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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Lightspeed #57, February 2015

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Lightspeed #57, February 2015

"And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" by Brooke Bolander
"Red Planet" by Caroline M. Yoachim
"And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea" by Maria Dahvana Headley
"Things You Can Buy for a Penny" by Will Kaufman

Reviewed by Martha Burns

In "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead,” a cyborg, Rhye, enters a computer program to save the consciousness of a mob boss's son as well as the consciousness of her recently killed human partner (the somewhat unfortunately named Rack). Brooke Bolander is trying for comic book excess and succeeds, making for a fun and visually compelling read I enjoyed even more when I envisioned it as a comic. The action is Batman-worthy kapow and the bad guys with vaguely foreign accents have no respect for life and do not see that killing Rack, the super-genius they've hired to help them, is poor planning. Our hero Rhye has a troubled backstory and is as trash talking and gruff as they come. All good stuff. Yet her love of profanity is both a highlight of the story and an early impediment to full enjoyment of the tale. The first short section of the story contains fourteen instances of either "fuck," "fucker," or "fucking," and one "cunting" for good measure. Hence in a small space we go from noting the character's love of profanity, to an enjoyment at the comic excess, and through to annoyance and confusion. The first extended piece of colorful imagery involves society being willing to discard Rhye after she's served her purpose as a weapon or, in other words, society is willing to "spit her back out again like a mouthful of cum." That's too gross too soon. It does not work either as a piece of comedy or as gritty realism especially when we, as readers, are still deciding on the author's intention and sinking into the story. Because of those early missteps, readers have to build back to an enjoyment of Rhye where we easily could have begun on her side and built up further affection from there. Recommended, but do forgive the first short section.

In "Red Planet" by Caroline M. Yoachim, Tara must decide whether to go through a procedure to regain her sight. She is content and even happy being blind, but she wants to join her friend Kiki on Mars and colonists must be sighted. The intent of the short piece is to convince the reader that being blind is an important part of Tara's identity. Yet the rationality of Tara's preference for her blindness never quite comes across. This will be as hard for sighted readers to understand as it is hard for hearing readers to understand portions of the deaf community who are antagonistic toward cochlear implants. Tara seems merely unwilling to adjust to change and a stubborn character is hard to feel empathy for, especially when the intent is so clearly to generate empathy for her.

"And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea" by Maria Dahvana Headley is the story of a force of nature and the human man she loves. At the heart of the story is a strange festival that is part Coachella and part Wicker Man. The focus of the festival is loss and the attendees compete for who can make the biggest sacrifice in the form of, say, a grandmother's last song or a father's suicide note. The winner is swept out to sea where a monster devours them. The festival is creepy and the force of nature who misses her human lover—who may or may not have become a victim of the festival—are intriguing, yet there is no passion in either the force of nature or the man. There is a recurring plot in classical mythology in which the gods love humans and bad things happen. We generally buy into that plot because either the god or the human is full of ill-considered yet deeply felt desire. Here, both merely seem tired. The force of nature had been lying in a fish tank before her lover rescued her. She'd lost her will to live at that point and I never felt that she got her mojo back. She went from being tired in a fish tank to being tired in a cottage. As a result, the end feels as if it is a product of fatigue more than a moment of pure passion and sacrifice.

"Things You Can Buy for a Penny" is the story of a fairy tale creature who will grant whatever you ask for a mere penny. The story proceeds as a set of nested tales about humans who've made their wishes. In the end, their stories come together. Will Kaufman's story is a fun read with a compelling voice from the get go. Theo tells his son not to go to the well, "So, of course, Tim went to the well." This move informs the reader that what we have is fairy tale that calls attention to the usual fairy tale devices. How much one enjoys the story is, in part, a product of how much one enjoys this sort of meta-mockery. It can be read as funny, clever, or as a reminder that fairy tales are generally retold these days with a wink-wink. Tolerance is purely a matter of reader taste. I, personally, can never quite decide whether I like this or it is too clever for me and this story teetered on the edge. I felt that the resolution of the various stories went one subversion too far when a generous and kind child is shown to sow the seeds of her family's destruction. Because the child was so very kind and the fairy tale creature was moved by her kindness, his payback registered more as an effort to subvert fairy tale structure rather than something that grew out of the story. Recommended for its fast pace and light tone.