Strange Horizons, October 31, 2016

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Strange Horizons, October 31, 2016

Gracia” by Susan Vallejo

Esmeralda” by Tamara Romero

Reviewed by Seraph

Gracia” by Susan Vallejo (Translated by Lawrence Schimel)

This particularly morbid offering seems to be set in a near-future, post-Collapse Spain, specifically Barcelona and the surrounding areas. A flu ravaged the world’s population, and seemingly poisoned the Earth itself. Trees, birds, animals… all perished. Whether it was the flu that mutated and caused the desolation, or some other force, is unclear, and is irrelevant to the story itself. What happened, happened, and this is the story of two women who survived, if by the end of the story you can even call it survival. It feels far more like the death throes of humanity, slow and agonizing, with the end hardly in sight. Both women are named Gracia, and they are grandmother and grand-daughter, both medically trained, both midwives. There is an implication of possible surgical experience, and more than an implication of euthanasia service. Something, some sort of mutagen, or perhaps a lack of genetic diversity resulting in deformity, has poisoned the wombs of those women who have survived. Things like sugar, alcohol, and meat seem to be in precious short supply. Little can be wasted. Unfortunately, this is where things get morbid, abruptly and definitively. The story progresses as the younger Gracia leaves her home and husband to visit the elder, amidst reports of riots. It seems the food supply is running short, and people are getting violent. While she is there, the elder Gracia receives a call about a birth in progress, and the two rush to the house. The baby is born just fine, but is deformed. The mother starts screaming, and won’t even touch the child. It is left unspecified what the deformity is, or why it is so repulsive to the mother, but it is clearly not only definitively unwanted, but also that such deformity is rather common. There is the telltale combination of revulsion and disgust coupled with quiet acceptance and condolences of the midwives, as if such an outcome was almost expected. The true plight of humanity, and the true morbid nature of this story, is revealed during a phone call to the younger Gracia’s husband. It is revealed that the feasts upon which the rich dine are the bodies of the dead babies, which are considered the most tender of flesh. It is also implied that both the elder and younger Gracia are aware of this, and the elder has made a living through the practice. There is again the quiet acceptance of something far beyond the pale, that indicates how common such a practice is. Overall, the story is well-written and paced well enough. It doesn’t rush to the end, and doesn’t give too much away early on. The morbidity of it is sobering, especially considering nothing in the story seems implausible. It is an extreme example of advanced decay, but the seeds of this decay are present, and have been present, in human societies since we have record, and likely before. If you want a story that will leave you slightly nauseated, deeply introspective, and suddenly anxious of the future of humanity, this is it. I cannot help but recommend it, for the quality and care of the writing. It is so very beautifully crafted. Just be aware of the disturbing nature of the content. As much as I despise “trigger warnings,” there is no doubt that some readers will not be able to stomach or appreciate the craftsmanship of this story, due to the overt and implied cannibalism, as well as the abortion of a fully born child, simply because it is deformed. Reader beware.

Esmeralda” by Tamara Romero (Translated by Lawrence Schimel)

This story is beautifully and agonizingly unclear. I found myself puzzling over it in spare moments, even had a dream about it. The story was originally written in Spanish, and I fear that some hint may have been lost in translation, though by no means am I implying the translator did anything but a flawless job. It just seems as though I am continually missing something. The story is set in a seemingly medieval fantasy era, in the fictional Kingdom of Nonchalant, and follows the Queen Estigia. Estigia is a Spanish name that draws from the Greek Styx, the mythical river that separates the living world from the underworld. It is aptly given, for the Queen herself is as dark and murky as the River Styx, buried beneath depression and grief. This is made even more pronounced by the drug this nation produces and exports, which comes across as a combination of anti-depressants and ecstasy. For all intents and purposes, the drug is so potent as to have solved all of society’s problems, at least in this kingdom. There is no war, no conflict, and the crop used to produce the drug will only grow in this kingdom, so there is much prosperity. The only trouble seems to be with the animals, especially birds, who swoop down to consume the plant only to become mutated, huge, and almost violent. The grief of the Queen is due to the disappearance of her husband, King Lazarus, who simply vanished from his chamber. She is left with Esmeralda, a beautiful large panther with turquoise eyes, whom the Queen neither like nor trusts. In fact, she suspects the panther of the King’s death. She turns to rather heavy use of the drug, named Kaspar. During one evening, the queen feeds the panther one of the pills, takes some herself, and falls asleep. Her dream is described as frighteningly vivid, and consists of a giant bird stealing her away in the middle of the night. When she “awakens,” she is in the arms of her King, in the nest of the enormous bird. He is injured, and feverish, informing her that there seems to be no escape. The story ends with the panther leaving her as soon as she falls asleep, and placing itself upon the Throne. There is no doubt throughout the story that the panther is uncommonly intelligent. There is even less doubt that the King’s advisor, Isaiah, is up to no good. It is the exact nature of what happens that confuses me so. Is the Queen really awake? Is the King truly a prisoner of a giant raven? Is the panther even a panther at all? It is gloriously unclear and obscure. I enjoyed the story, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys the mystery of such a tale. I just wish I could make heads or tails of it, and feel as though the failing is mine, not the author’s. All in all, fascinating.