“Pockmarked Cement” by Kaolin Fire
“Body, Remember” by E. Catherine Tobler
“Smoke & Mirrors” by Amanda Downum
“Magnificent Pigs” by Cat Rambo
What do you get when you splash a little SF-ish nanotech into a slice-of-life vignette with no beginning, no ending, and a protagonist that only seems to know how to dance a jig while pondering the philosophical meanings of the universe and his failed marriage as the world comes to an end? You get “Pockmarked Cement” by Kaolin Fire. The prose is well-written, and there is a comparison to the outside turmoil with the main character’s inner turmoil which I felt was a nice touch. But there’s no plot, no dialogue, and that whole present-tense thing just didn’t seem to work for this one. I’m sure others will enjoy the story. But this reader’s sentiment is “Next, please.”
“Body, Remember” by E. Catherine Tobler is about love, longing, faith, and sacrifice. Daphne is a priestess of Apollo who has served her god and her community faithfully for thirty-five years, even to the point of being separated from her love, Erestus, the entire time she has had the title of Pythia. But lately, Apollo has ceased to answer the questions she brings to him from her people. Has her god abandoned her, is it time to relinquish her role to another, younger priestess, or has Apollo never existed and it’s all just been in her head? Anyone of faith, regardless of religion, can relate to Daphne’s doubts and fears, and desire to do right by her god. And readers that have no faith in anything but themselves can get a glimpse of what it can be like, internally, for those with it. For those reasons, and Tobler’s ability to tell such a story without getting “preachy,” I highly recommend this story.
In “Smoke & Mirrors” by Amanda Downum, a traveling circus comes to town, and the witch, Salem, formerly a member of said circus, rediscovers the reason she left the circus in the first place. Death and danger await her in the form of a demon soul-catcher and a mysterious magician bent on stopping the demon—even if to do so, he has to use Salem and the ghost of a little girl as bait. In true dark fantasy fashion, morality blurs to a shade of gray, for even the protagonist, Salem, has her own dark past. Downum’s skills deliver the proper mood and atmosphere for such a tale, and every major and minor character down to the cat named Vengeance is Mine Sayeth The Lord is well-rounded and three-dimensional. Mystery and suspense ooze out of every corner like Cthulu’s tentacles. Of the four stories Strange Horizons offered in November, this is the best.
What can I say about “Magnificent Pigs” by Cat Rambo other than you’d have to be a heartless cad not to be emotionally moved by it? After the death of his parents in an auto accident, Aaron gives up his dream to be an artist to tend to the family pig farm while taking care of his sister, Jilly, who is dying from cancer. At first, I was put off by the infodump of background (even though the infodump also possessed an emotional drive) while wondering when the speculative element would show itself. But the pleasant surprise at the end placed all my doubts aside. And, upon further consideration, there really wasn’t that much in the way of infodump. I read the same way I write: impatiently. But it seems Ms. Rambo’s writing skills can bypass even my impatience. So, hats off to “Magnificent Pigs.”