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

Tor.com -- March 2018

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Tor.com, March 2018

"Our King and His Court" by Rich Larson

"Under The Spinodal Curve" by Hanuš Seiner, translated by Julie Novakova

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

Tor.com only managed two stories this month, including one translation. That one is a science fantasy while the other is science fiction.

"Our King and His Court" by Rich Larson

Scipio (El Cuervo, the Crow, a proficient killer) is returning from a successful mission to rescue his boss's son from the people who captured the boy and cut him up. Scipio's boss is a drug lord who has become ruler of an environmentally devastated failed state. The main storyline takes a few seconds, told in small snippets. Interspersed with those are larger sections which tell the backstories of several people essential to the events of the foreground and which paint a wider picture of the story's world.

This story could be taken as a well-structured and tense tale which powerfully conveys its bleakness, misery, and brutality while moving to a surprising conclusion. However, if you intuit the ending almost immediately without being sure what gave it away, as I did, the whole thing seems like a labored exercise to get to an obvious ending and, either way, you may find the tone/mood to be heavy-handed and monochromatic. Personally, unlike several wonderful Larson stories like the recent and somewhat similar "An Evening with Severyn Grimes," this didn't work for me, but I allow that it could for many readers.

"Under The Spinodal Curve" by Hanuš Seiner

In this science fantasy, a reporter has met Bamobah, a woman who has split her consciousness, with the bulk of it going into an ingot to work her metallurgical magic with a piece left behind, operating her body. He's fallen in love with this which made me think facetiously, "I don't love you for your human body, baby, I love you for your residual consciousness." The problem is that, if and when the bulk of the woman comes back, she may have no interest in him. The reporter meets with a shady character to see if he can increase his odds and has to try to rationalize the actions he wants to take.

This is a slightly demanding tale and doesn't really reward the effort. It reminds me of a lesser version of "A Threnody for Hazan" (by Ray Nayler in the March/April 2018 Asimov's) and, as is often the case, reminds me even more of something I can't put my finger on. My synopsis makes it sound like it has much more plot and action than it actually has. Most importantly, the story contains the line, "there are suddenly two markedly different components mixed so thoroughly that it defies their nature" but this effort at literature combined with hard science infodumps and those hard science infodumps combined with what seem to me preposterously implausible "consciousness/metallurgy/mystic Cloud" concepts does not work for me and doesn't mix well at all. I also question some of the basic philosophy of the story. "One’s identity is a fragile thing. It starts forming deep in the prenatal development and gains its final shape, passing the barrier of consciousness, after several years’ life." I wasn't aware that it had a "final" shape, certainly not one formed after merely "several" years' life.

Finally, this story illustrates one of a few problems I have with reviewing translations. It contains many problematic phrases, including:

  • "We were in Karshad already for four days..." We "had been in"?

  • "Someone had spent weeks and weeks in the ingot to prepare the complex nanoarchitecture of defects and gradients." Maybe this reads easily to some but I initially had no idea what this awkward construction meant because it sounded like it was speaking of "preparing" the complex nanoarchitecture "of" defects and gradients and I had to wonder if it meant "purge" instead of "prepare" or "prepare with" instead of "prepare of." I now suspect it meant that someone had spent weeks working in the ingot on the preparation of defects and gradients that comprise the complex nanoarchitecture but I'm still not sure.

  • "She looked pensive for a split-second, but answered in a voice that allowed no hesitation..." The first part of the sentence declares what the second contradicts: there was hesitation. "Allowed no doubt" is probably what is meant, which would be better put "that spoke with absolute conviction."

  • "For some time ago Bamobah told me:..." makes no sense unless "for" is used in the sense of "because" (it doesn't seem to be) and would then benefit from wrapping "some time ago" in commas. More likely, "Some time ago, Bamobah had told me..."

In these situations I don't know if the problem is intentional style or unintentional error and if the responsibility rests with the author or translator (not to mention the editor) and, either way, it is distracting and hurts the story.


More of Jason McGregor's reviews can be found at Featured Futures.