“The Offering” by Michael Gardner
Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams
“The Offering” by Michael Gardner
A very enjoyable tale about Tommy, his sister Janice, and their respective mates camping during the winter solstice. The story actually begins six months later, told by Amy, Tommy’s ex-girlfriend, who’s returned to the site and is reflecting on the trip. Their site is a beautifully described scene beside a river amidst a forest of gum trees.
Tommy quickly establishes himself as the weak cog, offering no help around the campsite, preferring instead to browse his phone, bark orders, and consume vast quantities of beer. Despite his obvious failings, he’s by far the most interesting of the group.
In a wonderfully crafted scene, the author shows how ill-matched thoughtful Amy and boorish boyfriend Tommy are. “I thought about asking him whether he’d had enough. But I knew that would just lead to a fight and then he’d keep drinking anyway. So, I subtracted the fight from the scenario, reached into the esky next to my camp chair and threw him another beer.”
Tommy, in a dramatic scene, stands before the river, slices open his finger, and lets his blood drip into the water as a sacrifice to the Bunyips. From his phone, he’s learned that if offerings are proffered to these creek-living creatures, safe passage will be allowed. Failure results in the souls of the unwanted guests being eaten.
In his drunken state, Tommy forgets that the offering requires a piece of meat along with blood. When informed of his blunder, he blows the whole thing off as if it’s a joke, a very unwise decision.
The story turns decidedly dark as Tommy slowly, gruesomely morphs into a Bunyip. Descriptions are definitely not for the weak-stomached, and even though the ending is predictable, getting there is more than worth the effort.
Interwoven throughout the story are gossipy, and sometimes awkward teenage scenes. While I found them mildly distracting, they did provide a needed relief from the well-paced horror, and if the intended audience is YA, they’re perfectly appropriate.
“Under This Strange Sky” by Andi C Buchanan
On a forest-covered planet, the nameless main character dangles from a treetop, cutting away branches as he and his coworkers prepare a settlement clearing. A veteran of various interplanetary wars, he’s been assigned this menial task for no reason other than to provide employment. He lives in a prison-like setting, works in dangerous conditions, and eats terrible food, but it so exceeds his military life that he never complains.
The intruders know nothing about the alien environment, and the MC quickly discovers that the forest they are denuding is anything but normal. Every tree removed is immediately replaced by multiple new saplings. This new growth displays hauntingly human-like qualities, even screaming when burnt down.
Two themes resonate throughout this excellent story. Since I don’t want to give away the ending, all I’ll say about the first theme is that nature always prevails.
The second theme, equally powerful, is about hopelessness. Similar to Solzhenitsyn’s transit camps in Russia, workers perform goalless tasks without motivation, every day the same as the last. No uplifting story, “Under This Strange Sky” is nevertheless beautifully written and thought provoking.
“The Eobshin Song” by Russell Hemmell
Strikingly literary, this film-noirish tale takes place in the shadowy depths of the Biotech Dome on Eta Avior. Ramen, the main character, is a creature with the ability to inhabit recently dead bodies and return them to life. Apparently, she has used her talents for nefarious purposes, because she refers to herself as an assassin. When not assuming other forms, she resembles a mermaid. Asked by Harken, a shady Captain who has some hold on her, to murder then resurrect a known terrorist, she refuses because her species doesn’t kill. She finally relents when promised the terrorist will already be dead.
In the process of becoming the terrorist, she loses her own identity and kills Harken without a hint of guilt. Like the terrorist, her race has been wiped out by humanity, and Harken’s death initiates a plan for revenge.
Despite the beautiful prose, many grammatical errors distract from the message. Examples like, “he makes no efforts to hide it” and misspelling Harken’s name, show that additional editing is warranted.
A bigger issue for me was Harken’s death. As a seasoned officer, the captain should have known that Eobshins, when assuming alien form, take on their new host’s personality. Since the terrorist was a sworn enemy of humanity, Harken should have been more than a little wary.
After Harken’s death, the story rushes to its conclusion, in my view a little too rapidly. While I enjoyed Ms. Hemmell’s story, I think less emphasis should have been placed on prose and a bit more on plot.