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Clockwork Phoenix 5 (Volume 5) Paperback – April 5, 2016
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I also received a copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway, which altered my opinion not in the least.
Story Reviews, in random order:
THE SOULS OF HORSES by Beth Cato. Man, what a fantastic way to conclude this anthology. Cato's story takes place in an alternate history where magic exists. The full extent of the magic isn't quite addressed in the story, but the reader does know that there are those with the ability to move the souls of dying horses into wooden homes -- carousel horses and statues and the like -- if the horse so wishes. But of course, in times of war all inventions are co-opted to the war effort. So Ilsa finds herself conscripted by the Confederate Army to transfer the souls of horses dying from battle wounds into new homes. But not the stationary homes she's always been able to carve for them. The story takes a dark look at how even art is subverted to the war effort but is still full of hope. I fell in love with the characters of Ilsa and Culver, and was curious at the relationship between slave Culver and his master Lieutenant Dennis, and was not happy at the methods Captain Mayfair uses to press Ilsa into service (nothing sexual, mind you. Just underhanded.) I'd love to see more stories with these characters and in this world.
INNUMBERABLE GLIMMERING LIGHTS by Rich Larson. Four Warm Currents is a scientist who believes the ice that covers his watery world can be broken through, that there is another world to explore on the other side. The powers-that-be in his world fund his research, but the closer he comes to success with his Drill, the more the fear and concern of the general populace threatens to destroy the project. Larson's story has a lot to say about how we approach exploration and research, and how easy it is for fear and rumor to way-lay world-changing work. Even with that big picture, the story is still about one person's attempts to reach his life goal, and how his determination affects his family (in this case, two spouses and a soon-to-be-born pod of children). I loved the story not just for the characters but also for the wonderful non-human world-building Larson did, making not just the physicality of the characters and the history of their society threads in the story fabric, but also crafting a method of communication that is so different from the senses we use to consciously communicate.
THE GAMES WE PLAY by Cassandra Khaw. Genre fiction is full of stories where the disempowered/disenfranchised rise up in some way against their oppressors. In short fiction, it feels like this struggle is usually told on a very intimate scale: soldier against officer, impoverished resident against rich landlord, child against parent. So what's really impressive in Khaw's story is that the battle is intimate (supplicant vs. king) but the stakes are societal (subservient species vs. overlord species), the outcome of this personal battle possibly affected the precarious relationship between the races. Khaw pulls it off masterfully, with a main character (Yavena) that we immediately feel we can root for and an adversary (the Dog King) who is intriguing and possibly also likeable. The ebb-and-flow of the tension gives the reader small respites before the big final scene. One of my favorites of the collection.
BY THREAD OF NIGHT AND STARLIGHT NEEDLE by Shveta Thakrar. Thakrar's story builds upon a mystery for the reader (rather than a mystery involving the characters): what do these various vignettes about siblings have in common? What connections can be made between these various pairs, in their different societies and time frames and economic circumstances? The author does answer that question, very sastisfactorily, by the end of the story ... and without the necessity of an info-dump for the reader. The vignettes overlap and interweave, with focus on two particular sister-brother pairs. I love stories that explore why we need each other, and Thakrar does that so well here.
TWO BRIGHT VENUSES by Alex Dally MacFarlane. I will not pretend that I understood the science behind the story. But the concept (of a Superior Venus and an Inferior Venus both existing, and thus needed two of the same person -- a Superior Irunn and an Inferior Irunn -- to explore them) pulled me in right away. The language here is lyrical, poetic, and full of big concepts that are still accessible. MacFarlane's two Irunns to me represent the Social vs the Interior of every person, and the story made me think of how to be whole, we must balance these two parts.
THE TRINITITE GOLEM by Sonya Taaffe. Taaffe's short, tightly-focused tale tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer's guilt long after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, infused with the methods by which the government tried (and largely succeeded) to destroy him. Oppeheimer encounters a classic Golem ... or does he? So much of the story seems to be in the main character's mind that I found myself wondering if the encounter is real or imagined? Ultimately, I don't think it matters to the strength of the story, which is a bullet of grief and regret but also a little bit of hope.
THE TIGER'S SILENT ROAR by Holly Heisey. Heisey's story of a renowned artist (Evin) with a secret that could ruin his career, and his encounter with a soul-hunter (Mira Tran) works on so many levels I don't think I can talk about all of them in a what is meant to be a short review. It's a treatise on the nature of art, the nature of creation. It's a discussion of how art can change not only an individual (Tran has never seen Evin's art in person, only photographs) but also society as a whole. It's about small incremental changes leading to big changes, and it's about privilege. It's just a really stunning, really intimate story.
THE BOOK OF MAY by C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez. I love epistolary stories and novels, have done so since I first read Dracula in high school. There's something about watching a story unfold via letters, journal entries, newspaper articles and such ephemera that just adds a level of intrigue to the story. I find myself wondering what the character's intent was behind the letter she sent, what meaning can be gleaned from whether he sent his message by post or by telegram or by private courier. And now, with email almost considered outmoded and so much shared via text messaging and social media -- those questions become even more interesting. Cooney and Hernandez drew me in with the tone of Morgan/May's first email to Eliazar/Harry and his response, and I was hooked the rest of the way through the emails, the text messages, the snail-mailed letters. Morgan is clearly dying, and so I found myself wondering how much of what she writes is lucid, how reliable/unreliable she is as a narrator? Which lead to wondering how much of what Harry was writing was fantasy as well. And the story takes such delightful detours on the way to a really wonderful conclusion. I also recognized the roles of ill friend and healthy caretaker, having been in both at various points in my life (although thankfully not as a terminally ill patient), and that helped the story strike home even more.
SOCIAL VISITING by Sunil Patel. Patel's story starts mundanely enough: teenage Shaila is forced by her parents to endure yet another Sunday of social visiting with various motel-owning relatives, aunts and uncles who dote on her and try to feed her and make her drink teas she doesn't really enjoy. But she does what she must to keep the family happy -- and then discovers she's been tested for a destiny that involves fighting a famous Indian demon banished by Rama long ago. Patel's two main charaacters, Shaila and Divya, are relatable and strong young women, and the adult characters (Shaila's parents and her aunt Ranitamasi) are equally well-drawn. So often in this sort of story the teenagers are beyond average and the adults are disconnected and stupid, but Patel makes everyone a vital part of the story, and doesn't let Shaila's initial "sarcastic teenager" tone overwhelm the story or make her unlikeable.
THE PRIME IMPORTANCE OF A HAPPY NUMBER by Sam Fleming. This is a really cool alternate-history story where super-villains are just common-place enough for the public to accept them, and the heroes who fight them are largely introverts/hermits who do what they must but without the flamboyant code-names of their enemies, and without costumes and posturing. A new villain called The Prime wreaks magical havoc in Europe, and it's up to origami-magic-weilding Audrey and her team, including her retired mentor Kenneth, to stop the man. Their main confrontation takes place over tea. It's a super-hero vs. super-villain story with not a bit of city-destroying fight in it, and yet the confrontration is full of tension and the reader's knowledge that if this doesn't go well, cities could be destroyed and people killed. I have no idea if there are other stories with these characters, but the character development and world-building make it feel as though there must be.
A GUIDE TO BIRDS BY SONG (AFTER DEATH) by A.C. Wise. This was a hard story for me to process, and I find myself still thinking about it days after reading it. The main characters, Dana and Gabrielle, are both processing the suicide of Dana's former lover. Dana is writing about it, in a manuscript Gabrielle has never been given permission to read but which she's looked at anyway. There's an angel that Dana may or may not have met who may or may not be influencing her writing. The story has multiple layers, and I was never really sure what was real and what was just in characters' minds -- which I think might be the author's point. My take-away from the story is that grief over the sudden loss of a loved one is never easy to accept or process, and our minds will go through a variety of convolutions to make that loss hurt less.
THE SORCERER OF ETAH by Gray Rinehart. Issi is on a mission from his village to bring a powerful artifact to Anoraa, the sorcerer of Etah. He's been sent because his eyesight, his ability to see far objects with close-up clarity, is almost a magical guarantee that he will not fail. Then his dead mother's spirit appears, and something happens to wreck Issa's magical vision. The rest of the story is a battle of wills between an injured man intent on completing his mission and a supernatural force determined to stop him. I found the story exciting and involving, the fights scenes equally with the quieter introspective moments.
SQUEEZE by Rob Cameron. Cameron's story is perhaps the shortest in the anthology, and it packs an emotional punch that might be bigger than any of the stories I've read so far. It's a first-person narrative of loss, of loneliness, of the rituals we put in place to prevent forgetting the deceased and how even those rituals break down and fail us over time, until something else sparks an emotion in us. In this case, an encounter with a ghostly figure and a haunted woman. A really engrossing tale that had tears in my eyes at the end.
THE FINCH'S WEDDING AND THE HIVE THAT SINGS by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. I can't say that I understood all of the world-building in Sriduangkaew's latest, but man did I enjoy the story anyway. It takes place in a star system/galaxy where the military is music-based (and not just the military structure of Choirs and Cantos and Envois, but the way they do battle as well) while the religion is bird-based (monasteries/monastic leaders named after birds like the Finch and the Cormorant). The high concept aspects are beautifully, dare I say lyrically, expressed. But at its heart, this is a story of love and politics, and the character intrigue at the center of it is what really grabbed me.
THE MIRROR-CITY by Marie Brennan. I would say that Brennan's story qualifies as urban fantasy on the grounds that the city the story takes place in is as much a character as the main character himself. On a day that ends the city-wide mourning for the death of the previous Giovane, Mafeo sneaks across the streets of La Specchia to avoid not only the city-guards but also seeing his own reflection in any glass, metal or water. He's trying to avoid a fate he never thought he'd be chosen for, and the story alternates between the city's populace's superstitions about what will happen if anyone were to see their own reflection before the new Giovane sees his, and Mafeo's reflections on why he's attempting to flee the city. It's a fast moving tale that feels vast and intimate at the same time.
THE PERFECT HAPPY FAMILY by Patricia Russo. There's an old adage I never quote correctly which basically says "there's the family we're born into, and then there's the family we build around us." The characters in Russo's short, gut-punchy story do exactly that. Brought together almost accidentally by a man named Ched as they travel an unnamed world, they build their own family and assign each person a title: Grandmother. Father. Uncle. Grand-Uncle. Brother. Sister. Mother. Each character is damaged or cursed in some way, but they collectively work to use their own damage to help repair the others. (Which also brings to mind the old adage about a rising tide raising all ships.) Russo's character work is great, her character names distinctive without being stereotypically "high fantasy," and the world the characters inhabit is intriguing.
THE FALL SHALL FURTHER THE FLIGHT IN ME by Rachael K. Jones. What a sad, beautiful, longing story. Ananda lives in a society that believes "saints" must carry their prayers (especially prayers of rain for their drought-stricken area) to heaven. They accomplish this by living in isolation and repenting of all sin, until they are finally so unburdened that they slowly rise into the sky. Ananda's grandmother was one such saint; Ananda's mother was supposed to but succumbed to earthly desires and failed her people. Ananda must essentially make up for her mother's failure. But then an angel crashes to Earth in Ananda's sequestered property, and things begin to change. There's so much poetic language here that really captures the heightened, disconnected life Ananda lives, while commenting on the lengths some of us will go to satisfy others, and the unrealistic and harmful expectations we often put on those people.
THE WIND AT HIS BACK by Jason Kimble. Benito is the sherrif of a small western frontier town that happened to also be home to a number of fantastical races and creatures that seem to mostly peacefully co-exist: giants, jackalopes and others. Benny has a secret he's even kept from his husband Casey: that he used to be a Pac -- one of Pecos Bill's tornado-wranglers. But the past always catches up to us, and this is the story of how Benny's comes back to haunt him. I feel like this story must be part of a bigger world Kimble has created -- it feels too big, too heavily-detailed, to belong to just one story. It's a great piece of world building, either way -- familiar enough to match the real world and folk history we know, with the fantastic elements sitting so easily beside the "normal" details that it all feels natural. There are no info-dumps for the world-building -- it comes from character interactions and dialogue for the most part, and even when it is in expostion, the exposition doesn't feel like an interruption. And I really liked both Benito and Casey, as well as the giant girl Sarah and the mystery of town doctor Yuna. I'll be happy if there's more to come with these folks.
SABBATH WINE by Barbara Krasnoff. Krasnoff's tale of the meeting of nine year old Malka Hirsch and twelve year old David Richards as they sit on the stoop of a brownstone apartment building church listening to a gospel choir gets off to an interesting start when David announces that he's actually dead. Malka decides that, dead or not, she'd like to teach him about Sabbath dinner, even though her father is far from being a devout observer of the faith. Abe will do anything for his little girl, even host a religious observance he no longer believes in; but the problem is Prohibtion is in effect and Sabbath wine is hard to come by. This leads to a meeting between Abe and David's father, who happens to be bootlegger. And then the heart of the story comes to light. Krasnoff's four main characters are all ghost-walking through the life around them, in the world but no longer really of it. Their individuals pleasures and pains, joys and regrets, fill the story with a lancet of lonliness and love.
THE ROAD, AND THE VALLEY, AND THE BEASTS by Keffy R.M. Kehrli. The narrator of Kehrli's story lives in a town with no name which receives no visitors. The residents are not born there, but live, grow old and die there. If they have any memory of how they came to this place, the narrator doesn't profess it. The narrator and the narrator's friend Ria are the youngest adults in the town, and they share a common joy: watching the strange beasts that travel the only road that passes near the village. In the morning, the beasts carry the dead past the village to some unknown destination; in the evenings they return the way they came, their burden lifted. Both the narrator and Ria know that a bigger world exists outside thier town: the question is, what must they do to find out where the beasts are coming from and where the dead they carry are laid to rest? Kehrli provides no easy answers throughout the day on which the story takes place, but entices the reader with hints and intimations to draw their own conclusions. The narrator's voice, haunted and dissatisfied with not knowing what the past held, drew me in right away. It reflects the times in my own life when I've wondered "how did I get here? Where am I going? Who really am I?" And while the story itself may not answer those questions, even for the narrator, it does provide some answers, and some food for thought: maybe sometimes, how we got to a place is not as important as what we're meant to do while we're there.