Reviewed by Louis West
We have a varied collection of stories this month. Some are exceptional while others—I can’t imagine how they made it off the slush pile. Read and decide for yourself.
“The Rain is a Lie,” by Gennifer Albin, is a story about a 9-year-old boy, James, set in a weather-controlled city with, oddly enough, steam locomotives for commuter rail transport. It’s scheduled to rain tonight, but, with an election soon, James’ parents worry that rain could mean mud during such an important event. James is given the privilege of shopping with his mother today. While waiting to catch the commuter train to go meet his mom, he sees a leather-jacketed man scratch a message on a bench. The rain is a lie, it says. Various mundane shopping activities ensue, James sees and talks with the man who tells him not to forget. James’ mother gets upset about James talking with the stranger. They go home. That night it rains and thunders, and James runs into the rain to feel it. The next morning there is no mud, and no one remembers that it rained, except James. End story. Pointless and mostly filled with details of boring daily life. I would guess that this story has meaning in the larger world in which this author has written several novels. But, as a stand-alone, it seemed nonsensical to me.
Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages’ “Wakulla Springs” paints a compelling snapshot of small, backwoods town life set in the early 1940s before electricity had yet arrived. A short drive south of Tallahassee, Florida and nestled against a national forest that’s part pine woods and part swamp, Wakulla Springs is where Mayola grew up, all 15 of her wise years. African-American, she struggles against the conditions of ignorance, segregation and economic depression that shadow life here. She wants to go to college and saves every nickel and dime (literally) she can. Then her friend tells her of an opportunity to earn a whole $3 dollars a week being a maid at a new whites-only resort built but 3 miles away. Not long after starting work there, Johnny Weissmuller and a Hollywood film crew encamp upon the Wakulla Springs resort to shoot a new Tarzan movie. Mayola is amused by all the film crew furor and disgusted by whites dressing as Africans instead of just hiring locals. But these are Jim Crow times, and blacks and whites don’t mix. Until Weissmuller, a one-time Olympic swimmer, catches Mayola by the edge of the deep-water springs one night and encourages her to go swimming with him, transporting her into a fantasy experience she could never have imagined.
The scenes are so exquisitely crafted that I felt like I sojourned alongside Mayola wherever she went, whether journeying through the woody swamps to get to the resort or nestling in the shade of a tin roof at the local Mobilgas station after buying an ice-cold five cent RC Cola to cut the brutal summer heat. For example, “Mayola could feel the thin cotton of her dress sticking to her back, damp as if she was laundering it from the inside out.” Her need to find a way out of the grinding poverty of her existence comes through in everything she says and does. She doesn’t consider herself better than her friends and neighbors, just driven to do more with her life. The movie shooting scenes are representative of the way movies were made in the 1940s, and the portrayal of Weissmuller made him privileged yet likeable. I relished every paragraph and felt a bit cheated when the story finally ended–I just wanted more. Highly recommended.
“Slayers-The Making of a Mentor,” by CJ Hill, is a YA story with uninteresting characters and a highly contrived linear plot. True, the author’s claim-to-fame are her romantic comedies and YA novels set either in time-travel dystopian worlds or dragon slayer fantasies. Consequently, this story may make sense in the author’s broader slayer universe. However, here, it fell flat, badly.
Jamison returns to his home on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena after a year at Oxford. He misses his girlfriend, Bianca, and worries that the local rich kid, Brant Overdrake (Yeah. Really. Overdrake.), has been making inroads on his relationship with her. Jamison’s younger brother, Nathan, confides in him that he’s been developing superpowers and it’s all due to things he’s discovered on the Overdrake ranch. But Jamison discounts Nathan’s claims and refuses to go with him at night to see. All his overbearing father does is grouse about the cost of college. Jamison plans to meet Bianca, until Brant pulls family strings to pressure Jamison’s father into ordering Jamison to return to his one-time job at the Overdrake ranch. Then the story flails along until Nathan is killed. Jamison’s convinced that Brant’s father has killed Nathan for what he’s found on the ranch, so, stupidly unprepared, charges off to get revenge. He discovers dragons in a giant, underground storage building, films them and then blithely gives the film to the chief of police. More stupidity since the entire island is economically dependent upon the Overdrake’s ranch. The police jail him for breaking-and-entering and confiscate his film. He’s rescued by a deputy sympathetic to the slayer cause and learns from his father all about the history of Overdrake, a dragon-lord, raising dragons with plans to invade and conquer America. Evidently, his dragons can screech EMP pulses, evade supersonic missiles and are stealthed to radar. Fifteen years later, Jamison’s wife (Not Bianca, of course. That love story was obviously doomed from the start.) gives birth to a slayer son and they begin the long preparations to protect America from the coming dragon apocalypse.
Yes, this is a fantasy, and a whopper of one. But supersonic dragons? Able to invade and occupy 3 million square miles of America with a few dozen dragons and a non-existent massive army against the world’s most heavily armed populace and a military with EMP-hardened communications???? Okay. Delete any credibility. Next, I found nothing about any of the characters compelling. Jamison’s modus operandi was mostly stupid, thoughtless actions and his fruitless efforts to “win” Bianca so very predictable. All the characters are flat and uncomplicated, with limited personality variations and no internal struggles to overcome. I didn’t find any of the characters likeable. I’d rename this story “The Hardy Boys meet the Dragonlord,” but then I think that would do disservice to the Hardy Boys.
Jason Vanhee’s “Come back to the Sea” is a story of Yukio, a young woman being trained to master her skills over the sea. She lives in Spring House, an ancient, sprawling, towered structure overlooking the ocean, where many of the kids who don’t fit in with the grinding peasant existence throughout the region go. Yukio has been hearing a man call to her from the sea and increasingly feels the need to go. Her younger friend, Ami, also with the talent to control the ocean, urges Yukio not to tell their proctor everything she has heard and seen. Still, Yukio shares some with her proctor who warns her to not listen to the call. More and more often Yukio wakes to nightmare visions of being surrounded by flood, battered ruins and the drowned corpses of her fellow kid residents. Finally, she and Ami decide they need to make the sea stop calling them. They go to the beach together and call the ocean, and Yukio’s existence is changed forever. Very surrealistic, more dream-state than adventure. This story has potential.
“Freeze Warning,” by Susan Krinard, is a story that’s only a beginning, not a complete tale. Frustrating, for there’s just enough here to intrigue with the characters and the plot before it . . . just . . . stops. Mist is a Valkyrie tasked by Odin to protect the Gungnir, Odin’s weapon, filled with his life, after Ragnarok has destroyed Asgard and the gods. For centuries she diligently pursues her task, living on Earth (Midgard). Now she lives in San Francisco and contemplates burying the Gungnir in the depths of the ocean, believing her task done. While trying to save a woman from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, a stranger, Eric, comes to her aid, for the woman is unaccountably more than Mist can handle. Eric’s winsome smile and light-hearted nature slowly thaws Mist’s centuries-old funk until at last she begins to feel again. Then the dreams begin to haunt her sleep, and the story stops. Bummer.
Paul Cornell’s “Ramesses on the Frontier” is a story told from the mummy of Ramesses I point-of-view. He expected to have to journey through the afterlife, but finds himself trapped in a 20th century Niagara Falls museum. Fortunately, he eventually encounters the god Seth who tells him that America is the afterlife through which he must travel for it is the land of opportunity. I liked the 3rd person limited POV for there shouldn’t be much about 20th century life that Ramesses would understand. However, I would have appreciated more people and place descriptions so that as a reader I could better understand what it was that Ramesses encountered in his journeys. Then I could share in the humor of his unique interpretations of what modern humankind so readily understands. More stories like this can be found in the upcoming mummy anthology, The Book of the Dead.