“The Streets of Babel” by Adam-Troy Castro
Reviewed by Chuck Rothman
The January Lightspeed starts out with the very strange “The Streets of Babel” by Adam-Troy Castro. The protagonist lives in a wilderness, barely surviving, when he is captured by a sentient city. It forces him to become one of the residents in order to get from him something it needs. As a metaphor for conformity, the concept is interesting, but as a story it doesn’t quite hold together, and I found too many things that didn’t make a lot of logical sense, given the way it resolves.
José Pablo Iriarte contributes “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births.” The title may be a bit clunky, but the story is one of the best I’ve read in a while. Jamie is a teen going through gender issues and who has a unique ability: he has lived through multiple lives, as both male and female, dying young and being reborn. But things get complicated in the trailer park where he lives when Benjamin moves in and he realizes that he was the man who was sent to jail for murdering a previous life. It’s awkward enough and gets worse when Jamie realizes that Benjamin was innocent. The story is smartly plotted with great characters and a resolution that is realistic and satisfying. A definite delight to read.
“The Eyes of the Flood” shows a post-disaster world where, for the first time in a long time, the river is in flood. The protagonist uses this opportunity to get on a boat and explore, to find how the world has recovered. Susan Jane Bigelow takes on the challenge of writing in the second person and makes it work. Unfortunately, most of it is a travelogue describing the scenes. The descriptions are compelling, but there isn’t a lot of story, even for a work this short.
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker is about a boy’s search for real magic, seeking it out among the stalls of street magicians in his city, all of whom are merely performing illusions. His curiosity gets the attention of the Regent’s court, who invites him in to learn how real magic can happen. But the ability to perform magic at the Regent’s request has a price. I’m frankly tired of the “Magic has a price” cliché, but in this case, it’s a gateway into something far more thoughtful and interesting than the run of the mill gotcha, and the story has far more depth because it doesn’t concentrate on the price, but rather how it affects the person involved.