Short Story Reviews: August – November 2013
Time for another installment of short story mini-reviews! As I’ve said before, I’m doing these mini-reviews partly because I just think it is so neat that there is all of this fiction available for free online. This post is mostly text stories, although we’re going to start off with two podcasts.
First one from Beneath Ceaseless Skies:
In Hangman by Erin Cashier, the Hangman is a man caught between life and death, unable to die but unable to really live, who is called upon by a young boy to save his mama from the fate decided for her. This was a cool setting – sort of post-apocalyptic, sort of steampunky, sort of Western-ish. Not entirely well-explained, but imaginative, and atmospheric enough that I was willing to go with it. The character of the Hangman was really interesting, not something I’ve seen before, and the narrator of the podcast did a nice job giving him the right amount of gravel and bleakness to his tone.
Listen to it | Read it
And one from Podcastle:
On Bookstores, Burners, and Origami by Jason D. Wittman is an alternate history, set in post-Civil War America, where “dark” literature is not exactly banned, but certainly frowned upon, and a bookstore that prints such scandalous literature is targeted by the Burners. This was an interesting mix of ideas that all flowed together to create a single story, from Japanese origami to the Jewish golem myth, with a little bit of Edgar Allan Poe, a hefty dose of Ray Bradbury, and some dirigibles tossed in for good measure, all in service of the idea of the power to transform something that could be anything – a blank piece of paper – into something more. But while the ideas were interesting, and the story flowed pretty well, it just didn’t have that spark to really draw me in.
Listen to it | Read it
The rest of today’s short stories are from Tor.com; I downloaded their five-year e-book compilation over the summer and have been reading a story here and there, which is why they are in alphabetical order.
Foundation by Ann Aguirre is the story of a teenaged boy whose parents moved their family to an underground bunker in a postapocalyptic city, fearing chemical and disease warfare on the surface. Not my favorite. It read as more of a synopsis of a longer story than a story in its own right; there was a lot of “this happened, then this happened, then something else” without giving us time to feel or react. (There are apparently several books by Aguirre set in the same world, which hopefully have a more natural-feeling unfolding of the plot.) Also, this may be a result of the kind of abrupt storytelling style, my inattentive reading, or of my own heteronormative bias, but I wasn’t clear on the gender of the protagonist (and erroneously assumed he was female) for the bulk of the story.
The Department of Alterations by Gennifer Albin is set in a world where women are expected to play the role of loving wife and mother of healthy children, but one woman, the wife of a high-ranking official, has reached the end of her options, and is now seeking out a black-market “tailor” who can perform an almost unthinkable procedure. I wasn’t a fan of this one either; its whole point seemed to be “this is a story that sounds like it’s about a woman seeking an illegal abortion, but she’s actually seeking the opposite of an abortion!”, which didn’t strike me as very interesting. It’s also one of those dystopias that seems to rely on repurposing normal words for more sinister meanings (e.g. “tailor”, “alterations”, “weave”, etc.). The story is set in the world of the author’s novel, so perhaps it would be better in the longer format, but as a short story, it didn’t really intrigue me.
In The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model by Charlie Jane Anders, Fermi’s Paradox is the disparity between the statistical probability of sentient life evolving elsewhere in the universe, and the current total lack of contact with or detection of life on other planets. This short story relies not so much on the paradox itself, but on one of its resolutions, namely that civilizations that progress to a point where they are technologically advanced enough to send and receive interstellar messages will destroy themselves within a relatively short period of time, astronomically speaking. This story is told from the point of view of two aliens who make a living visiting these defunct civilizations, only to find that one is not so dead as they had thought. I liked this story; I thought it was an interesting take on the question of first contact, and fun to see things from the aliens’ point of view, although the alien terminology did make it a little hard to parse initially. The ending was a bit of a let-down, though – the premise could have supported a substantially longer story.
In Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders, the world’s only two clairvoyants begin dating, even though both of them can see how it’s going to end. But where Doug can see one future, Judy can see many possible futures, and this disparity comes to color their own relationship – as they both know it will. This one raised a lot of interesting questions: If you know that a relationship is going to end (which they all do, until one doesn’t), are the good times worth the bad? Do their various ways of seeing the future mean different things for whether or not they have free will? If you know the future, and try to change it, but know that trying to change it won’t work, and so don’t bother trying to change it, is the future changeable or not? Very cool story.
Intestate by Charlie Jane Anders features a mad scientist who has replaced so many parts of himself that he may not even be human anymore, and his plan to summon all of his children and grandchildren home for his birthday, and a big announcement. I liked the writing, I liked the voice of the main character (one of the daughters), and there were some nice moments, but the ending felt really abrupt, and I didn’t really get the point of the story.
In Legacy Lost by Anna Banks, Grom and Nalia, the heirs of the two royal lineages of the Syrena merpeople, are destined to mate, even though they’ve hated each other since they were children. But when they encounter each other as adults, they feel an instant connection – one that may be imperiled by Nalia’s impulsive behavior. The love-at-first-sight angle made this story feel too convenient and not really emotionally resonant, which hampered how invested I was in the ending.
The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo involves girls who are disappearing in the woods near the small village of Duva, and a young girl named Nadya who begins to suspect that her new stepmother, who is cruel and hostile and wants nothing more than to get Nadya out of the house so that she can have Nadya’s father all to herself, might have something to do with it. I loved this. I love fairy and folk tales, particularly retellings, particularly dark retellings. And this story is based on Hansel & Gretel, but it’s darker and more complicated and sadder – and darker – than the familiar version of the story (which features children being sent out into the woods to starve, so that’s already pretty dark.) Leigh Bardugo’s novels were already on my wishlist, but this story has bumped them up to near the top.
The Too-Clever Fox by Leigh Bardugo is a classic trickster story, of a scruffy runt of a fox who manages to talk his way out of dangerous situations, but who may have met more than he can handle when a deadly hunter comes to town. I enjoyed this story quite a bit – it’s a great, dark twist on the talking animal style folk tale. However, I suspect that reading it immediately after “The Witch of Duva” meant that it probably didn’t have as much impact as it might have, since I was half-expecting the dark turns the story takes.
What about you, readers? Read (or listened to) any good short stories lately?
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