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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Tor.com -- January 2017

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Tor.com, January 2017

 

A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story” by S. B. Divya
The Atonement Tango” by Stephen Leigh
The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island” by Julianna Baggott

Reviewed by Kevin P Hallett

There are four first publication stories in the January issue of Tor.com.

A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

This disquieting horror novelette tells the story of Helen, a down-on-her-luck woman who’s agreed to be the governess for a rich friend’s recently orphaned nephew. Her friend, Barchen, takes over running the family Schloss in Bavaria and she joins him in the mysterious structure. The servants ignore her, and the nephew, Peter, keeps running away.

Things are not right in the house with the family crypt, in the basement, the center of attraction for Peter. When Barchen leaves on a business trip, Helen is left to solve the riddle of the house and the family. Soon it becomes apparent that Barchen abandoned her. Alone, the family’s spell begins to entrap Helen.

The story’s pace quickened throughout as the mysteries unfolded and deepened at the same time. A well written and compelling read, but one that does little to advance its genre with new ideas.

Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story” by S. B. Divya

Moena has built her own biodome where she lives surrounded with good microbes all living in harmony. Past accidents have necessitated this for her welfare, but there is a human cost to the isolation. A biochemical genius, Moena has written research papers that resulted in real progress in her native Bangalore.

When she needs a simple repair to her biodome, her repairman, Rahul, turns out to be a big fan of her research, and he soon pulls at her heart strings. She risks all when she disguises herself and leaves her secure environment to volunteer with Rahul to help monitor the local contaminated lake. As their romance blossoms Moena becomes ill from the outside microbes. In a race against time, can she develop a microbe to clean the lake before she succumbs to her disease?

The story had a nice romantic twist to the idea of developing helpful microbes. The pace in the last third was good, but the first parts were slow and needed another subplot woven in to give enough pull to make it an engaging read throughout.

The Atonement Tango” by Stephen Leigh

Leigh introduces the reader to Michael, aka DP, in this science fantasy novelette, that adds to the Wild Cards universe. Michael is a joker, someone transformed by the wild card virus into a living freak. His transformation is into a human drum with six arms to beat those drums. He’s the drummer on the group Joker Plague performing in New York when a terrorist detonates a bomb aimed to kill the group and as many jokers as possible.

DP survives, but three other group members die. As he recovers from his injuries, including the loss of one arm, DP wants revenge. But the FBI believe the bomber died in the blast. Still, the drummer searches through Jokertown to see if the killer had any help there. He hears of an ex-priest turned joker who has spewed vitriol towards the group and especially DP.

Michael sets off to hunt down this ex-priest. When he finds the ex-priest, DP is surprised not only at who the man is but how he, DP, reacts to that realization.

This was a fast-paced action story with several sub-plots twisted throughout. The mysteries kept this story engaging as they pull through to the final hair-pin turns at the end.

This is a stand-alone addition to George R.R. Martin’s highly acclaimed Wild Cards series, though the reader does not need previous knowledge of the series to get full enjoyment from this admirable addition. Make sure there is enough time put aside to read this story, because it was hard to put down.

The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island” by Julianna Baggott

This is a short SF story about using VR for therapy. Archie is a VR coder who renders scenes used during the final therapy sessions with patients. Klaus is the ground-breaking therapist for whom Archie works.

Archie is rendering scenes for patient Helen, who is trying to overcome some childhood trauma with her parents and the death of her beloved dog. But Archie also carries his own traumas and is using his own VR renders to self-remedy himself.

This story introduced an interesting concept, VR as a therapy tool. However, the author interspersed the narrative with scenes from other patients and created a choppy story line that was hard to follow. Archie’s character was under-developed until the end which left the reader with little reason to empathize with him. The story came over as flat.