Category Archives: E-Market / Monthly

Nightmare #19, April 2014

Reviewed by Lillian Csernica

“Sleep Paralysis” by Dale Bailey

An aging mortician suffers horrifying dreams that leave him paralyzed. Only the touch of his trophy wife brings him any relief. His nights are still disrupted by the dreams of a strange figure sneaking in through the window and the sudden paralysis. A colleague comments on the rumors circulating about what the mortician’s young wife is really up to when she’s out organizing or attending charitable events. When the mortician finally retires to spend more time with his wife, she keeps making excuses which delay her own retirement from the fundraiser circuit. The nightmares reach a climax that mingles a lifetime’s terror with present anxieties. The mortician emerges from it refreshed and ready to reopen his business. The simple truth here is that I spotted the ending the minute the colleague made oblique reference to possible infidelity. Maybe I watch too much Dexter, but when the main character has the skills and the tools, something tells me that by the end of the story he’s going to use both.

“It Was Never the Fire” by Martin Cahill

The high school loner and a misfit obsessed with smoke become companions. “Smokey” thinks he can learn the true essence of something by lighting it on fire and breathing in the smoke. The loner’s memories hint at serious abuse by his father or whomever his mother was sleeping with at the time. “Smokey” has a sister whose efforts to have a life separate from Smokey and his obsession result in tragic consequences. “Smokey’s” crush on the loner’s sister leads to a final confrontation and a fiery climax, but that’s not the end of the story.

The characters and settings reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s juvenile delinquent stories. “Smokey” and the loner are both broken, both trying to survive what’s been done to them and what they will have to endure because of what they do. The story has one main weakness. “Smokey’s” bizarre mysticism brings fantastical elements into the story that just don’t add up. They’re intended to bring full shuddery meaning to the denouement. I was left with the unhappy and all too familiar image of the abuse cycle repeating itself in a new generation.

Lightspeed #47, April 2014

Reviewed by Charles Payseur

Told as a series of strange comments about eggs a woman hears on a flight, Carmen Maria Machado‘s “Observations About Eggs” defies being classified as any traditional genre. Divided into fifteen small sections that vary in length, the story, such as it is, is more a collection of thoughts, ideas, musings, and theories. And because of the unusual structure, some of the observations are interesting, or funny, or kind of creepy, but others tended to fall a little flat. Much like a platter of egg dishes, some were appealing and delightful and some were just strange and opaque. And while fun in places, it’s hard to say if the story poached as well as it could have.

Linda Nagata crafts a tight near-future military science fiction story in “Codename: Delphi.” Delphi, a woman in charge of assisting and analyzing real-time military actions, must stay alert and focused as she jumps between first three, then four different teams of soldiers, all engaged in different and dangerous missions. Testing the limits of her mental abilities and endurance, Delphi contemplates her role in the military and if she can continue when the stress and workload has her drained and fraying. The action is fast and constant, placing the reader in the frantic situation Delphi lives in and delivering a satisfying and complex story that left me almost gasping for air.

In “Complex God,” Scott Sigler tells a sort of mad scientist story starring Dr. Petra Prawatt, the creator of a type of small cyborg that cleans radioactive contamination. Full of a brash confidence and the best of intentions, Petra shows off her progress to the governor of Michigan in a Detroit that has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. And while her creations seem to be working perfectly at first blush, as Petra moves closer to ground zero there are signs that something has gone very wrong, or perhaps very right. The story is part science fiction, part horror, part something else entirely, and by the end there is the feeling that things are going to change, but whether for good or bad remains left up in the air. What is more certain is that the story is compelling and filled with interesting ideas. Petra makes a great protagonist, flawed by her intelligence and ambition, and yet still very sympathetic, very human even as she becomes something of a god.

“Francisca Montoya’s Almanac of Things That Can Kill You” is another story told as a sort of list, but Shaenon K. Garrity uses the almanac style to weave a post-apocalyptic story of an aging doctor moving through the mountains, trying to stave off hypothermia and other maladies. The entries tell of a world suffering from the White Plague, a world that Francisca had successfully navigated for many years as a doctor. Pushed to take an ill-advised trip through the mountains in winter, though, in the hopes of curing the plague, the entries slowly reveal the misfortunes that fell on her and her companion on the way. It is a stark tale, dark but with a certain wit and sarcasm, and does a good job of building up the world and the story slowly from entry to entry. It is not a happy tale, but it is a well crafted one, cleverly told, and I enjoyed reading it.

Everything gets flipped in Thomas Olde Heuvelt‘s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” a weird story that follows Toby, a recently dumped man, after he survives the world’s gravity suddenly inverting. Teaming up with a young girl, hand gliding through the endless sky, having tea with old ladies, the story follows Toby on his quest to reunite with Sophie, the woman who dumped him. The writing is strange and haunting at times, and the story does a decent job of showing Toby’s pain, his anguish at having lost the love of his life, but I felt that he was too selfish a character, too full of himself to completely enjoy reading about his journey. As an extended metaphor the story works, with Toby’s physical world mirroring his mental world that is turned upside down by his breakup, but the story itself dragged on a bit in places. While definitely an interesting concept, I just never felt that invested in the outcome, so the whole thing landed a bit weak for me.


Charles Payseur lives with his partner and their growing herd of cats in the icy reaches of Wisconsin, where companionship, books, and craft beer gets him through the long winters. His fiction has appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction and is forthcoming from Wily Writers and Dragon’s Roost Press.

Clarkesworld #90, March 2014

Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia

A thought-provoking issue of Clarkesworld that takes calculated risks.

“Morrigan in the Sunglare” by Seth Dickinson tells the story of two soldiers facing death on a spaceship falling into the sun. Laporte, the main character, contemplates her history with Simms, her captain, and the state of her soul as a “born killer.” Dickinson regales the reader with an intricate balance of romance, character study, and philosophy. Although the introductory scene contains some unclear character references (hint: there are only two important characters), the ending scene tops off with a poignant last line.

“Human Strandings and the Role of the Xenobiologist” by Thoraiya Dyer presents the reader with two intersecting narratives; first, of a girl who is stranded on an alien planet and then returned to a changed Earth, and second, of the aliens who find and return her. Kelly, the girl, grows up on the unpleasant alien planet and then finds herself launched back to an equally unpleasant Earth controlled by the Unity AI. Jid and Sil, the aliens who find her, assume the roles of xenobiologists, investing themselves in Kelly and in human kind’s future. The two parallel narratives give each other broader context and perspective that should satisfy readers who love character and plot equally. Dyer’s story imparts a healthy sense of wonder and fear in a future setting.
 

“Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)” by Juliette Wade is a fantasy that follows Kitano Naoko’s struggle to study for the entrance exams while fending off a mental breakdown. When Kitano meets two yokai (spirits) assembled from garbage, she fears she’s lost the battle for her future and her sanity. Interacting with the spirits brings Kitano closer to the spirit world and closer to losing her human soul. Juliette Wade intersperses Japanese vocabulary in a smart, understandable way that enhances the authentic feel of the piece without hindering comprehension. The format and progression of the story are handled expertly, from the mention of “Adults day” as a coming-of-age reference, to obaa-chan (grandma)’s advice in the last scene.
 


Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.

Penumbra #29, February 2014

Reviewed by Charles Payseur

A thirsty traveler is more than he appears in “The Anubis Gift” by Cathy Douglas, a mythological fantasy in which Khephra, a young Egyptian woman, gets a little bit more than she wished for. Told as a sort of morality fable, Khephra faces not only the aspect of helping a man in need but also the temptation of being rewarded by a god. Khephra’s situation is relatable, her reactions human, and her reward a mix of punishment and justice. The moral of the story, though, seemed to me just a bit too simple to be completely satisfying. While I found Anubis’ judgment interesting, the story left me a bit wanting for something more.

Carol Holland March weaves a tale of magic realism in “The Call of the Benu,” in which two lovers, El and Addie, find their way into a new world. Set in a post-apocalyptically-flavored near future, Addie cares for El, who is ill, while she has dreams about the coming of a great bird that will usher them into the next life. El’s vibrancy and bright personality are contrasted both by the dullness of her illness and by Addie’s more restrained nature. The situation seems hopeless, and there is the feeling that Addie is getting ready for the end, though El seems to know that it will not come as he suspects. Weaving together ideas of reincarnation and rebirth, the story culminates with the bird revealing itself to both of them, and Addie and El walking forward into their unsure future. There is a sense of hope, though, and vitality, that the sickness that afflicted not just El but the whole world can be wiped away. And that hope is what I found lifting, what helped make the story fly for me.

“The Path of Nephthys,” a historical fantasy by Catherine M. Walter, showcases Nephthys, sister to Queen Isis, as she deals with her inappropriate love for her brother-in-law and the consequences of her magical indiscretions. Though an obedient and dutiful sister and wife, Nephthys finds herself drawn to Osiris, her sister’s husband, and when magic gives her a way to fulfill her desires she takes it, becoming pregnant with Osiris’ child. Hiding the true nature of her pregnancy from both her abusive husband, Typhon, as well as Isis and Osiris, Nephthys hopes to raise the child as legitimate, but a close resemblance to the true father thwarts her, and she is forced to give up her child in hopes it can live safe from Typhon’s rage. Steeped in magic and the politics of royal court, the story flows nicely enough, but I found the morality of the story, as well as the conclusion, a little vague. There were simply too many aspects of the story that didn’t seem clear to appreciate it fully.

A man sneaks into the land of the gods and steals a set of magic scrolls in Brian Trent’s fantasy story “The Scholar and the Books of Thoth.” Djet, having been skillfully killed and revived by his slave Keket, comes back from the dead with tomes of ancient magic and skills, and promptly begins using his new magic to clear a path for himself to power and prestige. Even as he masters the spells of the scrolls, though, justice (and more than one surprise snake) stalks him for his affront to the gods. And in the end not even his new magic can protect him from his own arrogance and greed. While it might be a bit predictable at times, the story nonetheless delivers an interesting take on the Egyptian afterlife and a rather fun tale of divine justice.


Charles Payseur lives with his partner and their growing herd of cats in the icy reaches of Wisconsin, where companionship, books, and craft beer gets him through the long winters. His fiction has appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction and is forthcoming from Wily Writers and Dragon’s Roost Press.

Lightspeed #46, March 2014

Reviewed by Martha Burns

“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders is successful as a tale about the numbing effects of child abuse. Narrator Rock Manning and his best friend, Sally Hamster, have been making viral videos of Rock’s stunts, except Rock is no stuntman like his dad. The flaming bicycle he rides is real, as are the rocks Sally throws at him. It all seems reasonable to Rock since, after all, his first memory is of his dad throwing him off the roof. When Rock is finally trampled by an angry mob protesting its government, Rock senses the injustice vaguely, but still submits.

By pairing Rock’s personal tragedy with the slapstick of the videos, Anders allows us to feel for Rock without emotionally manipulating her audience. This is a huge achievement and makes the story an engrossing read. Yet when Anders uses Rock’s character to make points about propaganda, violence in media, and the role of both in social change, that effort feels tiresome.

In “The Mao Ghost” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu, imagination subverts personal tragedy as well as the memory of political suppression. Qianer’s father may be dying of cancer or he may be turning into a cat (the word for this is “mao”). We feel deeply for the third grader and appreciate the father’s use of the fantastical to ease his child’s grief. However, as one would expect, Qiufan, has a political point to make via the double meaning of “mao.” The intelligent reader would have understand the connection without the dry history lesson Qiufan inserts in the middle of the narrative. Fortunately, it is easy to skip so that we can re-immerse ourselves in the story.

In “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, Tisha is haunted by her first summer at camp where her best friend, Cee, shows her how to vomit up the device the government uses to monitor them. Cee is a vibrant character, but of a type we’ve seen often these last few years—a mouthy teen who sees how things truly are and thereby exposes a corrupt regime.

Ultimately, how much one enjoys these tropes of recent young adult literature dictates how much one enjoys this story.

“A Different Fate” by Kat Howard is not so much a story as a meditation on the role weaving plays in mythology and fairy tales. From Penelope in The Odyssey to the heroine of “Rumplestilskin,” weaving is a way women use art to write their lives. That very promising central conceit is never developed despite a fleeting attempt to tie it to an episode of a contemporary artist who uses weaving, thus we are left with less of a story than a thesis.

Set on the day the universe becomes ruled by magic, “Phalloon the Illimitable” by Matthew Hughes chronicles the fight between two would-be wizards. The fate of everything rests on Erm Kaslo, the quick-thinking operative employed by kindly Diomedo Obron.  Kaslo knows that science may have fallen to magic, but even a magician as evil as Phalloon can still fall for wine. Although fun and engaging at the outset, the length of the battle scene reduces the impact of the final comic turn.

Apex Magazine #58, March 2014

Reviewed by Jamie Lackey

This month’s issue also includes two exclusive stories to which I have no access. The stories that are available are all beautifully-written and haunting, but they hold the reader at arm’s length, and for the most part, I had a hard time caring.

The protagonist in “Waking” by Cat Hellisen works in her family’s angel-dedicated museum. The part-flesh, part-clockwork angels are a mystery—they appeared then withered and died without any explanation. But when she and her younger sister find a rusting angel in the woods, they try to learn to listen and understand, and eventually give the angel a voice. At the end of the story, the other characters tell the protagonist that she was the key to the transformation, but I’m not exactly sure how that’s true.

“Undone” by Mari Ness is a retelling of the fairy tale The Six Swans, told from the point of view of the swan-armed brother. He resents his unfinished state, and turns against his sister. The prose is lovely, but I didn’t find the story engaging.

The maiden and the dragon in “To Increase His Wondrous Greatnesse More” by Sunny Moraine conspire together to change their story. The story offers three potential endings, and in the final one, they fly away to be monsters together. I liked the theme, but the story just didn’t draw me in.

“The End of the World in Five Dates” by Claire Humphrey is my favorite of the stories in this issue. Each date is a foretold apocalypse, leading up to the date that the main character, Cass, has seen as the end of the world. Her vision does come to pass exactly as she saw it, but it’s not what she expected, and she has to deal with life going on.


Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

Aurealis #68, March 2014

Reviewed by Kris Rudin

“Icarus” by Tara Calaby is a clever update on the classical Icarus myth. Set in a future Earth, where body augmentation is commonplace (at least among those who can afford it), a new fad is sweeping Europe: wings. Those who get the wings soon create an even more elite societal group. But there are rumors of some of that select group disappearing without a trace. Alex is a technician who prepares the wings to be joined with humans, but she can never afford them herself. She longs to be set free from gravity and her lower class existence, but she would have to steal the wings to make that happen – and she’s not worried about the rumors. It’s a well-written story, though the time Alex spends with the winged set seems a little rushed. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting twist on a well-known tale, with the tech behind the wings just believable enough.

“Avoiding Gagarin” by David Stevens imagines how the US/USSR space race of the 1960s would be if the ‘final frontier’ being explored isn’t outer space, but something a bit more final. Told with generous name-dropping, it manages to evoke that era quite believably. Any fan of the astronauts/cosmonauts of the early space age will get a kick out of this one.

Nightmare #18, March 2014

Reviewed by Lillian Csernica

The central device of Genevieve Valentine‘s “A Dweller in Amenty” is the concept of the sin-eater. For a very high price, the protagonist will come to the home of the deceased prior to the burial and sit down to a detailed ritual of consuming the deceased’s sins in the form of that person’s favorite foods. The protagonist has a slightly cynical perspective, one that brings to mind Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake. Quite a lot of information is packed into this story, including the origin of the nonexistent location “Amenty” in Ammut of Egyptian mythology. Anubis places the heart of the dead person in the scales of Ma’at, goddess of Truth, to be weighed against her feather. The heart heavy with sin is consumed by Ammut and the sinner is denied both reincarnation and final peace. There tradition and lore of the sin-eater are woven expertly into the protagonist’s present case, giving an “insider’s view” of the costs and compensations. Ms. Valentine’s style is smooth, polished, and a pleasure to read. She knows just when to hold back and let the reader’s imagination take over. There’s a twist at the end, and she makes it work quite well.

“Have You Heard the One About Annamaria Marquez?” by Isabel Yap

Set in the Philippines, this story calls to mind a number of horror movies. Mica and her little group of fifth grade girlfriends are facing trials both great and small, from the onset of puberty to the gory thrills of building their section of the Halloween festival haunted house. After listening to their Home Ec teacher talk about opening her third eye, Mica’s friend Hazel attempts to do so. Each scene of the story alternates with a different rumor about how Annamaria Marquez, a student at the school, died in some horrible way, leaving behind her vengeful ghost. Unstable teenage girls, psychic experimentation, haunted house, vengeful ghost. Sound familiar? The abundance of colloquial terms made the story hard to follow, especially in the beginning. I kept waiting for something horrible to happen, either inside the haunted house or in the school itself. The ending left me puzzled. I couldn’t tell if events were meant to imply redemption or condemnation for Mica, nor was I sure what she did or didn’t do.

Penumbra #28, January 2014

Reviewed by Jamie Lackey

The January issue of Penumbra deals with the timely theme of winter.

In “Granny’s Time” by Gary Cuba, Tulok struggles to feed his family, and decides that he can no longer support his aged Granny. He takes her out onto the ice and leaves her, but his luck doesn’t turn around and he and his family attempt to walk to the nearest settlement. The family is dying when Granny returns to give them the supplies they need to make it. The story is preachy and the writing is awkward in places. It is unclear if Granny returns as a ghost—if so, that’s the only speculative element in the story.

Scott Brendel’s “In the Gray Light of Dawn” is another one with a very slight speculative element. Ralph spends a normal morning before killing himself to be with his dead wife, who spent the morning with him either as a memory or as a ghost.

In “Preacher Man,” this month’s featured story, Kate Hall uses evocative language to capture a feeling of madness. Preacher Man lives on the streets and tries to ignore the devil who whispers in his ear. Then, as snow begins to fall, he realizes that winter is just as bad, if not worse. The unreliable narrator undermined any hint of a speculative element in the story, and the ending fell flat.

“Dog Days” by Michael Mina opens with a woman fleeing two men. She has no memory, and it’s not clear why the men are chasing her. She seeks shelter with an old man who kills them and drugs her. The story relies too heavily on a twist ending that reveals the woman’s identity, and the dialog is awkward.

In “Contrafactum” by Sean Logan, Gerald hosts a classical music radio program, and he’s approached by a stranger who offers to let him listen to a rare recording. One of Gerald’s friends tells him the dark history behind the music, but when he decides to pass, he’s kidnapped and forced to listen anyway. The story goes for creeping horror, but relies on too much exposition, and the pacing suffers.


Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

Lightspeed #45, February 2014

Reviewed by Jamie Lackey

“Coma Kings” by Jessica Barber is a wrenching story of loss. Jennifer’s sister has hardwired herself into an immersive video game, and her body is slowly dying. As time goes by, and Annie refuses all of her game requests and ignores all of her messages, Jennifer feels herself caring less and less about the real world, but she’s not quite able to let go. When she and Annie do play again, things don’t end up the way Jennifer had hoped.

In “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow,” Sunny Moraine reimagines the ending of “The Little Mermaid.” The mermaid doesn’t turn to foam—instead she sinks down to the bottom of the ocean and makes another deal with the sea witch. After she’s granted new life, she swims back to the surface to seek her revenge. The writing is evocative and beautiful, and the story itself is chilling.

“Harry and Marlowe and the Intrigues at the Aetherian Exhibition” by Carrie Vaughn is a fun romp. Harry is a princess, granddaughter to Queen Victoria, and she’s fascinated by alien technology that crashed into England on the day of her birth. She attends an exhibition of alien-inspired technology with her family, and her brother requests her help in looking for German spies.

 Kino is a young engineer, chosen to help create Xana’s air force to improve their position in the Seven States of Dara. Ken Liu tells his story in “None Owns the Air.” Kino travels to the Temple of Kiji with his sister to study the sacred falcons and the secrets of their flight. He kills one of the sacred birds to study, and his pious sister aids him instead of reporting his blasphemy. When she is punished and he is rewarded, he’s left to try to navigate the political currents as best he can. The setting and descriptions are vivid, and the characters are interesting.


Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.