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: Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs
Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Duncan and Klages have crafted a well written multi-generational character piece centered around a rural natural spring in Florida. The story touches on segregation, racism, Hollywood fantasies, mythology, tradition and a sense of place rooted through the generations. It is not a science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction short story. That seems like an odd thing for me to mention at this point, but this story was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2013 and is shelved as science fiction or fantasy by most Goodreads members. It is such a shame because it is a good historical fiction story, but if you read it waiting for something fantastical to occur you will spend the story in anticipation, grasping at clues which do not exist. There is superstition and reference to cryptozoology, but these are cultural touchstones and daydreams. I wish my experience was better, but the reader is an integral part of reading and preparing yourself to be an attentive participant demands an appropriate frame of reference.

Wakulla Springs can be read for free at Tor.com.

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Review: The Final Now

The Final Now
The Final Now by Gregory Benford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Final Now is a philosophical debate between creators and their created at the heat death of the universe about the nature of eternity. Author Gregory Benford describes the slow unmaking of the structures of galaxies and atoms, and the forms life has taken in these final epochs. The philosophical questions (whether eternity can exist beyond time, and a debate about the creation of physical laws and the effect on the creator) recalls Waiting for Godot but without Beckett’s extreme cleverness. I could have used more insight into the strangeness of this dark era, and more illustrative description of metabolism and thought at these low energy states. But in a story that takes place at the end of all things, I think Benford has it right to reflect on the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

The Final Now can be read for free at Tor.

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Review: Ragnarok

Ragnarok
Ragnarok by Paul Park

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Park’s Ragnarok is an ambitious idea with several moments of brilliance. The story is a traditional heroic tale of love, loss and revenge set in Iceland in a dystopic near future, and told as an epic poem. Imagine the first half of the movie Braveheart told in the style of Beowulf. This dystopic element provides a mixing of guns and swords, cars and horses and adds to the feeling that this is told generation after generation; that these themes are as old as story.

Tell our legend, teach the truth
Or invent it
The old way.

Park could have leaned further into the traditional format for greater effect. He frequently refers to the gun as Glock Nine which would have worked better if it was used as a specific name of his weapon like Hrunting or Nægling from Beowulf. Instead it is a little jarring to use such specific reference for the weapon without invoking any personality. “Thor wields Mjölnir”, not “Thor wields his Mjölnir”. But on the whole the format allows for compact storytelling.

Fat Johan, father-in-law,
But for this

This sentence rocked me. In this one moment we see character, a possible future and personal tragedy. Beautiful.

You should check out the story for free on Tor.com where you can also see the stunning illustration by Richard Anderson.

You can also read my brother’s review of Ragnarok on Jaffalogue.

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Review: The Cartography of Sudden Death

The Cartography of Sudden Death: A Tor.Com Original
The Cartography of Sudden Death by Charlie Jane Anders

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Cartography of Sudden Death is a delicious title for short story. With those few words imagery and plots begin to weave. In Anders’ story the cartography of sudden death is a form of time travel using the paradoxes generated in unplanned deaths to ride the ripples to other points in the timeline. In general the concept is strong, but it would seem more likely that moments of paradox or divergence would provide dimensional rather than chronological pathways. The writing lacks poetry and leaves the characters thinly rendered and motivations unclear. Apart from the interesting premise there isn’t much to grab onto.

The Cartography of Sudden Death can be read for free at Tor where you can also see the stunning illustration by Richard Anderson.

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Review: The Finite Canvas

The Finite Canvas
The Finite Canvas by Brit Mandelo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think what is most impressive about The Finite Canvas is the robust world-building which Brit Mandelo was able to accomplish within the constraints of short form fiction. This is a story of a three day encounter between two women who are confronted by their own mortality. The mercenary threatened by violence and the doctor by illness. These aren’t shadowy specters. They each vividly understand their reality. The title refers to a ritual scarification that is done to record a tribute to the victim on the body of the murderer. Within this act and the story that accompanies it, we learn all we need to know about the world, politics, environment and culture. We never get to the how and why the world is the way it is, but it doesn’t matter. Those are not the questions which concern our characters. The restraint of writing keeps us focused on emotional truth of these women as they weigh duty against the cost of a life at the margins of society.

You can read The Finite Canvas for free at Tor where you can also see a larger version of the exceptional illustration by Rick Berry.

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