Tor.com, October 2021
“Sand” by Jasmin Kirkbride
“Small Monsters” by E. Lily Yu
“Baby Teeth” by Daniel Polansky
Reviewed by Mike Bickerdike
“Sand” by Jasmin Kirkbride is a short story likely to split reader opinion. In the author’s imagined world babies have sand poured into their mouths at birth and are asked to keep it there throughout their lives—the one surreal element of in an otherwise mundane world. One might imagine this would make it difficult to speak, eat, sleep and so forth, but the story is much less concerned with the practical difficulties than it is in presenting an allegorical premise. The sand appears to represent handed-down ideologies that parents gravitate toward, but which make little sense until parenthood. Whether the story makes sense or satisfies I’m not sure. The concept is sufficiently bizarre it will either pull readers in to find their own meaning or put readers off with its ambiguity and strangeness. Were it more gripping, or presented higher stakes for the protagonist, it would probably have wider appeal.
“Small Monsters” by E. Lily Yu recounts the difficult and painful early life of a ‘small monster’. The monster is partly fed upon by its mother—losing a limb each time—until it escapes her nest, though its troubles do not end there. The story is told in a mixture of styles, employing the distant third-person approach of myth but also using clipped, ‘cool’, modern dialogue. The varying stylistic approach doesn’t quite deliver the immersive reading experience that’s intended, and the individual scenes fall short of building a satisfying narrative arc. This is clearly an allegorical tale about child abuse (and the methods one might turn to in order to heal and overcome its damaging effects) but being a laudable allegory does not necessarily make it a successful story. One particular issue that limits the reader’s engagement is that the small monster’s painful upbringing is presented in a very off-hand manner, as though it were the natural order of things in this fantasy world. This lessens the emotional response to the protagonist’s woes—an unfortunate downside in a story exploring child-abuse.
In keeping with publication close to Hallowe’en, “Baby Teeth” by Daniel Polansky is a vampire tale with a modern American setting. Graham Isolde is a classic high school nerd: a likeable but unsporting bookworm who plays Dungeons and Dragons with his like-minded friends. Graham is recruited to help a mysterious adult vampire hunter, who is on the trail of the killer of a girl from his school. Polansky’s story focusses on the teenage boy, alternating between his encounters with the vampire hunter and his D&D sessions with his friends, using both as opportunities for the boy to reflect on heroism and test his own boundaries. Overall, it’s a successful story; the D&D games and conversations between the adolescent boys are well drawn and ring true, and the sombre tone is appropriate for the subject matter. While vampire tales have a tendency for cliché and some pander to reader preconceptions, this story manages to provide a relatively fresh and thoughtful take on the genre.
More of Mike Bickerdike’s reviews and thoughts on science-fiction can be found at https://starfarersf.nicepage.io/