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

stories

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.

9781466845428

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.

9781466819184

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.

9781429927567

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!

Advertisements

Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 5

stories

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…

9781429925822

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.

9781429928229

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.

9781466831339

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!