Tor.com, February 2022
“The Chronologist” by Ian R. MacLeod
“Seven Vampires: A Judge Dee Mystery” by Lavie Tidhar
“The Last Truth” by AnaMaria Curtis
“Girl Oil” by Grace P. Fong
“Synthetic Perennial” by Vivianni Glass
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
This month features the first, second, and third place winners of the first LeVar Burton Reads writing contest, presented by FIYAH Literary Magazine and Tor.com. In addition to this trio of honorees, the website offers two original works of fiction.
In “The Chronologist” by Ian R. MacLeod, a boy lives in a town that is isolated from others by a so-called time mist. Every once in a while, the chronologist arrives out of nowhere to adjust the community’s clocks. If they do not run accurately, the effect on the villagers is profound. The boy comes up with a plan to have the chronologist return, in order to follow him to the mysterious outside world, but at the cost of great damage to his fellow citizens. His journey leads to an unexpected fate.
This is an unusual time fantasy, written in a clear, formal style that makes its fantastic content seem real. The plot builds to a dramatic climax, with vivid details of the changes wrought by inaccurate timepieces in this strange world. The author avoids the familiar tropes of time travel and creates a truly original work of the imagination.
“Seven Vampires: A Judge Dee Mystery” by Lavie Tidhar is one of a series of stories about an ancient vampire who investigates crimes committed against their own kind by his fellow bloodsuckers. His human servant serves as a very reluctant Watson to his Holmes. In this tale, set in medieval France, the detective accompanies other vampires fleeing persecution by humans. Along the way, some of the bloodsuckers are destroyed by vampire or vampires unknown. With the help of his servant, Judge Dee figures out whodunit, and why.
This combination of horror story and murder mystery is likely to appeal to fans of both genres. The explanation for the crimes may strain credibility, as do many tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie. (Mystery fans will recognize the name Judge Dee as that of the protagonist of novels by Robert van Gulik, set in ancient China. Perhaps the author intends the vampire detective to be an undead version of the same character, although this is not made explicit.)
The grand prize in the writing contest goes to “The Last Truth” by AnaMaria Curtis. The protagonist is promised freedom from imprisonment, but only if she unlocks the many treasure boxes aboard a ship, in order to enrich her employer. Opening each box requires that she speak a memory to it that has never been told to anyone. The process causes her to lose that memory. By the time she opens all the boxes, she will have no sense of self at all. With the help of a musician who possesses her own magic, she struggles to avoid this horrible fate.
As one would expect from a prizewinner, the story is well-written, with a strong sense of setting, appealing characters, and a unique form of magic. The reader is likely to wonder why valuables would be locked up this way, since anyone can open a box by sacrificing a secret memory to it. In addition, the ability of the musician to solve the protagonist’s dilemma seems too convenient.
“Girl Oil” by Grace P. Fong is the second-place winner. A Chinese-American woman of ordinary appearance is a rival for the affections of a man with a very beautiful Chinese woman. The Chinese woman enhances herself with a special lotion applied to her skin. The American woman makes use of an even more advanced beauty formula, which alters her appearance miraculously. Despite being warned against using too much of the product, she continues to apply it, with extraordinary consequences.
The author explores multiple issues in this fable, including the relationship between those born in China and Americans of Chinese ancestry as well as society’s expectations of female beauty. What happens to the protagonist after overuse of the lotion serves as an apt metaphor, but is so incredible that it seems out of place in what is otherwise a realistic story with just a touch of speculative content.
“Synthetic Perennial” by Vivianni Glass takes third place. The narrator is a young woman who died of cancer, but who was brought back to life through advanced medical technology. She is still in critical condition, and remains hospitalized. The world’s reaction to her revival ranges from demands that the technique be used on others to accusations of blasphemy.
There is not much to this story other than the basic premise, and it works best as a character study of the protagonist. Much of the narrative consists of an extended dream sequence. This allows the reader to peer deep into the narrator’s mind, but does little to advance the plot.
Victoria Silverwolf attended the same university as LeVar Burton.