Humans and the Environment in Translation: New Event for the Calico Series from Two Lines Press

I’m always excited to see additional literature in translation, and this in particular caught my interest in its intersection with ecology and climate. I am lucky to be able to read this for review, so look for it in the future. But also I wanted to share the news, copied below from Two Lines Press releases, about an event that should be of interest to others holding a passion for translation. Follow the link below to learn more, including biographies on the three translators of this international eco-lit collection.

CELEBRATE ELEMENTAL

“Join Point Reyes Books and Two Lines Press on March 11 for a special event celebrating the release of Elemental with contributors Jessica Cohen, Allison Charette, and Brian Bergstrom. Moderated by Cristina Rodriguez. A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Madagascar, Iraq, Germany, and more, this latest installment of the Calico Series maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the environment. Featuring fiction and reportage from eight authors working in different languages, Elemental is an awesome collection that speaks of climate catastrophe, geological time, and mythology; it’s a global gathering of engaged, innovative eco-lit. Register for the event on Point Reyes Books event page, and don’t forget to buy a copy of the book while you’re there!”

THURSDAY, MARCH 11

5:30 PT | 6:30 MT | 7:30 CT | 8:30 ET

About Elemental

A family’s heirloom stones unearth a story spanning war, illness, and radioactivity. A pipeline installed to protect a town from flooding results in a howling that disturbs the town’s inhabitants. A political prisoner embarks on an epic flight toward freedom, literally blown like a kite in the wind.

A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Norway, Germany, Madagascar, Iraq, Poland, and Israel, this collection of fiction and reportage maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the natural world. Do we set the limits on our existence? Or is it wind, water, fire, and earth that define–even control–us? Borrowing from eco-literature and mythology, Elemental unflinchingly takes up the earth.

“Stone, earth, water, ice, wind, and burning heat. The stories here dig deep and unexpectedly into life’s fundamentals—the elements and the passions—bringing into English, many for the first time, writers of stature from across the globe. A celebration of both storytelling and translation, Elemental is essential, a gift that opens up the pleasures of new worlds.” —Hugh Raffles, author of The Book of Unconformities

About the Calico Series

The Calico Series, published biannually by Two Lines Press, captures vanguard works of translated literature in stylish, collectible editions. Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of our present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world today.

Humble Bundle Deal from Tachyon Publications for eBook Readers!

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HUMBLE BOOK BUNDLE: SUPERMASSIVE SCI-FI, FANTASY, & HORROR BY TACHYON

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Founded in 1999, The Carl Brandon Society‘s mission is to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.

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$441 WORTH OF AWESOME STUFF • PAY $1 OR MORE • DRM-FREE & MULTI-FORMAT

A CONTEST OF PRINCIPLES (STAR TREK) by Greg Cox

A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709
— Paperback — 387 pp.


Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.

While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.

The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.

Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.

These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.

I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.

A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.

Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.

Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.

Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.

Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.

A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?


Online Book Launch: THE SECOND BELL by Gabriela Houston

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and

Angry Robot Books Present:

An Evening with Gabriela Houston!

“Next Tuesday Mar 9th we release The Second Bell, the much-anticipated fantasy debut from Gabriela Houston, and we’re delighted to be partnering with London’s beloved Super Relaxed Fantasy Club for a FREE online launch event!

From 7pm GMT we’ll be livestreaming on Facebook and YouTube, as Gabriela joins us for a reading from The Second Bell, a chat with host Magnus Anderson about the book and her writing career, and an audience Q&A!”

SYNOPSIS

In a world which believes her to be a monster, a young striga fights to harness the power of her second heart, while her mother sacrifices everything to stop her…

In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. This child is called a striga and is considered a demon who must be abandoned on the edge of the forest. The child’s mother must then decide to leave with her infant, or stay and try to forget.

Nineteen year-old striga, Salka, and her mother, Miriat, made the choice to leave and live a life of deprivation and squalor in an isolated village. The striga tribe share the human belief that to follow the impulses of their other hearts is dangerous, inviting unspoken horrors and bringing ruin onto them all.

Salka, a headstrong and independent young woman, finds herself in a life threatening situation that forces her to explore the depths of her true nature and test the bonds between mother and child…”

This dark fantasy is one that I’m not anticipating. View more information on this event invitation from Angry Robot Books.

The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston • Releases 9th March 2021 • PRE-ORDER

UNCANNY MAGAZINE #38 (January/February 2021) Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas


Since its inception I’ve been one of the Space Unicorns supporting Uncanny Magazine. Yet, among all the genre outlets, it is probably the one that I’m most divided on among typical story content. The type of story they feature sometimes works fantastically for me, but then other times falls flat; this is even with authors who are typical favorites. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it to explain the reasons behind those personal tastes, but just accept that Uncanny will feature an even split for me.

“Tyrannosaurus Hex” by Sam J. Miller — One of my two favorite stories in the issue. For me, Miller can take a story concept that I’m not all terribly excited about and still turn it into something engaging and interesting; this is a case in point. At a dinner, a young girl joins an even younger boy in virtual reality entertainment through their implants, while the adults obliviously chat. The girl quickly realizes something is not quite right, and very dangerous, with the program the boy is running. Namely the malware that has infected it. An interesting take on generational tech divides, shared digital experiences, and lazy parenting.

“A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard — You stopped reading this early in.

“Pathfinding!” by Nicole Kornher-Stace — A second story on children in simulations, with a director and individuals named with numbers, à la Stranger Things. Written in third-person present across 31 numbered sections, it felt long to me. I had no serious problems with it, but didn’t take to its themes or style particularly either.

“In That Place She Grows a Garden” by Del Sandeen — A reprint from a story I first read in Fiyah Magazine, from an issue themed around ‘hair’. A young African American girl is disciplined at school for failing to conform to discriminatory codes that ban traditional Black hairstyles. Despite their attempts to control her body, her head has other plans for what it will grow. Really adore this one, even a second time.

“Beyond the Doll Forest” by Marissa Lingen — My other favorite new story in the issue, again by an author I often enjoy. A nanny ponders her young charge who fears curses, the miniature forest that the girl has built in her playroom that seems to show small changes and fleeting glimpses of creatures, and the absent siblings the girl speaks of. A creepy fantasy of magic, illness symbolized, and the strength/powers of childhood imagination.

“Femme and Sundance” by Christopher Caldwell — Two men start a passionate relationship and plan a bank heist, utilizing charmed masks provided by a curandera one of them knows. Then starts a wild ride on the run with the money, but the magic of the masks still vibrating, and others in pursuit. A fun urban fantasy adventure.

“Distribution” by Paul Cornell — This one certainly fits within the ‘uncanny’ moniker. It’s filled with deep themes of human nature, memory, and social obligations, and it’s set within a vaguely post-disaster setting where fragments of rebuilding occur that hearken to the past, but amid continued near-future technology from our present. Mostly consisting as an interview conversation between two characters, I found it hard to get into and appreciate despite themes that usually resonate.

The issue also features editorials from the editors and “Imagining Futures: Where Our Works Go from Here” by Elsa Sjunneson; poems “Medusa Gets a Haircut” by Theodora Goss, “Kalevala, an untelling” by Lizy Simonen, “bargain | bin” by Ewen Ma, “What The Time Travellers Stole” by L.X. Beckett, and “Fish Out of Water” by Neil Gaiman; essays “Weird Plagues: How Fear of Disease Mutated into a Subgenre” by John Wiswell, “Milk Teeth” by Octavia Cade, “Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood” by Aidan Moher, and “Trash Fantasias, or Why Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Bad Actually” by Katherine Cross; interviews of Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Paul Cornell by Caroline M. Yoachim; and thank you messages to Patreon supporters and Kickstarter backers.


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


January/February 2021 Short Fiction Roundup


Here is the first bimonthly roundup up my short fiction reviews from those markets that publish with a greater frequency than monthly or bimonthly. Right now that includes Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Abyss & Apex is another one I will feature, but given that it’s quarterly the January – April content will all just appear with the March/April post.

Given the number of stories, for these I’m only reviewing/mentioning the ones that I enjoy most. I may eventually review Fantasy Magazine fully as it is a more standard monthly publication. However, right now it’s so short, and half the content of the first two issues has fallen into the only two categories of things I absolutely don’t go for. So I’ve included it in this for the time being.

Many of these are available for free to discover if you are not a regular reader of them. I hope that those who enjoy and become fans of the outlets will be able to support them.

I still have several regular January/February issue reviews to put up before getting started on March/April, but they should go up in the near future.

Fantasy Magazine – Edited by Arley Sorg & Christie Yant

“Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind” by C.E. McGill (Issue 63, January 2021) – A stunning fantasy that seems to cover familiarly trodden territory at cursory glance, but weaves together several deep themes into a modern direction. At story’s start the protagonist, Oz, is about to commit suicide, only being stopped by a knock at the door and the arrival of an official group from town. His name has come up in the draw for choosing the next sacrifice to the god of the mountain. Oz’s journey to the mountain leads to greater self-discovery, reconciliation with his past, and a lesson in sacrifice. I love how the tone of the story feels set in conventional current world, yet with elements of magic and fantasy, or the beliefs of another era. This fits perfectly with Oz’s life journey.

“Kisser” by David James Brock (Issue 64, February 2021) – This story will resonate with any who have had the stress dream of teeth falling out. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it right before going to sleep! However, where the story could go full down the route of horror, it only brushes against dark fantasy in its setup, a man who finds his teeth actually coming out. A great character study that investigates how the man’s obsession with peripheral details of life (including outside of control) can compound to be more harmful than letting go – and how he might move past that.

“Flight” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Issue 64, February 2021) – Written from the third-person point-of-view of gray parrots, this story shows the interactions of these birds among one another in a community being changed by humans. The story revolves around the general theme of disruptions of natural processes by humans, the uncertainty and unbalance it creates and how other animals may adapt. It also illustrates how the cruel violence and disregard of intelligent humanity goes beyond the ‘red in tooth and claw’ (or beak) of biology. Beautifully written.

Daily Science Fiction – Edited by Jonathan Laden & Michele Barasso

First time I’ve ever reviewed something from this treasure of an online story outlet. So, I’ll start off by just saying in general they are something fans of SFF should subscribe to (it’s free), and if you enjoy it, consider supporting. With a story every day, usually flash-fiction length, they publish a fair amount that is solid, if not Earth-shattering. Occasionally there is something I’m not a fan of, and sometimes there is something that really resonates. Here’s a couple that did:

“The Union” by Tim Yu (26th January 2021) – Regarding this story that features an impending alien invasion of Earth, the author notes: “If we really faced an existential threat and had to unify, what would be the new benchmark normal to unify into? How would we funnel all of human diversity into that normal?” The optimist in me says that I don’t know as this is the most likely answer, but with the sadness of profound realism I feel it’s up there in probability. Well written, and I hope to see more from Yu. Perhaps a story with marine biology next?

“Echo Recovery” by Jennifer Linnaea (5th February 2021) – Beautifully written SF/Fantasy about relationships, making music together, and grief. The Songmaster of the Great Theater at Noti Station accompanies a reptilian-like Vhatian singer named Gyen to Gyen’s hibernation pod after the unexpected death of Gyen’s human song-twin Digne. While Gyen can flee the emptiness in repose until a new song-twin matches to him, The Songmaster, who was in love with Digne, cannot escape the grief process and going on with the business of writing music and managing the dual species singers. The language and emotions of the story are like music.

Strange Horizons – Edited by Vanessa Rose Phin

“Yearning” by Maya Beck (4th January 2021) – A man guides a group of sharecroppers through a ritual they dub firesouling or firesailing, a passage of the spirit into the bodies of ancestors past and descendants future. Through this they observe, and yearn for, what was and what might be. Even with violence past there are visions of a hopeful future. A wonderful piece of Afrofuturism within the fantasy genre that makes a good story with a strong voice.

“A Serpent for Each Year” by Tamara Jerée (1st February 2021) – Perfect flash fiction on grief, death, and celebrating the passage of time in a life.

“Ootheca” by Mário de Seabra Coelho (15th February 2021) – Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a weirdly surreal fantasy with tinges of SF and a nod to Kafka. It explores relationships amid personal tics or details that one might focus upon in another, and judgements that humans make based on happenstance or accepted norms.

Tor.com – Irene Gallo (Publisher), Chris Lough (Director), and Bridget McGovern (Managing Editor)

“Let All the Children Boogie” by Sam J. Miller and edited by Jonathan Strahan (6th January 2021) – “My mind had no need for pronouns. Or words at all for that matter. This person filled me up from the very first moment.” Music can open up whole new worlds and one person can change how you look at the world. Sam J. Miller’s writing can do these things too, like the voice reaching out over the airwaves in this, speaking of a hopeful future possible. Though I get none of the pop culture references in this, despite growing up in the time period, Laurie and Fell’s story is universal, beautiful and uplifting.

“Shards” by Ian Rogers and edited by Ellen Datlow (27th January 2021) – Four out of five people survive a horrific Evil-Dead-esque night in a cabin in the woods. The horror does not end there. Excellent chilling story that confronts the absurdities of horror tropes. It looks deeply into how what becomes glossed over, or moved past, upon the dawn of the morning after, and the cue of the credits, might be the most horrifying of all. In some ways this starts as a sequel, but going places far different than the original, familiar tale.

“Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” by Lavie Tidhar and edited by Jonathan Strahan (10th February 2021) – I have to admit that Tidhar is one author who writes wonderfully, but whose stories have just never seemed to fall into a style I appreciate, or carried a message that personally resonated. This, a mashup of horror and mystery staples, does fit squarely into two of my literary loves, and it works simply in how entertainingly intriguing the characters and set-up are. I’ll have to go back now and read the first story featuring this character. Once upon a time I would have found this needlessly long, but novelette/novella length has grown on me, particularly with recurring protagonists like these and the clever spin of the plot.

“The Tyger” by Tegan Moore and edited by Ellen Datlow (24th February 2021) – On the night of a wedding reception, a museum comes alive in ways different than before for twelve-year-old Jules. The story does not go in the direction I had expected from its summary, and ends so profoundly and amazingly that a synopsis could not do it justice. The title references Blake’s famous poem, of course, but Jules’ symbolic journey through the museum into adulthood features a prehistoric bear, rather than tiger, to make a fine atmospheric impact. And then again, the tyger here may be something completely different.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Edited by Scott H. Andrews

“As Tight as Any Knot” by M.A. Carrick (Issue #320, 1st January 2021) – This is set in the same universe as the new Orbit Books novel The Mask of Mirrors, which I’ve had my eyes set on recently. But, until now, I had no idea until now that the author is a pseudonym for writing pair Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. Can’t recall reading Brennan, but I really enjoyed Helms’ Missy Masters novels for Angry Robot Books. Anyway… in this, Ondrakja sees a young beggar girl on a street corner and sees value in saving her from circumstances. “She knew what happened once someone vanished into the depths of Nadežra’s brothels.” The keyword there, is ‘value’. This serves as an introduction to the fantasy world of the novel, and the intrigues of its characters, that makes you curious to read more.

“Daughters with Bloody Teeth” by Marika Bailey (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – Beautiful and evocative fantasy that plays with the individual and the collective ‘we’ within the framework of a wolf mythology. Beyond that, it speaks to human injustices and rights of self-authority. It takes a moment to really get into this and make sense of what is occurring, but also, I think my mind wandered from paying attention to subtle reveals of information at first, being just enraptured by the flow of the language.

“Bast and Her Young” by Tegan Moore (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – A historical story around the ascension of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh, and her consolidation of power amid realization that she is not the first female Pharaoh. It is nice to see a retelling of Egyptian history/mythology, as it seems less common in fantasy than Greek or Norse. Moore gives Hatshepsut’s voice a bit of a modern colloquial twist that I at first found odd, but grew to appreciate.

“Her Black Coal Heart a Diamond in My Hand” by R. K. Duncan (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A dark chilling tale that explores the degrees of exploitation that can occur when creating art from the emotional hurt (or literal ghosts) of others, and from oneself. Rich language and turns in this story make it an engaging, compelling read.

“The Guadaloupe Witch” by Josh Rountree (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A witch finds confronted by a young man sent by her former husband to kill or capture her. The young man is a childhood friend of her now deceased son, her beloved she is now on a mission to restore. While the plot of this story is familiar, it proceeds in a tender and assured way that shows the true power of the eponymous witch.

“Quintessence” by Andrew Dykstal (Issue #324, 25th February 2021) – Deep within winter-covered Highfall peak, miners of a resource called quintessence are kept functioning and alive through expensive injections of red, rationed by the mining Company, but administered on-site by a witch. Loren’s brother-in-law Clyde is sick and dying of ‘crack-up’, but the newly posted ‘old’ witch Gristle refuses to provide Loren with additional red to save him. Wonderful world-building and characterization here, and exploration of consequences of the well-intentioned going too far in desperation. And the secret evils of corporations in search of profits.


HEARTS STRANGE AND DREADFUL by Tim McGregor

Hearts Strange and Dreadful
By Tim McGregor
Off Limits Press — February 2021
ISBN: 9780578840512
— Paperback — 276 pp.


What a delectable novel to read in the dark, cold, waning days of winter, as they give way to the gray-slushed thaw of early spring! What a fitting story for the current plagues of the past year and our near future. What an impressive dawn for the new Off Limits Press, with Hearts Strange and Dreadful serving as the novel debut for their catalog. What an exceptional voice Tim McGregor has created in his protagonist Hester Stokely. What a stirring, heart-wrenching tale of familial devotion and feminine fortitude. What a successful rendering of a classic horror staple into a historical setting, which somehow also reads fresh and relevant for the present: timeless themes in genre fiction that could just as easily pass for conventional literature with a supernatural twist.

It is 1821. While daily life remains full of struggles, New Englanders enjoy relative peace and prosperity, but still recall recent wars past, and a season of strange weather and abnormal darkness. After the tragic death of her parents in a house fire during that gloomier period, orphaned Hester Stokely moved from the Rhode Island town where she was born to the nearby Wickstead to live with her paternal uncle Pardon, his wife Katherine, and their six children. Though welcomed into the family there and feeling deeply appreciative, Hester cannot help but also feel secondary to the primary offspring; she feels the weight of added expectations and responsibilities around the home and land, as if to earn her keep not assured by direct birthright. While proud and confident in her intellect, domestic abilities, and common sense, Hester cannot help but feel inadequate in her spiritual resolve compared to her pious and devout sister cousin Faith. With a deep scar marring her own face, Hester can only look at the beauty and social success of her other sister cousin Prudence and dream of the joy, comfort, or ease for which Pru seems destined. Despite such doubts in herself, Hester persists in doing what is necessary, of doing her best, and being as kind and grateful as she can manage. While some Wickstead residents mock Hester’s appearance and abuse her ready willingness and aptitude to help, others come to her support, particularly her steadfast friend Will, who also bears disfigurement (a lost arm) and comes from a less affluent Wickstead farming family. But Hester’s yearning is directed toward Henry, the handsome son of the town innkeepers, who shows occasional kindness to, and notice of, her.

The life of Wickstead’s residents becomes unbalanced with the arrival of an injured and raving man on a near-dead horse. Taken in by Pardon’s aid and nursed by Hester in the family barn, the half-crazed man, a resident of Hester’s nearby birth town, reveals frightening, nigh unbelievable news: a plague of galloping consumption appeared in the town, rapidly raging from homestead to homestead, felling countless and driving survivors to fear and paranoia. Spinning out of control with superstition, grounds were torn up, graves desecrated; mobs looked to the cleansing power of fire, but could not contain the chaos. Utterly burnt to the ground the town is no more. The man has fled carrying talismans of protection that bear the reek of vile idolatrous Catholicism to the puritan-descended residents of Wickstead. Though apparently the only survivor if his tale bears true, the man also attempts to flee his caregivers despite his serious injuries, lamenting of a dangerous force in pursuit that will kill him, and which could bring destruction to all.

As the town leaders (with Pardon among them) debate what to do about the man and his dire news, a wealthy, widowed Lady also arrives in town at the Inn as a refugee from the nearby town, damning the man as the cause of its destruction and offering a generous reward for his capture and punishment. However, returning to the barn, Pardon finds the raving man has escaped and fled, apparently, not without leaving something behind. That next morning, Hester finds Prudence sprawled on the floor by the entry, returned after a clandestine night-time rendezvous with her fiancé, racked with a cough and symptoms of consumption. As Hester and the family deal with their tragedy, fear and paranoia begin spreading in Wickstead, just as the stranger said occurred in the nearby town. Unable to discern the plague’s exact nature and ill-equipped to defend against it, Hester nonetheless perseveres to do everything that is in her power and resolve, even as the threat reveals itself to be far darker than normal consumptive contagion.

With a narrative told from Hester’s first-person perspective, McGregor immediately establishes the tenacity of his female protagonist amid the hardships of 1820s New England rural society. The novel opens with a scene where Hester’s two older brother cousins have difficulty completing their responsibilities in butchering a lamb. Unable to handle the discomfort of the gore, the boys pass the most difficult parts of the jobs to Hester. Though she likes the task no more than they, she has the experience and maturity to follow the task through her discomfort. She does what is necessary. Unlike her brother cousins, she also has no power or privilege to refuse the job, for she lives in their household at their mercy and grace. This short introductory scene symbolizes the rest of the novel, with Hester showing that of everyone she is the most ‘adult’. No matter the difficulty or what it requires of her to let go, she will get the job done. What use is complaining? All other characters show some degree of this, but no one else embodies it to Hester’s degree. Yet, she also has moments of ‘weakness’ in the sense that she gives in to her desires or dreams. When she does, she feels slightly guilty, and prays or thinks of wanting to have more strength for future moments. Yet, one gets the sense she wouldn’t change those decisions even if she (and her society) don’t put value (or punish) such acts of self-care.

In this way, with this voice, McGregor writes historical fiction that realistically roots itself in the 1820s with its particular adversity and culturally imposed limitations for women without celebrating or extolling that. And with the plot featuring a plague, isolation, and additional care responsibilities, it serves as very potent reminder of how much this misogyny remains ever-present in today’s society as amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic women have been expected to make the greater professional sacrifices in child care and domestic maintenance. How many right now are doing what they’d otherwise find inconceivable or impossible, simply because there is no other option. Hard tasks need to be done. The only other alternative is loss to family, giving up life. This is the battle at the center of Hearts Strange and Dreadful, this is the core of Hester’s fortitude, the appeal of her voice, and the heart-breaking nature of her narrative.

Hearts Strange and Dreadful will be a gut-wrenching in many spots; not to spoil anything specific, it’s ending may particularly feel bittersweet to many. Though a sequel is by no means necessary, one finishes this novel knowing that it is not the actual end of Hester’s story, but it is the clear and proper end to this one. Hardship and discomfort continues. This is the 1820s for a rural woman with a scarred visage. But there is certainty that Hester will go on just as strongly, and that some happiness and betterment can be achievable even with that hardship. Everything that Hester looked upon with admiration and jealousy – what she saw as lacking or impossible in her life – has died; her perceived deficiencies actually gave her strength and have allowed her to survive. That will go on.

With this novel McGregor has done something that I’ve seen a lot of mainstream authors try to do under mainstream, conventional literature marketing: write a horror story featuring an iconic legend that everyone is familiar with, but leave it unnamed and somehow keep it essential and interesting. The first I can think to do this is one of the most famous horror writers in existence, and it worked fairly well. More recent ones I’ve seen were disappointing. They flirted with genre while trying to keep ‘respectable’ and clever. They failed at all that. Hearts Strange and Dreadful succeeds at this fantastically, first by doing the reverse: marketing as horror, but having the bulk of the novel present itself within pure realism. The historical setting makes this possible. To us, plague and disease is something relatively well-defined and real. Galloping consumption is tuberculosis, caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. We can fight it (albeit with resistance looming) via antibiotics. For the characters of this novel, however, the plague that descends upon Wickstead is supernatural, uncanny. The treatments even by established groups of society (early ‘doctors’, barber-surgeons, etc) are seen as suspect with superstition and religious faith being more assured protections or hopes. By the time the novel gets to things that would be supernatural for we the readers, there is no change in the tone of the novel or its characters. If anything the supernatural (from our perspective) now presents a physical reality for them that the conventional, actual realistic cause of an invisible microbe, never could within this setting prior to the invention of the microscope. The novel just keeps reading like conventional historical literature.

This also makes Hearts Strange and Dreadful chilling in its horror, for it seems very plausible from that perspective of a plague, and we see bits of it in our lives now. Adding to the chilling atmosphere of it all is the rural isolation of the settings: towns near but still separated by significant distances. Even before our lives were so intertwined by easy travel, pandemic was a grave threat. That realistic, chilling horror behind the novel and its atmosphere slowly builds as Wickstead descends further into fear. By the novel’s close McGregor builds this to intense moments of visceral horror that fans of the genre will appreciate and will have been awaiting; gore presaged by the opening scene of Hester’s slaughter of the lamb.

I feel as though there is still a lot one could say about this novel, but I’ll finish things off before droning on too long. I’m not sure I could imagine this novel being written any better. I stupidly left my copy of the book at home or I would have put quotes in here to show the power of its language and Hester’s voice. It’s still rather early in 2021, but I can be certain that this novel will feature as one of my favorites for the year, and even more I can see it as a novel I could look forward to returning to reread; savor it a second time in a year to come. McGregor’s writing is new to me, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for future releases by him or copies of his previously published work. And I’m eager to start the next of Off Limits Press‘s offerings.


SKIM DEEP by Max Allan Collins

Skim Deep
(Frank Nolan Series #9; Hard Case Crime Series #146)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime — December 2020
ISBN: 9781789091397
— Paperback — 256 pp.


I’ve been a fan of the Hard Case Crime series for awhile now, and like the media-tie-in series that I follow, I’ve been trying to keep up with reading each of the new releases under its banner. On occasion there is one that I really don’t care for, but the majority I find wonderfully entertaining, in that light reading kind of way. They span a variety of the mystery/crime/thriller genre with both classic reprints, new additions to series, and completely new creations from modern-day noir writers. They all have that tinge of noir pulp that I adore, even when it comes across as dated.

Shamus-award winning and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Max Allan Collins is probably a name familiar to anyone who reads the genre. Some bit of his prolific output in prose and graphic novels is likely familiar to an even broader swatch of the pop culture population. His Road to Perdition comic series was made into a film with Tom Hanks, and his Quarry novel series more recently appeared as a Cinemax TV series. I’ve read most all – if not all – of the Quarry novels from Hard Case Crime, and reviewed one here awhile back. I remember enjoying these to varying degrees, so the news of a new Collins novel was something to celebrate and anticipate.

Now, I’m less familiar with Collins’ Nolan series, featuring the Lee van Cleef lookalike professional thief Frank Nolan. I may have read Two for the Money, put out by Hard Case Crime in its early days (#5), but it’s too long to remember. The good thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Nolan. or if you have read any of the previous eight books featuring him, to enjoy Skim Deep. At this stage the thief has gone straight, running a restaurant/nightclub in the midwest with his lover Sherry, a former showgirl. He’s made peace with mafia powers that he formerly clashed with, and has been allowed to step aside to settle into a civilian’s life away from crime. Deciding to take things one step further and marry Sherry, the couple leaves on a whim for a Vegas ceremony. There they stay at the French Quarter Hotel (a thinly veiled Orleans), where Nolan’s friend and former accomplice Jon now works, also having gone straight, in the dreams of opening his own comic shop. Unfortunately, Nolan’s former reputation gains unsolicited notice from some in Vegas, including an acquaintance who decides to use Nolan’s surprise appearance to further his own criminal plans. In the meantime, the matriarch of a criminal family sets her youngest son with a mission to kill Nolan and bring her his head, in retribution for Nolan’s prior role in her eldest son’s death. Even if Nolan and Sherry manage to make it out of Vegas alive, an assassin awaits the new husband and wife at their doorway.

Skim Deep suffers most from the execution of its plot. The set up is a good one, but it proceeds predictably. This might not be a real terrible thing for this kind of pulp read, if the plot could have included more twists toward those predictable conclusions, or if the antagonists of the novel showed any modicum of competence as threats to Nolan, Sherry, or Jon. Two separate threats emerge in the novel against Nolan, but the perpetrators of each are almost comically inept. They also both are unwilling antagonists, acting not out of any particular dislike of Nolan, but feeling forced into the situation for want of money – and ultimately for want of keeping a hot wife. The stakes never seem particularly high for the ‘good guys’ of the novel, and each threat becomes dispatched with little fanfare. Sherry does serve a role in the novel, albeit with dated pulp tones of misogyny (e.g. honor and obey the husband); she’s a cheerleader and emotional support for Nolan as well as representation of the one thing he loves, a person who only chose to be associated with crime indirectly through a relationship with him. On the other hand, Jon seems largely dispensable to what occurs in the novel. I gather he is a larger part of previous novels in the series, serving as a young, nerdy and loyal foil to the classic principled and noble tough guy that is Nolan. There’s unfortunately little in Skim Deep featuring that, or to give Jon purpose and import in events.

Despite these flaws, Skim Deep works with the simple fact that Collins can write. The noir tone and Nolan’s personality shine in the dialogue and descriptions from the former thief’s point of view. Further, even if the survival of the hero is certain or they never really feel in danger, the story still flows in the enjoyment of the righteous justice against those who dared think they could hurt the noble Nolan or the innocent Sherry.

Like any criminal protagonist that writers ask audiences to get behind (your Boba Fetts), Nolan may be a thief, but he has a code of honor and respect. He is not evil, nor does he compromise on principals to take the easier path or gain reward. The antagonists of Skim Deep may not be evil either, but they have weak resolves and lack self confidence. They fear losing things they don’t think they necessarily even deserved in the first place. They don’t want to accept what might come, and they will hurt others to selfishly benefit. Nolan may not deserve Sherry. But he knows that he has her love and respect. And she knows she has the same from him. If he did something of his own fault to change that, he would not destroy more lives for his shortcomings. The contrast between these character traits between the protagonists and antagonists is at least interesting in Skim Deep, even if it does then contribute to the sheer lack of potency in those villains as credible threats.

After all this I feel kind of silly trying to analyze the novel. Even with shortcomings, it is a fine entertaining crime read, exactly what I’m looking for when I crack open a Hard Case Crime, and as usual Collins makes even the predictable fun. If you are already a Collins or Hard Case Crime fan, you’re sure to love this too. Fans of the genre who don’t know Collins or the Nolan novels would still find this worth checking out. The opportunity to discover more of the Nolan novels is also coming soon, as Hard Case Crime will be rereleasing the earlier books in the series in the coming month; you could always wait to start with those too. I’m intrigued to meet the Nolan of his more wild days that brought him here to Skim Deep.


THE DARK MAGAZINE #68 (January 2021) Edited by Sean Wallace


Three of the four stories in this issue I adored, and the other might be appreciated by those who aren’t put off by its voice. The Dark Magazine continues to excel in presenting horror/dark fantasy that span a large variety of the genres, with no two stories alike here.

“The Van Etten House” by Carrie Laben — Two friends begin a partnership as online collectible dealers in their college town after graduation. Within the packed house of deceased hoarder, they discover a room of custom-made dolls that appear modeled after children contacted though Christian magazine pen-pal want ads. And it gets ore unsettling. The most conventional horror story in the issue, in this case also one of my favorites. Creepy dolls will always be something that gets me, and the idea gets a fresh look here both in terms of the doll’s creator and their effects. Alongside this, the strength of the bond between the partners becomes tested. This could fit right in adapted into a horror anthology TV series, and I loved its atmosphere of familiar horror territory in a new way.

“Love for Ashes” by Frances Ogamba — You did not read this story because I started talking to you in it.

“There, in the Woods” by Clara Madrigano — A woman living in her childhood home considers the recent disappearance of a boy from the neighborhood in the nearby woods, a sinister place where her husband also recently disappeared, and others in her past. Understandably questioned by police, she find herself unable to leave the house, yet still drawn by the lure of the woods and the truth she knows deep down. The story can be read symbolically, or literally as horror/fantasy, and it could likely evoke different interpretations according to the reader and details held onto. It’s unsettling and mysterious, and I’ll look forward now to more from the author written in English as this, or translated from Portuguese.

“Each Night an Adaptation” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu — A girl sleeps in her dead father’s house to help him enter the afterlife, and to help her mother who cannot handle keeping the tradition herself. And how this shapes her future. A touching short piece on how people handle grief, deal with the heaviness of expectations, and confront horror. Though dark, it is pervaded with an atmosphere of perseverance and strength in its protagonist, the aptly named Destiny.

The issue also features cover art by Vincent Chong.