Tor.com, January 2014
Reviewed by Cyd Athens
Though Abra Staffin-Wiebe’s “Ekaterina and the Firebird” is based on a Russian fairy tale, unfamiliarity with that story does not detract from the enjoyment of this one. Ekaterina has just turned fourteen. As midnight strikes, and her birthday ends, she sees what she believes to be a firebird in the distance outside her house. Disregarding any admonishments she had ever heard about proper ways of being ladylike, she runs out after the bird believing that a moment in the firebird’s shadow will bring good luck. Things are rarely straightforward in fairy tales. Enroute to the luck, Ekaterina learns that she is a seventh son of a seventh son whose parents were going to name her Ivan. Why did they name her and raise her as a female instead of as a male? To escape a curse that was placed on the family in times past. This being a fairy tale, the curse and Ekaterina’s luck and the firebird must intersect to bring forth a harmonious resolution. The story does not disappoint.
“The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging” by Harry Turtledove is a detail-rich alternate history. The title is a summation of the plot. Readers who pay close attention will figure out the mystery early on and have it confirmed by the end of the story.
Tor.com prefaces Jessica Brody’s “The Intelligence Director” with this warning: “Like some other stories published on Tor.com, ‘The Intelligence Director’ contains scenes and situations some readers may find upsetting and/or repellent.” This is not a strong enough warning for those who may be triggered by such content. Therefore this review will spell it out further. The story contains acts of nonconsensual sex and mind control. Read with caution.
The story begins with Director Raze, head of security at a top-secret, high-tech research facility, raping a woman. That the scene is not graphic or violent—at least not that we see on the page—does not make it any less rape. Clearly, the intention is to show that Raze is a sleazebag. Why, however, is going for the knee-jerk reaction—of course readers are not going to sympathize with a rapist—still a preferred method of showing how evil a character is? That Raze is a bad guy is not at issue here. There are good stories with bad guys as main characters—stories that show us the characters’ wickedness without defaulting to depictions of rape. Would that this were one of them.
Because Raze was busy with his rape, he was not doing his job and a significant security breach occurred. Raze has some explaining to do. He reacts in ways consistent with what one might expect from an evil person in a position of power.
This story reeks of evil for the sake of evil. There are scarce explanations about anything that matters. Who is “the girl” and why is she being held prisoner? Why is the teenager who helps her escape doing so? Is Vas really so naïve that he thinks Raze is going to treat him well after what Vas saw Raze do in the beginning of the story? What exactly does Diotech do? There are many insinuations here, but few answers. This is little more than a disturbing showcase for Raze and his evil ways.
“Nighttime in Caeli-Amur” by Rjurik Davidson concerns Subofficiate Irkin. If we knew his age, we might be tempted to think he was going through a mid-life crisis. Dissatisfied with his home life for no particular reason, Irkin keeps a secret apartment in another part of town. At night he often visits the Forum, an area that comes alive after dark with a paranormal population. Irkin wants to leave his wife and kids and go live in his apartment alone. He takes nightly walks. Though he lies to his wife about his destination, he goes to the Forum. This time, he seeks out, and has an encounter with, “the shaking man.” What he deduces after he returns home from his outing gives Irkin reason to be afraid of what the future might hold.
In “The Cartography of Sudden Death” by Charlie Jane Anders, death does not take a holiday. Rather, the energies of the sudden deaths of important people cause spontaneous temporal portals through which some people can travel. Ythna is an unassuming retainer to the Beldame until the day the Beldame dies in a freak accident and Jemima, a time traveler, confronts Ythna about the possibilities for Ythna’s future. Ythna is initially reluctant to heed Jemima’s advice. When some of her fellow retainers try to frame her for conspiring to kill the Beldame, Ythna changes her mind. By the end, the story does not feel finished. Rather, it feels like an excerpt from a longer work.
This short story, “Bridge of Snow” by Marie Rutkoski, is set in the world of the author’s newest novel, The Winner’s Curse.
Arin is a sickly boy, eight years old, and born in the year of Death. His mother, Amma, waited until the year had ended to name him. On a night that Amma and her husband are to accompany Arin’s sister to a ball and leave Arin with the Nurse, he asks Amma for a story. Sensing that he wants her to stay with him, Amma initially refuses. Then Arin tells Amma some of the upsetting things his sister told him about his birth. To calm him, Amma decides to give Arin both a story and a secret. The story within a story provides this tale’s title. Even though it is set in a larger world, this works stands on its own quite well.
The novelette, “Reborn” by Ken Liu, is part of a three-story grouping based upon a pre-existing work of art, in this case a painting by Richard Anderson. Tor.com prefaces this story with, “Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “Reborn” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent.” In this case, the scenes and situations involve human-to-alien intimacy, memory erasure, and suicide.
Joshua Rennon is a law enforcement officer with the Tawnin Protection Bureau (TPB). He is also ported for, and married to, one of the aliens. Rebirth is a ceremony where those who have had parts of their personalities excised are returned to society by way of Judgment Ships. During a Rebirth ceremony, Joshua arrests a xenophobe who was about to kill some of the Reborn. However, the perpetrator was not acting alone; a bomb destroys the ship and the Reborn.
Joshua and a fellow law enforcement officer, Claire, are assigned to investigate the crime. Each step of the investigation evokes memories that Joshua believes to be from his past. Because memory erasure is part of being ported, by the time Joshua remembers what was taken from him, he has few options about what to do with the information he has recalled. In some ways this story is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”
Cyd Athens indulges a speculative fiction addiction from 45ø 29 30.65 N, 122ø 35 30.91 W.