This month, Tor.com’s short fiction features complex and unusual women dealing with a world that misunderstands their needs, emotions, and who they are at their core.
“The Madonna of the Abattoir” by Anne M. Pillsworth harkens back to the settings and magical themes of H.P. Lovecraft. Instead of focusing on a normal person discovering a dark, ominous being that destroys their sanity, the story focuses on Patience, a hunter of humans and catalyst of insanity, as seen through the eyes of her husband. This veers the path of the tale away from one of mysterious horror toward one of dark fantasy, and because of the shift, I never feared for the lead characters. Instead, the redirection highlights the growing return to conscience facing the husband: can he continue to abide the suffering and death visited upon others to sustain the undying life of his love?
A victim shambles along with them on the bloody path to conclusion, a painter who wants to challenge conventional views of femininity held by a world fixated on the concept of the ideal woman as mother and victim. He envisions breaking this barrier with striking realism and irony, but needs a model who embodies beauty, strength, but also virtue.
He finds what he’s looking for, but unfortunately for him, not all women match what they seem to be on the outside.
Happily recommended to those who enjoy getting a little blood on their tentacles.
“Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes grows a revenge fantasy from the seed of despair in a young Jewish woman named Itte, which is then pruned and fertilized by an old matriarchal god of the Israelites called the Matronit. Ten years after learning of her father’s death at the hands of a vagrant with magical powers, Itte commits herself to the downfall of the Christian burg that unjustly condemned her father to death and sang songs about his torture and murder. Her quest for revenge forces Itte to reexamine the role of God in her life, and later, her role as a mother.
The revenge theme left me cold, as did the first third of the story, which has very little dialogue and a laundry list of sad events; however, once I pushed through that tangle of thorns, the story transformed from lecture to narrative and eventually flowered into an examination of motherhood, family, justice, fairy tale racism, and the politics of godhood.
In John Scalzi’s novella “Unlocked: an Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome,” a new disease appears worldwide, striking down hundreds of millions of people. It appears flu-like at first, but quickly turns for the worse. Some of the afflicted become locked into their body if they survive the initial stages of the disease. They cannot move, but retain full cognition. Eventually American exceptionalism and ingenuity rises to the task to help the lock-ins communicate again, and we manage to create a new group of people on which to focus our prejudice and ignorance.
Scalzi styles the novella similarly to World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which could have been effective, but unfortunately, large segments lean heavily on technical monologues, and contain less dialogue and character development than I hoped for in such a long piece.
While I love the general concept of the disease, its treatment, and the irony of the politics involved in the solution, this history also combines components I dislike in hard science fiction and disaster stories. It comes dense with technobabble, the plot gets fragmented among dozens of small stories, and characters spawn and disappear like zombies in a video game. I would have preferred less focus on what the disease could do, and more on bioengineering a hero or villain to infect my heart.
“The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys breathes a breath of fetid air into the body of the Lovecraft mythos by adopting the religion and people of Innsmouth as a backdrop, and envisioning a future of governmental abuse and atrocities committed on the worshippers of Cthulhu during World War II, alongside the Japanese internments.
After the war, Aphra Marsh hides in San Francisco, bringing what she remembers of her religion. She yearns to share her religion with a broader community, but must continue to hide who and what she is. Aphra must choose carefully who to allow into her new life, whether or not to teach the magic she learned as a child, and what it would take to convince her to help the government that betrayed her family and tortured her mother to death.
I highly recommend this story for portraying the harsh realities of persecuting groups of people for their beliefs, and the cold reminder that if we are not careful, humans could become just a blip of static in the soundtrack of the universe.
In “The Walking Stick Forest” by Anna Tambour, a Scottish smith who molds and shapes blackthorn trees into fabulous walking sticks loses his temper, only to gain an enemy and a girlfriend. The lush story springs from the Scottish landscape of forests and grazing sheep, creating a splendid setting and characters evocative of a time when automobiles were still distrusted and nobody had yet diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
The resolution is artistic and magical, but I found certain actions taken by the characters unlikely and inexplicable. The theme that nature wants man to subjugate it disturbed me, and later when a woman got added into the mix, things became even more awkward, particularly when viewed in relation to the other short works this month with deeper female characterization.
“Friends ‘Til the End” by Bethany Neal binds four late-teens together in a blood bond and small-town angst, then tears it all apart with a love triangle and manslaughter. The tale also proposes the shudder-inducing consequence that if someone becomes a ghost, their new-adult emotional baggage follows them to the great beyond.
The protagonist, Emily, matures substantially over the course of the story, starting out a girl fixated on a boy, and later, she pays a woman’s price for that fixation. Although Emily seemed a little drunk on self-denial at points, eventually she comes to her senses and makes her stand.
Although not my style of story initially, this one grew on me after reading it through.
“The Insects of Love” by Genevieve Valentine captures a variety of story species in its wide net, being all at once an epistolary, a time-tangle, and a conspiracy thriller. It collects and categorizes the names of insects and their physical features throughout, using them as themes, symbols, and practical methods for moving the story forward. Even the protagonists, who dance with each other in a knotted tangle of memories that both happened and didn’t happen, eventually become intertwined with eponymous insects.
For all the beauty and elegance of the story’s experimental style, and my respect for how well constructed it is, I still have only a vague idea of what happened. This probably should always be the case for any realistic time-manipulation story, but that lack of a solid plot becomes its main weakness. Fortunately, I can still recommend it, because I felt anchored throughout by the single-minded goal of the entomologist to find her sister, no matter how odd the situation became.
Harlen Bayha adores green smoothies, kale salads, and eggs with hot sauce. He believes championing the diversity of human experience makes for good business, entertaining stories, and a human race we can proudly take to the stars.