Reviewed by Louis West
In “Kia and Gio,” by Daniel José Older, “Kia’s a week shy of her seventeenth birthday, which is about how old her cousin Gio was six years ago when he just up and went away. Kia’s a little bit in love with Giovanni (and who wasn’t, really?) but she hasn’t thought about him this much since the day he disappeared. It’s not until a run-of-the-mill work shift at Baba Eddie’s botánica goes awry that she begins to understand why he’s on her mind.”
This is a delightful tale with a subtle dark side that sneaks up on you before you know it. Tension builds in tiny increments via bits of thoughts, reflections and events that are off just a little, such as “I should probably give up and admit he’s dead.” The story bounces back and forth between current time, as Kia deals with a strange customer at the botánica suffering from the torment of old ghosts, and her adventures with Gio as he tries to save his wished-for boyfriend from creatures after his soul. When the events of her past with Gio teach her how to deal with the ghosts that followed the customer in, she’s finally able to let go of her own ghosts. Recommended.
Peter Orullian’s “A Beautiful Accident” is about “a culture where ritualized torture is used to teach its people strength through long-suffering, (and) a foreign sufferer unintentionally teaches them something stronger . . . something gentler.” Vendanj has come to the land of the Mal Valut to petition its war-leaders for the return of an ingot of steel. It’s something that belongs to his people, and the Mal war-leaders have no idea how to use. He hopes that, by enduring months of cruciations, he can prove himself. What he fails to understand is that the Mal don’t expect him to survive even though Vendanj has some self-healing abilities which he uses to sustain himself through the worst of the tortures. It all changes when he comes to care for a Mal woman who shows him the suffering of her people.
This story was hard to read, not because it’s poorly written, far from it, but because of the extensive descriptions of the tortures endured by Vendanj. It certainly highlights the enormous gulfs between different cultures with vastly different ideas about honor, strength and personal sacrifice. An object lesson I believe, for those who think that all humans have the same basic standards of right and wrong. And, to me at least, a caution that when humans finally do make contact with an alien species, learning to understand them will be the hardest thing we have ever tried to accomplish. Definitely recommended.
“The Last Abbott of Ashk’lan,” by Brian Staveley, is a background story about Akiil, one of the minor characters in the author’s The Emperor’s Blades. Akiil is trapped in the rafters of a burning kitchen, while the emperor’s guards, the Aedolian, butcher everyone in the monastery. My problem with this first scene, given the pages and pages of thought in which Akiil indulges, is that he would have long since succumbed to smoke inhalation before ever being able to outwit the guard that prevented him from leaving. Raging fires are infamous for giving off choking clouds of asphyxiating smoke. Then Akiil removes the guard’s armor and dons it, all as rafters incinerate above him. He should have been so very dead by now. Afterwards, he decides to see if his good friend Kaden is still alive, but ends up tasked with killing the head monk, his teacher. Again the story jigs and jogs through Akiil’s memories as he struggles with his situation. In the end he decides that surviving must come first because “any other shit could be sorted out later.” I found the pace glacial and the reams of interjected thoughts seriously distracting from what could have been a good story.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “And the Burned Moths Remain” is so arcane that I don’t understand it enough to describe it. And the story’s descriptions are so obscure, such as “Jingfei flies solid-state kites here, plated dragon-fish spilling mandarins from their whiskers, scaled horses with burning tails, and cloud-spirits the shade of opals” that my reading of this tale repeatedly ground to a halt. I have neither good nor bad to say because I don’t know what I read. Good luck with it.
“Damage,” by David Levine, is about a fighter spacecraft AI forged from the remnants of two AIs salvaged from destroyed warships. The result is an AI dedicated to its pilot but haunted by horrible memories of being burned and eviscerated alive as its predecessors died. In spite of being rebooted hundreds of times, the AI’s nightmares remain. Consequently, when its pilot is tasked with a top secret mission to sneak back to Earth and detonate a nuclear device over the global capital, the AI can only think of the tens of millions of deaths that would result. What it decides then is decidedly not in its original programming. Recommended.
In Cecil Castelucci’s “The Sound of Useless Wings” the Hort alien, “Heckleck is raised to understand that breeding and propagating his own kind is the sole reason for living. When he is called upon to settle on a new planet, he meets the daughter of a politician, Goglu, with whom he falls helplessly in love, and is determined to win over. But nothing is easy in love and space exploration, and when his plans become thwarted, he must find a new way of life.”
I have this perception that a hive sentience with a queen and drones would not show examples of entities with individual thought. This story reads more like human behavior poured into an insect shell, therefore not a true example of an alien mindset. Disappointing.