Tor.com, May 2013
“Jack of Coins” by Christopher Rowe
“We Have Always Lived on Mars” by Cecil Castellucci
“Fire Above, Fire Below” by Garth Nix
“Shall We Gather” by Alex Bledsoe
“The Button Man and the Murder Tree” by Cherie Priest
“Super Bass” Kai Ashante Wilson
“The Elephant in the Room” by Paul Cornell
Reviewed by Louis West
“Jack of Coins,” by Christopher Rowe, is a story about a gang of teens hanging out, carving an illusion of safety within a desperate, broken city, who encounter a stranger–“from the Park?” they wonder–who doesn’t remember his purpose, until they save him. Then he saves them. Compelling pace with gritty, realistic characters, a story that teases to the very end. Unfortunately, in this seemingly post-apocalyptic world, we never do learn who the stranger is or where he came from—a portal through the Park into other times or realities? A bit irritating but still a good read.
Cecil Castellucci’s “We Have Always Lived on Mars” portrays the harsh reality of struggling to survive in a colony abandoned by an Earth gone silent. Twenty-four colonists is all the colony can support. When a baby is born, the oldest member must die, taking a walk outside the airlock without a suit. Nina chafes at the restrictions of this seemingly senseless existence, until the day she rips her suit and survives breathing the outside air. Now she can explore. But what she discovers shatters her reality. An enjoyable read with a nice metaphysical punch to the gut at the end.
“Fire Above, Fire Below,” by Garth Nix, is a fantasy tale about an ancient pact between a city and dragons that live in the Earth’s core, except it’s in the nature of short-lived humans to forget such promises. Now the city is threatened with conflagration spawned by a dragon trying to die, and only the mysterious, half-breed Dragonborn can save them. I was intrigued by the story idea and the Dragonborn, but felt the story fell short of its full potential.
Alex Bledsoe’s “Shall We Gather” is a story of Christian faith crossing paths with Fairy beliefs somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. Craig is a Methodist minister called to sit with a dying man who lives in Cloud County, the home of the Tufa who’d been in North America since before the arrival of the first Native Americans. “Fairy was the closest word for them; not the diminutive storybook kind but the ancient Celtic warrior god” kind. The dying man is not Tufa, but has lived with them long enough that he’s not quite human anymore. The leader of the Tufa’s First Daughters has a proposition for Craig, a question she wants him to ask the dying man about the true nature of God, both Christian and Fairy. And the answer, “like the idea that the Tufa were fairies, was bigger than Craig could accept all at once.” Exceptional tale. A must read.
“The Button Man and the Murder Tree,” by Cherie Priest, pours you into the mind of Raul, a button man whose existence reminds me of a stray cat hunting to stay alive all while constantly alert for danger. Raul executes Sammy, one of his colleagues, ignoring the warning Sammy tries to tell him. Then he’s assigned to kill Harriet, a long-ago girlfriend. But Harriet beats him to it and commits suicide, because some time since Raul had known her, she’d become a lizard-like Joker, just as he’d started growing mushrooms on his body. Only then does he understand Sammy’s warning. A compelling portrayal of a man living on the edges of a merciless world.
Kai Ashante Wilson’s “Super Bass” paints a tale rich with the diversity of the people and culture of Sea-John, where every hill “spoke different dialects, every parish another accent.” In this society only three can marry, not two and not more, and the people celebrate the annual coming of the Summer King. Gian is enamored with Cianco, and Cianco will become the Summer King, a conduit for power to heal those who petition him, unless they had consorted with witches. The King’s power comes through rum and love, healing, restoring all but a few. One individual rejected by the Summer King beseeches Gian to intervene. He does, but at a price he’s not sure he wants to pay. With all due respect to the author for the complex beauty of this story, it just didn’t work for me.
“The Elephant in the Room,” by Paul Cornell, follows Abigail’s struggles as she tries to come to terms both with what she is and “the battles of adolescence (that) can never be won.” Abigail is a Wild Card, a victim of a virus that mutates people into different forms or with different powers. Her talent is to pick up on the powers of others, which can be very traumatic if they’re an Ace that can transform into a pile of goo. But Abigail has learned to control this and teamed with an Ace who shapeshifts into a flying elephant. Now she has been hired by the prestigious Big Apple Circus, and her over-controlling mother has flown from London to see her act.
The story is told in first person, stream-of-consciousness that rambles across everything rattling around in Abigail’s head. Although I found the style distracting, it was effective at portraying Abigail’s diverse collection of self-doubts. Unfortunately, the story didn’t really start for me until about a third of the way through when Abigail’s boyfriend, Croyd, joins in. I liked the dynamics between Croyd, Abigail and her mother and the growing tension about whether Croyd would finally display his own powers—to sleep and thereby transform into a totally different personality. He hadn’t slept since meeting Abigail, and she feared losing him once he did. The story peaks when Abigail performs her act and makes choices that cause her to lose everything, and perhaps, finally get the chance to start her life over. Intriguing.