Tor.com, June 2014
Reviewed by Ryan Holmes
“Jay Lake and the Last Temple of the Monkey King” by Ken Scholes is a tribute to author Jay Lake who died June first, five days before his fiftieth birthday and this story’s publication on Tor.com. Mr. Scholes, a personal friend of Lake, wrote this and two other stories for Lake’s birthday parties. They are intended to be humorous and are loaded with personal jokes and references. This latest edition succeeds well in being off the cuff entertaining and imaginative. It centers on the evolution of mankind to the next intellectual level. Enlightenment comes not through mathematics or physics but through art: drawings and stories. It’s a fabulous adventure, and I’m sure Mr. Lake is looking down on it now, with a smile on his face.
Stephen Graham Jones’s “Chapter Six” takes place after a zombie outbreak when an anthropological grad student and his former professor pursue a horde, or herd, for the bone marrow they leave behind, the only source of sustenance for the two academics. They’ve become scavengers, carrion-eaters like the jackal, dethroned from the top of the food chain by the dead, and living off the discarded scraps of the dead-dead. Along the way, Crain, the grad student, defends his thesis of human evolution from the disbelieving former professor, Dr. Abel Ormon. Jones envisions the characters with precision: the superior professor, the ignorant, subordinate student. They trade observations and theories as they adapt to their ghastly environment until one of them makes a fatal error. There isn’t a lot of gore but plenty of horror in the actions and mindset of the two characters, but be prepared for a strong dose of intellectualism rarely found in a zombie tale.
“Combustion Hour” by Yoon Ha Lee is set in the two-dimensional world of shadow puppets as the lanterns that light the world tapestry dim and wink out, the heat-death of their universe. The story centers on the queen’s knight. His penchant for destruction in the queen’s name is unmatched. She tasks him with retrieving a legendary jewel from a rival monarch. The knight is victorious and brings the queen the jewel and the vanquished monarch’s captured citizens. Only then does the knight realize his queen’s true intent. This story deals with eschatology and the extent of responsibility, desperation, and consequence when facing extinction.
A. M. Dellamonica’s “The Color of Paradox,” takes place in pre-World War II Seattle, Washington where the latest in a series of time traveling agents is being pressed back in time to stave off the next end of the world. The time travel is painful, potentially lethal, and one way. When the agent finally receives his mission, it’s too personal to him to fulfill. He hopes to find another way, but he doesn’t have time. In the end, he learns to accept the harsh truth of what must be done. The characters and conflicts are complex and well crafted. The story shows us the greatest of heroes, and that the most valiant of deeds can result in world-ending consequences. It works as a standalone story, but the abrupt and unfinished ending felt like the author ran out of ink.
“Little Knife” is a Ravkan folk tale by Leigh Bardugo about a girl so beautiful it compels men and women to insane behavior. After numerous riots, her father declares she will be married. He needs a forest cleared to plant more wheat, so he declares the man who can fell the most trees will win her hand. When a poor, unwelcome Tidemaker named Semyon who can command water wins the challenge with the help of a magical river, the father must come up with additional tasks. Meanwhile, the daughter passively confronts her father about his wisdom in selecting a good husband. Water-wielding Semyon accomplishes all three tasks and demands the daughter’s hand on the banks of the river before he will deliver the final prize. Only, the river turns out to be a malevolent water spirit that wants the girl for herself. The spirit convinces the girl that neither the suitors nor her father are worthy of her, and together they run away to the ocean. The town, dependent on the river to make flour, is ruined, Semyon dies from refusing to drink, and the girl lives happily ever after alone on the sea shore as she loses her beauty to old age because she at least knows she’s free. The writing here is beautiful, but the story mechanics are muddled. Most folk tales focus on a single main character. This story jumps from one flat character to the next, but at least the moral is clear. The author spells it out in the closing.
Ryan Holmes is a Marine Corps grunt turned aerospace engineer for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and writes science fiction and fantasy in life’s scant margins. You can find his blog at: www.griffinsquill.blogspot.com