Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 8 (Witches)

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Mid-way through this week’s reading, I found myself in a gloomy wood, dark and astray; Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell; It were no easy task, how savage and wild those stories, how weird and rough their events, Which to remember only, my dismay; Renews, in bitterness not far from death. But try I will, to recount I must.

Gingerbread homunculi, bombshells begging kindness, and bayou-crossed lovers. I piqued my ears to catch the whispers of the forest and wrested these stories from the ghoulish clutches of gnarly wood. Week 8 approaches on the flight of witches.

97814668207539. The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo

There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls…or so the story goes. But it’s just possible that the danger may be a little bit closer to home. This story is a companion folk tale to Leigh Bardugo’s debut novel, Shadow and Bone.

The Witch of Duva is set in around the forested mountain town of Duva. The disappearance of nearly eight young women has thrown the village into a frenzy; rumors of lecherous conspiracy and cannibalism begin to infect the town. Nadya is a young girl who lives in Duva along with her father, mother, and older brother Maxim. When her mother dies from a wasting disease and hunger during a terrible famine, a woman named Karina Stoyanova begins to court Nadya’s now widowed father. Nadya suspects that Karina is behind the girls’ abduction and may in fact be a khitka, a spiteful bloodthirsty forest spirit who hunger for the flesh of newborns. For the khitka are capable of taking many forms, but the shape it favors most is that of a beautiful woman.

Leigh Bardugo’s Witch of Duva is an exquisite, grotesque, and captivatingly imagined short-story that draws from the generous influence of Russian folk-tales, recreating their cautionary atmosphere and imbuing them with grisly originality born from an astute contemporary self-conscience.

The extent to which (harhar) Bardugo illustrates through her words the cold isolation and stark desperation of the town of Duva goes a long way into convincing me to suspend my disbelief about the preternatural forces encircling it. With all the strange otherworldly happenings that surround this town, the story never lacks in casting suspicion on the townspeople themselves, acknowledging their capacity in becoming the greatest monsters of all.

You’ll think you how this story will go all the way up until three fourths of the way. Believe me, you don’t and you won’t. If you’re a fan of dark contemporary fairy-tales such as John Connolly’s ‘The Book of Lost Things’, you especially should give this story its due.

978146682679398. The Cairn in Slater Woods by Gina Rosati

Dylan has just moved to New Hampshire to live in a house his family has inherited from a great aunt he’s never met. There he meets his cousin, a bully who resents Dylan’s family, and a mysterious girl who claims she can lead him to buried treasure in the woods on the property. The key to helping the girl involves uncovering a dark family secret and righting the wrongs of the past.

  • Let’s just get this out of the way:
  • Is ‘The Cairn in Slater Woods‘ predictable? ✓ Yes.
  • Is it in enjoyable? ✓ Yes.
  • Should you read it? Read on and let’s find out…

The Cairn in Slater Woods is an enjoyable snapshot of adolescence coming-of-age, magic realism, and urban legend. The majority of characters are teenagers and as such they act as one could imagine teenagers (or ourselves) at that age. Some are bullies, others are meek, some are shy, others are brash and foolish. Dylan reacts as many teenagers would if put into his situation; he’s been taking from his warm and familiar home in Orlando to spend the last year of high school living in the family house of his departed Aunt Z in New Hampshire. He’s taciturn, hard to approach, and mopey save for in the company of a pretty girl. His cousin “Jimbeau” is an unapologetic ass, Teagan is kind and not-so-subtle love interest, and Vanessa, the “Anime Girl” with the strawberry-blond hair and schoolgirl uniform…well, the less said about her (or all them), the better.

Cairn’ is an intriguing fantasy-horror story that feels at home alongside the writings of R.L. Stine and early Dean Koontz. It’s mysterious, it’s fun, and thoroughly breezy and enjoyable overall. The cover art courtesy of Eric Fortune is an apt representation of the story and exquisitely rendered. If any of those things sound like your dish of choice, feel free to dig in. If not, wait on the next course.

978146683215244. Wild Things by A.M. Dellamonica

Ah, love. A many splendored thing. Here is a rather unusual love story, sweet and strange as could only happen in the post-magical reality of the Indigo Springs “event.”

Calla’s got herself a swamp man. And man, is he a piece of work.

“Instead of hair, he grew whisper-thin stems. Every morning we made a ritual of shaving his scalp, breaking those new-grown shoots. Once when time got away from us and they were left to grow a couple days, he broke out in catkins, a crown of fuzzy, pollen-laden locks of gold.”

She loves him anyway, and he loves her too. But there’s a problem. Aidan is an illegal immigrant.

a couple witches in Oregon had spilled (or unveiled or unleashed, depending on whose spin you were buying) magic into the U.S. Actual friggin’ magic, as June puts it: flying carpets, people wielding lightning bolts, monster fish in Puget Sound, the whole nine yards. Mount St. Helens erupted and terrorist wizards sank a U.S. aircraft carrier. The forest north of Portland overgrew and jammed up with trees—weird, enchanted, supertall trees—and monsters too.

But Canada was supposed to be mostly clean: the government had gone to the expense of posting signs at Burnaby Lake, promising it was safe.

….

Maybe we were all a little crazy now. Last Christmas our biggest problems had been climate change, the recession, and war in the Middle East. Now it was glowing rabid raccoons sneaking around Seattle, magic-wielding cults fighting the FBI, refugees, missing persons by the thousands, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, quakes in the news every week, and people turning into animals.

Plus climate change, war, and an even worse recession.

Munere docendi cum eu, vim congue probatus repudiandae at, vel in vidisse tacimates. Sumo mundi eloquentiam nec ei, eum autem luptatum an. Eu eos autem splendide. Quis novum te sed, labitur meliore sea eu, odio possim expetendis mea ei. Te utinam tacimates gubergren sit, per an natum prima. Agam facer latine at sed.

See you next week, December 17!

Illuminated Manuscripts: The Sandman Overture (1 of 6)

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I’ve been meaning to review Sandman: Overture, the highly-anticipated prequel to Neil Gaiman’s original magnum opus, for more than a month now, but seeing how the second issue of the series has been delayed by two months now, I can afford to be a little easier on myself. If Neil Gaiman can make mistakes, so can I! [Warning: Here be spoilers.]

The original 75 issue, 10 volume limited series of Sandman is a masterwork, one of many gems of illustrated storytelling/mythmaking produced by DC imprint Vertigo Comics during the early to mid-90’s. Few contemporary comics rival Sandman in either its ambitions or its achievements.

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Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 7 (Fairies)

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Long time no read, Dear Reader, but I’m back and I’ve got plenty of new posts to share! Just as the seasons have shifted, so too has the seventh week of the Tor Story Let’s Read metamorphosed into something entirely new and strange after a long hibernation. The former shape just might reveal itself some day, but now is for “new” and not for the “what might have been”. A reverend mediating the interests of two alien faiths, An artist wrestling with the ethics of Peter Pan, and clockwork pixies facilitating the canonization of lovers. In Week 7 of the Tor Stories, it’s all about belief.

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23. Shall We Gather by Alex Bledsoe

When one world brushes another, asking the right question can be magic…

Craig Chess is a Reverend who has worked for years to build a healthy congregation on the cusp of the Appalachian region. Late one night Chess is woken by Lula Mae Pennycuff, calling him on the behest of her father who is passing and wishes for the Reverend deliver his last rites. A typical duty, “All part of the job description”, with the exception of one vital detail. The people of Chess’ congregation have maintained a careful, mutually separate coexistence with the fairyfolk known as the Tufa. The Pennycuff’s are the only humans who live in “Cloud County”, the ancestral home of Tufa, with few outsiders allowed passage by the “First Daughters”, the inner circle of governing Tufa. But this occasion is special, not only for this but another reason.  Chess is approached with a request by one of the First Daughters, and what this request entails just might surprise the young Reverend.

Bledsoe purposefully and meticulously hangs the scenery of the premise within the first three-or-so pages of the story. It’s not a long story to begin with, but his pace in bringing readers up to speed with the going-on’s of the plot (what this community is, why things are the way they are, the role of faith and religion in the region, etc.) goes a long way in winning my attention and interest.  Chess is a relatable character, a Shepard of faith mediating his own conscious and internal questioning of faith, approached by forces outside his ken (and his faith) to probe a question on the mutual matters of life and death between the humans and the Tufa.

I liked the location, the broad gestures of implied relationships illustrating a rich past and enduring life for Chess after the events of this story. I liked the his goal and the outcome of pursuing, if not accomplising that goal. If I had to say anything in criticism, the ending felt a tad “flat” to me on my initial reading. But looking back on it now, I see it as one of those endings that grows upon consideration through the lens of hindsight.

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80. About Fairies by Pat Murphy

Some things happen whether or not you clap your hands.

Jennifer is a young artist who, , after a chance encounter with the absent-minded CEO of a major toy manufacturer, is hired on as a creative consultant for a new line of fairy-based toys. Jennifer is a avid enthusiast of the origins and myths surrounding fairies with an intimate knowledge of the macabre details of James Matthew Barrie’s original Peter Pan. The chance discovery of a mysterious mirror, repeated encounters with the taciturn Web developer Rocky, and the deathbed ramblings of her elderly father coalesce and bring Jennifer into a fledgling new understanding of life, death, belief, and strangeness in-between.

Murphy does an extraordinary job of coloring the strained, begrudgingly caring relationship that Jennifer has with her father. A widowed former archaeologist with a IQ high enough to be inducted into MENSA, now an embittered old man; coldly sarcastic and indiscriminately hostile. But she loves him, as much as a daughter could be expected to love such a person they call their father. I see their relationship, along with her analogous fascination with gruesome fairies, as the fulcrum for which the rest of the story pivots. I can’t be sure what entirely was “gained” or “lost” through this story, aside from her loved one, but I think that the value of it is in brewing maturation of her faith and her own sense of self-certainty.

Rocko is an interesting character; You can never really read him, and I think that’s the point. It’s heavily implied that he is something ‘other’ than what he at first appears, but it’s never conclusively “resolved”. And come to think of it, it’s not entirely that big of a deal. I like a little persistent mystery, it broadens the “life” of story and offers the reader an opportunity to participate. Something I wish more stories would do, something I think the best short stories do. And definitely something to learn from.

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94. Clockwork Fairies by Cat Rambo

Desiree feels the most at home with her clockwork creations, but Claude worries about all this science and Darwinist nonsense—after all, where do clockwork fairies fall in the Great Chain of Being?

Claude Stone is a brash and ambitious social-climber living in 19th Century, informally betrothed to one Desiree Southland, a mechanically savvy and mentally independent mulatto woman with a proclivity for building beautifully intricate clockwork automatons. Stone vies for Desiree’s hand in marriage and, despite the protests of her suffragist father, believes that the promise of her consent and dowery are all but assured. But when a mysterious Irishman enters the scene, Can Claude convince Desiree (and himself) of their compatibility?

Cat Rambo really knocked it out of the park with this one. Not only did I come out of this story adding a couple of choice, interestingly new words to my vocabulary (ex. nonpareil, verdigris, besotted, blacmange, etc.) but Rambo showcased her ability to gradually create an expository character that I grew to increasingly dislike over time, while still maintaining my desire to “empathize” with his perspective in order to pursue the rest of the plot, regardless of how disagreeable I find him. Claude is the epitome of Victorian sensibilities towards women, race, and women of minority race, ’nuff said. Desiree is a wonderful character, I love her inquisitive craftsmanship, her articulate self-awareness of being an independent free-thinking mulatto woman in an intensely patriarchal, unapologetically racist “high society”.

I loved the ending to this story. I take a particular pride in taking the particular strengths and weaknesses of a story and reducing them to broad yet descriptive suggestions, so as not to spoil them for prospective readers. I will say no more on the topic other than I highly recommend that you read this story for its adept descriptions of Victorian architecture and life warped ever-so-carefully through the fun-house mirror of speculative fiction/steam-punk.

See you later tonight, December 2nd!

“The Halloween Tree”: A Love-Letter to Ray Bradbury

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Portrait by Lou Romano

“We are an Impossibility in an Impossible Universe”

I don’t remember when Ray Bradbury’s stories entered my life. It’s one of those strange occurrences where an author of a book, a object that does not exist naturally but through the effort and persistence of the human need to communicate, becomes a static fixture of your life simply for having existed from so early on in it. Bradbury for me, and undoubtedly countless other readers and writers, remains an enduring testament to the power of stories and how they can reveal not only the character of their conduit (as all authors are in some way the siphon of their environment) but shape our own.

Ray Bradbury was an author with the rare talent of coaxing a particular emotion out of even the most stoic of adult hearts estranged from the whimsicality inherent in youth. He was able, through his stories and his poetry, to bend back the folds of time however temporarily and transport his readers to that mythic phantom country between the borders of childhood and adolescence.

Reading a Bradbury story we miraculously, as if by some magical force, are compelled to shed our disapproving tastes and sour dispositions as though shucking a calloused husk we have come to call adulthood. We suspend our disbelief willing and delve into worlds of both horror and honesty, of virtue and imagination. Bradbury had never, as Einstein would have put it, “lost a holy curiosity” but instead imbued that sense of precocious wonder of the unsaddled heart in each of his books.

Ray Bradbury, maybe even more so than C.S. Lewis and R.L. Stine and J.K. Rowling (Seriously, what’s up with these double-initial pen-names), first taught me how to imagine as a kid. I remember reading excerpts from Fahrenheit 451 and being awed by the vision of a kerosene-soaked fireman named Guy Montag, silhouetted against the the blazing light of a door frame torched in the radiant heat of a thousand burning books, saying nothing else but simply,

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“Why would someone ever burn a book?” I asked my teacher when she read it to my class. “Because…because ideas can scare people, Toussaint.” And looking back I love her for giving me that answer almost as much as I love Bradbury for giving me with that question.

To name Bradbury’s body of work is to name a series of enduring classics, stories as immovable and ephemeral as the gesture of pointing to the stars at night to chart the shape of constellations.

The Martian Chronicles. Fahrenheit 451. Dandelion Wine. The Illustrated Man. Death is a Lonely Business. Golden Apples of the Sun. Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Each name conjures up a memory of reading from my childhood, or of watching these stories performed in my later years, as Bradbury was a writer prolific not only for his writing but for the wide enduring love of his adapters and collaborators. But there is one book of his that I regrettably have never read in it’s entirety. However Through my off-hand occasions of catching the tail-end of an animated adaptation by chance, this story has stuck with me not only because it speaks volumes about the origin of Bradbury’s creative well but also, simply, about the stubborn enduring persistence of love and friendship.

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The Halloween Tree is the story of eight children who seek to save their mutual friend Pipkin on the eve of Halloween Night. I remember the jack-o-lantern ornaments baubled on the ends of string tied to the jutting forked branches of the Halloween Tree. I remember a child stepping perilously over the edge of a broken cathedral step only for a block of cement to rush up to meet his feet as if by magic, I remember the looming specter of Mr. Moundshroud and the barter of a year of life each for the life of a friend. I didn’t know why this story resonated with me so much, having only seen a smattering of disconnected scenes formed into an impression of understanding, but now in my young adulthood, late but never too late, I think I do.

The Halloween Tree is Ray Bradbury’s love letter to childhood, to his favorite holiday, to the simple enduring virtues of our youth and how they resonated long into our adult lives. Halloween is a time where we shed one mask and choose one of our own. For a night, we celebrate the impermanence of identities, emulate the shape of our darkest fears with some measure of reassurance of the binding of their substance. How with enough face-paint and a keen re-purposing of used clothing we can utterly transform ourselves, if only for a night.

I’m going to quote from one of my favorite shows The Venture Brothers, where at the end of a one-hour special the character of Dr. Orpheus imparts the true meaning of Halloween on a company of his supernatural compatriots,

This is a night of true magic. Halloween is the night we discover who we are. Are we people who make zombie armies. Are we those who condemn others? Or are we beautiful children in resplendent costumes collecting candy? Are our choices in costumes provocative? Do we dress up as our ideal self? Or are we not ready to decide what to be? Do you see it now? We use this one enchanted night to perform the greatest feat of magic there is. We become ourselves. Halloween is the true magic. It is the night we discover who we really are!

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I love you Ray Bradbury. We love you, and miss you dearly.

Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 6

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Hello Internet! My apologies for being MIA these past couple of weeks. While on route to Mars from Noir-ville, rocketing through the icky blackness in my slipspace-podship , I accidentally ricocheted down the gravitational drainpipe of a worm-hole and found myself spat out into a multi-verse of high-fantasy and  political tumult. You know what they say about “Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men.” Weeping monarchs, child clairvoyants, and young girls in love for the most worrisome of reasons. Love in all its dimensions. Hold on to your heartstrings folks, Week 6 has finally woken up.

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70. Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz by Marissa K. Lingen

In the war that never ends, dreaming the future is not an unmixed blessing.

Zally is a 12-year old girl whose dreams offer snippets of the future, centuries after her lifetime. She is not alone in this; Her grandmother is a year dreamer who works in the divination sector of the capital, so she’s acquired a sort of luxury in life attached to her position. The world of ‘Homecoming Waltz’ is one where humans have found a way to alter their brain chemistry to elucidate and consciously focus their dreams in divining the future, a sort of astral projection. Zally is ecstatic for the return of her Uncle Flower, a paternal figure to her who has been away at war for nearly two thirds of her life. At Flower’s reception, Zally moves to embrace her long-absent Uncle, seeking to impress him. But Flower’s is a changed man, addled by the shell-shock of warfare and profoundly disturbed by how the manipulation of dreams has stolen the last respite of innocence from everyone, even his beloved niece.

I really liked this story, and I had a feeling I would as soon as I read the first paragraph,

My grandmother says all stories begin with a death. My grandfather says with a birth. And Aunt Albert says they’re both wrong, and stories begin with someone not getting what they want.
But no one was born, and no one died, and I got what I wanted, and that is where this story begins.

Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz is captivating story about a fictional society that has monopolized and mobilized their own dreams in the service of sustaining their nation, and the assorted costs and causalities attached to such an action. Zally wants so much to prove herself an adult in the eyes of her mentor, to have him shine praise for the sacrifice of her innocence in being trained to become a seer. But Flower does not want his niece to be swallowed by the same machine of war that he himself was just narrowly spat out of. Zally is perturbed by this, feeling that she can make no choice that is her own and no one else’s. Eventually, the crossroads of life deem that they must part once again. Flower, a man changed by war. Zally, a woman changed for their encounter, standing on the cusp of it.

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117. Beauty Belongs to the Flowers by Matthew Sanborn Smith

In Miho’s world, nanos, plastic surgery, and robot girlfriends can fix just about anything…or break it.

In a future Nagasaki, Miho is a young woman who just wants to be loved by her beloved. Her father lies in a hospitable quarantined behind an air pocket of isolating fabric, a well-respected causality of a faultily contained nano-virus. His death marks the death of her family life and the death of her meager quality of life. But Miho wants nothing more than for Ichiro to love her. If only she could be beautiful or, as one of their mutual friends so delicately put it, if she didn’t look so plain and homely maybe then Ichiro might love her. And so Miho sacrifices her body for love, and tragically we all know the end to this story.

Matthew Sanborn Smith creates a beautifully engrossing portrait of ill-infatuation set against the backdrop of a living breathing city. I’ve never been to Nagasaki, but everything in this novelette felt like a plausible prediction of what a hyper-advanced eastern metropolis would look like. Water-slicked pavement doused in the reflection of looming neon billboards, seedy shops and curios burrowed out of the walls of thin, packed-in alleyways. Consumer technology so advanced and so pervasive that wanton desire becomes simultaneously a thing of the past and an all-consuming present obsession. And unfortunately for Miho, the chase for nebulous unattainable standard of “Beauty” becomes her own undoing.

True beauty fell beyond the reach of natural evolution. A lady at the salon had explained that. Nature was full of hairs and moles and flaking skin. It operated accidentally. But humans had evolved the appreciation of beauty, built from an amalgam of living samples. Humans could bring its elements together and set them in stone. Before human invention, there had been no sleek skin, no symmetry down to the micron or grace that only a digital brain and artificial muscles could achieve.

Before technology there had been no real beauty. Miho could do it all if she had the money…

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109. A Weeping Czar Beholds The Fallen Moon by Ken Scholes

After untold ages of futurity, the world is old. Regret is endless. Deceit is ubiquitous. And for the Weeping Czar, love is new.

Lord Czar Frederico XIII has just lost the thirteenth great love his life. Mistress Jazrel of the Espira region has claimed her own life with poison, plagued by the grief that her affections and love could do nothing to cure her lover of the weeping disease that has seized his family for generations. In order to belay dissent and sustain the morale of his people, the Czar conspires with his Minsters of Interior and Intelligence to implicate “The Lunar Resurgence” for the fabricated conspiratorial murder of his beloved, a faction of ascetic moon-worshipers who have long been a minority opposition to the ruling government of Espira. During an organized raid of their local temple, the troops find a shining crescent horn of unknown origin and material that shakes the Czar to his core. Through this horn, the Czar begins a liason across the folds of space and time with a young noblewoman by the name of Amal Y’Zir, daughter of the Great Blood Wizard Raj Y’Zir. And for a time, the Czar knows a feeling called ‘Love’ once again.

I really liked this story for two reasons. One, the world is an intriguing mix of feudalism and aristocratic suspense. Watching the reluctant Czar being courted off to a room of eager female suitors, only to succumb to the grief of losing Jazrel and losing himself in drunken isolation was pretty captivating. Ken Scholes has a way with language that shapes the Czar as a captivating and compassionate character despite the inequity of his official practices. His budding impossible romance with Amal was both intriguing and heartbreaking. I can’t wait to read the Psalms of Isaak series and see what else happens in this world.

I am changing. He felt more confident; found himself doubting less in his own decisions. The fog of the sadness was lifting from him now.

And it came from the slip of a girl who believed he was a ghost.

Until her, he thought, perhaps I was.

And that concludes Week 7 of the Tor Let’s Re….wait, no. No, that’s not right. Well, God damn it.

Yes, I know. I’ve now missed two weeks worth of installments in this series. The outside world (school, home, career, etc.) takes precedence. But don’t count me down and out yet, I have a surprise for you! Week 7 and Week 8 will be posted as intended throughout this next week. Look forward to two Tor Let’s Reads this Tuesday and Thursday, with some long-belated shorter pieces interspersed between the two! You know I wouldn’t leave you, Internet.

Also, If you happen to have take a choice glance at the bottom-or-so-right of this blogspace, you may have noticed somewhere in that scrolling stream of spur-of-the-moment aphorisms that, hence forth after this week, I’ve officially extended the weekly deadline for future installments in the Tor Let’s Read to Wednesdays instead of Thursdays.  It’s proven to be almost depressingly more convenient, I have more time to read these stories and comment on them during the work week than I do on the actual weekends when all I have to do is homework and the occasional social obligation *sigh*. But yeah, rest assured that nothing’s derailing this train of speculative literature. We chug along, we chug hard.

See you tomorrow, October 29th!

Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 5

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There I was, sitting with my feet propped up on my desk one dark Monday morning, chipping away at the last third of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker when she walked through my door. And by “She”, I mean three new stories out of the Tor Anniversary Collection.

Each of them was a  sordid character in their own right; an assorted rogues’ gallery of lovable misfits with more stories than they cared to share. Pouting paragraphs, snarling sentences, and the shape of secrets perpetually enshrouded in the silhouette shade of Venetian blinds. I should have known they were trouble from the start. As a matter of fact, I did. But a case is a case, and week five of the Tor stories waits for no-one. Kick your feet up and sit a spell, I got a tale to spin for ya…

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47. The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday by G.D. Falksen

Inspector Wilde is a rabid fan of tit-tat, the broadsheet arguments that get printed several times a day; the Chief Inspector thinks he’s an idiot, but Wilde’s strange reading habits may just crack this case wide open.

The world of “Mr. Salad Monday” is a Neo-Victorian steampunk metropolis divided into a series of multi-stratified columns, all governed over by a censorship state comprised of “peace-keepers” and “special peace-keepers” who call themselves “the Legion of Peace.” Inspector Wilde is a benign cog in this otherwise lumbering totalitarian machine, occupying most of his time reading through the open-gossip columns of newspapers and chatting up the Chief Investigator’s blushing secretary Marguerite. But when a un-crackable case of supreme treason and sedition is foisted on the Legionaries, it’s Wilde’s peculiar hobby that offers him the tools to see “Justice” done.

I don’t know why, but my impression was pretty lukewarm to this story at first. That is, until I got to the meat of world-building that Falksen offers through Wilde’s clumsy yet comprehensive exposition about what exactly “Tit-Tat” is to his commanding officer. Then I was laughing my ass off.

“Tit-Tat” is basically a satirical print media equivalent  to the Internet forum phenomena (4chan, Reddit, Usenet, etc.), a series of publications that “refreshes” everyday through periodic issues posted three to four times a day. “Tit-tat” pokes fun at, or perhaps sheds an uncompromising light of truth on the habits of human conflict through written argumentation, with Tit-tat scuffles known to stretch on for days or weeks with no end in sight. People have their own inclusive acronym lingo (IMOT; ‘eye-moth: “It is my opinion that…” or IHN: “In Heaven’s name…“) Corresponding strings of response comments are tacked with code numbers (i.e. trip-codes, time-stamps), and persistent commentators attract an aura of prestige and begrudging respect for their terse insults and quippish reparte. One of these Tit-tat heavyweights is “Mr. Salad Monday”, a person of indistinguishable gender or origin seemingly as old as the Tit-tat itself, that no-one knows quite for sure who they are. Until now.

What started out as a straight-laced, albeit fantastical detective drama later became an “Existential Thriller” akin to that of G.K. Chestorton’s “The Man Who Was Thurday.” In hindsight,  I suspect that the use of week-days as a naming convention was likely intentional on Falksen’s part in order to illicit such a comparison.

But who is this mysterious Mr. Salad Monday; This socialist sympathizer, this instigator of public dissent,  champion agitator of civil liberties, health-care, and  the voice of the people?

You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you. Falksen’s definitely on my radar now, this story certainly didn’t get published by mistake.

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50. A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings by James Alan Gardner

Award-winning science fiction author James Alan Gardner brings us Damon Runyon-esque tale of courteous guys, bulletproof dolls, and the fedora-clad spacemen that bring them together.

An un-named cleaner in a retro-futuristic New York is tasked with disposing the body of a ventilated, formerly homicidal “spaceman” in a robotic brothel. A professional; he is asked and promptly delivers the specialty of his trade, “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings”, cleaning up the evidence of the spaceman and planting diversionary evidence to throw the “J Edgar Hoovers” off the scent of alien blood. It’s a standard job, that is until he meets Kitty, the “bullet-proof doll.” A “Doll” like that can make a man’s head all screwy, and our unlikely hero is five different shades of smitten. Then the spacemen come.

This was a very convincing, very “noir” story with a great deal of science-fictional creative license. One thing about reading alternate history speculative fiction is that the reader is constantly coaxed into finding the fork in the road, the point where the timeline diverged down the alleyway of olive-suited, fedora-totting, green-blooded spacemen with palm lasers and a replicant woman whose physical features and abilities morph in response to external male psychic stimuli. I myself couldn’t, but it hearing pistols referred to as “John Roscoes” and an interplanetary force of G-men collectively as “Mr. J Edgar Hoover” made me chuckle something fierce.

I thought Kitty herself was an interesting twist on the Detective story dame; a perfectly oblivious, tragically flawed Ingenue in every sense of the word. Totally aware of the mutability of her own body and personality by the external thoughts of men who desire her, but specifically designed to have no desire to change it. This rings with particularly sexist overtones to me, but I’ll have to think more on the objectives of the story before reaching a conclusion as to personal opinion. She reminds me a lot of the subject of the Electric Light Orchestra song, “Yours Truly,  2095.”

“There, there,” and one thing and another, but I do not think any man alive knows how to deal with persons of a female nature in such situations. When a doll cries, it is about something very small or very big, and both ways, a guy is out of his depth.

….

I Say, “Smile,” and she smiles so brightly, it is like she has never shed a tear in her life, even though her cheeks are still drippy.. I think of other things I can tell her to do, and she will likely perform those actions too, and once again I feel as sad as a sack, although this time it is for Kitty, not me. She is a book everyone gets to write in except herself.

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103. Jack And Queens At The Green Mill by Marie Rutkoski

Few know that the Great Chicago Fire was started deliberately, as a genocide of deadly creatures called Shades. Fewer still know that they didn’t die, not quite…but one human will confront the truth when an ominous beauty makes him gamble for his life.

On October 8th, 1874, in an alternate universe, the people of Chicago orchestrated the mass extinction of a race of amorphous creatures known as the “Shade.” This genocide was disguised under the pretense of a massive firestorm that near burnt the entire city to cinders, the so-called “Great Chicago Fire.” But this was not the end of the shadow war, as another alternate universe of Shades immediately felt the excruciating absence of an aspect of themselves; a sort of “phantom-limb” sensation of the body and soul. Zephyr is one of the last of the shades in this universe and is determined to amass a stockpile of weapons to go to war for the existence of her people. The only thing between her and what she wants however happens to be a young Mafia guard with a disfigured face and a knack for sweet-talk.

I was surprised with how short this story felt overall considering its approximate 32 page length. It was a total breeze, undemanding and wholly comprehensible. The explanation of the alternate universes and how the shades’ empathetic link allows them to feel and traverse across different dimensions could have been better explained, but overall it felt like a serviceable story.

The central “conflict” and it’s “resolution” felt a bit ham-handed. Why would Zephyr spare Joe? Some reluctant affection for an individual funneled through the misguided indignation and resentment of an entire race? I don’t know. It was an okay story though. Not great, not euphorically prosaic and life-affirming, just okay. Besides, for such an average story there’s a ton of really great descriptions and line in this one. And Okay stories are…okay. They do what any story is supposed to do, to brandish the words of Stephen King, “These are great stories, and we’re lucky to have them. To read Now, and maybe again Then, later on, when we need what only a good story has the power to do: to take us away to worlds that never existed, in the company of people we wish we were… or thank God we aren’t.”

“When I step into my body, it feels like water before it hardens into ice. Like silk before it’s stretched and stitched onto a wire frame and called a lampshade.”

“Silk and ice,” he said, running the words together so that they sounded likesilken ice. “That’s you, all right.”

….

“It doesn’t exist,” she said. “Jazz was never invented. And here . . . the Green Mill has the best jazz. Your employer demands the best.”

Music floated out. It infused the night, rich as brassy ozone, light as pattering rain. An upright bass plucked throbbing notes, a drummer brushed the cymbal, cartwheeled a stick across his set. Zephyr heard the trumpeter mute his horn, and it all flowed out into the alley, a music made of the unexpected. A loose-limbered sound, one that made a philosophy of choices, highlighting the fact of them by pretending they didn’t exist, by tripping lightly from one rhythm to the next, from key to key, as if nothing was certain, improvisation was everything, and practice was for fools.

Zephyr knew better. She knew that the musicians practiced for their master. But this was their art: to make their work seem like a game.

As I walked away from the exploded shipyard warehouse thrown up in a firestorm, roaring “Everything must go!”, I was relieved. My suit jacket ventilated by stray and true bullets, ballistic nubs of coarse metal compressed hard against the mesh of my bullet-proof vest. I was exhausted, my chest as heavy as a pound of cinder blocks, the incessant pulsing ring in my ears showing no signs of failure. But I was relieved. I won. Another installment in the Tor Let’s Read Series was behind me. Another job, well-done. I lugged my way back home and collapsed into bed. There was only one thought that traced my mind before I passed out,

“I’m dreaming…of a Red planet…”

See you next Sunday, October 13th!

Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 4

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It’s amazing how long a coin flip can last if you measure it from the right angle; Landing face up, revealing the labor of three purveyors of only the finest distillation of weird. Noir will have to wait its turn; Another brand of bizarre for another day. Only the strongest among the strange will survive in Week 4 of the Tor Let’s Read series.

When it comes to weird we’re holding a full house; Two transfinite ambassadors  resembling Jim Henson puppets , rebellion and sedition, sharp swords disguised as playing cards, two jacks and a not-ape. It’s turtles all the way down from here my friends…

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100. Jack and the Aktuals, Or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker

A wild and wooly dramatization of certain principles of higher mathematics, with added talking animals, sentient pencils, and orders-of-infinity nested within one another like Russian dolls.No description can ever encompass the mind-bending experience of reading a Rudy Rucker story.

Holy shit.

Buckle up, because we’re going in deep on this one.

Jack Bohn is a retired mathematics professor chasing after his greatest intellectual revelation yet. While sitting with his wife Ulla in their living room one late winter afternoon, Jack explains his goal of writing a comprehensive paper that explains the transfinite nature of the layers of reality. He’s wrestling with the “Generalized Continuum Problem”, a paradox of discovering the truth of either Georg Cantor’s belief that transfinite numbers are well-behaved, Jack’s theory that they are wholly erratic, or some ineffable and unknown third (or fourth, or fifth, or etc…) alternative. “Dear Infinity, please help me”, Jack offers up a mathematician’s prayer for an epiphany.

His prayers are “answered” by him coughing up a smooth, crystalline USB drive shaped like an infinity sign. when inserted, the drive instigates a crash sequence wherein a infinitely regressive series of smaller and smaller task windows begin to pop up. His laptop becomes a “Turing Calculator”; calculating every possible outcome for every past paper he has ever written to culminate into his greatest achievement, titled “Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory”.

Then a talking pencil with backwards knees named “Stanley” and a frog in a petticoat named “Anton” (short for Antagonistic) materialize through a hoola-hoop and invite the couple to come to “Alefville” with them.

According to Rudy’s bio page on Macmillan’s site, he’s the “great-great-great grandson of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.” After reading “Jack and the Aktuals”, I’m couldn’t be more convinced that that’s the case. I honestly can’t be certain as to whether this was all just a shared hallucination, one man’s psychotic break ( As if Anthony Burgess wrote a hair-brained combination of A Beautiful Mind, Faust, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), or if all this craziness is reality. Probably some Gordian knot of all three or more of those explanations.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine had just recently recommended Rucker’s most well-known work, “The Ware Tetralogy”, to me saying that it was without a doubt one of the strangest things he had ever read.  After reading “Jack and Aktuals”, I couldn’t be more excited to delve into it now. Aside from my initial bewilderment with symbolic mathematical proofs that far exceeded my sub-high school ken of modest mathematics, I was legitimately compelled to journey further into this fun house labyrinth of oddities all the way to its whimsically self-aware conclusion that evokes comparisons to a particularly good Twilight Zone episode.

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110. Making My Entrance Again With My Usual Flair by Ken Scholes

When an ex-clown tries to go into the insurance business, he gets into monkey business instead.

Merton D. Kamal is a down-on-his-luck circus clown who, after being cajoled into an interview with a former fling at an insurance company by his mother, is tasked with escorting a monkey to New Mexico. Things go about as well as can be expected.

To start, this story is an absolute breeze to read. That’s no surprise seeing how it sits comfortably at an approximate 18 pages in length. This has to be one among the shortest of the Tor Short Stories I’ve since read.

There’s not a lot to say in the way of plot synopsis that wouldn’t inadvertently render the effort in reading the actual story futile by comparison (though you should!), what I can say is that Ken has created a succinct and strange hybrid of a story that manages to provoke laughs just after making you scratch your head in abrupt confusion. For anyone that reads this blog, I know that my synopses can be rather comparison heavy. Know that it’s not done without a measure of self-awareness; Think of it as an happy accidental after-effect of a long compulsory education in binary oppositional thinking.

In any case, “Making My Entrance” felt like a mash-up of Katherine Dunn’s GEEK LOVE and Burrough’s NAKED LUNCH. I mean that entirely as a compliment, but take it as you will. It’s so short, and Scholes’ writing is just so ridiculous and funny enough to justify the length, how could I not recommend it?

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99. The Jack of Coins by Christopher Rowe

A strange, amnesiac man is befriended by a rebellious group of teenagers living in a repressive city.

Trespass. Corruption. Sedition.

All of these charges are lobbied against the mysterious  amnesiac “Jack”, an ageless man decked out in an elaborate nutcracker-esque uniform, festooned with golden buttons and wearing a face that’s both sharp and smooth.

Jack roles into a town beset by an authoritarian police force that has clenched the voice of the people in order to still any murmurs of protest or dissent, and a disillusioned generation of youth are left to scamper out in the dead of night hopelessly clashing with another, vying for some imaginary sense of power and identity. But all that’s going to change when Jack roles into town, this stranger with clumsy words and bizarre habits.

This story is probably the tamest of the three this week, and even more easy to digest than “Making My Entrance.” Jack of Coins introduces some interesting elements that I don’t think entirely culminate into an all-together satisfying conclusion. I caught myself wondering aloud, “Wait, what’s the conflict in this story again? An indifferent populace controlled by an oppressive police state? and now they care, because of this weird stranger who talks in riddled sentences and happens to have a good throwing arm?”

I’ll admit, the cover art image provided by Red Nose Studio was the main draw of why I chose this story. I wanted to look for something otherworldly, and the story flirts with that insinuation at multiple points but never resembles anything conclusive.  In a scene where a benevolent character throws Jack a pack of playing cards with which to defend himself, I imagined that the story was finally going to pick up. And it does, sort of,  only to conclude prematurely with no resolution as to who Jack was, why he was the way he was, and what his presence means to this world in particular.

It’s worth a read, never hold your reading suggestions to my opinion alone. As bizarre and crazy this world might have been, I was disappointed that the end result turned out as tame as it did. The Strange is not so strong with this one.

Phew! After successfully climbing out of that wormhole of nonsense, we can go to the wall and tally another week from the Tor Let’s Read series off. Time to shuffle the deck again and pick another three stories at random (well, more or less).

See you next Sunday, October 6th!