So I was not really expecting there to be so much out from Strange Horizons these last two weeks. Normally, there's only a piece of fiction, a poem, and maybe a nonfiction per week. Towards the end of the month, like now, there tends to be even less. But there is a fund drive going on. So first, maybe go and check that out. Then realize with growing apprehension that there are three pieces of fiction to look at, five poems, and two pieces of nonfiction. That's a busy two weeks. Luckily it's all quite good, rather dark, and incredibly helpful as far as the nonfiction is concerned. If this is the content that Strange Horizons keeps offering up, then I definitely want to make sure they keep up and running, and I'm sure I'll donate again this year. Plus, there are prize drawings. Amazing, amazing prize drawings. So yeah, get on that while I get to these reviews.
"Bodies Are the Strongest Conductors" by James Robert Herndon (3459 words)
Well this is...a rather unsettling story about a boy who has too much metal in his blood so that it's dangerous for him to be around metal, to touch metal. I assume because he lacks the ability to get the metal back out. That it will kill him. He lives a sheltered life because of that, his mother keeping him inside. The only other person he really has contact with is Lumpy, another boy his age, but one with some problems of his own. The story does a great job exploring the relationship between the two, with building up the ways they are alone, the ways that they sort of need each other. They are both damaged, but they deal with it in different ways, and Lumpy is obviously abusive because his father is abusive, hurts Nicky because he doesn't really know better, because he mistakes it for love and the story is all sorts of uncomfortable and messed up but also a nice snapshot of loneliness, of isolation, of difference. Nicky, whose problems are largely invisible, and Lumpy, whose problems are anything but. The story circles around that, about the ways that people are different, the ways people hurt each other and also the way people save each other. Nicky is rendered well, afraid and very much a young boy in his interactions with Lumpy but also wary, understanding that Lumpy isn't really a friend. They care for each other but they also are caught in the cycle of abuse, and it's done well and leaves me rather shaken and unsettled. A story to be faced, though, rather than turned away from, much like the situation it presents.
"The Wives of Azhar" by Roshani Chokshi (3335 words)
Okay then, this is a very dark story that's a rather interesting retelling of the Bluebeard story. A retelling, though, that refuses Bluebeard his immortality, that refuses him the place as head of the story, as the figure to pay attention to. Which is what he wants. The story follows a series of four women as they fall to Azhar, as they are killed so that he can try to be immortal. Each of the wives brings something different, and each, though Azhar believes them to be dead, defeated, wholly his, retains something, saves it for the moment when the last wife arrives to free them all, to invert the story, to make it about them instead of on the man who killed them. And it's a great point, that the stories we tell are too often focused on the perpetrator of crimes, on abusers. The victims in fairy tales, in fables, too often get glossed over, are refused a name. Here Azhar steals the lives of his wives, steals their souls, leaves them nameless, but they still have a power he doesn't understand, and as the immortal story is being born they finally rise together and throw him down, make their story about them. The magic of the story, the pain and the sorrow, are palpable and very well done. It's not the easiest story to read, because it is dark and it is visceral, but it is a lifting story that reminds us that the people to remember are Mahalikah, Nafisa, and Rabab. Even the title of the story echoes the injustice, reminds us both of their erasure and their prominence. A fine read!
"Hundred Eye" by Yukimi Ogawa (4003 words)
This is a bit of a surreal story, but one with a similar feeling of fable as the last. Here a woman, a thief with a hundred eyes all over her arms, travels and steals and has something taken from her in turn, by a man she thought loved her but who only wanted to take from her, to take one of her eyes to give his son. There is a strangeness to the story, deep and moving, as the woman travels, as she finds a face on a tree and gives it one of her eyes when it falls, and because of that it becomes like a child and not a child at all. She names it Nin. But for the woman it is a companion, and they rely on each other, depend on each other. They find in each other someone to care for, to love. But even as they grow close a sickness afflicts the woman, a sickness that makes its way through each of her eyes, including the one she gave to Nin. Including the one the man took for his son. And she has to decide what to do, to be the monster people think of her as or to do something selfless, to care about a child that had no part in her own pain. The story examines monstrosity, examines loneliness and isolation, shows that sometimes what people need to be kind is some kindness themself, that without that it can be impossible for them to overcome the pain and isolation of their situation. That love is a stronger infection than pain. It's a neat story, and another dark one, but with an ending that's sweet and bright. A fine way to close out the fiction for these two weeks!
"Crumbs" by Florence Lenaers
Well damn, that's a rather striking poem. The action of the poem, the story of it, is a person arriving in their kitchen to find a mess. Flour everywhere and crumbs that lead away. In that way the literal story of the poem would be that a mouse or rat has emerged at night to make a mess in the kitchen and evade the cat and has escaped. The metaphor of the poem is that the crumbs are not just crumbs but the remnants of universes, of realities, of choices and hopes and everything. That it wasn't a rat that arrived to put a hole in the flour bag but rather a despair, an aspiration that has grown cold and twisted, that has become a fear, an insecurity. The way I read this poem is that the two aspects, literal and metaphorical, merge here in a way that is both familiar and heartbreaking. The poem is about the circumstances that people live in, the hopes and the dreams that are dashed by the realities around us. That this person cannot live in a place without the rat, that they are in many ways stuck because they cannot afford more. That not being able to afford more keeps them away from their dreams, that it sends their aspirations into the dark to become something else. That there is always something getting in the way, that those without the security and funds to afford a place without rats, to afford to just fix the small inconveniences of life that eat time, have to suffer because of that lack. And that these things have a way of multiplying. That in a battle of time and money if you don't have the later you won't have nearly as much of the former. That all that's left are the crumbs of your hopes that you desperately try and put together into something substantial. A very good poem.
"The Truth of Briars" by Jane Yolen
This is a short poem, one ripe with repetition and siting at its opening another poem about a fox and briars, blood and longing. The poem's structure is fairly easy to follow, an opening declaration and then four stanzas of three lines which all follow the same structure, then one four line stanza bringing it all together. Like a persuasive essay, the structure allows for a flow, a circling around and around before delivering that final breath of familiarity, that moment when the poem stops really being about briars and is drawn out, to fable, to the author, to the reader, uniting all things by their ability to bleed, by their ability to feel pain. And that is an interesting theme in the poem, that briars are egalitarian because they cut everyone equally, and that it reminds us of what bonds us as humans, as animals. We bleed, and in some ways we are all running. There are briars of all sorts, and as humans are lives are spent running through them, rending ourselves on the points, the barbs. And perhaps, more than just bleeding, that is what unites us further, that we can see the briars but run anyway, that there is that desperation, that hurt that goes deeper than the bite of the briar. The poem is built as this statement of truth, and the truth ends up being that briars strip people of their illusions of difference, that they reveal us all as naked, bleeding, in need of compassion and empathy. A fine poem.
"The Changeling's Gambit" by Sasha Kim
This poem is a bit of strange one, dealing with changelings and also with drowning, with surrender, with expectation. It's slightly difficult to know what's happening in the poem itself, the action, though it seems to me that someone is trying to kill themself, to drown in an effort to...well, that's the thing, that I', not all that up on Changeling mythology and so I'm not terribly sure of the significance of water when it comes to Changelings or what the connection might be between fairy rings, which appear in the early part of the poem, and Changelings. If I had to take a guess and say what I get from the poem, from the title I would guess that the poem focuses on a Changeling probably caught somewhere, that this is a poem of the one taken, and of one trying to get back home. Similarly, it could be from someone who feels like a Changeling, out of place and foreign. Either way, the Changeling here feels at odds with the world and is trying to reach some other place, either a return to the fairy realm or an escape from it, and is using water as their medium of escape, not drowning so much as hoping that through this action they can find a way through. Of course, the darkness of the poem is the implication that they don't find it, that they cannot escape the cycle or the pain and that their gambit is met with death, which is a poor sort of freedom. It's a striking poem, one that leaves a lot to the reader because it keeps this short, clipped, the screen dominated by white space. Worth checking out, though, to find your own reading.
"Saturn Devouring His Young" by Carlos Hernandez
In some ways I want to say that this poem is about mythology, about humanity, about that need to live that Saturn mentions. More than that, though, I think this is a story about parents and children. About cycles. About perhaps the tendency for the old to betray the young, time and again, to turn on them and tear them down in an effort to save themselves. In that way the poem is showing the fate of any parent, to come to the point where they feel that their life and their comfort is being threatened by the new generation which does not share the same values but at the same time which the previous generation has raised. When it comes time to turn over power, to let the children inherit and finally be able to guide themselves, the urge is to stop them, to not let them. To crush them. Why else would the older people seek to strip all the benefits from the young that the old have enjoyed? Like Saturn, they know that it's futile, that time will see them defeated, but at the same time it is showing that next generation what happens, and the story seems to argue that it happens again and again without change, that perhaps change is not possible. Which is a little bleak, though this is a poem about eating infants. A fine piece, though, with some haunting imagery and a warning about not becoming the person who will simply pass along the pain and abuse.
"Rainspeaking" by Mat Joiner
This is a short, creepy little brick of a poem. Small enough to fit into a hand, dense, and handy in case you need to brain someone in a dark alley. Because yeah, wow, this poem features a sort of cycle, the rain cycle being the first and strongest, the idea of water falling, condensing, rising into the air. Of being empty and then full and then empty again. But there is also the cycle of life and death, the living consuming the dead, their ideas, their words, retelling the same things in new ways, the old becoming fresh and relevant again. There is also, in there, the creative cycle, stalls and then bouts of extreme activity. So the poem works on a lot of levels all at once while sort of setting the mood of a rainy day, summer bleeding away but winter not yet arrived. The gloom, the taste of death, the glow of a candle and people telling stories. There is a lot to feel in this poem, and a great sense that by telling stories, by writing, by being a part of narrative that people are engaging with so much more, with the past and the dead and the rain and all of it, until we too are nothing but ash in the mouths of people years from now. If we're lucky. A very nice poem that's a quick read but hits with a wicked force.
"Writing Better Trans Characters" by Cheryl Morgan
This is some solid advice for cis writers. It addresses many of the common tropes surrounding trans characters and makes sure to not overgeneralize. It's a very helpful piece, perhaps especially for cis writers hesitating to write trans characters out of fear that they'll do it wrong. I mean, that fear is probably a good thing, and the only thing that makes that fear go away is knowledge. Is education. So this is a very important article to read and to pass along. Obviously it's aimed at writers, but I think it also works as a sort of reading guide for things to perhaps not tout as being so amazing by including trans characters. At least for not to tout when written by cis authors. It's a fine line to walk, obviously, but also a vital one. With the greatest advice being to try and to not treat trans characters as metaphors or representing the entire trans experience. As far as nuts and bolts advice goes, it's a fascinating read and one that I'm sure to come back to. Also I loved the bit at the end about history, because it does seem to be a problem people have imagining that they way some things are now is the way things have always been. That it's the only way things could ever be. That certain things are just human nature. And that's crap. Seriously messed up crap. Education is key. Onward!
"Communities: Unlimited Queer Stories for Free" by Renay
Ah, I just was writing about fanfiction last weekend. And specifically about fanfiction as a tool, basically, of social justice. Of undoing erasure and problematic elements of stories that come close, so close, but then basically fall apart. Because the stories that people want, the ones that they are hungriest for, are the ones that just aren't out there and aren't getting published, or are getting published but are very difficult to find. And yes, a lot of the time there is an emphasis on romance and an emphasis on bringing to light things that people try to say are shameful. So I feel this article. I don't do as much fan reading as I have in the past, and I am super scared of letting much of my fan writing out into the world, but I understand the urge to dive into fan writing, of getting something that is free of the hand of the market, of what will "sell," written by people who know they are making no money on it, for the sheer fact that they want to. It is an awesome thing. I think things are coming a long way, with publishers some publishers aiming directly at queer audiences. Indeed, the more I look for queer romance and queer erotica the more I seem to find, but there is still very much something to say about fanfiction. About basically queer-washing straight storylines, shows, movies, games, books. There is something deeply subversive about it, that demand to be recognized, to want to share in mainstream media without being overlooked. So yes, this is another very good article and one that had me nodding throughout. Hurrah!