Tor.com, May 2016
“Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main” by Dennis Danvers
Reviewed by Nicky Magas
Stan is used to things being a little weird in his life. After all, his parents were aliens in “Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main” by Dennis Danvers. Stan is right about near the end of his life, remarried to the beautiful and young Katyana—also the daughter of an alien, and legally the father of her son, if not biologically. Age and disease have made that impossible now, but on the whole, life is good. Normal. At least until Stan’s brother Ollie gives him a rare call, insisting he needs help. Insisting that their father needs help. Except their parents have been dead for years, gone into the abyss, which is where Stan, Ollie and Katyana will have to go if they want to unravel the mystery behind their strange childhoods once and for all.
As a work of slipstream fiction, “Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main” is never entirely honest about whether or not the fantastic elements of the story are ‘real.’ It could be, as Stan (mostly) seems to believe, that his and many of his friends’ parents really are aliens. Or it could be that many of the people in his life are crazy (which he also at times alludes to) and he just goes along with it because it’s the easiest way to explain how his childhood brought him to this moment so late in his life. Regardless, the strength of the writing puts the reader right beside Stan, from beginning until end, straddling the line with him between a mundane geriatric life and something much more exciting and other worldly.
As if the situation in Cairo weren’t bad enough with ghuls attacking people in the streets, now Fatma has the death of djinn to investigate as well. It’s all in a day’s work for an inspector of Egypt’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities but this one is a bit of a head scratcher. “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” by P. Djeli Clark throws Fatma into part of the supernatural world she’s never encountered before, which is saying something, considering her position. But whatever it is that’s killing djinn and angels and people can’t be anything good.
Mixing a fantasy crime drama with an alternate 1912 Cairo, Clark recombines genres in just the right configuration to make this story dazzle. The narrative walks carefully in the footprints of a procedural drama, with enough of the fantastic in djinn and mechanized angels and old gods to add spice and excitement to the story. While no part stands out as groundbreaking on its own, put together the story makes for a fast paced and interesting read.
In “The Pigeon Summer” by Brit Mandelo, J.’s whole life might as well have ended when C. died. They were close. Like siblings. Like lovers. Like something else entirely indescribable, and without him, J. finds hirself in a sort of purgatory in a tiny studio apartment, alone with only a pigeon family—and a ghost. J. doesn’t know who the ghost belongs to, and it doesn’t seem keen on communicating, but that’s fine. J. has more than enough so say hirself and all si needs is someone to just listen.
The imagery in “The Pigeon Summer” is what truly brings this story to life. Mandelo plays with words and metaphor brilliantly to evoke not only vivid images in the reader’s mind, but gut-deep emotions as well. The use of genderqueer pronouns is at first distracting, but as the story unfolds and the true nature of J.’s traumas come out, all the threads that had been loosely flapping in the beginning tie up tightly into one, firmly knit piece of fiction.
Klara is nothing but a simple kitchen maid in Theodora Goss‘s “Red as Blood and White as Bone,” but she’s been raised on fairytales of princes and princesses and magic and she dearly wants them to be real. So when a woman appears at the castle door one stormy night, drenched and naked, Klara knows her fairytale has finally come to find her. Of course the woman has come to dance with Prince Radomir, and of course they will kiss and fall in love and live happily ever after because of course this woman is a princess in disguise. It’s just as the stories always play out. Unfortunately for Klara and her mystery princess, not every fairytale has a happy ending.
Goss takes the classic fairytale narrative and transforms it into something deeper, realer, yet no less magical in “Red as Blood and White as Bone.” The setting—pre-World War II—enhances the story, gives it a bit of freshness and makes it about the origins and importance of fairytales, as much as it is about the fairytale plot itself. Sitting on a turning point in history between the age of princes and castles, and mass military destruction and global politics, “Red as Blood and White as Bone” is both nostalgic and condemning, playing with readers’ imaginations and perceptions of what a fairytale is and can be.