Tor.com, September 2012
Reviewed by Bob Blough
Tor.com for September has a theme (sort of) for its original prose this month. It’s not one centered on any particular subject, but each story is part of an ongoing author series. This makes them difficult to review as most separate stories, as parts of series’, do not tend to work on their own (a major problem I have with this kind of thing in Analog as well). This month Tor.com makes it work in two of its offerings, though not in the initial tale.
“Ruled” by Caragh O’Brien is set between the second and third book of a trilogy (published by Tor). Already my sense of publisher self-promotion is aroused. It turns out that this story is primarily intended for people who are already familiar with, and love this series. The introduction by the editor explains too much back story for this to work on its own. It concerns a step in a love story between the protagonist named Leon and a midwife named Gaia. They live in what seems to be a basic fantasy Ruritania, with nothing exceptional to redeem the story unless you are following their love lives. Not badly written but just an interlude in a longer story arc.
Michael Swanwick is a cannier author and much more capable of taking a series of short stories and making each work as singletons based around the same world and characters. (See The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel for two examples). This is the third in a series of short stories all published by Tor.com. The series seems to coalesce with “Day of the Kraken.” It follows two sorcerers/spies in a European world ruled by fairies which is menaced by the Mongolian Wizard. The two heroes are Sir Toby, a spy for Britannia, and his accomplice Ritter. Ritter is a member of the Germanic Wolf-Corps, with the ability to enter his wolf senses at any time. Together these two combat the Mongolian Wizard by disentangling his plots against their world while solving various murder cases.
“Day of the Kraken” begins with the discovery of Kraken eggs being planted in the Thames but turns darker and dirtier as the story unfolds. The first in this series, “The Mongolian Wizard,” seemed a bit anemic to me and the second, “The Fire Gown,” merely a sketch, but this one falls right into the more complete and satisfying form of a good story.
Gennifer Albin gets away with this “series-itis” by making her short story require no previous knowledge of any other work in her series for it to be effective. In fact, it’s better if you just dive into the story without the thoughtful intro.
“The Department of Alterations” has good world building and interesting characters while relating the entire story within its small arc. In the world given us, all women must bear children, impotency (male or female) and homosexuality are illegal and ruthlessly rooted out. We meet a woman who finds an illegal doctor on the black market at the time of her deepest need. This assignation and how her society deals with it tells a gripping and very full story. I am very tempted to read the novel when it appears.