Tor.com, April 2022
“Sword & Spore” by Dominica Phetteplace
“The Dominion of Leviathan” by Manish Melwani
“Men, Women, and Chainsaws” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Long View” by Susan Palwick
Reviewed by Mike Bickerdike
“Sword & Spore” by Dominica Phetteplace is a long novelette that may challenge the patience and fortitude of some readers. A young man enters a magical forest to obtain a remedy for his sick sister, and while there discovers a fabled sword that will transform his fate. The invention of fantasy worlds that are quite different from those that fans have seen before cannot be an easy task, but the approach taken here—to introduce a great many strange descriptions, myths, and ideas all stacked one upon the other—does not work well. The overall impression is of a rather disjointed, unclear story that takes far too long to settle down into a narrative that one can follow. In addition, the poor choice of similes, and unconvincing imagery, ultimately detract from the reading experience, as opposed to enhancing it. This story is likely to split reader opinion.
“The Dominion of Leviathan” by Manish Melwani is another lengthy novelette but it is much more enjoyable and successful that the preceding tale. The story is an unusual combination of modern SF, and golden-age solar system adventure reminiscent of early Jack Williamson. The story does not focus on humans (who live a repressed existence on Earth), but rather centres on those who have ‘ascended’ to a new, immortal, cybernetic condition and who live off-Earth on moons such as Io and Titan. A human woman survives a sadistic ritual held by the lord of the ascendants, and as a result earns the right to become one of the ‘ascendant’ herself. The tale relates her trials and tribulations on various planets and moons across the solar system. The novelette works well: it’s entertaining and engaging and provides a refreshing stylistic approach. Moreover, the tale presents an interesting allegory on current religious and social ideology; Jupiter has been renamed Leviathan, and represents a deified focus for an oppressive religion of the ascendants, providing a symbol for humanity’s common misuse of religious power.
“Men, Women, and Chainsaws” by Stephen Graham Jones is the third novelette offered by Tor this month, albeit shorter than the preceding stories. A young woman was let down by the man to whom she was engaged. When she comes across a Chevy car in an old drive-in cinema that has strong ties to both her dead parents and her ex, she initiates a plot to gain revenge. This is a fantasy-horror story, though is not especially scary or emotive, and the fantasy elements don’t seem to make a lot of sense. The use of the woman’s blood meets a staple requirement of a horror story, so the reader is apparently expected to accept this plot device, despite no real rationale being provided. The tale failed to draw this reader in, either to sympathise with the protagonist, or to care what happens to the antagonist. A small point, but it would also have benefitted from more careful editing to correct several grammatical errors.
“The Long View” by Susan Palwick is set on an American university campus, and pokes fun at the increasing use of companion animals by students, as well as the self-entitled attitude of certain students. In this tale, one particularly troubled and difficult student wishes to bring a dragon onto campus to assist with her PTSD, ADHD and BPD. It’s refreshing to see a modern story that takes a somewhat sarcastic look at the modern world, rather than soberly pander to its more obvious foibles. The tale is well written, though its conclusion is not as strong as its engaging start.
More of Mike Bickerdike’s reviews and thoughts on science-fiction can be found at https://starfarersf.nicepage.io/