“The Night of the Salamander” by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Martha Burns
A detective and former soldier is called to investigate the murder and mutilation of a fellow soldier and all-around nasty character in “The Night of the Salamander” by Michael Swanwick. Nice touches include the detective’s wolf sidekick and the aristocratic and beautiful healer who helps the detective. Not-so-nice touches include an evil “sodomite” butler with an interest in literature and antique furniture and a fourteen-year-old female sex slave. The difficulty with those elements is twofold. First of all, they pull the reader out of the story. Rather than enjoy the wolf and the healer, the reader now wonders whether the writer is good enough to pull off these tropes. More importantly, due to the nature of the killing, the sodomite and sex slave make the story of a magical investigation an investigation that revolves around who violated the victim anally. What that means is that the central mystery revolves around the question, What happened to the dead man’s butt? That’s a distraction that makes it difficult to take the story seriously, distracting tropes or no.
A man visits a food festival with his family in “Milagroso” by Isabel Yap. The festival is an orgy of organic food and the man is part of a corporation that produces synthetic food. The synthetic food ended world hunger, yet the natural food is rumored to have magical properties. Yap manages to use speculative fiction to do what speculative fiction does better than, in my opinion, mimetic fiction—confront real-world moral debates in a (forgive the phrase) palatable way. Yap captures the Dionysian ecstasy of the food festival and the internal conflict of a non-foody who wonders if these people have any clue. By placing the story in a fantastical context, Yap is able to craft a situation in which there is no easy answer, all in the context of a gripping story. Recommended.
“Adult Children of Alien Beings” by Dennis Danvers is sweet and eminently readable. An old man searches for meaning and meets a nutty professor who tells him he is the child of an alien race. Is this to help the old man with his lingering grief over his dead parents? Is it to give him a group of friends since the children of aliens form a social group? Will the author make this a story about someone buying a load of hooey as an emotional crutch? Will the old man be redeemed by true love? Most importantly to the reader, will the author be able to sell what could be a sappy story? My personal jury is still out on the last question, but the story’s excellent execution makes me tip to the side of satisfaction. Recommended.
Tina Connolly uses the clever comic voice that marks some of the best YA in “That Seriously Obnoxious Time I Was Stuck at Witch Rimelda’s One Hundredth Birthday Party.” An older teen with no magical abilities is forced to babysit a group of children with magical abilities at a birthday party and, as in life, this is a wretched idea until, that is, the teen bonds with the young witches to fight the machinations of a gorgeous, youth-obsessed, mean-spirited mom of one of the young witches. The mix of the comic and the fantastical makes the story a joy to read, though the trope of punishing pretty women may make older readers sigh. Recommended.