A (Triumphant?) Return; and Two Drabbles

Hello blogosphere, it’s been a while.

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be a regular thing that I kept to. I genuinely thought I could keep it up *and* be a writer *and* do a PhD. And while for some time I was able to do all that, life eventually got in the way. Life, and mental health. It’s surprisingly difficult to keep things together when anxiety becomes a major factor in your life.

I’ve had issues with anxiety and depression for a long time, and have often used my mental health as inspiration for my writings, and if it isn’t inspiration it’s a way of dealing with whatever’s going on in my head that day. Most of them are drabbles that are best forgotten, but some of my favourite stories I’ve written have come out of bad times (if I ever find a home for The Wyrms of Kakhun I will be very happy indeed).

Mental health is a wound, however, and it never really fully heals. There’s always a scab which you have to look after. If you don’t, you just keep picking at it, as you press on with things you feel you have to do to be valid, but ultimately end up making yourself more ill. Eventually, I had to accept facts. I couldn’t do it all, so I had to try and take a step back from writing and reviewing. I had to accept that it was just one too many things, no matter now important to me it was. I could keep things ticking over, but patience was a virtue I needed to learn.

Now, with the end of the PhD in sight, it feels like time to start up again. I write words every day as a researcher, but it’s nice to be able to do this and not feel like I’m wasting important research/career development time.

I’m not sure how long this return will last. I’d like it to be permanent, and I’ll do my best not to put myself under too much pressure this time. But it does feel good to be getting words down again.

With that in mind, here are a couple of the drabbles that I’ve written over the years to wrangle what’s going on in my head. The first was written in the year after I finished my undergrad degree, the second during the second year of my PhD. Both are about other people who helped me, or tried to. Both are my own experience – or how I interpreted it at the time. I guess it’s about time they saw the light of day, no matter how much I cringe at them now.

I can’t promise that the blog will be regular. In all likelihood it will continue to be an intermittent thing until I have more time to devote to it. But it will continue, and that’s the important thing.

 

Cairns

Lawrence Harding

Sometimes I wake up with a heart made of stone. I can feel it my chest: a lumpen, leaden weight dragging my spirit down, down into a mire of despond, where I can feel nothing but fear and anxiety. Every time this happens, I know that it is my truth – and every time I quake at my apathy.

            Yet, every time, an angel descends with a healing smile and calming hands. They gird me round with patience, and they apply poultices of love, and they carve at my breast with a blade of compassion, until their quiet industry removes my heart of stone.

            While my flesh regrows, the angel holds my stone-heart to the light to examine its qualities. Sometimes it is stubborn granite, sometimes querulous sandstone, often it is unfeeling, austere marble or brittle, self-destructive slate. Then they place it in their bag, and smile, and press a hand to my chest, and I feel a flicker of a heartbeat within myself once more.

            Until the next time. And the next time. And the next.

            But, always, the angel is there.

           One night, I asked the angel what they did with the stones. They must need them for something – why else bother with the Sisyphean task of delapifying my heart? The angel just smiled, knowingly, and led me onto a winding path. We walked along it, hand in hand, as it wove its way down a cliffside to a beach. When we got there, they pulled my latest heart-stone from their bag.

            “Come and see,” they said.

            We walked along the beach, round a curve of headland. Beyond it lay a complex of cairns, rising and falling, twisting and twining together in undulating rows. Moonlight danced across them, causing some to glitter, others to gleam, others to cast kaleidoscopic shadows. As I stood, amazed, the angel placed my stone-heart on the nearest cairn.

            “Do you see,” they asked me, “what beauty lay within you, even when you were in the depths of despair? Do you see the strength that you always had? Each of these stones,” they continued, waving an arm across the horizon, “came from a time you conquered sorrow. Each stone makes the pattern stronger, and now the cold waves that threatened to drag you under can scarcely prevail. I think,” they concluded with a smile that kindled fire in my breast, “that the pattern is almost finished.”

            They patted the newest cairn, and I awoke. A heart of flesh beat in my chest. As life flowed through my veins, I felt that the cairns were nearly completed.

Shatterglass

Lawrence Harding

One dark day, I fell to pieces. But that didn’t mean I stopped living. I lugged my brokenness from place to place, chains of shattered shards of glass trailing in my wake. I scraped across the ground wherever I went, I could hear the tortured sounds of my passing. I went close to no one – I did not want them to cut themselves on me, for I was nothing but jagged edges.

          But sometimes, people came close, regardless.

          They approached me, one day, dragging their own shatterglass chains behind them. We sat. We talked. I don’t know for how long, but soon it was dark and we parted ways. We met again, and talked, shared, and every time we parted, somehow the chains dragged less against the ground.

          One day, I noticed that as they sat next to me, they were picking at my chains. I twisted to see what they were doing. As they talked, and I watched, they were picking shatterglass shards from my tangles and gently fitting them back into place on my body. I frowned.

            “When did you start doing that?”

            They looked at their work on the chains, and laughed. “I’ve always been doing it. Ever since we met.” Their fingers kept on weaving deftly. It was hypnotic, beautiful… impossible. The question lay on my tongue, heavy and clumsy, but I had to ask it.

            “How can you fix me when no one else has?”

            They stopped fitting my pieces back together and smiled.

            “Don’t you know that broken people can see the cracks more easily?”

            They leaned closer, and I could see a network of hairline fractures crisscrossing their face. I traced them with my finger before pulling self-consciously away.

            “And who fixed you?”

         They laughed lightly. “Many people. Friends, family… you.” They gestured at themselves. “Just look.” And I looked, and I saw that their chains were shorter, less tangled, less jagged than when I had first seen them. Then they took my hands, and I looked into their eyes, and saw myself reflected in them.

            “What do you think you’ve been doing, all this time we’ve talked?” they asked.

          And then I understood. We sat, talking, and still do, whenever the need takes us. Talking, sharing, caring – and weaving away the shatterglass.

           If you see us, come near. Drag over your chains, join our circle. Weave with us.

 

 

 

(“Cairns” and “Shatterglass”, copyright Lawrence Harding, 2019)

The Tangled Lands – Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell – 8/10

When I first picked up “The Tangled Lands” (co-written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell), I assumed from the blurb that it was a novel, and exactly the kind I’d been hankering after. I quickly realised after the first section that it was more a loose collection of novellas – and a good one at that.

In thhttps _kazoobooks.com_wp-content_uploads_2018_03_The-Tangled-Lands-678x1024.jpge four stories that the collection tells, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell plunge the reader into the dark fairytale-esque world of Khaim. Though fantastical, Khaim holds up an unsettling mirror to our modern world. In a reality where magic is achievable, but chokes the world in the sleep-inducing brambles that feed off magic and threaten to engulf civilization, humanity cannot help itself. The common long-term good is consistently overlooked in favour of personal conveniences – and when a solution is found, those with power would rather misuse it for their own ends rather than for the betterment of the world around and beneath them. Parallels with modern society and its attitude to climate change are obvious, but not overwrought. It is a hard world, but not without wonder; it is a cruel world, where the smallest action can have unintended consequences that resonate throughout society, but it is not without kindnesses. That said, if the words “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” could describe any collection, it is this one.

Of all the stories here, this is truest of “The Alchemist” (by Paolo Bacigalupi). Here Bacigalupi does an excellent job of establishing the world, the magic, and the tone that will carry through the rest of the book. Even in a short space of time, the characters become real and known to the reader, and the folkloric vibes are at their strongest here as the events that will change the world – for better or worse – unfold.

The other three stories explore how the land of Khaim is affected by the events of the first story. Most specifically, the ways that families are affected by the new regime that emerges. “The Executioness” (Tobias S. Buckell) ranges the furthest from the walls of Khaim, in a folkloric tale of motherhood, desperation, religious fervour and war. The journey of Tana from a distraught mother to a hardened warleader is compelling and moving, and explores the attitudes to women in war, to the power of fundamentalist religion and ultimately how far violence is the answer to any problem, especially one as global as the bramble. Both “The Children of Khaim” (Paolo Bacigalupi) and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” (Tobias S. Buckwell) focus more on the children, and how they are affected when called upon to deal with the horrors that society has inflicted on them. Especially uncomfortable are the depictions of the abuses that those in power visit on those beneath them, simply because they can get away with it. Once again, Buckwell and Bacigalupi weave social commentary with a grimdark fairytale world with skill.

“Children” is perhaps the darkest story (and I should add a content warning about rape and child abuse), but manages to tackle unsettling subject-matter with sensitivity.

Although “The Tangled Lands” was not what I expected, I highly recommend it and would love to read more from that world.

The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 2 ed. Lavie Tidhar – 7.5/10

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00007]The second collection of World Sci-Fi from Apex is a worthy successor to the first, not least because its contents is considerably expanded, with twenty-six disparate stories gathered under the careful eye of Lavie Tidhar, the editor. An eclectic mix of hope and horror, death and rebirth, companionship and loneliness, it spans everything that comes under the banner of science fiction: from the unsettling visions of “Zombie Lenin” (Ekaterina Sedia) to the whimsical time-travel caper that is “December 8th” (Raúl Flores Iriarte, translated with the help of Daniel W. Koon) to the witty cyberpunk of “Branded” (Lauren Beukes).

 

As ever, to stop these reviews becoming overlong I have a few favourites to pick out. In the case of this collection this was a really difficult choice, as most of the stories are, frankly, fantastic. I narrowed them down as much as I could, but as you can see by the following, this isn’t saying much:

 

Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life – Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

In this story Loenen-Ruiz weaves an engagingly dark technological dystopia, in which, through the lens of a collectivist society big questions are asked. For example, what is humanity? And what lengths would you go to to save loved one?

Mr Goop – Ivor W. Hartmann

In a futuristic Harare, Hartman creates a heart-warming story about a boy and his hand-me-down technology. It’s easy to relate to the characters, especially the protagonist coming of age, his geneform who cannot keep up, and his parents who are trying their best. The message that growing up not necessarily about putting away childish things is one that more people should remember.

Trees of Bone – Daliso Chaponda

This harrowing tale of inter-tribal tensions and violence really brings home the dangers of forgetting past horrors and atrocities, of assuming the here and now is different and grievances more justified. The shades of grey in the characters, in their nostalgia, naivety and, in the end, horrific pragmatism all bring life to a story that is ultimately about the trade-off between holding to tradition and saving the future – a theme that is never irrelevant.

The First Peruvian in Space – Daniel Salvo, trans Jose B. Adolph

One of the shorter offerings in this collection, this is a clever, and at times uncomfortable, exploration of structural racism, and how token efforts to combat it are ultimately only make the situation worse.

The Sound of Breaking Glass – Joyce Cheng

Joyce Cheng’s tale of a reclusive old man’s odd habit of making wind chimes is a fun and charming reversal of brownie folk tale. What’s more, the ecological subtext makes it a story that has a lot to say to the modern world that is so often in opposition with nature.

A Single Year – Csilla Kleinheincz

In a neat twist on the traditional love story, Kleinheincz explores the devastating and tragic effects that having an oracle in the family can have on your love life. Filled with pathos and moving emotion, it’s a hard-hitting and powerful story.

Nira and I – Shwets Narayan

Another story that has a folkloric feel to it, “Nira and I” begins with harsh, violent darkness and gradually builds an atmosphere of hope as people learn to fight the mists of despair and fear through the power of dance.

Nothing Happened in 1999 – Fábio Fernandes

A witty, faintly satirical what-if sci-fi about time travel development and its social history. It’s short, sweet, and will keep you thinking.

Shadow – Tade Thompson

Thompson works his own distinctive dark style with this mystical story of the importance of the shadow and the dangers of losing – and misusing – this vital, and inscrutable, part of oneself.

Shibuya no Love – Hannu Rajaniemi

In this near-future tale of teenagehood, Rajaniemi explores the limits of cyberdating through what can only be described as virtual reality Tinder with a dash of a glimpse of the future. It’s clever, thought-provoking stuff that prods both at shallowness and at the mystery of romance. How far is a relationship worth it if you know how it will pan out from the very beginning?

Maquech – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This unexpected gem is a slow burner, following an exotic pet dealer as he grows fond of a beetle he is trying to sell. Moreno-Garcia does an excellent job of depicting the dealer’s frustration and the emotional warmth that grows with what is essentially ambulatory jewellery.

The New Neighbours – Tim Jones

In a sweet, if heavy-handed metaphor for xenophobia, Jones follows the acceptance, or lack thereof, of an alien family in suburban New Zealand. It plays out as an interesting fish-out-of-water drama that occasionally seems overoptimistic, but the source of the aliens’ eventual acceptance injects a sobering dash of cynicism into the mix.

From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7 – Nnedi Okorafor

A real highlight of this eco-scifi of otherworldly explorers is the neat worldbuilding, built through intriguing zoological entries and a vivid sense of the characters’ inner world. In an apparently cyber-bionic rainforest, two married explorers must put their trust in each other and themselves to the test in order to complete their mission, weaving in themes of kinship, humanity, and the sometimes thin divide between knowledge, reality, and madness.

The Slows – Gail Hareven trans Yaacov Jeffrey Green

In a more dystopic vision of the future, Hareven imagins modern humans seen from perspective of the evolutionary step that will replace us. An uncomfortable exploration of the “Übermensch” mentality and the way more “advanced” civilisations look down on those different to them as if inferior ensues, and also asks another deep question about the human condition – how human is someone if they have no childhood?

Electric Sonalika – Samit Basu

One of the highlights of the collection, this dark take on the Cinderella tale set in a technological uprising is both a clever updating of an age-old tale, but also a deeply unsettling story about breaking free of an abusive relationship.

And those are just the highlights! As with the last collection of Apex World Sci-Fi, there’s something to suit every taste here. No matter what flavour of science-fiction or fantasy you like, you’ll find a gem or two here. Highly recommended.

This Dreaming Isle – ed. Dan Coxon – 7.5/10

There’s something about the British Isles that tends towards the eerie. The streams and rivers and forests and hills, lakes and valleys seem to crawl with stories of the odd and the uncanny – depending on who you listen to. “This Dreaming Isle”, edited by Dan Coxon, is a celebration of that uncanniness, an atmosphere and storytelling tradition that helped give rise to all manner of media that explore what lies in the murk – most especially, in this case, folk horror.

There’s a flavou51pxf5ypm8l._sy346_r of folklore from every corner of the British Isles in this collection, and the division of the stories by location (Country, City or Coast) means that those who like to dip in and out can find something to suit their mood, whether it’s the past haunting a man who cannot escape it in windswept Ramsgate (Gary Budden’s “Hovering”), the twitter-haunting of an alt-right troll visiting London for the first time (“Not All Right” by James Miller) or the Shuck-haunted hills of Pendle (as in “Old Trash” by Jenn Ashworth). There is also a wide range of styles on display, from the email-based, almost found-footage “We Regret To Inform You” by Jeannette Ng (whose alternate history with a necromatically-resurrected Thatcher sparking civil war I would love to see more of), to the neat ghost story “The Stone Dead” by Alison Moore to Robert Shearman’s surreal tale of urban decadence, “The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand”. This is an anthology I was looking forward to getting my hands on for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint. However, as ever, there are some truly stand-out stories among an excellent collection.

 

Dark Shells – Aliya Whitely

In “Dark Shells” Aliya Whitely tells an all too familiar story of a declining village through the eyes of one of its elderly residents. The sensitive portrayal of her dementia adds layers of pathos and meaning to the story that is truly heart-wrending at times. This story haunts you for a long time afterwards – exactly what I was hoping for from this anthology.

Cold Ashton – Stephen Volk

This treads old ground in many ways as a recounting of a legendary witch trial – the stuff of many popular folk horrors in the past. Volk’s treatment of the tropes and the characters, however, make this one of the best examples of the genre I’ve come across.

Domestic Magic – Kirsty Logan

The build-up to the climax of this series of vignettes about a couple being hounded by the consequences of a grandmother’s actions is excellent. Here Logan has a lot of fun with kelpie lore, while keeping the focus tight and tense.

The Knucker – Gareth E. Rees

An enjoyable take on timeslips which neatly stitches together uncanny incidents across history into a tapestry of folklore. The way that different peoples at different times observe phenomena is well observed and adds to the story’s texture.

The Headland of Black Rock – Alison Littlewood

Littlewood’s twist on mermaid lore is evocative and engaging, with a beauty that is belied by its cynical protagonist.

The Devil in the Details – Ramsey Campbell

This story of holidaymakers apparently haunted by a long-dead artist through his murals is suitably unsettling and engrossing. The aunt is well written, with a real sense both of her irritating aspects and the sadness that lies beneath, while the banality of a seaside town seen through the eyes of a modern twelve-year-old is delightfully evoked.

Swimming With Horses – Angela Readman

This sweet story of kelpies and polyamory is a fine coming-of-age tale and is well suited to rounding off a at-times grim and gritty series of stories. Angela Redman plays with ideas of being free, relating freedom both to those youths who “escape” their seaside existence by going to uni and those who stay and find their own paths.

 

“This Dreaming Isle” is a must for fans of folk-horror and folklore. It’s an eclectic mix, but this is its strength. There’s something to suit every taste, and every chance you’ll find an unexpected treasure. Well recommended.

 

The Apex Book of World SF 1 ed. Lavie Tidhar – 8/10

It’s very easy to stay in a cultural bubble. Enjoying the media we have at hand can be a rich and varied experience, it’s true, but sometimes it pays to look beyond our own mental borders (in my case, the UK and the US, largely) to see what lies beyond. The Apex Book of World SF 1 provides a perfect starting place for this, with a selection of works (many of which are award winners) from across the globe, brought together under the watchful eye of Lavie Tidhar.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00007] As is to be expected, there is a range of styles, subgenres and subject matters – something for every taste.

Some of the stories take a more speculative tack. Transcendence Express (Jetse de Vries) is a neat eco-sci-fi with a hopeful prediction for future global prosperity; Wizard World (Yang Ping) begins as a thrilling whodunnit about identity theft in a digital world, but ends as a sensitive study of addiction, and of escaping it; in a similar vein, An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, With Lydia on my Mind (Alexsander Žiljak) is a sci-fi crime caper following a maker of voyeuristic pornography who stumbles across material that is literally out of this world – and faces the consequences.

There also is a good deal of unsettling horror: The Bird Catcher (S. P. Somtow) is a chilling examination of monstrosity and victimhood against a background of national atrocities; the interior view given of the mind of serial killers in Cinderers (Nir Yaniv) is nicely bewildering and ultimately satisfying; The Allah Stairs (Jamil Nasir) brings childhood revenge fantasies to life in an eerie tale of reminiscences that perhaps should have been left alone. Finally, Elegy (Mélanie Fazi) is a moving plea for a reunion, born of one of the most feared horrors of all – losing ones children. Framed with hints at eldritch forces, it explores grief in a sensitive way, all the while toeing the line between truth and the lies that grief can tell to those mourning.

As ever with such collections, some stories stand out from the others (although in this case it’s a stellar crowd to stand out from. The following stories have particularly stayed with me since I read this anthology:

The Levantine Experiments (Guy Hasson)

A haunting tale of a girl raised in solitary confinement as part of an unethical experiment. Her experience of the concept of an “outside”, explored only in dreams, is both unsettling and thought-provoking, and calls into question our ideas both of freedom and what it is to rescue someone.

The Wheel of Samsara (Han Song)

Here Han Song blends Buddhism and physics in a Bradbury-esque study of creation and the shared desire of both religion and science to touch the divine. Both philosophy and entertainment are provided in equal measure, with a dash of wonder.

Ghost Jail (Kaaron Warren)

An unsettling ghostly horror-cum-political-allegory in which journalists and residents of Fiji find themselves gagged and trapped by both authoritarian reforms and supernatural forces.

L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) (Dean Francis Alfar)

In this fairytale-esque story Dean Francis Alfar describes a folkloric quest for love. The result is moving and affectionate, exploring both the folly and the power of obsession. The narrative is beautifully sketched, with evocative imagery that lingers with the reader.

Biggest Baddest Bomoh (Tunku Halim Bin Tunku Abdullah)

In this Malaysian spin on The Monkey’s Paw, a man’s obsession with a woman leads to a misguided quest for love with horrific consequences. Highly enjoyable, with a satisfying ending.

The Lost Xuyan Bride (Aliette de Bodard)

One of the stories with richest setting, this gritty noir thriller takes place in an alternate history where Mexican cultures and the Chinese dominate the Americas, with the United States taking a firmly peripheral role. The backdrop is well realised, and the private investigation storyline is tense and suspenseful, blending detective and alternate history genres with panache.

Into the Night (Anil Menon)

This is perhaps the most moving story in the anthology. As the protagonist, a brahman brought from his native India to live in the West by his daughter during his twilight years, adjusts to a new way of life, the pros and cons of both cultures are called into question. Most especially, the “progress” that his daughter insists he integrates with is undermined – the West might have fancy gadgets, but does it have the spiritual soul and simplicity that he craves?

 

In The Apex Book of World SF 1, Lavie Tidhar has done an excellent job of curating an entertaining and diverse selection of stories. This anthology is not one that fans of science fiction should miss – there’s a whole world out there with worlds of its own to offer!

(This review was provided in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

Broken Metropolis – ed. Dave Ring – 7.5/10

I was excited about reviewing Broken Metropolis, a collection of queer urban fantasy edited by Dave Ring, and happily I was not disappointed. By running with the idea that urban environments allow LGBQTA+ people to create their own communities and find themselves, the various works in this collection create a moving and powerful testament to visibility, validation, and love –  all things deserved and needed by the queer community in this day and age.

Broken+Metropolis-Cover4-1(1)There is a lot on offer here, in many styles and flavours. M. Raolee opens with a sweet romance and tale of acceptance, “Neon”, in a fantastical alternate future. D. M. Rice provides evocative free verse in “Dissonance, Part I”; Meghan Cunningham and kx carys dish up intriguing vignettes of queer and magical life in the city in the eerie and dreamlike “The Strange Places In The City” and “Familiar”, respectively. H. Pueyo’s “Perseus on Two Wheels” is also a good deal of fun, riffing on Greek mythology, transposed to the adventures of a trans-man in a South American favela. There is very much something for fans of all manner of fantasy, and literature in general.

As ever, some stories in the collection deserve special mentions, and Broken Metropolis has a high proportion of these.

“The City of Cats” – Victoria Zelvin

A very touching story about a couple’s morning ritual turning out to have more power than at least one of them might have expected. The premise is simple, but its charm and warmth really bring this story to life.

“Venus Conjunct Saturn” – Claire Rudy Foster

In this astrology-laced story, a trans lesbian faces up to her fears of being rejected by her partner should she reveal her transness. This is built on with a real sense of liminality – her working to cure HIV, long associated with being pushed to the edges of society; her being a Greenpeace supporter but engaging in labwork involving animals. The protagonist finds her place in who she is, in a powerful story that (rightly) challenges trans-exclusionary feminism.

“The Plague-Eater” – Caspian Gray

An interesting example of what I can only describe as queer folk horror. When one of them is dying of cancer, some of their closest friends explore how far they are willing to go – and with what powers they are willing to engage with – to save them. The overarching theme of their friendship group being a “family of choice”, of those who accept one another for who they are, makes this especially moving.

“Your Heart In My Teeth” – V. Medina

Medina displays excellent command of the second person in this viscerally emotional tale of loss and grief. The protagonist’s loss of their partner leads them to a place of utter, well-articulated depression and despair, but nonetheless they find their way forward. The ending is very uplifting, yet with more than a little of the darkness of folk-tale about it.

“Under Her White Stars” – Jacob Budenz

On the face of it, this is an entertaining sting caper, a witch taking it on themself to defeat the Bad Guy that no one else can. But it becomes more than that – an exploration of hubris, love and trust – and, most importantly, how one prioritises oneself within a relationship

Broken Metropolis is a very enjoyable read, but it’s more than that. It’s one of those collections that feels very necessary, in its celebration of queerness and its refusal to allow LGBTQA+ characters to be figures of tragedy or powerlessness. Here, they live, and love, and have power. And that is as it should be. Recommended to all fans of short form fantasy, especially urban fantasy.

(This review was given in exchange for a free PDF of the ebook)

(Edit note – the pronouns of the protagonist of “Under Her White Stars” have been changed to reflect their being gender-neutral)

Sword and Sonnet – A. Doyle et. al – 7.5/10

Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler, is a short story collection, largely made up of fantasy but with a smattering of science fiction, centring around female and non-binary warrior-poets. This is exciting enough as a prospect by itself, but what makes the collection special is the unique perspectives that each author brings to what it is to be a poet, what it is to be a warrior, and what it is to be a warrior-poet. Most of the stories are also accompanied with authors’ notes, which provides a more personal touch and a fascinating insight into the creative processes at work.

500px-SwordSonnetThe stories span traditions and subgenres, from the folkloric tale of jealousy, “The Other Foot”, by Margo Lanagan, to the ecological parable, “Eight-Step Köan”, by Anya Ow, to Kira Lees’ vampiric political intrigue tale, “Her Poems Are Inked in Tears and Blood,” to the amusing and thought-provoking “This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers”, courtesy of Carlie St. George. They also tackle hard-hitting emotional topics; great examples of these are Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s “She Searches For God in the Storm Within”, which concerns an escape from an abusive relationship, Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s treatment of self-esteem and sexual predators in slam-poem form in “A Voice In Many Different Forms”, and the exploration of grief and the reconciliation of the darker aspects of loved ones in “Dulce et Decorum”, by S. L. Luang. Samantha Henderson’s “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” likewise sensitively examines the lengths people can be willing to go to to save a life, even if it involves forces they don’t fully understand. It’s a well-crafted collection of stories that complement each other well, and there is definitely something for fans of fantasy and science-fiction of all stripes. A few highlights are:

Words in an Unfinished Poem – A. C. Wise

In this redemptive and bittersweet Weird Western, an immortal gunslinger who writes poems with bullets which have exactly the right to kill their target etched on them, takes on a contract that will change their life.

A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin – Hayley Stone

Hayley Stone plays with the idea of what it is to be monstrous beautifully in this tale of a woman who kills with poetry coming to terms with who she is, and trying to rewrite themselves into something new.

As For Peace, Call It Murder – C. S. E. Cooney

In a rousing story of a near-future military coup, a poet’s power to change the world is displayed with its full majesty, even if she is unable to save herself. One of the best stories in the collection, and bonus points for the AI corvid drones.

She Calls Down the Future in the Footprints Left Behind – Setsu Uzumé

Setsu Uzumé’s exploration of the limitations of oral tradition and the needs for cultures to adapt even at the cost of tradition is thought-provoking and moving. It also brings a dash of variety to the collection in the form of shamanistic magic, and a focus on the cultic and religious power of poetry that was especially powerful in such societies.

Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring – Suzanne J. Willis

One of the other gems in Sword and Sonnet, this account of a rebellion against the outlawing of the written word in an attempt to control the population is at once rousing and disturbing. It has an inspirational vein without being saccharine – the losses are real, the risks are real, and the battle is not short or easily won. In many ways, it is a parable for our times, at once a warning and an encouragement.

The Bone Poet and God – Matt Dovey

Also one of the best stories in the anthology, this is a heart-warming tale of self-discovery. It also has anthropomorphic bear shamans, and if that isn’t a selling point, I don’t know what is.

Siren – Alex Acks

In this space opera, Alex Acks explores how anger can be used as a catalyst both for destruction and for positive change, and the ways in which the potential for both can reside within a single being. His handling of the protagonist’s two warring personalities is especially deft. Like “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring”, this story feels very timely, and one to draw encouragement from in Interesting Times.

With twenty-three high-quality stories on offer, Sword and Sonnet is a fine addition to the collection of any reader who enjoys the fantastical, the wondrous, and the bittersweet.

Space Unicorn Blues – T. J. Berry – 7/10

Space Unicorn Blues, by T. J. Berry, is a novel that defies genre boundaries, blending science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale and space opera together into a concoction that stands out as one of the more interesting science-fantasy novels to cross my path in recent years. The sensitivities of Becky Chambers meets a healthy dose of morally-ambiguous grit, a dysfunctionality reminiscent of Red Dwarf, and the absurdity of Douglas Adams.

SpaceUnicornBlues_144dpi-1-400x606Especially arresting is Berry’s world-building. The population of the galaxy being largely bala, faerie races drawn from folklore, is fun, and provides an opportunity for human self-reflection. The way that humanity responds to longer-lived, less adaptable creatures whose very bodies are exploitable resources (especially the semi-divine unicorns, whose horn is the only fuel that can power faster-than-light travel) is deeply uncomfortable. The parallels with the rise of modern-day fascism are clear, and though Berry’s treatment of this could be considered a tad black-and-white or heavy-handed, this is entirely consistent both with the folklore she draws from and, frankly, the ways we can observe mankind behaving when at its worst, and most self-obsessed. Berry is also capable at injecting lighter shades into an otherwise cynical picture, playing with fantastical and sci-fi tropes to comic effect. Singularity pie provides a memorable (if slightly stomach-churning) example of this, as do the

The greatest strength of Space Unicorn Blues, however, is the well-crafted characters. Ricky Tang, for example, is a lot of fun, all sass and wheeler-dealing, as well as being a sensitive depiction of a trans woman. She is someone who always manages to land on her feet, because she’s had to learn to do so to survive. In contrast, Cowboy Jim is, simply put, intensely unlikeable; a toxic man who has pushed everyone away with his own bitterness. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge his own failings, and to accept the differences of others, is perhaps a little overwrought, but is necessary to act as a counterpoint to the central relationship of the novel: that between Jenny and Gary Cobalt.

Jenny is a fantastic example of a disabled Maori woman who strives both to overcome her disadvantages and also, and crucially, to improve her own flaws. Hers is a journey of self-recognition and coming to accept the wrongs she has down others in the past. Gary, in contrast, is half-unicorn half-human, living a liminal existence attempting to hide his horn from those who would use him for it – as Jenny did in the past, leading to an incident that lands Gary in prison for ten years and the eternal enmity of Cowboy Jim. His release from prison at the beginning of the book, and his falling in with his former captors and enslavers for mutual benefit, forms the crux of the narrative. The journey of Jenny and Gary, both war heroes from different sides of the same conflict, former captor and captive, is a nuanced depiction of forgiveness. There is no great reconciliation, no hugging or emotional declarations. It is simply two people coming to a mutual recognition of their past wrongs and doing their best to move forward. This is given more poignancy by the backdrop of the lack of cooperation between human and bala, with the great summit of omniscient beings who have charged the two species to set aside their differences or face the consequences looming. While individuals are capable of setting aside differences, are races? Nations? Species? This is the uncomfortable question of Space Unicorn Blues, and its answer is not an easy one.

Ultimately, Space Unicorn Blues is a space opera with a great premise and a fresh new twist on the synthesis of fairy-tale fantasy and science fiction. It loses its way somewhat towards the end, in the way that great ideas often do, but this doesn’t mean that the ride is any less fun. The fact that the seeds of a sequel are shown makes the future of science-fantasy all the more exciting.

Nexhuman – Francesco Verso – 7/10

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman (translated from Italian by Sally McCorry) is many things. It is gritty, it is uncomfortable and thought-provoking, and it is absorbing.

Nexhuman-Generic_776xIt is also a finely-crafted transhumanist dystopian tale with strong ecological and anti-capitalist themes; a society so overrun by its own waste that the entire economy seems dependent on it provides the backdrop to Verso’s characters. It is a theme that has unsettling parallels to the present day, especially with the implication that the world could be cleaned up, with improvements to the lives of many, if it wasn’t economically inconvenient to the companies that deal with humanity’s effluvia. The complex barter economy that builds around this situation, and which very much drives the characters, is an additional detail that makes Verso’s world-building so compelling.

The environmental catastrophe unfolding across the fifteen years that Nexhuman spans is evocative of the deeper, and central, theme: what is it to be human? This is clearest in the titular Nexhumans, the android bodies into which the consciousnesses of the rich and powerful are uploaded that their lives may be extended. Are they still human? And, if human, are they the same person? Is it right that personal finances are the only apparent measure of worth for the next best thing to immortality? Likewise the protagonist, Peter, is arguably semi-human in the eyes of some, having a prosthetic arm and leg; though these aid him in his work of upcycling the “kipple” from the gargantuan rubbish-pits, there is a sense that his incompleteness shames him.

And this idea of incomplete, or apparent lack of, inhumanity is key to the relationships in Nexhuman. In a world where refuse is the only resource open to most people, many have ceased to treat others as people. The domineering Charlie uses and abuses those around him, friend and family alike, first as gang-leader, later as family patriarch. Other members of Charlies gang, as representatives of wider society, (and this is a Big Content Warning) indulge in necrophilia, casual violence, even murder, especially of the rich and nebulously-alive Nexhumans. The refuse-gatherers whom society has cast aside must scratch a living, and this is especially true of Ion, whose memories of working for a major tech company are forcibly taken from him. Kiko, Peter’s eventual partner, appears to be using him only for the trappings and kudos of a relationship. There is no love or affection, and where there is, it appears to be another commodity.

This brings us to the central relationship of Nexhuman: Peter’s love for Alba, the Nexhuman woman whom he saw murdered when he was fifteen, whose head he salvages and whose body he makes it his quest to rebuild and resurrect. In a world where he has no purpose, Peter finds meaning in Alba. Whether this purpose, this obsession, is healthy is rarely explored; although it is difficult to see who a character who has never been shown affection (except by Alba, on occasion) can articulate love in a healthy way.

Ultimately, Nexhuman is a story about striving to create something out of nothingness, or out of discarded remnants of somethings. The central quest is framed uncomfortably in terms of the objectification of Alba’s body, but it is a world in which nothing is comfortable. Not all of the twists and turns hit home, but the overall story is compelling and leaves the reader with much to think about.

(This review was given in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

Robot Dinosaur Fiction! – 7.5/10

One recent sci-fi delight that crossed my path was the Robot Dinosaur Fiction project masterminded by A Merc Rustad. The artwork alone of the blog (on which all the stories are free to read) promises much – and the stories very much deliver on these promises.

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Kelsey Ligget’s banner-art encapsulates the spirit of the project. And who can resist it?

 A collection of flash fictions centred around the theme of robot dinosaurs runs the risk of being overly silly, or violent, or shallow. Robots and dinosaurs are staples of speculative fiction, both of the serious and not-so-serious stripes, but both bring their own associations of children playing imaginative games with action figures. Rustad and company certainly tap into this nostalgia and whimsy (as stories like Rexatron 3000, Private Eye by Mina Li attest), but do so with delicacy and emotional gut-punches that elevate the collection into something special. Stories like Five Functions of Your Bionosaur (Rachael K. Jones) and The Dinosaur Graveyard (Aidan Moher) – which bookend the collection if read in order – along with The Caretaker Noticed (Katie Spina) and When I Was Made (Kathryn Kania) provide truly moving emotional clout. Only a cold-hearted raptor could fail to be brought near heart-warming tears.

Other stories take a rather more serious, ecological approach. Hunting on Ethera (M Rauolee) is a fun, and thought-provoking, take on the issues of biodiversity, while Robo-Lipleurodon! (Darcie Little Badger) and Twenty-Fifth Named Storm (Alina Sichevaya) tackle ecological issues in more direct, unsettling ways.

In many ways, many of these stories excel when the focus is not the Robot Dinosaurs, but the people around them and what these dinosaurs mean to them. The true strength of Robot Dinosaur Fiction is its ability to use its titular bionic sauropods to explore the human condition. Twenty-Fifth Named Storm is a particularly touching example of this, exploring the tenderness of human relationships; “Sphexa, Start Dinosaur!” (Nibedita Sen) is another adorable example of this, while Small Things Pieced Together (Ginger Weil) is a fantastic portrayal of a relationship at breaking point, as well as being another highlight of the site (also, IKEA take note. Robot dinosaur kits. I would buy one). Be A Thunder, Release A Roar (Osahon Ize-Iyamu) and Taiyesha’s Fist (Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali) critique the way the educational system can fail children. As a grad student, Research Lab Electricity Usage Timesheet Reporting (Ada Hoffman) was a more accurate depiction of higher education than I would like to admit (and frankly some manic raptor servants of my own would be very welcome).

Alongside the writing, mention must me made of the fantastic illustrations by a range of talented artists: Rhiannon R-S, Kelsey Liggett, Kit Leighton, Rica March, Kosmic Arts, Lars Weiler, Vincent Konrad, Rekka Jay, Jennifer Rossman, and James Kurella. All bring their own personal style to the site, and complement the stories well.

Though the Kickstarter intended to bring these stories, amongst others, to ebook form failed to fund, the quality of the work is there for all to see, and is well worth enjoying. And with rumblings of a second attempt, hopefully Robot Dinosaur Fiction will receive more of the recognition that it deserves and return with a triumphant RAWR. Read the site, check out the authors. You won’t be disappointed.