Reviewed by Charles Payseur
A group of twelve brothers live a hellish curse inside a dance club, unable to age or die, in Veronica Shanoes’ “Ballroom Blistz.” The oldest brother, Jake, is the reason for the curse, having brought his brothers into the club to party and cause trouble only to piss off the bartender by refusing to leave after beating the crap out of a young man who threw up on his shoes. Only the bartender is something more than a bartender, and decides to teach Jake some respect by making him and his brothers unable to leave the bar. Every morning they wake in pain and sickness and have to clean, have to dance every night in a vain attempt to avoid the horrors of their situation. And then twelve sisters show up, and they represent a chance at salvation. Because if the girls come back to dance for a hundred and one nights in a row, the curse will be broken. The oldest sister, Isabel, and Jake instantly feel a connection, are drawn to each in an intense but not really healthy way, which is complicated by Isabel’s severe depression. Still, Isabel gets her sisters to keep coming back until the curse is broken. By which time Jake has fallen hard for her, but in a rather superficial way, as his savior and not really as a person. She disappears, and he chases after her, as trapped as ever but now with something to hope for, for something to want to be better for. It’s a rather dark tale that deals with violence and depression and finding the resolve to look beyond yourself, and despite all the ugliness that Jake sees and participates in, the story is, ultimately, about redemption. That it’s possible and that it’s worth looking for, worth fighting for. It’s a nice story, dirty and jagged but striving toward something beautiful.
Diving into the past of the Inquisition in New Spain, Sabrina Vourvoulias’ “The Ways of Walls and Words” tells of two girls whose religions have put them at odds with the Catholic Church. Anica, a young Jewish girl, is imprisoned in a monastery after her family was betrayed to the Inquisition, and between being tortured she refuses to renounce her faith, refuses to stop praying. It’s the prayers, which sound like poetry, that draw the attention of Bienvenida, a native girl working at the monastery sweeping the hallways. Through a hole in Anica’s cell, the two girls begin talking, relating to each other through their shared oppression by the Church. Anica’s situation is much more dire, though, as her family is scheduled to be killed for their beliefs. Bienvenida, the daughter of a magic user, wants to help, but her own powers are new and limited. It’s not attack that is her calling, not breaking down walls of prisons. It is protecting the native plants, those that the Church has deemed subversive, that her people specialize in. They practice balance. Similarly, it becomes her job to try and preserve a bit of Anica and her religion by giving Anica the chance to escape. Not as a human, though. As a bird that can fly away, as a soul that can never be caged. And while what Bienvenida really wants is a friend, she knows that even if she never sees Anica again that it’s her duty to set her free. A touching and gripping story, the pace is measured, the ending light but meaningful with the image of feathers and loneliness. A well-crafted tale.
“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman Malik, a slow-boil and meticulous novella, centers on Salman, a man of Pakistani descent who is mostly disconnected from the land of his ancestors. It’s a fact that is brought home to him when his grandfather, a man whose stories had always intrigued Salman as a child, passes away. And while attending the service and helping his parents clean up his grandfather’s things, Salman finds a notebook that opens up the possibility that some of the stories he heard as a child were not quite so made up as some believed. It drives Salman to obsession, to want to discover the secret that his grandfather left back in Pakistan. It’s something that drives a bit of a wedge between him and his white, American girlfriend. Despite the strain it puts on his relationship, though, he heads to where his grandfather grew up to discover the truth of his stories, and stumbles across something with implications much greater, and is given a choice that shapes the very fabric of reality. In the end he must decide between the magic of the Jinn and the stability of the more outwardly mundane. It’s not a difficult decision for him. The story closes on the idea of not dwelling on the past. Not getting lost in it. Of pressing forward and onward and living, above all else, for those who are still alive. It’s a touching piece, slow and steady with a lot of interesting ideas, and worth checking out.
Sometimes a story’s framing is almost as interesting as its prose, and in “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh, the story’s frame consists of a test given to would-be Machine-Space explorers which is used to great effect. The narrative itself is split into three sections, three scenarios that the takers of the test need to evaluate. Each features an impossible machine, a machine that does something that its maker doesn’t intend. It asks the question of how much a machine can be sentient, how much a machine can influence its own construction, and how important it is that humans are so capable of building without fully knowing what they’re doing. Each section involves people getting caught up in the act of research and creation, too caught up to truly understand what they’re doing. In each case a human is required to help the machine be built, be born, but after that the machines take on a life of their own, and shape their own destinies. The stories all weave together, showing how the impossible can exist beyond the rigid measurements and senses of a human, and in that impossible space anything is possible. It’s a wildly imaginative story, one that seems to test the reader, pushing at assumptions and seeing if they’re willing to explore the strange world shown in the sections. It’s also entertaining and just plain fun, which for a story dealing with metaphoric space and ambiguity machines is quite an accomplishment.
Charles Payseur lives with his partner and their growing herd of pets in the icy reaches of Wisconsin, where companionship, books, and craft beer get him through the long winters. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Lightspeed Magazine, and Nightmare Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @ClowderofTwo