Tor.com, April 2014
Reviewed by Clancy Weeks
I really wanted to like “The Devil in America”—honestly, I did. Kai Ashante Wilson wove a complete narrative with outstanding supporting characters, believable situations and motivations, descriptive settings, and a truly likeable protagonist. My only two problems were the disjointed narrative and the utter futility of it all. Easter is a charming little girl growing up Black in the South shortly after the end of the Civil War. While her life isn’t desperate, or particularly hard, it is a meager existence not far removed from the life of a slave. It is also a life filled with magic—and where there is magic, there is danger. Easter, you see, has made a pact with the devil at the tender age of six, and the devil will take payment one way or the other. This is a great story marred by what I think is a unique narrative technique, but one that simply doesn’t work for me. I was thrown out of the story on too many occasions to enjoy it as a whole. The conflicts in the novelette centered in the town of Rosetree are so similar to the story of Rosewood, Florida, I kept wondering why Wilson didn’t just set it there. Regardless of the problems I have, I can’t ignore the fact that this is worth the read.
Over the years I have become convinced that certain authors are (no longer, at least) capable of writing anything I won’t enjoy reading. Harry Turtledove is just such an author, and his “Something Going Around” is another fine example. Truth be told, this story is similar to Ray Bradbury’s 1959 short story “Fever Dream.” Where Bradbury saw a menacing intelligence, Turtledove, however, sees something far more dangerous—simple biology. With neither intelligence, nor even a brain, parasites still find a way to get their hosts to do their bidding, and all the intelligence man has to offer cannot thwart the awesome power of evolution. All of this is told in a simple first-person tale filled with events we dismiss daily in our evening news.
“What Mario Scietto Says” by Emmy Laybourne, is a post-apocalyptic tale of two people in search of a reason to live. Mario Scietto is a talkative old man who is clearly on the edge of insanity—and who wouldn’t be sharing a bomb shelter with his dead wife wrapped in a blanket—but still finds the will and the courage to go on living when the world is telling him to give up. In Josie, and tangentially, her friends, he discovers his purpose and his hope. This is a nice little “slice of life” story in a world filled with death.
Sometimes it’s all about the chase. “Cold Wind” by Nicola Griffith is a story of hunger, lust, and the thrill of the chase. In bars all over the world there is both hunter and prey, and in each the roles can change in an instant—even if the hunter is a creature of myth and legend. This is a very nice tale told through gripping imagery and powerful metaphor, and it just works.
“The last time Ben and Lois Devine saw Veronica Glass, the noted mutilation artist, was at a suicide party in Cerulean Cliffs, an artist’s colony far beyond their means.”
I’m a sucker for great opening lines, and this one is a doozey, drawing the reader in to a world on the edge of ruin. The novelette “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey is not just an attempt to answer the age-old question of “what is art,” but also “what is life?” Maybe the answer is as simple as the struggle to create. The world is ending, and poet Ben Devine and his wife, Lois, are waiting out the end of the world in a series of drug and alcohol-fueled parties where the hosts end the evening’s festivities with their own scripted suicides. This is a world cocooned in its own ennui, self-absorption, and self-loathing, where beauty holds no truth and the truth is ugly. A well-written tale of endings leading to new beginnings, of hope in the face of hopelessness, and a more uplifting read than the subject matter would portend.
“The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Ricker, while seemingly a cross between The Witches of Eastwick and The Village of the Damned, in the end is more an allegory of child-rearing in the twenty-first century. As a horror story it hits all the tropes, but it is as life-lesson where this tale really shines. There is a large cast of characters to keep track of—many of whom are introduced once or twice and never heard from again—but this is only a minor complaint, and is more than offset by some magnificent storytelling. Be on the lookout for some strong foreshadowing—the kind that only becomes obvious after the author makes it clear. My biggest complaint is the manner in which the story unfolds, with each mother (and one father) being given a turn telling their part. It takes on the flavor of the Gospels, with each telling taking on the same events from a different angle. In doing so, however, the point of view character becomes unclear. There were several times I had to backtrack to make sure who was telling the story about whom. Regardless of this niggling detail, Ricker crafts a novella that is worth your time.
Clancy Weeks is a composer by training, with over two-dozen published works for wind ensemble and orchestra, and an author only in his fevered imagination. Having read SF/F for nearly fifty years, he figured “What the hell, I can do that,” and has set out to prove that, well… maybe not so much. He currently resides in Texas, but don’t hold that against him.