowledge aloud or with his stumbling students would were too removed from the scene to ask necessary questions to educate the reader. Ultimately this was very frustrating because it seems clear that Elizabeth Bear knows the world and creatures but never gave us a view point to understand it.

Cryptic Coloration is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: The Case of Death and Honey

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman

My Rating 5 of 5 stars

I love Sherlock Holmes and after so many books, movies and television series it is a special treat to read a unique Sherlock Holmes story which adds to the cannon in so many brilliant ways. The marvelous Neil Gaiman provides us with a rare first person point of view, albeit in the form of a letter to John Watson, from the pen of a retired, aging Sherlock Holmes as he visits his brother’s death bed. With all of the bickering and condensation between the brothers over their long history it is heartbreaking to see Sherlock’s acknowledgement of Mycroft’s greatness and the tremendous weight of his loss. (Pun intended) Mycroft’s passing ignites a passion in Holmes to answer one of the greatest mysteries of mankind. I will not flirt with spoilers or the nature of the investigation, which Neil Gaiman so expertly weaves through the alternating point of view of an elderly Chinese beekeeper and Holmes’ journal entries. At a scant 13 pages, The Case of Death and Honey is exquisitely sharp of focus and is a worthy chapter in the history of the world’s greatest detective.

The Case of Death and Honey is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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